Location: Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
Date of Birth: 5/16/81
Publication: Stirring V1:E1
Awards: Regional Short-Story Competition
AND THEY SAY HE SHALL RETURN
The trees began to slow down. Tall elms, with wide majestic sweeps at their canopies and thick trunks like the legs of a giant; they began to crawl past as if each was old and frail until eventually the concrete rim of the platform grew from the earth to level with the train. It shouted and squealed to a halt, and billows of steam bubbled out of the engine. The man had his head resting on the cool glass window and now he opened his eyes and looked about him.
The jarring of the train had pressed locks of crumpled white hair into his forehead, and the sweat was dripping down in front of sickly-swaying vision. He stood, as though on a ship, stumbling from seat to seat to collapse onto the rough stone of the platform edge, his stomach washing. There was no-one on the train, and there was no-one here. The world span, his head dropped, reality phasing, bobbing like a bottle in the ocean. Behind him the train purred and rustled like a cat, filling the blank stone with its soft noise, burning his ears.
He stood once more erratically, and seeing a door set into the main station building he bore toward it, with a focus derived of desperation. Slowly, the terrible fog began to lift, and things filtered into his mind. He did not know where he was, or who he was, or how he got here. He needed to know. He felt that clearly. There was a lop-sided sign on the platform edge by the next empty carriage. Thoughts telegraphic, he controlled his gangly legs and walked almost steady until he could read it.
But it was blank. The long white horizontal board on its thin red pole that leant like a birch in the wind was blank. He stared hard, convinced his eyes were merely too scratched and blurred to see anything. Scared he ran his fingertips over the surface, but it was smooth, tight-lipped and all he noticed was how thick his skin felt now. More of the surroundings melted in, and he saw the whole station was the same. Empty billboards proclaimed nothing over station building wall. The station was anonymous. He careered round once more towards the door, and he raised his eyes out from the stone, with startling contrast.
The sky was piercing blue, and the sun blazed down resolutely. A few wisps of cloud hung in the air, drifting idly on the tiny currents that rose from breath. He passed into the shade of the doorway, and blinked to readjust to the gloom.
The room was sparse; one lonely bench lay just off the centre of the floor, and along the wall it faced ran the plastic windows of the ticket booths, and it was only on a second look that the old man noticed the wide porter who sat so still casting his eyes over a newspaper. The man was chubby and reddened, with piggy eyes and an amicable air, his hair hidden by a flat emblazoned station cap and one thick hand holding a plain blue mug. The man from the train approached, mild desperation sinking behind his eyeballs; the other acknowledged him by carefully folding the issue and laying it to one side.
"Who am I?" begged the bloodstained man.
"You canít really expect me to know, can you?" was the booming reply.
"Where am I?"
"Didnít you read the sign?"
"Where am I?" he repeated insistently.
"Or didnít the conductor tell you?"
His head writhed. "The conductor?"
"The conductor on the train."
The man looked back through the glass door at the platform. The train had gone. He hadnít heard it leave.
"The train was empty."
"There must have been a conductor."
"Where do I go?"
The fat man eased the intensity of his gaze and his slight smile, looked up at a clock on the far wall which had no hands. "Well, it doesnít look like Iíll be getting any more today. Come with me."
The man with blood on his tunic and blood in his eyes followed gratefully, and stepped out of the building once more into the blinding sunlight, once more his eyes blurring and watering as they tried to readjust.
He stood with the porter on a wide road of dull grey tarmac, uniform and smooth, that ran sideways away from him on either side, following the line of the base of the railway cutting. Over the other side was grassy, and seemed to stretch into the distance.
"Impressive," chirped the ticket man in his black uniform, looking first at the landscape and then at the other next to him, "Very impressive."
They stood at the bottom of a deep valley, a tract of land that ran straight as an arrow between imposing ridges on either side. These sloped up gradually to begin with, but as the eye followed the line of the road that ran perpendicular to the land, straight up the sides it was soon shooting upwards until almost vertical, soaring up into the sky like a bird. Each side of the vale towered symmetrical, about half as high as the clouds, topped by a fine mist and dotted with rocky outcrops so mottled and rough not even the short wiry grass could keep secured on stone. The world was closed in, walled so as to force the eye forward.
The man resisted, stared along the lay of the road, and his head began to swim. He imagined walking along it, first leisurely, then a climb, and then impossible, and yet somehow the tarmac was secure and the dotted white and yellow lines were there, where no man could have stood to place them and no vehicle could drive to, on a vertical face. He shuddered, had a brief nauseous flash that he was falling, and he saw it rolling him further and faster down all the way back to the bottom. He saw himself as a tiny dot flecking the green from high above, like an ant.
There was clearly no way to climb out of this valley. Out of the corner of his eye were visible the rocky outcrops and to his imagination they were the claws of giant monsters, that stretched up and bore down on him, cowering him to the ground, trapping him in. It was a claustrophobic place to be, under the wide blue heavens, it was tight and it was unalterable and it seemed inescapable.
