22. Smith’s Back Passage

The bare branches of the woodland provided precious little shelter from the drenching precipitation, merely adding to the misery of the six shuffling ramblers by dripping additional collected moisture from great heights. Brian Clough and Geoff Boycott were grateful for their flat cap and baker’s boy hat respectively. For those without head covering, hair became matted and flat, and shoulders damp to the skin. Mark E Smith had mislaid his coat – “the greatest mystery under the sun”, he’d called it. Devoid of any outerwear, he appeared dishevelled and folded his arms to provide warmth, but this rubbed against his monster-bite burns so he returned to an Elland Road “Sniffer” Clarke stance, arms long and straight, cuffs pulled down over hands.

For a while, Geoff Boycott wondered how a man could lose a coat so easily in the middle of winter. “Mark, lad, a minute.”

Smith looked round in surprise.

“You’re gettin’ drownded, for pity’s sake,” Boycott noted. “Just cos you’re a rock star, bombin’ abart wi’ Shakin’ Stevens, Rod Stewart, Lena Zavaroni and the like, doesn’t mean you’re immune to cold and wet.” The batsman removed his knee-length coat and then his suit jacket, and handed the suit jacket to Smith. “This’ll not keep you dry but it’s best I can offer under circumstances. I know you lot use drugs instead of coats for your Ready Brek glow, but for now, this’ll ’ave to suffice.”

Smith nodded his appreciation, placing the garment over his sodden heavy jumper. “That’s proper behaviour, that is,” he stated. “By the way, I’m no fan of Rod Stewart, but Shaky’s a real entertainer. I’ve a lot of time for ’im.”

“And it’s a no-smokin’ jacket that ’un,” Boycott felt the need to remind, “so don’t be gettin’ any silly ideas.”

Smith bristled but decided it was better not to physically go on the attack after a public show of kindness. Not at that moment anyway. This was a question of survival. The offer of the suit jacket might just have saved Boycott from a pounding down a back alley in Carlisle, although this decision was still to be stamped as official policy by the council department in Smith’s head.

Knotty, thorny undergrowth caught hold of shoelaces and untied them like an imp’s devious fingers. Socks eagerly soaked and footwear became camouflaged as flappy brown leaves from last autumn’s shedding attached themselves to already mud-caked leather. Still, it was a picnic compared to the previous evening’s ludicrous blind march undertaken by all but Smith.

Peter O’Toole and Tony Wilson remained wide-eyed in a heightened state of shock. The vision of the ventriloquist’s dummy’s heinous features had burnt itself indelibly into their minds. Wilson tried to be pragmatic, that it was always better to know, even if those details were difficult to absorb. His quick-thinking newshound’s mind led him to believe that those in power must be aware of Hangingbrow Hall and that it was, quite possibly, a porthole to a location that most people would rather not accept. If this was the case, what else was the general public shielded from?

With an interested grin, Brian Clough rounded on Wilson and O’Toole in search of answers. “Eh, what went on upstairs, then? You both look like you’ve been on the Roller Coaster at Yarmouth.”

Wilson paused for a moment, collecting his words, like he was giving a press conference. “It wasn’t far short of your worst nightmare coming to life,” he recounted. “Remember the Lord Charles dummy? To cut a long story short, it tried to drag Britain’s finest stage actor by the ankles into its lair. It was like something from a horror movie, although the lighting wasn’t quite so effective. But taking the positives from this, we saw pretty much what we wanted to see. There’s even a sense of satisfaction… I just wonder if I’ll ever see Ray Alan on TV again without feeling a sense of dread.”

O’Toole knitted his brows at the recollection. “I took a butcher’s at its ineffably vile features and I thought, ‘I’ve been through some scrapes in my time, a number of which I can’t recall and was told about afterwards, but perhaps my nine lives have been used up.’ Do you know, I believe it wanted to eat me limb by limb. Did you see its teeth? It was like a bloody macaque.”

“You have to wonder if there’s a primary evil power controlling the whole shebang back there,” Wilson wondered. “You know, like a sort of malevolent James Brown-type figure with a band of session ghosts around it. I’m a retired Catholic. I’ve no time or inclination to spend hours at the weekend with my hands together and eyes closed. But this moves the goalposts somewhat.”

“The Roller Coaster at Yarmouth is where Madness filmed the ‘House Of Fun’ video a couple of year back,” Smith added. “Good music for 12 year olds all that Two Tone malarkey.”

“What about the big shiny Digby thing in the kids’ cupboard?” Clough questioned. “Any sign of that bugger?”

