The Quixotesque misadventures of unreconstructed Marcher Morgan Jones-Jones, who has probably not heard of the suffragettes let alone second- and third-wave feminists.
That’s the thing about people from the Welsh Marches, we All-Wise Three have observed, they’re neither one thing nor the other – and sometimes they’re both. Offa’s Dyke was supposed to keep the Welsh out, as were the Marcher Castles…or possibly to keep the English in. A case could be made for either and – again – the research possibilities are worth considering. Be that as it may, the end result was a skinny strip of forgotten land where time, if not standing still, at least dragged its hobnail-booted feet way behind the rest of the country until well past the middle of the twentieth century. Norman French words were still in general usage in the fifties: donnays for hands; toro for a bull; jasper for wasp; even ashyet for a plate. Yes, what it boils down to is a tucked-away bit of land between Saxons and Celts full of funny customers. Of course, for a real good chip-on-both-shoulders moan, being Welsh for the evening is the thing.
“Why wasn’t the M1 built in Wales, tell me that?”
“What did the English ever do for us? The dirty Saxon invaders stole our land, our water, the coal from our ancient forests. They tried to murder our language. They laughed at our women’s funny hats, our singing, and our love-spoon carving – and made filthy jokes about our natural affection for sheep.” And so on and so on.
But if it’s a question of handouts, they’ll switch back to being English pretty damn quick. Mam gave up being Welsh when the Prince of Wales didn’t answer her letters suggesting star-ratings for organic dung; right narked she was.
The Porth’s parlour was a gloomy place, even with lights on and a fire roaring half way up the chimney. Two black marble clocks quarrelled grimly about the time. Morbid religious pictures dwelling on the low points of Christianity lined the walls. A framed text embroidered by Mam in her younger days hung over the fireplace. THOU SHALT NOT, it stated. Needlecraft not being her thing, she’d left it at that.
Most of the mourners stood around nibbling daintily at bits of food. Pugh didn’t. He wolfed it down, same as always, but he had neither good manners nor shame, even going so far as to poke bits of meat down his trouser front for the ferrets. Everyone else had missed breakfast in anticipation of a really good feed. Already stomachs were rumbling nineteen to the dozen, but it was considered polite to decline second helpings until really pressed. Mrs PE understood this. She pressed. Those present then felt obliged to load their plates, achieving spectacular feats of engineering with sandwiches and salad and slices of this and that, but all the time with a resigned air, as if unwilling to give offence. All chutney, however, was left untouched. Everyone knew about Mam’s foraging – that Waterdrop Hemlock might have been meant for Dai, but she wasn’t one to let things go to waste and it could be in anything.
The vicar beamed love and light and sympathy at Morgan. “They were a fine, God-fearing couple, your parents.”
“You think?” Morgan flinched, still smarting from the sobering slaps by means of which Mrs PE had persuaded him to change his clothes. Damn frightening, the speed with which she’d divested him of that suit and forced him into an equally dated brown one. Gentle sex, my arse. And she hadn’t minded where her eyes went. Another drink might help. It was probably time he tried the elderflower wine. True, it smelled faintly of tom cat, but all the other bottles were in circulation. Morgan was hungry, but there wasn’t much left on the table that didn’t contain pig; from both his parents’ and Venus’ viewpoint, pork pie seemed singularly lacking in taste.
“And what is more, they stood by their wedding vows,” murmured the vicar, “a rare thing, these days.”
Morgan nodded vigorously. “As Mam said: Divorce, no, murder, yes.”
Those standing nearby coughed loudly in an attempt to drown his words. Except, that is, for the vicar’s wife, a cowed little church mouse, who’d been prevailed upon to try some blackberry wine and accepted because it so closely resembled Ribena. She giggled and giggled and would not stop until Owain bestowed on her a look entirely devoid of Christian forbearance.
He raised his voice. “They stood by them through richer and poorer, for better, for worse—”
“Worse,” echoed his wife, with feeling.
“Worse and buggering worse, was what Dad said.”
“Till death did them part,” added the vicar hastily.
Morgan opened his mouth. Reece shut it for him.
“Ah,” exhaled the mourners, nodding judiciously and averting their eyes from the scuffle by the sideboard, “till death did them part. Amen.”
Vicar having had his say, the eating and drinking could begin in earnest. Mrs PE discreetly removed the piddling little glasses and replaced them with the half pint tumblers previously concealed under a suitably black cloth. She took her duties as hostess very seriously, at the same time making sure her own glass was never empty. Noticing that the vicar’s wife had finished her wine, she gave her a refill, which speedily followed the first. Next time Mrs PE looked her way the poor love was sitting with her skirt ridden right up her legs, revealing glimpses of tattered underwear any respectable woman wouldn’t have worn for fear of a road accident. And she was patting Reece’s thigh. Vicar didn’t seem to have noticed, but Mrs Reece the Hill was watching them with intense interest, perhaps hoping they’d run off together so that she could burn the farm down for the insurance.
Those of the mourners finally replete began scouring their memories to find something good to say about the deceased. It took some doing. The pauses were long and ruminative.
“Dai was a good farmer.”
“He kept to the old ways.”
