“Penny for your thoughts,” Sadie was saying.
“Thinking Dave’s hurting inside. Nothing worse than being a lonely boy.”
Her eyes were blue pools, no longer cornflowers blooming from the earth but something of water.
“You talk like you’d been a lonely lad.”
He tossed back his wine. He was not going to pour out his heart to this dame. Saul knew how lost he had been on that Texan ranch and in Birdie’s surreal pad. He did not need Sadie Gow’s comfort. She was desperate for a guy, would try anything. But was he blocking out his very real desire for sexual contact with her?
“Dave told me about worm clouds,” he said to change the subject.
“Oh, that old tale.”
“Yeah, something about a Wormy Howe. He said it was the Old Caledonian Road. Oh, and he also told me about mounds being thrown up.”
“Those hills were named in memory of Jean Gordon of Lesmoir. She drank away her estate, and became a beggar. She died in that spot, now, called ‘Jean’s Hillocks’ of starvation and fatigue. Dad sang me a few fragments of a ballad about her. Let me think, now,:
She drank her lan’ and sold her shoon,
And died at Allawakin.”
“A Gordon? She might be an ancestor of mine. I’m an alcoholic, and some say it runs in the genes.”
“First time I’ve admitted I’m a chronic boozer.”
“I know you’re a hard-drinking man. I smelled fresh alcohol on your breath, that morning I first met you.”
He stared into the ruby of his wine.
“Let’s get off the subject of me. Your father interested in folk songs?”
She threw out her hands. Her plastic bangles clanked.
“He collects them. When he was a lad, he went around talking to the old folk, and writing down what they remembered of the old songs. But getting back to the worms, he came in, one night, doubled up with laughter because he had met an old man, who kept going on about the tale of the worms. The man had ended up by saying, “Gad, man, I don’t ken what would have happened if they worms had but met”.”
What a swell sense of humor. Miles above Rose Muldoon for all Muldoon’s doctorate and academic success.
They ate, talking about folk songs and the part they might still play. He glanced at his watch.
“Looking at watch time, Alex? What nonsense it is.”
The tinker had ticked him off for that, too.
“But it’s getting on, Alex, right enough. Maybe we shouldn’t go back to The Cabrach, today. I know a good hotel that doesn’t ask questions. You know, we could share a room.”
“I thought you’d a flat, here?”
“Rented it out for the duration of my time in The Cabrach. I need to watch the pennies.”
He stared at his dessert. Memories of that hellish night in the gay bar, here, flooded in. He felt queasy for having gone there, but that did not mean he did not love Saul in a sexual way. But Sadie was, now, so alluring. Could he be bisexual? He began to panic.
“Do you want to share a room?” she repeated.
His tongue was too swollen to reply.
“Am I too bold for you, Alex Gordon? I’m a woman of the twenty-first century, and I think you’re a red-blooded man. Am I so off beam? I’m getting good sexual vibes from you.”
How many times had Saul warned him about dames? But, at the moment, he was putty in Sadie’s hands, and he had to flee her.
“Must pay a visit to the john,” he said.
With the smile that crossed her face, he knew she was thinking his lack of refusal was an acceptance of her offer.
The cash counter was hidden from their table.
“Give me the bill real fast, buddy. Here’s a few extra bucks if the dame wants anything else,” he said to the guy behind the counter.
He took a last look at Sadie through an open hatch. She was swirling her wine, and contemplating a night of passion. It was not without regret he left, and signaled to a taxi parked nearby.
“Can you get me to near Drywells in The Cabrach?” he said.
“That’s far, and I’ve got to get all the way back to Dundee. Cost you.”
“Doesn’t matter what you charge. Just get me there. Look, I’ve got the bucks, and you’ll get a big tip,” he said.
He waved a wad of twenty pound notes.
“Aye, get in,” the taxi driver said.
The taxi driver drove for fifteen minutes in silence. He was thankful. He hated gabby taxi drivers. He thought about Sadie. Would she go back to her aunt’s place, or drive to her cottage, as soon as she found him gone? Knowing her, she might even pitch up, tonight, at Meadow Cottage.
“Fleeing your woman?” the taxi driver said.
He was baffled. Sadie had been inside the restaurant.
“The tall, thin, dark-haired one, who rushed out of the restaurant, as we pulled away. She was dressed queer. Some sort of tunic. But she was a stunner. I’ve always had a yen for tall, dark-haired women.”
A chill went down his spine. No dame had been in that restaurant but Sadie. And it was weird Henry had imagined Teia Tephi as looking like the strange dame that had seemed to switch places with Sadie at the gate of Meadow Cottage. So many questions and so few answers. A cold prickle was at the nape of his neck.
Days passed, but Sadie never came to Meadow Cottage. He had thought she would have arrived either the night of the day he had left her in Dundee, or the next morning, with her quick tongue ablaze about his skipping out on her. Was she still in Dundee? After all, she was on leave from her job, and might have decided to stay on with her father and aunt.
Why was he thinking about her? Dave was around. But Dave was just a boy, and he was yearning for adult company. Henry had given him that, for a few hours, but he was not sure if Henry would ever get in touch with him, although the guy had seemed genuine in wanting to have a buddy with whom to go exploring.
