The Withering [from Strange Meetings]

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Here’s a new story from my next eBook Strange Meetings which will be out by 12th July 2015.

The version below is pre final edit, so an spelling errors etc will be dealt with and sent away before the published version is available on Amazon. Enjoy!

The Withering

“But why do you want to do that?” asked Clare with a grimace. Clare was laid on her back, air-drumming to the radio.

“I Love this song! ‘may you abandon me-ee!’”

“Hell Kay! Get lessons eh” Paula scowled from behind her magazine on the couch. She hid behind the glossy pages, secretly smiling. She had to act like she was the smart one because she was.

“It will be fun. A challenge” Ray finally answered. She was sat cross-legged trying to braid Kay’s hair but Kay kept jerking about as she tried to sing. “Kay!” she pulled on her friend’s hair.

“Ow!”

“Soz” Ray grinned as Kay finally stopped bouncing about. “Anyway they aren’t as good as Spiral Innovators.”

“Oh yeah?” Kay moaned. “Then how come Born To Rock are still, still, number one, eh?” and she pulled free to stand up and check her look in the pitted mirror propped up against the couch. Pleased she blew a kiss to Ray and flopped onto the seat, bouncing Paula who gave in and slapped her magazine down with a huff.

“So Ray? Why?” Clare asked again, rolling onto her front and propping up her chin. Now the others looked expectantly at their oldest friend. Ray shrugged until she was sure they all were paying attention. She was always doing things on her own, taking her own paths and the others both worried and admired her every time she announced a new challenge.

“Because…” she began deliberately slowly: “Jane Austen is over-rated. Who cares about stuck-up, spoilt toffs striding about the countryside in too-tight trousers with heaving bosoms? It’s so… old!”

“Oh, come on Ray. Mr Darcy? Brooding in his britches, say you wouldn’t?” Kay made a fake faint against Paula who promptly pushed her away.

“No, not for me. I want raw, real. Heathcliff and those wild moors and…”

Out in the windy moor-land…” Clare began singing and whatever else Ray was going to say was lost.
The evening shuddered around them in veils of grey rain and plans to crash the student bar were abandoned. Except Paula had a date and she was determined to sneak into a bar with her uni-guy so she was at the house getting ready. Kay and Clare had planned a video night and had ventured as far as the street corner to the rough huddle of essential shops.

Ray hung around. She was the only one not staying in digs but she was there more than any of them. Her home was three miles (twenty minutes by bus) from the college and two streets over from the shared house. Despite not having a room, she still chipped in with bills, feeling it was a duty to help her dear friends. She had more money anyway; tips boosted her wages from the café and from her Dad, whom they both knew was generous but neither could ever say anything. So Ray accepted the extra pounds, said ‘thanks’ and gave the money to her second family. It seemed fair. Dad paid because he didn’t know what to say; her friends always knew what to say – so she paid them.

“So, this guy? He a Darcy type?” asked Ray as she watched Paula applying a third layer of cobalt eye-shadow.

“Hu? Keith? No! He’s a poet. You know me, I can’t resist the literati! He’s cute but modest.” Paula blinked a few times checking her false eye-lashes weren’t trying to escape. Satisfied she rubbed a deep purple across her lips. “How’s this?” she spun around and Ray nodded and gave two thumbs-up. “And you are really going off tomorrow on your wuthering hunt?” Paula gave her friend a serious almost-grown-up look. Ray turned away because, damn-it! Paula had the same dark hair and intense look as her…

“We’re back! Got wine!” calls bounded up from the hall.

“So?”

“Hmm, yes.” Ray turned away, climbed off the bed: “You look great.” She stood in the doorway, hanging onto the frame as if she wanted to stay forever. “I hope Keith is nice.”

“Well, Ray, he’s got a friend. Max. What about…?” But Ray shook her head. “Ray, he’s nice too. Another literary buff but, I think, he’s doing politics too. You would like him.”

“No, thanks. Not yet eh.” She dropped her head.

“Fine. Just say, when you’re ready. And I hope you find whatever you want, tomorrow.” Paula met her friend at the doorway and squeezed her shoulder. They shared a knowing smile that conveyed love and hope. Ray nodded and wandered down the stairs. Paula watched her and she was sure she saw a younger version of her friend, just for a moment.