"This way," said the ticket man, and by his face he had been admiring their surroundings just as much. He stepped over the road and into the long field on the other side. Here the grass was pure and smooth, almost regular, as though no feet and not a breath of wind had ever touched it. It was like a perfectly crafted miniature to gaze at and admire, and the man ploughed straight through beating it down in swathes with his great strides. He cut an absurd figure in his black railway jacket and flat cap in this distorted dream landscape. The old man followed, and finally looked up the vale at the path ahead.
He could see a little of the way - the whole valley floor rose as one on a very slight incline, on what seemed an infinite journey to meet with the tops of the cliffs on either side. This point seemed to be hidden from view, though the valley did not bend; it was such a great and terrible distance. He tried to imagine how far it would be at such a shallow slope; but as he stared and stared so the view ahead fudged and slipped, so that his gaze was forced back down again, as though by the flat palm of some great hand. He tried to hold it; and a slow pressure built between his eyes over the bridge of his nose which grew worse and worse until he had to stop. He hadnít made out a thing; his eyes didnít seem to be too good.
He caught up with the official.
"Where does the rail line go?" He turned to indicate, but a thick fog hung behind them over the field and the station was lost from view.
The jovial man stopped, and shaded his eyes with one chubby hand as he turned to face the old man. "The track is the only way in here from out there," he gestured up the nauseating slopes either side. "Itís the two, here and there, where they converge."
"I see," mumbled the old man.
"The ironic thing is that the track doesnít actually go anywhere," confided the man. "It doesnít belong here...well, thatís the point really."
The old man rubbed his belly absently; felt the cold exposed skin rustle like dead leaves through the rent in his cloak. He glanced down at his hand as he brought it away; it was smeared with dried blood.
"Here, this is the town." And perhaps it was. The man looked around at the mud huts that lined the dirt track he was now on, hope sinking. Their walls were loose, flapping leather hides stitched together, or in some cases stuck through with a large white pin of bone. The structures were held up by crudely fashioned wooden struts which stood erratically, twisted like the legs of some demented insect, as though the slightest touch would shatter them.
"This is the town?"
"It is." The manís face, he saw now, wasnít jovial at all. It seemed to be a smile over a shroud of dusk that still hung just in the corners of his eyes and the dimples of his cheeks when he grinned. There was something manipulative about his expression, like an aura it surrounded him, intangible. The man from the train backed away slightly. "We all start at the bottom," the other man continued.
"True." His heart hung heavy, and the man felt it abstractly and wondered Why do I feel sad? He seemed to be split in two; there was the man standing in the muddy village with the ticket man in the sweltering heat, and there was another sunken person inside him who cried and cried in the dark. He wanted to reach out; he realised he needed to reach in. But he could not; something blocked the way, something soft, something which stroked and caressed and muffled him and told him sweetly not to pry. He shook himself.
"You see, it carries on up there."
The man looked up, grateful for the distraction. The landscape differed here, sliding up to meet the walls of the valley, which were now vertical. Had they come so high already? But then he realised, no; the walls rose vertical for most of their height and there was still a Godís height to go. Up in the distance the land changed once more, and seemed to be firmer, more concrete, and at the very pinnacle where earth and sky finally converged there rose something magnificent. But the man was tired and he was old and his eyes could no longer see, and whatever it was slid away. He lowered his gaze back to the squalor around him, resigned that it was all he had now.
"What is up there?" he asked after a pause.
"Iím sure youíll reach it eventually."
"Have you ever been there."
The man smiled that odd smile again, like that of a grandparent, strange on one so much younger. "Thereís a lot you cannot see yet."
The fat man placed a chubby hand on his shoulder. "Tell me."
"What? What should I tell? Tell me everything," his voice slurring down on the last word, like the hissing of a snake or the seductive call of a purring lion.
"How did I get here?"
"You tell me."
"But I donít know! I donít know!"
The fat man relented, took his hand off the older manís shoulder, releasing him. "We all start at the bottom. That is where you are."
"How did I get here? Did I do something wrong?"
"Everyone starts at the bottom! There is no other place to start."
"But . . . Iím old!" And he suddenly realised, yes, I am old. My skin is feathery and thick like damp tissue, and my eyes are swollen and wet. My lips are like glue; I am shrunken like a prune, huddled up inside a huge muffling blanket under which I cannot breathe or even think. I am drowning. I am old.
"Where do you think we go when we reach the top?" asked the fat man with a tone of mild surprise.
"Out. Away. I donít know! How can I?"
"Exactly, my friend. Exactly."
They stood in silence for a while and the old man saw; no, he felt the sun behind him oiling down the sky, as it travelled the line of the valley, somehow above where the fog hung. It was no less bright and no less forceful, not really, but he sensed its slide back down to earth. It wouldnít be long before it fell further that it could, smashed through the horizon and away. He had another question.
"Why was the sign blank?"
"Which sign?" Again, the smile, loving.
"The station sign. Why was it blank?"
The man replied coolly. "It wasnít blank."
"But I looked! It was plain white! There was no name."
"Yes there was."
"Maybe," the man interjected soothingly, "there are a lot of things you canít see yet."
The old manís heart fell, a whole weight crushing at him. "Why should I bother?"
"You canít stay here."
"Why not?" he cried, turning on the man, hating him.
The man frowned, genuinely confused. "Well! The climb - the climb is what itís all about, donít you see?"
"No. No, I donít see. I donít see anything."