“No, we didn’t see it,” Wilson replied. “Half-day closing, maybe.”

“Well, it wasn’t all that bad then!” Clough spluttered, shaking his head, and he walked away.

Tim Healy remained quiet and pensive, frowning and narrowing his eyes, wondering if he’d be able to come to terms with what he’d witnessed and if life could ever be normal again. Try as he might, he couldn’t piece together the flamboyantly violent history of Hangingbrow Hall. He thought about the skeletons in the wall. Were dead bodies a useful insulation material and wouldn’t there have been the most god-awful stench in the main hall for years?

In the twilight of the depressingly saturated late-January afternoon, the six entered a small clearing and discovered an area covered with upright white stone crosses, five along, six deep, each no more than three feet high. Bindweed and ivy festooned most, but a few still had bare areas of masonry peeping out from their vegetative layering.

“Looks like an abandoned graveyard to me,” Clough reckoned and made his way towards the headstones for confirmation. “A right bloody mess, an’ all. It can’t be a municipal-run place, so it must be private. Probably belongs to Hickory House back there.”

“What next in this increasingly morbid weekend in the country, eh?” Healy spoke from the corner of his mouth. “Is this the bit where the skeletons climb oot the groond with swords and attack us, I wonder? Mark, did you not see these graves on your amble last night?”

“I did,” Smith admitted. “Didn’t think I needed to mention it, though. I took a leak on that one on the corner.”

O’Toole crouched to study the words on the crosses. “Hans Neumann, 1913-1943…” he began. “Georg Klein, 1920-1943… Rolf Möller 1922-1943… Ewald Ziegler 1918-1943… No mention of military affiliation but they were not here carol singing, that’s for sure.”

Scanning the clearing, Healy’s eyes landed on a collection of more ornate headstones a short distance beyond the austere German burial site and he zigzagged through the plots to take a closer examination. One was small and arch-shaped, and bore the name Sarah Twisteaux, who died in 1942, age 31. Next to this were three small kerbed graves featuring with plain arched headstones

. Healy moved from one to the other. Nelson Twisteaux, age 11… Marguerite Twisteaux, seven… Anne Twisteaux, two. Healy felt his stomach tighten. Was this the resting place of a mother and her three young children?

Clough arrived: “What we got?”

“Who can say with any degree of accuracy?” Healy shrugged. “But someone somewhere must have answers. We can only guess. What do ya reckon?”

“Blown if I know, young man,” Clough replied. “Massacre, perhaps. Kidnapping. It’s dismal! Bloody dismal! You’d have thought they’d have destroyed the main house if it was the scene of grisly crimes, rather than let it fall into rack and ruin and be discovered by backpackers or kids. I mean, it’s a good job we’re such a well-rounded group of individuals. Others would have fallen to pieces seeing the crap we’ve had to put up with.”

“Placin’ my thinkin’ cap on,” followed Boycott, pushing his baggy hat firmly onto his head, “I’d say this lot were a crack squad of German paratroopers and they got a rougher arrival than they expected. Maybe they were set up by master of ’ouse and they all got shot,” – and Boycott shaped his arms into a machine-gun shape, mowing down his five companions with a sneer.

“Have we come across the name Twisteaux before?” O’Toole pondered.

“The military notes you were reading last night, remember?” Wilson said.

“Ah, yes, of course,” O’Toole nodded. “He was the owner of this godforsaken place.” He scanned 360 degrees in search of a further headstone but saw nothing. “Is there another grave here amid this disaster zone?”

“Doesn’t seem to be, bonny lad,” Healy responded, rain dripping from his chin. “Could have fallen doon and weeds’ve hidden it.”

“Or maybe the father’s missing,” O’Toole concluded. “Perhaps he survived. Remember Mark E Smith had his psychic episode when he saw the hanging figures in the doll’s house?”

“Aye, I didn’t see any fella with a noose round his neck,” Smith explained. “Seemed a bit of a dark episode, if I’m being honest. Most normal people would need counselling after a shock episode like that. I’ve had to get used to it over the years. And it’s not just visions. I went on holiday one year when I were a lad to Rhyl and all of a sudden I could speak fluent Russian.”

Just as O’Toole was ready to hypothesise further, Boycott wailed, “Ahhhh, Christ! What the ’ell?”

