20. Arthur C Clarke territory


With a balled-up fist, Tim Healy cleared a viewing panel through the condensation on a windowpane and studied a dense wall of trees. He knew that the woodland opposite Hangingbrow Hall’s main entrance offered the quickest route to the outside world – if the directions of Mark E Smith could be relied on. Bare branches swished and swayed in the cold breeze and rain fell steadily. If there had once been an elegant driveway leading to an arterial road, it had long-since disappeared. Despite the gusts, Geoff Boycott’s workmanship sealing a nearby broken window, using panels from a Shredded Wheat box and masking tape, was holding firm.

“Well, lads, the good news is the fog has lifted!” Healy hollered.

There came a subdued cheer.

“The bad news is, it’s absolutely pissing doon and the wind’s whipped up proper,” he added. “You might say we’re not having much luck. But just think, tonight we’ll be in our own beds!”

Kneeling near the fireplace, Boycott snapped his remaining two Shredded Wheat pillows on top of his kitbag and divided them into six portions. It was no easy task. Strands of stiff wholewheat cereal cracked and splintered, but Boycott shepherded the dull-yellow wires with meticulous hands and collated grazing piles. “Right, come and get your breakfast!” he bellowed.

Like rats in a vivisectionist’s experiment, they nibbled their way through the meagre offering, all thinking how wonderful the cereal would taste with a splash of cold milk and, for Smith, a grand sprinkling of white sugar.

“I’ll tell you what,” Clough said with a jolly face, “I couldn’t eat three!”

With no logs to burn, the scene around the fireplace was a dank and dreary affair. “Worse than a funeral this,” Smith spoke, and he set about lighting a collection of candles, which he placed on the hearth and mantelpiece. “In fact, this place is beyond a funeral. It’s the next stage on.”

“The question I find myself asking is, in a haunted castle, do ghosts snooze through the day and have a good old glide at lights-out?” said O’Toole. “Then you promenade down a tedious route of questions, questions and more bloody questions. Is there heaven and hell? Is there a God after all? Do we have souls? There was Tim Healy’s floating dotty old bint by the kitchen. Then that braying crazed deformity from the parade ground of Hades, which gave an almighty nip on the tum to… sorry, what’s your name again?”

“Mark E Smith.”

“Apologies Rick, I will try to remember your name from now on.”

“Don’t mention it,” Smith deadpanned.

“Let’s have a see of the bite, bonny lad,” Healy gestured to Smith.

Smith lifted his green cable-knit sweater and underlying white T-shirt to reveal four russet burn marks. It looked like he’d been zapped after ill-advisedly breaking in to an electricity substation.

“Is it painful?” O’Toole asked.

“If I were home, I’d think of ’avin’ a paracetamol and putting some margarine on it, but the headache from that foreign shit we were kicking back is giving me more gyp at the minute. And I don’t get hangovers normally.”

“You don’t think it could be a trick all this?” ventured Boycott, who was concentrating on putting his contact lenses into his eyes without a mirror. “A Paul Daniels job. Perhaps there’s a series of interlinked projectors creatin’ 3D images, backed by some ’i-tech sound effects from concealed speakers.”

Clough’s eyes widened and he glanced across to Boycott, wondering if this was the beginning of another offbeat dream-sequence storyline that would result in his own blood-splattered violent death. Once convinced that he was indeed experiencing events in real time and that Boycott was no sexual admirer, Clough saw sense in this proposition. “You see,” he said, finger raised, “Geoffrey might have something here. Could be some rich business magnate who’s trapped abroad and can’t get back. He’s set up a complicated security system.”

“Then what lunged at me?” Smith enquired. “Marc Riley?”

Only Tony Wilson understood the joke; Riley was the former bassist of The Fall.

“Could be carpet burns,” Boycott offered, “from rollin’ abart on floor.”

Smith smirked. “Floorboard burns, you mean?”

O’Toole shook his head: “They’re not carpet burns or floorboard burns and a hologram can’t inflict physical damage and suffering.”

Boycott looked to Smith. “Just seems a bit far-fetched to me in cold light of day. As does your story of ’ow you got ’ere. Car flyin’ into a big tree…”

“Far-fetched?” Smith jumped. “Us lot holed up in a haunted castle, now that’s far-fetched! You couldn’t fetch events much further! You’re just browned off you’ve got to spend time with a bunch of gargoyles who you think are beneath you. You’d rather be sprawled out with Beefy and Randall, discussing your tie-ins with the local Rover dealership. Make your judgement on me after you’ve seen the crash site and given it the Columbo once-over. Who knows, you might even give me a bit of sympathy. Not that I’m asking for any.”

