A Right and Proper Burial

2 Jun 2013, 12:35 p.m.

A ghost story set in Scotland, written while on holiday with Sarah in the village of Ardaneaskan, which bears a certain resemblance to Tornach. Our visit was much less eventful than the one described here, however.

The key stuck slightly in the door when Dave tried to turn it, but then it turned suddenly and the door swung open too fast. Burdened by a heavy rucksack and two carrier bags of fruit, he stumbled within, registering what lay before his feet a moment before he stepped on it. He stayed upright only by falling against the wall, and heard the quiet tearing sound of his rucksack ruining the wallpaper.

“Did you get in all right?” Jenny called from the end of the path, walking hurriedly up the slope of the garden with far too many shopping bags in her hands. “Get a move on, Dave, I can’t stop or I’ll drop all these.”

He was already stepping gingerly backwards over the threshold when she reached it, and the two collided. “What are you doing?” Jenny snapped at him. True to her prediction, the bags began sliding from her sore fingers onto the gravel.

“Wait. Hold on a second,” Dave whispered, stepping to one side so she could see what lay in the hall. His girlfriend started, and dropped the rest of the shopping, no longer a priority. As they crumpled to the ground, he was almost sure he heard the sad cracks of individual eggs breaking.

Jenny quickly shook off her early fright, and stepped briskly into the hall, switching on the electric light to take a better look at the thing that lay there. Somehow the ghastly shadows it now threw onto the pink carpet made Dave feel sicker than he had at first.

“It’s a skeleton,” she announced unnecessarily. She walked closer, crouched down to examine it, and added, “A human skeleton.”

Dave felt his knees weaken as she confirmed it, and without thinking sat down in the flowerbed by the gravel path. His rucksack, packed with clothes and gear for a two-week hiking holiday, fell from his shoulders into the bloomless rose bushes and he lowered his head into shaking hands. “What should we do?” he asked Jenny, still inside with the – the thing. The word skeleton was too definite. Impossible that such a thing should insert itself into his life – especially, he thought absurdly, when he was on holiday.

“Well, first off, we need to get the food inside,” she called out. “It’s been an hour’s journey from Gairloch, and I don’t want the meat going off. Or any of those eggs that miraculously didn’t just break.” She came back outside, into the autumn daylight that was already fading at six o’clock, and started scooping up their groceries. “Why are you sitting in the flowerbed? Give me a hand with this. Do we have a key to the back door, as well?”

“I meant …” He cleared his throat. “What are we going to do about – that?”

She stared at him blankly. “Use the back door, for now. That’s why I asked if you had the key.” Frustrated, she pulled the bunch of keys from the door and looked through them for the one marked BACK. “We’ll get rid of that later, once I’ve had a cup of coffee. Come on, get up.” Jenny stuck a hand out to help him up, and Dave reluctantly took it and stood.

Through the back door, which led onto a tiny mud room and then to the kitchen, the cottage seemed clean and unremarkable. Dave let himself be directed to place items of food where Jenny wanted them, and to boil water for two cups of Nescafé. Once she had hers before her on the kitchen table and her feet up on another chair – her hiking boots sitting neatly underneath her – Jenny seemed more content.

“God, Dave,” she muttered, leaning her elbows on the table, “one of these days your navigating is going to kill us. Still, at least you’ve stopped referring to roads as ‘the wiggly green one’ when I’m trying to drive.” She took a large sip from her drink. “Nice coffee, though. Thanks for that.”

Dave had his hands wrapped around his own cup. They had started to shake again as soon as he had sat down. “Jenny … Honey …”

“Yes, I know, the skeleton. I hadn’t forgotten about it. I just wanted to sit down for a minute and recover from the journey. An eight-hour drive isn’t any fun, you know.”

He couldn’t resist it, even as shaken as he was. “You could have taken turns with me, hon.”

“And have you send us along mud tracks and into ditches again in the name of a shortcut? No thanks.” She slurped coffee again. “Anyway, I have been thinking about it. There’s a full roll of black sacks in the sink cupboard. Shouldn’t take more than two or three to get all the bones in, and then the dustmen come on…” she checked a card pinned by the mud-room door, “…Thursday. It’s Sunday today. What a shame they won’t come tomorrow.”

“You can’t honestly mean to just throw it away! That’s a – a human skeleton in the hall, Jenny! Somebody’s – body!”

“I suppose so, but it’s clean enough, and all the joints are arranged in the right places – it must have been there for at least a few months. This place must have had five different bookings in that time, and if they didn’t care enough about a corpse in the hall to call the police, why should I? I certainly don’t propose to spend my two weeks off work filling out witness statements, when I could be getting out in those mountains.” Standing up decisively and walking to rinse her cup at the sink, Jenny pointed out through the window, where, across the silent loch, several low peaks could be seen. On the journey they’d passed many steeper and rockier climbs and had both itched to explore them.

Dave stood up himself and stretched. He was tall and his legs ached more than he had realised from being cramped in the car. All at once, he was too weary for further argument. “I’ll start dinner,” he said, though he wasn’t hungry. He thought the smell of food might make him feel sick again. Jenny shook her head, her tidy black ponytail brushing the back of her neck.

“Fine. I get the terribly spooky job of clearing out the hall, then, I suppose.” She pushed past him to collect the roll of bin bags.

Jenny rolled over slightly beneath the flowered bedcover and candlewick bedspread, sleepily pushing Dave’s hand away. The moonlight coming over the loch and through the curtains was the only light in the dark bedroom, and it made a shallow pool on Jenny’s pillow and her pale cheek. Dave wished he knew what the time was, but even if he’d reached an arm out through the darkness to retrieve his watch from the bedside table, he wouldn’t have been able to read its face. Jenny started to snore, gently. She’d fallen asleep almost instantly, still complaining about how tired the journey had made her, but he’d been lying awake all night.

