Sing Sacred Flame By Barry McCann

 

There is a superstition that walking over a grave will awaken its occupant, while sitting on the headstone invites them to follow you home. When he stumbled across the italicised name Cromlech on an antiquated map, Jim Atkinson was unaware he had just done both.

The history room at Lancaster library yielded the find during preparatory research into the Wyre, a section of countryside bordering the Irish Sea and resistant to outside intrusion. Major roads bypassed the area completely with only lanes linking its small, isolated communities. A world in its own stratum, out of sight from those unaware of it.

Jim was to survey the area for a university project and had assumed the list of main settlements already compiled to be complete, but Cromlech did not appear on more recent maps. He showed it to the librarian who promptly checked local government records on her computer.

‘Yes, there is a Cromlech,’ she verified. ‘Comprises twelve terraces, a pub called The Vesta and a church with closed cemetery, though doesn’t say what denomination.’

‘Wonder why it’s not on other maps?’ Jim mused.

She shrugged ‘Dunno. There is no other info, and looking at that map it’s tucked out of the way. You going to try finding the place?’

‘I will be now, though I had better photocopy this map and pray the roads have not changed since it was printed.’

Following an overnight stay in Glasson Dock, Jim penetrated the Wyre’s bleak coastal countryside, an unholy union of landscape and psychology. Half hidden, half glimpsed horizons spoke hidden depths of mind and soul, the tides of the coastline itself driving this mindscape with its undercurrents. And the miles of anonymous lanes he had driven in search of a place not signposted.

But the old map delivered him there. A row grey slab terraces came into view, followed by a stone built church at the end, all seemingly deserted. There was no sign to identify the village, but he noticed the one attached to a building opposite the church. The Vesta depicted the image of a woman with a crown of garland, medusa like and staring out with glaring eyes. Her narrow, unsmiling mouth looked forbidding, but the open door of the building hinted invitation. He left the sanctuary of his car and entered.

Footsteps announced themselves on the stone floor of an empty taproom as he approached the bar, and were reciprocated by another set of steps from a room behind it. A portly middle age woman appeared with a slightly surprised expression on her face.

‘Good afternoon, sir.’

 ‘Afternoon, are you actually open?’

‘Oh, yes, just quiet as usual. You arrived in that car?’

‘Indeed. I could do with pint.’ He indicated to one of the best bitters on offer. As she picked up a glass and pulled the hand pump, he continued. ‘This is Cromlech, isn’t it?’

‘It is,’ announced a voice from behind. He turned to find it belonged to a bearded man who had evidently walked in without a sound. Joining Jim at the bar, he nodded to the woman ‘I’ll have one too’ before offering his hand. ‘George Woodruff.’

‘Jim Atkinson.

‘And what brings you here, Jim Atkinson?’

‘Well I found the name on an old map, but not on any others.’

‘Not a place that wants to be found these days. What got you curious?’

‘Well, I’m touring the Wyre for a couple of days, uncovering histories and taking photographs for the University of Cumbria.’

‘Ah, you want to speak to Mrs. Sykes, her family goes back here generations. Got a whole archive at her place.’

‘Is she near?’

‘Lives in one of the houses across the way, I can take you over when she gets home. Are you okay to hang around until evening?’

‘Guess so. Is there any accommodation nearby I could book in?’

Woodruff called ‘Elsa!’ and the woman re appeared. ‘Our friend here needs a room tonight.’

‘I’ve a couple,’ she said. ‘I do bed and breakfast when the occasion arises.’

Finishing his drink, Jim fetched his belongings and the landlady showed him up to the room. It was basic with a shared bathroom but would do for a night or two. As she showed him how to open its old-fashioned window frame, something caught his eye in the near distance.

‘You have a railway run through here?’ He gestured to the signal box surrounded by an overgrowth of trees.’

‘We did, until the Beeching cuts. Apparently, this was quite a bustling village but losing the rail practically cut us off from the rest of the world.’

 ‘So, what’s that used for now?’

‘Nothing, just stands empty.’

‘Surprised it’s not been converted, like they do with old barns. I guess British Rail still owns it?’

‘More like disowned it. They even left part of the track rusting away in the undergrowth.’

‘No one tried taking it for scrap iron?’

‘Nobody wants to know. Now, is there anything else?’

‘No, that will be fine.’

She left him alone and he looked back out the window as a forgotten memory crept up from the depths of his mind. As a child he grew up near a wasteland that had been a railway before the track was closed and taken up. And in the middle of this emptiness an old signal box stood alone. He recalled approaching and contemplating the desolate building, its windows staring down at him like a multitude of eyes. He never plucked up the courage to enter, the inactivity of the once active evoking an implicit life of its own. Then, one day, it was gone altogether, the ground it stood now serving as a car park.

Later that day, Woodruff took Jim over to meet Mrs. Sykes and he was not disappointed. She not only revelled in vivid memories of a Cromlech more alive but had documents and photographs stretching back a century which Jim enthusiastically recorded on his camera. One photo from the 1900’s was the old railway station that stood outside the village with both platform master and signalman posing proudly in their uniforms.

‘The station building is now a bungalow,’ she explained.

‘I saw the old signal box from my room. Probably take a closer look later.’

She glanced at a twilight window. ‘I would wait until morning. Not safe poking around there after dark.’

‘Oh?’

‘It’s dangerously decrepit, should have been knocked down years ago. Now, if you want to come back tomorrow, I’ll dig out some more stuff from the loft. Hope you have plenty of film for your camera.’