Sighing, the man took a small gold pocket watch on a chain out of a hidden fold in his jacket, and consulted it. "Hmm. Must be going," he muttered abstractly, and turned to leave.
"Wait!" cried the old man, and tried to catch him. But so much fatigue hung around his aged joints that it was like running through treacle, and with a humiliating despair he watched him fold away into the mist which had crept up behind them and he could not penetrate. Resigning himself to his lonely fate, he cast about the small town, and decided it was time to begin the climb.
He walked until the sun hit the edge of whatever hills lay far behind him, beyond the railway, and still he was surrounded by the huts of patched mud and leather. With every hump he mounted more of the dwellings would clutter the path ahead, until finally he accepted it. He could not walk all night, his body was asleep, and he no longer knew how to make it work. He chose a hut at random and stepped inside.
He woke the next morning not knowing where he was or where he had slept, though he lay in the middle of the dirt track. As the first rays of the new sun hit against his frail eyelids they fluttered open. He pulled himself to his feet, looked about him.
He was still in the mud-sodden village. Perhaps this wasnít the sort of climb he could do himself.
"Good morning!" The fat manís cheeks were slightly flushed and he panted from exertion as the mist congealed into his portly frame. "You made good progress! If you keep on like this, Iíll be thin as a bean-pole!"
"I donít think I can," replied the old man mournfully.
"I canít! I canít walk so far, not any more. Maybe, when I was younger, maybe then, but now itís too late. I wonít be able to leave this damn valley. Get someone else to do it; itís too much for me. Let me be."
"Rubbish! Youíre in just the right condition for the climb!"
"No, Iím sorry, but Iíve worn out. I can tell. Iíll never make it! Iíve accepted that my active life is behind me; Iíll never be young and fit again, I know that, I understand, Iím ready to live with just my memories now. Leave me." Then he paused, and looked up with a strange half-comprehension in his eyes. "Iíve failed you, havenít I? If this is what itís for, and Iím not going to make it - Iíve failed both of us."
The porter was shaking his head. "You canít wear out. Donít be silly."
"Iím so old. Iíve run out of time."
"You were older yesterday. Now come along." And without another word he continued up the track. The old man instantly followed, jogging slightly to keep in step with him.
"You tried that yesterday, and you couldnít do it."
The old man opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again. Yes, I suppose I did. He sighed. "Thereís no easy way out then?"
"Wouldnít be worth it if there was."
"Not as satisfying?"
"Not as.. intense," the fat man mused, and they continued to walk. The rows of huts were petering out now, just a few stragglers to the huddle behind them. The old man turned to look back, but they had slipped into the impenetrable mist behind and below, that crept along with them. He noticed the fat manís eyes were on him once again, reading his expression.
"You canít go back down either," he commented softly, "should you ever be tempted."
"No." he began to climb again.
Slowly a smile broke out across his face, as he fell into a pace and began to feel the freshness of the air seep through him. It was green all around here, after the edge of the town, and once more the valley held him in its scoop of smooth grass which flowed without halt down one side and up the next. They seemed less frightening now that he knew that he wouldnít go that way; they didnít hem in the valley so much as direct it. He gazed up at their incredible stature overawed, and then back down to the path ahead, that wound between large oak trees and the occasional low shrub. On one side now was a small wood, and the old man briefly stepped inside to feel the cool shade around him after the searing heat of the noon-day sun. But soon, once more they continued, and the graceful trees lapped around them and littered the path underfoot with old twigs and new acorns, and the soft soil of the forest floor settling between tufts of grass. His legs felt looser, a whole weight of lethargy was falling away from him - the countryside was a tonic and he felt almost elastic with each step, as he walked, gazed, and thought of nothing.
"What is it?"
The man took off his black cap with station insignia and wiped his brow with a cuff. "Itís very hot and very sticky and I think I need a break."
The old man smiled once more, and nimbly sat down with his back against the rough bark of a thick tree, folding his legs under him like he hadnít done for . . . for. . .
And then he crumpled inside, the whole construct of his happiness collapsing neatly like a house of cards, as he remembered that the one thing he couldnít do was remember. There wasnít anything inside of him. Just the journey and the air with which to try and survive.
"Whatís your name?" asked the old man, trying to pull himself back from despair.
"I never really had one," mused the fat man from the other side of the tree. "I suppose you could give me one if you liked."
The old man shifted himself to peer around the trunk at the porter. "Why donít you decide?"
The other examined a twig he had idly picked from between the thick roots, turned it over and over between his fingers, before he replied. "Itís not what Iím for."
"Youíre not allowed to be frivolous?"
"Thatís just about it. It isnít about me."
The old man turned back to sit comfortably, and watched the shadows cast by the treeís branches dance idly in the wind.
"But I quite like Michael," he added after a pause.
"Alright then," the old man nodded, "Michael."
Michaelís head bobbed up, and he turned back to the older man, somehow more composed than a second ago. "And you? Whatís your name?" Again that expression of control.
"My name," faltered the man, "my name."
"Have you no name? Itís so very important for oneís identity."
Michaelís voice was dark. "I have one now. Do you?"
"My name . . ." The old man trailed off, as he slipped into memories. They were weak, watery, merely fragments that had drifted off from some whole so long ago. He could see scraps of what remained; smells, feelings, sights; all as though through cloth or thick smoke.
