Friday, 22 January 2010

Something a bit different - what you get when you mentally start with the phrase "it was a dark and stormy night...". Click Read More to find the rest of it..... 

From the sea 

The stranger came through the night rain towards the bleak farmhouse. He was as wet as the rain itself, a black figure on a black night. The owls, the foxes, all were sheltering tonight. He had been walking alone for a long time, the sky’s rain mixing with his blood as wounds old and new failed to heal.

The farmhouse looked at first like a continuation of the wet, black rocks that surrounded it. It took some time for his eyes to pick out the straight lines, the corners, the shapes that told him this was made by man. He approached the house carefully. Shelter and perhaps food, possibly people. It would become more complex if there were people. People would ask him his name.

He entered the kitchen. Even in the darkness, he could see that it was sparse and plain, a broad table dominating its centre, no decoration, no finery. This was a simple house and these people would not have much to share.

A lantern came flickering to life. In its light he could make out the pale face of a girl, no more than twenty years old, her eyes wide like the night, her gaze fearful but alert. He stood transfixed; she was the most delicate, the most fragile creature he could ever have imagined. She looked at him with fear and ferocity combined, until, as the light grew, her expression changed. The light seemed to give her warmth, to bring a glow of something kind and gentle and giving to her face.

Breaking the spell, an old man leapt like a salmon from his hiding place behind the kitchen table. In his hands he bore a shotgun, which shook and shuddered with its master’s fear.

“I mean no harm. I’m from the Corinth.” The stranger cried, raising his hands in front of him, no weapon and no threat.

“The Corinth? The ship that came aground last Thursday?” the old man looked at him in disbelief.

The sheer relief of being among human company meant that the words burst out of the stranger’s mouth like floods breaking a dam.

“I’ve never known a storm like it, we could see nothing, hear nothing. The rocks just seemed to rise out of the sea towards us and we were in amongst them, men, rocks, water, the broken bones of the Corinth. At first there were shouts from others, people clinging to driftwood, barrels, each other, anything to stay afloat. Then gradually, the shouts became fewer and fewer. I thought they had just drifted farther away. But they had given in and gone under. Sometimes, I was swimming, sometimes just clinging on to whatever part of the ship I could find. It was dark, always dark, raining, blowing, I could not see the land or the sky, just blackness.

“I must have slept, I don’t know how, and as I woke, I was being thrown to the shore by great breakers. How many times was I thrown onto the rocks? I dragged myself free from the water, to feel my face still wet from my own blood. I wondered if this was death.”

“I started walking as soon as I was able, up, away from the sea, as far from its madness and its destruction as I could. I don’t know how long I have been walking. And,” he shook his head to try and escape the truth of it, “and I don’t remember who I am.”

He put his hands to his head, as if trying to wring his lost memory from his skin. The old man looked at him in disbelief. The girl rose from her seat with her hand raised as if to interject. He watched as she showed with her hands that she was mute, that she spoke only through gesture. He turned to her the old man, her father, again.

“I remember the shipwreck, and I remember more than I care to of the days that have followed since. But of the time before? Nothing. No names, no faces, no places. Nothing.” He fell to his knees in desperate isolation, his head in his hands. Loneliness surged over him.

He felt the hands of the silent girl resting on his own, cupping his torn and bloodied face. She lifted his head to look at hers and stared into his eyes with compassion, no, with something beyond compassion, something that felt so powerfully like love that he could not bring himself to look away.

“The lists are here, on the table. You could look for a name that you might know,” the old man indicated a sheet of loose paper. “They were brought from the village yesterday. All hands on board reported dead. So, if you were on board that ship, chances are you’re a ghost!”

The stranger picked up the paper from the table, riven with trepidation. He scanned the list of names. It took some time to read them all. Each name was like a sip of wine to him, to be savoured, rolled around the mouth, considered in full. Each name was a possibility, a perhaps, a maybe; attended by a story, a past. Each held a tale of family, of past loves and lies, of wealth and loss, of grief and laughter.