‘It’s digital,’ he smiled.

Jim returned to the Inn and enjoyed a pint and sandwich supper by the open fire. This time he was served by the landlady’s teenage daughter who spoke little and smiled even less. Collecting his empty plate, she said ‘Anything else, Mister Jim?’

‘Just Jim will do,’ he tried by way of conversation. ‘So, what do they call you?’

‘They call me Fly, same as I call me.’

‘She was actually given the name Gaynor.’ The landlady walked into the conversation. ‘But answers to Fly, don’t you?’

The girl went uncomfortably self-conscious and exited with the empty plate.

‘Don’t mind her, not used to folk she doesn’t know. Now, can I tempt you to peaches and cream?’

Retiring to his room, Jim prepared for bed with only an old radio for company. It struck him as strange he had not seen one television set since arriving in Cromlech, not even an ariel. Then he noticed something else.

Closing the curtains, he spotted a light within the dimness of the signal box. It flickered, suggesting a burning ember. He watched in curiosity as it wisped a lonely, distant life, like a candle. It could be kids on a dare, though he had not seen any since arriving apart from Fly. In fact, many people at all apart from the four spoken with.

He continued to watch, his gaze his held by the ghostly momentum that infused the building with supraliminal life, pulsed like a flickering octave.

Jim’s almost trance was sharply interrupted by a knock on the door, breaking the light’s enchantment. Shaking his head, he opened it to find Elsa stood before him in a silk dressing gown, opened to reveal a scarlet negligee and very pronounced cleavage.

‘Just checking you’re settled in all right.’

‘Yes, I am. Thank you for asking.’

‘Well, if there’s anything you want my room is at the end.’ She nodded in its direction,

‘Anytime.’

‘Thanks, I’ll bear that in mind. Good night.’ He slowly closed the door, enough to watch the back of Elsa’s gown slink down the corridor like a bride floating up the aisle.

A cooked breakfast was waiting for him at the agreed time and Elsa remained absent as he ate it. She finally appeared when he finished to clear his dishes.

‘You sleep well?’ She asked politely.

‘I did thanks. And you?’

‘Eventually.’

He decided this was a good time to divert the subject. ‘By the way, there was someone in that signal box last night.’

‘Shouldn’t be.’

‘There was a light coming from inside.’

‘Well, whoever they were, they want to keep away from there. One wrong footing on those rickety stairs…’

‘Be okay for me to have a look, before I go see Mrs. Sykes?’

‘As long as you don’t go up or inside, steps and floorboards are so rotted they could give way at any time. So, you be staying another night?’

‘If that’s all right, reckon I’ll be a while with Mrs. Sykes today.’

‘Yes, why I asked. Reckon you will, knowing her,’ she laughed. ‘But you can stay as long as you like, refreshing to have an outsider for a change.’ She then headed back to the kitchen, her closing choice of words not lost on him.

Later, Jim made his way to the building, negotiating his way along a footpath carpeted by decades of moss and scrub before reaching the base of a now barren structure. The wooden steps were indeed splintered, leading up to a door hanging from its rusted hinges, while surrounding windows were smashed and left unboarded.

He walked around to the other side and found the forgotten track Mrs. Sykes had mentioned. Once a lifeline to the outside world, it lay beneath the scrub like an amputated limb discarded and abandoned.

He took out his camera and began shooting the desolate landscape. Turning his lense back onto the trail he had just followed, the scene froze as a figure came into view. Beneath a fringe of long, unkempt hair, her eyes focused on him with a sharp frown. He lowered the camera.

‘Fly? You okay?’

‘What you doing?’

He walked closer to her, stopping several feet short as her expression cautioned any closer contact. ‘I’m taking photographs. Local history is a subject of mine.’

‘Past is gone, why bother?’

‘Well, by uncovering the past we learn where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are now.’

‘Past may be covered for a reason.’

‘Then it’s my job to find out what that reason is.’

Her countenance took on a deeper intensity. ‘I wouldn’t.’

She began to turn away but Jim prompted her to stop. ‘Fly? Can I ask if you were in that old signal box last night?’ She looked back, her pupils apparently blackening. ‘Why?’

‘I saw some activity from my room. But your mother says no one goes there.’

‘No.’ She broke gaze and hurriedly disappeared into the direction of the Inn, leaving Jim to ponder if she meant no she wasn’t or, no, nobody ever does.

Jim spent another afternoon with Mrs. Sykes, covering the village’s earliest roots as an agricultural settlement, still the sole industry of the surrounding area if a now struggling one.

‘Everyone who lives here is either retired or works the local farms,’ she explained. ‘Another reason it is so quiet these days, not like when I was a little girl.’

‘Yes, as you have shown me. I wonder if there is any way of regenerating Cromlech? Your collection could be a visitor attraction for a start if a museum could be set up.’

‘It’s a lovely thought, but I think there are places that just have their day. Boom towns so easily become ghost towns when purpose is served.’

‘But if a new purpose could be found?’

‘New blood is what is needed, Mr. Atkinson. Everyone who lives here grew here, neighbours marrying neighbours. Cromlech is an incestuous place in a manner of speaking.’ That explains a lot, he thought to himself.

Jim later returned to The Vesta and found Woodruff sat by the fire with two full pint glasses on the table.

‘Spotted you heading back from Mrs. Sykes, figured you’d welcome a drink.’

‘Thank you,’ he replied, sitting down to join him.

‘So, did you get what you want?’

