I’m Only Sleeping

I am slowly and fuzzily emerging from several days of viral infection which has, quite frankly, knocked me for six. To be honest, I imagined at one point that I actually had sleeping sickness, as I was endlessly tired, but I don’t think that the Tsetse Fly is endemic to Cambodia – or is it? Anyway, I appear to be gradually on the mend now. Still sleeping a great deal though. And dreaming. Some very unusual dreams indeed. The sleep of reason may well produce monsters, but dreams about pitching songs to Liam Gallagher??? Very strange…

Sleeping is popular in Cambodia. Well of course it is, it’s a global phenomena, innit? Cambodians are really good at it though. Motodops, for example, who stretch out, perfectly balanced, along their bike in the heat of the mid-day sun. Our inestimable Chairman Mao, tuk-tuk driver extraordinaire, is an absolute expert who can literally sleep anywhere, and in any position, at the drop of a hat. Others are quite extraordinary too, in particular staff of shops/restaurants/cinemas, and during working hours. A and I have encountered sleeping staff in many establishments we have visited over the years, often in fairly precarious positions in the remotest corners of the establishment, or in the toilets. I’ve seen men and women sleeping in supermarket aisles, on supermarket shelves, draped over exercise machines, in between giant stuffed animals, slumped over bannisters, even once in the corner of a lift. I did check the last one as I wasn’t sure if she was actually alive, and got some withering looks and dark mutterings for my trouble.

‘Please, don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me
Leave me where I am, I’m only sleeping…’

Last week Oti and I went to Iron Man at one of the local 3D cinemas and it was so goshdarned exciting that we had to visit the toilet about 30 minutes before the end. Every cubicle was occupied, with the unmistakable sound of snoring emanating from two, and the unmistakable sound of a teenage cellphone conversation emanating from the other…

Iron Man. Ah yes, always my favourite… the films are pretty good, and Charlie Chaplin makes a pretty good iron fist of wisecracking Tony Stark, but they will never match up to the comics in my opinion. My relationship with Iron Man began back in 1967, and was nurtured through a comic called ‘Fantastic’. Believe me, it was. Alongside ‘TV Century 21’, the Gerry Anderson spin-off comic, it was the next significant step up from the Beezer and Beano and Eagle. The first issue (oh how I wish I had kept them all!) featured the origin of Iron Man (and Thor) and was so exciting that I immediately cancelled all my other comics just to ensure I could get it every week – they were 3d each (Thats 3d, not 3D. Three old pence… ask an old British person for clarification – they can help with the lyric above too… seems so distant now) and ‘Fantastic’ was 9d.
UK-FANTASTIC-01
A particular Christmas highlight from a few years back was receiving an early Iron Man anthology as a present from A… wish I had that here right now and I could bore Oti to tears reading it to him… although I rather suspect he would actually enjoy it. We are pretty similar in many ways, I have to say… both fascinated by the Fantastic-al!

Hong Kong Garden

Darling A mentioned to me last night that perhaps I might consider booking somewhere for dinner for tonight to avoid us ‘faffing around’ as usual. What exactly, I hear you mutter, does he mean by faffing around? I shall explain by virtue of this conversation, repeated practically verbatim every Saturday night we are in Phnom Penh.
A (or J – doesn’t really matter, quite interchangeable in fact) – ‘where do you want to eat?’
J – ‘dunno’
A- ‘what do you want to eat?’
J – ‘um… dunno’
A – ‘when do you want to eat?’
Can you guess the response? The soundtrack to this exchange ought to be Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ (Byrds version please, if you don’t mind), as that is normally what we are in real danger of doing, as eating habits among the expat fraternity seem to have changed considerably over the last few years. In the mid to high range eateries that we frequent on a Saturday evening (it’s our only treat, right?) there has been an alarming increase in the number of formal reservations being made. Used to be you could stroll in off the street, plonk yourself down, a quick howdy-doo-dee to the owner and voila! , dinner was served. Not any more, oh no. Now it’s ‘You have a reservation? No? Oh, I’m sorry, we are fully booked… my apologies.’ What’s he moaning about then, you may well ask, if they’re booked that’s it, end of story… well no, because we have another phenomenon in play here, namely The Great Phnom Penh Reservation Mystery!