"What do you remember?" whispered the fat man, standing to come and face him.
The old manís voice choked. "I donít know. Itís confusion, a muddle, a whirl of sights and flashes of colour. It all smells of blood! Itís all so full of pain and rushing and whirling; none of it exists for more than the merest moment. Why does it smell so strongly? Why?"
"Really," Michael breathed, "Already."
The old manís eyes flicked open suddenly. "What is this for? Why do I have to make the climb myself?"
"Look." the fat man stared at him deep in the eyes for a second, then stretched back onto the soft sward looking up at the sky. "Healing - thatís what this is for. Itís a time for you to rebuild yourself. Healing is a personal process; do you see what I mean?"
The old man stretched out and shaded his eyes to the sun with one arm.
"No one, no one can heal you. Those out there, beyond the edges of the valley, they all thought you could be healed by others. They based lives on it, religions. They thought that that was what you were here for, to be healed by another. But itís not true Ė no one except you can heal you."
"What are you for then?"
"Company. I didnít say you couldnít have help! But the healing itself, how could anyone do that for you? We are all distinct to each other; you to me to them out there. All strangers, mysteries that endure because they cannot be destroyed. We cannot truly understand one another. When you rebuild, when you rebuild yourself.." He smiled, "After all, if you let someone else do it, theyíd only get it wrong."
"Hmm," replied the old man, non-committal. He wasnít really listening any more, he was watching the clouds form themselves into dragons and chairs and dogs with huge tongues, and was fascinated by his game. "Well, I feel better."
Michael laughed slightly, then turned and propped himself onto one elbow to look at him. "Look at your skin my friend, your hands. Look at your face. Youíre wrinkled like youíve been soaking in a tank for three years . . ."
I have, whispered something in his head. Underwater.
". . . got a long way to go yet."
"Letís go," the old man muttered, somewhat humbled.
They walked in silence for the rest of the day, the old man once again turning to admiring the view. Here, on the edge of the line of trees where the forest ended, they were approaching a long stretch of fields separated by thick hedgerows of hawthorn and bramble. He noticed that, a little further than his tired eyes could clearly see, there was something glinting on the valley slope, and after another hour it came into view. A stony cleft cut zigzag down the ridge on the left hand-side of the vale, starting just below where it began to slope, running out from the base of a large bowl which was cut into the side. And into this bowl water literally fell from the top down the vertical side for a thousand, two thousand feet in a slight arc that shot rainbows at the man as he looked, then splashed up for the height of a house in a semicircle of water, and finally fell once more to run down the channel swiftly across the vale.
As they came nearer to it, the man heard the noise, a thunderous crashing as the river plummeted constantly straight down into the valley; a little nearer still and the man felt the spray, which was refreshingly cool. He saw now the riverís course across the valley - it ran down a little way on a shallow diagonal and then cut through the other side and disappeared underground where a face of rocky bluffs emerged from the smooth grass. He also now saw that in the middle of the river, where the path led, squatted a low stone bridge which marked the start of the next town.
They crossed the smooth flagstones and entered the first courtyard of the city. This was wide, and on four sides rose tall walls covered in ivy with a door on near and far sides; in the centre stood a well house with a bucket that could be raised by the cranking of a well-oiled chain. They continued through and stepped out into the main street of the city. It was similar to the last town perhaps; still built up against the line of the road and stretching into the horizon, but now it was much more clearly organised. All the houses were wooden, not stone; but solid this time and grand, with black slats running down the faces of the white walls in tight angular patterns, and with simplistic flourishes on the gables. Roofs were thatched, all of them, chimneys smoked invitingly and the road underfoot was cobbled, with a low channel running along the centre all the way back to the river. Everywhere was still empty.
Toward the end of the day, as they passed through more courtyards and squares lined with shops with creaking wooden signs, the weariness returned to him and once more his limbs were leaden. His breath became hoarse and the freedom of earlier seemed like a forgotten dream. He felt deceived; as though youth had been offered under his nose then snatched away, and despair pressed in. Once more the valley walls seemed higher, and thinner, and more as though they pressed in on him, forming a black tunnel of despondency which stifled him; that he would never be free again. He would wake tomorrow like he was now, gummy and old and ready to waste away; to fall apart before he could reach a goal it would have been to late to enjoy anyway.
"I see itís time we finished for the day," remarked Michael lightly. "You go and get some rest. I promise Iíll be back by day-break."
He turned and set off down the hill to the fog which hung just beyond the door that led out of the courtyard they were now in. Just before he slipped away the old man cried out, voice cracked and broken like the stones of a long-buried mosaic; still barely retaining its colours once so vibrant - he cried out "All that way?" He saw Michaelís head nod slowly in reply, before he stepped into the fog. It swirled and eddied around in waves and washes that rippled on long after Michael was lost from sight. The light was fading, and all the houses around him were the same. The old man chose one and hobbled inside. The light vanished and he was asleep.