As he read, he became increasingly aware of the girl standing beside him. She stood close by his right shoulder. She was near enough that he could feel the cold dampness of her breath on his neck but she was not touching him. He gave his full attention to the quivering paper in his hands. She reached around him and pointed a slender, white finger at the list. He followed her signal and saw the name he had been looking for, his name: Master James John Gilbert.

“Ha! That’s it!” he yelled. “James John Gilbert, known as Jack to all on board the Corinth."

“Well done, sir,” smiled the old man, “A fine name to remember indeed!”

Gilbert shared his smile. “Jack Gilbert, of the Corinth and, I believe, of Bristol.” He paused, realising that the well of his memory was not yet full. There was still much to remember. “But I do not remember anything else. Jack Gilbert of Bristol and the Corinth. It is not much.”

“But it is something,” reassured the old man. “With a name and a town, a man can achieve a great deal.” He adopted a more practical expression. “Perhaps this would be a good time to rest, sleep a while. You have had a long and difficult journey and some rest might help to uncover some more of your past.”

He gestured Gilbert towards a pile of blankets on a box close to the fire.

“Sleep will probably help, if I may,” agreed Gilbert. “You have helped me so much already that all I ask is a little warmth here for the night.” He took the blankets and spread them onto the floor. He felt the emotional surge of rediscovering his name ebbing away and a powerful fatigue taking hold. The old man and the girl left the room, and Gilbert let himself be taken by the waves of sleep.


At first, he did not know what it was that stirred him from sleep. He thought perhaps a gust of wind from the storm outside had brushed along his cheek. And that the breeze had caught under the blankets and under his clothes and was somehow caressing his cold skin. It took him some moments to truly come awake and to realise that the girl was there, alongside him on the floor. She had come in her silence, with her face filled with longing and love, and was slowly and soundlessly making love to him. Her touch was light and chill, like a cold leaf brushing your face on a winter day, or walking through spiders’ webs in the forest. Every fibre of his body quivered and danced and jolted with passion. He could wait no longer and, grasping her wrists, he spun her onto her back, her body so fragile in his hands. He took her with a violence, a hunger that threatened to shatter her into pieces, to break her gentle fingers against his skin. He had a sense that only once before in his life had he ever felt such a great need for one person, a sense but not a memory, and as he pushed down and down on her brittle figure, he tried to bring his memory back, tried to remember, tried, tried…..


Gilbert woke with the dawn, uncertain of his surroundings, yet still hearing the patterns of the storm outside. He was alone in the small kitchen room, lying on his makeshift bed of blankets. For a moment he thought he had dreamed through the night, that the passions built up whilst at sea had been realised in a vision of the silent girl. As he rose, though, he could smell her scent on him, and, looking at the wall low beside the fireplace, he saw where she had etched a tiny C for Charlotte and a J for Jack, intertwined like the limbs of lovers.

She had been real; it had been real. She had sated his passion that night but she had also triggered something in his memory, stirred a sense of a love for a woman, a fragment of the truth of his own life.

As he stood, straightening his clothes, the old man and the girl entered the room. Charlotte adopted her customary place, sitting on the stool in the corner by the fire. Her eyes darted to the etched initials, then to Gilbert’s face, and she looked at him with a tenderness he had never imagined possible. Her passion frighted him, more than any northerly wind or mast-high swell. It was this fear that decided his next course of action.

“I must take my leave now. You have helped me far more than I imagined possible.” Gilbert rose as he addressed the old man and pulled his coat around him.

“It is a shame to lose you so soon, Gilbert. We have had no visitors here for almost a year.” The old man’s face fell beneath a forlorn shadow.

“I have greatly valued your hospitality,” Gilbert answered, conscious of Charlotte’s eyes upon him. “But, yes, I must go.”

He had almost reached the door when he looked back. “My regards to you and to your daughter.”

“My daughter!” the old man cried. “My daughter? Oh, will the truth not leave us alone?”

“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to …”

“Sit down, Mr Gilbert, sit down!” The old man said with great authority. Gilbert sat. “Let me tell you about my daughter!” His face had taken on a look of such intensity, of such impassioned rage that Gilbert had no choice but to listen.

