Friday, June 29, 2007

Samuel's War, Part 3.

Without the blanket of TV noise to hide my head in, I couldn’t tune out of Samuel’s report and conversation. Norman becomes decidedly Stepford whenever he visits, and embarks on continental recipes that won’t be done until he’s gone again. Angela simply hides upstairs.

When I was stuck in Whitby I needed Samuel to save me. Not that he could have, but until now I thought he would have. I imagined him bursting down into the cellar and cutting chunks out of the blonde; putting the fear into Sebastian. I knew he was out there somewhere. I was never worried about him. When he was here, through all the Arthur Enright stuff, he belonged with us, and when he took off after the pretend Enright, he did that for me. It has happened before, that Samuel has been dragged under by his adventures; Norman told me as much, to explain why we’d not heard from him, and to reassure himself that he was safe. But there was something in the story of Samuel’s exploits during the war that gave away the truth of things.

With the help of Joseph de Sande, Samuel had crossed the channel into occupied France, and joined the small, sponsored cult of two magicians and their dozen followers. They were not the only ones to answer the invitation: three other magicians with Celtic links had made their way, through disguise or bribery, to the gathering in Brittany. Their aim was to raise and unleash a demon powerful enough to push back the Nazis and claim Northern France as a separate, undefeated, Celtic state. Not all had come to support these efforts though – the two Bretons argued furiously with an Irish magician, O’Ceallaigh, who urged them not to provoke powers they couldn’t hope to control. After a day and night, O’Ceallaigh returned to Ireland as invisibly as he’d arrived, and the Bretons were more resolute than ever. Unfortunately for Samuel, the confrontation had put them on edge, and the followers doubled their guard in case O’Ceallaigh returned or the local garrison were tipped off.

Amongst the others gathered was the leader of the Scottish band that Samuel had disrupted. He’d come alone, and spent a fortune to reach them, hoping no doubt to recover the power that Samuel had denied him. Although panicked to find the Scot waiting in France, my father had already altered Samuel’s appearance and voice, so that he passed for de Sande’s assistant without comment or suspicion.

In the week that followed, Samuel failed to find an opportunity to get close enough to the Bretons. They were gathering the last of their resources, and training de Sande, the Scot and their last guest, in the spells of summoning and binding that they would need to perform – synchronized as one voice, and in one language. De Sande had helped Samuel to reach the gathering, but wasn’t a fighter, and though he disagreed with the cult’s plans, he found himself drawn into them, so that Samuel might find the chance to strike. The Bretons were never alone, guarded by men with rifles and revolvers, even up to the point of the ritual, in a temple-cave near Quimperle.

It was like nothing Samuel had seen before. In Scotland, the cult had managed to summon a creature that was half bird/half monkey, small enough to carry like a book: he had crushed the thing’s skull with one blow. In the Breton caves, the ritual lasted for two days, with de Sande pretending to contribute, but deliberately garbling his words. Despite this, a pool of water across the floor of the cave became lit from within, and then opened up into a portal to another dimension. The demon that rose out of the water stood sixteen foot high, stooped by the roof of the cave, with five arms and sharks teeth. It was furious, but stood bound to the pool, as smaller hands and faces tried to break its surface. It was now that Samuel had to take his chance: the magicians were all exhausted but intently focused on holding the demon to their will; the gunmen were terrified and backed away, their eyes fixed on the giant creature and the demons writhing beneath it. Before they’d even noticed him, Samuel had run one of the Bretons through with his sword. Shots were fired, first at Samuel, but then at the demon who had stepped free of the portal, then at the horde that followed in its wake. Samuel charged the demon himself, but his blows, like the bullets, were like an oar cutting the ocean. Swatted back against the rocks, Samuel overpowered one of the cult’s guards who was firing wildly. He pulled de Sande to his feet and dragged him out of the caves. No one else came out alive, and the giant demon itself never escaped. It was, as the Breton magicians had planned, too big to go beyond the chamber it had been summoned to, with half a mile of rock between it and freedom. It was the smaller demons they needed to contain, and while Samuel shot or stabbed those that followed his route out, there were other ways – smaller, harder ways – out of those caves.