The (presumably unwritten) law among the Phnom Penh restaurant fraternity is that reservation is sacrosanct. One example – the FCC. Foreign Correspondents Club, one of the legendary eating and drinking places of the city (although it has precious little to do with foreign correspondents, and actually never has. You’ll find most of them, particularly the ones who never made it back, downing Tequila in Cantina, just down the block…) has these balcony tables, which appear to be constantly reserved. Come in, say at 5pm for a happy hour drink, go to sit by the balcony and you’ll be given short shrift – ask politely and you’ll be told this table is reserved, so no, you can’t sit there until the reservee turns up. An hour and a half later, by which time you if you’ve stuck around to mire yourself deeper in the overpriced delights (but it is happy hour… go on, one more G ‘n’ T) of the drinks card you will have observed around a half dozen others being shooed away, the customer who reserved the table finally turns up. This scenario is repeated all over town…

Myself and A are early eaters. We normally dine just after 6 on a Saturday evening. This is because we have both got abnormally large stomachs and digestive tracts, and only eat once a week, so we spend a great deal of time swallowing and digesting large amounts of food to ensure we will not suffer any hunger pangs from Sunday to Friday. We’re a bit like those snakes you see on National Geographic Channel, crushing then slowly engulfing and devouring their prey, usually (for ultimate televisual shock value) a large and startled rat. Of course we don’t do anything like that in a restaurant. The closest would be shelling prawns I suppose.

Yes, the above is indeed a complete and utter lie. We eat early because we are too old to stay out late (anytime after 8pm is ‘late’ for us). But we too stand in completely empty restaurants at 6pm to be told ‘sorry, fully booked’ and marvel at how completely crazy they are to turn us away when we’d be in and out in under an hour, long before their other customers would turn up…
Tonight will be different though. Tonight I am going to block book every upmarket restaurant in Phnom Penh under a multiplicity of assumed names from a plethora of phone booths across the city… we shall have drinks in one, starter in another, main course elsewhere, dessert somewhere else, coffee… who knows? …and in each we will call the maitre d’ over and puzzle together with them over where the hell exactly everybody is tonight…???

Or maybe not. But where to go indeed? In truth, we are spoiled for choice… ‘Armands’, to watch ever so slightly tetchy owner Armand theatrically flambe steaks and desserts? No, went there last week… ‘Yumi’, for Japanese cuisine cooked marvellously by a chef from that well known Japanese prefecture, London? Maybe, but one place you definitely need to book… ‘Deco’, the latest hot dining spot? Ditto as per ‘Yumi’. ‘La Marmite’, hearty French food located next door to a pole dancing club (mmm… wonder why our Tuk-Tuk driver the good Chairman Mao always waits for us outside? Everywhere else he heads off home to await a call…). Perhaps. What about ‘Zino’s’, new kid on the block, a wine bar plus restaurant with an Orcadian chef? Yes, you did hear me right – Phnom Penh is nothing if not cosmoplitan now… ‘Dolce Italia’, Giorgio (Pop Cafe’s) delightful (and truly delicious) pizza restaurant, staffed by the cast of Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ video? Come to think of it, that video seems to have had a profound influence on the uniforms sported by staff in the upmarket wining and dining spots of the Penh. They must all be owned or run by men of a certain age, I surmise…

ArmandInAction
Choices, choices…

Perhaps we’ll just get on the blower and order a number 23, chicken chow mein and chop suey from the Hong Kong Garden takeaway…

Oh hang on a minute, we’re not in Chiselhurst anymore… are we?

Back in the New York Groove!

Hello!
Remember them?
They were a fresh faced gaggle of British glam-rockers from the 1970’s who were on the cusp of Sweet-y campness and Status Quo denim laddishness, completely forgettable apart from one thing, their only major hit single. That was ‘New York Groove’, a Bo Diddley-ish vamp crossed with some vicious powerchords in the chorus that was goshdarn infectious, so infectious that it was even picked up across the broad Atlantic by those purveyors of comic book rock outrageousness, Kiss, and turned into a hit for them.
Ah, Kiss… during my tenure with Scottish band Close Action, who mutated (or should that be evolved? No, I’ll stick with mutated…) into Z-Rox and thence into The Cuban Heels, we had a roadie, Willie (The Worm) who loved Kiss. In fact, he was completely and utterly obsessed by them. Probably still is, for all I know. We even covered one of their tunes, ‘Do You Love Me’, in our live set. It was a dumb rock’n’roll song, but I actually kind of enjoyed performing it. There is nothing wrong with being dumb occasionally, especially in rock’n’roll. I also had a soft spot for the tune that went on about wanting to rock’n’roll all night and party every day, as of course that was a particular ambition of all of us cramped into our yellow Transit as we criss-crossed the country, and hang on, what about that other seminal classic ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’.
What about it?
It sounded a little like a lobotomized Slade, that’s what. 
Back in the 70’s, I had a problem with Slade. That problem was that to the followers of the former Ambrose Slade I was one of ‘them’. You know, one of ‘those’ guys. The love that dare not speak its name… yes, a T.Rex fan! I envied someone like Steven Beaton who appeared able to like both Slade and T.Rex and get away with it, but then again he was built like a brick sh*thouse, so who was going to argue with him? As I matured (hah!) realization gradually dawned that actually yes, Slade were pretty good, and away from the hothouse of factional teenage angst that was Thurso High School you could actually celebrate diversity and individuality in equal measures – dammit yes, I’ll have a lager tops with a shot of blackcurrant and a dash of lime if you don’t mind please Sybil. Yes Billy, I will assist you in cleaning up my own vomit later… (those last two references will carry deep meaning for those frequenters of the legendary Sheiling Bar, Thurso, in the 70’s and 80’s…). Don’t get me started on vomit, or I may start dredging up memories of famous technicolour yawns of my Thurso past, such as the Marine Inn (‘no worries, it was only a mouthful.’ the classic comment from owner Roddy), the Central Bar (all over the bar… but it was a smaller bar in those days) and Jimmy Riddell’s Triumph TR7 (performed at approximately 100mph on Castlegreen Road both inside and outside the vehicle…sorry again Jimmy)…
Now that was a bit of a digression, wasn’t it? I guess what I really meant to say was ‘Hello’.
Again.
After a two year break (and a sideways step into another blog that didn’t last very long), I’ve come back to ‘Lost In Space’, and I will try to post more regularly about life here in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and about the many things past and present, home and away, including (surprise!) a hefty dash of music, that make me smile, frown, get up and get down etc etc…
It’s nice to be back, and If I do wander off the subject from time to time, you will forgive me, won’t you…?
Won’t you?