This brought alarm to all of the gathered apart from Smith, who attempted to hide a childish smirk by forcing an expression of thoughtful contemplation brought on by the gruesome aspect of the graveyard. Boycott, seeing red, pointed an accusing finger at Smith and, like a schoolteacher in a raucous classroom rounding on the naughtiest student, announced, “You!”

Wilson glanced across to Smith and asked, “Oh Mark, what have you done now?”

Smith, unable to conceal his Cheshire cat grin any further, voiced a simple explanation. “Well, when you’ve gotta go…”

“You did more than ’ave a Jimmy Riddle on this German gentleman’s final restin’ place, diiiidn’t yoooouuuu?” Boycott raged.

“Please tell me that Geoff Boycott hasn’t stood in a dollop of Mark E Smith’s ordure,” Wilson smirked in disbelief, eyes closed, hand covering a bowed face. “Ian Curtis, can you see me now?”

“It’s worse than dog dirt!” Boycott fumed, scraping his shoe against the nearest cross. “All over shop! Disgustin’!”

In the stiff breeze, Smith caught a whiff of his own disturbed excreta and stuck his tongue out. “How were I to know that 24 hour on after droppin’ me kegs, Geoff Boycott – or anyone else, for that matter – would be passin’?” he complained.

“It’s not funny, you stinkin’ berk!” Boycott barked, now brushing his shoe back and forth in the undergrowth. “I should rub your nose in it! Come on, get over ’ere!”

“Well,” Wilson grinned, “this is Smith’s Back Passage after all.”

“Just out of interest,” Healy enquired. “What did you wipe ya arse with?”

 “Don’t encourage ’im,” Boycott scalded.

“I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of my restroom proclivities, thanks very much,” Smith answered, “but since you posed the question, dock leaves. Nature’s bog roll.”

There came a dull thud as Boycott dumped his heavy kitbag on the ground and there followed a navy and grey whirlwind as Boycott proceeded to chase Smith at high velocity around the German graves like Benny Hill in pursuit of big-haired crumpet. Smith hadn’t moved so rapidly since he was at school but, to Boycott’s annoyance, he couldn’t make his own superior fitness count. The hunt only ended when both leant up against crosses, gasping for breath.

Clough sidled up to his friend Boycott in an attempt to defuse the situation. “Geoffrey, listen to me, there was no harm meant from that daft sod. I deal with lads his age every day and with few exceptions, they’ve not progressed from pushing their toy cars around the rug. Look at football, for Christ’s sake. It’s not a difficult game. You get the ball and pass to your mate, and when he gets the ball, he passes to his mate. The amount of times I have to go back to the basics with so-called professionals would make a saint swear. But when that lad over there was taking a dump, he did so in good faith.”

Smith, wheezing with the unexpected exercise, lit a 555, which Boycott recognised through the toxic wafts of smoke. The Yorkshireman frantically searched for Smith in the failing light and, having gathered inner strength and standing straight, yelled, “What did I damn well tell you? Not wi’ my fuckin’ jacket on!” And the chase recommenced.

“Shall we proceed?” O’Toole gestured like a waiter directing restaurant-goers to a window seat. “Maybe we should conserve our energies rather than run ourselves ragged. I sense that we are literally not out of the woods yet.”

Barely a Brookside cul-de-sac’s distance was covered before the sound of cawing crows and thrashing foliage caught the attention of the fatigued walkers. Scattered around their feet lay motoring detritus, much of which was unrecognisable apart from a bent car registration plate, suffix “S”, 1977/’78, and a silver bumper glistening with raindrops. Near the base of a mighty pine tree glass fragments crunched underfoot like gravel amid a brown carpet of decaying needles and kickable cones. Boycott nudged a metallic shape with his fragrant foot and recognised it as a wing mirror that had miraculously survived its tumble. He bent down for a closer look and readjusted his vision to take in the reflection. In the mirror he was dumbfounded to view what appeared to be a limp, lifeless human figure awkwardly trapped by branches as if in a circus cage. Boycott squinted into the flecking rain and announced, “Dead body, 50 feet up, and the car’s still up there an’ all, so I’d be careful gettin’ too close to that Christmas tree,” the cricketer warned. “Crows are fightin’ over corpse, the greedy gannets. I ’ope ’is spirit didn’t drift down track and glide into that malignant ’ouse. He’d be stuck there for centuries.”

O’Toole was entranced by the vertiginous crash scene and how the strength of the branches combined to suspend the vehicle in a close embrace. He gasped in disbelief and faced Smith. “Mr Songwriter, is this the accident you walked away from scot-free?”