‘More than I anticipated. Quite a horde she’s got.’

‘Fly said you were exploring the old signal box.’

‘Yes, got the impression she did not like me doing that. I’ve always been drawn to abandoned old buildings, but that one has a remoteness of its own which fascinates me.’

‘They can also have a deceptiveness of their own. I understand you reported a light coming from there last night.’

‘Do you know anything about it?’

His eyebrows shrugged. ‘What we know and what we perceive doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand. But I’d steer clear of that building, not safe.’

‘Oh, I didn’t go inside, looks ready to collapse for my liking.’

Woodruff downed his pint. ‘Good, put it out of your mind.’ He stood up, adding ‘If I don’t see you before you go, have a good journey tomorrow.’

‘Thank you.’

As he began to leave Elsa suddenly appeared behind the bar and Woodruff diverted over to her. Jim pretended to be pre-occupied as he heard the woman quietly say ‘She’s confined to her room.’

‘Leave her so,’ Woodruff nodded and left.

Their closing conversation obviously referred to the girl, given her absence that evening. Jim had already conceded from her odd behaviour she was a girl with issues, unsurprising if she was the only youngster in an isolated community of adults.

Sitting on his bed with late night radio and whiskey for company, Jim pondered how quiet the building was given it had a teenager living there, and then concentrated on reviewing the photographs and notes he amassed that day. He also deliberately ignored the signal box, the curtains already drawn.

Finishing his drink, then reached to the bedside draw and pulled it open to retrieve his sleeping tablets, and was surprised to find an envelope in their addressed to “Mister Jim” in scrawny handwriting. He opened it to find a note bearing the message “You saw Signal serenade – Run!”

Instinct drew him to the curtains and he carefully folded one back. Within the dusky edges of the signal box the sprite light flickered again, only with greater width and edges merging with the gloom. And within it a dark shape emerged into view, steeping forward from behind the light. It was human in form with arms, torso and a head of long hair looking out in the direction of his window.

He grabbed his camera and used the telephoto lense to zoom in on the apparition. The figure was still in silhouette, apparently female. Though no face was discernible he still had the uneasy feeling it was focused on him, aware he was watching. And then a thought occurred.

Elsa was locking up for the night when he came running down the stairs. ‘Where’s your daughter?’ She appeared affronted by his question.

‘Where she should be, what’s it got to do with you?’

‘I think I’ve just seen her in the signal box, or at least someone like her!’

‘Forget the signal box, you’ve been told.’

‘Why? I get the impression something’s there you all want to keep from me. And I intend to find out what.’

He pushed past her and unlocked the door as she pleaded ‘I’m telling you, leave it!’ As he opened it, she grabbed his arm ‘Please! Stay here, with me. Stay with me.’ He brushed her off and followed his purpose.

Outside he was surprised to find Woodruff, Mrs. Sykes and others gathered in the street, apparently waiting. He walked straight over to the man, the truth now beginning to shine through in his eyes.

‘Then you do know what’s going on!’

Woodruff nodded. ‘Yes, and we hold vigil until it passes. Get back inside, please don’t involve yourself.’

Jim pointed in the direction of the signal box. ‘I take it that’s Fly in there. Is she alone or being abused?’

Woodruff shook his head. ‘You don’t understand, get back indoors and pray this night passes without incident.’

‘Oh, no, I overheard you and her mother. An autistic girl in some archaic, superstitious village? Christ, I hope the thought I’m jumping to is wrong!’

Jim turned heels and made for the overgrown trail he had taken earlier that day. Mrs. Sykes piped up ‘Don’t, come back please!’ but her words fell on deaf ears. She then squared up to Woodruff demanding ‘Why don’t you stop him!’ and he raised a hand in caution. ‘It’s no use, Rachel. We tried dissuading him, but he was found a long time ago. That’s how he found here.’

They watched the back of Jim Atkinson slowly shrink with increasing distance and swallowed into the image of the signal box. Other eyes emerged from surrounding houses to observe the visitor reach the base of the stairs, and they remained silent as he carefully scaled them and reached the door, into which he then disappeared. Eyes closed as the hysterical scream echoed seconds later. They opened to witness the light within the window diminished to nothing, leaving a barren darkness.

Woodruff turned to Elsa, who was now stood directly behind him, her face resigned. ‘I tried. Honestly George, I tried to stop him.’

The man nodded gently. ‘I know. Dispose of his belongings. I’ll get rid of the car.’

‘He mentioned a librarian.’

‘Then if anyone comes looking, you know the story.’ He glanced at the rest of the ensemble, affirming ‘We all know the story.’ It was one they had told before.

Elsa’s daughter known as Fly stepped out from the Inn and joined the gathering, her face and voice impassive as she addressed Woodruff.

‘Is it done? Will Signal sing again?’

He glanced back at the silent building. ‘Not in my lifetime, I hope.’

 

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Principle of Moments by Barry McCann

At first she was mist in the glass. A shadowy haze seemingly over my shoulder as I looked into the shaving mirror, and stubbornly refusing to be wiped away. Then it would fade of its own accord, only to come back another time.

One morning it came into fuller clarity, like the picture of an old television retuned. Features of vapour formed a face, semi transparent in itself until textures of skin and eyes filled its contours. And she looked over my shoulder into the mirror, looking at me.

Of course my first reflex was to turn around, only to find no one there. And no reflection in the large wall mirror to the side, except for mine. When I glanced back to the shaving glass, it too was empty of her.

