‘I heard you.’
‘Where did it come from?’
‘The ocean. Down there. It’s pretty common around this area.’
‘But so suddenly? There were green fields over there a second ago, and those great grey cliffs. Now I can’t see anything. Even those sheep have disappeared.’
‘I can’t see a damn thing.’
‘We should stop somewhere.’
‘Where? There’s nothing out here. And if another car comes barreling down this road?’
‘There might be a village?’
‘Like the last one?’
‘Stewart doesn’t know.’
‘That’s true, I’m afraid.’
‘There’s a light up ahead.’
A wind was whipping at the side of the car as it inched forward along the narrow road. The driver, Raymond Woods, was hunched forward over the steering wheel, peering out at the mist. A hundred metres ahead a lamp shone like a beacon in the grey haze. Beyond, its irresolute outline just visible, was a small stone building set into a steep hill. The car wheels churned in the gravel as Raymond pulled up outside the building. The other two occupants were out of the car and had run to the small front door of the building before he had had a chance to switch off the headlights.
Inside the lights shone feebly, the bare bulbs flickering and giving off an amber glow that cast long shadows into the corners of the room. The cold had swept in with the three strangers and filled the small room. Raymond managed to pull the door closed and the three stood huddled in silence.
‘Should we be here?’ asked Caroline Woods. She was a petite woman, pretty with short-cut hair. Her cheeks were flushed red from the cold and the wind. Raymond put his hand on the small of her back.
‘It’s a pub. I think,’ said Stewart. He is older than the other two; his hair, cut short and tight, sis greying at the temples. He stepped further forward into the room.
A door opened and a thick-set woman appeared at the back of the room, her grey-white hair pushed up in a bee’s-nest on her head. She stared at the newcomers for a moment and then walked slowly behind a bar set against the back of the wall. Raymond took Caroline’s hand, ready to pull her back outside and to the car. He hoped that they could escape, and maybe leave Stewart there alone with the forbidding looking woman.
‘Crazy weather, eh?’ Stewart called out.
Raymond tried not to wince. He was cold and tired, but sharper than either of these discomforts was the constant grating of Stewarts forced cheerfulness, his brash arrogance and false entitlement.
The woman shook her head noncommittally.
‘It’s good to be out of the cold at least. Nice and warm in here. I’m Stewart. Stewart Grandley. And these are Caroline and Raymond Woods. What’s your name?’
Caroline put a warning hand on her husband’s arm.
‘Travers. Mrs Travers,’ the woman finally said, ‘What can I get you?’
Raymond move up to the bar. A drink might help.
‘I’ll have something in a short glass. Whatever’s going,’ he said. The woman grunted and pulled a bottle off of the shelf behind her.
‘You aren’t from around here,’ she said. It wasn’t a question. Not hostile but not particularly friendly either.
‘No, I guess we aren’t,’ said Stewart, moving forward until he was standing directly behind Raymond. ‘I’m from the States originally, but I live just north of London. These two — all the way from Australia of all places — are visiting. I’m showing them around.’
Raymond sat down on a high stool and cupped his drink gratefully when it came. He tried not to listen to the what the others were saying, but it was difficult. Like trying to ignore a persistent itch.
‘Stewart’s a friend of my aunt’s, he’s been very helpful during our holiday,’ Caroline said. She stood with her hand resting on Raymond’s shoulder. She seemed to be trying to force him to relax, which made the feeling of tension all the more unbearable.
‘Helpful, yeah,’ Raymond said.
‘Not a good day for sight-seeing,’ said Stewart.
‘No, no I guess not.’
‘What can I get you?’
‘It’s all good.’
Stewart pointed at a tap.
‘If that one’s good and local, that’d be just fine. Caroline? Two of those.’
The woman filled two large, grease-smudged glasses. The beer was thick and dark, almost black in colour. It swirled sickeningly with each heavy pull of the tap.
‘Stout eh? Now that’s more like it.’ Stewart said. He tried to hide a shiver of distaste at the acridity of the drink.
‘So, um, Mrs Travers, is there anything you can tell us about this area?’ Caroline asked.
‘I guess that depends on what you would want to know.’
‘I’d like to know what you can tell me. Legends, folk tales, any good stories that may be told around these parts.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. There’s a cinema on the mainland, not two hours drive from here.’
