Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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In Hog Heaven

by Jim Mountfield




I shouldn’t have felt spooked when I met Sadie. After all, for the previous three days I’d been tramping those roads, all I seemed to do was encounter ghosts.

They lurked in the low spiky hedgerows that divided this part of Northern Ireland into a quilt-work of fields. From the corner of my eye I’d spot a shadow flitting through the blackthorn and hazel and I’d spin around with my heart thumping. But as soon as I looked properly it’d vanished and the hedgerow was still.

Sometimes they made sounds. I’d hear someone speaking in a harsh scraping voice, but when I turned towards the source I’d find only a crow croaking at me from the top of a fence-post. Or I’d hear a flailing noise that suggested something hovering watchfully in the sky, but when I raised my head I’d see nothing but a shred of black plastic sheeting from a farmer’s silage pit, caught in a branch and wriggling in the breeze like a pennant.

The worst ghost manifested itself while I walked by a barley field. On the field’s far side, a gas-powered bird-scaring contraption suddenly let off a bang. I jumped into the middle of the road and stood shaking, even after I realised what I’d really heard. Meanwhile, deep inside me, I heard Gary Weeks screaming.

On the fourth day I ascended a hill and near the top of it I came to a cluster of buildings. They were at the roadside overlooking a slope with a river at its bottom. Enclosed by the buildings was a courtyard, into which a gateway opened from the road. The gateway had originally contained two iron gates but now there was just one, its bars brown and rust-swollen. The missing gate perhaps lay inside the courtyard among the thistles that burst up between the paving stones. More thistles, and nettles, bushes and ivy climbed the buildings’ outer walls and visible between their leaves was brickwork with a few last tatters of yellow paint.

On the other side of the road stood a house that’d been painted yellow too. It retained more of its paint though this had become scabbed and stained. Directly opposite the courtyard entrance with its lone rusty gate was a flight of steps climbing to a door in the house’s very centre – the door had two windows on either side and there were also windows beneath those at ground level, peeping out of a basement, and windows above, attic ones embedded in the roof. I saw curtains behind the row of windows level with the door, but the basement and attic windows were as black as night.

I stood on the road and turned my head several times, looking again at the courtyard buildings and again at the house. Finally the house-door opened. An old woman appeared, bustled down the steps, crossed the road and passed within a yard of me. Her head was no higher than the middle of my chest.

I heard her mutter, “They need feedin’. So he says!”

And I couldn’t help asking, “Who’s he?”

“The boss-man. Me lord an’ master. Who else?” She didn’t look at me. She didn’t seem to notice me at all. It was as if she thought my question had come from inside her head and when she answered she spoke to herself.

She entered the courtyard through the gap left by the absent gate. Looking in after her, I saw how some of the thistles growing there were as big as she was.

The fact that she’d seemed unaware of me prompted me to step into the courtyard too. Suddenly I had a feeling of being invisible. I could spy with impunity.

Inside the courtyard the buildings’ walls looked taller than they did on the outside. Today’s sky had been wide and bright but here it’d shrunk to a distant panel. No sunlight reached the courtyard floor and instead shadows covered the ruptured paving stones, the crumbling walls and the thistles’ prickly heads and leaves like a shroud of cobwebs. I felt I was breathing in cobwebs too. The air was thick and musty.

The woman went between some thistles and through a doorway, which was door-less. Her voice echoed back out of the dark building: “Listen to ’em. Starvin’. Always starvin’! There’s no satisfyin’ the buggers!” Then she re-emerged carrying a sack on her back. Until then, despite her age, she’d been straight in her posture and spry in her movements. Now, because of her burden, she was bent over and shuffling.

Then I realised the sack was empty. It lay flat and weightless against her spine.

She took the empty sack to the courtyard’s far end, where a second gateway was aligned with the one at the road, though it retained both its gates. They were so completely encased in rust I wondered if they’d ever be opened again. At the bottom of the gates a dented metal trough lay across the paving stones. The old woman heaved the sack off her back – though there was nothing in it to heave – and moved along the trough pouring the sack’s non-existent contents into it. “They’re nivir done ate-in’,” she lamented. “Costs a fortune in feed. How he expects us to make money back from them, I don’t know!”

As soon as she said those words she stopped and looked fearfully across the courtyard. I thought for a moment that she’d finally wised up to my presence. But she didn’t seem to see anything, not me, not anything behind me. Relieved, she went back to pouring imaginary stuff from her sack into the trough. Then she negotiated more thistles to get to a different door, a door that still survived in its frame, and wrestled with a bolt on it. The door groaned open and the woman sprang back, nimble again. “Jaisus! Don’t knock me down!” And for a time she stood in one spot, legs together, swaying slightly, as if things were swarming past her, she couldn’t move and she was trying not to get bowled over by them.

