It is manifest that behind the so-called curtain which is supposed to conceal the inner world, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, as much in order that we may see, as that there may be something behind there which can be seen. [i]
Lancashire Moors, December 24, 1959
Sims is out of his body, free-wheeling in Time, back to his youth in Ireland… He remembers it clearly now: the boy who met an elf on the road to Kilcolgan. Why did he decry that lost Utopia of boyhood? It was fairyland indeed, so bright were the green hills, so magical the trees and arcane stones, so musical the rills of babbling brooks! The moon was full and the sedge all ghostly, ghostly, ghostly. It flew from a faery mound. A terrible thing. An indescribable thing. He pedalled faster and faster, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t escape it. You can’t escape the faeries once they’ve set their heart on you. He took a tumble, lost his wits and was put in an asylum at Ballinasloe. A tall, narrow cell with an iron bed. He spent all night kicking at the door, screaming and bawling. The next day, his mother sent a priest to read the Mass of the Holy Ghost over him. It was strange news indeed. The whole town was talking about it: the boy who met an elf on the road to Kilcolgan. The boy was touched, they said. Full of gibberish, they said. There was never a worse road to walk after dark than the road to Kilcolgan. Six months later, the boy was released. But the poor child was lost to the world. That’s what happens when you get touched by the Sidhe. Mrs. Conelly said they were tall and handsome folk, with skin as pale as milk; but Pat Deeley claimed they were ugly, dwarfish things, blacker than coal. John Hanlon said they were enchanters, who could make the stones speak and the fishes sing. They were bald as coots, with long thin faces and crimson caps on their heads. But it was best not to look when they passed. As for the boy, he couldn’t describe them at all. At the very question, he would run off into the clough, screaming and waving his arms. Sims never took the road to Kilcolgan again, lest he met the Sidhe, and got cursed a raving lunatic. Father Nolan was sent for six times but not even the Host could lift the madness or return the power of speech. The boy was recommitted two months later. What became of him, Sims never knew. But they often met in dreams. In dreams they whittled sticks, climbed hills, and talked like old friends; they flew like birds and swam like fish, and baked potatoes in an old steel drum. And the boy always warned:
‘No man can escape the Sidhe, for it is the will God.’
Sims stirs in the darkness, haunted by the words. He can see the boy’s face, but he can’t remember his name…
‘Follow me,’ says the boy. ‘It is time.’
‘I dare not go. They’ll drive me mad, like you.’
‘You and the world are madmen all. But the Sidhe alone are sane.’
‘What do they want?’
‘Come and see.’
‘I might end up in Ballinasloe.’
‘It is well for you that I am here. For whilst you walk with me, nothing of that sort can harm you…’
‘What day of the week is it?’ asks Sims, as if to test him.
‘It is Thursday,’ replies the boy. ‘The Eve of the Nativity. Come. Let us keep vigil together…’
The boy offers his hand. Sims takes it, and they walk off into a void of illimitable blackness…
Lancashire Moors, December 25, 1959
When dawn breaks, the car is half-buried in a drift. Blyth squirms in the driving seat, his bones wrung with cold and shudders:
‘It’s an ice box in here.’
Reluctant to move, he cowers under his coat and hat, teeth chattering like castanets. His predicament strikes him as absurd. But worse than that, he’s angry. Angry with himself. “Be prepared,” that was his motto. Or as his Latin master used to say: Firmior quo paratior. [I am all the stronger for being prepared]. Blyth used to pride himself in being prepared. He always kept a spare can of petrol in the boot, along with a bottle of Bluecol Robin Antifreeze and a canister of Duckhams Multigrade Green Oil. Like when he was courting Rosalind before the war. He’d taken her on a trip to Anglesey. But they ran out of petrol on the cliffs at Carmel Head. She thought they were stranded, until Blyth produced his trusty Gerry can from the boot. How she loved him for that. “Oh darling! You saved the day! You are clever! You think of everything!” But not this time. He’d failed to plan this crazy jolly. Everything was last minute and up in the air. He was loosing his touch, his sense of detachment. There was no doubt about it: he was getting careless in his old age. He could feel it in his bones. The cold never used to bother him – in fact, it always made him feel more alive – even when he lost three toes to frostbite in the Carpathian Mountains. That injury was just a minor inconvenience. All part of the job. But the freeze had really got to him this time. His legs felt numb and his spine rheumatic with pain. He was seizing up. Running on empty. Growing infirm. Loosing his marbles. In his mad rush to see Jack Vallis, he’d got carried away, just like a harebrained schoolboy. And now he’d involved Sims in his screwball plot.