When it had gone quiet, Samuel and de Sande went back in. They found the scene of a massacre in the vaulted cave. The guards had all been torn to pieces, the magicians had sealed the pool again, but not before many of the creatures had escaped. De Sande learned what happened from the surviving Breton, who had lured the giant back into the portal, before sealing it with his own body: he remained fused to the pool. He looked at Samuel with dismay.

Some of the demons were harder to follow than others. Some did not go far – intoxicated by the simplest experiences of their new senses. Some were hungry, and left a trail of bite marks and horror stories. Others were discovered by german soldiers and handed over to their commanding officers. And others were smart, and stayed hidden. Leaving the frail de Sande to return to England, Samuel began the task of tracking each one down, acquiring the enhancements and skills he had until last year.

“So you see how he lives.” Explained Norman. “How often do I hear you complain you haven’t had time to check your emails? At the speed he’s living life, when does he get a chance to stop? You can’t just pick up the phone and start talking y’know. You have to pick your words first.”

But I’ve been thinking over this story since Norman first told it to me in February, and while he was thrilled by it, there were issues, like how he abandoned his friend to find his own way home, that I’ve now been forced to raise with Samuel: the continued power cuts have left my thoughts nowhere else to dwell.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Great Flood Of Sheffield.

You will have seen on the news, depending on where you are, that a month’s worth of rain got bored of waiting and decided to jump the queue. I haven’t seen the news, because there’s no power. The shops are shut, the roads are covered in dirt, walls have collapsed, there’s a tree been pulled down river and it’s stuck at Hillsborough Corner, B&Q have been flooded out so pre-packed flooring can be seen floating down the river, and by the time I get the internet back this post will be out of date. There have been explosions, drownings and helicopter rescues, and in the midst of this, Samuel turned up to let me know the latest on the Crosspool candlelighters.

He left his soggy dog in the garden until Norman took pity on it, giving it some hard earned affection and a towel dry. The animal stinks, and not just because of the wet – I don’t know what Samuel feeds it, but it smells of bad pies.

Samuel was very business like – he has been since his return. Up until now the activities of the once-magicians have been mundane enough to rival Big Brother’s live feed: grocery shopping, furniture deliveries, decorators, cleaning. Usually when Samuel calls by I can tune out of what he’s telling me, since he’ll talk at length about implications and associations, when the only thing that maters is whether they mean me harm.
“Of the last three cults that I’ve met, one of them held a knife to my throat, one of them had me cut open my arm while I got high, and the other roped me into their OAP custody battle, only to try and implicate me in a kidnapping. I still haven’t figured out what was going on there.”
“I don’t think they’re here because of you.” Said Samuel of the candlelighters, quietly and not convincingly.
“Nor was anyone else.”

Today he reported that they’d all left the house together, in a great rush and an excitable state. They kept dashing back for things forgotten, before finally driving off. To where? Samuel can’t say – he was stood on their road with his dog and couldn’t follow them.
“They turned right, away from the city centre.” He said, confidently. “Don’t you think that’s odd? Given the rain, why would they be driving out into the peaks?”
“Who says they’ve gone to the peaks? They could’ve gone to Manchester for all you saw. Can’t blame them if they did.” The theory holds more water than I’d intended, since they haven’t come back yet.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Giant Steps.

I lost my way, following the tales only because they were magical. It’s like listening to Coldplay from a feeling for melancholy: there are dead-ends and dangerous paths that are all too easy to take.

Which brings me to the return of Samuel. His wayward path has brought him back full circle, to Sheffield again. He turned up at our door as though he’d be expected, and delivered an apologetic travelogue. After going after Enright’s clone that night, he discovered the truth for himself, and took a half hour to find another pursuit, another fight to follow. It took him to Ireland, France, and then London, before he heard about a group of candlelighters living just over the hill from here.

Samuel isn’t staying with us in the house this time, which is fine because it means he can be closer to the once-magicians. He’s bought a dog – an Alsatian of a kind – that allows him to walk around at all hours without looking too dodgy. It sits in the back garden and barks when he visits. He brings updates, rumours of his own investigation. He doesn’t know who they are or what they’re after, having found their address top right on a letter intended for someone else.

No more false promises. We will contact you again when it is found.


The address was Stephen Hill, Crosspool.