But the courtyard stayed empty apart from the two of us, the thistles and the dented trough. I went to the trough half-expecting to trip over silent, invisible bodies that were flooding across the paving stones. But I encountered nothing. When I looked down into the trough, I found nothing in it either, apart from some black gunk at its bottom that had moss growing from it.

Then I stepped over the trough to the second gateway and peered between the bars. The courtyard buildings were built on a hump of earth that compensated for the drop of the hillside and just beyond the gates the rear bank of this hump descended three or four yards. Amid the long weeds and grass sprouting from it I saw evidence that the bank had been used as a dump – rotted tyres, tangles of barbed wire still attached to broken fence-posts, a bucket that like everything metal here had turned brown. The bottom of the bank coincided with the edge of the shadow cast by the buildings. Past that, the first of several fields sloped down towards the river. Its grass had a green velvety sheen and the dandelions speckling it looked almost golden in the sunlight. A butterfly flitted across the tops of the grass and dandelions, keeping parallel with the shadow’s edge, seemingly careful not to cross over into it.

Suddenly, with that claustrophobic courtyard and crazy woman behind me, and the sunlight a few yards ahead but impossible to get to because of the rusted bars, I felt like a prisoner.

Of course, escape was simple. I turned around, intending to cross the courtyard again and leave through the roadside gateway. But I froze. I saw a figure standing in the far gateway, in the crescent of space left by the missing gate. It was tall and broad enough to take up most of that space and the impression of bulk was augmented by a long black overcoat hanging from its shoulders nearly to the ground. I strained my eyes and tried to discern a face, but the courtyard was too dark and the figure stood too far away.

Then it seemed to shimmer, which I supposed was a trick caused by it moving back and letting the sunlight fill the space again. And then it was gone.

Obviously, the man was still outside the buildings on the road. Feeling guilty and a little worried, I hurried past the babbling old woman and out of the gateway to find him. To explain – how I’d encountered the woman and been concerned by her behaviour and followed her into the courtyard to make sure she didn’t do herself any mischief. How I hadn’t been trespassing. How I hadn’t been morbidly nosy. I emerged onto the road again, ready to blurt my excuses.

But as I looked either way – down the stretch of road I’d just been walking on and down the next stretch of it, which descended the hill’s far side to a village straddling the river – I discovered there was no one in sight. The man hadn’t just gone from the gateway. He’d gone from the earth.


*****



I followed the road down to the village. In front of several houses Union Jacks and Ulster flags shimmied at the tops of poles so this was obviously a Protestant village, one where my English accent wouldn’t raise hackles. A stone bridge took me across the river and I found myself beside a small but versatile-looking shop. Its windows were slathered with posters for discounted goods and foodstuffs and the pavement below was cluttered with racks of soily vegetables, tubs of plastic toys and clumps of brooms, mops and garden-hoes planted upside-down in buckets. But it also had an adjoining shed where farmers could buy sacks of fertiliser and animal feed, and the wall connecting the shop and shed had two petrol pumps standing against it.

The musty air of the courtyard lingered in my throat and I entered the shop to buy something to wash it away.

An electronic chime sounded above the door and I walked in on three middle-aged ladies, two with shopping bags on the customers’ side of the counter and one wearing a pinafore-apron behind it. I sensed an epic discussion had been going on before I crossed the threshold. But now there was a cessation in the gossip. Faces, round and slightly wrinkled like aging apples, turned my way.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” I said in a hail-fellow-well-met voice. “Glorious day out there.”

“Aye,” said the shop assistant. “It’s powerful nice today.”

I went to a fridge of fizzy-drinks cans and picked out a brand I thought unlikely to antagonise my worn and sensitive teeth. Beside the drinks fridge was a glass-lidded freezer whose contents included packets of pink sausages. It occurred to me that the air in the courtyard had held a faint, distant odour of pigs.

The two customers stood aside to allow me to the counter. Both clasped their hands and clutched their shopping-bag handles in front of them whilst watching attentively. The uniformity of their poses reminded me of the parade ground. “Ye over for some fishin’?” asked the shop assistant as I gave her the money.

“Not fishing. But I’ve done a lot of walking. Must have done about eight miles so far today.”