If this had been a single instance, I would have put it down to some trick of the light or hallucination. But the regularity of appearances suggested the mirror was reflecting more than the eye could normally see.

Despite seeing her only in sporadic flashes, the woman’s features imprinted in detail on my mind. That chestnut hair, those drawn cheekbones and narrow lips. And the eyes pleading with intense gaze. Even within glass, they momentarily connected with mine like opposite sides of a kaleidoscope.

So each time my eyes clenched shut because she cannot exist, not in my world. The prospect of an afterlife had always scared me more than death itself, so I deny it. And also her.

I had lived in the flat just a couple of weeks, an Edwardian build converted into flats. The landlord is as old fashioned as his property, preferring to collect his rent every Friday, cash or cheque.

‘Did any past tenants report seeing a woman in here at all?’ I asked him direct one particular visit.

‘Woman? What do you mean?’ It sounded more of an evasion than a question.

‘Just asking. Keep thinking I’m seeing someone, though in small flashes.’

‘Not on drugs, are you?’

‘No, course not. Could be trick of the light I suppose, especially as I’ve only seen her in the bathroom mirror.’

‘Ah, there you go. No window in that bathroom, couldn’t install one with the layout of the place. And those low energy bulbs take a while to fully illuminate, cause odd reflections in the glass.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right.’ I was prepared to concede, even if he did not sound so convinced by his own explanation.’

That very evening I had taken a shower when it happened. Despite the extractor being on, the room was like a steam bath when I switched the tap off and stepped out. Rubbing myself dry as the air cleared, I was then taken aback by the sight on the wall mirror.

My name is Move. That is how they address me.

The words manifested on the steamed glass, seemingly drawn by finger. I read through them several times, wondering how the hell they got there. They could have written there at any time since I last used the shower, as with invisible ink they would only be revealed once the surface was steamed up. But there was only me in the flat. And no one but the landlord had access. Surely it could not be him. Why would he?

Wiping the message away with my hand, my second instinct was to ignore it. But then I turned to the shaving mirror and one more word.

Bedroom. 

As part of the bedroom furniture is a dressing table with triple mirror, I immediately guessed. Squaring up to the first mirror, I exhaled all my breath on the glass. Within the ghostly looking orb left on the glass was the letter I.

Fetching the kettle, I filled and plugged it into the socket by my bed. Once boiling, I lifted it up to the mirror and layered it with vapour. The words gradually came into view.

When I was another name, the house was mine.

My heart began to beat faster. If this was someone’s idea of a joke, it was a particular insidious one. Nevertheless, I marched back into the bathroom and refilled the kettle. Once boiled again, it was the turn of the middle mirror.

But you are welcome.

She still thinks this place is hers? So that was the scenario but to what purpose. And who was doing this?

Then I checked the third mirror and, sure enough, a final message awaited.

Why won’t you be friends?

That was the one which disturbed me most.

I slept unsteadily that night. Despite wiping the messages away with self-reassurances of a strange prank being played, they left me unnerved. By dawn, I had given up trying and got up to make a coffee. As the caffeine kicked in, an obvious thought occurred and I made for the bathroom.

The shaving mirror was the one I checked first. My own jaded looking face looked back, but no one else’s. Then I turned on the shower, but not with any intention of stepping in. The steam did its work and the words on the wall mirror appeared.

Please, to be touched. Feel the skin of a living pulse.

I then took the kettle into the bedroom and she had been back there.

All I ask is let Move share moments. That was the first.

But people wish Move away was the second.

Let Move touch you. That was enough.    

‘Now I know it is someone real. And leaving me these messages.’ I had called the landlord round and re steamed the mirror, having left the lettering unwiped this time.

‘Friend of yours playing a joke?’ he suggested.

‘I’ve had no visitors for days and these have appeared since. There is no one else.’ His tone became defensive. ‘Well, I’ll have no talk of ghosts! Scares off potential tenants.’

‘Who mentioned ghosts? I didn’t.’

He stopped dead, having inadvertently let a cat out of the bag.

‘Who owned this place before?’ I insisted. He took a reluctant breath and confessed. ‘I bought this property from the estate of the woman who lived here. She’d been found dead, apparently after a long illness.’

‘Alone?’

‘Yes, she lived alone. Don’t know any more than that.’

‘Was she old?’

‘No, she wasn’t. Forties I was told. I did find some photos while clearing the place out, which I presumed were her. Don’t understand why she wasn’t married, certainly a looker.’

‘Slim face, chestnut hair?’

‘Sounds right.’

‘And she’s been seen before.’

He nodded. ‘Which is why no one stays here long. Guess you’ll be giving notice?’

I shook my head. ‘You needn’t worry about that.’ 

Despite all that had happened, I still did not believe in ghosts. At least not in the supernatural sense. But there is a theory I subscribe to which makes more physical sense, underlined by a reality of time.

I perceive the path from past to present is not a linear one, but an ever outward spiral. So events of the past have not only happened before us, but are happening now by our side. Thus ghosts are merely glimpses of a reality ongoing, a view from the other side of a bridge so to speak.

Question is am I seeing this woman’s past, or witnessing her watching my present? Whose time is intruding on whose? And how exactly was she able to reach across to leave those messages? Maybe it is more than just a bridge that connects us. Perhaps the paths of our world are somehow crossing.

So I denied Move no longer. Accepting her existence need not confirm an afterlife, but simply acknowledge another life co existing alongside mine. However, that lends no sense of the messages she has been scrying. “To feel the flesh of a living pulse” sound more like the plea of a dead woman. Or maybe I was just seeing the surface of those words, a cry of mortal loneliness lying beneath. She was a woman alone. Is alone.       

