It had been a little more than eight months, since Nick had given notice of his job at St. Joseph’s. Christmas was coming along in a few weeks but there seemed to be little cheer, to be derived from any of it. Even, all the baubles and the lights bedecking the traditionally over dressed trees, failed to lift his spirits. Prior to this year, he had always found the seasons festivities, quite hilarious. All those fake smiles and the bogus sentiments of good wishes and the like, normally forced him to use up the whole years tolerance quotient in one hit, but it was invariably worth it, if only for the experience of living in a repeating joke, for a few weeks.
However, once Nick had made his decision to leave his post in The Probation Service, shortly after that deadly night on the canal bank, there was no going back. He had discussed leaving, with the other members of staff and Nick had made a promise, to stay on the Probation Service payroll, at least until his replacement could be found. That day had arrived within a couple of months and it hadn’t come a day too soon.
When he had recovered from those terrible events, which had resulted in the deaths of both, Alex Findlay and Arch Deacon in such a brutal fashion. He had returned to work, looking for some form of stability to return to his life but so severe was the trauma of those events on his psyche, that for months now, his nights sleep had been spent tangled up in horrific visions of that monster, Powderfinger, slaughtering his loved ones in the most cruel of circumstances. There seemed to be only the one way out of this maelstrom, he needed to leave the area, to start afresh somewhere else. Until now, nothing had made him change his mind concerning this matter and after he had walked out of the double doors of The Hostel for the last time, the sense of relief had been palpable.
He had put Lilac Cottage, on the market within 5 weeks of the Powderfinger night and had started to look for somewhere else to live. His mother had gone downhill very fast in the weeks following and had finally agreed to move in with him in a new property.
Nick needed somewhere that was more conducive to a quiet, peaceful existence, away from all the concerns of everyday life. It had to be somewhere with a quality rest home nearby in case his mother needed it and he felt a need for the sea. Initially, he had been tied up with all the inevitable problems, of trying to clear and sell both his mothers and his own property, whilst buying another. The painstaking and frustrating search for a new home, that fitted the bill, on as many counts as possible, seemed to be endless. He suffered the usual client withdrawal’s, to the endless difficulties in negotiating with people in a chain.
He didn’t intend to move house again, he was too old for that and anyway, he didn’t care for new places, so this had to be done right. The Solicitors, had not exactly been quick in the execution of their duties and the searches, plus all the signing of the legal contracts, seemed to take forever. Eventually, everything got satisfactorily resolved and Nick, had taken possession of his new home, on the coast of Wales.
“Yes,” he had said out loud, when he had first set eyes on the old disused farmhouse.
“So, Sir will be happy to complete the sale,” remarked the obviously bored Estate Agent.
“Yes, perfect. It’s miles to the next house and you get a sea view, thrown in.” Nick, was simply beaming, as was the Agent. He, had been trying to sell this one, for six years due to it’s need for a complete restoration. Now finally, it had sold to a Mr. Nicolas Swann.
From that moment on, Nick dedicated himself to the move, he had authorised a lot of work to be done on the old mill and now, he was going to be in the new property, just in time for Christmas. ‘Lilac Cottage,’ looked like a bomb, had gone off in an empty building.
Most of his stuff, had already made the trip to the new property and in two more days, he would be closing this front door, for the last time. Only the Futon, which he had been sleeping on, for the last couple of weeks just prior to the move, remained on the floor and he planned to leave it, in situ, when he left. It was another of his ‘farewell’ gestures, which he undertook in an attempt to “have no reason, to ever return,” to this part of his old life.
His meeting tonight, round at The Old Toll House, would be the first occasion he had gone back to the area, since he had finished at The Hostel and it was only because he wanted to say a proper ‘Adios,’ to Alan, before the move to North Wales and the beginning of a whole new adventure. Nick, rolled himself a Joint and having casually smoked it, began to dial Alan’s number. It was ringing and oddly enough, he was feeling strangely nervous about speaking to Alan again, after leaving it so long since the incident at The Ravens Gate. He and Alan, had taken a sort of unspoken ‘Time Out’. They had in fact, only spoken to each other twice, in the past eight months. Initially, it was the constant waiting for a date on which the inquest into the two death’s, was due to begin and their appearances in court would have to be arranged and then........ ‘Nothing.’ There never was a day in court. Nick and Alan, were never called upon to give any evidence and that was the end of their legal worries. It was just life. Although they had reported that Alex and Arch had gone down to the canalside to possibly confront the ‘Canal Cutter’ there were no bodies ever discovered and so, it remained an open verdict. Alex and Arch, were considered to be ‘Missing,’ and that got in the way of closure.
