If I had thought that the horrors of the Great War would be all that should be all that troubled me on my return to England, it would not be long before I was mistaken.
In many ways I had been lucky. I joined the army as a naïve seventeen year old in the summer of nineteen eighteen, of which the earlier weeks were basic training on the beautiful south coast of England. On sailing to France I was aboard one of three vessels that set out, and the only one that made it without being struck by torpedoes of the unseen terror that the German U-boats haunted the Channel with. We lost two hundred good young men, some of whom I knew personally, although not to consider close friends.
I did not see a lot of frontline battle. The tide of war had turned, and much of what I did involved manning the guns that pounded the German lines, guarding prisoners, or loading the narrow gauge railway's resupply trains with arms, food, and fuel that would eventually prove essential to our victory. The only dead I had seen were those wounded in the trenches who passed away in the sorely undermanned and inadequate hospitals near the port.
That changed as the winter came, and many of us were pressed to the front. I did not personally fire a shot in anger in by brief time there, instead acting as a spotter to a remarkable young man named John Price, who had an uncanny talent with the standard issue Lee Enfield mark one rifle. Our role was to creep out into No Man's Land, find shelter, and observe the movements in the enemy trenches until we could identify officers. Then, once identified, John would take aim, squeeze the trigger, and that officer would be no more. I never saw him miss. Not once.
This hidden killing was not what troubled me, in my time in France. Going out into No Man's Land brought a terror that caused me to vomit when first we went about our task. No Man's Land was in fact full of men. Decomposing, crushed, and broken men, of both sides. We were literally crawling through, over, and around maggot-infested human remains that stank with a potent and invasive stench that was only hinted at as the wind blew to the trenches. We could just not get used to it, either physically or mentally, amidst all this gore. Yet we tried, for we wanted in our hearts to never be out there to see the twisted, eyeless, grimacing death-mask faces of our friends.
England could not smell more wonderful, I found on my return.
Before the war I had hoped to become a teacher, or perhaps a professional sportsman. I excelled at football and cricket, and thoroughly enjoyed rugby. However, I was perhaps not of a high enough class to do so, and it appeared many other young men had such dreams. Men who had weeks earlier been professional soldiers, airmen, and ratings, now found themselves looking for work that was not what they had hoped for.
I found work on one of the many new road projects. The automobile was by now the mainstay of Britain's future, and it was certain that many of our roads were inadequate to accommodate them. My father was already working on a major road that would connect Swindon with Cirencester, telling me that there was plenty of work for young men prepared to graft.
I had only been in the job for two weeks when my father fell from a scaffold surrounding a bridge under construction. He was severely injured when I was called to him, but he was conscious and in great pain. It was clear he had broken one leg, for the bone protruded sickeningly through the flesh and his trousers, and there was no doubt the other leg was broken too. What little medical aid we had was basic, and to cut a long story short, just enough to keep him alive until an ambulance arrived.
Our foreman did not permit me to travel with my father. He was a hard man of no sympathetic nature, and ushered us all back to work, more concerned with the bridge than his workers. I returned to my task with little determination, aware it would be several hours until I could travel into Swindon to see my father. As my mother had died when I was a child, it horrified me to think that I could lose him as well. In the darker moments of that fateful day, I wished to be in the meadows around us, binoculars in hand, with John Price by my side with his trusted rifle to extinguish that cruel foreman's unworthy life. I stopped the thought, for it gave rise to the terrible images I had witnessed in once green meadows on the other side of the sea.
My father had survived the fall, and indeed both legs were badly broken. Thankfully, the surgeon who saved his life had saved the lives and legs of many younger men injured in the war. However, my father had suffered some injury to his spine, and could not feel his legs at all. The doctors told me in no uncertain terms that my poor father would never walk again.
How devastated I was, was nothing compared to the crushing defeat my father felt. Once healthy enough to leave hospital, we had to face the reality of the life fate had dealt us. Our lodgings in Swindon were on the third floor of a terraced house in a nicer part of town, and there was simply no way of easily getting my father in and out of the house for the hospital appointments he would have to endure. Instead, I found us lodgings in the town of Cricklade, which was convenient to me for the purpose of continued work, yet less so for my father due to the condition of the draughty, dilapidated nature of our new home.