“Muck, you mean?” The vicar looked dubious. As far as he was concerned, some of the old ways were extremely suspect. May Day lechery, for instance – the maypole itself was lewd, though nobody else seemed to have noticed the fact. And some of the antics of Morris dancers left nothing to the imagination. And then there was Corn-showing and Crying the Mare, not to mention Scottering and Burning the Bush, which were both without doubt vestiges of pagan sun worship. He’d had to speak very strongly to a group of young people trying to revive these customs in the hope of commercial gain. Everyone ignored him. He’d had his five minutes. No good him going on about gods anyway, pagan or not. His God wasn’t up to much. All right for funerals, and weddings when the bride was six months gone, but if you wanted a real good god-fearing God get yourself over to the chapel. Now there was a God. He was terrifying.
Gradually, and possibly to annoy him, the conversation slid around to even older beliefs – ghouls and ghosts, vampires, and finally, the Twyleth Teg. The F-word was considered unlucky and rarely used. Besides, the local Fa*****s weren’t fragile little winged creatures with clothes fashioned out of flower petals but dangerously unpredictable creatures referred to as Pharisees or, and better, The Fair Family. Mrs Reece the Hill knew a woman who knew a woman who knew a woman who knew a woman who had a second cousin thrice removed whose grandmother’s friend used to sell butter to the Fair Family at Carmarthen market. The Plant Rhys Dwfn she called them.
“Pale they were, with white skin and silvery hair. The same size as us, more or less, a bit taller, perhaps. Proud though. You had to mind your tongue. Say something untoward and the money would turn to dust in your hand.”
“Fairies,” sneered Morgan, breaking the taboo. He was too upset by discovering that every last one of the remaining sandwiches contained ham to notice the secret protective signs made by the majority of the mourners. What he really fancied was a nice bit of cheese, a hunk of Cheddar or Stilton. Caerphilly would do at a pinch, or even Double Gloucester. “There were plenty of fairies where I’ve just come from. They had special pubs for them, and a club, but the ugly ones hung round the gents’ on the off-chance.” He chewed mournfully on a vol-au-vent. Neither Chinese Bangles, Iron Maidens nor the Duke of Exeter’s daughter would have induced him to admit it, but his knowledge of fairy tales, watered-down myth, legend and history was better than most. Not by choice. Virtually the only books – apart from the Bible and gardening manuals – allowed into the house during his childhood had been a set of 1954 Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopedias, bought at a sale for a pound, foxed and smelling of damp. Since these were allegedly educational, Sunday afternoon reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading of these had been de rigueur.
“Careful,” said Mrs Reece the Hill, keeping a close eye on the progress of the vicar’s wife’s hand, “you never know who’s listening.”
“He’s talking about poofters,” explained Pritchard-Evans sagely, “queers.”
“Isn’t such an utterance classed as racist nowadays?” murmured the doctor.
“Abominations in the sight of God,” thundered Owain.
“There are some right queer things up in the mountains,” declared Pugh, who should have known.
“Ah, Pugh means the Llamhigyn y Dwr – those evil beings that pull men into the lakes and eat them alive. Like giant toads they are, but with wings and a tail.”
“Or the Gwyllion, living alongside the mountain goats.”
“And then there’s the Cipenapers, stealing babies.”
“I’ve been buzzed by the Will o’ the Wisp,” said Pugh, caressing a twitching something in his trouser pocket, “more times than I can count.”
“Gnats,” snapped the vicar. “They’re nothing but gnats. Good Lord, the English have done away with this sort of idiotic superstition. While they move forward towards the mid-twenty-first century, certain of the Welsh and their neighbours are still looking longingly back at the seventeenth.”
There was a short pause as everyone tried to wring out the gist of what was probably intended as an insult.
“Our dear departed friend Dai had no time for the English or any other foreigners,” Griffiths finally murmured to nods of approval. Just now, this was a Good Thing, European subsidies being a thing of the past.
“He didn’t have much time for the Welsh either.”
“Ah. Ah. That’s right enough.”
“He was careful though.”
“Being careful never hurt nobody.”
“No?” Mrs Reece the Hill shot her husband a look of pure distilled venom.
“And she was an excellent housewife.”
“Indeed, she was. You could eat your dinner off Gwenffrewi’s floors.”
“Why would you want to?” asked Morgan, genuinely puzzled. “We had plates, same as everybody else.” He faltered before the Look directed at him by each of the women. “What?”
“Oh, and her wonderful garden—”
“Her wine —”
“Ah, her wine….” An expectant pause followed. Being the steadiest on his feet, it was left to Pritchard-Evans to go round with more bottles. His wife turned a funny puce colour. She sat down hurriedly, closed her eyes, and slowly slipped sideways, a shower of silver falling from between her knees. A bit like the girl in the Mother Holle story – except that in her case it had been precious jewels falling from her lips – and the other way round, too. Griffiths saw silver and leapt into action.
“Careful!” shouted Reece the Hill, struggling to break free of the vicar’s wife’s arms, hands, legs. “Don’t touch them. You never know where they’ve been.”
“Watch your mouth,” snarled Pritchard-Evans.
“Watch me!” yelled Pugh, who’d got hold of a demijohn of one of the newer wines, as yet un-bottled, and was demonstrating how he once drank a yard of ale in three minutes flat at Ludlow Fair. Purple liquid spurted from the corners of his mouth and trickled down his neck, creating runnels in the grime. His eyes were crossed, and he was panting by the time he’d finished. Seeing the state of him triggered Pritchard-Evans’ memory. He delicately brought the subject round to that afternoon in 1982 when the emergency services had been called to this very house.