As the sun set outside, it felt time to answer her call. Entering the bathroom and checking the shaving mirror, there was just me alone. Filling the sink with water, I splashed my face and the hot tap steamed up the mirror. No words left for me this time but, wiping the surface clean, there she was. Over my shoulder, smiling this time. I smiled back, knowing she could see my face in the reflection. She turned, the back of her head fading as she left.

I checked the bedroom and found Move in the triple mirror looking directly out at me. Her face and torso echoed from all three angles, in place of my own reflection. 

I raised my hand and she lifted hers in exact symmetry, our fingers touching but for the separation of glass. Was her image now mine? Or had mine become hers?

 

A Walk on the Wyreside

Wyre

Like any renaissance chappie, I pride myself as a person of varying creative outlets. Feature writer, author, speaker, lecturer, performer and even photographer.  But one thing I have never aspired to is writing poetry. I like a good poem, and value poetry as a medium; from the O level days of studying the works of John Keats and his various odes, to A level and the jolly stanzas of Phillip Larkin…. though This Be the Verse was conspicuously absent from our reading list. Well, it was a college run by nuns.

As a speaker/teacher of creative writing, one does appreciate how poetry works in its rhythm and metre, to rhyme or not to rhyme, the importance of structure and economy of words. Just not that interested in being a poet myself.

Last year I was asked by Adele Robinson of the Lancashire Dead Good Poets Society about taking photographs for a poetry based project called Walking on Wyre, which was being financed by the Arts Council England and Left Coast. The River Wyre runs through north Lancashire from the estuary of Fleetwood and Knott End, and then 28 miles inland to the Forest of Bowland. My initial job was to photograph various locations along and around the river, which would be used in the published anthology.

But where would the poems come from? Adele set up a number of writers’ workshops at various locations around Wyre country, tutored mainly by writers from the Fylde coast. She also suggested that perhaps I would like to attend some of these and have a go, to which I thought “why not?”

The first was a full day at Wyre Estuary Nature Reserve, which was tutored by poet Sarah Hymas. We were given a tour of the area by a local historian who informed us it had been a working port in centuries gone by and a farewell point for passengers migrating to the Americas. Back at the tutorial, my thoughts pondered this history of the now silted up mudflats as an echo of the ghostly past. That resulted an eight line stanza entitled We Sailed, the second half of which concludes

The fading echo hailing

Lone ferry to cross bank

The photo sepia

The memory vivid.

My next workshop was evening more intriguing. Rossall Point is a coastal watchtower near Fleetwood open to the public and with a commanding view of the sea, which was fairly rough the day we attended. I actually arrived before the others and got chatting to one of the volunteers there. As we spoke, he suddenly pointed me to the crashing waves and the black head of a seal bobbing up and down, the only time I have seen one in the wild outside of California. He informed me that the drawn out baying of a seal sounds remarkably like a wolf. That information, coupled with the sight of isolated sandbanks and knowledge that sacred sites of pagan worship lay along this part of the coast, invoked a two stanza piece I called Release the Sea, the second of which reads

Alone on a sandbank

The sea witch casts circle

Sirens rising to her summons

A seal baying to the moon

So having had a go at the medium of poetry, what lessons did I take from it?

  1. Keep it tight and ensure a consistency of rhythm. This is especially important with blank verse.
  2. Be economic with language and resist the temptation to over enrich. Opulence can work if handled sparingly, but can just as easily spill into the verbose. Spare a thought for your poor reader.
  3. Similarly, a good image can save an awful lot of description, and is far more memorable. It’s important to catch the reader’s attention in order to engage them with the poem, and a striking image will do that. Over descriptive detail is likely to have the opposite effect.

But those are just my conclusions. Other writers and editors may think differently.

Walking on Wyre was published in the form of a fold out map containing over three dozen specially composed poems by various writers and is available from to purchase from Amazon. And will I try my hand again? Maybe once I have Ode to the Taxman sorted out.

Eva’s Song

My first contribution to Lancashire Archive’s Tide & Time project, based in Morecambe. It is based on the case of Eva Wilcox to drowned herself in Morecambe bay after seeing her estranged boyfriend for the last time. Thank you to Vicci McCann for encouraging me to take part, and Sarah Hymas for her help and advice.

Eva’s Song

Eva’s Lover

She just turned up on the doorstep, like a memory come back to haunt. We had been an item, but she were back in Sheffield and I were here. Then I get the letter saying it would be better if she got a boy in her own town. I felt the same way and didn’t even reply. She were a chapter closed and my life turned a new page.

So I walked her back to her digs in Morecambe and things were fine enough. Met her next day on the prom and we spent a few hours. Then day after, she reappears as words. A note suggesting suicide. But her last letter had not resulted in the new boyfriend it promised, so I didn’t heed the heartbeat of this one. I never thought she’d really do it.

Eva’s Witness

Just before ten, was on my way home along Marine Road when I saw her. She was stood on the landing stage by clock tower with her hat off and holding it in her hand. She seemed somewhere else. Like a ghost. I knew she couldn’t be going for a walk on the beach, not with tide in. But then she suddenly jumped into the water, in her clothes. I got nearer and could see her head above the water. Being such a warm evening, I reckoned she were bathing and modesty prevented her from undressing first, so I walked on and left her to it. Did wonder what happened to her hat, though.