They wouldn’t last long at this altitude. All they had for rations was half a jar of Bovril – and not much in the way of paraffin either – just enough to boil a kettle or two. Blyth cursed himself for taking the Blackpool detour. How on earth did he end up here? The car was in a sorry state and ill-equipped for winter, let alone off-road expeditions. How far would they get with balding tyres? He should have changed that battery months ago. He grumbles:
‘Stuck up the Khyber Pass on Christmas Day. I’m too old for this lark. The service is a young man’s game. Pray to God the engine starts…’
His words are greeted by a stony silence.
‘You awake Sims?’
Blyth sits motionless, his eyes rolling beneath his hat. His senses seem to sharpen. He hears the ticking of his watch; the pulse of his heart; the frost crackling on the roof… Then he becomes aware of an icy blast on his knees.
‘You there Sims?’
Blyth pulls the hat from his face and squints at the dawn. The windscreen is etched with frosty patterns, obscuring the view beyond. He turns to his left and asks:
‘Did you sleep Sims?’
But Sims has gone. The passenger door is wide open and plastered with snow. Concerned, Blyth hobbles out, unsteady on his feet. He stands hunched for a moment, hands on hips, grimacing as he slowly straightens his back. Once upright, he tries to get his bearings. The hill is engulfed in fog and he can’t see more than five yards. When they entered the clearing last night, the headlights revealed a steep escarpment off to the left. But there’s no telling what lies beyond the edge. Had Sims gone over? Blyth hits the horn and yells:
‘Sims! Are you there?’
The blast peels across the fells, ringing off hidden cliffs and booming in benthal chambers. Then silence, but for a desolate curlew, wailing from the sedge. Trudging round the bonnet, Blyth spies footprints in the snow where Sims climbed out. He follows the tracks for twenty yards. The prints are clear and crisp, with distinctive zigzag patterns. They belong to Sims all right: combat issue boots, size twelve, with tire-tread soles. The tracks lead Blyth down a narrow gulley which terminates in a wall of rock – a brooding buttress that towers into the mist. It’s a complete dead end, hemmed in on all sides, with no way out. But the man who made the footprints has gone.
‘What the hell?’ puzzles Blyth.
The prints are curious indeed. There are no backtracks, or changes in direction. It’s as if Sims simply vanished. Or walked straight into the hill. Blyth scolds himself for entertaining the very idea. But it’s a strange place indeed; the stone is perfectly smooth and rectangular; it looks man-made, yet is obviously ancient judging by the weathering and lichens. What was it? The cap to an old mine shaft perhaps? Unnerved, Blyth studies the buttress up close, fumbling for an ingress, seam or hinge. But the way is sealed shut, covered in ice and moss. He calls out again:
‘Sims? Where are you?’
A sudden flash illumes the mist. Blyth flinches, fully expecting to hear a crack of thunder. But the thunder never comes. At once he is overcome with a terrible foreboding. The silence is palpable, pregnant with revelation. There comes another flash – an incandescent blue haze that radiates the valley with a dazzling phosphorescence. A search flare? Had Sims fallen down a ravine? Had someone raised the alarm? The light slowly dwindles and dies, and a menacing gloom settles on the moors. Blyth has the uncanny feeling that he’s being watched. He creeps back along the gully, fearing some sheoguey beast might pounce from above.
‘Fairy tales,’ he mutters, grimly.
Why was he contemplating such nonsense? After all, there were plenty of real monsters: homicidal maniacs, devils incarnate, and demons in human shape. Had an old enemy followed him from London? Was it his turn to get knifed in the back?
But on reaching the egress, he spies a ghostly figure drifting through the mist. The phantom ebbs and flows in banks of fog, visible one moment and lost the next. Terrified, Blyth crouches behind a rock. He watches as the wraith hovers on the ridge. The creature is massive, with broad shoulders and a shaggy coat of silvery hair; it resembles the fabled Yeti of the Himalayas – an apish thing of monstrous bulk and strength. Yet it floats like a luminous spectre, weightless as a feather. The apparition has the semblance of a wafting flame as it scales the ridge with ease, wading through the drifts in giant strides. Blyth remains spellbound as the beast draws near, its grunt now audible above the crunching snow. Blyth’s instinct is to run, but his training tells him to stay put. He’s down-wind of the creature and hidden in a cleft. So he watches and waits. Whether from cold or fear, he can’t stop trembling. Doubting his own eyes, he blinks several times then mutters:
‘What the hell is that?’
Another flash. Then another. And another.
The beast makes a weird mewling, like the lamentable cry of seal. At once the creature is transported skywards in a vertical shaft of light. Blyth gasps as the firmament flickers in a cataract of luminous flux. He beholds countless orbs of orange, green, mauve and cerise – all flashing in a coruscating frenzy. They have the appearance of majestic globes of fire, flitting along the ridge in eerie commune. Their spangled coronas flare and contract like will-o’-the-wisps, the ignis fatuus, or Fata Morgana of Arthurian legend. The display is magnificent and meteoric. Arborescent plasmas reveal lofty chambers in the cumulus, awesome and terrible in grandeur, and the earth beneath his feet vibrates with stentorian oscillations.