(This post is dedicated to Mr. Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013, a genius of his craft.)

The Kids Are Alright?

What do you really know about orphanages in Cambodia?
Please take a little time to read this.
When I arrived in Cambodia over five years ago I knew very, very little. So little, in fact, that I was actually inclined to think that perhaps they were a good thing… a refuge for homeless or abandoned children… a place of safety and security, where the kindness of strangers helped to ease the suffering of the little ones… perhaps a childhood where I had been regularly exposed to The Alexander Brothers maudlin rendition of ‘Nobody’s Child’, the song of the forgotten orphan, had coloured my view of these institutions. Ha ha. Very funny. Except it’s not. In reality, I actually knew nothing.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, and a little over three years ago the bliss ended and reality bit.

Hard.

My wife and I and our baby son were returning from my birthday celebration in Kep. En route we stopped off in Kampong Speu to say hello to some friends of ours who were volunteering in an orphanage there. These young women were just out of secondary school in the UK and had paid an organization there around $6,000 each to come to Cambodia and ‘make a difference’. They had never had any formal training in childcare, education or health.

The orphanage was run by a Cambodian man and an English businesswoman who lived in Phnom Penh.

They had many high profile supporters and fundraisers from overseas, including a very famous British comedian and TV personality.

I remember many things about that day.

I remember a pristine new school building, lying empty. No teachers. The volunteers were meant to include classes amongst the daily mass of tasks they had to complete, which was proving difficult to say the least.

A brand new clinic and dispensary, full of medicines but locked up and unused as there were no trained medical staff there.

A huge, deep and very dangerous hole directly behind the main building, full of stagnant water, where some other ‘development’ was going to take place.

Khmer staff, all looking tired and overworked…

Many, many grubby children, all desperately smiling and clutching at us throughout the visit.

Babies, up to three to a cot, huddled under shabby mosquito nets in a fly-filled room.

But most of all I remember Dominic – of course not his real name, as he was a Cambodian child, but given to him by the foreign volunteers. 18 months old but smaller than my four month old son. A sick little boy, HIV positive, with no drugs or qualified medical care to help him, only the love of the staff and their blind belief that two eighteen year old foreign girls would work some kind of magic for them as they waited for the owner to come down from the city for her one trip a week and perhaps take him back to hospital in Phnom Penh for treatment…

But it was too late for Dominic.

He died there, in his overcrowded cot, right in front of us as we stood and watched helplessly, my own healthy son cradled in my arms…

A little later Dominic’s tiny body was wrapped in a mat and take to the local Pagoda for cremation by one of the volunteers.

There are too many Dominic’s in Cambodia. Too many orphanages full of children who more often than not simply should not be there. Most children in orphanages in Cambodia have a living parent. Precious few orphanages actually know what they are doing and offer a loving, supportive, regulated, monitored and nurturing environment for children for whom alternative care should actually be the last resort. The overwhelming majority have no child protection policies, no standards of practice, staff and volunteers who lack the necessary training and these institutions either cannot cope with their burden of care, or cynically exploit the children they are supposed to care for to generate income for the business.

You don’t believe me?

You will.

In the coming months the full glare of the world’s media will focus on Cambodia and it’s orphanages. You will read reports from the Government and concerned organizations that will shock you, of children treated like market commodities, of multiple abuses of their human rights taking place, of families being destroyed by the greed of others, including foreigners.