He took to drink soon after I had moved our possessions. Cursing God for what He had done to him, I began to wonder at the resentment I could see growing in my father like some hideous disease. He had been by no means an amiable or humorous man, but a proud one, with a sense of purpose and diligence that brought him instant respect from many who met him. He would always be smartly turned out for church on a Sunday, and much like myself would while away the following afternoon with a game of cricket, should the weather permit.
No more. The church became abhorrent to him. The very notion of me going off in my cricket whites tortured him into a screaming rage. In time, I too abandoned both the church and all sport, for I feared my continued practice of both faith and competition would drive my only living relative to his untimely death. That we became reclusive would be a lie, but in a town where we had only a few weeks residency, only those we had worked with had time for us. The cursing and profanity that now dominated my father's personality drove people away. I became little more than an apologist for his demeanour, and a reluctant supplier of his intense alcoholic needs.
It was as winter made our workload greater and our progress slower that my life grew more bizarre. I returned from work in freezing rain to find our front door open and my father nowhere to be found. Stunned, I ran from the house and banged hard on the door of our neighbour, who was by no means friendly or accommodating to us. With no answer, and in some panic, I ran across to the local inn, bursting through the door and running to the bar babbling my concern for my missing, invalid father.
I need not have worried so. Sitting in a corner with a curious group of men of many ages, was my father. His clothes were muddy and damp, but he wore a ferocious grin and laughed like a drain. On seeing me, he raised a pint glass that was full enough that in his jerking arm motion, it spilled out and arced to the table and his lap, causing uproarious laughter amongst the group, while he drunkenly slurred for me to join him.
I stood, aghast. From the look of him, he had crawled from the house to the inn, dragging his immobile legs behind him. How he had passed across the road without being hit by car, cart, or lorry I did not know. Yet he looked happy. Extraordinarily happy. I moved towards the group, but as I did so, a man of similar age to my father arose and came to me with a big smile and a keenness that was somehow refreshing, compared to what I ordinarily endured locally.
"Ye'll be Martin, aye? Ye're Alfie's lad?" he said companionably, in an accent I did not really recognise, but sounded Irish.
"Alfie?" I asked in a moment, perplexed, before realising: "Oh. Alfred. My father. Yes."
I was directed to the bar, led by a not too firm grasp of the elbow, where despite my protestations my father's new friend insisted upon me a pint of what turned out to be a surprisingly fruity and palatable ale. Behind me I could hear the chatter and good humour of the men, and also my father. His language was no less coarse than I had grown used to, but now it fitted with the overall manner of his companions, for I had now ascertained they were itinerant workers of probable gypsy stock.
In no time I found myself sat with the group, all friendly introductions and explanations of their purpose and intent. They had arrived this day to find work on the roads, and were somewhat surprised to find a middle-aged man crawling across a busy street. They had picked him up and on his insistence carried him to the public house that was his sole focus. There they had found his story a sad and tragic one, and had remarked how terrible it was, and what a good son he had for taking such care of him. They had plied him with drinks, sought his knowledge of the work in the area, promised him company on days when I would be hard at work through the coming harsh winter, and drawn the bitterness from his manner into a new unrecognisable aspect of my father; that of a happy, carefree proud father. It was more disconcerting than as I had come to know him.
As evening turned to night, and my father fell into an ale and whisky fueled sleep, I found myself comforted by the stories of the men. They too found work where they could, and like my father had forsaken God for the terrible things that war and the perils of an advancing age were bringing to the country. I did not entirely agree, and I explained by way of some apology the horrors I had seen in France. God could not be to blame for the folly of man, He would but judge that folly.
"Would God judge your ol' Da so harshly for the good he has done in life, killer?" asked a man a little older than me, introduced as Kenny. His voice was level, and his eyes curious and sober.
I had no immediate answer, and felt uneasy that the group fell silent, waiting for my reply. I looked at the hunched figure of my father, snoring gently on the bench. When I replied, it was only to say, quite pathetically, that God was known to work in mysterious ways, and that perhaps it was not my father who was being judged, but rather myself.
"So. Ye blame yerself?" Kenny answered. "That's t'be natural son, that's t'be natural."
I felt a gentle and companionable pat on the back from the men either side of me, and there were mutterings of agreement and consolation. I felt strange emotions of sadness rise within me, and I will be honest to admit I fought somewhat to prevent childish tears to flow.