“Took two coppers to break it up,” he cackled. “And one of them got a black eye doing it. Ah, the dear departed were a right pair of sinners.”
“What’s needed,” opined the doctor, who fancied himself an expert on matters of local history, “is a Sin-eater. He’d be passed bread and beer over the corpse, whereby in eating and drinking he took upon himself, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct. He was given a pecuniary incentive in addition, naturally.”
“What sort of name is Ipsefactoo?”
“The Chinese will do anything for money.”
“Filthy pagan nonsense,” barked Owain, sin being his department.
“Nonsense,” murmured Cadwallader. “Look to your Bible, my good sir, Leviticus sixteen, verses twenty-one to twenty-two. You’ll find the Sin-eater’s origins there in the description of the scapegoat. The rite was supposed to ensure the soul of the departed might be delivered from purgatory.”
The vicar took a deep breath. “Sin,” he began.
Mrs PE had expected plenty of leftovers, enough to feed them all for a fortnight, but the table was bare. She was long past caring, so Morgan roamed the house in search of something, anything, to eat that hadn’t started life as a pig. He discovered vintage custard creams in a canister and wizened apples in what passed for the fruit bowl. There was a great deal of tinned cat food – in case the girls ever fancied slumming it – but the labels were cagey about what, if any, meat had been used. The fridge yielded one cold potato, two shrivelled marrows, half a tomato complete with fur coat, a few gnarled roots, possibly mandrake, wrapped in plastic film, and a bowl of reject eggs. Morgan brightened up. He couldn’t and wouldn’t cook much but he made a pretty mean omelette. Pity there was no cheese. Mushroom, he thought, and stumbled towards the door. At this time of year there should be plenty in the fields.
Outside, the clouds pressed down, biting blur-edged holes in hilltops, paring away the valley sides like a giant eraser. Morgan raised his eyes to his sheep wandering the slopes like lost souls, coughing and complaining, envying goats and their wickedness, and wondering what they’d ever done to deserve it all. A lazy wind came sloping down over the Black Hills and nipped at him through the threadbare suit, wailing all the while like the Cyhyraeth warning of impending disaster. Too late, for that, way too late. Except that he immediately lost the stitch holder keeping his trousers up. But, like father like son – there was plenty of baler twine hanging off nails around the yard. Pink, this time.
Morgan was right, as he should have been after the number of times Mam had forced him out at daybreak to hunt them down, the damp fields were densely peopled with fungi. All sorts – horse mushrooms, ceps, blewits, puffballs, fairy-ring champignons. Right at the edge of the coppice, under a stand of dripping birch trees, he discovered a few very attractive fox-and-white spotted ones. Perfect. He liked a bit of colour.
The gathering of which, we add quickly, being the All-wise Three, only goes to show how quickly common sense drains out on moving into the city. Enter Amanita Muscaria – a poisonous fungus widely used to illustrate children’s fairy-tale books – the caterpillar smoked his hookah on a particularly fine specimen in Alice in Wonderland. Otherwise known as Fly Agaric because of the medieval practice of crumbling the cap into bowls of milk to stupefy flies – or so they said – it is a five-star Timothy Leary hallucinogen used by the Sami people for centuries. So enthusiastic are these Laplanders that a uniquely gymnastic method of recycling is employed, that is to say, they stoop to drink their own piss. And where did the Sami pick up the habit? It was from their reindeer. True, cross our hearts and hope not to change gender. Reindeer go mad for the stuff; whole herds can be rounded up by scattering bits on the snow. It’s rumoured, though we never witnessed this for ourselves, that Vikings went berserk on the stuff.
Symptoms begin about half an hour after ingestion and include uncontrollable twitching, Olympic grade leaping and cavorting, stupor and visions. All of which brings into question the Father Christmas myth and the reindeers bounding across the sky. What exactly was in that first sack? But its use wasn’t limited to relieving the boredom of the frozen north. Dionysus’s Centaurs, Satyrs, and Maenads relied on ritual use of the fly-cap for erotic prowess – and that we were around to witness – plus the gift of prophecy, the suspension of time, and an enormous muscular strength which did Dionysus no good at all in the end.
And then there’s the Druid business. Being picky over food is hardly a British characteristic: quality generally takes second, third, a hundred and fourth, place to quantity. Full mouth, full belly, no questions asked as to its origins as long as it’s cheap, and there’s a pound or two of sugared something or other to follow, that’s the route to the British heart and its death wish. So why are Brits so unwilling to eat free fungi that their Continental counterparts relish? The answer has to be that fear of being poisoned is the last vestige of a deeply ingrained tradition that certain toadstools contain such magical properties that they can only be consumed under the direct control of the Druids themselves.
A brief soliloquy follows, mostly to while away the time waiting for Morgan’s toadstool omelette to take effect, but also because we like the sound of our own voices. Skip it, if you must.
Millennium in, millennium out, priests of most religions come up with a new sacrament, some substance which acts as a catalyst for renewed perception, which is supposed to conduct power, but in reality retains it. Religion is awareness, you see, and awareness is to strive for balance. For Christians the sacrament is wine, supposedly to soften the mind because of the tendency to cold fish emotions and over-intellectualism. That of Zen was tea, which allegedly sharpens the thinking processes amongst introspective people too much concerned with feeling.