If you are, or were, thinking of visiting or supporting orphanages in Cambodia go to http://www.thinkchildsafe.org where you will find some information that may help you in your decision. Click on tip number four to find out more. One thing I will say is that these institutions are not zoos, they are, for better or worse, the home that those children know at that time. Orphanage tourism is really bad for the children, and it’s bad for us as well as we are often (albeit in ignorance, as in my own situation – but you can change that by seeking out information.) supporting systems that simply don’t work or are engaged in exploiting misery for gain. But that’s my opinion (and UNICEF’s, and Save the Children, and more…), get the facts and make up your own mind.

I guess that it’s going to be a long struggle for hearts and minds in the coming years, to change people’s perceptions of orphanages as places that must be supported to help the ‘poor kids’, to stop these places exploiting children under the guise of caring for them, to divert the millions that pour in from overseas funders into transforming those that have the will into genuine community based alternative care centres, and primarily into investing time, money, resources and expertise into supporting families to stay together rather than them being pressured into giving up their children for economic or health or other reasons…

Yes, it’s going to be a long, long struggle, but it will be worth it.

Sunny Afternoon

The splendid clock tower cast a lazy late afternoon shadow over the village green, the four o’ clock chimes almost insolently intrusive among the gentle murmurings of ‘here here’ and ‘splendid catch, what?’ emanating from the haphazardly serried ranks of deckchairs surrounding the white clad sportsmen acting out the summer Sunday ritual on this particularly green and pleasant patch of rural England.
‘Cricket, eh’ remarked Smithers-Jones, stirring his tea with what might once have been described as languid grace, observed Watts, albeit inwardly.
“Gentleman’s game, gentleman’s game…’ he mumbled, apropos of… well, of nothing, really, thought Watts.
‘You know young Watts’ continued the older man, leaning forward and jabbing in his direction with the teaspoon to emphasise whatever grand point he was about to make
‘Your father and I used to come here every weekend to watch the cricket… every blimmin’ weekend. Happy times. Happy times…’ he sighed deeply and his voice trailed off. Watts detected a moistening in the rheumy eyes of the other, and felt uncomfortable. He needed to defuse, or at the very least diffuse whatever was coming.
‘Happy times… here we are, now, you and I… just lazing on this sunny afternoon, watching these young chaps with their life ahead of them… and you know what David Watts? It’s too late for me… I’m already on dead end street. I was a well respected man at one time, a dedicated follower of fashion, I would see my friends and we would live life to the full, all day and all of the night… what now?’ he sniffed loudly, then fumbled in the pockets of his grubby white linen suit for an equally grimy handkerchief on which he blew his reddened nose loudly. He sobbed again ‘I miss your father… so, so much…’ another sob, which seemed to come from the depths of his tired soul, but was almost completely subsumed by the cries of ‘well caught!’ now rippling around them. ‘Where have all the good times gone? You know, I’ve never told you this before, but you need to know this. Your father and I…’ again his voice trailed off. He gazed upwards, dabbed briefly at his watery eyes with the handkerchief, breathed out, then turned to Watts and began again ‘We met in a pub, down in old Soho, where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola – ‘
He was interrupted by Watts’ hand on his arm, the younger man now leaning forward and gazing hard into the face of the older. It was merely a moment, but it felt as if time had been eternally suspended until Watts finally spoke.

‘More tea, Vicar?’

I don’t suppose that’s how you spend your Sundays, do you? Certainly not how I spend mine outside of the UK, particularly last Sunday in Phnom Penh. My music-loving, footie-playing, blog-writing, beer-drinking, tech-savvy Aussie colleague Al had almost casually mentioned in passing last week that he was now also an independent film maker , so…

So I find myself standing on the pavement beside the Russian Market, five o’clock in the afternoon, guitar over one shoulder, bag containing small amp, leads and other necessaries (mobile phone, tissues, cold sausages, lipstick… usual man bag things) over the other watching as Dustin (cameraman) and Al (producer, director, sound man, gaffer, best boy, grip etc etc) coax an Oscar winning performance from the unsuspecting Tuk Tuk driver they have press ganged into driving us all around for a Tuk Tuk session. Yes, a Tuk Tuk session. Now, if we were back in dear old Scotland, those words would conjure up the interesting notion of spending the afternoon in a drinking session (or ‘sesh’, as the youngsters term it nowadays), presumably engaged in imbibing copious amounts of something liquid going under the moniker of ‘Tuk Tuk’, but as we are actually in balmy Phnom Penh the reality is much more exciting. It’s basically a music video shoot, but with certain rules, dreamed up by Al and his mate Rory after… well, after a session (Scottish style – see above). The rules? In a nutshell, one song, one take, one Tuk Tuk. The one take rule does not, however, apply to the driver, who is manfully struggling with the manifold complexities of the line ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!’.
Sorry.
Wrong movie.
The line was actually ‘Welcome to the Tuk Tuk sessions, Phnom Penh.’ and was eventually delivered (with shades of Dennis Hopper I thought) enabling us to then pile in to the vehicle and generally both terrify and mystify the local populace in equal measure as we tootled around town filming several songs totally and utterly live in one take for the Tuk Tuk sessions. The results are online now, on a rather spiffing website where you will not only find the rationale for this fabulous project, but also other performances, from Rory and Al, and also Cambodian Space Project, with more to come. You can find it at http://www.tuktuksessions.com and I hope you enjoy it and take it in the spirit in which it was intended and forgive the abundance of lyrical and chordal misdemeanours emanating from yours truly.