I decided the better course of action would be to to take my father home. He was filthy and doubtless incontinent, and the effect of the drink was unaccustomed to me. I knew carrying him would be a struggle, though it was less so these days as he weighed little more than half that he did before the accident. To my gratitude, Kenny suggested two of his companions help me get my father home. They made a seat of linked arms underneath him, and draping his arms across their shoulders carried him smartly out into the rain, hurrying across the quiet road to our house with the front door still open.
The younger man was surprised to see the inside of our home. He whistled at how little we had, how cold it was, and how musty is smelled. On a sharp look from the older man, he apologised to me, stating that as a people who traveled by caravan, he always expected people in houses to have some sort of luxury that at least included a certain warmth.
We settled my father down in his bed, in the back ground floor room, and feeling a need to be generous to people who had not yet ostracised us, I offered a glass of whiskey to the two men. They accepted with good grace, telling me with humour that although they could share with me just the one, it would not be the last glass they took this night!
As I poured, the older man asked if I had ever sought to restore my father's legs to working order. Naturally, I explained what the doctors and surgeons had told me: he would never walk again due to the damage to his spine from the fall. Though his legs were broken when he hit the ground, it was hitting the base of his spine on a pillar on the way down that had sealed his fate.
"So," the older man said, his face oddly serene in the dim gaslight of our living room. "Forsaken by God and by science. That's no end for a proud man, for sure."
I found myself nodding agreement with them both. "If only there was some other way." I said, hopelessly.
"Maybe so. Maybe so." the older man said. I wished I could remember his name, for on his words I felt that continuous sense of hopelessness and helpless misery begin to seep away somewhat.
"Ah, c'mon Gara!" the younger man said quietly, "Martin's a man of faith, and he'll live and die by that faith, t'be sure."
I frowned. I felt a little angry. "If I could see my father walk again and know it was not the work of God, I would gladly pay the price of my place in Hell, for I have seen a little of Hell in the Godforsaken fields of Normandy!"
The man, Gara, gave a little chuckle. "There's no Hell like a man's seen Hell, young Martin, that's as sure as anything. I don't doubt ye. But if there's no God then there's no Hell. But anyway, that's just speculation and nonsense. There's older means than God or medicine, and for a price I reckon we could maybe see old Alfie walk once more."
The younger man nodded, raising his glass and then finishing the drink off with a gulp.
"But anyway, we must be off, eh, Gara?" the younger man said nervously.
I begged them to wait. I asked Gara to explain what he meant, for although I was feeling a drunkenness I was unused to, what I was hearing was with an assured tone that had me curious. Were they talking of witchcraft? What would be the price for my father walking again? How could this happen?
Gara asked me to be seated, and explained. He told me of a time before Mankind had been obsessed with the idea of a God who commanded all nature, and of a time when the rules of life we are taught as sciences were not adhered to. He told me that the faiths I knew were in fact simple trusts in complicated things, and that uncomplicated life brought uncomplicated rewards. He asked me, based on my family tragedy, if I could understand how my father had grown not angry but weary of his complicated life. He asked me if I could truly believe that resigning from my love of taking part in sport and socialising with people of my own age and background was the good and right thing to do in the presence of a proud father who didn't know his own mind because the breaking of his body had broken spirit. He asked me in all honesty if I really found myself prepared to accept that my youth had been diseased by the fate of my father to the point where all I could see was interminable toil that would still lead to a man's premature death at the hands of nothing more than accepted fate and the poison of excessive drinking.
I sat, mute, and let Gara's words sink in. All he said was true. It was true! If there could be some other way to restore my father, I would gladly accept it as the simple, uncomplicated truth that Gara spoke of. All I had ever known was of one complicated and saddening event leading to another, and I was more than prepared at that moment to accept something spoken so certainly of as uncomplicated and natural.
"If it's alright with you," Gara said, resting his hand on my slumped shoulder, "we'll come get your Da tomorrow evening after dark, and I'll do what I can for him. But I promise ye this, young Martin, I cannot guarantee what I can do will work. But if ye have some trust in me, I know it will help him."
At 'after dark' I was somewhat worried. Gara could clearly see my concern, and explained that his help could not be administered in my presence. To see was not to believe, and only trust would be my aid to both he and my father. I nodded my acceptance, and thought then of the price of which he had spoken.