Eva’s Father

There was no warning, not even hint. On the day she went, she was full of her usual spirit. Did chores as normal, even spoke of joining the W.A.A.C.

Then she went out and never came back. And I hear nothing for three days. Then the letter arrives, postmark Morecambe. It’s signed by her but from someone else. Someone troubled. Not my Eva.

Suddenly, constable turns up. As soon as I opened the door to him, I knew it were trouble. They’re like lawyers, always bearing bad news, especially when they take their helmets off. Quiet chat, consoling cups of tea. Then I follow Eva to Morecambe. And the next time I see her, is the last time.

Eva

You had expectations of me, Dad, as any father would. However, truth was, there were two of me. There was dutiful Eva, the one I let you see. The one you cherished. But beneath her ran deeper waters, an Eva with desires elsewhere. And that elsewhere was George, who drifted beyond my reach.

I thought releasing him would be my release, but the longing became more and more. So I made a pact with myself and swam after my George, even if this meant the way back would no longer be open. In the end, I had to let him go forever and the promise of a future was broken. A crossroads where I could only bury my heart.

You see, Dad, there could be no return to the life we had. George had changed everything, and that changed me. And the change in me, changed you in my eyes. So, I surrender to the sea and drift away with the outgoing tide. A siren without a song.

Barry McCann

Visit the site

http://www.timeandtide.xyz/blog/evas-song

Though Palaces Do Slope

Resorts come, and resorts go. Some find news ways of maintaining their glory days, while others eventually lapse into a somnambulist existence, trading on the grey pound and memories of what they once where. Torenton was a semi sleepy former spa town, grown on the back of Victorian bathes and water cures. Not a commercial attraction like Blackpool, but a more graceful alternative that appealed to residents and visitors who preferred a more sedate time. However, as holidaying fashions changed with cheaper flights to sunnier Spain, the place gradually retired from the tourist industry and, itself, became more of a retirement destination. However, things had not been so quiet of late, with the town’s populace now split in the biggest controversy they had known. And it was all over the former Palace Theatre.
Built in 1934, the Palace was originally an art deco theatre which, over the next 30 years, became known as the Grand Old Lady of Torenton. And this was a lady who boasted a fine array of leading players with many of the top names in the acting and entertainment world treading its hallowed boards, while still finding room to accommodate local talent shows and amateur dramatics. For decades, it was the heartbeat of the community. But by the late 1950s this heart was beginning to falter.
It proved a dream not destined to last and, in 1964, it shut its doors to the performing arts for the last time. Audiences had steadily dwindled, lured away by the burgeoning medium of television. Hopes of it adapting into a cinema evaporated when none of the major chains showed an interest, themselves struggling against the one eyed monster that had done for the theatre. However, fears this would mean losing the beloved building altogether were dispelled when a leisure firm took over and reopened it as a Bingo Hall. At least this ensured the building be preserved and the hope it may return to its original purpose in better times.
However, this life support had now itself run out of time. Bingo began going the way of the theatre, with membership numbers dropping badly as the pastime became unfashionable with a younger generation more interested in on line gaming. The management tried initiating some ambitious promotions to attract new punters in but, while this brought some second wind, the downward curve persisted and the writing was on the wall. Eventually, The Palace closed its doors for the second time, and were boarded up while its fate was decided.
It had been closed barely two days when the local paper revealed the council were considering a planning application from the European retail chain, Nosfra, to demolish the Grand Old Lady and replace it with a modern supermarket. The plan was championed by Councillor Doris Fletcher, who issued a statement claiming “Torenton is currently only served by a small retail outlets. Residents deserve a wider choice and Nosfra will deliver that.”
The claim was met with puzzlement by locals, as there was already a supermarket just a couple of hundred yards up the road, delivering pretty well the same sort of range Nosfra promised. But the councillor maintained a blind spot to this little detail, avoiding the question altogether. She stayed guarded as public knowledge of Nosfra’s discreet dealings with both her and several others in strategic places could very well jeopardise the project.
A barrage of letters began to appear in the local pages, protesting at the council even considering the destruction of the “iconic” building, and demanding it be re opened as performance and exhibition space run by a charitable trust. Doris quickly attempted to deflate the point with a reply claiming “The Palace is not an iconic building. It had its use, but has now outgrown it. I understand some people are upset about the impending demolition of the building, but that is progress. Live theatre ceased paying years ago and the current structure is no longer of use. I suggest they get over it and allow this town to get on.”
Her provocative words were blasted by local historians, demanding to know what qualified the councillor to declare the building as “not iconic.” A group called “Save the Palace” was formed, and quickly set about an internet campaign against the development, declaring “The show ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” The councillor retorted with the statement “It’s this lady who will be singing when the show is over.” Her lips remained tight in the fall out that caused, confident they would not guess the existence of a hidden agenda. And it was motivating enough for Doris, and her associates, to get the application approved by one of the most unpopular council meetings in Torenton’s history. Once it was rubber stamped, she discreetly exited the chamber via the back to avoid an angry crowd and went home gloating in triumph.
It was a gloat continued when the local press office unexpectedly phoned Councillor Fletcher and offered her a photo opportunity. One of her taking the first sledgehammer to the Palace building in a symbolic gesture of laying it to rest, and making way for the new development. It was an irresistible proposition, as this would seal her last word over those who tried to tried to stand in her way, and an extra piece of free publicity for her public profile.
The morning came and Councillor Doris Fletcher arrived at the site, delighted to see the building fenced off for demolition. Donning a hard hat, she was introduced to both the site manager and the press photographer, as well as being re acquainted with the area manager of Nosfra with whom she had been dealing. It was then explained what was to happen. “I’ll get a shot of you holding the sledgehammer, as if ready to deliver the first blow” the photographer proposed. “And then do I get to blow the place up?” Doris laughed. “Not in an area like this” the demolition manager explained. “Men are on the roof, ready to dismantle as soon you have done your bit. They will manually take down the exterior and then we will bulldoze the structure.” The area manager then chimed in with “As soon as the site is cleared, you can come back and lay the foundation stone.”
“Really!”
“Yes” the photographer added. “Another publicity shot for you.”
The posed photo was taken and the manager got onto his megaphone, ordering his men to start work. The photographer left for his next assignment, while Doris and the demolition manager stepped back to look up at the activity on the roof, the banging and crashing almost causing the area to vibrate. The councillor’s eyes glanced down the length of the building and caught sight of something in one of the upstairs windows. A shadowy figure looking straight down at her from behind dirty glass, or at least that is how it seemed to her. Strangely, while no face was visible, she could sense eyes straight at her, almost burrowing into hers. Then the shadow moved, as if walking away from the window and out of sight. She turned and shouted to the manager. “Should any of your men be inside?” He looked back at her, quizzically. “No, its not safe.”
“There’s someone in there. Just saw him through the window.” The manager looked up, asking “Where?” She strolled across and stood below the window in question, her hand pointing up and shouting “There!” That became her last word.
The vibration from the sledgehammers erupted into a rumble. Both figures on the ground looked around to see what was causing it when, suddenly, part of the side of the building came crashing down in an avalanche of bricks and concrete. The manager instinctively dived to the ground, covering his head until the deafening sound stopped. When it did he cautiously lifted his head and, through the thick fog of dust, could just make out a large pile of rubble where the councillor had been standing.
The emergency services arrived and, with the aid of the demolition crew, dug out the body that had once been Doris Fletcher. Mercifully, the coroner reported she had been killed in an instant and probably not known what hit her. An inquiry took place into the incident, but no one could explain why that section of the building should suddenly give way as it did. With no other conclusion arrived at, a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
It was a terrible tragedy for the town and tributes were paid from all sides, regardless of what they had thought of her personally. However, some opponents of the development whom Doris had alienated did secretly muse on her fate as poetic justice. But for those who were privy to the councillor’s last moments, and words, there was possibly something deeper at work. For her final performance, the Grand Old Lady of Torenton had sung the final song.