I’m off now, it’s time to listen to some Kinks, methinks…

Poorboy Shuffle

(Willie and the Poorboys post, part 2)

I promised in an earlier blog that I would finish the story of my first band – since then I’ve got back in touch with the drummer from that band, who has a treasure trove (well, in my eyes at least – you may well think, in the wonderfully descriptive words that I recall my dear dad frequently using about my musical enthusiasms, that ‘bag o’ shite’ is more appropriate) of photos of us live on stage and rehearsing which I’ve been posting on Facebook. These have certainly triggered the memory banks, and aside from incredulity at hair (like, long), trousers (flaaaaared) and just how ‘early 70’s’ it all looks (and I suppose should, as yes, it actually was the early 70’s…) it’s astonishing me just how warm and pleasing those memories are.

We’ve also exchanged e-mails about the songs we used to perform which has prompted me to revisit some of my own favourites from the era. Last night was a Badfinger night (criminally under-rated, blah blah blah etc), tonight I am indulging in a little bit of Cream. Yes, I know they broke up in 1968, which of course is the 60’s, but in the days before the internet news took a very long time to reach the far north of Scotland. For example, I didn’t realise Buddy Holly had died until 1975, during a visit to Inverness. Hearing the news in a pub conversation there, that is, not that he had died whilst in Inverness (…or did he? They have an airport and an ice rink, which are two vital parts of the tragic story… and they often have blizzards there…). Back then, carrier pigeon was the usual method that we received urgent news by, with the added bonus that you could not only shoot the messenger if the news was bad, but also enjoy them in a pie afterward. Try doing that with an e-mail. Actually don’t, please. You may well electrocute yourself, or indeed take your eye out.

Did your mum ever seek to curtail your fun with that one?

‘Don’t run with those garden shears, you might fall and take your eye out…’
‘Careful with that can opener, you’ll take your eye out if you’re no’ canny…’*
‘Michty, watch that stick of rhubarb, it’ll have your eye out if you’re no’ careful…’
‘Put that hand held rocket launcher down please young man, or you’ll have all our eyes out…’
Other potential eye removers were –
Corners of tables. Pencils, pens, knitting needles and fenceposts. Spoons. Doorknobs. Comics (rolled up). Toothbrushes. Barrett’s Sherbet Dips (two hazards here – the lollipop-type dip, with a thin and lethal stick that could not only blind, but penetrate the brain, and the thick liquorice tube in a sherbet fizz which could cause untold ophthalmic damage). Lemonade bottles. Jigsaw puzzle pieces. Actually I’m not sure about the last one. Maybe not your eye, but definitely a tooth. I know, I can prove it. I practiced dental surgery on my younger sister with just such an implement when I was around 10 and she about 8, and removed (without pain relief) a perfectly healthy back tooth. Boy did she bleed.

Sorry, I have gone completely off the subject. What was it again?

Ah yes, the 70’s.

I think I’ll come back when I have my sensible head on, if that’s ok with you….

*Scottish humour

‘Come closer, let me talk wi’ you…’

A short dark Scottish tale for a long dark winters night…

by Skip Cormack

I awoke with a start, and immediately felt quite ill at ease. I was completely unsure of my surroundings and my eyes and body ached with a thick heaviness akin to influenza. I was alone and slumped awkwardly on a narrow bench in a small room which was suffused with an orange glow, one in which an oddly metallic odour hung in the air. I could hear a groaning sound, perhaps the rending of metal upon metal, emanating from somewhere nearby but which seemed to twist and shake the very fabric of this room. My senses were returning fully to me now, and eventually I realised that no, this was no room, but rather a compartment, a small cramped compartment in the passenger carriage of a train. I rubbed my eyes, sat up, and looked around me. I supposed my disorientation was compounded by the apparent age of the carriage. This was exactly the kind of rolling stock I recalled from journeys of my boyhood, the threadbare flock material of the seat bleached by disinfectant, the scratched wood and dull grey metal of the fixtures and fittings, the yellowed signs screwed below the emergency chain and the window. ‘Cutbacks’, I thought aloud, following the single word with a laugh that sputtered into a series of coughs which misted in the cold air and rattled within the aching cavern of my chest. Goodness, it was cold in this compartment. I breathed on the glass of the window then rubbed my condensing breath away with the sleeve of my overcoat pulled over my hand. Utter blackness lay beyond. No surprise there. I had by now recollected that I was heading home, clearly by train, and the north highland line was notable for the huge stretches of absolute nothing which it traversed in its journey to the end of the track, and these seemed ever more empty and eternal on long winter nights such as this one. I tugged at my overcoat, winding it more tightly around me and wondered why my thought processes were in such confusion… I could recall almost nothing of the last few days, let alone hours. I supposed it must have been the drinking, celebrating the festive season with a little too much of the waters of life, and now I was paying the penalty for that, suffering in this cold little room shuddering along parallel lines of metal somewhere under the vast cold canopy of the northern sky…