The Spar and the video/record store had provided all they needed: movies, packets of crisps and a bottle of cheap wine – handed over by the patient Mrs Gill who always asked for ID and feigned surprise that ‘they’d forgotten again, oops’ as she wrapped the booze carefully in brown paper. Paula cheerily left at 7:45 to meet Keith at 8pm at the bus-stop under the watch of six eager eyes peeled back at the large bay window. Satisfied when he arrived and Paula gave ‘the signal’ they settled to watch ‘Do Not Disturb’ billed as a romantic-comedy. About twenty minutes in, a heated debate erupted about female roles. Ray sighed, drained her glass of the vinegary wine before she headed to bed. She wasn’t in a debating-feminist-attitudes mood and she wanted an early start for her trip.
The bus was half-empty, half-crowded. It was a damp day and the windows dripped with stale breath and steam from wet coats. Ray chose the top-deck so she could watch the land as it came to her. She settled by a window and drew out a circle on the glass then wiped it clear. She had checked the route until she almost memorised it. She knew which side would give the best views over the hills and valleys. The first leg jerked through the familiar land of small towns: rows of houses, backs of industrial estates, stagnant parks, shops and schools. For the beginning, she had her music; the cassette was loaded and once settled, she pressed the Play button.

The tape was a mix, recorded from the stereo on Thursday night, when her brother was at football. She had tried to make recordings on Sundays when the charts were new but he always interrupted. Today was Saturday so he’d been watching cartoons until lunchtime whilst Dad tried to cook. Ray felt a twinge of guilt for abandoning them both but she would be going to uni in a few months; they needed to sort out how to manage without her.

She looked out over the house rooftops and her eye was drawn into the grey sky. As if she felt a sudden chill, Ray shivered and tugged her scarf tighter around her neck. Snuggling into it, she breathed in, there was still a faint hint of lavender and roses. Ray smiled and closed her eyes.

An hour, or more passed before the bus wound away from towns and into the true countryside. The stops were wider apart and the bus was almost empty. She had the top-deck to herself now. The rain had stayed away and the damp scent of people had faded, or maybe she had adjusted to it. Her cassette had run around itself but the carefully captured songs sounded lame against the spaces beyond the glass. Ray switched it off and put it back into her bag, nestled against the hard back of the book. She let a hand feel the solid edge and she conjured up a scene – inside the house, stone, scrubbed floors, dark corners for hiding, candles flickering and hearts beating louder than any clock; so loud the sound echoed off walls and heavy wooden furniture as if it existed as a creature, a bird, perhaps, trapped inside and constantly battling against walls and hitting glass without understanding the manner of the clear screens – trying to escape…

Opening her eyes, Ray closed up her bag and looked outside. Swathes of green stretched out to the skirts of dark hills. Ray felt a tremor of excitement as the sky darkened. It was like the natural landscape was consorting with her, bending to her will to create a brooding view. She imagined a fierce wind and Cathy racing across bracken ahead of a cold storm. In her bag, she felt the weight of the book and it gave her a sense of comfort. She imagined herself in a near future: weighed down by tomes, fingers stained with ink, rushing from the library to the lecture hall – head brimming with enlightened thoughts. Perhaps, this trip, this venture was her final childish act, letting naïve imaginations go and then she could move on, into a settled place, an adult place.
The bus stopped, Ray gathered her bag and coat and departed into a tired station. Paint peeled and rust shone through. It didn’t seem as wildly romantic as she had expected. With a sigh she walked beneath the leaking roof and stepped onto slippery cobbles.

She walked up a steep incline; so sharp that it made her gasp. At the top she paused to look down, then turned to look up. The cobbles faded into a flinted lane, walled by thick bushes. Ray stepped onto the loose ground and walked steadily onwards. The bushes bristled as she moved by and she imagined tiny eyes watching her.

The walk was a steady climb, as she moved forward and upwards, the sounds of people faded beneath a withering wind. She heard it through the thinner patches of hedge and it seemed to call, not to her, but to other spirits, in a language she did not recognise.

She continued beyond the lane, now walking through grass that soaked her ankles and ground that turned soft and dangerous below, so she almost twisted her ankle. The wind had gathered itself and whooshed at her, pushing her backwards. A quick gust grabbed her scarf and she fought to tuck it back around her neck. Panting she took a moment to turn her back to the wind. She was glad for the soft mud now as it anchored her whilst the fierce winds pushed and jostled her.