“It’s like I said,” Smith shrugged. “I’ve ’ad worse injuries opening a tin of beans. It was a bit of a climb down, but the average child ought to be able to cope with that nowadays.”

“You should thank your lucky stars,” Clough added, pushing his flat cap further up his head to better assess the damage. “Have you ever thought of becoming a stunt double, maximising your income streams?”

“Band’s doing alright,” Smith assured. “It’s a shame my ungrateful musicians are not satisfied with the financial set-up. They’re on the same money as U2. They’ll think differently when it’s too late and they’ve been replaced.”

“You have my condolences, young man,” Boycott offered, placing his bag on the ground to give his aching shoulder a break. “Were you close to the fella who’s being slowly devoured by corvids?”

Smith analysed the flapping leathery crows that were squabbling over choice cuts of the former scaffolder and part-time roadie’s rump and ribs. “It’s a pity in a way,” Smith replied. “He were useful. I could pick up the phone and he’d always be willing to take me to Tesco’s for a bit of shopping. It was a nice car, too. Luxury Vauxhall. A lot of extras.”

Beyond the towering timber trunks and their sinister decoration, O’Toole fixed his focus on the rain-splattered limestone cliff from which Smith and his Vauxhall-owning associate had taken flight less than 24 hours previously. Listening carefully, he could make out the occasional thrum of a distant car as it accelerated out of a hairpin bend.

“There’s our route to freedom and sanctity, for sure,” O’Toole heralded with a gracious cackle. “A ten-minute shin, lads, and we’ll be flagging down a flat-bed truck and roaring away to the nearest hostelry. Our adventure stands almost complete. Come now to our boyish revelry. But Smithy, one thing confuses me. Where are the remnants of the crash barrier you hurtled through like a human cannonball and why hasn’t Porkchop, upon inspecting the aforementioned barrier, sent out the hounds in search of our sorry arses?”

“To be honest, I don’t remember hittin’ any crash barrier,” Smith admitted. “I mean, it was foggy, like being on Top Of The Pops when they’ve wheeled the smoke machines out and Pan’s People are larkin’ about with ribbons and whathavya. Maybe there was no barrier.”

“Had to ’ave been a barrier,” Boycott cut in. “This is Great Britain, not Spain. We’ve got very ’igh standards. People fly off sharp bends in Mediterranean countries as regularly as pans of paella are put on ’ob. But not ’ere.”

Despite his tough military training in the early Seventies, Healy felt trepidation as he ran his eye carefully across the terrain. The cliff seemed to gain in stature as they approached and Healy deduced that out of the six souls present, few had the skills necessary to reach the summit. Healy could deal with vertigo. That wasn’t a problem. The difficulty came in the rock face itself and for this reason, he would be backing away from the challenge.

Boycott was the first to make his doubts public. “This big ’oldall of mine could prove a burden,” he said. “Maybe if I could strap ’andles over me back and someone follows behind, pushin’ me up when going gets tough, I might just make it.”

“Give over, man, Geoff!” Healy spoke with agitation. “Look at it! That cliff face is 100 feet high! It juts oot in the middle, so to get to the top, you’re gonna have to climb outwards before the going gets any simpler. Listen, when I woz in the paras, we’d only tackle a crag like that with the right equipment – which we haven’t got, if I remember rightly. You’ve a couple of cricket bats and a ball!”

“Chris Bonington would be bloody struggling to tackle this escarpment without the appropriate set-up!” Clough added. “At best we’ve got half an hour’s light left. Sometimes its better to walk away and fight another day.”

Wilson knew that his flappy knee-length neo-gothic overcoat that he’d purchased in Los Angeles for $349.99 would have to be discarded if mountaineering was their next assignment. This brought forth a surge of anguish. “So John Noakes on Blue Peter,” he followed. “He climbed Nelson’s Column with no safety harness, no helmet, a window-cleaner’s ladder and in a pair of flares that I suspect will come back into fashion in Manchester in the not-too-distant future. Noakes was up for anything. Kick-ass kids TV presenter that he is, he always had an expert on hand. We’ve no experts to guide us here. I’d get a quarter of the way and freeze. And anyway, it’s pissing down and that cliff has fucking moss growing all over it. It’s a vertical banana skin and another disaster waiting to happen.”

“He’s worried about losing his expensive coat,” Clough smiled.

“Now that’s not entirely true,” Wilson replied, “but you’re entitled to your opinion.”

“Just shove it in me bag, duck,” Boycott suggested. “I’ll get it up there.”