This night he had a dream. He was on a field, not a pure virginal field like he had crossed at the start of their journey, but dark and muddy, trampled and broken like the backs of slaves. The air was dark and hung heavy, and all around was solid heat, like a wall, coming from all the people. Bodies littered the ground, blood soaked grass and sky and more bodies ran around, shouting and screaming at each other in a desperate pain. They were everywhere, the shock of so much anger grilled him and he cowered. The stench filled his nostrils and the screams his ears; he tried once more to hide knowing it was all his fault but it couldnít stop and it swirled and crashed around him. There were eddying colours, purples and silvers and dull metal and dark glimmering red that wallowed and spat, never holding still. He felt as though the whole Earth was sinking down into the mud, into Hell, and everyone around him howled. Suddenly something flashed at him out the darkness of the blood and a pain rocketed up from his belly. He looked down at himself to see a blade wedged in his stomach, and then slowly he died as the fear washed over him. The last sensation was of slipping, his whole body slipping away, tired and old and glad for the rest.
He woke with his head resting on the cool flagstones in the centre of the street. He felt new again, and as the cool air and beautiful freshness flurried around him the darkness of the night and the terror streamed up into the air and dissipated. He stood, rubbed his short wiry hair, wanted to shout with joy as he felt the energy coursing through him. His body was returned, slowly gliding back up from underwater. It was so liberating, so wonderful to be alive! With a bravery born of recklessness he looked up at the path ahead.
There were no more walls across the path any longer, the city continued for a while and then fell away as the other had. Once more, the countryside returned, only above it seemed greener and more beautiful, full of blossoming trees and flowers. Above that, almost at the limit of his sight, another layer of buildings, then more greenery - he could see for miles now, for days, up the slope ahead; and at the top, at the very top he could just make out what lay there.
"Morning," came Michaelís voice from behind him. The old man, no longer quite so old, turned excitedly to him. "I can see it, you know! I can see it all, there, in front of us!"
"What do you see?" asked Michael with a flat tone.
"A castle, I think itís a castle. Huge, with spires and pinnacles twisting up into the sky. It stands right on the ridge, tall and beautiful and majestic. Itís marvellous!"
"And you want to go there?"
"I . . . I . . ." The old manís voice shook terribly, with a weight of fear and terror from somewhere inside him. He turned, horror and surprise in his eyes. "No? No! I donít! Please . . ."
Michael rested a chubby hand on the manís arm, and held it firmly. "It is not good to look too far ahead, even if the horizon has moved further away. But we will have to go there before all is finished. That is our destination. You cannot change it."
"But I canít."
"That," Michael stated levelly, "is what you are here for."
"Must I go there to heal?"
"When you reach there you are healed."
"Must I heal?"
Michael laughed, a billowing laugh like the sail of a ship. "Of course! We all start at the bottom!"
The old man beat at his despair, and managed to conquer it. He began bravely, and begged for that freshness to return to his body. Even without it he set off, and as he went he felt himself invigorate again; felt the years slide away. They would return, he knew this, but for now he was free and would be free.
That night Michael did not leave him, and they slept in the same house in the next city they reached. This one was grander than the last, with fewer houses and each one ornate and beautiful, shimmering with elegance in the twists and columns that lined the glass walkway that ran underfoot. Balustrades ran along the walls, decorated with vividly painted murals of the sun and the stars, picked out in rusty reds and pallid whites, the shade of which contrasted sharply with the almost-glittering marble of the buildings. The air was clearer now as they were higher up, and the fog behind them seemed more satisfying. The destination the old man did not care to look at too closely; the sight of that grand castle filled him with a hollow dread from somewhere deep inside him; although he did not know why or from whence it came. His body seemed to throb with fear at the sight of it, as though it were diseased, and more and more Michael did not speak of it. The climb would go on, the old man ignoring his destination instead of relishing it. Iím not healing, he thought, Iím too afraid. But he didnít know what it was he was afraid of, what phantom haunted him. But something hung there ethereal, behind his eyelids.
That night he thought, almost as though he were awake, of the train and the station with no name so far behind him. They seemed pale, with no more meaning to him now than before. But now not even Michael returned. He mused briefly though, as soon his thoughts slid back down to the mud and the death, and once again to the carousel of men, all screaming a dissonance that held his heart in its fist. The bright colours swayed, and he felt sickened by it, the flash of the blades and metal and twisted organic pain which seeped through the ground. All round, they hurled each other to their dooms but this they did not see; and all he could do was huddle down and try to hide, wanting desperately to be one of the dead. He had known it since the beginning but it was so dreadful, so terrible he could not believe and would not believe. Then, all the death, all the terrible death forced him to and he saw with cold clarity that it was all because of him. He was their leader; it was him they fought for. And he hid from it, hid under the stinking corpse with his face pressed against the mud and tried not to have to breathe. Until he was found; once again the man, the man in the armour which glinted so he thought it was the shimmering of the scythe of Death; the man came and put the blade through his belly. The man was shouting, the man was wild and mad but in his eyes was the cold steel that he could feel in his stomach where his blood fell to the earth, to join the pool that smeared the mud. All, all was blood and heat and only then it slipped away, the final grains of sand through the hourglass and his limbs succumbed to the sleep of the dead, the restless sleep of a fever. He felt himself drift, losing all memory, all mind, all hope. He was rocking slowly, as though he was washing down a river or floating on the sea, until the rocking became stiffer and tighter and was no longer that of water, but rather now the mechanical batter of the wheels as they ground over the rails and he was on a train, head pressed onto the glass, the wound in his belly still open and the fear in his eyes still evident. But all that was gone now.
