You could say that this a story within a story within a story. I am a novice writer so I shall tell my story as it comes to me, for I have limited resources; one leather-bound notebook, one pen and one bottle of ink that I have diluted but have maintained its consistency with urine and semen. Should you, Dear Reader – I believe this is the correct and most respectful form of address, detect that the narrative starts to accelerate in the muddle and even resort to abbreviations by the end will understand why. Also, I should mention that sadly my education ended abruptly after failing English Literature and I was forced to leave school and earn some level of survival. My writer’s voice may waver between Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, Lewes Carroll and Samuel Pepys. I pray, DR (if I might be so bold) to beg your forgiveness and request your indulgence for it is a tale most extraordinary and not to be embarked upon if ye be of delicate or nervous disposition.
I am, as you can see, in a cell on two levels, illuminated by a single vaulted window behind a set of iron bars. The lower is four paces by three, the upper three by one – two, if you count the narrow passage from the thick oak door with the peep-hole and the letterbox through which my meals are posted. I will not dwell on the toilet facilities; suffice to assure you that one becomes accustomed to its distinct presence after a while of being in here.
Across from my cot, beside the step, is my Prie Dieu – prayer lectern, facing a gruesome crucifix with nails that offend the supplicant’s eyes more than our Lord’s flesh. Above it is a rosary of sweat-polished beads that hangs large enough to form an enormous tear drop around our squirming saviour.
My desk is situated to afford me the illusion that I am a Beak overlooking a courtroom of solitary confinement. The echoes of my characters clamour to take centre stage. Hush, my children, you will all be heard in judicial time. The jury is gathering. Their judgement will be announced once the last word has been written.
So, DR, if you are sitting comfortably I shall begin…
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary… it was almost Closing Time at The Napoleon when Archie looked over from his corner, his voice cracked and leathery like his features, ‘How’s the missus, lad?’
I heard Ben mutter to his twin, Bran, (short for Branok, an old Cornish name derived from the Celtic word for raven which is most apt as they share the surname, Crow.), ‘She be in D Wing at St Xaviour’s in Truro! She be goocher – leafy – more cuckoo than a clock, she be!’
‘Chea chaunter, young Benesek Crow! Hush ya beak! ’tis the man’s wife you be talkin’ about!’ cursed Archie.
‘Fine,’ I answered. ‘In fine spirits.’
It is a situation as far from the truth as Boscastle from Truro. I heard a drunken snigger from the part-time grave diggers and carried my beer to the farthest corner. I would have had it out with them but, frankly, I am afeared of them and I know they will deny the accusation that Celia has observed them watching her through the windows of our cliff top cottage. It takes only the slightest remark to put them in fighting mode.
That evening I was in a deeper state of depression than usual. Celia was adamant that she would not return home and her dreams that our cottage will be carried over the edge of the cliff are intruding into her waking state.
The doctor has assured me that with a little bed rest she will be as right as a trivet. He has suggested an extended holiday, possibly abroad, where she can relax in the sunshine and allow the warm weather to evaporate her delusions; naturally, he calls them imaginings and mistaken impressions. I know that he is really only interested in vacating the bed for someone more deserving or needy. He has agreed to allow her to stay a further night. If this is not satisfactory, he is prepared to have her sectioned to D Wing but I cannot allow this. I may not be a psychiatrist but I do know my own wife. A stay in D Wing will confirm her belief that she has tipped over the edge of sanity and all the apparitions she insists she experiences are true and she will embrace them, thereby fulfilling her own prophecy.
I sipped my beer slowly in the hope of delaying my return to the cottage. It is true that either the building is moving closer to the edge or the cliff is eroding at an an unnatural pace. It is this fact that renders the property unsaleable. We do not have the finances to up-stakes even to move to a small studio flat. We cannot afford the upkeep of the cottage, much less the outhouses where my mother once kept her beloved goats, pigs and chickens.
Trefforda Cliff Cottage in its day was a wonderful home and I hold dear the memories of my childhood playing in the straw filled stalls. Although I do not recall the instance, I have seen a photograph of myself straddled on a massive pig, my feet way off the ground and the animal looking most satisfied.
As I am thinking of the pig, I am reminded of the word written (supposedly in blood) that Celia insists that she has washed off the wall so many times. It always appeared to happen when she was alone and I was at work in Truro. I cannot remember if it is before or after the appearance of the Crows. I suspect it was after. There is no way to be sure. Strangely, it was always in its plural form, PIGS.
After catching the Crows peering through out leaded windows, Celia was insistent that I confront them and demand they desist; insisting and demanding is not something that the Crow twins appreciate.
When I brought up the matter with Henry Carver, the local part-time policeman and full-time womaniser, I was asked if I personally had witnessed such an occurrence. I confessed that I had not and was told that there was nothing that could be done. This did not go down well with my wife who understood that her once knight in shining armour was a cowering buffoon, armed only with a cardboard sword. On this point we are agreed.