Then the display stops as suddenly as it started. The orbs swoop off at impossible speed, leaving Blyth aghast and alone. He stands trembling, panting with dread, half-blinded by the after-image. From beyond the ridge there comes a muffled cry – a wail of pain, faint and indistinct. Blyth knows the voice at once. He scrambles onward, yelling:
Looming on the ridge is a tall man who stoops like a zombie. He falters in the drifts, crawling on all fours, gibbering with fear and cold. As Blyth draws near, he falls to his knees in disbelief.
‘My god! Sims, is that you?’
‘Help me,’ croaks the man.
Blyth can’t believe his eyes. It looks like Sims – but not the Sims from last night. This Sims has a beard – at least two weeks growth – and his naked body is blistered with sunburn.
‘What happened?’ gasps Blyth.
Sims remains mute, trembling from head to toe. His soporific condition almost resembles drunkenness. The dawn strikes his pallid face, his blue lips pinched with dread, his bloodshot eyes sunk in occult revelation.
Concerned, Blyth whips off his coat and covers his nakedness, rubbing his arms and legs:
‘Christ! You’re cold as a frog! What happened?’
But Sims cannot answer.
Blyth helps him to his feet and props him on his shoulder.
‘Can you walk?’
The man can barely speak, let alone put one foot in front of the other. Yet he knows he has been plucked from the jaws of death. Delirious, a faint smile comes to his lips and he rasps:
‘Thank you sir…’
‘Come on old chap. Let’s get you back to the car. The sooner we get out of this accursed place, the better.’
Blyth drags him off the ridge, back toward the car.
It takes Blyth a hour to dig out the car and clear the wheels of snow. During this whole time the men say nothing. There seems little to be done for Sims; he refuses to talk about the lights, and remains distant, almost ashamed of himself. He sits shivering in the passenger seat, sipping from a mug of hot Bovril, his donkey costume donned as a blanket. He feels weak and feeble, as if a spell has been put upon him. There’s a frightful pain between his eyes, and he can hardly control his hands. Each time he brings the mug to his lips, he slurps like baby and stock dribbles down his chin.
Blyth uses the remaining paraffin to warm the engine, sliding the camping stove under the sump. The flame puckers in the wind, licking the iron with feeble kisses. After 30 minutes he tries the ignition:
‘Come on old girl, don’t let me down…’
To his astonishment, she starts first time.
‘The god’s are with us,’ says Blyth.
But Sims ignores him and stares vacantly into his mug.
With the engine idling, Blyth paces round the vehicle, scraping ice from the windows, grinning nervously as he catches Sims’ eye. The exhaust fumes hang heavy in the air, making Blyth splutter as he climbs back into the car:
‘I was worried she wouldn’t start,’ he says, trying in vain to start a conversation.
He reverses out the clearing, the wheels crunching on frozen puddles as they enter the lane. Before pulling off, he turns to Sims and asks once more in consternation:
‘What happened Sims? Why won’t you tell me?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
His voice is brittle and hoarse.
‘But you’ve got sunburn. How do you explain that?’
‘But where did you go?’
‘How should I know? I was sleepwalking.’
Blyth is utterly bewildered and struck with anxiety.
‘Sleepwalking? But your beard Sims. You’ve got a beard! A beard. How is that possible?’
Sims checks the rear view mirror and gasps, dumbfounded at his reflection:
‘My god,’ he whispers, rubbing the growth on his chin. ‘How long was I gone?’
‘But that’s just it Sims: you’ve only been gone five hours!’
‘That’s impossible. What day is it?’
Sims looks gripped by some inner calamity and his bloodshot eyes roll wildly in their sockets.
‘Christmas Day? But what are we doing here? In the hills?’
‘We’re going to Sunhill Asylum –’
‘…To see Jack Vallis. About TERGA, remember?’
‘TERGA,’ mutters Sims, half-recalling their madcap mission.
‘What happened Sims? Why won’t you tell me?’
‘What was that thing?’
‘That creature. The lights. Holy Mary Mother of God. I thought I was dreaming. You saw it. I saw it. We both saw it. In the name of God, what was it?’
Sims looks away and mumbles:
‘You wouldn’t believe me.’
‘Try me. I followed your footprints into the gulley. But it was a dead end. That stone. Where did you go? How did you get from there to the ridge? Where are your clothes and shoes?’