"I shalln't lie to you, so I won't." Gara said with a deep sigh. "I'll need something of value to you. And no, I can see it on your face! I'm not meaning yer money, son. I mean something of true value. Something that means something in yer heart and yer soul. Something that you will miss, as you miss the father you once knew and may just get back, so ye might."
I thought for some time, but Gara assured me I need not press the matter for the now. I had until the following evening for that decision. With no further questions or true concerns, and with a tiring mind I saw the two out, and retired.
I awoke to the call of the church bells quite late in the morning, quite surprised at the lack of protestations from downstairs. Concerned, I attended to my father straight away. I found him with his accustomed bottle of scotch, clearly wet from a nocturnal accident of his nature, and set about cleaning him up. He was less aggressive in his manner than he might normally be, and I was thankful.
As the day wore on, and drunkenness bore him asleep, I sought out something that I knew was of a very personal nature to me. In my father's bedside draw, untouched since the accident, was a large envelope that I would sometimes take and study the contents of. In it were a lock of my mother's hair, her wedding ring, and some photographs. They were formal ones of my parents together, with just one of them with myself as an infant. Others were of me as I joined the army, both of me with my regiment, and more personal ones of me with my friends. I knew in an instant that this was precisely the thing I should give up as the price for my father's hoped for restoration. Had it not been for the picture of myself and John Price I may not have!
As night approached, I grew nervous of the coming event. I was placing a lot of trust in people I had known for less than a day. I was succumbing to a promise that was in no way guaranteed. There grew a fear that was akin to that which I had felt in the terrible No Man's Land I had known three years earlier.
When Gara arrived with three other men, their knock at my door startled me despite its quiet and subtle nature. I beckoned them in and questioned once more the truth of what would happen. Once more they gave no great detail, other than it must be without me present. I gave Gara the envelope and explained its nature. On this, he nodded kindly and examined the contents. The lock of hair he examined with warm regard, and the photographs he nodded sagely at. But the wedding ring he passed to me and told me I should not consider as something personal to myself, as this was also something clearly more personal to the man I was trying to restore. To take it would be to take a part of him, and that was not to be so. I understood.
They left carrying my father in a partial stupor, protesting that his new friends should be taking him to the inn, and demanding in a querulous voice quite unlike him that if they would not do so, they could just take him back to me. By the time they were around the corner I could hear his protesting no more. This worried me moreso than I had already been.
In a considered decision borne of experience during the war, I grabbed my overcoat and made my way out into the street. Something was not right, and I recalled the time John Price and myself had been in No Man's Land with a strange sense that amongst the bodies and destruction there lay an unseen threat to our lives. It was that day we discovered it was not just our side that placed snipers out there. In our silence we were not twenty feet from a lone German of identical purpose. John was for the killing, but in a whisper I cautioned him that it was doubtful he was alone. When the shelling began and explosions fell short of the enemy trenches, we saw half a dozen men retreat. My strange caution had saved our lives against the rash judgements Price was known for off the battlefield.
I followed at a distance, noting how limp my father was between the four men. They headed out into the countryside towards a thickly wooded area favoured by poachers. In quite a flat area, it was noted for having a hillock that stood out on the landscape like a pimple. With little cover to hide me from those I pursued, I held back until I was sure the distance between us would be cover enough in the driving rain of a pitch black sky.
I did not truly know of pitch black though. That I discovered as I approached the perimeter wall of the wooded hillock. As I made to cross the wall, my eyes accustomed to the darkness, it became very clear to me that the darkness around me was as nothing compared to the darkness within the wall. I looked back to the town, where the gaslights showed it as pinpoints of light on the horizon. Finding my breathing quick and laboured, I turned my eyes to the wood. This was pitch black. This was a darkness that did not feel unnatural, but was as being inside a cave, or closed within a cupboard while hiding as a child.
I carefully climbed over the small wall, and found myself enveloped in the blackness. I could not see to make my way in at all, and it occurred to me that as I turned my head back towards town it seemed very much like the darkness without was certainly less so than within. This made no sense as the trees were without leaves and any light here should be the same as the light there!
It was not raining.