Originally appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post May 3 2014)

The Shadow Inside

Golden mile

There is nothing but the sound of my own footsteps brushing the ground of an empty promenade. Where colour once met laughter, buildings now lie shuttered and cries of seagulls echo in the breeze. A town has closed shop for season’s change and the Golden Mile is haunted by absence.

I pass Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, its loudspeaker invitation to roll up now, mercifully, silent. Once, I did step inside and didn’t believe a word. But I do know the plastic façade that is the museum’s frontage masks a building‘s secret. A past hidden from the outside. Cross that threshold into within and walk through a living memory of window bays with no view. Nothing to look out to but a plywood cocoon. The lonely soul of a house that once was.

Where now reside two headed sheep and men with four eyeballs, landladies ruled over troops of servants. Breakfasts and dinners were cooked, linen washed and beds changed. Guests home by 10.30 before the bolt went on the door. The Friday changeover as old residents were traded for new.

They say ghosts still stalk these floorboards like ripples across a pool of time. But, no, the building is a ghost. One that sleeps beneath the modern sideshow layer. And would Mr. Ripley’s clientele believe that… Or not?

Written and narrated by the Barry McCann for a sound sculpture created by Lucy Stevens, December 2011. Broadcast Grundy Art Gallery 2012 for the launch of  ther Walls Have Ears anthology by Blackpool Heritage.

Whisper in the Night

If legends be true, tis a rare old lane in Lancashire that boasts neither a boggart or some other queer doings. Indeed, during the dawn of the 1800s, there were tales of a particular pathway troubled by an apparition that local folk referred to as Dobbie. Connecting Clarke Hall to Holker House, the lane was narrow with high hedges that overhung with claw like menace. Even on a summers day it breathed a melancholic air of tunnel like gloom.

Clarke House was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale and their quartet of servants. The housekeeper, Cook, Tom the page boy and scullery maid, Nola, the most recent arrival below stairs. Aged between 15 and 17 years, the girl had no knowledge of a birthday, her only history being a written reference from the orphanage from which she came. Nola was lowest in the pecking order of servants, something Cook was forever taunting her about. Consequently, the girl was meek in manner and tended to carry herself with head slightly bowed. While the other staff had their own rooms in the houses attic, Nola was confined to an outhouse at the end of the back yard, facing the old lane and cut off from human company.

Not that Nolas lot was all bad. Mrs. Stockdale had taken to schooling the girl in reading and writing for an hour every mid morning, which she practised during the evenings in the sanctuary of her room. The others did at least encourage her in this self betterment, except Cook who professed Nola to be as dim as a smouldering candle and that educating her was like teaching a dog to perform tricks. She never said these things in front of the mistress, of course, and confined any bullying or beating of the scullery maid to the kitchen when they were alone.

It was early one autumn evening that Mr. Stockdale sent Tom across to Holker House to deliver some newspapers, a task he performed once every week. The boy was usually back before dusk, but this time seemed to be taking longer than usual. Nola had just finished putting away the dried dishes and asked Cook if she could now be excused to practise her lesson.