It wasn’t that he was scared, he told himself. He was just uneasy, with the bagged-up bones in the corner of the mud room, directly below the creaking double bed. It was like having an intruder in the house. He’d feel better on Thursday.

As the moon slowly travelled along its westwards path, the pale light in the room moved too, picking out different contours in the unfamiliar furniture. Dave’s bleary eyes made out a chest of drawers beneath the window, its top shining dimly, and then a washing basket with a frilly ruff around its lid. Then there was a strange curved object. Could it be a detail on the bedpost? he wondered. Or did this bed even have posts at the end?

If it did have posts, they surely weren’t intended to move in the night, as this curved thing was moving now. It jerked and wobbled, slowly, around the bed towards the window, where the moonlight picked out its smooth dome, and the twin ridges above black hollows, a broken-looking stump of cartilage between them, and below that, a glinting row of pebbles. Its teeth.

When the crawling skeleton reached the head of the bed, its skull barely a foot from Jenny’s sleeping face, it began to struggle to its full height. Although it was now silhouetted against the pale glow of the window, Dave could see that it moved awkwardly and didn’t once turn its empty eye sockets from his face. He felt hot tears start to stream down his cold cheeks but his limbs had been filled with freezing loch water and would not move at his command, away from the spectre. Now erect, it slowly leant from the hips, stretching one bony arm across the bed towards his face.

From some far-away depth, Dave seemed to hear a rushing wind, indistinct words carried on its back. Unholy … burial … he made out, faintly, in the second before the tips of the skeleton’s fingers brushed his cheek and he lost consciousness.

“For God’s sake, Dave, you’ve checked those bags twice already this morning,” Jenny told him from the breakfast table, where she had just finished her last slice of toast and laid its crust with the others on her plate. “You know they’re fastened properly. You saw me do it last night.”

“Sorry. You’re right,” he replied. He walked back and took up his cooling cup of tea. He hadn’t mentioned his nightmare yet, hoping that a day hiking and climbing would help him see things more calmly. Jenny seemed in better spirits for the night’s sleep, her cheeks already pink in the early-September sunlight, and he knew that the exercise would cheer her up more. They lived in the suburbs of Carlisle, where she was a doctors’ secretary, but hill walking was her passion and if she was kept from it for too long she became irritable. He enjoyed it too but had too much on his mind this morning to take much notice of the maps and guidebooks she had spread across the table beyond her breakfast plate.

“… so I think we should try Sgùman Còinntich today, and then maybe another Munro tomorrow – don’t you? Dave?”

“Hmm?” His attention returned to Jenny. He had been staring again into the mud room, convinced that the plastic bags had rustled, unless it had been a bird in the bushes just outside.

“Dave. Sgùman Còinntich today?” She leaned closer to him, concern sparking in her blue eyes. “Dave, you don’t look very well. You didn’t sleep well, either, did you? I felt you tossing and turning a few times in the night.”

He swallowed, throat dry. Perhaps it really had been the bags. “I’m all right, honey.”

“No, you’re pale. Shadows under your eyes. And you’re sweating. I think you might be coming down with something.” Jenny sat further back in her chair, and he watched her trying to find the correct sympathetic thing to say. He decided not to prolong it for her. She loved him but she could also be bloody single-minded about her hobby.

“I’ll be fine once we get out on the hills, Jenny. There’s no reason to delay starting our holiday.”

“No,” she objected, surprising him. “I don’t like the look of you. Stay in bed this morning. It’ll give me a chance to clean the carpet in the hall, anyway, which is not such a pretty sight – although,” she mused, “nowhere near as bad as I’d’ve expected if that thing rotted in there. The bones were clean but there aren’t any maggots or flies. It looks more like someone dumped it there. Or maybe,” she added, “it just strolled into the house.”

Dave chuckled weakly at the joke.

“We’ll start climbing properly tomorrow. You get back into bed as soon as you finish that tea.”

At the doorway, carpet cleaner and rubber gloves in hand, she turned to make the suggestion he’d half-expected and dreaded. “Hon… if you’re still feeling bad tonight, I think I might take one of the twin beds in the other room. There’s no point both of us being ill, is there?”

Loch Chuaigh gleamed tamely in the shadow of the mountains on its other side, where a patchy hide of fir trees gave way in places to steep rock walls and the trembling lines of waterfalls. Dave was taking an afternoon stroll along the stones at the edge of the loch, where the grey water lapped near-silent at a high-water line of warty orange seaweed. Two miles or so in the distance was the tiny village of Tornach, the nearest to the cottages.

Jenny had been doubtful about letting him out. She said he was running a temperature, but he had insisted that the fresh air was what he needed. It was cooler, certainly, than the air in the cottage, with a very slight breeze that chafed his ears above his fleece pullover, but that and the salty scent from the sea-fed loch hadn’t been what he meant. It seemed to him that there was a growing atmosphere of danger in the cottage. He imagined a fog of disquiet rising from the bin bags by the kitchen door. Whose bones were in them? How could someone die in a place like this, an idyll miles from the nearest town, and nobody notice? Could his bad dream have any truth in it? Unsatisfied spirits calling for a proper burial were the stuff of the ghost stories he had almost forgotten in his teens.

“Now there’s a man with his thoughts on higher things,” said a Scottish voice in front of him, and Dave jumped, his feet skidding on the smooth rocks beneath them. The man who had spoken was in his thirties, slim and wearing a lightweight jacket. His face was handsome but seemed twisted slightly to one side, and his hair was dark and short and curled tightly.