“Goodness!” marvelled one of the customers, as if eight miles were enough to have brought me from another continent.

“Yes, I’m after coming down that hill. Incidentally…” I dropped my voice and with a twinge of self-disgust I realised I was trying to get them to gossip. I was fishing for information – I was here for the fishing after all. “I saw an old lady at the top of the hill. Forgive me for asking but… Is she alright?”

There was an uncomfortable silence and for a moment I thought I’d pushed them, even three hardened gossips like these, too far. But then the assistant laughed. “Sadie? The boul’ Sadie? Oh, don’t you worry about her! She’s hardy, that one. She’s more than capable o’ lookin’ after herself!”

One of the customers cut in, however, and said in a more serious tone, “It’s true, though. Our Sadie does act a wee bit strangely these days. She has… turns.”

“Turns,” echoed the other customer. “She has those. Aye.”

Back to the assistant. “It’s a terrible shame. She did well for a long time. Thirty-odd years she’s been on her own and it’s been a blessin’ for her. But lately… Things have caught up with her.”

Customer one: “Well, she is a big age now. An’ we all start to dote a bit as we get oulder. Just a pity she seems to be slippin’ back to a time that wasn’t good for her.”

Customer two: “Good? No good at all!”

They were silent again, as if they’d reached another boundary they felt reluctant to cross. I gave them my politest, most benign smile, trying to convey the message: Tell me more! They couldn’t help themselves. The assistant exclaimed, “That Roy!”

Customer one shuddered. “Uh, the brute! The big brute o’ a man! And the way he worked her. He owed everything to her.”

Customer two in a sighing voice: “She earned it, he spent it.”

The assistant: “The day she lost him was the best day o’ her life.”

“I take it,” I said cautiously, “that Sadie’s husband passed away?”

Customer one: “Passed away? Ran away, ye mean! Him an’ that secret fancy woman o’ his. Where was she supposed to live again? Dungannon? Coleraine?”

Customer two: “Now we don’t know that for sure. It was just rumoured. An’ them were desperate times back then. It might’ve been somethin’ else. The IRA.”

The assistant: “Aye, an’ what would the IRA have wanted with the likes o’ him? If they’d bumped him off, it would’ve been the one decent thing they did in their history!”

Customer one: “Naw, naw, it was a fancy woman for sure. He had them before – ”

Just then the door chimed again and in clumped a stout red-faced farmer in a boiler suit. He rumbled to the assistant, “I’m needin’ a dozen bags o’ feed, missus. Can ye write us a receipt?”

During the past minutes in that shop I’d felt like a spider spinning a web. The three women were its anchor points and their tales about old Sadie were its threads. But the farmer’s noisy entrance seemed to blow the web away. The assistant turned and went poking in a drawer for a receipt-slip. The two shoppers unclasped their hands and shifted their baskets to their sides and prepared to leave. I picked my change off the counter and headed out.

As I passed the farmer, his outfit made me think of something. Just about every farmer I’d seen in this country in the last few days had worn a similar boiler suit. But the figure in the gateway of Sadie’s courtyard – whose big frame had intimated he was a farmer too – had been clad in a black overcoat. Which seemed to mark him as belonging to an earlier era.

I remembered the customer’s words: them were desperate times back then.

Tell me about it, I thought.


*****



For two days after that I held out against my curiosity. Then I found myself walking on the same road, in the same direction and finally up the same hill. I stopped again between the house and the courtyard but this time I didn’t have to wait for Sadie to emerge from the house. Already I could hear her voice in the courtyard.

I went to the single gate and saw that the door she’d unbolted two days earlier was open again. A rickety wheelbarrow, slightly wider than the gap between the rutted timber doorposts, was parked outside among the thistles. Then Sadie came out of the doorway carrying a shovel whose blade was so corroded a corner of it had broken off. Still talking to herself, she tilted what was left of the shovel-blade over the wheelbarrow. Nothing rested on the blade and nothing fell into the wheelbarrow, but that didn’t surprise me.

I assumed I remained invisible to her and went into the courtyard to hear what she was saying.

Whereas previously she’d fretted about imaginary pigs in the courtyard, now she despaired of life itself. “God, how do I stick this? Wadin’ around in this muck an’ filth all the time. Sure me heart’s broke with it!” She went into the building and came out again with another shovelful of non-existent pig-shit that she tipped into the wheelbarrow. By now I was close enough to see tears glinting on her wrinkled cheeks.