The encroaching abyss is alarming. As a child, I was forbidden to stand on the fencing constructed by my step-father. Now it lies 200 feet smashed to smithereens on the rocks below after the storm of ’84. Since then I have paced out the distance from the cottage to the cliff edge and even allowing for the change of gait as I have grown, there is no doubt in my mind (or that of the insurance company) that it is only a matter of time until the the cottage and the pigsties go the way of the fencing.
I was sent away to boarding school and passed most of my holidays living with my grandmother. I was unable to secure a position even at a Technical College so I married my first lover, Celia, and we set up home in South Croydon within walking distance of Purley Way, a five-mile stretch of factories where I worked as a store-man and a forklift driver.
It was not a trilling existence but the highlight of our life was our annual trip to Cornwall to stay with my mother and enjoy long walks along the coastline.
When my mother passed away, she had become feeble-minded but refused to sell the property that she had shared for so many years with her husband, my stepfather. She insisted that there was a great treasure contained about the property.
The opportunity to offload the vulnerable holding had passed.
At the time that I inherited the cottage, it felt like a dream come true. I finally secured a position handling antiques in a small auction house in Truro. But having been away from the village for so many years, I was regarded as an emit; a foreigner. I had become the son of the crazy old woman who lived alone on a bleak cliff top who now considered himself far too well educated to mix with his playschool chums. I immediately became a figure of ridicule and speculation. The circumstances of my stepfather’s accident which resulted in his untimely death evolved from village gossip into local folklore. My mother’s departure from this life simply added to the stories. That and the abrading cliff reinforced the popular belief that the Cornish Gods had cursed our family and to be associated with any of its kith and kin would result in unhallowed misfortune. Celia and I moved in to find that we were pariahs. The fact that we could not produce an offspring was conformation indeed of the evil canker.
The day we moved in the edge of the cliff was merely a stone’s throw from our back-door. Even a conservative estimate would confirm that the precipice had come closer by yards rather than feet. There was speculation that the locals were placing bets on how many more winter storms it would take before the rocks would claim the property and the Cornish Gods would finally be appeased.
It was then, DR, that a series of events conspired that resulted in me being confined to the situation in which I now find myself.
The first was when Farmer Champion, a strange, solitary character who preferred the company of his swine to the locals approached Celia – at least, that is what she told me, when I was at work with a proposition that could alleviate our financial condition a little.
I returned one night to find that the stalls beside our dwelling had been converted into sties for ten fully grown pigs. I was delighted. Childhood memories came flooding back like soothing balm. For once, Celia refrained from her obsessive rants about bloody words written on walls and tales of menacing peeping toms.
It was the night of The Great Storm – the one that raged for a week or more. It was so bad that the telephones were out of action and I was unable to communicate the circumstances of my inability to undertake the fifty-minute drive to work. This resulted in my dismissal; hardly surprising for a small business that was forced to take on extra staff at such short notice. I had been replaced by a college drop-out student who was prepared to do my job at half the pay.
In retrospect, I see that events were converging on a single moment in time that is beyond the understanding of us mortals. All the world’s a stage in heaven and earth, DR, than are dreamt in your philosophy… just as you like it, Hamlet!
First, the arrival of the Champion pigs. Next came my new job with the local undertaker on the afternoon of the interview my car died. How we laughed all the way back to my cottage about my car and how he had replied that I had come to the right place. He hired me and offered me a ride home.
Together we entered through the back-door, stopping only to be amazed by the speed of the gathering clouds rolling towards us like a horde of advancing Valkyries, ravens and all. I remember him saying how it put him in mind of a vaporous plague rolling in from the churning firmament; even as a youngster, he was an unusual devotee of the ancient myths and legends.
An undertaker is a solitary person, be it by choice or profession, methinks. I wonder if the collective noun for pariah is, a Tabernacle – ‘a tabernacle of pariahs’, do you suppose? …I digress, DR. Forgive me! It is hard to hold the reins of reality while one’s mind races forward in the erotica of fast moving foul deeds. It is the slobbering gluten of despair that rushed forward to gorge itself on the unholy memories! I now cast my eyes upon the the captured crucifix within the tear-drop of rosary beads but see only a man flinching and hear him asking; let it be done once and for all! Now I understand what He means. It will be, I promise. I have been given permission to walk along the cliff tomorrow. I am considered cured – cleansed, exorcised even…
Where were we, Dear Reader?
We are at the cottage back-door listening to the insane screaming of the pigs, disturbed by more than Nature’s advancing talons/talents sent to claw away the very ground from under me. The real assault is happening closer to me and the undertaker. We hear Celia’s cries to stop (or to continue in earnest, I cannot tell). Benesek, his trousers puddled around his ankles, his bare arse thrusting forward repeatedly. His twin with his shaft in hand is eagerly awaiting his turn. My dearest wife is as naked as the day she was born, her knees and legs are jerking in rhythm with the thrusting.
I have a club in my hand. I know not how it came to be there. I am told in the police station that it was an iron poker. Privately, I am informed it was handed to me by the undertaker. I prefer to believe the Goddess Cybele had placed it in my hand. She too was offended by the scene.
I set about the Crows like a man possessed. They ran from the house, their screaming drowned out by the triumphant bellowing of the pigs as they broke through from their confinement. Twelve stampeding swine rushed towards the cliff now enshrined in a thick mist that promised escape from the avenging black knight that wielded the battleaxe of revenge behind them.