Within the walls of the wood was not a drop of rain. Although the floor beneath me was wet and rank with decay, and a gentle but ominous wind blew around me, there was no rainfall here to see, hear, or feel. Outside, yes. Inside, no. Feeling my heart beating faster, I literally felt my way further into the woods, steeling myself to be as stealthy and careful as was possible. I had not felt such trepidation since those first few ventures into No Man's Land.
As I pressed on, I fancied there was now some hint of light, although it did not ease my worries, as with it there was the suggestion of a dull monotonous noise, as of many voices in unison. The light seemed red, like a great dying fire seen from a distance, and it seemed almost to pulse. My worry was now palpably fear, and my mouth felt dry.
Further in, the terrible light now brighter and menacing as it gave strange shapes to the shadows of the trees, I knew the sound I could hear was a chant, for it seemed to be all around me, although the words were strange and alien to me; almost not words at all. As I reached the brow of the hillock, my heart leapt into my mouth.
Below me there was a clearing in the trees, and in that clearing was what can only be described as a makeshift altar that I feared from its shape and construction may in fact be a pyre. Around it stood two dozen or more human figures, and they were clearly human for they were naked except for strange symbols either painted or tattooed onto their bodies. Most of them stood with their arms raised almost vertically above them, their heads craned backwards as if awaiting something from the sky. I could not tell from where the red glow that lit them came from, for there seemed no source to it. It was not in fact like light at all, but the glow from light unseen.
Placed on the altar was my father's body, dressed in nothing more than a loose fitting and short white nightdress not dissimilar to one he would wear in the summer months before his tragedy and insobriety. His wasted legs were exposed, but he looked oddly comfortable and did not appear to be in discomfort even against the bitter cold that had me shivering. Of course, I was perhaps also shivering with the sense of rising terror I felt.
This terror grew ever greater as a curious shadow began to form within the circle made around the altar by the men. As one would drop ink into a gently stirred glass of water and watch the curious patterns it makes as it dissolves, so it seemed there was an ink in the air doing just so. A dark patch formed some twenty feet above the altar and my father, and dissipated in a swirl, dark tendrils exploring the unflinching figures around the perimeter of the red glow before it dimmed into a dull cloud around the prone figure of my father. I held my breath, for this was like nothing I had ever seen in my life, or would ever wish to see in spite of the horrors of war I had witnessed. It bore no resemblance to anything I had seen, read of, or heard of. I began to tremble, and in no short time as it seemed to touch my father and make him twitch I felt the urge to scream almost impossible to resist.
From my vantage point I saw my father lift from the altar as the weird chant grew in volume and the inky cloud of unknown being seemed to explore his legs, covering it with what can only be described as dark veins or bindings. He twitched more, and convulsed, terrifying me that this was some monstrosity I had unwittingly sacrificed my father to. He was a good man. He had been a good man. Even in the life he now endured he did not - as no one deserved - to be tossed about in the chill winter air by an unseen monster incanted to existence by the inhuman chorus I was now hearing.
The urge to scream, the urge to shout, the urge to grab a branch and hurtle into the crowd in rescue: these all fought for my attention, but I found myself rooted to the spot as the body of my father gently dropped back to the altar and the chant stopped. The dark cloud coalesced into a one clearly solid form above my father, but I could not describe this shape in words that would be adequate. It seemed as though it was further away than it truly could be, as if time and space above my father were different to where both I and the men stood. Then it moved higher, seeming darker still, until it stretched out thinner and strangely more tangible, whereupon it moved around the men in a manner that made me think whatever it was, was surveying the scene.
I had a curious sense that no one but that shape knew I watched. For a short time it blotted out the figure of the man with his back closest too me, close enough that I could have launched a surprise attack, but far enough away to not be easily seen or heard in the damp darkness of the eerie wood. Yet if it sensed me, for it was clear it had senses, it did not react in any way I understood. It receded to its point above my father, and in an instant winked out of existence, leaving behind it only the slowly receding red glow that no longer seemed to pulse as it had before. Now certain that I should not be here, I slowly retreated as the glow became almost imperceptible and the trees around me showed themselves in the manner of normal light that all man's eyes are accustomed to on a dark and miserable winter night.
Clear of the perimeter wall, I ran like I had not run before across ground that was uneven and slippery. I stumbled many times, and although it was no more than two miles to the town, the journey seemed to take a lifetime. I ran straight to my father's room, took up an unopened bottle of scotch and drank from the bottle with terror driving me on in a wish that alcohol really did help you forget. I knew it did not, and I knew I could not.