“That’s the guy from Law And Order.” Said Norman.
“Who is?” Samuel clutched the letter. His blood red eyes were altered to recognise demons, but he can’t watch more than five minutes of TV before they hurt. He's never heard of Channel Five.
“Stephen Hill. He’s the old guy. The DA.”
“It’s also a road.” I explained. “On the hill.”
“It wouldn’t be named after someone one from Law And Order though, would it?” Norman looked genuinely confused. This is how easy it is to get sidetracked by the wrong answers, until you forget how much you needed the questions. I went to see my mates one night, before Samuel got back. It was just after my return from Whitby and I wanted ordinariness. At Topper’s house it was a relief when he cranked up the stereo – I’d phased out of all the talk about exams and Uni applications long since.
“This is righteous.” Boasted Topper, waving a CD. “Wait.”

Saxophones started, like a game show theme, then a drum a drum break to introduce the host, but no words came, just more saxophones, and pop-along bass. Then one saxophone went off on its own riff, and I realised – this was no sample: Topper had put on jazz.

The album was Giant Steps by Jonnie Coltrane. He hadn’t bought it for a bet. He kept slapping his knee and jolting his head about while he told us what results he needed to get into Edinburgh. The others didn’t say anything, and I wondered when this must have started. Did they have jazz in their collections too?

When asked what I thought of it, I still wanted an uncontroversial night – there’s whole can of Meat Loaf and soft rock that can get thrown back at me if start anything – so I was charitable. I said Jazz is a musician’s duel with a song over their love of the instrument, pulling it one way and then the other. I appreciated the skill. But when that album finished and he put on Bitches Brew, I went over all Scrooge-like for charity: I said listening to jazz is listening to someone who’s learnt how to play an instrument, but they’ve forgotten why. They’ve stuck a knife into the guts of a song and pulled out a bloody mess. It’s like listening to an amnesiac trying to hum the top ten. It’s the sound of music drowning. Jazz is an act of contempt and ego. It’s like Samuel and his need for a quest, hopping from one country to another: giant steps might sound like a good idea, but where’s it lead you?

Topper still has his poster of The Beatles on his wall, but I doubt it’ll make the move to his halls of residence. He’s started to spout the argument that they’re overhyped and an average pop band. The poster is the quartet of head-shots, hippy-era and facial hair, rendered in psychedelics. They look like gods, surveying a universe that they control and ignoring the weaknesses that were already splitting them up. I can see why people like Topper might need to attack that, if they can’t see past the reputation, but there’s no need to resort to jazz. Next time I go round there he’ll be listening to country.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Howling Place.

As I was led towards the ritual that night, along the cliffs and past the campsite, there were a few people about, walking their dogs. I paid them no mind at the time, and the fact that their dogs were barking – well that’s what dogs do. I remember now that I’d seen a dog going mental around the same place, when I’d taken the daylight hike to Robin Hood’s Bay. Again, I gave it no mind, since dogs are nothing if not stupid. It turns out if you let them go along that path, they run to a particular spot and start howling. You could get fifty dogs up there and they’d all get as close as they could to that same spot and start howling their heads off. It was this that drew Challoner to Whitby in the first place.

Maria and Sebastian led me up there on my last day on the coast. It turns out that their relationship is the only thing that was honest – they really have fallen for each other, with all the vile gooiness that that involves. I’d begun to suspect I’d been led to the restaurant the night that I saw them together – as part of Sebastian’s devilish deception – but they really were meeting in secret. It was Maria who said I should see the howling place, against Sebastian’s wishes.
“After all,” she argued, “it doesn’t come under what you were told in confidence. You already knew about the location, before you met any of us.”
“And what is it?” I asked, but nobody knows for sure. I asked again while we were up there, a few metres inland from the path. I thought I’d have to wait for a dog to run up off its lead, but Sebastian had marked the spot with a stack of pebbles. I stood right over them, but couldn’t tell if I felt odd because of anything real, or because I was consciously aware that I should. I felt my scalp tingle and go cold, and then I felt alone – I had no sense that Maria and Sebastian were right next to me, even though I could turn and see them. As I broke away there was a flash of malice. Like I say, those weren’t unnatural feelings to be having in those days, given where I was and who I was with, but there was an alien quality to it, like hypnosis.