"I think it is time we took a break from the climb," Michael spoke softly into his ear, and slowly the old man stirred awake. "Physically, you are almost there, but the climb must be made," he tapped his temple, "in here."
The man nodded, his neck felt loose and his whole body felt the same. Distracted from the fat man he examined himself; to his amazement the wrinkles had gone, slid back up into his bones. It was as if he had grown inside, filled up the bagginess of his flesh; or his skin had shrunk and cooled around his frame, forming himself anew, reborn.
"What should I tell you?"
"Tell me everything. Everything you remember."
"It was . . ." he swallowed, collected his thoughts. "It was a battle. There were hundreds of them, hundreds of men all dressed up, bright colours, with long flashing blades. They were all screaming, with some sort of mad rage locked in their eyes. I think . . . I think I was too, but then, in the middle of it, I saw . . . I see all the blood and bodies and death and I realise. . . I realise that this is madness; that this shouldnít be happening, that weíve all gone insane. And I try, I try," the old manís eyes were tightly clenched, "I tell them to stop but they canít hear me. They donít want to hear me; they relish the death and the heat and the stench of blood."
"How does it end? Tell me, how does it all end?"
"Iím crouched in the mud. Iíve crawled under a body, to shelter from the whirlwind above. Iím hiding under a dead body with its blood leaking over me," his voice was a rage of panic and disgust now, "and itís soaking into my skin, my mouth my eyes. I try to cry out, but itís in my mouth! And I canít stop it, Iím trapped; cowering in fear. Their proud leader," so much revulsion in his tone, so much more fear, "cringing in the mud."
"But how does it end?" Michaelís voice was sharper now, more commanding.
"The sun strikes at me, the body is ripped away. Thereís a face looking down, glowering and shouting something. I canít hear the words, but itís shouting and shouting and I feel it wilting me away. Then he raises his sword and it plunges into my belly and I feel . . . I feel myself die." The old manís eyes opened, and with a look of fear and bewilderment he stared at Michael. "I feel myself die," he repeated, desperate to understand. "but it was me, not just a dream, it was me!"
"I see. And that is it." It wasnít a statement, but a question.
"No." the man replied with abstract curiosity in his voice, "I donít know why but itís not. I feel myself float away, Iím rocking slowly to some motion below me - it feels like Iím on a boat."
"Really," Michaelís eyes showed curiosity and, perhaps, delight. "Carry on."
"Like Iím on a boat. Then the rocking sensation transforms, it becomes more like a jolt, and my eyes open, and Iím on a train. I donít know where it ends and where this," he waved his hand about him to indicate the marbled city, the whole world around him, "where this begins."
Michael stood. "It is good," he began slowly, calmly, "It is good to remember. As it all comes back, and you learn to fight it. That . . . this is why youíre so afraid of the castle. You have to overcome it now, you have to let it flow past you and accept the past." There was a pleading in his gaze that was firmly on the old man. "You have to let go of that life, of that pain and let yourself heal. We all start at the bottom. Itís endless and beautiful."
The old man looked up to meet Michaelís gaze. "Have we made this journey before?"
Michael smiled painfully. "Many times. Hundreds of times - it is all that I do. You do much, much more."
"But how; was it really me?"
"These things are tenuous," Michael replied faintly, after an uncertain pause.
"Do I always call you Michael?"
The joviality fell back onto that chubby face, rippling over the contours of the cheekbones and eyebrow ridge. "Well," he replied, cocking his head on one side and removing his cap to mop his brow, "You tried calling me Zebedee once, but it just didnít work."
The older man smiled, and together they began the climb again. They travelled for days, so long that he could no longer count them, each day arriving at a new city which was more splendid and more wealthy than the last. There were houses, buildings made of a beautiful blue stone, with domes and arches so that the views were rounded and smooth, like worn glass on a beach. There were streets made of a soft, green substance, like grass only smoother, which was slightly springy underfoot as if it enjoyed being walked on. And with every city the towering valley walls got lower and shallower and less imposing, and the ground on which they walked became more rounded as the valley began to thin. The air was clearer, the sun brighter and crisper with less of the sweltering heat of lower down, and a gentle breeze played on their faces when the path entered the open between the cities. There were still no animals, no people, but the land felt friendly now.
Michael was slowly getting thinner and more wizened, and it was in perhaps the eighth or ninth city when he realised he hadnít eaten anything since he arrived. Somehow it felt natural to not be eating on this journey; as his body regenerated beneath him it would feel wrong to desecrate it. It was new, and unspoilt, and for this journey he would keep it that way.
The dreams; he still had them, but they were different now. No longer did he see the terrible battle; he could remember that clearly whenever he wanted and he did not want. Rather he remembered other pieces, slowly and wildly at first, and then more coherently until they became like polished crystal and he wondered how he could not have seen it so before. Scenes from his past; he remembered eating in a long hall, sitting with a woman with hair like waterfalls in a garden, and a dull feeling as he listened to voices, the woman and another man, behind a closed wooden door. He saw the countryside whip past, as the wind blew his long white hair and the horse nickered, flecks of spittle around its jaws. He remembered men, and counsels and desires long forgotten until now; discrete, vivid.