“Miles away,” Dave said slowly to the local man, and held out his hand. His heart was galloping in his chest, and he hoped the stranger could not feel it in his grip. “I’m Dave. My girlfriend and I are here for two weeks.”

“Daniel,” he replied. “Ye’ll be staying in the holiday cottages just doon here, then?”

“Yes, we’ve taken Rosfell Cottage, the one with the slate roof.” Dave waved an arm towards it. All three in the row of cottages had roofs of slate, he noticed too late.

“Aye, I know it well.” Daniel’s expression was shrewd, or was that just the twist of his face? “The owners are friends of mine – city folk, though; we don’t often see them in the village. They spend most their time over at Inverness. I’ll be the first to know it when they’re about, though – I know everyone’s comings and goings around here.”

“Oh yes?” Dave quavered.

“Oh yes. I’m the local postman, the garage shopkeeper and gardener – if you’ve need of a gardener while you’re here –” he raised his eyebrows – “and if we had a pub, I’d be the publican too! I’ve often said Tornach could use a drinking establishment. Who wants to drive ten miles for a drink of an evening? But then that’ll be what you’re here for, the peace and quiet.”

“Well, that,” grinned Dave, too wide, “and the scenery. It’s magnificent up here. The loch, the mountains… My girlfriend and I, we’re hill walkers, we’re here for the local routes. You’re lucky to live in such a place.”

“I’ve often thought so myself,” said Daniel, now starting to walk in the direction of Tornach, so that Dave found himself following him. “The young people don’t tend to appreciate it, though. They leave, and the holidaymakers such as yourself don’t stay long past the summer. It’s a different place in midwinter, Tornach, y’know. We’ve our own ways.”

As the slim figure stepped surely over the stones before him, Dave felt the wind strengthen and drew his collar higher. In the loch, higher waves rose, and slapped against the rotting wooden posts that seemed to mark one section of the beach off from another. He shivered. “Well – Daniel – it was nice to meet you, and I’m sure I’ll see a lot more of you over the coming fortnight,” he said, “but I’m afraid I’m back off to the cottage for a cup of tea now.”

“Aye,” Daniel said, turning back and holding Dave’s gaze. “Likewise to yerself, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be seein’ you.” With a firm nod, he carried on towards Tornach.

Over dinner, which Jenny had cooked with the sausages she’d worried might spoil the night before, Dave assured her he felt better than in the morning. She raised an eyebrow at him and felt his forehead with the back of a hand before declaring that he was still warm. She had spent her day plotting complete itineraries for their remaining days in Scotland, starting with Tuesday, “so long as you’re not half-dead by then”.

“Don’t say that, please,” he asked her. He glanced involuntarily towards the black sacks of bones. Jenny followed his gaze.

“They’re not listening, you know,” she told him bluntly. “It’s just as if the last visitors here had left rubbish under the sofa, and it’ll be gone in three days’ time.”

“It’s not the same at all,” Dave said miserably. “It’s a person, or it used to be, and I think we should – call the police, or if not, at least bury them.”

“Dave.” She held his face and turned it to meet hers. “You’re taking this too seriously, love. It’s none of our business, and it’s certainly not our responsibility to arrange a funeral! I wish you’d drop the subject.”

He broke free, collecting their plates to wash up. Behind him he heard Jenny walking into the sitting room to change channels on the television. The local news: too boring, she turned it over. A detective drama – an archaeology series – some kind of soap, all he caught of which was the shouted line, “They haven’t found her body in four months!” Eventually Jenny settled on a nature documentary, waterfowl on the East Anglian fens. Ordinarily she hated those. Dave felt a slight twinge of satisfaction that she must be at least a little rattled.

“You’ve still got a temperature,” were her first words when he joined her. “I think it’s best if I sleep in the twin room tonight. You’ll be more comfortable in the double.”

Without Jenny, Dave fell asleep sooner than he’d expected to. Although he’d been fearful of even entering the double room on his own after dark, the bed seemed softer and warmer than he remembered. The moon had still not reached the window by the time he felt his eyes closing of their own accord.

When he awoke in the darkness, with the pale light from the window once again lying flat on the chest of drawers and the laundry bin, he couldn’t think what had roused him. Stealthily, trying not to move his head, he scanned the room for the apparition of the night before, but its shining skull and twitching finger bones were nowhere to be seen. What, then, could it have been? Dave lay as still as he could under the covers, his arm and face, outside them, growing colder as he waited. At last he made out a distant tapping, scritching noise coming down the hall. It seemed to grow louder, and then quieter. It sounded like somebody drumming a pencil along the banisters in the landing, or the skirting boards. Now the pencil was drumming on a wall, and then a door, but not Dave’s. Now … what was that? Now it drummed against a doorknob, and he could hear a scrape of metal as the knob was turned.

Jenny’s doorknob. It must be in Jenny’s room.

Throwing back the covers and leaping from the bed, Dave gave a yell at the top of his voice and ran down the landing before he realised what he was doing. There was nothing to see as he took three strides down the passage to the twin room. He shoved the door as hard as he could and charged inside. Jenny was in the bed directly in front of the door, sitting up quite straight and staring ahead with wide eyes. Her white face and arms seemed to glow where they were touched by the moonlight that came through the small, uncurtained window. He could see no skeleton in the room.

“Jenny?” he whispered. She didn’t respond. He moved nearer, checking around him all the time, and said her name again. When he put a hand on her arm, she shuddered and turned to him with a low moan.

“Dave? Is that you?” she asked, seeming to wake up. “I had a dream. I was… cold.”

Dave sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms gratefully around her. “It is cold, honey. Come back to bed with me.”