“When Mark and myself arrived here yesterday,” Tony Wilson cut in, “we spotted a rocking chair through a window. It was rolling back and forth but there was no one sitting in it. Isn’t that right, Mark?”

Smith nodded. “We thought it were battery operated or plugged in somewhere. I wun’t say it scared the fuck out of me, but it was mid-point jitters. Quite enjoyed it actually. Reminded me of that Hammer House guff, which has its moments.”

Healy crouched on the floor, head racing with thoughts of his own ghostly experience. “Maybe yous two were the first to see some sort of paranormal activity here, with that rocking chair, like,” he spoke. “Where is it, which room?”

“Other side of the house somewhere,” Wilson replied. “We’ve not been in it yet. I can’t say, with hand on heart, I’m in a rush to visit it, darling.”

O’Toole gradually rose to his feet. “Home security!” he laughed. “It’s such a dubious notion that we can discount that! How does a rocking chair and an extremely sophisticated set of 3D images in a bedroom count as a deterrent? The owner of this derelict museum would have been better off putting shutters on the windows and a bloody great padlock on the front door. And let’s not forget the MoD sign. That indicates to me that the authorities are aware of Hangingbrow Hall and its secrets and shame therein.”

“Well, lads, if this is Arthur C Clarke territory, we’re better off out of it and let the experts take the reins,” Healy uttered. “We can pontificate all day and it won’t change a single thing. We need water and we need food. That’s our priority now. You can forget the spooks. They’re not gonna be laying the table for you at any point soon and asking if you want red or brown sauce with ya chips.”

O’Toole smiled mischievously. “Common sense prevails. However, for my own sanity, I intend to get a second opinion and return to the room with the big bad-tempered teddy bear. I’d like to see if it’s a morning or evening sort of character.”

Boycott gritted his teeth. “That’s a bit potty. No chance am I goin’ back up there. I come out yesterday tryin’ to get my crickeeet career goin’ for another year, cos I still think I’ve somethin’ to offer Yorkshire and a lot of people are behind me. Whether or not there’s a gatekeeper to a netherworld upstairs is almost inconsequential. Batting at ’Eadingley is more important to me than rubbish beyond normal explanation. And money from a benefit season would come in useful. Satan’s not gonna be puttin’ is ’and in ’is pocket to see me right financially, is ’e?”

“I could use a beast like that at the Haçienda working the door,” Wilson expounded. “There’d be no pushing in the queue from the rougher elements. They’d be dragged south and spend an eternity with a spike shoved up their arse. I’d be willing to pay extra for that level of security, that expertise. Then we could hire the creature out for bar mitzvahs, christenings, that sort of thing… After all, we do things differently in Manchester.”

Wandering over to the window, Smith said, “You know it’s bucketing down and we’re all so thirsty that we’re considering lickin’ damp glass? Is there not some way we can gather water outside, maybe boil it up?”

Boycott met his gaze. “I’ll tell you somethin’ lad, you’re not touchin’ any of that booze yet,” said the sportsman. “You’ll be in need of a clear head if you want to make it home. You’re on a stodgy pitch, here, not doing venues with Manfred Mann.”

“I don’t touch a drop till gone eleven,” Smith replied. “I’ve got standards, Mr Holier-Than-Thou Ralph de Bricassart. And I’m not that daft that I don’t realise you need water in your body to process alcohol. If you’ve no water supply, stay off the pop, that’s the general rule, cos you may as well be drinking seawater. Obviously, with want went on last night, I lost the thread a bit.”

“How do you think they go on in the jungle for water?” Brian Clough said. “They drink rain that’s collected on big leaves. I’ve seen it in films.”

“Tarzan’s treehouse wasn’t plumbed in, was it?” Smith added. “He’d have had his sources and that would’ve been rain. He was in a rainforest, after all. You know Cheetah, his chimp sidekick? He became a bit of an artist in later life. Still alive, by all accounts.”

“I’ve gone walking in the Peak District and taken water straight from streams,” Wilson recalled. “I’m still not convinced it was a fantastic idea, but I got away with it. It was a couple of years ago and I was on Strines Moor near Sheffield with a business partner, Alan Erasmus. Mark knows him. We went camping on a farm one weekend… Erasmus bought a ton of weed from a farmer he knew and we thought we’d try some of it and camp out in a field miles from anyone. It was great stuff, by the way. North African. Up near the top, Erasmus would cup his hand and drink from springs. I took a sip and it tasted fine, but I mainly stuck to Red Stripe and some scrumpy that was as strong as bleach.”