This time she didn’t re-enter the building. She turned away from the barrow, towards where I stood, and said more loudly: “An’ he expects me to slave day an’ night like this. Just to keep him goin’ with his whiskey an’ cards an’ fancy hoors in Dungannon!”

I wasn’t ready for what happened next. She shouted, “Fuck him!” and smashed the shovel-blade down on the paving stones, so hard that another piece of it broke off. When she raised the shovel again, the blade had lost its other corner and tapered to a crude point in the middle, like a giant spearhead.

“Fuck him!” she shrieked and swung the shovel in front of her. The broken blade whizzed past my face, its tip missing my nose by inches. I leapt back and collided with some thistles, which collapsed under me. My heels caught amid their stems and I tripped and staggered and didn’t manage to steady myself until I’d reached the courtyard’s far side. Sadie advanced after me, one moment waving the shovel before her, the next moment smashing it onto the ground again. “Fuck you,” she raved, “just fuck you!”

I turned to run back through the gateway but realised someone was standing again in the empty part of it, looking in at us. His dark overcoat made him resemble a giant crow with its wings folded against its sides. Still I couldn’t see his face, but I sensed something coming from him: a total, unrepentant cruelness.

In fact, the vibe I got from him was so malignant I felt afraid.

Then the shovel blade slashed again through the air close to me. Desperate to escape, but too spooked by the figure to use the roadside gateway, I ran to the second gateway that looked out of the back of the courtyard and down the hillside. Its two gates were melded together with rust but I grabbed their bars and wrenched at them with all the strength I could summon. There was a screech and a crack of space appeared between them. I wrenched again and they shifted further, widening the space to the point where I could almost squeeze through.

Behind me I heard Sadie still shouting, “Fuck you!” and the whoosh made by the shovel-blade as it sped through the air. And I felt the vileness of the figure in the other gateway, burning into me like a psychic laser beam.

I didn’t struggle with the gates any longer and just forced myself through the gap that existed already. My belly managed to undulate its way round one of the gate-ends, the rust leaving brown smears on my sweater. Then I burst clear of them. Unable to stop myself, I bounded down the mound of earth that supported the buildings and courtyard above the hillside. My feet crashed through weeds and grass, past the rotten tyres, ancient buckets and tangles of barbed wire that’d been dumped there. I’d nearly reached the bottom when my foot landed on a slab of rock partly embedded in the mound. It turned out that only a small section of the rock was embedded – for as soon as it took my weight it uprooted itself and fell away. I lost my balance and fell too, back against the mound’s side.

Once, the thump I got as I struck the ground wouldn’t have damaged me. Once, thanks to the days I’d spent doing parachute training and running assault courses, I was almost immune to long falls and hard blows. But now all the wind was knocked out of me and I lay dazed and gasping. The sky spun above me, lost its blueness and became dark and oppressive. A tinnitus started clanging in my ears, though I could make out other noises beyond it. I heard voices rasping distortedly from walkie-talkies and rotors churning overhead. And I heard Gary Weeks screaming –

Ghosts surrounded me.

I gave a cry and scrambled up onto my feet before I remembered where I was really. I became aware again of the fields sloping below, verdant with grass and speckled with dandelions. I saw a butterfly winging past and felt the sun glowing benignly. Everything was at peace. Peace.

The post-blast tinnitus and the other noises had stopped and I heard just one thing now. Admittedly, it clashed with the calm of the surroundings – at the top of the mound, behind the gateway, a woman was sobbing.

“Sadie?” I called up. “Hold on, Sadie. Don’t be upset. I’m coming.”

I began clambering up the mound. After taking one step, I halted again. The rock-slab I’d dislodged had left a shallow cleft in the ground. Inside, a couple of earthworms were in the process of burrowing into the soil, not enjoying their sudden exposure to sunlight. Also visible in the cleft, at its back, were several inches of something that looked thin, pale and stick-like.

I reached in, gripped the object and pulled it free. This took half-a-minute for it was longer than I expected and most of it was buried in the earth behind the cleft. But finally I held it in front of me.

As I realised what it probably was, a tremor ran down my arm and along the object itself. I’d seen these before. Most memorably, I’d seen one of them protruding from the end of Gary Weeks’s leg after the IRA bomb, which’d exploded in a ditch our patrol was passing, had blown his foot away.

I wondered, though, why the end of it was so mangled. I looked closely and saw how it was covered in little pocks that might have been made by teeth. I made a wild guess and decided they were pigs’ teeth.

THE END


2018 Jim Mountfield

Bio: Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Death's Head Grin, the Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror Zine, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals.

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