Christmas

“What can you scent on the wind, old hound?”

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(An early extract from my forthcoming poetry collection.)

“What Can You Scent On The Wind, Old Hound?”

What can you scent on the wind, old hound,

As you stand with your nose to the gale?

What pheromones float on the breeze, all around?

And if you could talk, of what tale?

The coney’s are out in the kale, good sir.

The pheasants have gone to the trees.

Old Charlie comes East with the wind, good sir,

Putting ewes and their lambs at unease.

The rats in the farmyard are woken, good sir,

Their piss-pools offending my nose.

The scent of the puss in her form, good sir,

What a chase there could be, in these blows!

I smell mice in the woodshed, tonight, good sir.

And Old Brock is bruising the wood.

I smell fish scales down by the river, good sir.

The otters are up to no good.

And what do you hear on the wind, old hound,

As you lift your long ears to the muse?

What noises inspire from forest or ground?

And if you could speak, of what news?

The tawny owls call in the high wood, good sir.

The bittern now booms on the fen.

I hear pipistrelles, barbastelles squeaking, good sir.

And the scream of the vixen near den.

The squeal of the rabbit speaks stoat-kill, good sir.

I hear lekking, too, out on the hill.

The bark of the roebuck means poachers, good sir.

And the grunt of the hogs at their swill.

I hear sea-trout rising to bait, good sir.

And the spin of the night anglers reel.

The snap of the woodcocks fast flight, good sir.

And the whistle of incoming teal.

And what of your eyes, pray me ask, old hound?

As you stand here beside me, what sight?

Can you see the round moon and the whirl of the stars?

See the difference twixt’ day and night?

I see rabbit scuts, brushes and squirrels, good sir.

I see pheasant and partridge in flight.

I see hares make the turn and I’m close in, good sir.

I see fox and I’m up for the fight!

I see smoke from your gun and see birds fall, good sir.

I see the long beam in the night.

Though I can’t see your face and can’t keep up the pace,

I have memories to make up for sight.

Now pray walk me, good sir. Though just steady and slow.

Around field margin, heathland and wood.

Let me scent at the warren and linger, good sir.

For my service to you has been good.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2017

A Christmas Ghost Story

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The Range Rover Evoque purred up to the huge iron gates and Megan Dale waited for the security system to recognise the vehicle and open them. It was nine o’ clock on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. As the courtyard beyond the gates lit up, Megan took a deep breath. She hadn’t been back to Brynamman Lodge for over three years. Ever since her husbands death, the house had held memories that made her heart ache. The offer of a job abroad with a big-cat conservation charity had given Megan a new purpose in life and she had grabbed it both hands.  As the gates widened, she drove in and pulled up outside the huge oak entrance door with its black panther-head door knocker. Stepping out of the car, beneath the floodlights, Megan knew that nothing had changed inside. Molly Williams, her young stable girl, had been living here with her boyfriend Owen for the duration. Strangely, they had abandoned the house two weeks ago. Molly had said that they found it too big for the two of them and they had rented a small cottage nearby. They had taken Buster, the only one of Bobby’s GSP’s still surviving. Molly had been tending Megan’s horses daily, sticking to her contract. Sadly, the charity Megan was employed by had let her down badly … to the point where her life was threatened doing her job. Megan had quit. So coming back here for Christmas, to her and Bobby’s sanctuary, seemed the sensible thing to do.

Megan stepped out of the Evoque and started to dig the front door keys from her shoulder bag. It was cold and the belly of cloud above threatened snow. As she did so, she glanced up at the windows above the front porch, on the stairwell. Megan flinched at what appeared to be a watching face withdrawing from the glass pane. Then, suddenly, the outside floodlights went out. Megan had forgotten how dark Brynamman Lodge was in mid-winter. She couldn’t see her hands in front of her face. Knowing how the PIR light sensors worked, Megan walked around the courtyard expecting them to pick up her movement. Nothing. Megan picked her mobile phone from its cradle in the Evoque. The screen lit up and she found Molly’s number. Molly answered almost immediately. “Hi Megan! Are you back home?” Megan grinned and said that she had arrived. It was good to hear Molly’s bubbly voice and Welsh accent. She explained that the lights had gone out and asked if Molly had noticed any problems.? There was a long pause. “Megan … can you come by here before you go in? Please?” Megan was confused. “Why, Molly? I’m here now! I’ve just had a long drive and I really could do with my bed”. As Megan talked she was watching the windows. Through the curtained windows she noticed a flicker of light moving up the stairwell and across the upper floor. “Molly, that’s not funny!” Megan said. “What’s not funny, Megan?” Molly sounded genuine. “You’re in there! I can see you moving about! Is that a candle you’re carrying?” Megan heard a sharp intake of breath and could half hear whispering to Owen. “Megan, I swear, we’re in our cottage. The Lodge is empty. Please come to us first. Don’t go in there!”

