Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy In A Haunted House In Carlisle, 1984 – full

  1. Wooooaaaahh, that’s crap… That’s crap!

Brian Clough, the 48-year-old manager of Nottingham Forest, was driving his Y-reg Mercedes-Benz southbound on the motorway between Glasgow and Carlisle. It was Friday the 13th, unlucky for some, but not for Clough, who, hours earlier on this finger-nipping January afternoon, had convinced the largely untried Celtic midfielder Jim McInally, on loan at Dundee, that a shift to the English First Division would benefit player, Nottingham Forest and Scottish football alike. The player made up his mind in less time than it would take Bob Holness to introduce the opponents on Blockbusters. Clough instantly rang the City Ground: “He’s ours for next season.”

Clough saw untapped potential in the Celtic reject, yet Ol’ Big ’Ead’s skill for scouting future stars was, by his own admission, not much cop. The true talent spotter had been Clough’s former assistant Peter Taylor, his right-hand man who’d brought the likes of John Robertson, Archie Gemmill and Kenny Burns to his attention. But Taylor was a rattlesnake. Taylor had retired, his nerves shot to pieces, and then, just as quickly, returned to the game to manage Derby County – Clough and Taylor’s beloved former club. Taylor had written a book, Taylor On Clough, about the highs and lows of their twinned careers. Clough never asked for the biography to be written nor would have given approval. Taylor would have been better off writing a manual on how to identify emerging talent. That was his true calling and it would have sold in bucketloads. Clough had heard nothing about Taylor On Clough until its publication, even though Taylor’s office had been along the corridor at Forest’s stadium.

As Clough hurtled towards the border, with the taste of hotel sparkling wine now acrid at the back of his throat, the winter clouds hung heavy as an eiderdown, a threatening grey mass stretching to England – England, the country that had rejected Clough’s services, the country that had brought in West Ham’s general manager Ron Greenwood – not the actual team manager – in 1977. The job should have been Clough’s. The country still wanted him as England manager. They loved him for his outspoken views and forthright opinions, and for how he played the game – attractively, to feet and on the floor. It wasn’t enough to win. Clough wanted the game played as performance art, as a visual feast. They were in the business of entertainment. But his genius was shared with Taylor, and his management style was already becoming a parody of itself. A career in gradual decline.

Clough fixed his eyes on the bumper of a brown Vauxhall Chevette hatchback and visualised the pinnacle of his managerial years, when everything was going so right… Through swift-moving red and white shirts he saw Forest’s wing-wizard John Robertson finding space on the edge of the box when, just seconds before, there was no space to find. His foot lifted like the hammer of a rifle and seemed to hold for an eternity, before the marksman’s killer shot, directing the ball neatly and meticulously past the Hamburg SV keeper Rudolf Kargus. In the build up, every loose ball was fought for and every loose ball was won. Determination. Speed. Brutality. Ruthlessness. Accuracy. Madrid, 28 May 1980, the world watching the red of Nottingham Forest, of Brian Clough, of Peter Taylor, not the red of Liverpool or Bayern Munich. Memories emerging and drifting in banks of border-country fog.

In the murk above Clough’s sleek Mercedes, a deep-grey, egg-carton mass of clouds gave an otherworldly violet monotone to the undulations of Dumfries and Galloway, an eeriness that you witnessed once a decade, like it was the end of the world. It was a relief to Clough when the sodium streetlights flickered into friendly life along the carriageway, strawberry-coloured illumination gradually warming to tangerine, stretching for miles towards, what seemed, a cloud curving to the ground and consuming the horizon. Clough plotted the course in his head: M6; A66; A1; then the M1 home to Derby. There’s so much bloody driving in football, so many bloody miles to cover. ETA… 10pm, at best. Clough could have murdered a drink. And he wished that Taylor was with him.

The needle on the fuel display indicated that the tank was only an eighth full and with no knowledge of garages across the unwelcoming bleak Pennines, the Forest manager pulled in at a Fina service station near Gretna, just to be safe. The air temperature was bitterly cold – biting and raw. It must have been close to freezing. Clough reached for his flat cap from the back seat of his car and placed it firmly on his head. The service station’s canopy offered little protection from the elements. While Clough pulled the trigger on the pump, he was recognised by a tall man with white hands the size of a yeti’s, who was filling up his Bedford CF van with derv.

“Now then, Mr Clough – business or pleasure?”

“Bit of both,” Clough cheerfully responded across the forecourt.

“Up here for a new player?” the van driver pushed.

“Eh, what team do you support?” Clough asked, ignoring the probing question.

“Liverpool. Funnily enough, I play for Gretna.”

“Northern League Division 1?”

“That’s right – do you know it?”

“I do, a lovely league that – Blyth Spartans will run away with it this season,” Clough predicted.

“Decent side,” the van driver admitted. “North Shields are scoring all the goals, though.”

Clough replaced the nozzle on the pump. A full tank.

“What position do you play?” Clough called over.


“He-he, that’s a good one!’ Clough chortled.

“I’m a goalie – a sub goalie.”

“Goalie’s most important position on the park!” Clough barked. “Eh, Nottingham Forest will buy your petrol – put your wallet away.”

“Blimey, thanks Mr Clough.”

“It’s Brian. And your name is?”

“Barry. Barry Gilfillan.”

“What do you do, Barry, when you’re not on the bench?”

“Fireplaces, hearths, grates. Fog’s coming in heavy, Brian. I’d keep off A66 if I were you. It’s icing up as well,” Gilfillan warned.

“Thanks for that advice, young man,” Clough said, approaching Gilfillan with a finger raised. “But I’ll tell you what, it’s not as cold as Elland Road’s training ground. Coldest place in Europe, that. Now, listen to this: you work hard, listen to what the manager tells you and get off the bloody bench. Nobody ever won a thing sitting on their arse. Train, train, train – put in the extra hours. That’s how I managed to score 250 goals in 270-odd league appearances for Middlesbrough and Sunderland, that’s how my mate Geoff Boycott became one of the greatest batsman of his generation, that’s how Seb Coe is winning gold medals left, right and bloody centre, that’s how John Robertson scored in the European Cup Final. You never know – you might end up playing for me one day. Now give us a kiss.”

With a signature signed on Nottingham Forest-headed notepaper, a peck on the cheek and two lots of fuel paid for, Clough gathered speed once more, overtaking a fleet of Cumbria County Council gritters. On “Diddy” David Hamilton’s Radio 2 slot, Frank Sinatra crooned, “There may be trouble ahead.” Clough smiled and joined in at full volume. “But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance – let’s face the music and dance.”

  1. Totally weird

Mark E Smith, the 26-year-old lead singer of alternative Manchester band The Fall, had just woken, having fallen to gentle, fluffy sleep shortly after leaving a low-end B&B in Giffnock, Glasgow. His driver Rob Carroll, a 6’2” scaffolder and part-time roadie from Bury, was acting suspiciously, his steering supremely exact, like a robot from the future – from the year 2000, perhaps.

“Where’re we?” Smith enquired in a low-frequency growl.

“Not England yet.”

“You alright?” Smith asked.

“Yeah… yeah, why?” Carroll replied, snapping out of his deep concentration.

“You know it’s dusk?” Smith pointed out.

“Is that a rhetorical question or a pleasant observation?” Carroll followed.

“Are we goin’ to talk usin’ questions ’til we reach home?”

“Are you annoyed with me?”

“Rob, y’twat – you haven’t got your fuckin’ lights on.”

Rob flicked the light switch of his seven-year-old Vauxhall VX. “Happy now?”

Smith didn’t drive. There was too much to concentrate on, like you were rubbing your tummy, tapping your head and scratching your armpits all at the same time. He had enough on his plate keeping the band under control. He needed these opportunities to think and sleep, to recuperate. It hadn’t been a spectacular night. There had been an argument with a Scottish promotion duo following a gig in Ayr. For Nick Low and Graham Cochrane of Louden Furious Music, this was their first foray into promoting a tour and it proved a baptism of fire. Both had been physically threatened. The Fall’s van had broken down en route, so more money was demanded to pay for repairs. The rider was incorrect – there were 24 cans of pale ale, but Smith insisted that he’d ordered Red Stripe. Drummer Karl Burns, in a state of mobile agitation, punched a door off its hinges after catching Low and Cochrane tapping out rhythms on his drum kit. Drugs were demanded but none were supplied, resulting in Smith singing “It’s like trying to get a line from Nick and Graham” in one of the songs. A spotlight caught fire. There was a stage invasion. Low and Cochrane haemorrhaged money on the tour. The band’s van had to be left behind and was still being fixed in Ayr but luckily Rob The Roadie was located and miraculously appeared, having arrived from a fishing trip on the Spey.

Smith had recently married Brix Salenger, a glamorous blonde American musician and socialite who he’d met on The Fall’s 1983 tour of the US and Canada. Within a year of tying the knot, Brix Smith had been drafted into the group as guitarist and second vocalist. Her arrival coincided with a shift to a lighter, poppier sound and an all-round smarter look for the band. As a result, Mark E Smith on this foggy early afternoon was sporting a turquoise cable-knit jumper – a Christmas gift from his wife. Brix, meanwhile, had booked into a business hotel in central Glasgow to rest, having thrown up through the night due to mixing her many, many drinks. She expected either death or partial recovery by Saturday and would catch an electric British Rail West Coast train. Smith lost patience and bolted, having handing over a wodge of cash for taxi and plush room. Stopping over an extra night in a strange city was money wasted, and anyway, he needed to get back to Manchester to feed the cat.

“What’s this shite on the radio now?” Carroll ventured. “Hooray, hooray, it’s a holi-holiday? Bit cold for holiday songs, Janice Long, sister of Keith Chegwin – it’s freezin’ fog.”