To say that I did not sleep that night would not be a truth. For I drank well of the whiskey, and with each closing of my eyes came either the memory of that terrible scene or perhaps a dream of it, that it was with me now, in my bedroom where I shook as though back on the front-line in fear for my life in those early days so close to the German guns pounding noise. The ceiling seemed blacker, and the rain outside seemed unnatural in both its sound and the pattern it made on my uncurtained window panes.
I must have slept though, for dawn brought with it my awareness that I would soon be expected to work. My head feeling as though it had been split apart by the harsh strike of a large glass bottle, I made my way downstairs with the intention of boiling the kettle and making my morning ablutions. That was when I noticed my father lay in his bed, snoring lightly.
I walked into his room, noting he was dressed in the clothes he had worn when he left the house. They were dry and uncreased, and as I turned up the gaslight in the room it seemed as though he had not been outside at all, for his balding head's hair was well combed, and he slept with an expression that showed none of the troubles he had endured recently, and certainly nothing like the terror I had felt that night.
I gently shook his shoulder, and to my amazement he moved. What was amazing was not his movement as such, but the fact one leg moved, ever so slightly, as if finding a more comfortable position. I gasped, and curiosity and an intense sense of awed relief washed over me, drawing my attention from the pain of my head. Curious, I touched his right leg close to the ankle, and lifted the hem to expose the flesh beneath trousers, shoe, and sock.
The bruising horrified me. Although the light of the room was not great, I could see livid marks all over the pale flesh of my father's skinny legs. Feeling a mix of anger and fear, I moved the trouser leg up to his knee, seeing the bruises extended all the way. Panicked, I checked the other leg; the same. It was then that I swore I saw movement. Movement not in the room, but of the marks on his leg I held in my hand. Shocked, I dropped his leg down, and the marks really did seem to move. Compelled to stir him, I did my best. He would not wake, however, and this troubled me doubly.
What could I do? To cry off work and attend him would doubtless see me out of work even as short of men as we were for the task, but I could not stay and seek help. Who could I ask for help? The local doctor clearly despised my father, and no neighbours tolerated his frequent profanities and irate nature. Besides, what could I tell? I was not even sure there was anything to tell which could be believed!
In the end I did as I always did. I placed bread, cheese and pickle on a plate by his bedside with a pot of tea, bowl of sugar, and a cup with a little milk in it. Suddenly remembering I had consumed almost all of the whiskey from his bedside cabinet, I replaced it with one from my hidden supply, and went about the rest of the morning as I would always do.
There were new faces as we assembled for work. Despite my youth, the foremen set three new men to work with me, charging me with responsibility for them as 'they look like thieving gypsies and speak the language of such'. I was not sure to be glad of their charge or not, for one of the three was Kenny, and I suspected the other two had been known to me only by shape, the night before.
As we walked to where the road stone was unloaded, Kenny asked outright: "How's ye father?"
Frightened to say too much, and mindful that I was not meant to see what I had seen, I filled in only the detail of his dry clothing, the bruises on his legs, his somnolence, and my belief that I had seen one of his legs move. I apologised that I did not know more and blamed the fact on worry and too much whisky. Of the latter, Kenny commented that yes, I did rather smell of the hard stuff this morning.
I could not concentrate all day, and when I spilled a barrel of boiling tar which almost wounded myself and others near me, I was angrily told to take my leave and not return until my mind was on the task at hand. The other men watched me warily as I left, but I did not care. I felt sick to my stomach and needed nothing more than to see my father.
When I did, I was shocked. He was sitting in the armchair in the living room, he was sober, and he was newly dressed in more casual clothes than I had left him.
"Good morning, Martin." he said flatly.
Unable to say anything else, and feeling stupid in the moment, I replied "Good morning. How are you this morning?" as I had done so many times to be met with curses and complaint.
He looked at his lap, and then back to me. His face was drawn and his brow heavy, but his eyes were bright with moisture. "I got up this morning. Martin, I can barely walk. But I can walk. I can walk, Martin."
We stared at each other. I wanted to hug him, but my father had never been one for hugs or any outward display of emotion. He had always been a loving father, for I had never wanted for anything, but for him to show his love or devotion was just to smile, and in my younger years to ruffle my hair.