There was a lull. Raymond tried not to laugh.
‘Stories huh? You want to know what us backwards, isolated, sheep-shaggers tell each other on the long winter nights?’
The three turned. The voice had come from a dark lounge area to their right that they had taken to be empty. From behind a high chair-back stood a short, stout, grey-bearded man, his face lined and weather-worn. He pushed his flat cap up from over his eyes and gave the three newcomers a wide smile. Raymond noticed the shine of two gold-capped teeth, bright against a mouth that was otherwise the grey of the ocean during a storm. He was was holding an empty glass which he brought up to the bar with exaggerated care. Stewart shifted back on his heels slightly as the man bushed past him.
Mrs Travers took the empty glass and re-filled it with the same milky-black beer, placing it gently back down on the bar.
‘Don’t bother these people George,’ she said.
‘Don’t mind me. I’m just taking the piss.’ There was a burr in the small man’s voice, a lilt that played softly over his vowels.
‘We don’t mind,’ said Caroline.
‘Though it is true that we are quite seperate from the big world out here,’ he continued, ‘and isolation does breed strange stories. So what do you want to know about our simple, shit-stained, backwards folklore?’
‘That’s some language,’ Stewart said.
‘The extra words are free of charge.’
‘Just any stories that are specific to the island,’ said Caroline, ignoring the exchange. ‘This is fact-finding mission of sorts. I’m studying recurring variants of common folktales for my doctoral thesis.’
‘Caroline’s an academic,’ said Stewart. Was there a note of pride in his voice? It wasn’t his damn achievement. Not that it was Raymond’s either. But he was proud of her, no matter what had happened.
‘I guessed as much. Hmm. Fact-finding doesn’t sound quite right. Nothing factual about most folktales. So you want to know if we have any island version of Cinderella or Bluebeard, only known to us villagers?’
‘Yes, that’s absolutely right!’ Caroline said. Her cheeks were glowing a brighter red now and there was excitement in her voice. It was an excitement that had always made her attractive to those around her, who wanted to share in her enthusiasm. Stewart and the other man leant in closer to her.
‘Well we don’t have anything like that. Nothing that I can think of right now that you wouldn’t be able to get out of a book. Though you might be interested in a story of immortality?’
‘Who wouldn’t be?’
‘Yes, there is something about the idea of cheating death. Better than the alternative, I suppose. ’
‘What do you mean vampires and werewolves, those sorts of things?’ asked Raymond.
‘No, nothing so commercial as that. No, the story I wanted to tell is one that they used to tell here on the island, back in the day when we knew something more about these things.’ He took a long drink. ‘It had to do with an old well that sits just up the road from here, on a track that leads along the hillside. Nothing to look at, really, just an old well, walled up in stone, but it must have been important in some way. People say that it used to stand at the centre of a village, though there’s no-one left to tell you who dug it or to what the water was used for.
‘What they can tell you, though, and what you might find interesting, is that on days like this when the mist lies thick on the island, the water in the well shines in a very unusual way. If you go and look down into it you might see something that resembles mercury; you’ll see a reflection that looks so clear that some swear they can see the future in it.’
‘So what’s that got to do with immortality?’
‘Well the thing about the well is that it is supposed to be able to gift immortality. Or at least longevity. Some such thing.’
‘How?’ asked Caroline. Her shining eyes, her slight smile; she was entranced, but whether it was because of the story or its potential use in a dissertation was unclear.
‘Through sacrifice. There’s always an element of sacrifice in these stories isn’t there?’
‘I’m sure Caroline could give us dozens of examples,’ said Stewart.
‘Well the sacrifice you needed to give the well,’ continued the old man, ‘was in fact the sacrifice of self. It was said that if you broke yourself in two and consigned half of yourself to the well, then the other part of you, the part that was left, would live on forever. Forever, that is, as long as it remained physically on the island. Immortality. Or a sort of stasis. A broken thing existing for all eternity.’
‘But how is it possible to break yourself in two?’ asked Caroline. She made a moue with her lips and shook her head slightly. ‘That sounds horrible.’
‘Ah, well it’s not what you think, you’re not discarding limbs, no, it goes deeper than that. You take your love, your dreams, your expectations and all the things that make you strive to grow older and more complex and you throw them away. Down the well. That’s about the long and short of it’
‘Doesn’t sound very tempting.’