‘Please,’ croaks Sims. ‘No more questions. I’ve got the most awful headache…’
‘Did you fall? Did you hit your head? You’ve got concussion. We should get you to a hospital.’
‘No hospitals,’ croaks Sims. ‘I’ve had enough of hospitals to last me a lifetime. Please sir, just drive. Get us out of here…’
Blyth decides not to push it any further. As an interrogator, he was well-trained in the manifestations of abnormal mental states. And he knew that Sims was exhibiting all the classic signs of early onset psychosis. If he was to recover his sanity, he must first regain his sense of control. Whatever happened to Sims could be explored further in the safe environment of a clinical debriefing. The best thing for him now was to reaffirm his ego and sense of normality.
They travel in silence back down the fell, the engine stuttering in the damp air. Sims gazes out the window, trying to collect his scattered wits. The hedgerows flit past, their barren branches strewn with ghostly wisps of Old Man’s Beard. The snow crested verges tower like frozen surf, their crystal walls sparkling in the sun. The world looks beautiful enough, yet his dark encounter is with him still – a lurking presence that clouds his mind. He recalls the uncanny movements of the thing; the terror of its rock-bound chamber, deep in the bowels of the hill. What happened in the Light? It was colder than ice. Hotter than fire. Truly, it is unwise to speak of such things… For he had seen the thunderings and lightnings and the voice of the trumpet and the mountain smoking…[ii]. He heard once more its stentorian voice, booming in the abyss:
Behold! I created the heavens and earth! I laid the foundation stone thereof! I made great and wide the sea! And stretched out the horizon like a curtain! I opened their eyes but they shutteth me in darkness!
Leaving the fells, they descend into dairy country, taking a narrow lane that meanders through a patchwork of frosty fields and dry-stone walls.
‘We’re lost,’ tuts Blyth.
‘This is the way we came, isn’t it?’ asks Sims.
‘Hard to tell in all this mist.’
They haven’t gone far when Blyth spots a farmer leading a bull through a gate.
‘Look Sims! What a stroke of luck. I’ll ask for directions. He’s bound to know the way.’
Blyth pulls up beside the gate, winding down his window:
‘Happy Christmas to you.’
‘Is it?’ scowls the farmer.
The man is dressed in an old sou’wester with bird lime on the flap; his shabby gaberdine is torn across the chest and tied about the waist with bail string; his wellingtons are holed in the toes, and patched up like inner tubes. Despite his age, he looks fierce and burly, with a weathered limestone face. His gnarled hands hold a length of rope which loops through the bull’s nose-ring.
‘That’s a fine animal,’ grins Blyth.
‘Aye, he is that.’
‘Does he have a name?’
‘Mudlark,’ replies the farmer. ‘What’s it to thi?’
The bull tugs at the rope, snorting like bellows, his breath steaming in the frosty air. The farmer tugs back, slipping on the turf, and scolds:
‘Gi’ o’er Mudlark! Gi’ o’er! Settle deawn!’ And then to Blyth: ‘Owdonabit serry! He’s addled by that engine! He don’t like tractors or ’owt.’
Blyth cuts the ignition. The bull settles and farmer pats his flanks:
‘Good fella. Good lad, Mudlark.’
‘Sorry,’ leers Blyth. ‘I didn’t mean to scare him. My, he’s got big teeth.’
‘Aye. He cud eyt an appul thro a beard wire fence.’
‘A fine animal,’ repeats Blyth. ‘I’ve never seen the like.’
‘What’s up? Arta lost?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact we are.’
‘I knew it, sitting theer leyke cheese at fourpence.’
‘I say old chap, do you know the way to Sunhill Asylum?’
‘The loony bin?’
‘Yes, that’s right. The loony bin. We took a wrong turn several miles back.’
‘If tha’d hafe a brain, tha’d wouldn’t be up ’ere, would they Mudlark?’
‘Where are we exactly?’
‘And the asylum? Is it nearby? Have you any idea?’
‘The loony bin you say?’
‘Yes, the loony bin.’
The farmer rubs the side of his nose and looks into the distance where the plains are veiled in fog:
‘It’s somewhere down there… Under the clouds. Whole world’s gone topsy-turvy. Eh Mudlark?’
‘Is it far?’
‘No, not far at all, as matter of fact.’
‘Oh good! Well which way? Straight on, is it?’
The farmer leers:
‘Thi can go any way from ’ere…’
‘We just need the quickest route, you see.’
‘Just carry on.’
‘Ah! But do we turn left or right at the end of this lane?’
‘Left or right, it makes no odds…’
‘Drive on,’ mutters Sims. ‘He’s a nutter.’
‘I heard that,’ snaps the farmer. ‘I may be old but I’m not deaf.’
‘Forgive his manners,’ fawns Blyth. ‘He’s got exposure.’