Finally he had them; he could meet them all now, all the people he had known. So many people! Always crowds and mobs everywhere, smiling and happy or fierce, but always so solid and alive. And he began to feel that this, what he was doing, was inadequate. Slowly as the memories returned he developed mixed feelings - he was glad that now he had a past; but it had served to make him that much more jealous of the existence he could no longer lead. His conversations with Michael became more stilted; in fact, Michael seemed to initiate this as though he sensed the change within him. Every minute now he longed for the freedom of that place, of Ďthose out thereí as Michael knew them. He loved the walking, the beauty, the epic scenery, the energy and vitality that shot round his body but he wanted company. After the battle he remembered the boat clearly, the lapping waves filled with the shimmer of the night sky, the cool air enfolding the three weeping women who sat hooded around him; but at some time they changed, melted into the train, and he couldnít tell where that dream and the dream he was in now merged. Sometimes, when he stared hard, he almost thought he saw through the lush landscapes to bleak white walls, and as he watched them perhaps he could feel a pressure, a smooth pressure over back, even as he walked. Only sometimes. He never knew for sure.
He shared all this with Michael eventually, as they neared the top of the long, long rise they has climbed, and the castle became into clearer, backed now by blue and not cloud. Michael listened, as he always listened when he discussed his memories, and he never replied, except to remark on the clarity and speed of it all. He still wore his railway uniform, though now, in the beautifully crafted landscapes through which they journeyed they looked bizarrely out of place; especially now with Michaelís thick white beard falling down to his third button.
Then one night, as they made to enter one of the spiralling shelters of wondrously etched and sculpted glass, Michael turned to him, his face, red from exertion, reflected and twisted a hundred times by the structure.
"Do you want to go to the castle?" asked Michael, a stinging tone in his voice.
Slowly the old man reached inside himself. Over the whole journey he had been peeling away at that wall of dust behind which lay his past, and he now no longer felt the dread. He checked, not wanting to reply until he was certain, but no. Something had changed inside; he yearned for the castle. He needed to go and told Michael as much.
Michael nodded, and checked his pocket watch again. "One more day, I think."
The old man nodded, and looked up at the wide earth path ahead, now nearly as wide as the valley itself, in the failing half-light of dusk. He could barely make out their destination now, perhaps just as a silhouette against the orange-purple sky, but it was close. He could almost smell it; it towered over them, beautiful, powerful, so powerful. But it could no longer threaten him, its control of him had changed. He had to know. It was close, from the slight rise in the land on which he stood, wind whisking about his cloak, hair streaming out behind him, he could see one more thick wood lying in the dell and then the final ascent. He turned to his side to see Michael standing a step behind, looking out at the castle too; with a tired and wise expression on his haggard face, beard rolling down his front. Finally, he caught the old manís eyes and a steady look passed between them, and they turned back to the astonishing city.
It was huge, spread right across the valley rising up splendidly almost rivalling the slopes themselves; and it was fashioned purely out of glass. In the centre was a vast dome from which pinnacles shot out at the edges, so that it looked like a angular crown; or as the old man saw it, like the instant when a teardrop crashes to ground. The entrances to the rooms inside where rimmed in deep purples and greens so they could be found, and these colours refracted and diffracted throughout the whole city, making it more beautiful, more incredible than the old man could truly bear. It stopped his breath.
"A full dayís walk?" he asked of Michael.
"Yes. The incline is so shallow."
"It is has to be, doesnít it?"
They stared once more, and the sky fell darker still until the glass tower became the only chink of light in the black of the valley.
"Why canít I see the moon?"
Michael laughed. "I donít know; I suppose itís to do with where we are."
The old man turned to him, yearning once more. "Where am I?"
"Youíll find out soon enough."
"Tomorrow, of course. There," and he pointed a thick finger toward the spire. The old man followed the line and caught the last flicker of the sunís fire on the towers as it fell away. "Tomorrow," Michael repeated softly.
"Not now," Michael replied, and he stepped into the building.
That night the old man saw it all; his entire life from start to finish. He lived it all again, for life is but a waking memory; he knew every rapture and agony and understood every facet of his existence. The last of the cobwebs blown so he could stand in the sunlight and examine. This was what it had all been for; all that effort, all that way. You couldnít stay at the bottom, but you had to start there.
The old man wished that the fog behind would lift and he could look back over their incredible journey, down to that very first village with its crude mud huts and dirt track. It would seem so strange now, with the clean and sparkling cities he had seen, all the wonders he had set his eyes upon which staggered his mind; it would seem so sullied. You had to start at the bottom, and you couldnít go back.
When he woke he was new, fresh and reborn entirely. Michael looked at him strangely at first, and whispered:
"It has been so long since I was last here; I had forgotten what a change it makes in you."
He refused to say any more about it, and together they set off at a more rapid vigorous pace up the hill. The young man was aflame, anticipating everything, the taste and the smell of all he had been denied, but Michael was not. The fat man was now reserved, and as they climbed the wide dust path, with its verges of thick flowers, blue and yellow, and the gentle rises on either side that were all that was left of those vast slopes he had been scared by; as they climbed he became ever more despondent, but continued the journey still, knowing the young man could not tell.