But what now – the quest for self-knowledge doesn’t stop just because nobody will accept a Great-I-Am religious leader. In a culture so immersed in objective facts as the present, so addicted to reason, so estranged from the experiencing self, what else but psychedelics can hope to crack the shell? Maybe the taking of drugs isn’t just mindless escape. Perhaps it is the courage of desperation, a flight back into inner reality in an effort to rediscover an inner balance; a search for the tacit knowledge and experience beneath the explicit veneer; a bid to make intellect the instrument of the feelings, rather than the master; a first dip of the toe into vertical, far ranging, non-consecutive sacred time, even while the physical self is being bombarded with the chaos and limited vision of profane time with its even more limited cause-and-effect vision.
If things fall apart, then the centre cannot hold. The Akashic records are there to be read. Kali Yuga dies by its own materialistic hand. And perhaps at some level our randomly Chosen One knew what he was doing.
Morgan wasn’t happy. Not because of the walls, floors and ceiling bulging in, out, out, in, up and down to get him, not even when they tried improvisations. It was hearing the damn cats’ thoughts, all of which concerned him. None were complimentary. Cats have no idea of linear time, thus they were able to rake through details of both his past and future incarnations for dirt-dishing – pigeon shit scraper-up in a Mesopotamian temple, centipede in Babylon, rent boy in ancient Rome, bubonic rat in medieval London, catamite to the entire Hell Fire Club, short-lived lugworm in York, April 3rd–12th 1843, rent boy again in twenty-second-century Lunar City Three, mutant sperm donor in twenty-third-century Newer New York, space influenza bacterium in the year—
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Dog bullock,” spat the Blue Colourpoint, encouraging her friends to join in.
“Septic fur ball.”
Tucked away at the back of the fireplace cupboard was Dai’s old 12-bore, untouched since Mam had used it to such effect in the 1992 fiasco. Now covered in dust, its barrel somewhat bent, the faithful friend was still willing to have a go. Morgan raised it and took aim. The window shattered. A light bulb exploded. Water began to seep from a winged water pipe. Pickled onions burst from a crock like malt-brown ping-pong balls. The cats scarpered. Warming to the idea of bloody mayhem, Morgan took ten league leaps after them – twice round the yard, in and out of the tumbledown buildings, over under over the tractor, up the granary steps, and down again to tunnel through the hay bales. Fuck, fuckety-fuck.
“And me. And me,” whinged Mercher.
“Shut up, dog. I’m listening for cats. Puss-puss-puss, here sweetie, come out, come out wherever you are.”
All he could hear was giggling. After a great deal of heart and pocket searching the Boardman family had decided that going ahead with the fancy dress Halloween party was actually a mark of respect for their poor dead neighbours. Life must go on. And on and bloody on – nobody had known that better than Mr and Mrs Jones-Jones. Since they practically lived next door – in rural terms – many of the young guests must pass the Porth Farm gate. Usually they ran like hell, in spite of it being hammered into their skulls by ignorant adults that there were no such things as witches. Now that she was dead, they made no bones about stopping to stare at Morgan the Murderer.
Morgan tried to stare back. The vision in first one eye, then the other, blurred and danced, forcing him to turn his head this way and that like a demented pigeon. By now he was at the twitch stage. Muscles were contracting at random, here, there and wherever, jerking him around so much that, looking at his suit, you’d think the Kilkenny cats were trapped inside fighting to get out. For a good five minutes he attempted to make sense of whatever it was he was seeing. Most of the kids had limited themselves to variations on the sheet with eye-holes theme. Or crêpe paper witches. But one dedicated parent had produced an ET. Not to be outdone, a neighbour had forced her gangling ten-year-old to become an American Werewolf in Ludlow, something that would come back to haunt her and the West Mercia Constabulary in the years to come. There was also a pumpkin, plus a fistful of fairies, elves, goblins and what have you. The idle remainder had made do with face paints: pink and green and blue, or tiger stripes and running sores, augmented with plastic tridents, spiders, bats, pointed ears, fangs, bulbous or hooked noses. Crowd of ugly buggers, he finally decided. It couldn’t be helped.
“Here, kitty, kitty—”
Being felines, and thus sly, deceitful and self-serving, they’d taken advantage of his attention being focused elsewhere to streak out of the yard. Morgan lost interest in his audience just in time to see the entire coven making for the hillside. Vaulting the stile, his feet barely touching ground, he bounded and cavorted after them. Killing the cats was a point of honour. Cat-hating was hereditary. Dai had been a committed cat-hater but had stopped at cutting off tails. Even then he hadn’t accepted responsibility, claiming an accident with the mangel-wurzel chopper. His son would do better. His son would finish this once and for all.
A flash of topaz eyes led him into the stone circle. It was silent here, barring the groans and whimpers of the castle ghosts who were on their annual parole. The clouds moved aside as the moon rose, full of itself, trying to shed light on the proceedings. And the dog arrived, trailing several yards of rusty chain.
“Mercher, that’s my name. Fast as the wind. Moggie bone cruncher. Cat-flesh masher.”
The cats blew raspberries and shouted insults concerning the canine habit of re-cycling their own and others’ pre-digested food.
“Aaaaawooooooh,” howled Mercher. “Let’s get the bastards.”
Cats, dog, and man circumnavigated the stone circle in a wildly erratic dance at high speed. Not only were the cats skilled at ducking, weaving, and doubling back on themselves, but it was difficult to run and gauge what allowance to make for the damaged shotgun barrel at the same time. Mercher took charge of the situation and began yelling sheepdog commands at Morgan in an attempt to round up and dispatch with teeth and stock. Disaster struck when Venus arrived, circling widdershins, an unlucky decision as she met the whole lot of them head-on. Her affectionate nudge sent Morgan slipping and sliding across the damp grass towards the tallest of the stone pillars which, luckily, was not at all damaged by the impact.