Molly opened the cottage door to Megan and led her in. Owen sat at the table with an empty whisky glass in front of him. Buster, sensing Megan’s scent, came bounding up and placed his paws across her shoulders, lapping her face with his tongue. Megan was delighted that the dog still recognised her and made a big fuss of the old boy. “What’s going on?” Megan asked. “Have we got squatters?” Molly sat down at the kitchen table, her hands clenched between her thighs. Megan could sense the tension. She looked to Owen. “Molly, offer Megan a drink please”. Molly stood “Sorry Megan, you’ve had a long journey. Tea, coffee?”, Owen smiled “or something stronger?”. Megan declined. “I just need my bed, guys. Thanks for looking after the place, by the way. Now … why am I here? Please explain?”. Owen stood up and found the whisky bottle. He half-filled his glass and sat down again. Megan was staring at Molly, who looked apologetic. Megan had never seen Owen as a drinker. “Megan, please don’t go in there tonight”, Owen slurred. “Stay here and I’ll go in with you in the morning.” Megan was getting annoyed now. “Owen. I’m tired. I’ve flown and driven a long way to spend Christmas Eve in my own home. Tell me what the hell is going on, please?”

Molly started the story. They had been enjoying the tenure. Enjoying the space, as young lovers previously constrained by their parents homes, for nearly two years with no problems at all. But in recent months, strange things had started to happen around Brynamman Lodge. Strange lights, ornaments being toppled over, the dogs barking for no reason, the horses whinnying in the stables. They had rented the cottage and stopped living  in the lodge. Molly went there during daylight only, to clean and exercise the horses.  Megan asked if there had been anything unusual during daylight? “Sometimes”, the girl answered. “The place is just … spooky!”. Megan listened, intrigued and concerned, but she was a pragmatist. She and Bobby had never had any issues in the house. As Molly continued her tale, Megan stopped her. Rather than fearing entering Brynamman Lodge, Megan (always one for a challenge) addressed both Molly and Owen. She was still sitting, stroking Buster. “Guys. Thanks for the warning, but Brynamman Lodge is my home. I need to go back there. Tonight.” Owen stood up, slurring again. “Megan, we can’t stop you. But please, take Buster.” Megan was intrigued. “Why, Owen?”. Owen folded his arms, turned and stared into Megan’s eyes. His own eyes were dulled, clouded with an alcoholic fugue. “Because Buster has sensed something too … and he didn’t like it either!”.  Megan wasn’t keen on the idea. “Look, Owen. You’re a dog man. You know Buster needs to get used to me being around first. Bring him over tomorrow or Boxing Day.” Owen shrugged and the couple saw Megan to the door.

Megan drove back to the Lodge smiling. Those kids had no idea what she had just been through over the past year. Kidnapped in the Far East while trailing big-cat smugglers. Caged in a tiny cell. Rescued just before being sold into sex slavery, no thanks to her employer. Ghosts and ghouls at Brynamman Lodge? The only fear Megan had was of the human capacity for cruelty, not ‘things that go bump in the night’. The huge gates swung open and, strangely, the spotlights blazed to welcome her in. Clearly working again. Megan looked up at all the windows. Nothing. She turned the key in the lock and gently eased open the front door. Megan stepped into the portal and a rush of cool air greeted her, unexpectedly. It ruffled her blonde hair and brushed her cheeks like a lovers kiss. Megan stood, not frightened but exhilarated. She flicked the light switch and the hallway lit up with its sweeping, spiral stairway and polished wooden floor. Her own paintings lining the walls, for that’s what had brought her and Bobby together. Her art. Sweeping savannahs, horses, wild cats. Bobby had been a big-cat personal guide when they’d met in Johannesburg. That first meeting hadn’t gone smoothly. She painted cats. He shot them. She had soon learned that first impressions aren’t what they seem.