“Eh, don’t knock Boney M,” Smith cut in. “You could learn a lot about timin’ from a group like that.”

Carroll didn’t push his argument – it was pointless with Smith. The highly opinionated singer had an answer for everything. It was like Smith had been given all the day’s questions the night before and had practised his responses in readiness. Smith performed underbites and overbites in timed rotation as the three minutes and 56 seconds of reggae-tinged Euro pop joyfully played out, before screeching, “Disco Fieber!”

Janice Long on Radio 1 seemed lost for words, as if she’d heard Smith’s enthusiastic squawking, but once the DJ had composed herself she led into an on-the-hour news bulletin. Gales, Ethiopia, Arthur Scargill… Voices drifted away in the din of six lanes of traffic.

“I don’t mind Scotland, it’s just a long way away, in’t it?” Carroll said.

“You haven’t got a fuckin’ clue about distances,” Smith said, screwing up his face and then changed tack. “I like the place, don’t get me wrong. And they can drink their whisky. Not like that lot in Prestwich, brawlin’ postmen goin’ through divorces.”

“It’s kind of in-keepin’ for The Fall, playin’ places like Ayr, don’t you think?” Carroll added. “Your sort of folk.”

“I couldn’t stand the support.”

“What, the audience?” Carroll asked. “A bit raucous.”

Christ,” said Smith, annoyed that he had to explain himself, “I mean the support band, fuckin’ Del Amitri – that hippie, student dirge. What were the promoters thinkin’ of? It was like a personal dig, like they were takin’ the fuckin’ piss. It was fuckin’ planned. I’d rather have just had a church organist hold down the note of F for an hour. At least that builds atmosphere.”

As Carroll formulated a reply, the car strayed into the middle lane of the motorway and a booming horn sounded from a Ford Transcontinental freight lorry to the rear.

“Whoooa,” Smith squirmed – seatbelt not attached. “Juggernauts! Fuckin’ hell, our wheels are on the line – I can hear the bangin’ from the cat’s eyes. Shift over! Eh, have we still got that bottle of Bells?”

“Bells – we didn’t have one in first place,” Carroll replied, nervously straightening the car.

“Must’ve dreamt it – we should call off somewhere and get one,” Smith suggested. “And drink it.”

“S’pose so, but it’s gettin’ foggy Mark,” Carroll warned. “Anyway, I find this speed is doing the job.”

“Speed? What, 70mph?”

“No, speed. In my wallet.”

“Speed, as in the powdery powder? You’re driving on speed?”

“I often do – it passes the journey along top. As I say, Scotland’s a long way off. This brings the hours in. All the HGV drivers do it.”

“I thought you looked a bit red.”

“I overheat on it,” Carroll squirmed. “We’ll try and find an offie near Carlisle or someplace cos I might need a dandelion and burdock or cherryade. I’m not one for drinkin’ and drivin’. Maybe we should stay in Carlisle with this fog and have a night on the town, courtesy of The Fall! I’ve got a gram of this shit. I was gonna go to the Haç when we got back.”

“Not gonna happen – the band’s a business.”

“I’ll waive my long-distance taxi fee if you’ll pay for a B&B.”

“Fee? You’re not getting paid anyway – the payment’s in the thrill of drivin’ me about, an alternative-music god what writes lyrics that Jim Morrison could only have dreamt about.”

“You might be right,” Carroll mused. “Jim Morrison never sung about slags, lorry drivers and urgent calls to smile.”

“You’re not goin’ to crash, are you?” Smith asked. “Drivin’ on that shit.”

“Doubt it,” Rob said. “Never have done before. Do you want some?”

“No. I mean yes. I mean no. OK, yes. No… no, no. Badly wrong. Maybe. I don’t know. Yes. Maybe later. After the whisky. Actually, I’d like Whyte & Mackay if we can get any. The Double Lion Brand. 40 per cent. Head for an offy in Carlisle. I’m not an alcoholic, though.”

  1. Fresh from the captain’s table

The white-walled, 18-room, outrageously-pricey-for-what-it-was Regency Hotel in Ambleside, Cumbria stood in stark contrast to the battleship-grey surface of Windermere. At almost eleven miles long and a mile wide, Windermere is Britain’s largest lake, although the usual spectacular views of sailing craft, pine woodland and Loughrigg Fell’s dry-stone walls were, on this forbidding Friday, totally obscured by dense low cloud. On craggy slopes and narrow lanes, visibility was restricted to mere feet, precarious conditions for navigation on land or water, but an ideal setting for a secret rendezvous. For sacked Yorkshire cricketer Geoff Boycott, a clandestine hook-up with key members of the Reform Group – a pro-Boycott association that had supported the former captain through years of wrangling with the Yorkshire cricket committee – had become a regular occurrence during a tumultuous career. Boycott wished the meeting had been staged closer to home. It had taken him three and a half hours to drive from Wakefield, and the fog had made the latter part of the journey a perilous endeavour. He’d clipped a sheep on a hairpin bend. Not knowing if the beast had been mortally wounded, Boycott merely wound down his window and shouted, “Move out bloody road.”

The Reform Group was attempting to reinstate the 42-year-old Boycott, who’d been axed following Yorkshire’s disastrous 1983 campaign. For the first time in its history, Yorkshire had finished bottom of the championship and Boycott’s assumed “selfish batting” was seen as a contributing factor in the county’s embarrassing decline. Boycott had been reported by the cricket authorities for slow scoring against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham in August and had also been accused by Ray Illingworth, the Yorkshire manager, of running out fellow batsman Kevin Sharp on purpose. Like Vesta curries, Boycott was adored and loathed in equal measure.

In the wood-panelled, Artexed faux luxury of the Regency’s bar, Boycott warmed his calloused, muscly hands by a glowing coal fire, the welcoming aroma of the smoke transporting his tense mind to childhood streets in Fitzwilliam, West Riding – the sight of cottages belching yellow clouds from stubby chimneys along Wakefield Road and Railway Terrace, of The Plaza cinema, to see John Wayne, of the screaming express hurtling through the station at 9.30pm in the week, of safety and community. Those glorious, uncomplicated times, when his dear parents were still alive, before his dad’s accident at the pit, the broken back, the smashed pelvis, the damaged legs and the internal injuries, the start of humanity’s decline.

The bar was quiet. Apart from Boycott and three aged members of the Reform Group, there was a French family in the corner comprising two adults and two children, speaking in hushed tones. The De Homem-Christo family was from the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The parents were in advertising, and had met Geoffrey Thompson, the owner of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, about a possible contract to spread the great name of Blackpool on the continent. Despite the De Homem-Christo’s above-average grasp of spoken English, they could barely understand a word uttered by the agitated Yorkshiremen in their midst.

In a week’s time, the club’s membership would hold a special meeting in Harrogate to vote whether Boycott’s sacking should be overturned and the player awarded a year’s contract.

“It’s usual crap, and I’ve faced these sorts of accusations time and time again from Committee down years,” Boycott ranted. “All of it’s untrue as well! You can’t trust a word Illo says. He parps up wi’ one thing, then does exact opposite – ’e says ’e bears no grudges then goes on rampage, sayin’ stupid damned things like, ‘Boycott always gets applause, while I get attacked.’ He’s captain for pity’s sake! He gets attacked cos we’re doin’ so badly. Illo’s plain jealous of my popularity. It’s like illness wi’ ’im. Illo illness.”

The three Reform Group members, sipping half pints of bitter, listened quietly to Boycott and nodded with wise understanding.

“This is supposed to be my benefit year,” Boycott added. “I just want one more season of first-class crickeeet, my testimonial year, then I’ll retire. I don’t ’ave to be captain – I should’ve given that up years back, all the damned trouble it’s caused me. I can play for Bairstow and I can get fully behind ’im.”

“Bairstow reckons players’ll want to leave if you’re given a new contract,” replied one of the members. “Bill Athey’s moving to Gloucestershire and it’s understood it’s because of your…”

“It’s not cos of me!” Boycott interrupted. “He’s told me that ’imself! Go and ask ’im! It’s cos side’s rubbish – there are too many medium players bein’ taken on and not enough genuine talent comin’ through. That has to be a systemic problem! All I ’ear about is my slow scorin’ but to make runs you can’t be bangin’ balls on every delivery. If it’s a choice between undrid at Lords and Raquel Welch, I’ll take undrid every time!”

“Fred Trueman’s stickin’ his oar in, and people listen to Fred when he’s talkin’,” said the second member.

“If you’re reinstated,” said the third member, tucking into a bag of newly available dry roasted nuts, “I’ve ’eard that Fred’s planning on ’osting a meetin’ in Scarborough so ’e can discredit thee.”

“Fred’s waged war on me for a long while now,” Boycott stormed. “He’s convinced ’imself that I’m personally responsible for all that’s wrong with Yorkshire crickeeet. He can’t stand fact that adulation he once ’ad, I now ’ave. It’s simple as that. His newspaper articles are engineered anti-Boycott ramblings, but ’is after-dinner speeches take things to legal limit.”

“Fred’ll be muzzled soon enough,” said the first member. “The Craven lot have had enough of him. I wouldn’t be surprised if they vote him out.”

“I’d paint my bottom blue if I ’ad Fred off my back,” Boycott voiced. “I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’ve experience to play on poor pitches that others at club just don’t ’ave. Who’d replace Fred, anyhow?”


“As I say, I just want my testimonial year and we’ll go from there,” said Boycott. “There just needs to be a bit of solidarity and that’ll bring an end to dark days of crickeeet in Yorkshire. Reputation of Yorkshire ’as almost been destroyed. It’s time to start rebuildin’.”