At this point, the seven years the case would have to lie dormant before any change in it’s status could be contemplated, seemed a long way off. If there were no bodies to be found and a trawl of the canal bed, only produced the damaged sculpture and a pile of twisted metal, from below the water, what could you do?
“Hi Man, it’s Nicks. How are you doing?” Alan, took in a deep breath, before answering.
“Oh, I’m O.K. How are you?” he said in heavily melancholic tones.
“Wow, you sound like the world hasn’t been treating you too well, what’s happened?”
Again there was a long silence, before Alan spoke. “It’s nothing to worry your head about, Man,” he stutteringly said, while at the same time, trying hard to sound reassuring. “It’s just, since that evening, when Alex and Arch died, I don’t think, that I’ve ever been quite the same. I’m having great difficulty in getting the events of that night, out of my mind, it was simply too awful for my brain to handle and now, I feel guilty, if I laugh at anything about death.”
Nick, didn’t know what to say, he had experienced those feelings regarding Findlay and Deacon but he’d put all that kind of thing down to ‘survivor guilt’ and just moved on.
“There’s no point in churning over all that shit, Man, it does no good. You can never bring them back and you should just be thankful, that it wasn’t you.”
Alan, was quicker to respond this time and now, there was an edge to his voice. “I know you’re right but since you and me lost contact again, I’ve had nobody to talk to about those events.” Nick, could hear the plaintive desperation in his old friends words.
“Listen then, Man. I was just thinking of calling in on you, at The Toll House. If that’s O.K, with you?”............... It was his turn to pause now. He knew, that his next words were likely, to knock Alan for six but these words had to be said. “To say goodbye.”
As presumed, those words, elicited an almost instant response. “What?” Squeaked Alan and that was quickly followed by an excruciating, “Why?”
Nick, almost not wishing to hear those words, felt he was required to give an honest response, if only for friendship’s sake. “It’s simple really, Man, my Mother is getting on and is going, a little bit crazy, if you know what I mean.” When he heard nothing from the other end, he continued. “She’s been all alone in that big draughty house and it’s not exactly good for her. So, she’s going to be staying with me and I’m selling the old pile, for her, to finance her later years.”
There was still nothing coming from Alan’s end, so Nick, filled in the space with, “I wanted to come and see you, to give you my new address, telephone number and all that kind of stuff.”
Nick, could hear desperate spluttering on the phone. “I’m not going a million miles, just North Wales. You can call in anytime.”
Alan, was now attempting to sound like all of this unfortunate news, was run of the mill to him and commented, “How does later, this afternoon sound?”
What could he say, so he simply added “Fine,” just in time to hear Alan put the phone down.
“That could have gone better,” Nick said to himself as he sat down, on one of the packing cases and finished his coffee. He still had a little time to fill, before he would have to be thinking of the journey, rather than the state of his mind, when he got to his destination.
Nick, filled the couple of hours, between completing that awkward call and getting into ‘Deke,’ to drive over to Alan’s place, easily. He spent much of his time, double checking all the rooms, for any final objects which may have been overlooked, in the packing up stakes. Considering, that nearly everything had already been transported to the new house, there wasn’t actually much to check but this last minute effort would be worth it in the end. It would undoubtedly ease his mind, when something or other, could not be located at The Welsh Property, then he would at least know the item in question was not left at ’Lilac Cottage.”
The drive to The Old Toll House, was taken at a leisurely pace and took a lot longer than usual. After all, he most likely would never be coming this way again, so he fully absorbed every part of the journey. Upon reaching Alan’s place, Nick drove onto Alan’s familiar gravel covered driveway and parked ‘Deke,’ in a position which afforded him views in many directions. The canal, was silent and deserted, as was to be expected, at this time of year. The first thing he noticed that was different, from the way he remembered it, was the new metal fence, which had been erected around the Ravens Gate Works, which appeared to be even more decrepit, than he remembered it.
The eight foot high spiked palisade cut off access to the length of the towpath from Quaker Crossing to Jenkins Walkway. He could see a large notice attached to each end warning of dangerous structures and threatening trespassers with prosecution.
Nick turned his head once more and looked down the opposite bank, where he could get a partial view of St. Joseph’s Hostel. Even from this location, it was plain to see, that the old place was in dire need of a little bit of T.L.C. The paintwork looked tired and was obviously flaking. The chain link fence, that surrounded The Hostel, desperately required some re-attaching, along much of it’s length and there was litter everywhere. The whole place appeared to be in need of a good tidying up.