I awoke again, truly surprised as I had no recollection of having once more drifted into sleep. I could not guess how much time had passed, but we had now come to a halt. Peering out I could see lights through the window and hear muffled voices from outside. Ah! We had reached The Junction, the point where the train splits into two, one part heading eastward and the other west and north, to where the line ran out. That was where I was bound, and I felt a leap of excitement within my chest as we accelerated away from The Junction and began the short run home. Soon I could discern the sodium glow flickering in the near distance which meant the lights of home were close once more, and I began to make ready. Now I was puzzled as I could not find my travelling bag in the compartment. Wondering if I had left it by mistake somewhere along the journey I tried to retrace my steps mentally, but remembering only seemed to bring deeper confusion into my brain… had I even brought a bag? Damn this hangover, blast this aching within… never mind, there are friends and family who will help, and tomorrow you will feel better, the small, still voice of sense that remained gently reassured me. I rubbed a hand over my face, in doing so smelling briefly but strongly the tang of disinfectant mixed with something else, indeterminate but faintly malodorous. This short wave of nausea passed in a moment, then the compartment juddered slightly as the train slowly came to its final rest. The end of the line. Home.

I was on the platform, my breath freezing and my very bones numbed in the deep damp chill of the northern night. I cursed my condition again as I seemed to be suffering from partial blackouts and lapses of recent memory. I simply could not recall disembarking the train. I cursed my stupidity under my breath then paused in order to get my bearings, unsure in the velvet chill of exactly where I was. From somewhere in the limpid crystal mist that enshrouded all I heard a boyish laugh, then two figures passed me by on my right, seeming to glance in my direction. They walked ahead maybe three or four yards, then stopped abruptly. The taller of the two turned to face me and stretched out its right arm to point a finger directly at me. I could not see the face, which seemed to be hidden by a scarf, but the voice that came from the figure seemed oddly familiar.
– ‘Welcome back… it must be good to be home, eh?’
I answered as if I knew my inquisitor personally.
– ‘Aye, it’s good. Cold night, tho’…’
– ‘We’d better no keep you then. Let you get on… ye’ve a lot to catch up on…’
the voice trailed away as the figure turned and disappeared with its companion into the freezing mist.

I walked ahead then found myself at the station entrance. No-one else was around and there was no sign of a cab of any sort, but as my hotel was only a few hundred yards away I pulled my overcoat tightly around my neck and set off to walk up the hill toward my intended refuge for the night. My head seemed a little clearer now and I felt a curious sense of relief as the infrequent headlights of passing cars stung my eyes with their intensity as I scuffed through damp and mouldy leaves on the upward incline toward the hotel. The freezing fog and mist had eased also, affording me a glimpse of my destination in the fractured moonlight that glinted between the low clouds.

It was exactly as I remembered, a grand old Victorian manse building which rose dark and somewhat forbiddingly in its grounds, surrounded by the skyward clutching bare fingers of numerous tall trees. The air now smelled strongly of a heady mix of earthen dampness tempered by decaying vegetation and bird droppings and I was a little surprised to clearly see the silhouettes of many crows dotting the spidery weave of branches surrounding the hotel. Somehow I didn’t expect this at night, or indeed at this time of year, but here they were, and I could also now discern a background of cawing and an uncanny rustling of black feathers which rose in insistency as I drew near the front door, as if they were warning of my impending arrival. Glancing upward I noticed there were few signs of life apparent in the building, just a dull reddish glow that emanated from somewhere deep within and flickered behind the heavy drapes drawn against the winter chills.