“You’re right there, Geoff,” said the first member. “Another thing… Haggas has been saying, quietly mind, that younger players have no respect for you, and that you’re regarded as a bit of a joke figure.”

“Haggas?” shouted Boycott, jumping to his feet. “Haggas? Haggas is just plain daft. An idiot. He’s stupid – a punk. Haggas is a daft punk. A daft punk, I’m tellin’ you. Daft punk!”

In the corner, the eight-year-old Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo listened to Boycott with growing delight and repeated the phrase to himself in a cod-Yorkshire accent: “Dafft poonk, dafft poonk.” Upon his return to Paris, he would refer to his friends as ‘daft punks’ amid much sniggering while they listened to middle-of-the-road, American-pap driving music on the radio.

Boycott ambled to the window and realised that the fog had become so thick that he’d have trouble locating his Ford Granada in the hotel car park, never mind find his way back to West Yorkshire. “Let’s get on wi’ this quickly and sort out a loose plan of what we want to achieve, cos I can’t be up ’ere all night,” he ordered. “I’ve got to be in Leeds at nine sharp tomorrow for a dental check-up.” To further enhance his point, Boycott showed his teeth, but all this seemed to do was accentuate his lower-case-“b” at 90 degrees smile.

  1. Guten tag, pet

Let’s float along this world-famous cobbled street with its bay-windowed terrace houses, arching marmalade cats and concerned, creased faces. Now take a sharp 90-degree turn across swept flagstones that have bore witness to out-of-control HGVs, cardiac arrests and broken bones. Push through forest-green double doors and enter an arena of brown, brown, brown. Brown wooden seats, brown wooden tables, brown bar, brown floorboards and brown-pattern wallpaper featuring various pale and dark brown blocky shapes and hoops. Colours of Lancashire hotpot. This is the interior of Coronation Street’s Rovers Return, adjacent to the main studio building in the backlot of Manchester’s Granada compound.

The Rovers wasn’t in use on this particular Friday afternoon, momentarily spared the sideways glances of Barlow, Baldwin and Ogden, while quiet-working electricians tampered with wires and connections. Along the horseshoe-shaped bar that served (left to right) lager, mild, Guinness and bitter, huddled an array of highly familiar, non-Corry faces, making use of the Rovers’ set as a quirky meeting point.

The gathered performers were a rogue’s gallery of light entertainment, faces animated by jocularity, reminiscing of wild, backstage intrigue, some of it of a homosexual nature, from the wartime up to the 1984 present. Grinning and cracking one-liners in a mechanised manner was Kenny Lynch, a black comedian/singer who was solidly subservient to the Seventies format of gag and giggle. Leading the banter, he was bright-eyed, lively and whip-crack sharp. Well-honed jokes, some of a blue nature, spewed like hot geysers from his comedy core. To his side was Burt Kwouk, known to millions as Cato Fong from Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films. Kwouk was smiling and occasionally flicking back his black fringe, in familiar territory here, having been born not in the Orient but Granadaland’s Warrington. He growled replies, like his throat was coated with coarse gravel. Across from Kwouk perched mauve-haired Mollie Sugden, grandma to a nation, a polished, ruby-encrusted female Clive Dunn, whooping with disbelief and scoffing at Lynch’s tall tales of hanging out with The Beatles. In Sugden’s shadow, typecast nervous ninny Nerys Hughes of Liver Birdsfame nodded absently while rummaging through her handbag, looking for tissues, mirror and sweets, her high-pitched proto-WAG accent transmitting on a higher frequency than her acting colleagues.

Resting quietly at the head of the table, thoroughly enjoying the raillery provided by this staggeringly disparate mob, presided the unlikely ringleader Ralph McTell, a folk singer who had found major success in 1974 with his tramp’s canticle “Streets Of London”. His downbeat composition, a favourite among schoolteachers with hippie tendencies, had reached No.2, making McTell a household name. McTell had hand-chosen this rabble for his children’s TV programme Tickle On The Tum, which had been filmed in the Granada studios throughout the week. McTell had the body of the Incredible Hulk, with arms as forceful as a JCB digger and a powerful-set jaw attached to a head of pure, prime beef. If he were painted silver, he’d make an effectively frightening sci-fi robot with crunching iron mandibles.

Directly opposite McTell sat 31-year-old Newcastle upon Tyne actor Tim Healy, dressed in a navy V-neck jumper, checked shirt, well-worn jeans and seen-better-days biker boots. He was listening intently to these seasoned professionals with a controlled half-smile. Healy was already a recognisable figure on Britain’s streets, a rising star due to his appearances as Dennis Patterson on the hugely popular Central production Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Episode four of the first series was airing that night on ITV at 9pm, following the pedestrian comedy A Fine Romance. To children across Britain, Healy would shortly introduce himself as Barney Bodger, an odd-job man on Tickle On The Tum who, though amiable enough, was a home-improvement disaster zone. In Bodger character, Healy, a former stand-up comedian, made McTell cry with laughter. That morning in filming, scenes involving Healy and McTell had taken up to ten takes; even Granada’s camera operators had trouble remaining focused.

Beneath the Rovers Returns’ wall-mounted decorative brass plates that spoke of agriculture and Victorian manual labour, Healy’s mind rested on more pressing matters – snooker. He wanted to be by the hearth in Newcastle for 10.30pm so he could tune in to see Kirk Stevens and Tony Meo in the Quarter-Final of the Lada Classic, right after the News At Ten. With his white suits and shirts, Stevens’ disco styling was alarmingly similar to John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, but Stevens was a charlatan in the company of snooker’s true pros – the likes of Ray Reardon, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, Terry Griffiths and the game’s new Pele, Steve Davis. Healy adored snooker and played the game at every possible opportunity. His biggest break was 27. Two years previously in the Lada Classic, Davis had given the world its first televised maximum break in a Quarter-Final in Oldham against John Spencer. Healy had watched, transfixed. He occasionally daydreamed of calmly potting ball after ball and claiming his own 147, but then again, he would also play out Newcastle United games in his head. Keegan!

“Hey, mate, I saw you in that football film last week,” Lynch shouted across to Healy. “That World Cup one. I always thought it was countries in the World Cup, but this was normal football clubs, ain’t that right?”

“It wasn’t the World Cup like y’knaa today,” Healy corrected. “It was before the FIFA World Cup – it was the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, held in Italy for two years, before the First World War. So you liked the film then, eh?”

“Sports films don’t usually interest me,” Lynch admitted, “cos they’re crap, but there was a good story to that and a half-decent cast.”

“What was that, then?” McTell cut in. “Tim, I didn’t know you’d done films.”

“Oh aye,” Healy nodded. “Canny line-up we had an’ all. It wasn’t a Hollywood production. Nothing like that. It was a TV film, for Tyne Tees.” The table hushed and Healy found himself with a captive audience. Raising an eyebrow in mock exasperation, he began his monologue. “Y’knaa the story, do you – aboot West Auckland Town Football Club?”

Lynch, McTell, Hughes, Sugden and Kwouk all shook their head.

“Bloody hell, man. In 1909, Sir Thomas Lipton – the tea fella – had the idea of a football world cup. This was years before the actual, real thing that started in 1930 in Uruguay. The Lipton’s Trophy was staged in Turin. Everyone took it seriously in Europe, except, of course, the English FA. So you had Juventus and Torino from Italy, Zurich from Switzerland, but the English sent an amateur side, West Auckland Town, from Durham way. They were basically a team of coalminers, but somehow they managed to win the World Cup not once, but twice, in 1909 and 1911. The last game, in the 1911 Final, they trounced Juventus 6-1.”

“I can’t understand a word he says,” Sugden muttered to her former Liver Birds co-star Hughes.

“He sounds Indian to me,” Hughes quietly responded.

“All this is incredible stuff,” McTell spoke, “an English amateur team winning the World Cup twice before the First World War. Why had I never heard about this?”

“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” Healy accepted. “A lost piece of our sporting heritage.  So I was asked if I wanted to be in a film aboot it, A Captain’s Tale, and I could barely believe my luck. It was just a matter of the accent fitting in, I think.”

“The funny thing is,” Lynch remarked, “is that it’s got Dennis Waterman in it, a cockney geezer playing a Geordie, ain’t that right, Tim?”

“Aye, that’s right,” Healy replied, squinting, like he did on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. “Dennis Waterman, he financed it – it cost around £1.5m. Then you had Richie Griffiths, Rod Culbertson, Phil Croskin, Jeremy Bulloch. I’ll do the whole team for you in a minute. So this was my first big part. I’d been working for ten years, doing little bits, Coronation Street, Emmerdale Farm, all them, Crown Court, Play For Today, all the things that actors do.”

“So you’ve been here before?” Hughes asked, eyes wide with childlike interest. “On the Street?”

“I ’ave, pet, aye,” Healy responded. “I was a bingo caller – well, a checker, a bingo checker. In Emmerdale Farm, I was a village idiot. In Crown Court, I was a mate on a fishing ship and I was a fish filleter on Play For Today, written by Tom Hadaway, a Geordie writer – one of my favourite writers, actually. He wrote a few episodes of When The Boat Comes In.”

“But the thing is,” Lynch told the table, “is that this team, Auckland…”

“West Auckland,” Healy corrected.

“West Auckland,” Lynch continued, “is that they win the cup outright, cos they win it twice, and take it back up north, and then it gets nicked!”

“Which is tragic,” Healy said. “They never found it. I think it was swiped in the Sixties and they would have melted it doon. For a little town like that, it was tragic. Their whole claim to fame was to win this cup. And it was worth much, much more than money, y’knaa. They were heartbroken. But now they’ve put a replica in there. Dennis Waterman presented them with the replica and they put it in this casket, after the film. I couldn’t get there because I was abroad. But they’ve got a replica in there now, but it’s not quite the same. True that, yeah.”