He hoisted himself up, and stood before me, visibly trembling. "They're not strong, son. They're not strong at all. And they're all bruised and they itch. But I can feel them, and I can use them." He dropped back down, wearily.
All I could say was "You're not drunk."
He smiled, and it was with a warmth that was in the man he had been before the accident, rather than the cruel smile of bitter sarcasm or malice I had grown used to.
"Who can walk well, when they are drunk?" was all he could say.
In the evening I sought out Gara. I guessed he would be in the inn across the street, but I found the place accountably empty on an early Monday evening. On asking the landlord, I was directed a little way out of town to where he knew 'the navvies' to be making camp in their 'ridiculous caravans'. When I arrived near there I knew at once I was not welcome.
A man barely a boy stopped me as I approached, with a snarling bulldog that had it not been leashed would perhaps have torn me to pieces. "Whatcha want?" the man demanded. "Your sort ain't welcome here, so ye're not."
I explained that I needed to speak to Gara urgently, and that it was a matter of my father's improving health of which I had to thank him for. But the man only grimaced, told me to wait where I stood and approach no further, while he fetched Gara if Gara so chose to be disturbed.
Gara came. He marched determinedly up to me, carrying the envelope I had given him. Before I could say a word he spoke in a thick, low, seething voice that matched his dark and brooding expression.
"I lost six good lads last night, Mister Mason. Six good lads of strength and youth. I lost them to your father's legs, Mister Mason. What do you have to say to that?"
I stared at him, incredulous.
"Oh, ye have nothin' to say, so ye don't!" He slapped the envelop against my chest. "All I asked of ye was trust, Mister Mason. And though I has no evidence of it, I knows ye didn't trust me, so ye didn't. May ye live with the knowing now, Mister Mason. May ye live with the knowing of the Great Old Ones!"
With that, he turned and marched back to the caravans, where it appeared they were decamping. No protest or call would urge him to return to me. He returned to a group of men and women, some of whom were sobbing, and some of whom were consoling, and I knew that to approach would in the very least result in me receiving a serious beating.
Gara and his men must have moved on in the dead of night, for by morning none of their number were in or near town. The only sign that they had been near me or my father were six small pots of dirty ash and leaf-mould left on my our doorstep. These I buried in the little garden at the back of the house, for I am certain I knew what they had once been.
My father's legs grew stronger to the point where he could get about the house with some ease. He still did not drink, but this did not reduce the amount of whiskey consumed within, for I found that without drink I was tortured by nightmares of a nature I cannot describe, throughout darkness. I would not allow him outside due to the arrival of ice and snow, if not the curiosity and suspicion that might come with his appearance and change in demeanour. I lost my job, and was only fortunate that I had accumulated enough of saving that there was money to fall back on to support us.
On Christmas morning I found the house empty of any drink save for tea and water. My father had made me a breakfast of bacon, ham and eggs, and there was a new overcoat hanging on the hallway door that I knew at once was a present from him. The smell of the food was overpowering to my shriveled, drink-wrecked stomach, and I told him that I was not hungry, though I always was.
"It is Christmas Day!" he appealed to me. "You must eat well this morning, for we're off to Church, son. We have been blessed! Today is a day to celebrate life and all that is good in the world."
I glared at him and uttered a profanity that shocked even myself. I turned my eyes away from him in shame, and looked at myself in the hallway mirror. What had I become? What I saw in the mirror was pale and gaunt, poorly shaven and bizarrely lined for a man of little more than twenty-one years. I grimaced, and saw the stains upon my teeth. I fancied I saw a shadow move behind me, but I knew there was none.
All I had felt since the morning my father's legs began working again was an uneasy sense of defeat, and that a price I had asked to be paid was being paid in a very different way to how I had intended. Within me I felt only a dark emptiness that seemed only filled and subdued by either nightmare or whiskey by the bottle. All this while, I saw my father become more positive, more healthy, and altogether a different man to what he was known locally to be.
We walked to the Church through crisp snow, and it seemed people we met along the way did not know who we were. I was not vain, but I had considered myself quite handsome once upon a time. Likewise, my father was known as a bitter cripple with only a foul word for all but small children. Yet here we were, now, a smartly dressed and presented man in his early fifties, striding along with cheery Christmas greetings for all, accompanied by a disheveled and stinking offspring that would not look out of place begging on the streets of a city.