“My daughter was always so dear to me. Her mother died as she was born, one pure soul leaving the world as another took its place. Since she was born, my daughter was a mute. She never uttered a word. But we lived here, father and child, for these many years, learning to speak with each other through the silence.

“A year ago, while I was away at Plymouth, a man came to our home, a man whose name and face are still unknown to me. He sought shelter here from a great storm. In the short time he was here, he cast a spell over my beloved daughter. She was compelled by him. Captivated. She told me, in her way, that she loved him beyond all language.

“After two days of the storm, he left our house, but his memory stayed, in the form of a child growing in my daughter’s belly. The shame of it, Mr Gilbert, the shame, I can barely speak of it. We stayed hidden from the village, we did not attend church, we saw the farm go almost to ruin as we stayed away from the market.

“My daughter’s child grew in line with my shame. When it came time, the dishonour of its origins was enough for the child to be born dead.”

Gilbert had felt his colour rising as the old man spoke. Something swelled in him like a wave about to strike the rocks, building and building, poised to unleash its awful truth. His memory started to return, his memory of this place, of Charlotte, of this hearth, of her hand on his face. A memory a year old. A memory that had come to life, unbidden, like the child, only to be welcomed by death.

He knew that he could not speak to the old man of this memory, could not confess that it had been he who had felt the girl’s love a year ago, and felt it again just a few hours before. It was too powerful, too great a chance to have come this way, to have chosen this path. And the old man’s shame was so strong, what would he do if he knew that the cause of all his grief was the very man sitting at his table as the storm blew outside?

“Born dead, unwanted.” The old man continued after a moment. “It was a great relief to one, but a heartbreak to another. A second death followed swiftly. When one cannot find a path through the storm, sometimes one just waits to be swept away, you, a man of the ocean, will understand.”

Stunned, stricken to the colour of snow, Gilbert rose from his chair. The child dead, and the daughter too? He clenched his fists until his fingernails started to puncture the skin on his palms. The daughter too? Then last night, the Charlotte of last night, was a phantom, a memory, a ghost of some kind? What had seemed so real and so sure, the feelings of this beautiful silent girl toward him, were simply night terrors, visions of some kind. A love found and lost so quickly, so powerfully. He could hear only the drumming of his heart, the gale of his breath as emotion after emotion coursed through his every vein.

Recovering himself, he made to leave. “I have taken advantage of your hospitality too long.” Gilbert began desperately. “You have been most kind to me, but I believe the storm is clearing and I should be on my way to the town to reclaim my name and my life.”

“Mr Gilbert, please do not hurry away. You are rightly embarrassed to keep company with someone who has been through such shame and such grief. But please, an old man does not have much company.”

Gilbert gave a cruel laugh. How little the old man knew, that the ghost of his silent daughter was in this very house, in this very room, staring at him – Gilbert – with eyes full of wonder and pleading. Eyes that begged him not to leave, a face that bloomed with tenderness, that could capture and keep his heart if he only allowed himself. But a face that was dead and cold and gone to another world.

“I must go,” Gilbert concluded. “I thank you again for your kindness to this stranger.”

He looked again at the silent girl, as tears formed in her eyes, droplets of sadness countering the rain that pattered on the ground outside. She reached a hand out towards him. He shuddered in fear and turned to leave.

As he walked into the yard, a gust of wind took up, scurrying the autumn leaves around, clearing a patch of ground that had been covered for many months. He recognised the shape of two gravestones, rough-hewn rocks that seemed to emerge from the earth, like souls frozen in time as they fled the dead bodies beneath. A tiny stone for the child, a larger stone for its mother. He pulled his coat around him for shelter and strode away, remembering the taste of a ghost’s kiss in his mouth, the feel of a spectre’s hands on his body.


He did not turn as he walked away. He did not see Charlotte coming from the house, her hand raised to beckon him to stop. He did not see her weeping as she fell to her knees, watching the one man she truly loved walk away for a second time. She could not cry out to him. She could only watch and weep. As she slumped and cried, she felt the gravestones of her dead child and her dead father staring at her in judgement, their judgement her living purgatory.

She wept in silence amid the storm.

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