‘He slept out on the fells last night.’
‘Slept on t’fells? Art thi mad?’
‘No. But my friend – he’s had a nasty turn.’
‘Oh dear. What ’appened then?’
‘It’s a long story. If you could just show the way.’
‘To Sunhill Asylum…’
‘That’s right. The madhouse. We need directions.’
‘Just keep going. All roads from here go to t’madhouse. Thi can’t miss it.’
‘Much obliged to you.’
Blyth is about to shut the window when the farmer pokes his head into the car:
‘Had a nasty turn, did thi lad?’
‘I did,’ replies Sims, ashamed.
‘Kipped out on t’ fells, did thee?’
‘Out wi’ sheep?’
‘It was an accident,’ replies Sims.
‘How’d that come abowt then?’ asks the farmer.
‘He was sleepwalking,’ explains Blyth.
‘Sleepwalking? On t’fells? Bloody Nora! Tha’s no oyl in thi’ lamp, lad!’
‘Well, if you don’t mind, we’d better be off,’ says Blyth.
But the farmer stays put, leaning on the door so that the cabin dips and the suspension creaks. Blyth feels himself sink several inches, both literally and metaphorically. The farmer studies Sims for a moment, anxiously licking his rubbery lips, his cauliflower nose dripping like a tap on Blyth’s knee.
‘Gitten sunburn, lad?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ admits Sims.
‘In the middle of winter? Well, ah’ve never known the like.’
‘It’s a mystery, to be sure,’ puzzles Blyth.
‘By god, it wurr murther up ’ere last nite. Cowd enuff to freeze thar blood. Watter trough is frozen solid. Eh Mudlark? Thi could have perished, lad!’
‘He was half-dead when I found him,’ adds Blyth.
The farmer looks intrigued by the donkey costume with its hooves all akimbo and the long bristly tail poking between Sims’ legs.
‘Poor lad. You got nowt on under that?’
‘I lost my clothes.’
‘Gitten frost bite?’
‘Just my toes,’ scowls Sims.
The farmer turns round to consult his prize bull:
‘Ere, Mudlark, this lad’s wearing a donkey costume. What durst think of that?’
‘Well, what does he think?’ asks Sims flatly.
‘There’s nowt so quare as folk,’ leers the farmer. ‘Ah’ll tell thee summat for nowt. My mother, god rest her soul, she read her Bible ev’ry day, an’ she allus said: n’er walk Wolf Fell after dark.’
‘We got lost in a blizzard,’ explains Blyth.
‘Wolf Fell – that’s where Shrikers dwell.’
‘Shrikers?’ frets Sims.
‘They make ’orrible shrieks of one kind or another.’
‘What do they look like?’ asks Blyth, intrigued.
‘They look like a white cow. Or an old nag. Or a great black hound. Or a terrible goat wi’ shaggy hair and saucer eyes. When I wer a lad, one chased me all th’way home wi’ its paws on mi back. Some folk call ’em Boggarts. Like Boggart of t’Brook, what lives under Garstang Bridge.’
‘You mean, a troll?’ asks Blyth.’
‘Worse than a troll. Much worse. She appears at full moon: t’skeleton of a murtherd maid, wrapt in a cloak. A rare beauty she was, in her day. She’d hitch lifts from ’orsemen at nite. But when she wa’ mounted, she’d show her true shape, an’ cling like death wi’ her bony claws. She’d whip ’orse into a gallop, ’til rider fainted wi’ terror and got flung in t’ditch. Boggarts. They come in all shapes and sizes… Like White Dobby o’ Furness – a starved cobbler, what dwells in a wurld of his own. He looks reet oyned, an’ wanders abowt wi’ out his kecks, in nowt but a dirty topcoat. His companion is a great white hare – a great white hare wi’ bloodshot eyes…’
‘Yes, well thank you very much,’ interrupts Blyth. ‘We’d love to stop and chat, but we really must be going. We’re running late…’
‘Alreet serry,’ replies the farmer, backing away. ‘Durnt hang abowt on my account. It’s a luvly shade o’ black o’er t’mother-in-laws.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ asks Blyth.
‘A storm’s brewin’. More snow by looks of it.’
‘Good day to you,’ replies Blyth, starting the car.
‘Hold up,’ says the farmer, placing his hand on the window.
‘What is it?’ worries Blyth.
‘Thi sounds fair bowlegged wi’ brass.’
‘He wants a tip,’ cringes Sims.
Blyth rummages in his coat pocket and produces a shilling:
‘Here. That’s all I’ve got.’
The farmer takes it and touches his hat:
‘Much obliged, I’m sure.’
Blyth pulls off, fuming:
‘Bowlegged with brass. Bloody idiot. He’s taking the piss.’