We did not make it into Church. At the gate, my father grabbed my arm tightly enough to cause me to yelp. He buckled over somewhat, sucking in air through gritted teeth, complaining in a hoarse whisper of feeling like his legs were afire. I supported him, perplexed, as he tried to shuffle through the gateway to no avail. He began trembling, and the pain on his face was visible enough that other churchgoers helped me in supporting him. Outside the gate, we seated him on a bench that was hastily cleared of snow, and the pain appeared to subside somewhat. He still complained of a burning sensation, and I became frightened. So frightened, it is true, that I lifted one of his trouser legs to examine the flesh of his leg.
It was once again livid with bruises, but this time I was in no doubt that this bruising moved. It moved and pulsed as if each vein in his leg was alive with dark creatures trying to escape, each motion more purposeful and grotesque than the last. I dropped the material and resisted the urge to vomit, for I fancied in those strange shapes I had seen the outline of a human face in a grimace of an agony unknown. I grabbed my father by the hands and pulled him to his feet, urging him to home with a child-like voice full of terrified pleading that I should at my age have felt shame for, but did not.
We removed his trousers once in his bedroom, although he insisted the pain had subsided. I was more insistent, and once removed I could see that his legs were blackened as though natural to a native of Africa. What areas were less shaded once again seemed to me to move in an an unnatural manner that gave hints of human and inhuman faces. My father began to shake uncontrollably at the sight and could only utter "What evil is this? What devil has done this to me?"
I sat, transfixed, as he tried to stand and pull his trousers up. We both saw, to rising horror, that the blackness of his legs was creeping into other parts of his skin. His face began to blacken, his eyes turning a terrible blood red, as his hair seemed to turn as burnt dried grass and fall away from his head in a steady fall as he trembled uncontrollably.
In a few moments, what stood before me was no longer my father, but a grotesque parody like nothing I had imagined possible. As the blackened flesh fell away from the trembling form there was only a putrid looking green mass of what looked more like mould. The jaw seemed distended, and the teeth also. The creature was immobile save for its tremors, and my revulsion turned to frightened rage as I knelt before it, my senses offended by sight, sound and smell.
I crawled fast to the other side of the room and grabbed from inside my father's wardrobe the cricket bat we had so often used in our enjoyed leisure time. I rose, the bat determinedly raised, and struck the creature aside its awful head with a force that would have sent a cricket ball for a certain six.
It crumpled to the bed with a strange chattering gibber, barely a mark upon it, and lay still.
I stood, my breathing fast and shallow, as I looked at the thing, wondering to myself what I had done. Was this my father, made now for a Hell I had cursed him to? Was this a deserved fate of any man, be he good or evil? Was this patricide? Should a police officer attend me now, would he arrest me for murder or share my horror and take the thought I was taken with in that moment?
In a daze, I gathered my few important belongings and what little money remained. I went around the house and turned on the gas of all the lamps. I waited until the smell was strong but not to overpower me, and then in the hallways as I left I set newspapers and hanging jackets and coats afire.
By the time I was on the outskirts of town, the house was fully aflame, and tears almost froze in my haunted eyes. I only looked back the once, and only to see people rushing from the church.
What was found within the house I will never know, for when the police caught me in London two years later I was arrested not for murder but for arson, with no mention of any corpse. The main questioning concerned the whereabouts of my missing father, and what reason we had to set a fire in such a way. My terror had not abated in that time, and my alcoholism had worsened, to the point where I was only struck by Gara's words about trust as the police interviewed me. I told them everything.
That is perhaps why I now find myself with an utterly uncomplicated life, locked in a small room with one barred high window and a heavy steel door, with walls padded for my own protection, if not to muffle the sound of the screaming madmen that surround me. Bland food is brought to me daily, and now and again a man who is a psychologist of some strange renown comes and asks me to tell the truth about the fire, and that he trusts me. He may trust me, but I do not trust him, as he tells me others in this asylum tell similar tales, and are men and women from all over the world.
How could that be so? What strange cult would poison minds the world over with such terror and life-long misery? More to the point: what would have become of my father and I had I not spied upon that unearthly gathering on that fateful night?