That night I didn’t want to be alone. Too many conflicting and unhelpful thoughts. I got into bed with the intention of watching a documentary on something soporific. It didn’t work. There was a time – a lot of times – where I’d have laid and battled the demons but times are a-changing and help is something it’s ok to get. And, after all, I’m learning that hating yourself is not any way to live; nobody lives for long like that, eventually. So I walked.

Eleven thirty in the evening and the village was quiet. No vast jumbled crowds exiting the pubs, no streetlights on, the smell of summer coolness on the air. Down the hill and into the small marketplace where the Industrial Revolution was cradled and perfected into a monster which changed the world forever. Turning left at the traffic lights and following the dark banks of the River Derwent. Taxi’s sloped by on the main road from Derby. I walked past the black river, noisier and crashing as I got nearer to the large weir by the cotton mill. The tall brick chimney loomed up towards the stars and a sign proudly proclaimed that two cooking wankers from the telly had been to watch something there on motorbikes.

Matlock Bath by midnight. Tramping down the small incline past the huge white empty hotel on the hillside and into the neon gaudy lights of an inland seaside. Shouts from the outside of the pub opposite the thermal spring. ‘I’ll fucking smash any man’.

I half thought about taking him up on the offer. But the old days of the school on the Island were long gone. And all I had learned was that you still hurt even when the bruises have gone. Nothing filled that void. Not pain, not hate. I left the small crowd outside the pub and carried on along the wide path and out of the other end of the village. A police van passed, turned, and came back slowly, eyeballing me.

The road turned dark again a few hundred meters out from the fish and chip shops and arcades. In a row of bed and breakfasts a light shone out from an upstairs window through blinds that hadn’t been closed. A woman on all fours was being humped half-heartedly on a bed by a guy from behind. He gripped her hips as he admired the view below him. If there had been a mirror in front of them he would have been able to see the bored look on her face. His pot belly flapped onto her buttocks. She’d tied her hair up ready. They’d made an effort before, yeah?

I used to fuck someone and it felt like the pinnacle of human existence. Her and me would screw til the angels sang and the bed was wet through. Time lets you forget about how good things were, despite them being gone.

Past Artists Corner, and a small collection of men hanging around by the public toilets opposite the small row of Georgian houses. Interior lights on in their cars, signalling for the moths of sexual frustration and hoping for an unreachable fantasy to come true, just once. There was hope. Even in a toilet. Even in middle age.

I crossed the footbridge before entering Matlock to avoid the kick-out from the small number of bars gathered on the approach road. The path ran alongside the shallow river, and darkness gathered in the water as it hissed over the stones. I stopped for a while after the small tunnel to listen at the owls in the trees on the cliff screaming for their mates.

A fox appeared in front and glanced briefly before it hopped over a low stone wall and melted into the next opportunity in the night. The low hum of the storm pump station drowning out any exit through the bracken before the last tiny bridge over a beck before the tiny boating lake.

The park was empty, even though I’d expected the local street drinkers would be partying hard. A young woman weaved her way through a private drunken maze along the path towards me and deemed me sufficient threat to turn on the light on her mobile phone. I gave plenty of room to pass and decided to not even acknowledge her; a misconstrued smile wasn’t needed here. Fear is fear in the pitch black.

Finally up the hill and onto the crunchy dirt of the small road where my partner lives. This was a safe place that the demons could never find. Where I was loved. I unlocked the door and quietly took off my shoes. She’d left a light on for me. She’s like that.


Horse Skull



Image result for horse skull

I grew up in a pebble-dashed Victorian ex-rectory, built in the 1890s as a holiday home for a rich businessman and then sold on to the only church on the Island. Run down when we moved in. Surrounded by solitary conker trees, sycamores, and old, yellowing laburnums – “poisonous…..don’t eat the seeds.” The garden was bordered on two sides by roses. Out back there was an old Anderson shelter, overgrown with something green and tangly. I never saw the inside of it. Never wanted to.

The house was a couple of hundred meters from the beach. A gently sloping road led down to a sea-grass set of small dunes and onto a sandy beach where large areas of shingle and shells piled high against the long wooden tide breaks. The wood shone with slimy algae-green age after a high tide and became grey as stone during a low tide when the wind was strong or the sun beat down.

At low tide, the mud flats led the unwary out for a hundred meters; past ancient oyster beds and the carcass-like ribs of rotting fishing boats. Patches of the old London clay broke through the fine estuary mud in brown bands. Sea birds with long bills and harsh piping cries dragged and skitted up and down a constantly moving shoreline.

It was in the mud, one summer afternoon, that I found it.

A couple of us had been playing on the mud flats – confident that we knew where the deep stuff was, and the direction of the tide. It had been fun. We’d been throwing mud at each other in large handfuls and prodding the silty patches for oysters with thin bamboo canes. We hadn’t found any but it was good to be free of the house and of the anger.

The horse skull had been buried in a foot or two of mud but we dug it out in twenty minutes. I’d felt it under my foot as we were playing. Treasure. Gold. Large as Jack’s go-cart. It just had to be something important. There it sat in the late afternoon sun, large sockets still full of grey silt, staring up at us from beside the water-filled grave it had gotten stuck in a hundred years past. A macabre hunk of dirty white booty. An awesome piece of something huge and scary.

We decided a pirate had ridden it out to his ship, cutting it loose when it became encased in the magnetic brown ooze and his shipmates couldn’t wait for the next tide. He’d sailed off to capture jewels in India, Africa, and to kiss beautiful women….making them all have babies by weeing on their bellies. Somehow. We were certain. But the horse was left to drown in the upcoming swell of the River Blackwater, to gently sway and rot in the murky water. Crabs picked its flesh, sharks too, though none of us had actually seen one, until the bones sunk down into the mud.

I wondered if we should leave a marker – a gravestone of sorts – out of reverence for what was essentially a really important and brave animal. But we couldn’t find anything that would be big enough, or wouldn’t float away. We carried the skull to the waters edge and splashed the salt water onto the place where its nose should have been. Sharp edges and holes. Too many holes, surely, for just two eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth. What were they all for? Bullet holes? Pirate horses would have to have been involved with dangerous times, when golden-haired ladies got spirited away on dark and foggy nights.

It took us a good half an hour for the three of us to carry the skull to my house. We washed it in the garden but nobody could bring themselves to reach right inside the great cavity of its long head. I gouged out the mud from the huge eye sockets and left it on the grass beneath my bedroom window. There it sat, waiting for night and for the chance for the ghosts of the past to do some dry land haunting for a change. But horse ghosts didn’t exist; least not without a rider, and this horse’s rider was a long, long way away from my island. His pirate spirit was rattling its cutlass somewhere where it never snowed and where the people were always happy. Like France maybe?

That night I woke in the early hours in my big creaking old house. I put on the nightlight and wondered what I’d see if I dared to look. The fireplace loomed its gaping mouth at me and the floorboards groaned as I tip-toed across them towards the curtains. This was a night where things moved around without touching them. Far off, canons boomed and a cat-o-nine-tails cracked on a bloodied back. I decided not to risk it. Nobody needed to see a phantom steed – fiery red eyes rearing a full twenty feet to my window and looking in past the drawings of ships and sad faces on my tiny desk. More than that, my father would fly into another rage if it woke him. More terror. Worse fear than any ghost could conjure in me. No. The skull could wait. I climbed back into bed and stared at the ceiling. Far out in the bay a square-rigged ship turned back away from the Island and out to sea.

I wished I was on it.