A great black void opened in the hillside beneath Morgan’s feet. He felt himself falling, falling, falling, and crying for his mam all the way.
Phorcus, or Orcus, was the son of Ceto and Nereus, a marine deity who was a shape-shifter. His name became a synonym for the Underworld, for Hades. Porcus:Pig. Orc was ‘young pig’ in Pictish and Old Irish, hence Orkney, Islands of Young Pigs. Perhaps.
Anyway, Orcus-Phorcus sired the Gorgons and he sired us, amongst many others. Or so it is said. (Who really knows? The child is Mother of the man – leave it at that for now.)
The Three Fates, the Phorcides, Morai, Parcae, Graiae, the Triple Brigids, the Three Blessed Ladies of Britain, the Three Mothers, the Weird Sisters – we prefer the All-Wise Three but, call us what you will, we hold the power of life, existence, and death. Even the gods bow to our decrees. Our decisions are final. We are the Goddesses of Destiny…and though fragments of the Whole we intend to see balance restored.
Complete and utter blackness.
No moon. No stars. Nothing.
Not even the usual Mam-come-quick-there’s-a-UFO-over-the-slag-heap lights from Canadian or whoever’s military jets practising low-flying on speed. Quiet, too. Except for the beat of a distant heart?
When the hell was he?
Morgan swam about for a bit sucking his thumb and moaning to himself about the lump on his head. After a while he noticed a very dim red glow pulsating in the bottom right hand corner. There was music as well. Vintage Pink Floyd. And if the dam breaks…many years…and if there is no room upon…hill…and if your head explodes with dark forebo…see you on the dark side of the moon. The red glow intensified. After some violent kicking and thrashing, he found himself being sucked towards it, backside first, via a narrow downward sloping tunnel, the walls of which were soft and spongy and a bit too moist for comfort. What was more, they expanded and contracted in waves, shunting him along with a peristaltic motion reminiscent of caterpillars scrambling over hot gravel. He was breech-delivered onto the beaten earth floor of what looked like a fair size bar, decorated with stone slabs and gardening utensils, scythes and sickles mostly, though there were a few bill hooks, pick-thanks, even a teethed hewk.
The cadaverous barman – wearing a hooded arrangement of ex-army surplus blankets against the intense heat – was applying a strickle to a particularly large scythe propped against the beer pumps. Every few minutes he spat on the gleaming blade. It sizzled. Morgan took out his thumb.
“I’ll have a beer, please.”
“Eat. Drink. Be Merry. For tomorrow you DIE.”
“Oh. Half of Nuremburg then.”
The barman laid down the strickle, shoved his hands up inside the loose sleeves of his designer tepee, and bowed low enough for Morgan to see that he had no irises.
“No, I said: ‘Eat. Drink. Be Merry. For tomorrow you DIE.’ Right?”
“OK. OK.” Morgan’s eyes flicked nervously round the walls. This was a grim place and a half all right. Even for North Wales on a Sunday morning. Which, from the atmosphere, was where he imagined he’d ended up. More like a cave than a bar, really – Aha – stuck in a cave between two churches with the matins bell ringing? Where else but Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandyssiloigogogoch? Though he couldn’t remember the journey. Or the churches. And there was no bell, come to think of it. As for eating, no sign of a menu anywhere. No bottles on the shelves either. And what the hell were gravestones doing decorating interior walls? Sideways on, some of them, too.
Here lies my wife, here let her lie;
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.
To say the least, it was an unusual take on the themed pub.
“I said,”began the barman. “Oh, what’s the use?” Clicking his tongue with annoyance he reached beneath the counter and brought up a massive sand-glass, which squatted top-heavy, huffing and puffing, and clenching its buttocks until a sharp slap forced it to rethink its anal-retentive stance. Pale grey powder, more like ashes than sand, started to flow.
“I’m not very well,” declared Morgan, “And furthermore, I’m not here. This is only a dream. I’ll wake up soon.”
“All is illusion,” agreed the barman, tapping his bare phalanges on the wood. He raised his voice and declaimed – in the style of Andrew Motion, but with attitude and the advantage of a natural echo chamber: “Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”
“Good voice,” lied Morgan, taking his fingers out of his ears. Mine host snorted.
“Last orders, please. Two minutes fifty-five seconds. Two minutes fifty. Forty-five. Forty. Come on, come on – Thirty. Twenty-five. We rely on the catering side to make our living, you know. No profit in alcohol.”
“OK. Fine. What have you got to eat?”
“Broad beans and pomegranate seeds.”
“How about just a snack?”
“Certainly, sir. Pomegranate seeds and broad beans.”
“No chips? How about a bag of crisps? Peanuts? Suppose I’d better take some of that other stuff then, if that’s what it takes to get a drink.”
“For one?” Grimacing with disappointment, the barman jerked his head towards a candlelit alcove in the wall. “Take a pew. I’ll bring it over.”
