The Balmoral Revenants

I saw them come for the bench, the one presented to Ruth on her retirement from teaching.
I'd got used to staying up late and taking a peek at the grounds from behind the curtains. It was precisely 2am, because I heard the mantlepiece clock chime in that amusing way it had of making a discreet sound loud enough to hear but soft enough to merge into the background. They'd obviously waited for a night when the moon had withdrawn to a more temperate glow, hidden behind clouds. They do nothing rashly.

But I had not the heart or the courage to disturb them. They needed the wood, you see – for their fires. Challenging them would have been foolhardy.

I watched the three of them approach the bare horse-chestnut tree where we'd placed the bench on the day we moved in. One kept watch while the others lifted what they'd come for and carried it away into the shadows, like removal men.

For Balmoral is under threat, as are all the old symbols of might and privilege.

That we are just a Victorian Gothic pile, made no difference. There had been a time when we would never have considered living in such a place – house or sheltered complex – called Balmoral. (Monarchies! Whatever happened to them?). That hadn't always been its name. For a century and a half it was the St. Dubritius Asylum, serving the three counties round about. How ancient the name of those former constituencies now seems, with its suggestion of a certain kind of life, a certain breed of person, living untouched and inviolable in the countryside, when there was enough of such a thing to characterise our now-beleagured land; and how cold are the administrative cantons which have replaced them.

When St. Dubritius was closed in accordance with the New Mental Health Act (known on pain of death if uttered as 'the Laughing Academy Law', the LAL), its patients were released to fend for themselves. Many found shelter and succour, others wandered abroad, an increasing number were found dead at the roadside, in rural lanes, on high mountain tracks. Even now, one cannot do what one used to do, innocently.

One tends to stay in a lot. At least Solaradius™  keeps us warm and eternally supplied with hot water. Perhaps it takes the theft of one's sentimental belongings, or the witnessing of such a theft, to understand what is meant by the death of sentiment. Will they be satisfied with these peripheral trappings, the things that we may miss but do not need? As a neighbour said the other day, the perimeter has been breached.

But for now it's not so much the hollow-eyed itinerants that worry us as they step into our path, but the dogs, fending for themselves aggressively, like the bench thieves. Gunfire, once absent from our towns, is now a commonplace (so much these days comes in cycles), often accompanied by the whining and whimpering of a wounded animal. They're the worst, the RWs – the running wounded. They had to be let go, you understand, by those who couldn't face having them put down under Proklam 167, not that they're all carriers; but one cannot be too sure. It's the displacement that's so sad and incapable of being reversed.

How we long for the more reassuring sounds of yesteryear: the lark, the owl, the serenade, the church bell. All gone. Longing itself has almost become a state not to be desired; or, if desired, then subject to penalty. A way will be found to make it so.

When we moved in, Ruth swore she heard a woman laugh, not from behind the door of one of the other apartments but at her shoulder, out of the ether. I smiled, but made no comment. It would not do, and quite rightly, to suggest that she'd imagined it.In any case, the prohibition of sexism, like all laws, has resulted in its demands becoming accepted and ingrained, almost as if there'd been some microscopic shift in the chromosomes and an effacement of what had been outlawed; the newborn are newly constituted. The old, formal language, devoid of ambiguity, is again the norm, but any handwritten scripts are viewed with suspicion. The irony of it!

Cyberspace having been infected and policed since 2087, the ancient ways are back in fashion, albeit secretively, and with raw inks and papers made behind closed doors. Roadkill can provided more than enough pens. Page thirteen from The Architecture of St Dubritius, refers to the large octagonal freestone ventilation towers rising from square bases and decorated with 'animal carved gargoyles and other forms.'

We can see those lapidary demons from our high back bedroom window. They are in motion, monkey-like figures half this animal, half that, climbing hither-thither and staring with mock ferocity at the world. Why were they put there? If to keep out the fiendish, they had come too late, for the devils were within, having gained entry.

Where we now lie abed, meeting their gaze, the paranoids and catatonics and Tourettes once spluttered and shuddered out of control in their sleep. But despite that disembodied voice Ruth heard when we moved in, there have been no others, nothing to scare us, none of the former fairy-tale apparitions from the Age of Books.

For out of the darkness have come not hauntings but imaginings, rather than memories, of better junctures, the shimmering forms of the good and beneficent, the calm voice, the righteous phantoms. Memory, we have been told, breeds thoughts of the unattainable.

The other night I was awake again, looking out at where Ruth's bench used to be. There was no movement this time, nothing untoward on the ground, except the usual scurrying of one animal after another in those tooth-and-claw assaults that have long been out in the open and independent of the time of day. The skies, of course, were livid. One has long been used to the sirens, close and distant; the nightly skirmishes in the clouds; the occasional bird plummeting to earth in flames, like some mythic creature. And then there are the galactic starbursts, or what look like starbursts, the origin of our anxiety deep in space, the barely-understood cause that resulted in our distressing catalogue of effects. They – and who could blame them? - had to take control.But it all went wrong, and the rubicon has long been crossed.

I go back to bed, where Ruth is asleep. She sleeps but she is in pain, though she does not feel the pain. None of us do and none of us will, not since the Anthropocene, in which we humans had come to the end of our plundering, gave way so rapidly to the 'Paradocene', as the wits call it, in which nothing is as it seems, or is the opposite of what it actually is or appears to be. Its emblem is the cerulean sea and its detritus, that ever-swarming, ever-expanding submarine ghost of what was once useful before it was discarded, and which returned to bedevil the earth as the oceans rose and the deserts spread. That was just before the Ambient Wars broke out, those ongoing conflicts in the sky, controlled, fought, and replenished by Synthetic Intelligence. Easing the pain of our twilight years was the least they could do, which is why Ruth smiles in contradiction of her inner turmoil, why she  contemplates the turquoise sea and not the toxic apparitions of its depths that are pulling her insides apart.

After a while, before I myself start nodding off, I hear the sound of breaking glass and see the head of one of our stone chimeras brought to life by sweeping torchlight. Do I perceive a movement downwards of its cloven paw, the merest slippage? I wonder if it is time. I snap a pink spiffick (Pacifibenzotriazepin) from its blister, place it on the back of my tongue and swallow it with a glass of Aquaflow™. Soon I reach the state of uberzilch it guarantees, in which, for a while, nothing can exist, neither the stone monster nor the interloper come for more than a combustible wooden seat; nor any phantom, real or in the mind, waiting in its shroud to spring at us out of the darkness.

In such a state, we are no longer scared. Our fates, like our capacity for terror and panic, have been secured. There is no voice on the stair, no shade to harm us.

But we still remember. We are still haunted – just - by our distant, uncorrupted past. What they want, like those seekers after kindling, is our memories and the ghosts of good times gone; and like the bench thieves, they will, if we are not careful, come in the night and carry them away.

Then we too will be wraiths – spirit people, vestiges, slight traces of what was and might have been again.

About the Author

Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and in 2016 the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection, Funderland, was warmly received and long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. His first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published three years ago and in 2016 his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? appeared. That year also saw the publication of his first novel, Slowly Burning. Templar publishes his fiction pamphlet A Gloucester Trilogy, this year. He is a former daily-newspaperman and now freelances as a music critic, writing for Jazz Journal, several online arts websites, and Acumen poetry magazine. He lives in Monmouthshire.

Keep up with Nigel's writing over on his website.

Nigel Jarrett