Boycott tutted.

“Well, this may come as a surprise to you,” Healy said. “I was once in the Army, but this is over 10 year back, like. I was in the SAS.”

There followed a murmur of interest and respect.

“SAS – the Saturdays and Sundays… The Territorials!” Healy smiled, raising a hand in apology. “I was in 4 Para for nearly three years. I went to Aldershot, did P Company, which is really tough. I passed my basic training and got my parachute wings. I did 13 jumps, mostly Hercules, and two out of an Argosy. Anyhow, you get your water supplied by the Royal Engineers. That’s their lookout. But if you’re lost or don’t have access to water, then rain is your friend. Rainwater is perfectly Orkee to drink if you can catch it. It just depends how clean ya receptacle is. Obviously, if water comes into contact with something, like bacteria and parasites, that sort of thing, it’ll carry it. Cos, like, is the nuclear power station not far from here? That worries me slightly, but I am pretty thirsty, I’ll be honest. If we can boil tha water up, we’d be reducing risk. As for drinking from streams roond ’ere – that’s not something I’d try. Maybe high up a hillside, well away from livestock, I’d give it a go. The thing is, how do you know there’s not a dead rat in the stream a bit further up? It’s a gamble. But we’re not in the Sahara here, are we? We’re in England and the reality is, we’re only five miles or so from another human being and a water supply. We just need to find them! But for now, a sip of the stuff falling from the clouds shouldn’t do us much harm.”

“In the Sahara during the war, soldiers who were lost would take water out of the radiators of abandoned vehicles,” added O’Toole. “Imagine how bloody thirsty you’d have to be to raid an engine. But if memory serves me correctly, the kitchen cupboards here are crammed full of crockery, and we’re moping about like we don’t have a pot to piss in! Let’s have a H2O party and then we’ll saddle up Shanks’s pony! We lose light at 3pm. What with the Shredded Wheat, we’ll be fit to climb Scafell Pike!”

Not a single spook nor floating childminder were spotted along the dingy corridors of Hangingbrow Hall. In the semi-light of the wrecked kitchen, six parched stars filled their arms with cups, pans, jugs and anything else that could hold liquid, and carried them from the kitchen to the main hall. O’Toole even placed a soup bowl on his head. Dust and dirt were cleaned from the utensils using a spare pair of underpants and a grey sock that Boycott found in his bag. “I can assure you, these are laundered,” he glowered.

Outside, damp hair and wet shoulders came quickly as vessels of various size, shape and weight were laid out in a wide circle a short distance from the entrance door. For the first time, the red-pink bricks of the central tower, rooftop castellation and boxy extensions of the curiously shaped house could be fully experienced. Smith, an alcohol-induced headache at the eyebrows, opened his mouth to the sky, allowing ice-cold drops of precipitation to land on his tongue. It was agreed that they would temporarily remain on site to partially fill their repositories and hope that the lashing rain would subside. Then, once rehydrated, they would make a break for what was now known as Smith’s Back Passage – the route in which The Fall frontman had wandered to the nightmarish threshold of Hangingbrow Hall.

Half an hour passed before a pioneering sip of rainwater was tasted and it was found to be acceptable. The rain swept, soaking faces and hands, yet O’Toole felt rejuvenated and moved from pot to pan to cup to bowl, smiling with each slurp. “The gaelic uisage beatha is a term used north of the border to describe whisky,” he revealed. “‘The water of life’. Well, they’ve never tasted Cumbrian rain before. We should bloody well bottle the stuff and sell it.”

Wilson, in his muddied black trenchcoat and combat trousers, returned with Healy from an amble around the perimeter of the house and reported that he could see little in the landscape apart from the brick perimeter wall and beyond that, trees and fields. He scanned the skittering clouds and announced, “We’d better face facts amigos, this is in for the day. I can only apologise for bringing the weather with me. If we’re going to make our move, it should be sooner rather than later.”

“I’ll get my kit packed up,” Boycott nodded. “I could do with picking up some more Shredded Wheat before shops shut tonight. They’re not open Sunday, more’s the pity. I’m convinced it gives me strength.”

“Well, I get strength from these,” said Smith, lifting a box from his pocket. “I’m on rations. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to fill my lungs with toxins. Hey, Geoff cocker, have you got a lighter on you?”

“Course I ’aven’t!” Boycott glared in response. “What sort of daft bloody question is that?”

Go to Chapter 21: Through the keyhole.