‘Doesn’t it?’ said Raymond. He was thinking not about the promise of longer life but more about the other part of the story, the side effect of discarding a part of yourself. Weren’t there parts of himself that he wanted to get rid of? Or people. His jealousy would be one. And whatever spawned that jealousy. There was something to the idea of being able to rid yourself of emotional turmoil and upheaval. Maybe if he didn’t love Caroline quite so much — he could see himself living in just one place, having a routine that never changed, going to the same pub, and never feeling too much any which way.
The small man was still speaking:
‘The older folk used also say that many of the people around here had already given their half to the well, which is why so many of us seem so lost, morose and melancholy, and why no one and nothing ever seems to change around here.’ He chuckled to himself, went as if to take a drink and then putting his glass back down on the bar. ‘As far as myths go it’s not by a long way the most imaginative, but its still there and there is something about the well that draws people… and pushes them away. You need some strength to walk that path.’
‘You’ll never see someone piss in it and that should tell you something,’ said Mrs Travers.
‘Don’t ruin my story Mary.’
‘It’s just a fucking hole. Pay no attention to him and just keep to your drink. Nothing else can keep you alive like being drunk.’
Raymond nodded. His drink was good and he wanted more. He suddenly wanted a lot more. He wants to keep on drinking here, in the warm, and everything else forgotten, pushed away.
‘Might be worth a visit,’ said Stewart. ‘When the mist has cleared.’
‘They say it’s in the mist that the well is most powerful. It’s something about boundaries and the edges.’
‘Even so,’ said Caroline. ‘I think I’ll stay in here for now.’
Raymond looked across at the man, and then to Caroline and Stewart. They were standing close together, her shoulder pressed up against him. He saw that entranced look in her eyes again.
‘I think I’ll go have a look,’ he said.
‘Are you sure, Raymond? It’s awfully cold out there.’
‘Yeah don’t worry about me, I’ll be back soon.’
Before reaching the door he looked back at the others: Stewart and Caroline were still arguing with the strange old man, the woman, Mrs. Travers, interjecting occasionally.
The wind woke him as he stepped outside. It was colder and darker than when they had entered the bar, and the fresh air stung his eyes. There was an aroma of the ocean and of frost hanging in the air. For a moment Raymond stopped, lost in thought. It was a smell of his childhood, of playing out in the cold in winter, of bright mornings and long evenings in front of the fire. But the memories transfigured and now there was just the previous few weeks — meeting Steward in London, and all that came after; time spent driving and arguing, visiting quaint towns and doing all the things that he couldn’t stand but that Stewart and Caroline seemed to enjoy together.
He stopped thinking then and looked around for a path. In the glow of the street lamp he saw nothing but the car and the mist. He walked in the general direction that the man had indicated, his footsteps making long grating sounds in the gravel. Maybe he’d piss in the well, in the way that that peculiar woman, Mrs Travers, had said that no-one did. That would be something. He could tell the story at parties. People would cringe and they might think less of him, but they’d remember the story and they’d remember him. Yes, it’d be fitting. It’d be a fuck you to Stewart who brought them up here, to the stories the two of them had searched for together, to Caroline’s interest in them — to this god-forsaken rock and the others like it, and to the whole damn trip. He tried to smile but the self-satisfaction wasn’t there and his face fell into a look of empty melancholy. No, he wouldn’t piss in the well, but he was out now and he had to go see it. If just to be the one who saw the damn thing while Stewart stayed warm inside the pub.
He found a small dirt path that led up the hillside and into the mist, it looked like it might be the one the man had described. It wound up and around the hill, a thin line of dirt and mud that clung to his shoes as he walked. Powder white stones like bones slashed up from the ground; he slid on one and stumbled, landing on one knee and smearing his jeans in mud. There was a movement and Raymond turned to see a set of three rabbits huddled under a low bush. Two bounded off together, leaving the third to stare blankly at him. It shook out its long ears and and hopped away, unhurried.