“This is more like it!” Jenny cried, parking the car in a patch of gravel by the side of the narrow road, where a Mini and a beige campervan already stood. They were in a wide, flat valley beneath Sgùman Còinntich, the river Elchaig rolling benignly behind them and a day’s steep hiking in front. All around them, green mountains reared up, the grass streaked with heather purple and rust browns until it was supplanted towards the top by scree and rock scrambles. Low clouds hung over the highest peaks, although the sky in the northwest, above the river, showed a clear blue in places.

They set off through the foothills of the mountain and made good progress for the morning, passing two other pairs of walkers in brightly-coloured cagoules. By early afternoon they had gained the summit and sat shivering against the mist. The views across the Inverinate Forest had been glorious on the way up, but for the last hour of their journey the clouds seemed to have come down around them and they had zipped their jackets up against a light, directionless rain. Dave pulled their packed lunch from his rucksack and handed Jenny a block of cheese-and-ham sandwiches.

“What a day for it, huh?” he smiled at her. Jenny smiled back, and started unpeeling the clingfilm from the food, but her mood seemed to have become distant. The sandwiches had little taste to them in this air; still, they were eaten quickly enough. She stared away from him throughout the meal, at the metre-tall cairn that marked the mountain’s peak.

“They used to put those on graves, didn’t they?” she remarked in a determinedly casual tone.

“I suppose so.” He thought about it. “Yes, and add stones to them to stop …”

“To stop the dead person climbing out,” Jenny finished dully.

Dave shivered, his jacket suddenly useless for keeping out the damp air. “But that was years ago – in the dark ages. People just have them nowadays because they’re Scottish and traditional. If you look at that one, there’s probably a plaque saying the district council put it up in 1964.” He laughed, but it sounded hollow.

“Did I tell you I had a bad dream last night, Dave?”

“You said you were cold in the twin room, love. That’s why you came in with me.”

“It wasn’t the twin room, Dave. I had a dream that – that I was buried, and the earth was cold about me, and … I was a long way from God.”

“Oh, honey!” He moved instinctively closer and put an arm about her to squeeze her shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“That wasn’t the worst part of it, though.” Jenny’s fair skin looked almost grey in the half-light. The mist had thickened and he could scarcely see five metres around them. “I was far from God, and I was happy about it. I was glad. What does that mean?”

“It needn’t mean anything. It was just a nightmare, Jenny. Everybody gets them.”

“I think it was because of you, talking about burials at dinnertime. I wish you hadn’t.” Abruptly she stood up and screwed her sandwich crusts into the clingfilm, then dropped the rubbish into the open mouth of Dave’s rucksack. “Are you ready to go? The light’s going earlier now, and I don’t want to drive back to the cottage in the dark.”

She took several paces away from him before turning back impatiently to watch him fumble with the bag. Dave looked at her, framed against the fog, and wished he hadn’t kept back his experiences of the past nights. There had been a moment, he was sure, when she might have listened to them, but it was past now. He snatched a small stone from the ground, pushed it into a gap near the top of the cairn, and followed her down the mountain.

The mood between Dave and Jenny had recovered somewhat on the hike back to the car, still parked by the river, and by the time they had driven nearly to Loch Chuaigh they were laughing together at the bad songs on the local radio station. The signal dipped each time the road dropped into a valley, and then faded gently along the road to the holiday cottages. Jenny parked by Rosfell, shut off the engine and smiled tiredly at Dave.

“I think we need a bottle of wine,” she said.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” he replied, “but I think we forgot to get any when we did the big shop at Gairloch. Do you suppose the shop in Tornach is still open?”

“It’s nearly seven o’clock,” she said doubtfully, “but we can always have a look. It’s only a five minute drive, after all.” She started the car once again and did a three-point-turn to point them in the right direction.

The road curved upwards again, taking them inland a little from the loch. Soon there were fields on either side of them, separating the road from a sharp uphill slope away from the loch and a steep downwards drop towards it.

“This is so quaint –” Jenny started to say, when from the dimness to her right a large white shape rushed in front of the car, followed by another, giving out a blaring, unearthly cry. She screamed and stamped on the brake. The car rocked forwards and backwards and then settled on its wheels, leaving the two of them hanging winded in their seatbelts. Jenny breathed harshly out, and sobbed once. Dave caught his breath more slowly.

In the field to their left, two sheep gazed curiously at the strange white vehicle, then forgot all about it and trotted away.

“I – I was driving too fast,” Jenny said. “I should have expected there to be sheep. Dave, will you take the wheel for a bit, please?”

She was still shaking, slightly, when they reached the hub of Tornach village: a filling station with one pump and a tiny shop opposite, a doctor’s office on the corner and a long, low hall with a squat bell tower at the end of its roof. A sign outside this building read:

Tornach Catholic Church of Our Lady and All the Saints.

Services were at eleven o’clock on Sundays and eight o’clock on Thursday nights. Dave wondered what provision was made for those of the hundred-odd local residents who counted themselves Protestant.

The lights were still on in the village shop, and they entered to find a larger room than it had looked from the outside, its walls filled from floor to ceiling with shelves that bent in the middle with goods. Behind the counter stood Daniel, his jacket cast off to reveal a dark orange shirt unbuttoned at the neck. “Ah, my good friend Dave, of Rosfell Cottage!” he exclaimed in greeting. Once again Dave wondered how much his apparent insincerity was caused by the slight asymmetry of his features, and how much was only joking. “And yer lovely lady friend, who looks to’ve had something of a shock just now.”

Jenny looked, bewildered, at Dave, who explained, “This is Daniel, who runs pretty much everything in Tornach. I met him on the beach yesterday afternoon.” To Daniel he added, “This is Jenny, my girlfriend. We just had a run-in with some sheep on the road.”