Megan stepped into the kitchen. As she hit the light switch she was met with two moon-like eyes staring through the glass of the patio doors at the far end of the room. They extinguished swiftly and something fled. Unidentifiable in the darkness outside. Fox? Megan smiled. Foxes stood no chance here in Bobby’s day. She stepped through to the lounge. This time she didn’t throw the light switch. In the middle of the floor, a pair of yellow eyes blazed back at her, reflecting the light from the kitchen. The wide jaws, with enormous gleaming fangs, were met with Megan’s own wide grin. She stepped into the darkness and swept up the leopardskin rug, hugging it tightly. She took one of the claws and stroked it lightly across her breast. The claw that had left her husband scarred for life. Deep, strafing scars. She imagined herself now, lying next to him, stroking the grey chest hairs that covered the old wounds. As Megan stood there, the breeze came again, swirling around her. It touched the back of her neck and her lips. Megan smiled widely again. Laying the rug back in place, she then set about clearing the car and bringing in her travel bags.

Thankfully, Megan had stopped on the way home to grab some provisions. She was famished and tired, so her priority was to eat, get some sleep and organise better the next day. Christmas Day. First, though, she needed to visit her horses. She turned on the electric oven, to warm up, then grabbed a torch from her car and walked behind the Lodge, out to the stable block. As she swung the powerful LED torch about she saw eyes again, watching in the darkness. Browsing rabbits; the round eyes of the fox. It would be stalking the rabbits. Just before she reached the stables Megan sensed something large moving in the copse to her left. She swung the  torch at the trees and two huge white eyes shone back. The loud bark made her jump, then the red deer turned and leapt away, crashing through the trees. This triggered the whinnying of her two horses, disturbed by the sound. Megan entered the stable block and flicked on the light, turning off the torch. She walked up to Byron first, her hunter. Bobby had bought the horse for her as a birthday present, just a year before he died. The horse nuzzled up to her as she stroked his nose, snorting approval. He shook his head and whinnied in excitement. The breeze came again. Much stronger this time. The lights flickered. The two horses reared up as the mini-maelstrom tangled Megan’s hair and tickled her ears and cheeks. Megan smelt something familiar in the gust and wrapped her arms around herself in a hug. She walked over to her mare, Bryony and stroked her too. Both horses nostrils were flaring in recognition. Megan had come home.

A few minutes after Megan locked the front door, the spotlights in the courtyard turned off. She fired up the oven and soon had a lasagne warming through with some frozen peas simmering too. She looked at the huge pile of mail Molly had stacked on one of the worktops. Thankfully, Molly had removed all the junk mail. Lord knows what she would find amongst this lot? Some would be fan mail (her novel, Black Ghost, had been a huge success). Most would be reminders, bills, invites … Megan’s agent took care of all that. Megan picked the whole lot up and tried to move the pile in one go into the study. She failed, magnificently. As she was losing grip, the breeze returned and as she launched the letters onto what was Bobby’s old writing desk, one flew across the room to land near the dining room door. Megan returned to the kitchen to rescue her meal. She dished up and sat at the dining table, enjoying the luxury of a sit-up meal after the life of squalor she had endured recently. As she ate Megan glanced down and saw the envelope on the floor. She stooped and picked it up, laying it on the table in front of her. She took another fork-full of lasagne and stopped with the food at the end of her tongue. She recognised the handwriting on the letter. She checked the date stamp and was even more confused. The letter had been posted a year ago. Megan took a huge swig of wine. Scared now, more than ever in her life. Bobby had died three years ago. It was Bobby’s writing. As she went to pick it up, it moved away from her. Scared, she carried on eating. The letter moved closer. With every mouthful, the letter crept towards Megan. When the plate was empty, she picked it up.