“So what is it?” I asked again.
“Nobody knows.” Sebastian said, in his authoritative manner that I now know means he’s keeping something back.
“Nobody knows. But everyone’s got a theory, right?”
“Of course.” Sebastian looked at Maria, who nodded.
“And what’s your theory?”
“The phenomenon was first reported three days after Halloween. It’s on a route half way between Whitby and the old lighthouse, which you now know to be-”
“You think it’s to do with them.” I pointed at Maria.
“Are any of them missing?” Sebastian asked, keeping to his agreement with the blonde.
“Not that I know of, but I haven’t spoken to any of them in a week. Unless you mean. Oh. You mean their master.” I tried to imagine it, but I’m ashamed to say I filled in the master’s part with a stock vampire image – black cloak, white ruffled shirt, talcum face. I imagined him in town, suddenly feeling weak as the magic that held him together ebbed away, so he raced back for his home, falling on the way, and then breaking into dust on the spot where I stood. “You think this is where he died?” Sebastian didn’t answer me. “So what’s with the dogs? If there’s no magic, then why’s there anything to howl about?”

“There’ve been some studies into the relationship between magic and psychic energy, all needing to be rewritten now, of course.” Sebastian began, keeping deliberately to a general topic. “Arguably the mind is the most sensitive instrument in the universe – given that it is essentially a device of perception. It is natural therefore that magic’s distortion of the perceived universe should register some form of psychic shock. Last Halloween our universe was wrenched into a different state of being. There are bound to be rips and punctures where the old way of things resisted. Like ripping a shirt when you take the price off, except these holes are harder to find.”

I stood on the spot again, letting the cold hate and panicked loneliness console me. It was like listening to a song about being dumped when you’ve just been dumped.
“Everyone’s been chasing around, trying to get this patch of mud authenticated because some dogs like barking here?” I sneered. I haven’t sneered much before – it feels weird. “That’s why Challoner sold the roof from over your head, and why you sold me out to a bunch of vampire roleplayers? And all the time, just back where you started, there was an actual, real life woman stuck between realms. Quite a visible rip in the fabric that one, wasn’t it.”

Sebastian mumbled something to defend himself, but I wasn’t listening. I told him I didn’t care about his investigations or what they meant anymore – and at that time, I meant it.

I caught the train home – arrived in Sheffield’s revamped station, with its wall of steel and water, lit up red and steam blowing over the path. Recorded messages warned me not to give money to people in the station, not to leave my bags unattended, not to litter. It’s always nice to be welcomed by a tape recorder – after over a month in Whitby, it was like arriving in the future.

Even nicer was the feel of my own bed again – the body groove worn deep. It felt odd to be there – as though the walls were recreations, stuck onto the hotel’s. Not least strange was the gradual creep of personal items that had washed up from Angela and Norman, with gizmos and whatsits apparently in the places they belong.

I phoned up my mates, met up, played some tunes, made some cans fit for recycling.

I made an appointment with the nurse to have my stitches removed – not without suspicious comments. There’s a nice cross hatched scar down my arm now. I pretend it's the morse code for idiotic.

It was three days before I could repeat what I’d been carrying in my head since I got on the train. Maria said goodbye to me at the station – I’d made it clear I had nothing more to say to Sebastian. She said I shouldn’t judge him too harshly: “He’s just trying to find out if he’s lost a friend or gained a rival.” She meant Challoner, of course, but at the time I thought she meant me.
“You think what he did was wrong.” She said. “Because you thought you were being heroic, but instead you were being as stupid as he’d predicted. Meanwhile you were happy to lie, happy to steal, happy to let him feel guilty and indebted. What we’ve been trying to show you is that your moral compass doesn’t hold a true course – the ethical north is always wherever is most convenient. And you’re a fool to believe you know the limit of good.”

I told Maria I was annoyed with Sebastian because he’d wasted my time – but I’m annoyed with myself for this more. I’d gone to Whitby on a whim – with nothing better to do, and no idea of what I’d find there. I’d let the wrong people lead me when I had no idea what I wanted from them. And I’d let Naina, the most fascinating person I’ve ever nearly met, disappear without a clue how to find her, distracted by a group of fantasists who can’t admit they’re mortal, and deceived by a man who doesn’t sound lost, only because he’s got a posh accent.

I’ve been forced to admit one thing though. I wrote this down after talking everything through with Norman and Angela. There are questions I’ve been avoiding. Like, how old was my father? What did he do? What really killed him? Am I in danger? Who can I trust? And of course, there’s always the question I ask every time I write anything here – who are you?