‘He obviously hates southerners,’ replies Sims.
‘You back with us Sims?’
Sims isn’t sure. Part of him feels cut out, lost on the hill. He feels curiously displaced and appears to be watching himself from the back seat. That thing inside the earth. He might have been deceived. A simple hallucination. He shivers to the marrow of his bones, then chides:
‘Anyway, I thought you were a consummate spy.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You said you liked playing The Grey Man – blending into your environment, and all that.’
‘I asked him a perfectly simple question.’
‘But it was the way you asked it, sir. “I say old chap, do you know the way to Sunhill Asylum.” You had a big fat plum in your mouth. Can’t you use the native vernacular?’
‘Like Scouser, or Geordie, or Mancunian, or something.’
‘I don’t know any Scouser, or Geordie for that matter. Anyway, this is Lancashire, not Northumberland.’
‘Plain old Cockney then. Received pronunciation doesn’t go down well in these parts.’
‘Cockney? You mean something like: I say mi old china, I’m proper lost, an’ I can’t tell arse from tit in this gawd forsaken cuntry. Do you ’appen to know the way to Bedlam? Oh! I aint got money enough to tip you sir, truly I ain’t. As gawd is my witness, by the chime of Bow Bells, I’m just a poor mudlarker by trade. I ain’t got two penneth to rub together – except old Roman coppers what I find at low-tide. Truly sir, I knows awl about povetry, my ma being a flower girl, an my poor ole pa being a chimbley-sweeper! Povetry is awl I’ve ever known, sir! Povetry, povetry, povetry… Would you be so kind as to make a ’prentice of me sir? Look at me now, I’m all sham whiskers and sackcloth waistcoat! But I’m a good worker sir, and I know awl about hanimals…’
Sims looks delighted by this tawdry display of theatrical tripe. He sits there for a moment, gawping in surprise. Then his eyes begin to twinkle and he wheezes:
‘Oh! Chimbley sweeper! Mudlarker! Oh! Oh!’
‘It’s good to have you back Sims,’ grins Blyth. ‘Finding you like that. I mean, at least you’ve still got your sense of humour. That’s got to be a good sign. Hasn’t it?’
But despite his mirth, Sims makes for a stupefying spectacle. With his unruly beard, bloodshot eyes and sunburnt flesh, all wrapped in the hide of a pantomime donkey, he looks more like a madman from Arabian Nights.
They come to a fork in the road.
‘Which way Sims? I’m still none the wiser for that farmer and his barmy directions.’
Sims is quite unable to answer. He recalls a blinding light. An all consuming darkness. The question lingers in his mind like a cryptogram: “Which way Sims?” His mind, like his body, feels strangely dispersed. And he suddenly has the dreadful impression that his normal condition is idiocy – as if that delicate inner balance of psychic discernment is a human rarity. He likens the sensation to an accident he had as a boy, when he fell off his bicycle on the road to Kilcolgan… He was freewheeling at night with the wind in his hair. Faster and faster, down a steep hill surrounded by creels of turf and standing stones. Then his front wheel began to wobble like spinning top. Struggling with the handlebars, he lost control and got thrown head-first into a ditch. “Which way Sims?”
He feels himself drowning in his own thoughts. Was sanity itself just an abnormal artifice? His life of learning, of questioning and intelligent introspection, appears as nothing but vanity. A fool’s errand. He reminisces on all the precepts he mechanically rejected; the disagreeable notions that his ego found distasteful. Were they truths after all? Did Christ really walk on water? Arise from the dead? Blyth was right: education is misdirection. Modern science is just a narrow-minded belief system. A strait-jacket. Ignorance pertaining to be knowledge. “Which way Sims?”
He floats weightless in a blinding light, then plummets in obsidian darkness: the polarities of Transfiguration and subconscious chaos. Something has pulled back the curtain of his inner world. Sims has entered a new domain – a domain beyond chemical reactions and physical laws. What about his beard? A month’s growth in a single night. Where did he go? He was away with The Sidhe. In a realm without Time. What utter Madness! He thinks about it long and hard, weighing up the evidence of his senses.
What were those incandescent orbs? Latent soul – nothing more, nothing less. Psychosensory monads of vital force. Disembodied sparks of Divine life. “Not so,” said his teacher. “Man is nothing but dust – a temporal creature, destined for oblivion.” His mother didn’t like the sound that. “That Mr. O’ Connell always has something better to say than anyone else, so he does. Even wicked evil things. Are all English teachers atheists now, by God? What will become of this world, I ask you?”