“They can be mighty fierce, can the sheep of Tornach,” Daniel said. “But your man flatters me too much. ’Tis true I’ve the charge of the shop, and the pump, and the post –” he gestured towards a Post Office sign that hung above a door to the back room – “but the man who’s the real responsibility in Tornach is stood behind you.” They turned, confused, to see a balding, heavyset man in a corner of the shop. He nodded a hello and Dave noticed the dog collar under the patterned jumper.

“Father Robert MacGregor,” the priest introduced himself, smiling. His cheeks were heavy and the nose somewhat hooked at the end, but nonetheless his face seemed to have a sort of dignity to it. He accepted Dave’s and then Jenny’s handshakes. “Advisor on the passage to heaven of one hundred and twenty-three souls, and –” with a wink – “doctor to the village on my days off!”

“Is the whole village Catholic, then, Father?” Jenny asked.

“All of them that matter,” MacGregor winked again. “Seriously – yes, I should say so, except maybe two or three families who make the long drive to town on Sundays.”

“You remember, Dave, I told you how I wished Tornach would build a pub?” Daniel asked him. “My main opposition to that plan is the Father here. He doesn’t think his communion wine would stand the competition!”

“Speaking of which,” Dave started, slightly discouraged, “you wouldn’t happen to stock wine here, at all? We’ve driven into the village on the off-chance of a bottle.”

“Well, now…” Daniel made a show of looking from side to side in the quiet room. “Technically, I’ve not a license to sell what they call intoxicating liquor, but seeing as yer a friend o’ mine, I may have a bottle or two of wine in the back. Let me just take a look for you.” He stepped into the back room, returning smartly with one in each hand. “Red or white? That’ll be eight pounds ninety-nine, and thank you.”

The priest caught Jenny’s eye again as they left the shop. “Good night to you both – I should very much like to see you again, in my church, of a Thursday night or a Sabbath morn!” She made a reply that might have sounded like a promise, and wished him a good night.

“Do you want to open that?” Jenny asked, meeting Dave’s eyes across the remains of their hastily-put-together supper. The bottle of white wine sat to one side. “I know we drove out to Tornach to get it, but I’m so tired I feel it’ll put me to sleep if I take one sip.”

“To be honest, I’m with you, hon.” The hand of the clock nudged against quarter past nine as Dave watched it. “How about we just go straight to bed now, and get up super-early tomorrow? We can leave the plates in the sink. What route did you have planned for Wednesday?”

“Ah, I have a choice of two,” yawned Jenny, “one long and one short, but we’ll decide in the morning.”

“You’ll sleep in the double bed again tonight?”

“Of course,” she caught his hand as they mounted the stairs, “now that you’re feeling better again.”

She stopped halfway up, tugging him back with the hand she held. “It’s freezing up here. Did you leave a window open?”

“Not me … but it reeks up here, of the loch.”

Jenny took the lead, squeezing awkwardly past him on the narrow staircase. “God!” she said. “What a bloody mess!”

The window of the twin room had been forced open, the lower sill splintered and the catch bent at a startling angle. Down the wall from the window, across the floor and a metre out onto the landing stretched a greasy trail of brown and orange seaweed. It was heaped onto the rumpled bed where Jenny had tried to sleep, it was matted into the rug and its tendrils hung from the little bedside dresser. All the furniture was soaked with salt water and the smell of it made them cough bitterly as they approached the ruined room.

“Perhaps … dogs?” suggested Jenny.

Dave stared as if trying to remember if he had ever met her before. “Dogs – dogs. Yes, Jenny, I think it must have been dogs.”

“Come to bed,” Jenny said, not making any move to walk past the devastation. “We can sort it out in the morning, like the dishes.”

By unspoken common consent they left the bedroom light on that night, and both slept fitfully. Often one would wake and listen intently for any sound from the house, for twenty minutes or an hour, but all there was to hear was the whistle of the wind through the damaged window. Eventually Dave woke to find the hanging light bulb dimmed by the morning sunlight. Jenny was snoring lightly but rolled over when he sat up.

“Whu’time is it, hon?” she asked.

“About six, I think.” He pushed himself out of bed and pulled back the curtains. A second curtain of mist hung over the loch, turning the mountains on the far side into a set of silhouettes cut from varying shades of grey card. The flowerless bushes and stub of lawn between the house and shore glistened with dew. The flashes of colour caught in the bushes resolved themselves as he looked into stray fronds of seaweed, presumably dropped the night before.

“Listen, Jenny, we have to talk about what’s going on here. I don’t think it was dogs or local tearaways who wrecked the twin room last night, do you?”

She rubbed her eyes with her wrist. “No. It can’t have been.”

“On Sunday night, Jenny, I had a – I thought at the time it must have been a bad dream. I told myself it had to be, but now I think it meant something more. I saw the – skeleton from downstairs, in our room here. It crawled around the bed and it touched me.”

“You saw it moving up here?”

“I think it tried to tell me something. It wants to be properly buried.”

“Dave, you had a temperature on Sunday night. You were upset and you were probably hallucinating.”

He went back and sat on the bed. Jenny sat up and pulled her knees up to make space for him. “But then, on Monday night, when you had your nightmare, I rushed into your room just at the right moment, didn’t I? – Or maybe a little late. I was woken up by a noise in the hall, Jenny. It sounded like the thing was going into your room. I could hear its fingers tapping on your door, and I ran in to find you sitting up in bed like a ghost.”

“That’s just coincidence, Dave. We’ve both been on edge since we found that thing – it’s only natural. It doesn’t mean anything supernatural is going on. And the seaweed in the room last night could have been put there by anyone. Local kids, probably.”

“Marauding teenagers who break into the house, leave all our things untouched and don’t bother to write graffiti everywhere, but drag a load of seaweed across the garden and into a guest room.”