“You’re a fool to believe that just because you know the answers, you never need to know the questions.” Maria said, at the end of her lecture on morality at the station. I only thought on the train to say back “At least I know the answers are right and wrong, instead of obsessing about the questions like they’re riddles.” But at the very least, the escapism of the group has made me face up to my own situation. Them, and the fact that Samuel’s come back.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Coming to.

I spent the next few days after the ritual, in the hotel room, not coming down to eat, not even getting up to wash. Sebastian had the good sense to leave me alone. Early one morning, I crept down when only cleaners and restless pensioners were about, and went down to sit on the jetty. I was left alone there all day, until hunger dragged me back inland. I had treated the ritual like a joke. There’s a mirror in the blonde’s house, into which he would stare, fascinated by his own reflection; one of the others told me that it used to show nothing, and was proof that the vampire blood had died in his veins. I kept it to myself that I thought the mirror was previously enchanted, and had simply become a normal mirror. I kept it to myself that I thought the same was true of their master, and the same about their vows. The last few weeks were like a hole I’d fallen into, or an irreparable insult. I felt stupid for ever having gone there.

I’d been told nothing, after all I’d done, and the time I’d given them. When I woke up from the stupor, still thinking slow, the wound in my arm stitched up, it took a while to remember that I’d seen the blonde and Sebastian talking while I repeated the ritual again and again, feeling proud and elated with my success. I remember that quite coldly now, that they made me think that I was doing well.

After the day on the jetty, I was free of the soup brain mess of thoughts, about home, about Samuel, the past, money and friends. I forced myself to think about that night, which still isn’t easy, and asked Sebastian: “Did he tell you about Challoner?”
“Who?” He realised this was pathetic as he said it. “Oh, the blonde. He did, yes.”
“And what did he say? What’s happened to him?”
“I know where he went. I’m afraid I can’t say more than that.” Sebastian moved off his bed and began to pack. “You seem well enough to go home now. Are you up to the journey?”
“But I earned that information. It was because of me that he told you.”
“Sort of. But you didn’t do what they asked of you.” He made a pretence of organising his clothes.
“What d’you mean?”
“You didn’t let me do the ritual. You didn’t let me down. As I knew you wouldn’t.”
“Did the blonde explain it to you then? This act of betrayal idea. It was what they wanted, I didn’t think you’d mind, since it was-”
“It was what they asked of me.” Sebastian cut me off, before I could say how mock-villainous I thought the whole thing was. “That’s why I called you to Whitby. I’m sorry, but I don’t know many people who are so naïve. You were the obvious choice.”
“You supplied me to them, for the ritual?”
“Actually the inclusion of the ritual of the bloods was my idea. I’d never seen it performed, and it seemed appropriately macabre, without being fatal.”
“You betrayed me?” I said, with the confusion of the last few days descending on me again, but keenly focused into anger.
“That’s the price they demanded, of me, of David, and the man David was following. And you, it turns out. So really we were in a win win situation.”
“And where did Challoner and this other man go?”
“That’s as much as I can tell you.”
“Because it’s your secret?”
“Because that’s the agreement I have with the blonde.” Sebastian’s voice was half apology, half condescension.
“So what? You’ve got what you want, don’t pretend you can’t tell because of some meaningless promise.”
“It isn’t meaningless. Not to them. They take all such bonds seriously, which is worth remembering, since you’re bound to them now.”
“But that was nothing to them.” I was now shouting. “You just said it was your idea.”
“And it was, but it met no protest. They must have had their reasons, but I assure you, they will hold you to the vows you made.”
“Rubbish.” I could have happily slammed the suitcase on his fingers.
“Not for them. So if it makes it anymore palatable, it wasn’t easy for me to do this to you. I thought when we met, that you were a good boy.”
“Good boy? Sounds like you were getting a dog put down. It’s odd though, that they signed me up for their group, since you’re the one that showed the right credentials.”
“I’m sorry. It truly wasn’t easy to know what to do. I hope, but I doubt, that David will say the same when I find him.”
“Why, what did Challoner do? Or can’t you say?”
“No, I can tell you this much, since I already knew before I reached Whitby. David obviously needed a great deal of money, because his house went for a quick sale, as did our offices, along with my flat. I suspect by the time he found the blonde, he’d already met their requirements in severing ties.”