Suppose so, the woman shrugged, being more concerned about what was keeping Tom now the night was drawing in. Nola took her leave and Cook busied herself preparing the breakfasts for next morning, while the housekeeper caught up on her sewing. Later, as the clock chimed eight bells, the two women were startled as the kitchen door burst open and Tom ran in like a man possessed by a thousand devils. Coming to a halt in the middle of the kitchen, he tried to speak and then promptly passed out, crumpling to the floor.

The housekeeper and Cook were attending the unconscious boy when Nola came running in through the same door, exclaiming

I saw him racing from lane like a fox hunted. Is he right? The sight of the boys current state answered her question, as Cook ordered Dont just stand there! Go fetch the Mr. And Mrs! As Nola made haste, the housekeeper then turned to Cook, suggesting Hartshorne and burnt feathers be the best restorative for this lad.

By the time Nola returned with Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale, the boy had been applied with the remedy and was stirring awake. Mr. Stockdale crouched down to take a closer look, when Tom suddenly shot upright, yelling Dobbie! The Master grabbed the boys shoulders, saying Take it steady, lad. Having been calmed, Tom was sat up on a chair to relate his story. I usually set off home before dark, but master at Holker House insisted I stayed a while and shared libation with him. Couldnt say no.Quite right, lad, Stockdale interjected. So what happened.Was nearly home, when I heard whispering behind me. Looked around and there was this great white ball, glowing and following. Then whisper became singing and in ball I could see sprite dancing round in circle fashion. She then came at me faster, laughing horribly. So I ran and darent look back. It were Dobbie, I know it. His master looked doubtful. Are you sure about all that?I swear it, sir! The housekeeper then testified Toms not one for spinning yarns. Hes an honest lad. Stockdale patted the boys arm, commenting I dare say you saw something. But maybe not as it were meant to be seen. Dark nights and lanes with strange tales can do much to deceive the eyes and ears.

Tom sighed, realising he was not going to be fully believed. Nola leapt to his defence with Ive heard notorious happenings regarding Dobbie Lane, sir. Tis said that is where Jack OLantern tricked the devil. Stockdale laughed I had that tale as a boy. And it be not of our parish, but of our Irish cousins.Take no heed of her, sir, Cook insisted. Girls head is full of fancies and she probably filled Tom with them. No wonder he took frightI never, she began to protest but the Cook cut her short. Speak not to your betters with such a tongue! Ill fetch wooden spoon. She bowed her head in quiet submission, having once again been reminded of her place. Then Mr. Stockdale made his announcement. Tell you what. This very evening I shall walk the lane there and back. Maybe I will get to the bottom of what menaced you so, Tom. All present agreed this to be a satisfactory course of action, except Nola who continued to look downwards in resignation.

Mr. Stockdale was as good as his word. As the sun began to set, he took to the lane confident that the whole business would be resolved. The staff busied themselves with chores, except Nola who suggested she wait in her outhouse to watch for the master returning. The housekeeper agreed a lookout was a good idea, even if Cook opinionated this to be a ploy to skip chores, concluding Girls not as daft as she seems.

Night fell and all those present in Clarke Hall began to wonder what had become of Mr. Stockdale. Then as the eighth hour approached, Nola came running through the kitchen door announcing Masters back! And he look fair troubled! She jumped out of the way as Stockdale ran in behind her, breathless and distraught. He ordered the housekeeper to assemble the others while Cook fetched him a brandy.

The housekeeper returned with Tom and Mrs. Stockdale, whose husband was now sat on a chair with the consoling glass in his hand. He waved Tom over with a Come ere, lad and gripped the boy by the hand. Forgive me for ever doubting you. Its just as you told. The whispering, the singing, the glowing sprite. It followed me back too. Tom looked down on his master with relief, while the others looked at each other in disbelief. After taking another swig, Mr. Stockdale stood up and proclaimed Tomorrow word shall be put around. The lane is henceforth closed once dusk sets in. No Christian soul should traverse it after dark. With that, he dismissed the staff and then returned upstairs with his wife.

Cook looked at Nola whose head was held in its usual forward tilt, but with eyes silently looking straight up at the woman. You neednt expect apology from me, girl! It were Willo the Wisp master saw, not your Jack OLantern.May I be excused? Nola asked politely. Aye, away to your lesson with yer. For what its worth, Cook sneered. She then added Careful Dobbie dont come for you, out there in your little shack. All alone. And with that, the woman laughed as Nola picked up a lit candle and nervously made her way out across the yard to the only place she could call home. Entering the outhouse, she closed the door and sat by her window, watching through the curtain and waiting.

An hour passed before she was confident that all in Clarke Hall had retired to bed. Blowing out the light, Nola turned away from the curtain and stood up straight, raising her head high in a change of countenance. She pulled off her bonnet and threw it to the floor, her raven hair falling shoulder length. She then removed the servants garb, revealing a silk dress underneath that shimmered with a white glow. The girls face opened up a powerful smile of satisfaction and she swung right around in a pirouette. Nolas hair and flesh now radiated the same white glow as her dress, her figure illuminating like a brightly burning candle. Raising her arms upwards, she gave a reverberating laugh of triumph. The Lane was hers. And now, hers alone. Opening the door, she left the quarters of the human self and twirled into the night, dancing her infernal dance. And making mischievous plans for Cook.

Originally published in the Lancashire Everning Post March 1st 2014