“Hi Babe. Yes it’s me, Bobby. If you’re reading this it’s because our solicitors have been asked to send you this letter two years after my death. Don’t be upset by it. I just want you to know that I hope you are enjoying your life. Whatever you do, whomever you now love, you have my sanction. Please don’t sacrifice your life to a memory of me. You know, of course, that as a hunter, I will still find a way through the Tao to get as close to you, and protect you as much as I can, without disturbing you. I love you, for eternity. Bobby. xxx”

Megan sprawled across the table, her fists beating the oak surface. The tears welled up yet again. As she wept, the lights flickered. Megan sat up, just as the house plunged into darkness. She sat there, waiting for something more to happen. Nothing did, so Megan stood and stepped towards the light switch. The switch failed. She heard, more than felt, the swish of tail and the pad of paw. Suddenly, Megan Dale felt afraid. More so than ever in her life. Bobby had always preached ‘karma’. What goes around comes around. He had killed many big cats, or assisted in their killing. Always in a dignified, professional way. Megan, herself, had shot big cats. None more important than the renegade female jaguar linked to Bobby’s death. The press had called the jaguar ‘The Black Angel’. Sitting now in the dark, Megan gritted her teeth. “No fear allowed, when carrying a gun. Fear kills the threatened, not the threat. Become the threat”. That was what Bobby had preached so often. Megan used the torchlight on her mobile phone and went to the key safe, entered her code and pulled out her shotgun and two cartridges. She loaded both into the breech and headed for the study carrying an open gun. There, Megan opened a cabinet and took out an LED torch, wondering if the batteries would still carry power? The beam of light lifted Megans confidence. She swept the beam around and saw that outside, a light blanket of snow now covered the garden. Suddenly the beam caught the reflection of a pair of emerald eyes, outside, among the shrubs. They blinked and disappeared. “Ye Gods!” Megan muttered. A tremor went down her spine. “Are you here now, Bobby? To protect me?” The question was spoken out loud. A rush of air swept around her again and caressed her face. Megan smiled. Bobby’s ‘Qi’ was with her. She felt a rush of adrenalin coarse through her. It was time to face this new demon. As she snapped the gun barrels shut she whispered “I wonder if jaguars return as ghosts?”

Megan pulled on her boots and a fleece jacket. As she stood in the darkness, she saw a dull light moving between the trees like a will o’ the wisp. It was moving towards the generator shed so she followed it, the soft snow making her progress silent. As she picked up the creatures tracks in the snow, a penny dropped in Megans head. Approaching the shed she followed the tracks to a hole in the shiplap panels. A hole the size of a football. Megan crept around the shed, flicked on the torch and pulled the door open. The beam picked up the creature just as it seized its prey. The green eyes flashed in anger and it bolted back through the hole, carrying its quarry with it. Megan shone the torch around the small shed. She noticed the leaves and straw bulging from the fuse boxes on the walls. Prizing one open, Megan leapt back as half a dozen wood-mice fled the box and scuttled out into the snow. She opened another and the same thing happened. Megan giggled like a schoolgirl. The wiring was in a dreadful state, nibbled by the little lodgers. It was no wonder the Lodges electrics were playing up!

Megan left the shed and followed the tracks of the fleeing predator. They led her to a vent in the garage wall. Megan quietly opened the small side door into the garage and stepped into the darkness. She was greeted with a viscious hiss and flicked on the torches beam. This time, not one pair but six pairs of emerald green eyes stared back at her. The sleek black fur of the mother cat had been replicated in her kittens. Megan stepped forward, delighted. “Oh, you little beauties!” she whispered. “You must be frozen!” The mother allowed Megan to approach, her collar blinking weakly … the batteries almost dead. Megan slipped off her fleece and lifted the five tiny kittens into it, wrapping them tenderly. “Come on, Mum. Let’s get these beauties into the warm”. As she crossed the snowy yard, the mother cat brushed against Megans legs. The breeze came again and wrapped itself around Megans head. She stopped to enjoy the moment. “Thank you, Bobby!” Megan whispered. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present!”

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2016

     Jaguar Image by Brent Norbury

For more reading about Bobby’s death and Megan’s revenge read Jaguar: The Black Angel by Ian Barnett http://www.wildscribbler.com/books