Breathing became difficult as if the air moved too fast to draw in and Ray panted heavily. Around her the wind was too heavy and very cold. Her eyes watered, tears stinging her face. She sniffed and wiped her face with the scarf. Her bag felt heavier than was possible. Her legs felt weak and she had a sudden overwhelming sense of doubt and dread. Looking around, she was isolated. Vast moors rolled around her, shifting and twisting as the wind switched directions. The land was dark, layered with rocks and skeleton trees. The sky had dropped lower or maybe the land was reaching up? Meeting in a dark loving embrace. Ray shivered.
Turning around and around she blinked to keep out the cold. But this was a desolate place and there was no more to see. No pretty wild flowers, no hints of blue sky or sunlight slicing through clouds. She didn’t expect to see Cathy running, bare-legged, shawl blowing in the wind towards her dark rugged love – but she had expected to feel them. To have a sense of their passion, the wild emotion of such a love. All she felt was cold.
Disappointed, she crouched down and touched the grass. She pulled a clump of it free and let it flow away in the wind. She shouted out: “are you here?” No voice answered. “Are You Here?!” she screamed it, sending her call into the wind. But only the howling air called back. Ray sat down. She felt childish, stupid even. Tears ran freely and she let them drip down her face. Her hands dug into the wet earth. She pushed her fingers deep into the ground, relishing the cold, slippery earth. “Are you here?” she called again, her hands raised, dripping the moor back into itself.

Ray dropped her head and her hands. Something squirmed over her finger – startled she pulled up her hand and looked. There was only dirt, yet it seemed changed. She squinted to the distance, saw a ragged tree swaying and found herself transfixed by it. It seemed stunted then taller as if unbent. She stared as the branches rolled out, coiled in and twisted. The movement was too violent for the wild wind. The tree looked as if it was being shaken apart. The whole thing stretched up, taller as if pulled upwards, clawed branches reached out like spindly fingers, pointing at her, accusing her.

Then it collapsed, fell down into a stump as if forced down. And the wind stopped, as sudden as if a switch turned off. The air was still and silence came creeping across the moors. Ray stared unable to fathom the movement of the tree and noticing with shock that all sounds had been extinguished. Even her rasping breath ceased to exist, or be heard. She touched a damp muddied hand to her mouth and felt nothing – no exhaled air. She opened her mouth wide and screamed.

No noise came from her. She tried again, filling her lungs and shouting with violence – still no sound. She felt cold, a sensation of a crawling frost, seeping slowly through her legs where she touched the ground and advancing up her body. It was not a cold to shiver against, it was too powerful for her to resist, she willingly allowed the progression, stilling her blood as it went, claiming her entire body, finally her face. Her expression frozen. Ahead, the tree stump rose.

She stared, only able to open her eyes wider, unable to make any other movement. It grew again, taller, not a tree but something dark and solid. It moved, not upwards but forwards, towards her.

The shape advanced, grew larger. At maybe a hundred yards away, the sounds returned. At first a hissing whisper then louder until she heard footsteps. The shape was a person; legs and arms and head amidst ragged clothing. Its feet trampled the ground, skittering rocks and crunching through dried gorse. As it neared, the wind raged again. Howling over her. She felt/heard her breath return in ragged gasps. The clawing air dragged at her, pushing and pulling as if trying to smash her apart. Her body still cold resisted, her hands dug deeper into the soil, holding her; whilst her hair whipped around her face and her scarf was tugged free and streamed around her neck – feeling tighter and tighter.

He stood, a foot from her. The wind did not affect him, bending around to tug at his hair and clothing but it made no impact on his body. He stood tall, firm. His face dark as wet earth and darker eyes glared at her, full of query and… danger. Ray could smell him: damp grass, mossy wood, earth and rocks. He bowed his head, looked at how her hands sank/gripped into the moor – she was sure he winced. Ray lifted out her hands, slowly. He blinked as if there was some relief.

He spoke. A voice low, like wind between gaps in rock and through tangled thorn-bush. “You are a child.” It was an accusation and now Ray winced. The cold persisted in her body and she was unable to raise herself. She tried to move her mouth, to make her own voice but she had no sounds.

“A child-witch an’ all.” He gave a dry laugh, raising up his arms as if they too were stiff with cold. “Such a frail thing. Yet tis clear, you raised me up.” His darkness deepened. With rough hands he dragged her up to her feet. “But for what? I wonder. What tricks is this?” Ray gave a slight shake of her head and he bellowed in her face: “You raised me from mire, lass! You gave me life when none should be! For what? Say it!”