There was a bend in the path and around it he could see the ocean; it lay clear and dark through a window in the mist. Out in the distance he could just make out some smaller outcrops of land, dimples of grass and rock fenced by churning waves. And there, to his left, was the well, standing alone on a slight grassy slope. It was an incongruous thing, somehow seeming more solid than the land it stood on, but clearly man-made. There were sheep in the distance but the land around the low well was barren and rough. Up close it didn’t look like much: just a low well built out of the same white, coarse stone that littered the hillside. The old man had likely as not made the whole thing up, he had probably just wanted to hold the attention of a few naïve foreigners, trying to see which of them would be dumb enough to go actually try to find the damn thing. Well it was him alright, but he might as well go look at it, though, see it through.
The wind whipped at his hair and clothes and he shivered as he stepped forward to look down into the well. It was a shallow hole, nothing much. He bent forward, leaning his weight over the rocks. And suddenly he saw that it wasn’t shallow at all, it was in fact deep, somehow cavernously deep, and down in the darkness was a shimmer something — a silver coin of water — scintillating and iridescent. Above Raymond could just make out the mirrored coin of the sun high above behind the clouds. The longer he stood there the more he was entranced by the water in the well. As he watched the water the sun shone brighter and the water appeared to rise up towards him, so that — while the well was still infinitely deep — the silvery liquid looked close enough to touch. He could see himself reflected in it, older but unchanged and completely, utterly, alone. There was something tantalising about the image; he felt the inexplicable desire to swing himself into the hole, to drop down and sink into its depths.
A strange thing to feel, like he was being hypnotised by that depth. There were things there, images that he couldn’t get out of his head. There was Caroline’s hand as it had been the night before when it had brushed the back of Stewart’s at dinner: porcelain white and delicate, full of an electric thrill and a single beguiling promise. Strange how vivid the image was, and how strongly it made him feel. He could feel his love for her rise in his chest, feel it mingle with his suspicion and jealousy until it was all that there was; there was no more biting wind or strange wells. The feeling rose up and bubbled in him until he was drowning in it; he was being torn in two by the gale of everything he had allowed himself to feel.
There was a ripple in the water below and the mist rose, the clouds above covering the sun more completely. The the cold had set in again. What a strange thing to be doing. What was he doing out there in the wind? Why was he standing next to some old well? Why he had left the warmth of the pub, where he could at least be drinking, and therefore doing something worthwhile?
He turned and walked quickly back down the path, slipping occasionally in the mud. Maybe he had drunk his first whisky too quickly. It must have been strong stuff.
There was the light of the streetlamp and the little car sitting there, waiting. The sectioned glass window of the pub window was warped and distorting and through it he could see them still huddled together and seemingly happy. He could see the woman, Mrs Travers, reaching for a bottle and he found himself unaccountably thirsty.
The conversation didn’t break as entered the small room.
‘But how could it ever be worth it to suffer like Tithonus, if it means cheating death?’
Caroline looked up at him as he took his seat. If she saw the change in his face, she didn’t show it.
‘Well it depends, doesn’t it, whether you’re willing to give up the things that make us human, the things that are worth suffering for.’
Raymond signalled to the Mrs Travers. The voices washed over him, the words didn’t seem to mean anything. Caroline’s eyes lit up as she argued, there was that flush in her cheeks and catch in her voice. They were things which had always sent a shiver through him. Strange how he couldn’t feel that now. How now he felt nothing, nothing at all except a throbbing dullness and a need for another drink. He poked at his feelings like at an aching tooth, trying to see if he could still feel the keenness of them. He tried to bring himself to remember what first drew him to Caroline but there was nothing there, just a gap where love used to be.
‘Are you alright young man?’ said the gold-toothed man, leaning over to him. He smelled strongly of stale beer and pipe smoke.
‘Yeah,’ Raymond said. ‘Just tired.’
He was tired. More tired than he had felt in a long time. Maybe he should stop travelling for a little while. He could let Stewart and Caroline get back in the car without him. They probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. It wasn’t such a bad island and Mrs Travers might have a spare room. He could stay for a while and do nothing but rest. He did need a rest.
‘How was the well? Did you see your future?’
‘I couldn’t find it,’ Raymond said. He had a drink and turned to look outside the window. The mist had begun to clear, he could see the ocean. Somewhere beyond that deep cerulean expanse was mainland he no longer wanted to see.
S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in France. He has recently completed a MSt in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and will soon be starting a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Examples of his work can be found at STORGY Magazine, Typishly Literary Journal, Short Fiction Break, The Esthetic Apostle, Ink & Voices and The Drum Literary Magazine. Voices.outofsightspeech.com