Sims pondered the question all summer long, pacing round the faery fort, blowing dandelion clocks, collecting snails, and whittling sticks. How was it possible that the immaterial soul lives on, in a conscious, personal existence, whilst the body decomposes? The answer was simple. Dualism. The human conflagration of Matter and Spirit. There would come a time when Sims would etherealise himself. Become one with God. What was he thinking? Insanity!
There are some maniacs who are dangerous – imbalanced psychotics who must be kept in solitary confinement. But Sims had escaped that world. He was a free agent, no longer bound with fetters or chains. How remarkable that an hysteric should present himself to Jesus. Is that was he was? An hysteric? No. That was the old Sims: the Catholic. The altar boy in the white frock. Had he conquered Christ. All those irrational fears and religious imaginings. The apostles told of a somnambulist. Or was it a demoniac? A boy who walked in his sleep; who fell into water and fire; a boy who blasphemed and foamed at the mouth. He was an epileptic to be sure. An epileptic, plain and simple. “Which way Sims?”
Forget that thing in the hill. It doesn’t exist. Sims had put such childish tales behind him. The Sidhe. Irish myth and moonshine. The spells of youth were left in Ballinasloe with all the other lunatics. Christ knows, there were more important things to worry about. It was Christmas Day. The Lord’s birthday. Yet the whole world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Was this day foreseen by the Three Wise Men of the East? Sims had seen the Angel of the Lord, heard glad tidings of great joy, and followed the star to Bethlehem, dressed in a yellow turban with red pantaloons – a costume sewn by his mother for the school nativity. His father burnt the end of a cork and smeared his face with a sooty beard. Then Aunt Maggie pinned one of her paste sapphires to the front of his turban. “Oh don’t you look grand, little man! Just like a real sultan, so you do!” Sims spent all week learning his lines – just twenty five words that consumed his waking hours. He repeats them now to the midwinter sun, silently, reverently, his lips barely moving at all: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him… The star was lowered precariously on a length of twine until it hung over the stable. Someone chuckled in the audience. Then Sims knelt before the Virgin, and offered his gift to the infant Jesus – a tin of Brasso, wrapped in golden paper: And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh… [iii] And still the question haunts him: “Which way Sims?”
Global Thermonuclear War. The coming Apocalypse of fire and brimstone. It was an age foretold by the Prophets. He’d been fighting the Cold War all his adult life. His proper title was Chief Telecommunications Engineer. But during his time in the Service, he’d put his name to all sorts of devices: trigger circuits, guidance systems, blastproof shelters, water and air purification pumps, not to mention the National Early Warning System. A stratospheric burst would blackout all high-frequency radio communications. But Sims had developed an ultra-low frequency system, that was immune to the electromagnetic pulse of nuclear detonations. “Which way Sims?”
The largest conventional bomb dropped in World War Two contained about 10 tons of TNT. But the first atomic weapon which levelled Hiroshima in 1945, had a yield of 13,000 tons of TNT (13 kilotons). Since then, the yields of nuclear fission had increased considerably. MI6 believed the Soviets had a fearsome new weapon with an explosive yield of 58 megatons – equivalent to 58 million tons of TNT. It was estimated that if such a bomb were to detonate at an altitude of 4000 feet above the city of Westminster, it would kill 183,000 and injure over 670,00. The initial fireball would have a radius of 340 yards, instantly vaporising anything within its sphere. The thermal radiation radius would extend 2 miles, causing third degree burns throughout all layers of the skin. Most casualties would be untreatable, and even with prompt medical attention, their wounds would cause severe disablement or require immediate amputation. The blast damage radius would be 1.5 miles, and at 5 PSI overpressure, most residential and commercial buildings would be flattened. The light blast damage radius would extend another 4 miles into the suburbs – as far as Wood Green in the north and Norbury in the south – shattering windows and ripping tiles from rooftops. The flash, which travels faster than the pressure wave, would cause temporary or permanent blindness; and people who ran to their windows after seeing the flash would be lacerated by imploding glass. “Which way Sims?”