“Fantastic story,” McTell grinned with pride, then, having taken a sip of tea, glanced down at his notes on the table. “Now, Tim and Nerys, you’re both done – there’s just a few scenes left to shoot with me, Kenny, Burt and Mollie, so maybe you should get on your way before this fog closes in.”

“Right you are,” Healy said. “I’ll make the snooker easily, then.”

“Are you heading back to Newcastle?” Hughes enquired. “Cos I want to try and see The Smiths tonight.”

“The who?” replied Healy.

“No, The Smiths,” Hughes said. “With Morrissey. I like their sound.”

“Is that the miserable lot?” enquired Lynch. “With the quiffs?”

“I don’t find them miserable,” Hughes defended. “I think they’re quite sensitive and tuneful.”

“Are they playing tonight?” McTell asked.

“Well, the thing is, I don’t know,” Hughes admitted, “but this is Manchester and it’s Friday night… I just expected they’d be playing somewhere, on the underground scene, in a small bar somewhere.”

“You’re a bit old for all that, aren’t you?” Mollie Sugden questioned. “Underground scenes and gallivanting around.”

“Too old?” Hughes gasped. “You might have been my mother in The Liver Birds, but you’re not in real life!”

For a few moments, Sugden’s face looked like it was being pulled in three directions, then her mouth gaped open with outrage and she looked away.

At precisely that moment, young Coronation Street actors Nigel Pivaro and Kevin Kennedy – Terry Duckworth and Curly Watts respectively – slammed through the Rovers’ doors, closely followed by the smouldering Pat Phoenix, AKA Elsie Tanner, who had a crooked reefer hanging out of her stiffened mouth. “What are you fuckin’ lookin’ at?” Phoenix threw at the seated ensemble. “You nosey sods.”

Sugden tutted loudly and tightened her lips further in Mrs Slocombe-like disgust.

Ignoring Elsie Tanner’s demented cawing, Nerys Hughes called across to Pivaro and Kennedy to test their intimate knowledge of Manchester nightlife. “Excuse me, Curly, Terry, could you tell me if The Smiths are playing locally tonight?”

Nigel Pivaro winked like a mischievous window cleaner at Kevin Kennedy and the pair, with humorous eyes, approached the table. In the background, at the bar, Pat Phoenix asked for a glass of champagne. An electrician removed a screwdriver from his mouth and reminded Phoenix that she wasn’t in a real pub. Phoenix shrugged and turned away from the electrician in dramatic fashion: “So I’m not.”

“Eh,” Pivaro said to Kennedy with a treacly Manc twang, “eh, eh, eh, Kev mate, aren’t you in The Smiths? Aren’t you… in… The Smiths?”

Kennedy glared wide-eyed through circular spectacles: “Funny.”

“He’s not in The Smiths,” Hughes coquettishly smiled. “You don’t get in bands looking like Curly.”

Kennedy froze.

The truth was, Kennedy had practically been in The Smiths, having lined up in a group called The Paris Valentinos alongside Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke in the late Seventies. Kennedy had been the front man, the focal point – the singer.

“You’re right,” said Kennedy with a neutral visage. “Somebody like me would never be in a band.”

Pivaro, recognising Healy, tapped him on the back. “Eh, mate, I like Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It’s keeping me in on Friday nights, so it’s got something going for it. Saving me a bleedin’ fortune.”

“Thanks for that,” Healy smiled. “That sounds like a compliment.”

“So are they playing, The Smiths?” Hughes pressed.

 “Erm, no,” Kennedy said with finality. “There aren’t any Smiths gigs till the end of the month. But if you like music, and you’re partial to a bit of New Order or Joy Division, then A Certain Ratio are playing at the Haçienda tonight, and I can possibly, possibly, sort out tickets if that’s what you’re after.”

“What do they look like?” Hughes queried.

“Nazis,” Kennedy responded.

Sugden tutted.

Healy raised his hand to catch the attention of McTell: “I’ll be off, pal” he winked. “Giz a ring if you need me for anything.”

Healy picked up his motorcycle crash helmet and rucksack that were resting by his feet and stepped into his leathers by the bar. While retrieving his bike keys from the rucksack’s front pocket, Pivaro stealthily approached and, with a conspiratorial shrug, passed a note into Healy’s hand.

“I’m not planning on supping pints in the Rovers for ever,” Pivaro whispered. I’m available, even for small roles. That German programme’ll do for me.”

“Got you,” Healy winked, and buried the slip of paper into his jeans pocket. “I’ll pass on the message. As far as I’m aware, nothing’s been mentioned of a second series.”

“I don’t just play untrustworthy Mancs,” Pivaro affirmed. “I could be a roofer from Bolton!”

Kennedy, spotting the moment, quickly approached and placed a hand on Pivaro’s shoulder: “You wouldn’t think it, but Piv is RADA trained. He’s great with big words – he can even spell ‘soliloquy’ without checking a dictionary.”

“Thanks, mate,” Pivaro replied with a frozen smile.

As Healy left the chaotic scene, a seated Pat Phoenix at the bar eyed Healy’s movements with deep suspicion. “I’m not on drugs,” she growled loudly in his direction, “if that’s what you’re thinking. Eh, I’m speaking to you! Eh! Where you bloody off to? Ringing the police or something? Don’t you walk away from me! Eh! Eh!”

Healy span round with bulging eyes and furious mouth, “I’m off home to Newcastle to watch the snooker, if IT’S OK WITH YOU, PET!”

  1. Lawrence of Cumbria

Peter O’Toole, the redoubtable 51-year-old actor and notable hellraiser, was entering one of the more unsettled periods of his life, an incredible statement given that O’Toole had all but given up drinking. Now restricted to the occasional glass of red wine, half a lager or vodka – the latter the result of a dreary visit to Moscow in 1980, where there was little else to sip – O’Toole remained a largely unreadable document even when sober. For precisely this reason, O’Toole was single again. His glamorous, blonde girlfriend of three years, former model Karen Brown, 15 years his junior, had returned to her native New York with their ten-month-old son Lorcan. Brown could take no more of O’Toole’s random behaviour. O’Toole was a die-hard daredevil. He would think nothing of scaling a wall or shimmying a drainpipe to gain entry to a fourth-storey property. What was once exciting and delirious had become a deep concern. What if he slipped? What if he broke his neck? As the relationship developed, stability was sought, but little was forthcoming. There was no rational conduct. A woman’s devotion bounced off an invisible protective shield. You didn’t even know what you were trying to love. Who was Peter O’Toole? What resided beyond the legend and that staggering acting ability? With O’Toole, you simply had to accept him for what he was – whatever that was. O’Toole wasn’t wired the same way as most people, although after Brown had fled he told a friend that if any woman were to show interest in him, they should be led to safety.

Brown’s departing was difficult to digest, but O’Toole was mortified to have lost Lorcan. For decades, O’Toole had longed for a son and when he’d finally been presented with one, he’d liked what he saw. Every thought was now taken up with that sweet child so many miles away. The uncertainty of regular interaction was a torture, tearing O’Toole’s soul to shreds like Geoff Capes pulling apart a Yellow Pages. Not a year old, Lorcan would surely forget his father’s Columbia-blue eyes, ashen hue and affectionate glances. He would, perhaps, become the son of another man, a Sylvester Stallone-like meatpacker from the Bronx with a voice reminiscent of a walrus gearing up for battle prior to leathery courtship.

In the past, O’Toole would have strode to the nearest free house and pointed to a refreshingly expensive tincture, but sidestepping life’s harsh realities with Highland-strength waters was no longer an option. In 1975, following a decades-spanning stomach complaint, O’Toole had almost gone for a Burton, only to be saved by an immediate operation where yards of intestines had been removed. Doctors warned that drinking in the future would lead to swift death and for the first time since his teens, O’Toole faced the possibility of life stone-cold sober. He had loved whisky, adored its warmth and its radiating bonhomie. And he missed the camaraderie of heavy sessions, of crackling conversation with complete strangers, those glorious lost hours. Whisky was the “sovereign remedy”. O’Toole allowed himself a smile as he remembered the night that he drained a full bottle of single-malt Laphroaig in one breathless swig, as his fellow RADA-trained friend Roy Kinnear gasped in disbelief. Oh, those were the days.

O’Toole was behind the wheel of a car, a rare event in the Eighties. The reason for this was simple: O’Toole was as wild a driver as he had been a drinking companion. His early existence could be told through a series of car smashes. Road accidents and booze were often fellow conspirators and it was somewhat disturbing that O’Toole could only recall such life-threatening circumstances when reminded at a later date, to which O’Toole would purr, “Oh yes…” Even sober, O’Toole was a Buckaroo motorist, tackling bends and inclines like a Spitfire pilot facing a finger-four formation of Luftwaffe fighters over the English Channel.

How O’Toole avoided a custodial sentence for his erratic driving was a mystery. Occasionally, in the Fifties and early Sixties, he’d deliberately shunt police cars, spurred on by some past police wrongdoing he’d witnessed, but would receive little more than a ticking off. They were different times, of course, different people. O’Toole owned an Irish driving licence, but had never actually sat a test. The slip of paper had been bought for 30 shillings from a third party in a pub, but in reality the licence was barely used. O’Toole employed a chauffeur, but today, Friday, 13 January 1984, John Kenny – O’Toole’s bodyguard and general dogsbody – had taken a two-week break to spend time with an ill relative in Galway.