Clearly he should have used the definite article. There was just one empty seat and that was at the back of an alcove already occupied by three putrid old bags, two of them busy with their handicrafts. The third was asleep. A grubby child of about seven sat in the dirt, playing Jack-stones with an eyeball and a handful of very small vertebrae. One of the women was using a spinning wheel to produce thick rainbow-coloured thread from thin air while her even uglier companion made do with distaff and spindle. Both threads joined to coil across the bony knees of the third, whose seagull claws lay in her lap clamped round a pair of gardening shears. Ignoring everyone else, the child abandoned its game – her game, lack of undergarments soon cleared up that particular confusion – and began rolling around drooling and coughing out guttural recriminations to herself.
Ha’penny short of a shilling, Morgan thought. Dippy. Not a lot up top. Simple. Low on coal when they baked her. Put in with the cake and taken out with the pastry. An innocent. A natural. Two bricks short of a load. A tile loose. Screw missing.
“There you’re mistaken, Morgan Llewelyn Padrig Arthur Caradoc Jones-Jones,” quoth she of the spinning wheel. “The child is one of us. But we had already forgiven you. Your error is due to a simple misunderstanding of life, death, the universe, everything, and our purpose is to re-educate you. You see before you the Three Fates…”
“Oh har har har har har, you hear that?” cackled distaff and spindle. “Har-har-har-har-har-har, he thinks we’re off har-har Albion’s Got Talent.”
“Whatever that might be. As you know, I watch very little TV. Mostly documentaries. Granted, I might have caught a glimpse of it while waiting for the news though. Yes. Three Fates. Like the Three Decrees. Ha ha. Very funny. No. We four are more correctly known as the All-Wise Three as in rulers of destiny, chum.”
“But, if you’re four, how can you be…?”
“Quiet, please. Only ask questions when you’re given an answer. The All-Wise Three, I said. Four of us, yes. Think in terms of Past, Presents and Future, if you will. Now, introductions. My sister here with the florid complexion and bitten nails is ClothO. Obviously I’m Lachesis. Together we constitute the Presents. Our youngest and oldest sister is Atropos. Not very attractive names, I admit. A trifle outdated. We’re thinking of inventing new ones.”
Morgan scratched his head. This wasn’t how Arthur Mee had told it. He looked anxiously towards the bar. Where the hell was that drink? How in Hades had he ended up in such a hell-hole?
ClothO smirked. “We summoned you. We picked you. You’re going to be the twenty-first-century hero, laddie. We decided…aw! What was that for?”
Lachesis stopped pinching her leg. “That hurt me as much as you. Don’t forget what we agreed – third person narrative.”
“You might have called the kid something a bit pleasanter,” persisted Morgan.
“Didn’t I say you understood nothing? The child and the old woman are two and the same person. Try equating past with future. The future is both the unknown and the very well-known at one and the same time. You lot all know where you’re heading. The past is also unknown territory, since you learned nothing from it. It’s all a big spiral with the points furthest away in what you call Time coiling round and lying right next to each other. Young and old. See?”
“Oh, dear. Same old problem. It isn’t real, you know, Time. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. Time isn’t constant. Which lasts longer, an orgasm or a flea bite? No answer? Of course not. While you’re experiencing Time, you’re outside it. No? All right, how about Rip Van Winkle’s little adventure in the Kaatskill Mountains? All he did was play a game of ninepins and when he came back the next morning twenty years had been swallowed up. Versions of that story all over the world. Lots from your neck of the woods about dancing in fairy rings. Time can’t be turned into a quantitative science, however expensive your wristwatch is. Everybody’s pretending. Can’t you just accept it as a human construct?”
“Grub up.” The barman slouched across and banged down a litre glass of warm beer and a chipped white plate with a handful of withered beans, a wrinkle of seaweed, and seven pomegranate seeds which had seen better days.
“Good God. Is that dinner? How much?”
“Thirty-nine pounds fifty. Service non compris. On the house if you clear the plate.”
“Taking the piss a bit,” Morgan muttered at the departing back, keeping his voice down in view of the experimental sweeps being made with the razor-edged scythe. “Forty pounds, give or take. For this muck.”
“Muck! Muck, he says,” yelled ClothO. “Beans – tonight of all nights. Some people would give their eye tooth. Ask that Perseus bloke. Tell him. Tell him. Well, if you won’t, I will. And give him a knuckle sandwich to boot. I’ve kept quiet for long enough. No good trying to stop me. It ain’t just you spinning this story. Hallowe’en ain’t it, you big daft sawney. And what’s Hallowe’en when it’s at home? The meeting of Earth, Otherworld, and Here-in-Between, that’s all. Beans, you big gawby – and you’re not as good-looking as we were led to believe, no, not by a long chalk, nor as well-built neither – are worth their weight in gold for keeping off ghosts. There ain’t a ghost on Earth or Other that’ll stick around if you spit beans at it. I learned that in ancient Rome. Mind you, they said the same about witches but that bit ain’t true. I know that for a fact. Witches used to ride to their Sabbaths on bean stalks. No need now. They use those little motorised boxes that run everybody off the pavement. You know, with the all-weather hoods. Don’t believe me? Take a good look inside the next one what swerves towards you pretending the steering’s up the creek or they’re gaga. If they’re genuine ancient crones you’ll see them laughing their thermal longjohns off in there, listening to Iron Maiden while rolling a joint, casting on knitting spells with a score card pinned to the intarsia knee-cover. Only ten for an old bat. Twelve if they’re hobbled to a Zimmer. Twenty for a girl with four inch spike heels. Another five if she shows her knickers when she falls plus ten if she wasn’t wearing any twenty-five for a mother struggling with a pram plus a bonus of five for each additional snot-nosed brat thirty for blokes out on the piss fifty for a traffic warden or a ponced-up businessman cause a prang or pile-up proceed immediately to GO and collect $200 are you listening to me? Anyhow you got to eat them. The Beans. There’s all sorts of nasties around tonight. Besides he won’t let you out till you do. Well, he might. If we let him. After he’s done some scything practice.”