Suddenly I was startled to clearly see one window, directly above the front entrance, in which no curtain was drawn and wherein two figures stood, one much taller than the other, gazing downward at me. Momentarily I thought of the couple at the railway station, but this thought passed as I rapidly became aware that it was in fact a woman, thin and pale, accompanied by a young girl child. I could not place an age upon the woman, but I could sense an overwhelming sadness that wreathed her slender form. The bony fingers of the woman’s left hand rested on the blonde ringlets of the girl, and her dark eyes seemed at once to stare right upon me and yet right through me, at which I shuddered, feeling a greater chill which struck to the very marrow of my bones. Simultaneous to this a metallic sing-song noise pounded in my ears and a strong nausea gripped me again. I felt compelled to place my head in my hands, rubbing my eyes until they stung and the wave of sickness had passed. I glanced up again and they had gone, the window now a blank vacant eye cast over the shifting sea of crows. I paused and shook my head, trying to jostle these images, thoughts and feelings into some form of order, something that made actual sense to me, then placed my hand upon the cool brass of the doorknob, turned it and entered…

It was warm inside and felt welcoming, although the young man stationed behind the large oak desk which dominated the foyer gave the briefest of quizzical glances in my direction before returning his full attention to the electronic device he held in his hands. I walked forward to stand before him, gave a somewhat theatrical cough and began to speak
-‘Excuse me, I’d, eh, made a reservation – my name’s…’
-‘Well chek, you’re a bit of a stranger, are ye no?’
the familiar voice in the very familiar dialect came from directly behind me, and I spun on my heels to greet its owner.
– ‘Jimmy! How’re ye doin’, my man?’
I had myself switched straight into the local dialect as if the years spent away from this place had meant nothing whatsoever.
The owner of that familiar voice, a tall, gangly, grey-haired man with an aqualine profile and rheumy eyes, everpresent cigarette dangling precarious amounts of ash, edged past me and went behind the desk. As he did so the boy looked in his direction with what to me seemed a look of puzzlement on his face, then refocused his attention on the task in his hands.
-‘Ye’ll no get anything out o’ him.’ Jimmy shot the boy a sideways glance ‘there’s more sense in a false face!’
I laughed out loud at this peculiarly local turn of phrase. Yes, it was beginning to feel good to be home.
-‘ I thought you’d sold this place and retired a long time ago Jimmy’ I ventured. I was sure (or was I?) that he had left the hotel business many years before, but my mind seemed to be even more sluggish now I was indoors in the cushioning warmth.
A half smile flickered across his thin lips.
-‘Well ye know what thocht did!’ he replied ‘ oh no, I coudna stay away from ‘is place. Too much o’ my soul in it. Anyway young chiel, good to see you, but ye’ll be wanting ‘til get to yir room? That trip is hellish at the best o’ times.’
– ‘Aye Jimmy, thanks indeed. Look, I lost ma bag on the way, so I was wondering if…’
-‘Och dinna worry, we’ll get ye organised wi’ whativer ye need. Here, are ye wantin’ a dram to warm ye up first?’
The raised eyebrows and wink that followed that particular statement made it clear that ‘no’ was not an option.
-‘Cheers Jimmy, that wid be grand’
-‘Well come on wi’ me ben e’ hoose ‘til the bar… I’m sure there’s a few worthies ‘ere ye’ll ken!’
He laughed out loud at this, a laugh that transformed into a hacking cough which he stymied by dragging hard on his cigarette. The boy looked up, sighed, then emerged from behind the desk and walked straight between us to the front door which I then realised I had not fully closed. He tutted under his breath, pushed it firmly shut, then with head still bowed over the glowing object in his hands he returned to his station behind the desk, not acknowledging us in the slightest.
-‘Damn waste o’ space’ whispered Jimmy, cocking his head in the direction of the boy. There was no reaction from the subject of his insult. Then he looked straight at me and grinned.
-‘Now, come on, follow me – e’ drams are waiting!’

Warmth. It had felt good, and now it felt very strange. Too much… I opened the buttons of my overcoat. My hands felt wet, clammy… again a moment of disorientation, where was I? I leaned against the corridor wall, vision blurring… there was a strange tightness across my chest, like laces being pulled taut in a stout leather shoe. My eyes refocused, resting on my host who was standing in front of a large partially open oaken door, gesturing inside…
-‘Come on in…’
he said.
-‘but only if ye want ‘til…’

I was inside the bar. It seemed to be both busy yet not busy, the customers swimming in and out of hazy focus as my gaze travelled around. One drink, then to bed to see this damned sickness away, I thought to myself. It was as I remembered, a grand drawing room converted into a bar, comfortable seating dotted around the perimeter and large wooden stools drawn up to the bar itself. From a hunched figure occupying one of those stools another familiar voice sounded.
-‘Michty me, look whit the crows dragged in.’
It was The Captain! How many years since…? I felt confused… something in my head was gnawing at me, compounding my disorientation with low murmurings of unquiet. I staggered against the stool next to The Captain and he reached out a hand to steady me.
-‘Are you alricht, boy? You’re no’ lookin’ tae good. Ha! Ye need a dram to keep yirsel’ goin’, I wid say.’
-‘I’ll be alright, honest. I’m just not feeling great, that’s all. Flu and a hangover are no’ a good combination I guess. God, you are a stranger indeed…’ I forced a laugh. The Captain looked at me with what I took to be a combination of pity and understanding. His face was lined and in truth a ghastly grey, even under the reddish tinge of the low lighting in the room. Something still felt wrong, deeply wrong, but I was unable to place exactly what was causing my anxiety. The younger customers seemed to be moving around us in a liquid haze, their edges appearing blurred as they passed by, eyes and mouths streaking into dark lines bizarrely akin to smudged paint. I felt as if I was a fearful passenger on an otherwordly carousel ,riding a carnival horse whose painted grin twisted into an evil grimace as we spun faster and faster…

Then abruptly, we stopped.