“Not your concern, Nick, let the place go.” These sentiments flickered readily across his mind but he had a more difficult “Goodbye,” to say and he casually looked up to the tinted windows, of Alan’s lounge. He needn’t have concerned himself because, as he was peering upwards, Alan opened the front door and greeted him with a hearty,
“Nicks, come on in and park your arse.” This was most definitely, not the same Alan, who had been so diffident on the phone earlier. Nick was somewhat taken aback by his effusive welcome and just followed Alan, as he climbed the narrow stairs that led to the lounge.
“Happy Christmas, Nicks,” he said, as he handed him a hot coffee and a double Cognac. Alan, waited until Nick had sat down, before holding out his hand in a gesture of friendship. “Here’s to old times, Man,” Alan meekly said and Nick, quickly put his coffee cup on the table, to facilitate a response. Formalities over, they both sat down and silently looked out, onto the ever darkening waterway.
“Do you ever think about that night. It must be hard not to, from up here?” Offered Nick.
“I used to but not so much nowadays,” answered Alan. “There’s so much rumour flying about, that you can’t tell if you’re coming, or going half the time.” He continued, without a breath, “All that morkish crap sure does keep your brain occupied though.” Alan, responded to Nick’s quizzical looks. “Well, since Tullet’s pulled out, almost every week I hear about some company, or another, who are going to develop the area but nothing ever comes of it. It never goes any further than that.”
Nick was standing by the window, with his Cognac in his hands and just staring blankly at the water below and the remains of the tar works, off to his left hand side. Alan knew what his old friend was looking at, so felt the need to say, “They keep on promising to build houses on the old works and redevelop the basin but you know how it is?”
Nick, was nodding his head. “Yeah, all fur coat and no knickers.”
Now Alan, was nodding. “Dead right, I’m betting, that it gets turned into a Park, with a grotty fountain, that hardly ever works, or something equally memorable.” That, made them both laugh and then, they toasted themselves.
“I’ll tell you what though,” said Alan earnestly. “There’s a story doing the rounds, of a figure, that can occasionally be seen, crossing Jenkins’ Walkway and looking out towards the collapsed crossing at The Ravens Gate.”
That got Nick’s attention. “Don’t be so serious, Nicks,” pleaded Alan. “People love a good ghost story. They always have.” He stated and then, with that, a stillness descended upon the room, as they both relaxed, with their own recollections of recent events.
“Did you ever follow up on that time, in The Dog, when you got Jennifered?” Nick, just looked back, with the most impressive appearance of indifference, that he could muster.
“So, I’ll take that as a, ‘No,’ then,” said Alan, shaking his head. “You’re fucking hopeless, Man.” For some unknown reason, they both saw the same point in their shared moment of dark humour, as hilarious. What had started off as a slightly embarrassed mutual giggle, turned into some gut wrenching belly laughs, that resulted in both parties rolling around in their chairs, holding their stomach’s and plaintively crying,
“Stop, stop, I’ll tell you anything.”
The release of the laughter, prompted and then allowed for a more somber air to pervade the room. They talked long into the night, mostly about old times until Alan fell asleep in his chair. Then, as the dawn broke over Barton and the first shaft of sunlight played on Alan’s smoked glass window pane, Nick quietly got up out of his chair and made his way down to the front door and opened it. The new day flooded in and as the cool air hit his senses he stretched his arms upwards and cast his eyes, over the waterway towards the dark husk, that was the remains of No.1 Shed.
As he looked on, two large black birds, rose from within the structure and gracefully gained height, in the unseasonal, early morning sunshine. Nick stood and watched them for a minute and then reached into his pocket and upon retrieving his keys, unlocked ’Deke. He opened the driver’s side door and slid in.
For a few minutes, Nick reflected on what had been said the night before and simply smiled. “Friendship,” he said to the steering wheel, in front of him. “It’s just friendship and it’s all good.”
Then suddenly, just as Nick reached down and was going to start the engine, a great cry rent the still air and made him look up.
“Kaw,” insisted the single note and then again, “Kaw,” it called and Nick felt the past, encroaching on his present.
He quickly started the Volvo and rolled out of The Old Toll House driveway and pulled quickly away, heading for Willowbank. He told himself, that he would phone Alan, later and thank him for the previous evenings merriment but that never happened, he just left things to drift and moved on.
Keller Yeats,Horror Author
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