"Will we always do this?" asked the young man of Michael.
"I donít know," the latter replied after a pause, "I shouldnít think so. Eventually itíll all work out, finally, and then my work and yours will be done. Shouldnít think itíll be anytime soon though."
"Well, it takes a long time. Little things change first, and itíll take a very long time for the really big things to go. But, eventually."
Michael gave him a unusual look, but said nothing.
The sun was still high in the sky, as if it didnít want to leave, when they finally topped the ridge. The last steps were taken slowly, in awed silence, and as the young manís foot touched the flat earth for the first time in so long, he exhaled heavily, and his heart swelled. Even Michael cheered. The young man shook himself in the slight breeze that blew over the ridge, which bent here at an angle to form the valley walls. Here he was in the pinch. He was free of it.
The castle was incredible - this close up it soared to sky and did not stop. Huge towers of white marble stood in the middle of hugely ornamented stone walls, adorned with immense battlements and wide windows to the grand halls that could be seen inside. The moat was luscious and clean, with a solid drawbridge down, inviting him inside through the huge sweeping portal, and the view inside was of an immense courtyard full of topiary, tapestry and intricate mosaic flooring, and in the very centre, a glimmer of water from a small lake secluded behind cherry trees and almost obscured. It was elegant and grandiose at the same time, magnificent but not pompous. It took the young manís breath away from him; the sheer construction of it.
He looked beyond. The side they had come from was now all impenetrable fog, not even that last wondrous city could be seen. And on the other side of the ridge where the castle stood was the sea, wide, sweeping, with a scent that plucked a man and sent him soaring over waves. Birds wheeled and dived, and the tide lapped against the shore as though it loved it with all its heart. It was radiant, it was perfect, it was the end of their journey and the man was healed. He licked his lips. He remembered how gummy they felt before, but now he had firm skin and firm bones, his eyes could pick out the slightest fleck and he was complete.
"Michael? Michael? Should I go in?"
Michael directed with a hand. "Of course." He paused. "Though it is not for me," He said sadly. The young man stared at him, then nodded, and turned to step onto the drawbridge. Michael watched him go, musing stoical on the immense trek behind them once more. The castle was incredible, he marvelled at how rich the old manís life must have been. He saw him disappear under the grand archway of the portal, and sat down on the ridge to wait, with the slight dip to the beach and the sea in front of him and the castle on its raised dais of earth slightly to the left. He watched the gulls as they soared around its towers, ducking and weaving and making the place so full of life. Thatís what it was, all of it. He stared once more out to sea, let his mind fill with the calmness of the waves and the surf and his eyes closed.
"Michael? What was the name of the station?"
The young manís voice stirred him awake, and he rose to his feet shakily, supporting himself on the others arm. He tiredly looked at his face, and saw how full it was now, his eyes glittered with all that the castle had given him.
"The station? What was its name?"
Michael grinned. "I can show you."
"But itís so far! Iím not going all the way back!"
However far he came, he never really understood, thought Michael before replying.
"You donít have to. Just walk through the mist."
"But I canít! Besides, all that distance.."
He smiled again. "You donít think I walked all the way back and forth every time I left you at night?"
"Well, yes. I suppose I did."
"Oh no. Come on."
Michael stepped towards the mist.
"Youíre sure this is alright?"
"Oh yes, we can pop right back."
They stepped into the mist, and with a swish that grey cloak folded around them. It blurred his mind for a while, clothed it and smothered it. Then slowly his eyes adjusted. He could follow individual specks of the fog, he saw, as they writhed for a brief instant before disappearing. Each one caught his attention in some way. Theyíre like people he thought briefly. And then they appeared.
They were back on the station platform. Michael beside him suddenly looking different in his railway jacket, and the young man trying to understand it all.
"Itís incredible. To be back here. After all that time."
"It looks different, doesnít it?"
"Yes, yes it does! I suppose I didnít see it for what it was before."
"Yes, of course."
He walked over to the railway sign that stood next to the rails. With slight trepidation he stepped around to the front of it, afraid that he might still not be able to read it. But he could. It was painted in thick black firm letters, proud and sure, just where it should have been the first time. It satisfied him to know what it said.
"Are you ready, my liege?" asked Michael in a very different tone. "It is time you returned."
The young man sighed. "To do it all, all again. I do hope I get it right this time."
"One can but try."
"And the next time and the next time and the next time, spreading away like an eternity of ripples tracing back from the touch of the slightest of stones. They said I would return."
"Time of greatest need for you, my liege."
The young man laughed, a rich booming laugh. "How ironic! That they canít see what that means!"
"My liege?" prompted Michael.
"Yes Michael. This time, I promise you."
He bowed his head slightly. "My liege."
The young man felt the hilt of the sword that now hung at his belt, the sword he had been given. "So what do we do? Where do we go?"
"The castle awaits us, your highness!"
The young man nodded slowly, then looked hard at Michael. "Will you stay with me?"
"For a short while," the wizened railway man replied sternly, "But only a very short while."
He gave one last backward look at the sign, the sign that read "Avalon".
And the young man and the fat man stepped through the swirling mist together.