Jenny pushed back the covers and stretched expansively. “There’s no such thing as ghosts, Dave. I shouldn’t have to tell a grown man that.” She reached for a jumper from the clothes on the chair and, pulling it on, groped for the door handle. She made to take a step outside into the hall, but faltered and stopped. “Dave,” she said.

The weeds from the twin room were now spread right across the landing, a filthy tide that pushed at the doors and even rippled down the first few steps of the stairs. The smell was even worse now, no longer just brackish but rotten. Slime and loch water were spattered across the walls.

“There’s a pattern to it,” Dave said, frowning. He put an arm around Jenny as he came to take a closer look. In the middle of the weeds, spaces were carefully cleared to form letters, he realised. From his higher vantage point, he could make out a word.



“Dave,” Jenny said, indistinctly from her coffee cup, “I’m not saying there are ghosts in this house. But perhaps you’re right that we should bury those bones. It’s more respectful. And we can get the priest, MacGregor, to bless the plot. He doesn’t have to know what’s underneath it, does he?”

“Maybe that’s good enough,” Dave said. They sat at the kitchen table in double layers of pullovers, unshowered and wild-haired, clutching hot mugs and wondering what to do. “Maybe that will work. There’s a garden out at the back. We can dig down six feet and put the turf back afterwards. But how can we get the priest to do a blessing?”

“We’ll tell him … I’ll think of something, don’t worry.” Jenny smiled wanly at Dave. “Don’t forget, I always do come up with something.”

Dave went upstairs and started shovelling the wilting seaweed into a black sack, whilst Jenny made a start on the hole in the garden. From the forced window in the twin room he saw her carefully cutting squares of turf to replace over the hole when it was filled, and thought that they were lucky not to have neighbours in the cottages to either side of them. There was scarcely any of the weed in the room now, which meant that no more had been brought in during the night: it had all been moved onto the landing. Oddly, he found that reassuring. It also made his job easier, although the walls and carpet would need scrubbing before they left.

“Can you take over with this digging, please, honey?” Jenny asked when he pulled the last full bag into the garden. “I’ve got down about two feet but I need a break. It’s easier than I thought it would be – the soil’s quite loose.”

He stepped into the hole as she clambered out. “How far down do we really have to go? I know we said six feet, but isn’t that just convention?”

“Don’t forget,” she shuddered, “we want to be sure.”

He dug solidly for an hour, until she said it was deep enough.

“We shouldn’t just dump the bones in the grave in rubbish bags,” Dave said when the hole had been dug. “You open them up and pass them down to me, and I’ll arrange them before I climb out.” He’d dug the grave in two steps, leaving a place halfway down to stand while he worked. The lowest level was not big enough to lay the bones out in the shape of a man, even if he’d had the anatomical knowledge for it. A rough stack of yellowed ribs and thighbones, topped with the fearful skull, was all he could manage. As he set the skull down for the last time, he was chilled by how well he knew its shape, the strong ridges over the eyes and the pebble-like teeth. He could not have simply imagined its form in the night.

Filling in the pit was easier than digging it had been. They tipped the last earth from the groundsheet and stamped it as flat as they could, before slotting the tiles of turf back on top and standing back to take a look at their morning’s work. It was a mess. The formerly neat lawn was scarred with a crosshatch of ill-fitting grass across the gravesite, and scattered with mud that had escaped the groundsheet. Glancing at Jenny, Dave spread it across the worst of the damage.

Jenny was driving down the Tornach road, and Dave stood on the damp carpet of the twin room, examining the wooden window sill. A metal toolbox from the shed sat on the dresser. The window frame would need replacing, and he wondered whether he’d be up to the task himself or should just inform the cottage’s owners and let them deal with it. In the end, he tapped two long nails through to keep it shut and resolved to call the owners in the afternoon.

The view across the loch had brightened considerably, and it reflected a blue sky and surprisingly bright green mountain in its water. The stony beach shone white in the sun. A sudden movement down there caught Dave’s eye: the doll-figure of Daniel, leaning on the low wall between beach and garden, had raised an arm in greeting.

Dave ran down the stairs and out of the house, thinking wildly that Daniel must not see the garden. Could he take the man’s arm and walk with him along the shore, away from Rosfell Cottage? No, Jenny would be back too soon with Father MacGregor. Invite him in, then, for a cup of tea in the kitchen. It faced the loch but the windows were too high to give a good view of the lawn. Then again, Dave would have to lead Daniel past it to get inside. That might be a chance he had to take.

“Now, Dave, what did I tell ye when we first met?” Daniel asked him, cocking a head to the muddy lawn. “I said, if you find yerself in need o’ a gardener, you should come to me.”

“Daniel,” Dave forced a smile. “Out for a lunchtime walk?”

“Oh aye.” Daniel turned his head away from the sun and the sea inlet, looking back to the village. “I like to take an hour’s turn along the loch, or sometimes into the forest, every day. There’s some lovely tracks up the hill, but you’ll know that.”

Dave nodded. “Would you –”

“Ye’ll see all sorts o’ things, up here,” Daniel continued, half-distracted. “The tide o’ the loch and the sea wash all manner of things up along this shore.” His face was half in shadow, distorted-looking. He leaned against the wall with his hip, still facing Tornach. “Only last month we had a whale’s skull come up, not five yards from your garden here. Took two men to lift it onto a truck. This time of year’s the best, you see, the autumn. The best time for beachcombing.” Daniel turned back to Dave and grinned, face clear again. “And in answer to your question, I’d not say no to a cup of tea.”