“Er, I, I. I didn’t mean to… I didn’t know…” she spluttered through numbed lips. The wind howled at her as if she had broken something, screeching and slapping her raw face until she tried to turn away. But he held her face up, his hands rough and harsh around her chin which seemed suddenly so small in his grasp. Ray was afraid now, afraid he could crush her; one hard squeeze and she’d be lying dead on the moor.

“Aye. I see it. Nowt but a child. A lassie who knows naught of love. Too young to have felt yearning. You’ve no loss yet. No bloody wrenching pain within yer heart, eh? Go home.” He released her and turned away.

“I I’m sorry!” she called. “I thought… I hoped to find something here.”

“Go! Go Home!” he yelled.

Ray swayed in the violent gale, then shouted back at him: “But I have suffered loss too!” And the words lifted into the wind. It carried them, tossed them around mocking her and Ray heard her voice, twisted but unmistakable; the words repeated amidst the howling: “…suffered loss … suffered loss… suffered…”

“What loss?” he asked with his back to her.

“My, my mother. She died.”

He turned and stepped even closer. One of his large hands lifted making Ray flinch but his touch was soft as he caught her loose hair and tucked it around her ear. His hand took the back of her neck and he pulled her close. His lips against her cheek. “You’re an enchantress then. But looking for another’s spirit. Not mine. I seek my love, you know that. You’re not she.”

“I believed in you. That’s why I came here. I knew you’d be real. I knew it.”

“No, no lass. You wanted it. You enchanted the moors. Heavens know how! The withering listened, that’s all.” He moved away a little, still holding her neck. His dark eyes softened. His other hand wiped across her cheek and stroked her lips.
Ray gasped and shivered suddenly aware of the cold. Her body ached from it, yet it was an ache that brought a new kind of warmth, a deep sense of opening. She was overwhelmed by this man, she knew who and what he was and she wanted him. At least in part, for that had been the venture. His eyes flickered as if he sensed her realisation and a small smile formed around his mouth.

“So, child-witch. You brought me from the earth. The winds breathed a life for me. Now you feel yearning.” His smile broadened as Ray blushed. “Aye! No denying it, lass. It’s not love you will find here. But you may let go some of your loss. I kept mine, too long.” His gaze drifted past her, looking across the hills. “Too long” he whispered. Then composed himself and looked back at her. “So, would you take a kiss from these lips?” He asked with an intense and hungry look. Ray nodded.
His hand parted her lips, his fingers left a taste of earth behind. Ray took a deep breath and stared, captivated by his eyes that were full of certainty and knowledge. His hand stroked her neck, over the scarf and under it. He felt her throat with a tender grasp. She closed her eyes and he leaned to her. The kiss was rough and hungry. He controlled the moment and Ray allowed him to explore her lips and tongue. His hands held her firmly but she did not reach for him.

He pulled away from her making her jerk a little. He had taken a step back. His face softened but without a smile. He nodded to her and began to turn away, looking back towards the place where he had emerged. “Your spell wears off lass. I am to return. I am thankful for this brief life.” He raised his arms, closed his eyes and tilted his head back and shouted: “Winds! Moors! I am yours again! Take me back.” A howl began, it curled around Ray’s legs making her stumble. She fought to stand still as wind battered against her. A screeching, high-pitched, came towards and upon them. Ray was sure she heard a woman’s voice mixed within – a calling? But then she didn’t hear anything but wind.

Loud, booming howls sucked away all other sounds. The figure stood upright and turned around. He walked away, each step seemed harder and his pace slowed as he moved further away. His body huddled down, his figure becoming a shape, a lump of darkness. His knees buckled as if unable to hold his body. A hand shot out and steadied himself against the land. The withering winds shrieked and flew to him. He rolled forward (up) and then was naught but a distance stump that could have been rock or tree.

Ray covered her ears as the wind screamed around her. She too stumbled over until she knelt on the ground. Her back tipped forward and she hunkered lower, fighting the feeling that she could be dragged off the earth and cast away like a leaf in a storm.

She felt the tightening tug at her throat again but she could not bear to move her hands. The scarf choked her for a moment then was plucked free and twisted away.

The wind stopped.

Ray stood, her whole body shaking with cold. Slowly she turned and walked back over the moors, to the flint path, safe from the wind, between the high hedges. As she walked on, the coldness began to seep away until each step left her warmer and with the thawing she felt another alteration. A mix of certainty and yearning that she didn’t yet understand.

The End.

Lizzie HW

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