“All right, I’ll eat the bloody things.” Morgan put one leathery bean on his tongue, gagged, and immediately transferred it to his cheek, holding it there with saliva and will power. The rest he palmed, shoving them deep into his pocket.
ClothO nudged him. “We saw.”
“You mustn’t take too much notice of her,” said Lachesis. “She’s full of superstition and wind. Magpie brain, you see, full of squirming bits and pieces of maggot information. I’m the one with the education. I knew Pythagoras and he wouldn’t eat beans. Not on any account. Nor his followers. It was taboo.”
“Only because they made them fart.”
“How vulgar. It was taboo. You know why? If you eat beans, you eat your parents’ heads. Yes. It’s true. Ghosts live in beans. You can tell by the way the flowers grow up round the stalk, in a spiral, portending resurrection. Por-tend-ing. Giving warning of. Foreshadowing. Cretin. The spiral symbol is antediluvian. That I do know. Sumerian shrines were flanked by spiral posts. Your people had their spiral castles and dances. When the Romans threw beans at ghosts they were being helpful: it was so that they could reincarnate.”
Morgan choked. “So if I meet Mam and Dai tonight….”
“Prepare to be A-maze-d.”
“Finished? Now, are you going to tell him about the pomegranate seeds, or not? What, no warning? Not even a mention of Persephone? She’s a relative of ours on the Greek side. And her Queen of the…. No, all right. And there was me thinking we were obliged to.”
Lachesis leaned over and fixed Morgan with a hideously bloodshot eye. “Eat up, there’s a good fellow. He gets so nasty when people don’t finish what he puts in front of them. Thinks catering’s one of the creative arts. Never could take rejection.”
“Wait a minute,” Morgan mumbled round his thumb. “This Persephone.” He shunted the seeds from one side of the plate to the other, playing for time. “Her name rings a bell. Tell me about her.”
“Persephone? See the barman – well, in a way she’s his wife. If you like. Sort of. Golden sickle though, instead of a common or garden bill hook. Says it’s for harvesting, but I can remember when she had a very nasty little castrato fixation. Will that do you? No? OK. She’s Ceres, she’s Demeter, Alphito, Danaë, Io, Cardea, and Kerridwen. She is the Barley Goddess and you’ve just drunk her. She’s the White Cow, the White Mare, and the White Sow. She’s the mother of Jupiter, the White Goddess of Death, and also the White Lady of Inspiration that you came home to find.”
“You trying to be funny? All right. According to Graves, Persephone ate seven pomegranate seeds and that er yes. That’s all. Everything clear?
“As pig swill. Look, the beans were bad enough. I can’t stomach the seeds.”
“Eat them,” leered ClothO. “Go on. Just one, then. You can manage one, big boy like you.”
“Even for just one I’ll need another drink.”
“I wouldn’t bother my little love. When my other half here said you’d just drunk her – her being herself down there – she left out the last word. You’ve just drunk her urine was what she meant. They shove anything in beer. Unless you’re in Germany. They got their priorities sorted out years ago. Issue of Law there. Water hops yeast barley. That’s it. Anything else and you’re done for. If nothing else, they always win on penalties. Like I said, anywhere else beer can mean anything. Stick to spirits is my advice.”
As if to prove some sort of point, Atropos minor rose from her rolling around, legs crossed and with her hand clutched between them.
“Not on our feet again,” snarled ClothO.
Atropos minor mewed and glucked a protest. Snatching up Morgan’s glass, she peed into it. Her aim was not good, but the noises stopped. One final and impressive fart later, she wiped her hands on a corner of filthy garment and settled down by Atropos major’s feet to fall asleep, snorting and gulping like a dormant hedgehog.
“That’s the future for you,” sniggered ClothO.
Morgan looked askance at his smeary, clouded glass. Something was moving in the greenish-amber depths. It reminded him of something. What? And where the fuck was this anyway? How did he get here? He focused on the walls, the tombstones, the sickles, his plate, as if seeing them properly for the first time. He sensed himself teetering on the razor-edged dividing line between the commonly held illusion of reality and reality itself. It was unfortunate that ClothO chose that moment to yank up their skirt and scratch their crotch. Morgan’s jaw dropped halfway down his chest.
“What you gawping at?” she snapped, “Surely you’ve seen the carvings at Catal Hüyük.”
“You’ve got no refinement whatsoever, have you, ClothO?” snapped Lachesis. “It was a mistake, attempted mitosis. Right from the beginning I knew it was a mistake. All right for pond weed, for spirogyra, but for a superbly complex creature like myself – Damn Loki to high Heaven for suggesting it.” She glared at Morgan. “You know, people are funny about the Presents – plenty of philosophical arguments about the Now – but unless they’re TEFL teachers they don’t like thinking about splitting the Present. And yet it has to be done. There just isn’t enough time in a day anymore. I like to introduce the subject gradually. She couldn’t give a damn. That’s her all over. Present Very Simple, you see, whereas I’m nearer Present Perfect. Sitting down, with full skirts and so on, it usually takes a while for people to realise. But not if some gnarled old hand is fidgeting about under our knicker elastic.”