“I feel so stupid asking you this, Father,” Jenny’s voice came above the crunch of her boots on the gravel path, “but it has been bothering me this week. I just feel so uneasy in the cottage garden, and my boyf- my fiancé will tell you I’m not a nervous woman. I’d be so grateful to you, Father, if you’d just give a little blessing to reassure me.”

Dave rose from his seat in the kitchen when the priest entered, but Daniel stayed seated, smiling crookedly at the balding man, who was dressed today in a different hand-knitted jumper. In his right hand he carried an old-fashioned black doctor’s bag. “Father MacGregor, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” Dave said. “Will you have a cup of tea or coffee?”

“Aye, a wee cup of tea would be just the thing,” he agreed. “Daniel.”

Daniel nodded deeply with the same smirk. “Father MacGregor.”

“Yer fiancée, Dave, has been tellin’ me of her fears in the cottage garden.” The priest settled into the wooden carver’s chair at the head of the table. “I must tell you, ma son, that while it’s a wonderful thing you two intend to marry, and that ye feel able to seek help from the Church in a situation like this, the sacrament o’ marriage is one of God’s most sacred commands. I should counsel you against mockin’ the blessed state of union by this livin’ together in sin.” He raised thick blonde eyebrows. “Of course, were ye to celebrate yer nuptials in Tornach church, I should be only too happy to officiate!”

“Thank you, Father,” Jenny told him, brows knit sincerely. Dave echoed her, placing a cup of tea in front of the priest.

“So what’s this about, Father?” Daniel asked. “We do seem to be bumpin’ into one another a lot these days. I’ve just come up along the beach, lookin’ fer what’s been washed up from the loch, and Dave here’s offered me a drink.”

“Young Jenny tells me she’s fearful of Rosfell Cottage garden, and asked me would I bless it fer her? Though what there could be to frighten a girl in such a small piece of land, I’m not sure.”

“Well now, there’s a thing. Didn’t I just see, Dave, that you’ve dug up half the garden out there? I told him he should have come to me, Father, if he wanted the soil turnin’ over. ’Tis what I’m paid to do at Rosfell, after all.”

“Well, ah, I wouldn’t say we’d dug up the lawn,” Dave replied, feeling Jenny stiffen slightly beside him. “Jenny and I are planning a two-day hike in the week, and we had a new tent to practise setting up. The groundsheet’s still out there now – airing.”

“Airing, ye say,” Daniel repeated, but MacGregor looked at him sharply.

“Enough of yer teasing, now, Daniel,” he said. “Let me take the tools of ma trade and bless this lawn in the name of the Lord.” He gathered up his doctor’s bag and walked out to the edge of the garden, where he pulled out a black leather-bound Bible, a crucifix and a flask of holy water marked with a gilt cross.

“Now, this copy o’ the Good Book is just fer backup,” he winked at Jenny, passing it to her to hold. He handed her the cap of the holy water bottle too, and started to make a circuit of the lawn, sprinkling it before him.

“In the name o’ the Lord Jesus Christ, I bless this garden,” he started.

“Stop, Father!” Daniel cried out in a hoarse voice. “Do ye hear that?”

“I hear nothing, Daniel,” MacGregor replied. “In the name o’ God the Father, God the Son, and God the –”

“Stop!” Daniel cried again, laying a hand on the priest’s sleeve. “Ye must hear that now!”

In the middle of the lawn, something was rustling. As the four listened, frozen, the noise grew louder and faster. Something was brushing against the underside of the groundsheet. After several long seconds, Jenny cried out, “Oh!” The centre of the sheet had risen slightly, and then fallen back to the ground. Now it rose further, and began to flap up and down as it was pushed against from beneath.

“I bless this ground,” MacGregor intoned, advancing on the groundsheet. It moved more frantically at his approach, the noise from it becoming a harsh rattle. “I bless this ground in the name o’ God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost!” He held his crucifix out before him. The groundsheet was now peaked in the middle as something writhed beneath it. “I bless this ground in the name of Our Lady, Mother o’ God, and of St Joseph! I bless it in the name – of Christ Jesus!”

Daniel, who had fallen to his knees behind the priest, at this bellowed incoherently, doubling over. MacGregor grabbed one corner of the groundsheet and whipped it above his head. It flew across the garden and fell half across the side fence. Dirt showered the four but the activity on the ground stilled immediately in the light.

The sight revealed was an awful one. Blocks of turf had been pushed aside and soil thrown in all directions as the skeleton had scrabbled its way out of its makeshift grave. Now it lay, disjointed but mostly reassembled into human form, half in and half out of the pit, its finger bones scattered through the dirt, its muddy skull seeming to bite at the grass.

Dave and Jenny stepped away from the disarray but Daniel, raising his head, scrambled on his knees to the bones and prised the skull from the earth. He rubbed its dome on his shirtsleeve and held it up to run a thumb along its ridged eye sockets. “Dad,” he said, “you stupid old git.”

MacGregor walked behind him, throwing the holy water aside, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Aye, that’s yer father all right,” he said. “He’s taken long enough to show up.

“And you!” he shouted at Dave and Jenny, who cowered by the kitchen window. “What made ye think that a man like Iain McLeod would submit to a holy burial? Iain McLeod, one of the greatest warlocks this side of Inverness? Iain McLeod, highest priest of Satan in half the Highlands?”

“Iain McLeod, bumbling fool who fell off a cliff at Midsummer Rites and didn’t crawl ashore for three goddamn months,” muttered Daniel, wiping an eye with the back of his hand and leaving a smear of dirt on the cheek. “Hell’s bells, Father, I don’t know how you can say that Catholic shite with a straight face. I’ll have a headache for two days now.”

“Oh – sorry, lad.” MacGregor realised he was still holding the crucifix, and pushed it upside down into the earth. “But ye know I had to do it, to make sure ’twas your father, and not just a pair of English idiots having fits.