On a whim, as the moment had taken him, O’Toole had flown to Ireland to discuss with Kenny the possibility of them kidnapping the actor’s son, Lorcan, from New York. Quite rightly Kenny believed the plot was a cordon-bleu recipe for utter disaster, and gave a stern warning of prison stays, slippery soap in showers and Genial Groutys, yet O’Toole was convinced the idea was sound and began planning a military-like strike involving yachts, Caribbean-island hideaways and secret plane flights back to the Emerald Isle. Timing was of the essence – O’Toole would return to London, promptly, to prepare the heist. O’Toole knew people who knew people – the devil was in the detail, and all this was quite, quite possible. In the chaotic existence of the Lawrence Of Arabia star, drama and comedy were the norm. He gave himself a fortnight to complete the dastardly deed. He’d then go to ground, like the nameless protagonist in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male – a Hitler-hunting story greatly admired by O’Toole – and remain out of sight of Lily Law, possibly in West Connacht at the furthest reaches of Europe. With a bit of luck, he’d miss the premiere of his latest big-screen debacle, Supergirl.

He was driven to Dublin Airport by Kenny, but all flights were grounded until further notice: fog. The concourse was a confused mass of scowls and bejesuses. O’Toole’s timetable had been bowled a googly, but an information desk offered alternative routes. Ferries from Dublin were fully booked, but if sir would like to hotfoot it to Belfast, there was a swift crossing to Stranraer at midday. With his 30-shilling licence and a great deal of platinum chat, O’Toole was able to hire a burnt-orange, three-litre Ford Capri S, and with much haste, after some unsightly bunny hops out of the rental yard, steered the long bonnet towards the N1 dual carriageway on the northern outskirts of the city. Ulster, here we come.

On board the ferry, O’Toole awkwardly positioned the Capri amid dreary, smeared Transit vans and removals lorries and switched the engine off. Already, there was an ugly gash along the Capri’s door and the “S” decal by the rear wheel arch had been given a scrape – it must have been the traffic barrier he’d clipped. O’Toole allowed himself a grin and a bronchial chuckle. Up on deck, powerful foghorns sounded out their low-frequency belching, while return calls blasted back across the Belfast Lough. The fog! O’Toole marvelled. The thick, thick fog! What an adventure this was becoming!

Better still, the chance to kill two birds with one stone had suddenly appeared. Getting behind the wheel for the first time in ten years and riding the Irish Sea’s chop, O’Toole would, by mid-afternoon, find himself in northern parts of the mainland, offering a tantalising chance to research a location that had been causing him grave concern for some time. An Adolf Hitler obsessive, O’Toole fanatically loathed – as he’d titled – “that mincing dude from Linz”, a hatred with roots in the cinemas of wartime Leeds, where O’Toole had once lived. The vision of Hitler, that spluttering, exploding, contorted, wide-eyed lunatic had been, for young Peter, the pure vision of evil – for he planned to invade my England of Robin Hood, King Arthur and William Shakespeare and lead my formidable Mummy and Daddy to slavery, starvation and death by bullet.

O’Toole had discovered that Hitler, the bookie’s favourite to conquer Britain in 1940 with his brazen blitzkriegs, had earmarked potential countryside hideaways for personal use, an eagle’s nest, wolf’s lair – shitehawk’s crag – or some other ferocious-sounding sett that confirmed the exultant one’s standing at the top of the foodchain. Shropshire had been studied through black-and-white photographs, postcards and reconnaissance images and given “potential” status. But the Führer, recalled O’Toole, fancied the crystal sniff of Cumbria.

The border setting was well out of the way of the smoky extermination camps that would have sprung up in Lincolnshire and Lancashire. The iron will, spearheaded by barking-mad Colonel Professor Dr Franz Six, would have seen murderous Einsatzkommandos round up 300,000 British Jews and countless other freemasons, academics and entertainers, and crammed their trembling bodies into the chambers. While all manner of indecency was taking place, Hitler would have walked his German shepherd dogs – what else? – to urinate on the stones of Hadrian’s Wall.

But there was something more sinister to this castellated Cumbrian pile that had piqued Alf’s interest. It was noted in secret SS documents that Hangingbrow Hall was haunted, a depot of demented memories with its own doorway to the underworld. Not a safe house like Windsor Castle or Chatsworth to salivate over verdant views and lawnmowers, no. Hangingbrow was a melting pot of evil and wickedness, a woodland-sheltered hollow of secrets, nightmares and, it was said, raging phantoms. Much must surely have been based on hearsay, the obscure ramblings of a tortured crackpot spy of Reivers stock, but ever the occultist, Hangingbrow Hall sounded right up Hitler’s Straße. O’Toole would make a cold call and see these spooks for himself.

At Stranraer, in thick, swirling mists, O’Toole scraped past a Morris Marina on the quayside and a melee ensued. After paying off an irate Scotsman with five crisp £20 notes, O’Toole picked up the A75 eastwards, within earshot of harbour gulls, and let the V6 Capri off the lead. It was a fine thing to floor a three-litre sports car when the visibility was down to 20 feet.

  1. Factory settings

Tony Wilson, the philosophy-reciting 33-year-old co-founder of Manchester’s independent music label Factory Records and, by association, part-owner of the city’s New York-style Haçienda nightclub, was stranded on the B2599 Dalston Road somewhere to the south of Carlisle. The small apron of concrete where the car had ground to a halt appeared to be a turn-in to a muddy field for a farmer’s tractor. Wilson’s hearse-sized Peugeot 505 Estate had its bonnet raised. Hazard warning lights flashed in metronomic fashion, blink… blink… blink… blink… while Wilson, in a grey knee-length raincoat and khaki combat trousers, tightened a wide maroon scarf around his neck. Visibility was virtually nil.

He began traipsing from the direction he had travelled from, facing the traffic – not that anything was using the road – to locate a telephone box, farmhouse, pub or any other sign of life or communication. Had Wilson noticed a village a few miles back? And had the village been two miles away or 15? He had no exact recollection of a settlement. Wilson’s gamble on bypassing central Carlisle was now backfiring in riotous fashion. In stupendously dense fog, and with no carriageway lighting, the eerie glow of the golden indicators quickly vanished, leaving Wilson walking along an uneven, muddy grass verge in eerie stillness. Only by testing the ground’s surface using the soles of his white Nike Air Force 1 basketball hi-tops was the Granada newsreader, occasional presenter of World In Action and music-industry megamouth able to differentiate between earth and Tarmac.

This is what it’s like to be blind, Wilson spoke inwardly, although Stevie Wonder never found himself lost in fucking Cumbria. He muttered the opening lyrics to “Superstition” but abruptly stopped. He needed all his concentration to stay upright in the slippery mud. His NYC-purchased “sneakers” were giving precious little grip, but then again, this was a universe away from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Battery Park and Broadway. God, it’s cold, Wilson scowled.

Wilson was unaware that his 505 was suffering from a dead fuel-tank pump. It was a job for a garage mechanic, not a charismatic entrepreneur with a penchant for John Keats and Boethius. As Wilson contemplated his predicament, he recalled that the car’s performance had been deteriorating through the week as he’d rushed across northern counties in preparation for the arrival of Channel 4’s television cameras at the Haç. In just two weeks’ time, the youth-oriented music show The Tube would set up shop in Wilson’s nightclub and his record-label acts would be beamed to every living room in the country, should they happen to be watching Channel 4 on a Friday night.

Earlier in the day, Wilson had met with The Tube director Gavin Taylor in the Egypt Cottage pub, adjoining the Tyne Tees studios on Newcastle’s City Road. Wilson had just secured the appearance of young New York performer Madonna for the Haçienda show, assisted in the main by Manchester DJ Mike Pickering, by way of New York DJ Mark Kamins, who just happened to be Madonna’s beau. Madonna’s infectious dance number “Holiday” was finding chart success on both sides of the Atlantic, but she remained a minnow compared to gritty, child-voiced performer Cyndi Lauper and the ambitious chip-shop comic-romantic Tracey Ullman. Wilson thought Madonna was a major coup; Taylor wasn’t convinced – British audiences would be lukewarm to a relatively unknown, upbeat, electro-influenced chick with heavy eyebrows, Jim’ll Fix It jewellery and New York attitood.

“It isn’t very Tube and ‘Lucky Star’ is as sugary as ‘My Boy Lollipop’,” Taylor insisted.

“Listen, darling” Wilson cajoled and leaned forward, “don’t downplay the importance of Millie Small to a British audience. Without her, we wouldn’t have reggae. Rod Stewart played sax on that track.”

“He didn’t,” Taylor shook his head, smiling. “It’s an urban myth. He told me so himself. Ah, you’re pulling my leg, Tony.”

“Possibly, very possibly. Listen, we end nights at the Haçienda with Lulu, and it goes down a fucking storm, so I’m thinking that Madonna could well be the Lulu for the Eighties. You can’t knock Lulu; her northern soul credentials give her immunity from criticism. And there’s synergy Gavin, fucking synergy. Manchester borrows from New York to create the Haçienda, and we borrow something from New York – Madonna – for the Factory edition of The Tube. We pay homage and we give thanks. We’re twinned cities from a cultural perspective. Believe me Gavin, it works, it fucking works.”

“Tony, white boys with guitars is a winning formula, a formula that can’t be beaten in this country. Ever heard of The Smiths? They’re going to be as big as Pink Floyd.”

“They’re not and we’ve moved on, believe me – white people want to dance, they want to take drugs, they want to hang out in clubs with a lot of neon,” Wilson argued. “‘Blue Monday’ has proved that, and right now, apart from Manchester, New York is the centre of dance music.”

“Manchester is not the centre of dance music in Britain, Tony,” Taylor scoffed.

“Joy Division/New Order have emerged as the greatest writers of dance music since fucking Chic,” Wilson stated. “Please try and keep up.”

