Read The man in the moss Online

Authors: Phil Rickman

The man in the moss

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then ...




A cold midwinter fogbanklay on the Moss.           It lay like a quilt on theblack mattress of the peat, and nothing moved.           Not even the villageschoolteacher standing on the promontory at the end of a ragged alley of graveswhere the churchyard seemed to overhang the bog's edge.

           Damp January was clamped across the teacher's mouth and noselike a chloroform pad. He'd only been an hour out of bed, but the cold made himtired and the sight of the Moss only made him feel colder.

           It was, as he'd explained to countless generations ofpupils, the biggest surviving peatbog in the North of England, a gross productof violent death and centuries of decay ... vast forests burned and torn downby the barbarian invaders ... soaring greenery slashed and flattened andtransformed by time into flat, black acres bounded by the hills and the moors.

           The peat was dead. But, because of its acids, the peathad the power to preserve. Sometimes fragments of the ancient dead were foundin there, from iron-hard limbs of trees to the arms and legs of corpses (whichwere taken away by the villagers and quietly buried).

           Inside his long, deeply unfashionable overcoat, theteacher suddenly shivered. Not at the thought of the corpses, but because hewas waiting for the piper.           The piper on the Moss.

           The sad, swollen drone, the bleak keening of a lost soul,had reached him on a sudden, spiked breeze during his habitual morning walkbefore school.

           And he'd stopped, disquieted. The air had been still, weightedby the fog; no breeze at all except for this single, quick breath. As if it hadbeen awoken only to carry the message that the piper was on the Moss.

           This worried him, for the piping was never heard inwinter.

           As a rule, it came on summer evenings, when the Moss was firmand springy and the sound would be serene, rippling along the air currents,mingling with bird cries ... plaintive enough to soften the clouds.

           But the piper did not come in winter.

           Seeking reassurance, the teacher turned around, lookingfor the soft blue eye of the Beacon over the village. But the fog had closedthe eye; he could not even make out the outline of the Norman church tower.

           And while his back was turned, it began. A distant,drifting miasma of music. Notes which sounded ragged at first but seemed toreassemble somehow in the air and harmonize eerily with the atmosphere.

           Cold music, then, with a razor-edge of bitterness.

           And more. An anger and a seeping menace ... a violence,unsuppressed, which thrust and jabbed at the fog, made it swirl and squirm.

           Trembling suddenly, the schoolteacher backed away fromit; it was as if the fog and the frozen stillness of winter had combined toamplify the sound. And the sound made vibrant, pulsing images in his head.

           It was as though the sky had been slashed and the rainbled from the clouds.

           As though the cry had been physically torn from theruptured breast of a bird in flight.

           Or the morning itself had been ripped open, exposing theblack entrails of another kind of night.

           And then the piper himself came out of the fog with theblack bladder like a throbbing tumour under one arm, and the ground explodedaround him, a sound as dark as the peat under his plodding boots.

           A black noise. The piper in a black mood.

           'Why can't you keep away?' the teacher whispered. 'Why doyou have to haunt us?'

           He pulled his hat over his ears to muffle the piping andhurried away from it, back towards the church until the beacon's ghostly discemerged from the fog and he could see the vacant smile on the face of OurSheila who fingered and flaunted her sex on the church porch.

           He rushed past her and into the church, shutting thegreat oak door behind him, removing his hat and clamping it to his breast,staring up at the Winter Cross, all jagged branches, blunted thorns, holly andmistletoe.

           He couldn't hear the pipes any more but felt he couldtaste the noise - that the oozing sound had entered his ears and been filtereddown to the back of his throat where it came out tasting sourly of peat.

           'Doesn't mean owt, does it?' he called out to the WinterCross. 'We'll be all right, won't we? Nowt'll change?'

           And nothingwouldchange for more than fifteen winters of fog and damp. But fifteen years in thelife of a Moss was barely a blink of the eye of God, and when the Moss revealedwhat it had preserved ...thenthechanges would come, too many, too quickly and too horribly.

           And the teacher, in retirement, feeling the kiss of theeternal night, would remember the first time the piper had appeared on the Mossin winter.


Meanwhile, later that week,the fog would lift and there would be snow.


then ...


They were all around her atthe stage door, like muggers in the night. She could smell the sweat and thebeer ... and a sour scent, like someone's rancid breath, squirting out of thedarkness and straight to the back of her throat.

           Coughing. Coughing at nothing. For as long as she couldremember, hostility had occasionally come to her like this ... like a single,piercing puff from a poisoned perfume spray.

           But nothing there, really.

           There were maybe twenty of them, but it was mostly OK,wasn't it? Mostly warm wishes and appreciation? Just never happened to herbefore. One of them had his jacket off, eyeing her. He was grinning andmumbling.

           'Sign yourwhat?'she said.

           'Get used to it, lass.' Matt Castle grinning too. 'Thisis only the start of it. For you.'

           Now the guy was rolling up a chequered shirt sleeve inthe sub-zero night, handing her this thick black felt-tip pen.