“Now, McLeod, don’t you worry. We’ll have an unholy rite over you and the blood of a virgin spilt before you can say hocus-pocus.”

MacGregor left Daniel and strolled towards Dave and Jenny. “Calm down, you two,” he chided them. “You look as though ye’ve just seen a ghost.”

Jenny swallowed, and straightened herself. “I don’t understand all this,” she said in an assertive tone. “You’re a Roman Catholic priest. Why do you have anything to do with all this – witchcraft and Satanism? Aren’t you supposed to have the power to cast demons out? Cast that one out!”

“Ah, look at ye, lass. A week ago I’ll bet you didn’t believe in spooks, and now you’re lecturin’ me on ma job.” He moved closer and made to pat her head, then laughed at how she flinched. “It’s like this, girl. In a village like Tornach ye’ll find one church to serve a hundred souls. And fifty o’ those may be good Catholic souls, and fifty may be given over to Our Dark Master. As a priest, ye soon see it’s in yer interests to diversify. But we all know who’s the real power, and it ain’t –” he nodded to the inverted crucifix in the lawn – “yer fellow on the cross.”

Behind MacGregor, Daniel was industriously pawing through the earth. He’d laid out the groundsheet again and, picking out each of his father’s bones, set them carefully in order of size.

“He’s a good lad,” MacGregor remarked casually. “Slier than his pa, though not so slick at the old rituals. It’ll come. He’s quick at a sacrifice too. Aye, we’ll make a good High Priest of him one of these days. – I promised the old man I’d keep an eye out for him, ye see.”

Dave found himself nodding solemnly, as if the false priest were an old codger on a park bench. He glanced down at Jenny, staring fixedly at the grave and still gripping the heavy family Bible to her chest.

“Father!” called Daniel. “I’ve got all the bones out o’ the hole. Will we have time to arrange things before dark tonight?”

“Did ye count ‘em?”

“Two hundred and five. Me dad lost the end joint o’ his big toe when he was young.”

“Good lad. As for settin’ up … well, I know yer dad would’ve wanted the best, and deserved it too, but we’ve all we need here for a quick burial, in the name o’ discretion.” He bent down to his doctor’s bag, still lying open on the grass, and picked through its contents. “Black candles. An old pair o’ robes. Might be a bit loose on you, but that’s not a bad look. Sacrificial dagger – I’ve told ye before, have I not, ye never know when ye’ll need a good dagger. Most important of all, though…” The old man leered at Jenny, then turned back to his student on the lawn. “She’s not quite a virgin, and not quite a scarlet whore, but she’ll do in a pinch!”

The next sound he made was a short cry and a broken-sounding gurgle, as Jenny brought the Bible down on his head and then slammed the spine of it into the back of his neck.

“Dave!” she cried, and Daniel, roaring, launched himself towards her. His foot caught on the edge of the groundsheet and he skidded over the lawn on his chin. Dave ran past him, narrowly dodging the Satanist’s grasping hands, to the bone collection. He seized a muddy femur and struck Daniel’s arms away, then hit him across the forehead with an echoing crack. His eyes rolled upwards and he went limp. Dave hit him again, just to be certain.

“Are they dead?” Jenny asked, breathing heavily. Dave checked the two men’s pulses.

“Not yet,” he said. “What shall we do with them?”

“First, tie them up. Is there string in the kitchen?”

“Better – there are plastic wire ties in the toolbox from the shed.”

Dave sat in the garden on a folding chair he’d found in the cupboard under the stairs, placidly looking out over the darkened loch. The sky was unusually clear, and he spent some of the time trying to pick out enough stars through the mist to recognise constellations. Then he gave up on that, and instead watched the reflection of the red bonfire flames in the still surface of the loch. The smoke was black and acrid but rose up steadily enough. From time to time he poked the sticks and bone ash in the pit with a poker from the cottage’s sitting room.

Jenny came out of the back door with two steaming mugs in her hands. “Drink up,” she said, “and then it’s my turn to watch the fire. You can finish the carpets upstairs.”

“It stinks,” he warned her, waving a hand at the smoke from the fire.

“So does the carpet,” she replied, “but at least you can sit down out here.” Dave stood up to let her take the folding chair but she handed him his coffee and then slipped her free hand across his waist. “The moon’s rising,” she remarked. They watched it awhile in silence.

“Do you think this’ll be ash by the time the dustmen come tomorrow?” he asked. She didn’t answer.

“Thank you for hitting that little shit with the legbone,” she said.

“Thank you for getting the priest with the Bible.”

“You know I love you, Dave, don’t you?” she asked. For answer he leaned down to kiss her. “You taste of smoke,” she laughed.

“Well, you taste of coffee. Let me get our itinerary for the rest of the night straight before I go inside to scrape slime off the floor.”

“Okay.” Jenny pulled a mock-serious face. “First we finish burning the warlock’s bones and cleaning up the landing. We stick an ice-cream tub of water in the car for our religious guests and take a few hours’ sleep for ourselves. Then it’s up before the bin men arrive to tip the ashes from this fire in with the seaweed and put it out for them.”

“One of us tidies up out here and packs the car boot, while the other does a quick laundry load…”

“We drop those two idiots off at the church, inside it if the doors will open. Father MacGregor’s good Catholic parishioners will find them, robes, daggers and all, by eight in the evening. I wish I knew what story they’ll try passing off.”

“And then it’s the drive to Gairloch for us, a slap-up breakfast, and a nice quiet B&B for the rest of our holiday!”

Jenny grinned and pulled nearer to him. “Well, either that or a city break in Glasgow. I don’t know about you, but I could get tired of the local countryside.”

*Rowanlea, Ardaneaskan, 29th September 2005.