“They’ve made one decent dance track – ‘Blue Monday’,” Taylor pointed out. “A great record, but hardly the stuff of legend. It won’t go down as a classic in the way that ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ has done or ‘She’s Lost Control’.”

“I disagree wholeheartedly,” Wilson said. “Hey, don’t forget ‘Everything’s Gone Green’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Temptation’ – Ian Curtis would have been totally, totally proud of these records. ‘Temptation’ is actually superior to ‘Blue Monday’. They’re working on a new track called ‘My Cock’s As Big As The M1’, a working title, which may well prove the next logical step for dance music.”

“Manchester’s some way to go before it can crown itself ‘UK Centre of Dance Music’, though, Tony.”

“I’ll tell you something,” Wilson half-smiled, “it’s not fucking Newcastle. Half the kids in town look like they’re on their way to see the Bay City Rollers.”

Taylor laughed. “OK, let’s showcase New York’s Lulu on The Tube,” he conceded. “It’ll give viewers the chance to put the Horlicks on. All is fine as long as we get New Order, cos that’s who everyone wants to see right now.”

“Barney’s being a prime pain in the ass,” Wilson admitted, “but he’ll do it, eventually. He likes playing mind games – with me, with Hooky, with Gretton, with Manchester, with Salford. His head’s just getting… rather large right now. I’d like the Factory All-Stars to perform. New Order, ACR, John The Postman – you get the general idea.”

“I like the sound of that,” Taylor nodded.

“OK, I’ll see what I can do,” Wilson said. “Gavin, I must dash – I’ve got to pick up some artwork from Saville, who’s holed himself up in a hard-to-get-to coastal village on the other side of fucking Carlisle. He’s redesigning the Factory logo – big stuff for us. Why he can’t do this in an office in Manchester or London is completely beyond me.”

“Whereabouts on the coast?” Taylor asked.

“Silloth. Solway Firth. A port. Used to have a railway, hasn’t now. Look it up on a map.”

Wilson continued his sightless, black-out yomp, eyes squinting, waiting for familiar shapes to reveal themselves from the impenetrable murk, wishing for a pavement, wishing he was in a city, wishing he was anywhere except a B-road in Cumbria. But hang on, what’s that noise? In the gloom, there appeared a dull-yellow ball that rapidly grew until the fog was suddenly illuminated like a will-o’-the-wisp. It was a car, its engine at high revs as corners were tackled in first and second gear. Wilson began flapping his hands, hoping to be spotted. The car whined closer, screeched, lurched to the opposite side of the carriageway, swerved sharply back to its lane, before grinding to a stop, already out of sight. Wilson trotted towards the passenger window and peered through the glass. The window was wound a third of the way.

“I’ve broken down,” Wilson explained through the aperture. “My car’s dead – won’t start, won’t do anything… I’ll just leave it along the road for now, until I can find a phone…”

Inside the car, a man in his late-fifties, with nervous eyes staring from beneath a woollen flat cap, seemed to take so little notice of the conversation that Wilson tailed off… “Are you taking any notice of this?” Wilson enquired.

“You frightened the life out of me,” the man eventually responded. “I didn’t see no bloody car.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have,” Wilson explained. “It’s half a mile further along. In fact it’s a good job I waved you down – you might have hit it.”

“Where do I know you from?” the man panted and pointed a finger. “Thursby?”

“If there’s a television in Thursby, then possibly – I can explain on the drive.”

“It’s to be a wild night,” the man replied, nervously glancing forward through his windscreen. “It’s the fog, always when there’s fog.”

“Well, if you could take me to the nearest village,” Wilson grimaced. “There’s surely one round here somewhere. Maybe Thursby, where the television is. Failing that, an A-road would do, somewhere with lamp-posts and pavements. I need to contact Silloth.”

“Astaroth?” the man jumped.

“No, Silloth!” Wilson corrected, patience waning. “I have a friend in Silloth, on the coast. Solway Firth. Why would I want to contact the Prince of Hell?”

“There’s a Spar there, you know,” the jittery driver made known. “Owner’s into the occult. Dodgy stuff. Dark monkey business.”

Wilson hid his smirk as he’d done many times on Granada Reports. “Oh cool – I’ll make a point of visiting.”

The driver leaned across the passenger seat and pushed the lock down on the door.

“You’ve just locked that,” Wilson pointed out, “as opposed to opened it.”

“Do you believe in ghosts?” the man asked, without making eye contact.

“Ghosts?” Wilson said, pulling an irritated expression. “If it has a car, I’ll gladly accept a lift from one tonight.”

“I’ve seen the dead, you know,” the man continued. “Something like that can stay with you.”

After a moment’s disbelief, Wilson replied, “I’ll bet. Still, you have to carry on, don’t you? Are you sure it wasn’t a lucid dream?”

“It was a night just like this,” the driver spoke with increasing alarm, as if he was living the torment again. “The fog, the thick, thick fog – you can’t see shadows on days like this, can’t see into the darkness. That’s where they hide, you know, the shadows; the demons, the spirits. There’s a saying, you know… get a beggar on horseback and he’ll ride to the devil. I was that beggar. I sensed a presence.”

Wilson conjured a quote from his extensive library of a mind: “Every man that hath seen me forgetteth me never, and I appear oftentimes in the coals of the fire, and upon the smooth white skin of woman, and in the constancy of the waterfall, and in the emptiness of deserts and marshes, and upon great cliffs that look seaward, and in many strange places, where men seek me not. And many thousand times he beholdeth me not. And at last I smite myself into him as a vision smiteth into a stone, and whom I call must follow.”

The man looked back and grimly enquired, “What’s that, where’s that from?”

“Crowley,” Wilson revealed. “Aleister Crowley.”

“I have to go,” the man whispered. “This is not a good place to be, young man. There’s more to this place than you can ever imagine. If I were you I should get on home as quickly as you can. You’ll find no locals about when it’s foggy round here. Now be on with you.”

The man wound up his window and the small petrol engine of the car reared into reedy life.

“OK, thanks,” said Wilson, raising his arm to wave, admitting defeat. “Thanks a lot.”

The rear lights of the car evaporated into the black surroundings. Wilson, feeling abandoned and wronged, trudged awkwardly along the scrubby grass margin, slipping and sliding. This went on for ten agonising minutes before he grew weary of the mud and precariously crossed the carriageway to explore the conditions of the opposite verge. He managed no more than five paces before promptly headbutting a grey-painted metal signpost. A dull “donnng” rang out. Wilson held his head for a few moments and checked for blood. There was none. Once the throb had settled to an acceptable twinge, Wilson brought a lighter from his pocket and scraped a flame. The sign above read Carlisle 5. It was a public footpath, in the direction of Carlisle. It offered hope and, best of all, the path – more a narrow country lane – had a concrete surface. Five miles? That wasn’t so bad. He’d be in a hotel within two hours.

  1. Sherlock Holmes v Magnum PI

“You know,” said Mark E Smith, “Sherlock Holmes feared nothing except the retribution of Professor Moriarty and the void of the countryside, the countryside that now appears to have consumed us.”

“I can’t see a fuckin’ thing, ’ere,” sweated scaffolder and part-time roadie Rob Carroll, as he leaned towards the windscreen of his Vauxhall VX, without seatbelt secured, in order to navigate the frequent hairpin bends that had been smothered by pale-grey, cotton-wool fog. “Me ’ands are goin’ numb from grippin’ the wheel.”

“When you’ve got fog this thick,” Smith ruminated, “and you’re in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere, you can get away with practically anything – murder, rape, theft. If we don’t find an off-licence soon, I’ll be committing all three to you.”

“Look what happens when I put full beams on,” Carroll spoke, and clicked a stalk on the car’s steering column. “It’s just bright fog, as opposed to dark fog – in fact, it’s more difficult to see with the lights on than with the lights off.”

“Shouldn’t be driving tonight,” Smith stated. “Sherlock Holmes would’ve travelled by rail. Jimmy Savile and his OBE says this is the age of the train, but back in Sherlock’s day, it was the only way to get around, and you ’ave to think that we ’aven’t progressed that much. Sherlock was fuckin’ zipped out his brains most of the time, big into the coke. It would have been proper stuff back then an’ all. Pure, industrial-strength. You could buy it in chemists – it was almost seen as genteel.”

“You ever had sniff?” Carroll asked.

“Once,” Smith revealed, “at an aftershow in London. A music-exec guy with bright red braces was rabbiting away, some Saatchi-ite, and just as I was gonna bottle him, he offered me a whopping line from this coalman’s sack of the stuff. I think he’d followed me into the toilets. He was obviously trying to impress me. Thought I’d give it a go, just to be sociable. It makes you yap like a fuckin’ Jack Russell, revealing all your family secrets and you start to make light of… humiliations. I’m not sayin’ I’ll never have it again. You’ve just go to be able to check yourself with shit like that, like Sherlock Holmes was able to do.”

“I was never a big Sherlock Holmes fan,” Carroll admitted. “I don’t like black-and-white films. I prefer Magnum. I wish I had his lifestyle.”

“Huh!” Smith rocked, shaking his head, and shifted around in the passenger seat. “Magnum! How can you compare Magnum to Sherlock Holmes? And I’m talkin’ about the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books here, the written word, not the films! Your brain’ll turn to water watchin’ shit like that. Magnum, with his fuckin’ Hawaii shirts and that daft fuckin’ sports car. You’d have to be seriously minted to have a car like that anyway, so what’s he doing poking his nose into other folks’ affairs, snoopin’ around?”