“I’ve got an idea,” O’Toole proclaimed. “I’ll climb up that wall with one of Geoff’s wickets. Once at the top, I’ll knock it deep into the ground and we can trail a line from it if we can find some twine in the big house. That way, should anyone lose their footing on the way up, so long as the line is tied firmly around their waist, in theory they won’t plummet to their death and have their brains mashed on those big unfriendly rocks at the foot of the incline.”

“See sense, man!” stated Healy. “It’ll take 15 minutes to walk back to the Little Shop of Horrors, half an hour to go through all the drawers and cupboards, and 15 minutes for the return journey. That’s if that big glowing anaconda with batwing arms and the killer ventriloquist’s dummy are taking their nap and allow us an unmolested visit!”

Boycott shuffled in his bag with coal-shovel hands. “Eh, I’ve got some masking tape, remember.”

“No way can I afford to leave my life in the hands of a lone cricket wicket, a line made from masking tape and, no offence intended, a mid-50s Shakespearean actor with a great deal of goodwill but little interest in health and safety,” Wilson laid straight. “You’ve also go to remember that we slept so little last night that we’re likely to pass out with exhaustion after the first 20 feet have been scaled.”

With darkness approaching, the rain continued its in-for-the-day onslaught and shivering was proving difficult to prevent. On further inspection, the limestone slab that seemed so unconquerable had numerous irregularities among its structure and this offered precious space for grabbing fingers and damp jabbing feet. Despite this, the sheer scale of the climb seemed too great for all but O’Toole. And he was eager to get cracking.

“Never die, never give in, never lose the positive force and all that,” Wilson added, “but there have to be alternatives to this Himalayan chapter. Where’s Tensing when you fucking need him? Maybe we could all walk on for 20 minutes and pick up the road further along without risking life and limb on this vertical blockade of death. I mean, look at it! Look at us! Our garments are sodden with rain and hypo-fucking-thermia is in the post. Again, I wish the cameras were here to film this. It would be a great way to end a regional news bulletin.”

O’Toole nodded his understanding but announced, “Well, I’m going up anyway, and here’s my plan. Geoff, you must have a pen in that bag of tricks of yours somewhere.”

“Aye,” said Boycott. “A Parker. One of them that writes upside down even if you’re in a biplane doing a loop-the-loop. I always keep one on me to sign autographs for kids.”

O’Toole accepted the pen and on a scrap of paper started scribbling. “Before we go to the authorities waxing lyrical about our little adventure, we’ll need to hook up and discuss our experiences further,” he explained. “We’re a select group of individuals who have witnessed highly unusual deeds. We can’t just wander into the local cop shop and reveal our lot. One look at us and they’ll assume we had a serious nightcap in Carlisle and went out on a midnight stomp experimenting with LSD. This game has gone on long enough but let’s hope injury time has already played out. Geoff, I’m giving you the telephone number of my agent Steve Kenis at the William Morris Agency. If you make it to civilisation, call him at 10pm tonight and he’ll give you a message of my whereabouts. We’ll all meet up, ring our loved ones and plan our next step. Now, here’s the important thing. If I don’t hear a peep by 10.05pm, I’ll know you’re shivering in a bush somewhere in floods of tears, with foxes pissing on your elbows and spiders spinning webs across your cavernous gobs. At that point, I’ll approach the rozzers and our great hide-and-seek game will begin. Got that?”

Clough, Boycott, Smith, Wilson and Healy nodded their tacit approval, but Healy added a grim clause to the contract. “You knaa if you slip and hit the groond, bonny lad, there’ll be little we can do for you other than walk away and try and fetch help for ya. But I reckon those crows will be quicker getting to you than an RAF Search & Rescue Sea King. You can still scrub this idea out and you can stick together with us lads and we’ll try and rough it together. Six heads are better than five, as I believe someone might once have thought but never said.”

“I understand your concern,” O’Toole replied, “but I’m taking the high road nevertheless. We’re running out of light and few opportunities are presenting themselves. Now, don’t lose that number and remember, call before 10pm. Wish me luck. I’m on stage in less than a minute.”

“Break a leg,” Clough smiled.

“Write us a postcard,” said Healy.

“Tell the missus I want liver and onions when I get in,” Smith added.

“Get Madonna to think about signing to Factory Records,” Wilson directed.

“And mind how you go,” Boycott nodded. “Look both ways when you cross road.”

“Onward and upwards!” O’Toole beamed. “To Narnia and the North!”

Go to Chapter 23: Onwards and upwards.