About seven o’clock at night, on the fourth day of his arrival back in The Cabrach, at the time when the air was darkening, he went out into the garden of Meadow Cottage. He looked over to the apple tree. Was that a branch shadow moving under it? But no wind was blowing. Was someone in the garden? He was not going to guess the identity of any interloper. He had had enough of guesses.
Suddenly, an insect flew into his eye. It stung like mad. He pulled his upper lid over his eyeball. Murdy had taught him that, when the Texan grit had got in. It did the trick. Something shifted to his tear-duct. With his pinkie, he pulled it away, and stared at the black, mangled thing. He could not tell what it had been. Was he looking at his own mangled soul?
He looked, again, at the apple tree. Fists bunched, he went over to it. No branches could be moving in this windless dusk, and no-one was about. A heavy bird in the tree could have swayed a slender branch, created a moving shadow.
He chilled out. He was feeling swell because he had holed himself up in the cottage to research on The Web, and had regained physical strength. But zilch had surfaced. And no clues had come reading a few books of the Hall Bible, and no phone calls or e-mails, had come in, apart from Saul’s daily e-mails full of chat about his students at the Summer School. In today’s e-mail, Saul had said he had received ‘the bit’. Saul was being wary over the electronic highway. They were both, now, working on the harp stone, and The Cabrach’s challenges held less terror for him.
As he was walking back into the cottage, someone rapped on the gate. He turned. Sadie was waving a bottle of whisky, and carrying a big bag over one shoulder. He had been so lost in his thoughts, he had not seen her coming down the track. But why had she not called out? She was a calling-out dame. She must be real sore.
“I’ve, finally, forgiven you for ditching me in Dundee. It was a blow to me as a woman. I stayed a few days with dad, but here I am in a good mood.”
Thrill had shot through him at the sight of her, but he was still suspicious about the moving shadow.
“Were you in the garden, Sadie?”
She puckered her brow.
“I’ve just arrived at the gate.”
“A shadow was moving on the ground under that apple tree.”
“Can’t be a branch. No wind, tonight. Scared of our Cabrach ghosts, are you? Was that why you wanted to get back before dark, when we were in Dundee?”
She was teasing, but inner dread grabbed him at her words. Perhaps it was not only the note-writer he feared. He had known ghosts existed since that encounter on the farm, long ago. And, after his astral projection, he was beginning to consider all uncanny phenomena, but he would never, openly, admit it. He had never been able to tell even Hamish he believed in ghosts, despite Hamish talking about them, on that long ago visit to Texas.
“Aye, lad, ghosts are real as living folks,” Hamish had said.
Hamish had misread his expression.
“I can see by the look on your face you don’t believe me. Do you think I’m saying this because I think it’d be a good thing to tell a wee lad?”
Sadie faked a cough to break into his thoughts.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Alex?”
“Nope. But a shadow moved under that tree,” he snapped.
She, again, waved the whisky bottle, a wide smile on her lips. For the first time, he noticed her teeth. Her figure and hair had always been his focus. But, now, he saw how her teeth shone white, square, and perfect, in the light cast by the open door. They were in miniature like the teeth of the giant skeletons in the gully. But she was just a dame of average height.
“Ghosts exist. But it may have been a cat up in the tree. Many going around these parts. They purr, and sit by the fire, but they’ve their own natural needs. Talking of trees, I’ve brought the Ogham cards to give you a reading,” she said.
She was coming down the path with a tantalizing, side-to-side sway. Then, he caught his breath. Snakes swayed. He thought on the onyx ring he still wore on his left hand that had seemed a snake’s eye, on that day he had entered The Cabrach, and of how he had thought a pair of snake’s eyes were meeting up, when he had seen an identical ring at ‘Joe’s’ on the approaching gay boy’s finger.
He had considered moving the ring to his right hand, but he had not done so because he had had the feeling Saul’s love was giving him warnings through the ring. If Saul had, deliberately, placed it on the marriage finger, it would only have been as a sign of their deep buddyship.
“Ogham cards?” he said.
“They foretell and give advice for present action,” she said.
She was not going to be like the tinker, who had harped on about the past. He thought of a pal of Birdie’s, who had arrived every Tuesday to Birdie’s apartment with her tarot cards. He could still hear her intoning voice, when she had been reading them.
He looked into Sadie’s eyes.
“Not into prediction. Who believes in tarot cards is a fool. Besides, I remember a buddy of mine saying they were unholy,” he said.
“Tarot? Some similarities, but these Ogham cards are part of the history of this area. Surely, that will interest you? Druids are linked to these cards.”
Henry had told him Druidism was in his blood.
She brushed past him. He gave in.
“If they don’t take long,” he sighed.
“Going to follow watch time, as usual, Alex?”
He ignored her remark.
“Your whisky’s a sight for sore eyes. Lost track of time, and it’s too late to buy any. Besides, I don’t feel like another night in one of the pubs in Drywells listening to the clack of dominoes,” he said.
“You’ve been sitting in local pubs, and you didn’t invite me?”
“Just wanted to think somewhere other than the cottage.”
“You’re a terrible man, very selfish.”
She sashayed into the sitting room, drew a white candle from her bag, and, placing it on the table, lit it. It glowed, eerily. In the flickering light, he remembered what Henry had said.
“It’s a game in a way, man. Life’s a game. It depends upon the cards you hold”.
What cards would he hold in this reading?
He crossed to the window, and opened the curtains. Staring out into the blackness, he was filled with dread. The horizon was filled with lightning bolts.