“Well,” defended Carroll, “it isn’t ’is car, actually, it’s owned by Higgins…”

“He wouldn’t last five minutes in Prestwich with that daft ’tache and ’is daft shirts and ’is daft pals with ’elicopters. He’d fit-in in Alderley Edge, though. They love that stuff round there, where the footballers and TV magicians are. Elaborate wealth. Tastelessness wrapped in a Georgian exterior. At least with Columbo you’re getting a rounded character. You can tell there’s been some thought gone into the writing. You can see there’s something extra going on. They all think he’s a gawp but in fact he’s cleverer than the lot of them put together. I can see a lot of myself in that! Spielberg directed some of those episodes, as did Patrick McGoohan and the chap who plays Coach on that Cheers you’ll no doubt like – that American pap on 4. Actually, I don’t mind that one. But Magnum! Magnum PI. You know what PI stands for? Piss Ideas.”

“The last episode was a good one, though…” Carroll attempted to explain.

“No, it wasn’t!” Smith cut in.

“How do you bloody know?” Carroll retorted, a speed comedown gently rattling his nerves, the heat seeping from his neck and shoulders. “You never bloody saw it!”

“Well, I did!” Smith squawked. “I was forced to! Brix was watching it, probably so she can top up her yank accent, so she can stand out in the Ostrich on Saturday afternoon. Anyway, forget Magnum and Hawaii – where’s this bloody offie?”

“I think I’ll ’ave another dab to keep alert,” Carroll said.

“No, you won’t,” Smith corrected. “You can wait.”

“No, I’m ’aving some…”

Just as a physical set-to looked like it might brew, there was an almighty thud followed by a series of unusual, hard jolts. It wasn’t until branches and twigs presented themselves through the car’s side windows that Smith started to suspect that he might be experiencing a serious road accident in slow motion. The unbuckled Carroll became weightless, like an astronaut, his shoulders repeatedly pushing against the interior mirror and roof, like he was attempting flight but was being thwarted – flight that, Smith now assumed, Carroll had always been capable of.

For a while, there had been little noise, but soon there was the sound of sliding and scraping metal, then the volume enhanced, suddenly becoming louder, like the TARDIS was arriving from an alternative dimension. Among the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, dematerialisation, vworp-vworp din, Smith thought fit to announce, “Now, Dr Who, that’s a decent concept.”

 “Whhhat?” Carroll replied with a dull tone, like his batteries were running low.

As Smith attempted to qualify his statement, a thundering coniferous tree erupted through the front windscreen, taking Carroll and most of the driver’s seat through to the rear of the car and beyond. Smith realised that the world was in a very topsy-turvy state, not an unusual sensation for an alternative North-west performer who was constantly on the road. It was perhaps Smith’s past experience with LSD that allowed him to keep a clear and open mind, and at no point did he feel overwrought by this spectacularly surreal experience. The tree trunk widened within the cabin and pine needles started to tickle Smith’s cheeks before the car, finally, came to a grating, jarring halt.

To Smith’s delight, the car door opened of its own free will and fell off. Having managed to unfasten the VX’s seatbelt and grab his leather-sleeved baseball jacket, Smith was able to shimmy along a thick branch and appraise the situation. Above: wreckage and dark-matter fog. Five feet sideways: the impaled, torn-open, ragged shell of a 1970s Vauxhall saloon, its headlights still shining, illuminating shattered wood and evergreen spiky foliage. Below: tree, more fog. Smith descended, using the tight branch structure as an effective ladder. But what had just occurred? It felt like he’d had a fracas with a tyrannosaurus. They must have careered off a ledge and fallen onto a forest! Smith knew that all might not be as it seemed; experience suggested that an element of shock might be curving his perception. It was feasible. For instance, had Smith always known that Carroll could fly?

Smith was almost certain that his erstwhile chauffeur must have spread his wings and flapped, like Icarus, towards the clouds, taking care of No.1.

Down, down, down Smith clambered, like Jack scaling the beanstalk on video rewind. At the lowest branch, Smith peered towards the ground and calculated there was a hefty distance still to drop, a good 25ft or so, but for Smith, the options were limited. He didn’t fancy kipping with the crows, slowly freezing to death, drifting to sleep with frosted eyebrows and white eyelashes, unable to escape ever-softening dreams. Smith leapt like Lee Major’s Colt Seavers – another OK American programme; The Fall/The Fall Guy, stuntman/frontman, there were parallels – and landed on both feet with a crouching stance, before falling back onto soft, sweet earth. The ground was strewn with pine needles, broken branches and motoring arcana. Smith gazed skywards, searching for answers. He found himself in a theatre-stage spotlight provided by the beams of the impaled Vauxhall.

“Rob!” Smith called. “Rob!”

There was no reply.

Carroll’s batteries had indeed run flat. Unbeknownst to Smith, Carroll lay limp, straddled across the branches of the towering pine tree, his bones smashed, his organs battered, his neck instantly broken upon collision with solid timber.


Again, nothing.

“Bugger you, then,” Smith uttered and set off in search of cave rescue or some semblance of civilisation, yet feeling that the discovery of an off-licence was still of critical importance.

Smith glanced incredulously at his turquoise, cable-knit jumper and discovered that a large hole had developed in the material – how, he couldn’t recall. His wife, Brix, would be disappointed but as she lay comatose in a plush Glasgow hotel, hangover headache receding, hair no doubt like Mr Whippy’s, she could hardly comment on Smith’s rundown appearance. To be frank, Smith would rather have been involved in a serious car accident than wasting money in pricey Scottish digs. The band wasn’t forking out for outré luxury in four-star lodgings, just because you couldn’t take your drink. They still had to pay for the van getting fixed! As for how the night was panning out: so far, so The Fall. Driver possibly dead or flown off; wrecked car; dense fog; lost near some mountains; and a hole in a new jumper he’d only owned for three weeks. Smith pushed his arms into his jacket. All he needed now was to run into Tony fucking Wilson.

  1. Everything’s gone black

For the first time in his life, Tony Wilson understood the significance of asphalt concrete. Tarmac. To the blind or partially sighted, an assured step on a flat reliable surface was the true achievement of human progress, far outweighing the jet engine, penicillin, printed word, flat-pack furniture and New Order’s convergence, through “Everything’s Gone Green”, of disco and rock music. That’s how it seemed to Wilson as he strode, with breath trailing, into the pitch black of the fog-encumbered Cumbria countryside. To be able to walk unimpeded, even if you can’t see a thing, was freedom, pure freedom, and Wilson was thankful for the inventive minds of road pioneer John Loudon McAdam and Tarmac plc founder Edgar somebody or other.

All Wilson needed was a long branch to use as a makeshift cane and he could live in relative bliss, able to deal with hindrance, obstruction or Ray Harryhausen harpies. Darkness was one thing, but fog presented uncertainty. Wilson knew there was a world of branches out there; the trick was to locate one. It shouldn’t have been a difficult undertaking. He simply needed to discover a plantation or grove with a selection of low-reaching, yielding twigs. So, where are all the fucking trees? In the distance, Wilson could hear leaves rattling like Merseybeat tambourines. Branches were there. Surely he would stumble across a fallen arboreal prong at any second and, with instrument procured, wave it victoriously. Then he could embark with confidence towards the crowded metropolis of Carlisle with its police stations, telephones and warm, inviting beds. Factory’s in-house designer Peter Saville was to blame for this predicament, fucking Peter Saville. Was there no limit to his indirect mischief making?

Wilson walked at restricted pace, the drifting meteorological blanket hiding a highly unusual Kremlin Regiment-inspired marching technique, with outstretched feet acting as swinging “feelers”. Not surprisingly, this feet-first radar system wreaked havoc on Wilson’s thighs, so rather than continue goose-stepping, he resumed a normal stride. Increasing his pace and growing in verve, Wilson’s regular thought processes starter to return, largely concerning – as always – money, lost opportunities and impending bills.

As Wilson strode, he castigated himself for not signing The Smiths to Factory Records. The Tube director Gavin Taylor knew the lie of the land – Morrissey & Marr were really going places. The Smith’s second single, “This Charming Man”, had been their breakthrough moment, reaching No.25 two months previously – an incredible result for a band that had only formed a year earlier. Had Wilson gauged the public’s needs so badly? Here he was, attempting to push music towards a metallic future of computers, synthesizers and cold aesthetics, while what the world really wanted was the Sixties’ pop sound repackaged and given a clever-clogs twist. The twist was, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce had managed to disassemble the second-hand sound of their guitar music and transform it into a whole new entity: kitchen-sink cool. It felt new, intensified by Morrissey’s outstanding lyric writing about not having anything to wear and the sun shining out of their behinds. Wilson’s Factory ensemble A Certain Ratio could have fulfilled this role if they weren’t so swayed by calypso rhythms, festival drums and jazz funk. Jazz… ACR were bloody awful; and even worse, they were now managing themselves. They couldn’t even decide who their singer was. Wilson had grown weary of Ratio. Guitarist and trumpeter Martin Moscrop had mentioned to Wilson, “We know we’re shit, but we don’t know why.” It wasn’t a great moment, that; it didn’t instil much pride.

In November, The Smiths had packed out Wilson’s Haçienda nightclub. There were 2,000 people inside the Whitworth Street venue and 2,000 outside, a mass of everyday Mancunians hoping to catch a glimpse of a group that, it seemed, could inspire levels of adulation not seen since Bowie. From nowhere, The Smiths had become more popular than Joy Division/New Order! The Haçienda, meanwhile, was losing not far shy of £50,000 a year, a financial sinkhole that New Order, who were still living in council houses, would have to plug. It was a team effort, after all. They knew Factory wasn’t a normal label. They’d have to play major gigs at arenas, and anyway, as New Order manager Rob Gretton had insisted, having no money kept New Order’s feet firmly on the ground. Being penniless made them successful and edgy, and more able to identify with their increasing fanbase. And it could have been worse. They could all be working with Annie Lennox or Paul Young.