'Oh, yourarm.' She tried to smile, printing hername all the way up the soft, hairless underside of his forearm.

           Moira Cairns.

           Usually it would be just a handful of enthusiasts,harmless as train-spotters, chattering learnedly about the music and mainly toMatt. Dropping away as they headed for the car park. Shouting, See you again ...stuff like that, mostly to Matt.

           You should be loving this, hen, she told herself. Realfans. Can you believe that? You're a star.

           Willie and Eric were loading the gear into Matt's oldminibus, wanting to be away - more snow on the way, apparently. Two girls inleather jackets held open the back doors for the tea chest Willie kept hishand-drums in.

           She felt it again, back of her throat. Nearly choked onit.

           'Ta,' Eric said. Moira saw Little Willie sizing up thegirls for future reference. Tonight, she knew, he was worried he wouldn't gethome across the Moss, if the snow came down.

           Matt got into the driving seat, Eric slammed the backdoors and climbed in on the passenger side. One of the girls in leather - buxompiece - opened a rear side door for Willie. Willie rolled his eyes at her, gave her his most seductively innocentgrin. 'See you sometime, eh?'

           Moira's throat was burning up.

           The girl said, 'Yeah, I'll be around.' She held on to theopen door. 'Gina,' she said. The wire-caged light over the backstage exit threwa grille of shadows on to her pale, puffy cheeks.

           Willie, five and a bit feet tall, liked his women big.'Gina. Right," he said, 'I'll remember.'           The first sparse snowflakeshit the wet black asphalt and dissolved. Moira, tucking her long hair down hercoat collar, smiled at the girl, put out a foot to climb into the van next toWillie.

           And then the moment froze, like life's big projector hadjammed.

           Moira turned in time to see the girl's eyes harden,glazing over like a doll's eyes as she whirled - a big, clumsy dancer - andflung the door. Like the door was a wrecking hammer and Moira was the side of acondemned building.

           Snarling, 'Traitor!' Discoloured, jagged teeth exposed. 'Fuckingbitch!'

           Willie had seen it. With both hands, he had pushed herback. She stumbled, fell over the kerb, the door connecting with a shudderingcrunch and this girl, Gina snarling, 'Bitch...',voice as deadly cold as the grinding metal.

           And then the door reopened and Willie was hauling her inand snatching it shut behind her, the girl screaming, 'Go on ... feather yourown nest, fucking cow!' And beating on the panel into Moira's ear as Mattstarted the engine and pulled urgently away into the unheeding, desultory nighttraffic.


           'Jesus,' Willie Wagstaff said. 'Could've had your fingersoff.'

           'Screw up ma glittering career, huh?' White face in thestreetlight and a rasp of Glasgow giving it away that Moira was pretty damnshocked. 'Couldny play too well wi' a hook.'

           Matt said mildly, 'Don't let it bother you. Always one ortwo. Just jealous.' The snow heavy enough now for him to get the wipers going.

           'Wasny about envy.' Moira had her guitar in her arms.'I'm no' exactly popular with your fans any more is the problem.'

           'You're in good company,' Matt said. 'Look how thepurists shunned Dylan when he went over to rock and roll.'

           'Called me a traitorous cow.'

           'Yeah, well,' Mattsaid. 'We've been over this.' So damnednonchalantabout it. He seemed so determined she shouldn't feel bad that she felt a sightworse.

           Eric, the mournful one who played fiddle and twelve-string,Eric, the mediator, the peacemaker, said, 'Weren't a bad gig though, were it?'

           'Was a grand gig,' Moira said. Good enough, she thought,heartsick, to be the start of something, not the end.

           Least her throat wasn't hurting so bad. The guitar casewas warm in her arms. The snowflakes began to suck and cluster on the sidewindows as Matt drove first to Eric's house at Ashton Under Lyne, where Williehad left his Minivan. They switched the drum chest to the back of the littlegrey van, and Willie said, 'I won't mess about. If it's snowing like this downhere it'll be thick as buggery over t'top.' He hung his arms around Moira'sneck and gave her a big kiss just wide of the lips. 'Ta-ra, lass. Don't losetouch, eh?'

           Then Eric kissed her too, mournfully, and by the time shegot into the front seat next to Matt she was in tears, both arms wrapped aroundthe guitar case for comfort.

           'This is the worst thing I ever did, you know that.Matt?'

           There was silence. Just the two of them now, for the lasttime. Time for some plain talking.

           'Don't be so bloody daft.' Still his tone was curiouslymild.

           'She was right, that slag, I should have ma fingerschopped off.'

           'Listen, kid.' He tapped at the steering-wheel. 'You madeone sacrifice for this band when you threw up your degree course. That's it. Nomore. Don't owe us nowt. It's been nice - cracking couple of years, wouldn't'vemissed it. But you're not even twenty-one. We're owd men, us.'           'Aw, Matt...' Could anybody bethis selfless?           'Gone as far as we're going.Think I want to be trailing me gear around the country when I'm sixty? No way.It's a good get-out, this, straight up. For all of us. Eric's got his kids,Willie's got his...'

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