Suddenly, as the rapists, if that is truly what they were, were the first to disappear into the veil of thick mist and then the sows and boars followed and vanished as magically as a sorcerer’s spell.
All is quiet – deafeningly quiet!
I hear only my beating heart and pounding blood; sucked out of me like air refilling a vacuum. It blows away the clouds and storm. The sky appears as if the props’ manager has released a tethered knot. The sea is as grey as any pleasant Sunday with white horses teasing each other on their ride to the beach.
I am standing ten feet from the edge of the cliff. I cannot recall if I tossed Excalibur over the precipice before or after my dear wife rushed passed me, her arms waving and her golden hair whipping around her head and shoulders. I suspect it was after – just before the undertaker took me inside. It seemed to be some matter of importance to the Judge but, to me, it disappeared as quickly as it had been placed in my hand. It makes no more difference than it makes sense.
I remember feeling sorry that Farmer Champion had lost his precious pigs and wondered if there was not some way that I could recompense him. Is that such a terrible thing to go through my mind, DR, at that time? I never mentioned it at the hearing. Perhaps, you can find your answer in that?
The Judge finally concluded the matter with ‘Death By Misadventure’, although there was much speculation as to why Celia was naked at the time of the adventure. My answer was that it was probably for the same reason that the hatter had a price tag of 10/6d on his top hat at the Tea Party. I wish I hadn’t said it now. The looks on people’s faces changed. I cannot tell you from what to what but I recognised there was a change.
Later, I did seek out an explanation from the undertaker. He told me that Branok Crow had asked if the undertaker had come to torture them before their appointed time. I don’t remember such an enquiry. Nor do I remember the command for the demons to be gone or be cast into the swine. He did, however, mention that the mystery of my mother’s words that there was a treasure about the property would be explained by the elderly priest at Forrabury church. So I called upon him one Saturday afternoon.
I immediately felt an affinity with the elderly churchman practising his sermon in the empty Norman church, St Symphonian. As I waited, I admired the designs on the pulpit; a terrier and two rabbits in a barrow, an ape on a stool and two swans. St Symphonian was beheaded at an early age for worshipping the Goddess Cybele, regarded as an intermediary between the Known and The Unknown.
‘What is your question?’ the old cleric asked.
‘I understand that you can help me with the riddle of the treasure about my mother’s cottage.’
‘A riddle is, ‘How is a raven like a writing desk?’ Your mother’s conundrum was how best to save your immortal soul. Her answer was to form an alliance with a young pig farmer – a liaison that your step-father could not comprehend any more than the village tittle-tattlers Some say it was the pressure, some the jealousy that drove him over the edge. Either way, your mother’s mind fractured and she consulted me regularly about how best to save you and later your bride from beyond the grave. As a minister of the church, I could only hear her confession. As a man, I envied her commitment to her son and her lover. As a Cornish man, I recognised that somehow she had found a way but her loving advice to protect you and your wife from the demon carrion was misinterpreted. The word, PIGS was not an insult but a remedy but I fear that you have followed her to her corner of Purgatory.’
I asked him if he could help me on any level. He declined to answer.
So it was that I approached the monastery where nothing is expected of me but to find absolution within myself without fear of contradiction or judgement.
Tomorrow I will take the bus to Boscastle, treat myself and my friend, the undertaker, to a cream tea. Then, alone I shall make my way across the ford and follow the path that leads to the place where once stood our cottage. I will look over the edge into the abyss to see if there is still some driftwood below; a lintel from over the fireplace perhaps, a fragment of doorway from the pigsty? Then I will remove all my clothes and leave them neatly folded so that the gossip in The Napoleon will be that it was neither an accident nor a display of madness. They will finally understand that I am a true Cornish man and I have willingly given myself to appease whatever debt the Gods perceive they deserve. I leave old Archie to spin the yarn for the tourists. I owe him more than a few pints for the solace he tried to extend to me.
To you, DR, I thank you for being with me until the end.
And so to bed
Your humble and obedient servant,
Matthew. 8: 28-34
Christian McCulloch started writing short stories for his class of boys with extreme behavioral problems to encourage them to read. It became a popular idea among other schools. He was frequently called upon to talk about his ideas. As the Headmaster of Singapore Prep School, he would often use his own stories at Friday Assemblies. ‘Mr Potter’s Gardening Magic’ (Graham Brash Publications) was one such story.
Now that he has retired he devotes his time to writing full-time; twelve novels, thirteen novellas and a coffin-full of short stories. He has been published in many literary magazines in UK and US, also Runner up of the Kirroughtree House Award for Literature 2016.
You can read Christian’s previously published short story below:
This is the tale of a town on the fringes of fear, of ordinary people and everyday objects transformed by terror and madness, a microcosm of the world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. This is a world where the unreal is real, where the familiar and friendly lure and deceive. On the outskirts of civilisation sits this solitary town. Home to the unhinged. Oblivion to outsiders.
Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.
Shallow Creek Paperback
Set of Horror Bookmarks
SHALLOW CREEK EBOOK
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
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