It was estimated that a nuclear attack on major U.K. population centres with 300 weapons of one-megaton fission yield, would kill up to 50 percent of the populace through blast, heat, ground shock-waves, and radiation effects. But this figure did not include all the additional deaths from fire, starvation, and lethal fallout downwind of the burst points. Nevertheless, the government was well prepared. Since the end of World War Two, they had been preparing for World War Three. The codename was Underhill: a secret network of subterranean tunnels that ran from Whitehall in the capital, all the way to Corsham in Wiltshire, and Frome in Somerset. It was another England, constructed underground to resemble the one above. A rabbit-warren of tube trains and troglodyte bunkers; a sprawling pothole metropolis, with its own villages, roads and shops. It was all built in stealth and paid for with the taxes of hapless civilians, who went about their daily lives in blissful ignorance on the surface. No public judgment of military policy would justify an engineering project so vast, especially when its purpose was to serve and protect the elite. GCHQ had effectively given the military industrial complex a blank cheque ever since the Russians developed their R-7 — the world’s first ICBM, fitted with a hydrogen warhead, and capable of hitting any European target. Walking round those bunkers, you realised at once how the world was run. Apart from all the essentials required for every-day living, like water, food and clean air, the authorities had provided other facilities that made life more familiar, like chemists, cinemas and pubs. They had up their sleeve many psychological tricks, the use of which completely altered the perceptions of those who dwelt there. Whilst servicing a communications shaft, Sims once came across a small Saxon church surrounded by a white picket fence; behind the roof was a painted backdrop depicting a Cotswold landscape in the style of Brian Cook, with quaint little cottages, emerald fields and swifts soaring in a heavenly sky. This surreal labyrinth was serviced by mile upon mile of track, duct and cable, that ran to-and-fro under the Chilterns, Mendips, Pennines, Brecon Beacons – and God only knows where else. Sims had designed much of it himself; the Faraday shieldings, the transformer relay stations, the generator systems, the primary and secondary backups… But now he’d entered another subterranean realm. One far in advance of human understanding. The realm of The Sidhe. What did that thing want of him? He breaks out in a clammy sweat… And the question hovers before his eyes: “Which way Sims?”
It was only prudent to plan for Armageddon. All the developed nations had made similar contingencies. But how long could mankind live underground? A full scale nuclear war would cause a colossal injection of dust into the stratosphere; this would reduce sunlight, resulting in a catastrophic drop in ambient temperature, whilst also increasing absorption of heat in the upper atmosphere. As much 70 percent of the ozone would be vaporised from the northern hemisphere. Paradoxically this would reduce global temperatures even more, admitting yet more harmful ultra-violet radiation from space. A nuclear winter might last for years, causing a devastation far beyond the initial effects of blast and fire. Without the sun, the plants would die; and without the plants, so would the animals. Nowhere would escape contamination. Caesium would leach into the water-table making life impossible. Yes, the Prophets of old foretold it all… And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. The time was surely at hand, when the seven vials would be poured forth over this green and pleasant land: a time of slaughter, famine, madness and despair. “Which way Sims?”
It ran in the family on the distaff side. Incipient insanity. He could see her still, hanging in the stairwell, her swollen tongue bulging between her teeth, her fleece slippers drooping from her stocking toes like two dead rabbits. Aunt Maggie always said she was troubled, even as a girl. And Father Nolan warned she’d end up doing something damnable. But it was the Devil and his pills that killed her. She was still warm when he got back from school. He tried to slacken the rope by lifting her up, wrapping his arms round her thighs. But she was a cumbrous dead weight. So he ran for Mr. O’ Connell. When they returned, her expression was horrid. She had the face of a gorgon with livid red eyes. Yet it was her feet that upset Sims most. He’d never seen her toes before. Faces often deceive, but feet never lie. Her toes were tiny for such a robust woman. Such sensitive, gentle toes, all splayed and twisted, their slender girlish bones all bent with bunions and the callouses of life. How he wept when he kissed them. “Which way Sims?”
The road stretched out before him like a tightrope over an abyss. It’s Christmas Day, he told himself again, keeping track of time. But why was he returning to an asylum? An asylum of all places! He’d had enough of the bat-house. Those ghastly Sunday afternoons visiting his mother in Ballinasloe, with its long grim corridors and stinking senile wards. It was always raining and she was always crying, pleading to come home. Then he remembered: he was going to meet another lunatic. A lunatic who could walk through walls. Sims felt that he already knew Jack Vallis from somewhere else – if not in this world, then the next. Just twelve hours ago, the idea of building TERGA was a ludicrous absurdity. But it now seems an intriguing possibility. He recalls the funfair leprechaun raising his hat. Atomic gateways. It was obvious to him now: The Sidhe were inter-dimensional. His mysterious transportation was by Light. For what is the body but Light congealed? And so He walked upon the water. And so He arose from the Dead. Yet still the question plagues him: “Which way Sims?”
Blyth awaits his reply, keenly aware that Sims is still in shock. At length, Sims checks the junction both ways. Then grave as an undertaker, he says:
‘Sunhill Asylum? You heard what Mudlark said. Left or right, it makes no odds… The world’s gone topsy-turvy. And all roads lead to the madhouse.’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2022. All rights reserved.
i. ‘Phenomenology Of Spirit’ by G. W. F. Hegel. Introduction. A. Consciousness. III. Force and The Understanding: Appearance and The Supersensible World.
ii. Exodus, 20:18.
iii. Matthew, 2:2,2:11.
Image credit: “The Faery Feller’s Masterstroke” by Richard Dadd [Detail].