-‘there’s someone here who wants tae hae a wird wi’ you.’

With these words The Captain appeared to be staring straight through me, at someone, or perhaps something directly behind me. I distinctly felt my skin crawl at this realisation, and everything went into exaggerated slow motion as I turned toward the place where his eyes rested. I gave an audible gasp as I saw exactly who it was and heard them whisper these words with a gentle sibilance which resonated to the core of my very being…

-‘Come closer, let me talk wi’ you…’

It was the woman I had glimpsed from the window, and with her, peering from behind her skirts, was the small girl child. The woman pulled her woolen shawl tighter around her neck and motioned with her head to a large sofa near the window.
-‘Lets sit doon.’
-‘Aye’ I replied ‘of course… of course’
And then in a moment we were seated and my pounding head began to flash what seemed at first to be disconnected images into my consciousness, of a primary school, of children whose laughter mocked and rang, of empty swings, of leaves blowing across an asphalt playground, of a rain-lashed beach, empty save for a meandering line of tiny footprints, a grey and angry sky, a silent teacher, salt tears dripping onto a scratched wooden desk…
-‘Irene?’ I ventured
-‘Aye… its been a long time, has it no…’
-‘but it can’t be… no, it can’t be’ I felt myself beginning to lose control as I was now fully aware of who this was and who the child must be …
-‘Shoosh, dinna worry. I’m no blaming you… I nivir did, you know. There were some real bad ones who know who they are… they’ll all have to face it wan day…’ her voice trailed off and I both saw and felt the infinity of sadness that lay in the depths her limpid grey eyes.

This, I told myself, is a fever dream, the wanderings of my sick mind, long forgotten memories dredged from the precipice of illness into a waking nightmare.
For the pale sad woman who sat in front of me was Irene Ross, the mother of little Sally Ross, driven by the bullying of her classmates to walk barefoot along an empty beach and into the wild grey sea at seven years of age many long winters ago.
Her classmates.
My classmates.
Several weeks later Irene walked to the same beach, and sat on a bare wooden bench overlooking the roaring waves for several hours before knotting one end of her scarf to a fencepost and with the other tied around her neck she leapt out into the cold grey darkness, her arms outstretched as if to embrace her lost child one last time…

-‘Oh God… oh god…’
-‘Please, dinna worry. Ah’m no here fir that, no, no. We want til help ye…’
She must have caught my glance at the child, for she allowed herself a half-smile and a shake of the head before saying
-‘No, no. It’s no my Sally. I havenae found her yet, bit ah’ll keep lookin’… of course ah will. She was mah wee baby…no, no, she’s another pair wee bairn at’s bin here a long, long time… long afore me an’….’ at this her voice faded and she reached back and embraced the child, who looked up lovingly at the older woman. I could then clearly see the hideous black rend below the child’s left ear and once more I was gripped by the incomprehensible unfolding terror of the events of this evening. Irene stood up, her shawl slipping from her shoulders to briefly reveal the livid bruises encircling her slender neck.
‘Ah’ll leave ye ivenow, but ah’ll speak til ye later… it’ll take a while, ye know… ’
Her voice dissipated into a barely echoed nothingness.
Then she and the child were gone.

The Captain and Jimmy sat before me.
We were now the only presences occupying the room. Somewhere a clock ticked loudly.
-‘Ye’ll need yir dram now’ Jimmy laughed.
-‘Aye, he will that’ said The Captain.
I knew that Jimmy had been gone at least fifteen years now, and The Captain ten.
-‘There’s a lot to take in, eh’ smiled The Captain
-‘dinna worry tho’, we’ll help ye through it all…’
-‘I – I … Oh God, my head hurts so much…’
‘Well chek, at’s surprisin’ as ye never had much upstairs anyway!’ Again Jimmy’s wheezy laugh punctuated the still horror of this encounter. A crow swept into the room and settled on Jimmy’s left shoulder. Almost casually it began to peck at the corner of his eye, pulling hard at the strands of flesh and sinew it had dislodged. He swatted at it as if it were no more than a troublesome fly.

I rubbed my hand cross my face once more.

Clammy.

Cold.

The smell of disinfectant tainted with decay.

It was then that I felt the rough uneven edge of the post-mortem scar, running through my hairline….

THE END

( © James Sutherland 2010)