Morgan gulped. “But you’re….”
“Siamese twins? No. Not exactly. They’re identical twins physically conjoined at birth. We, on the other hand, are the Present partially divided. A retrospective action. Think of it like Continuous Present, shall we say, boring, and Narrative Present, which can be anything you like. Come on now, you claim to be a writer. Is that correct? Hard to say when it’s a question of sharing your arse. I think so, though. Only it doesn’t quite work yet, so it doesn’t really matter. Our roles overlap still. But then, we’re only divided from the waist up. For the present. Makes things very difficult. Of course, all four of us were One to start with. In the Beginning there was only the sacred Now.”
The penny dropped. He was dead. All the lonely things his hands had done had finally landed him up in Mam’s Other Place. Hell for him threatened to be an eternity of geriatric female putrescence. Well, he’d prefer honest to goodness flames.
“How do I get out of this bloody mad house?” he bellowed, leaping to his feet, every limb and appendage twitching and jerking in self-antipathy. Ibotonic acid, Muscimol, alcohol, and distilled essence of Waterdrop Hemlock, all on the circulatory rampage. (What did you think she did with it? Sooner or later, Mam had reasoned, Dai was sure to get his filthy paws on some. It was part of a Plan involving several hefty life insurance policies.) One flailing arm sent the glass of…liquid…flying. Not a nice lapful for either Present. Both the plate of seeds and an ashtray full of perfectly salvageable dog-ends ended up in the Sabre Tooth Whatsit droppings. Chairs toppled. The table thudded into the wall which gave to accommodate it with a hiss of escaping gas and a cloud of pale spores.
“Oh, shit!” ClothO and Lachesis grabbed at the spun thread. “That’s it. Now we’re in trouble. Get on with it or the whole bloody world’ll come to a standstill.”
A trapdoor began to open, like an eye, right in the middle of the floor. The temperature plummeted. Atropos major stirred. The scissor hand started to flex. She muttered in her sleep.
Morgan opted for abuse and self-harming. “Fucking load of lunatics,” he screeched, his voice wobbling on the outer limits of falsetto. “No. No. Just bloody No. It’s not real. Only a dream.” He smacked himself in the face. Hard. “Old woman and the kid the same person. Two hags sharing the same cunt.” Slap. Slap. Slap. “Ugghhhh.” Smack. “Wake up! Wake up!” Quick headbutt to the wall. “Wake up, Morgan Jones-Jones, you stupid bastard.” He stumbled around, jigging and shaking – “Mind the thread!” bawled Lachesis – making things worse by the minute. Tombstones fell like playing cards. All the hardware rattling and crashing in sympathy. That damned music seeping through the perforated walls. See you on the dark side of. And Time Gentleman Please Himself started plodding forward, swinging his scythe along the ground as the hole widened. Flames licked the edges. Feeling his backside burning, Morgan swayed towards Atropos. Already she was chundering on her old gums, rediscovering last week’s breakfast.
“Another minute and he’ll have had her awake,” hissed Lachesis. “Do something. It might be years before we get another hundredth monkey.”
ClothO grinned. One big fat arm slammed him into the wall. Can a spindle be classed as an offensive weapon within the meaning of the Act? Yes, probably, if it’s pointing at your genitals. A fist the size of a Bath Chap put an abrupt stop to his capering.
“Don’t whatever you do wake her up my lad. It’ll be curtains for you otherwise, see, she’s the one what’s got the shears. You want to go? You want to go? Then eat the pomegranate seeds. Not my fault they’re all over the floor. I can’t help what they’ve been in neither. Pick them up. Sooner you get yourself outside them sooner we can all have a bit of peace. Eat the buggers. Gawd Awmighty, must I use brute force? Open your mouth. Never mind n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-ing, you don’t breathe until you do. That’s it. Now swallow. SWALLOW. Worse than giving worming pills to a blummin cat. It’s for your own good. You and the rest of your ilk. You Pigs gotta learn. Think I like doing this? Think I like your spitandribble all over my fingers? That’s it. Done. Don’t know what the fuss was all about. Haven’t seen such a carry-on since your mam made you drink senna pod tea on Saturday nights.”
“Quick!” screamed Lachesis. “Pick him up. Give him here. For it to work, the present has to be dissected. There won’t be time otherwise. He’s got to pass between us…quick, shove him through our shoulders.”
One gnarled hand grabbed his hair. Another pushed his rib cage up towards the shuddering ceiling. A third yanked at his waistband. The last seized his ankles and gave an almighty heave, which sent him flying past their gaping mouths and bloodshot eyes, back into the kermes-tinted blackness.
“There we are. Go on. Bugger off. Thirsty work that, and mine’s a double.”
Eliza Granville embarked on a legal career before abandoning it in favour of a Bohemian lifestyle. After coming to her senses some years later, she returned to university – BA & MA University of Plymouth, PhD Aberystwyth University – and began writing in earnest. Her stories can be found in UK, US, and SA magazines, and in anthologies. Of several novels published, the most recent are her Holocaust novel Gretel and the Dark (Hamish Hamilton) and Once Upon a Time in Paris (CentreHouse Press). Granville has long been interested in myths, legends, fairy-tales, and in her writing has combined these tropes with her close study of the post-Enlightenment feminist struggle – all these facets euphorically alive in Curing the Pig.