Despite the financial migraine, Factory was strengthening as a concept, securing itself in the public’s consciousness. It was a label on the up, and the Haçienda merely added to Factory’s prestige. As Wilson’s mind idly meandered towards his next project – it had to be a Factory office in New York – he came to a clattering halt. His legs and midriff crashed with unexpected force into a plastic, cage-like structure that, on closer inspection, revealed itself as a level-crossing barrier.

Close by, Wilson discovered a sign – a warning. Out came the lighter.


On the decrepit, white-painted wooden board there should have been a glowing red or green bulb but one of the lights had been smashed – lens and bulb in one clean sweep – while the other light was dead. Wilson sidled through a set of narrow wooden gates that stood adjacent to the crossing and, without the safety of visual confirmation, moved forwards, noting, underfoot, that the road surface had raised to accommodate the track. It was a wide crossing, comprising two lines. I’d better not hang about, Wilson conceded, although he fully expected that train services along the West Coast mainline would have been curtailed due to the perilous conditions. But was this the electrified West Coast mainline with its 100mph express trains or merely a minor connection linking Carlisle with nearby coastal towns? Hadn’t Silloth, where Saville would be sipping wine, been hacked from the national network by Beeching’s axe? Wilson smiled without a trace of humour… Oh the irony: he couldn’t locate a branch but may have found a fucking branch line.

Wilson shifted gingerly, only to hear a horrific swooping noise, low-gear engine rattle and metallic clatter, followed by an almighty blast of ear-filling British Rail horn. The fog, a dark muddle seconds earlier, transformed into an inexorable rush of yellow glare. A double-track section of line is a wide space when the distance needs to be covered quickly. Like a startled Superman, Wilson ran then flung himself forward, fist first, and continued at level altitude until his right shoulder felt the jar of a wooden lattice structure – the opposite gate. Amid the din and flashes of illumination, Wilson managed to scramble over the gate’s summit, whereupon he landed hands first, before crumpling in an inglorious heap. The buffer of the diesel multiple unit had missed Wilson’s backside by inches. He’d actually felt the air being sucked from around his midriff. The two-car service groaned into the distance and Wilson knew that he had survived by an arse hair. He had to be more careful! The Tube was visiting the Haçienda in two weeks’ time! His appearance on the programme was key to Factory’s future success.

Wilson rose to his feet and breathed short fiery breaths, composing himself, compartmentalising the anguish of his brush with the 19.35 Carlisle to Workington service. Make sense of it tomorrow, he ordered himself. Praxis explains all: things happen, but you can explain why later. Apart from a slight throb from his shoulder and a scraped knee, Wilson appeared in fairly good working order and would live to tell the tale, no doubt to the wet-eyed sniggers and wheezes of Factory partners Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus. Having narrowly escaped an abhorrent death, it would have been easy to slide into despair, but Wilson patted away the dust and detritus from his clothing and re-engaged with his survival plan.

But there was a problem.

The smooth asphalt, once the cornerstone of his strategy, had given way to a gravelly mix and Wilson soon realised that his journey might become more precarious before it improved.

The path veered left and narrowed until it was no more than a trail, a countryside amble for adventurous dog owners, cross-country runners and wandering farmhands. In the distance a dog howled, undoubtedly a werewolf, but it offered no more physical threat than a night out in Gretton’s gritty Wythenshawe. Of more apparent concern was the increasing loudness of fast-moving water, perhaps a nearby river or, with a bit of luck, a Jacuzzi showroom. A banjaxing by a train was one thing, but a dunking in an icy brook when the air temperature was hovering in lower single figures was quite another. Wilson’s blood ran cold as he assessed the possible outcome of this frightful evening, of bobbing downstream and arriving, days later, with white bloated body, eyes pecked out by carrion crows, rolling with the frothy surf at Silloth. The sound of rushing water grew shrill and it came as little surprise to discover that the river had broken its banks and submerged the path. Wilson’s feet slapped the watery swell and he was forced to arc around the flood’s extent by traipsing on knotted heath scrub.

Underfoot, the clumpy grass was spongy and intertwined, making movement haphazard and clown-like. Wilson’s route then started to rise in altitude and the water’s tinkling slowly ceased, but with no clear landmark to focus on, Wilson felt, for the first time that evening, completely lost. “Boys, keep off the moors, stick to the roads,” Wilson recalled from An American Werewolf In London. The incline continued at a jaunty angle and with each step Wilson prayed there would be no cliff to tumble down, no sinking bogs and no poacher’s trap that would bite into his shins. As time drifted, the odds of survival seemed to slip. Wilson’s white Nike high-tops were saturated, yet he remained focused, thoughts governed by the expectation of a warm, dry room once the night had revealed its hand. He wondered if the course of events was a sort of karma atom bomb, delivered for his treatment of former Haçienda manager and licensee Howard Jones. “Ginger”, as he was known, had to be removed; the situation had become unworkable – Ginger had run out of ideas. He was a nice guy but he’d been empowered beyond his talents. It was a common theme in Factory. Even so, Wilson would shout and scream at Jones – it was never pretty, never nice and Wilson was not proud of his actions. Maybe the problem was with Wilson himself? Only he could end up lost on a lonely fell with sopping wet feet, ghost trains and mad motorists banging on about Hades.

Thorns tore at Wilson’s flappy combat trousers and his feet squelched. The evening was lurching from terrible to untenable but then, to Wilson’s amazement, an overwhelming sense of possibility suddenly presented itself. Right in front of Wilson’s nose stood a brick wall, approximately 15 feet in height and perfectly climbable if he could secure a footing. There was much scraping along the ancient, hewn brickwork, but there was enough erosion to present small ledges for Wilson’s US trainers to gain purchase. At the top of the wall, there was a two-foot wide platform on which to perch and what seemed to be rusted barbed wire that had given itself to the elements a long time ago. With nothing to view apart from a black void, there was little point remaining in situ.

Before his descent, Wilson took stock: walls were traditionally constructed to ensure the safety of those within. Close by, there would be a dwelling and, inside, warm humans with kind hearts and Breville sandwich toasters. Wilson dangled, then leapt from the wall and waited for the ground to present itself. It duly arrived with a bump, but at least the surface was a ragged grass rather than coarse scrub. Rising to his feet, the fog momentarily evaporated, leaving Wilson with the imposing sight of a mid-sized, castle-like building in the distance with ramparts, a single tower and numerous square-shaped windows. Ivy crisscrossed the brickwork, making the structure practically camouflaged, while within the grounds stood skeletal trees in irregular, stretching poses, their jagged branches erect like lightning strikes – in fact one was almost evil in shape. The dwelling appeared to be a hidden squire’s seat, but most bizarrely, there didn’t seem to be a path or road connecting the building to the outside world. As the fog swept in once again, Wilson was disappointed not to have spotted the illumination of a single light bulb or candle. The owners were obviously out or in bed.

Wilson silently rounded the brickwork in search of an entrance, but before finding a door, he noticed, to his utter dread, a silhouetted figure stooping to gaze into a window. Was this a murdering burglar or the locked-out owner? With trepidation, Wilson inched forward with a raised, friendly hand: “Hello there.”

The figure swung round like a cat being struck with a rolled-up copy of the News Of The World and, with fluid Mancunian accent, replied: “Fuckin’ hell – who’s that?”

Wilson frowned; incredibly he recognised the voice. “Is that Mark… Mark E Smith?”

“Incredible, he-he!” Smith returned. “All the vampires are out tonight – Tony fuckin’ Wilson!”

“Mark, I never thought I’d say it, but it’s a genuine pleasure to see you.”

“How’s it going, Tone?” Smith chuckled.

“To be honest, not fantastic,” Wilson admitted.

“Me neither,” Smith said. “Come and look at this.”

Wilson edged towards the panes. Once his eyes had adjusted to the blackness, he could see a room that was approximately 20 feet by 20 feet that housed a collection of old wooden sideboards and various cobweb-strewn boxes. In the centre of the room, a solitary item of furniture was positioned, a rocking chair that was moving of its own volition, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and its speed seemed to be slowly increasing.

“Good, innit?” Smith mentioned. “Must be a burglar deterrent that works on a fear level.”

“Extraordinary,” Wilson accepted. “It has to be plugged into the wall, which makes me think that the property has an electrical supply and therefore has residents.”

“You should’ve been a detective,” Smith opined. “Oh look, it’s stopped.”

“Maybe it’s battery operated,” Wilson added, “and the batteries have just packed up. It’s clever though – it’s made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with a sort of primeval fear. If I wasn’t a lapsed Catholic, I’d say the room was haunted.”

“He-he,” Smith laughed. “I’ll bet ’ouse like this has got a decent liquor cabinet, haunted or not. Let’s go and knock on the door and stretch out by a roaring fire with a quadruple dram. I can reveal what a fuckin’ shitflap of a night I’ve had.”

To emphasise the point, Smith pushed his dentures clear of his gums and held the position until Wilson smiled with unease.

  1. Imperial leathering

The weekend commencing Friday, 13 February was a rare occurrence for Brian Clough. No Saturday fixture was scheduled for Nottingham Forest so it was Clough’s intention to clear out the shed, repair the pergola and remove tracts of ivy that had started choking his trees. Usually, he would secure the services of Forest’s apprentices for the manual labour in his garden. It was a prime opportunity to get to know the lads and teach them about discipline, work rate, the value of nutrition and also to find out what their mams and dads did. You could tell a lot about a player’s inner worth by knowing about their background. But as this was a free Saturday, Clough had roped in a few of the first team for gardening duties, including star forwards Garry Birtles and Peter Davenport. After the day’s graft, Clough would show off his cooking skills, making his players a lavish meal on the kerosene-fuelled Aga, food for footballers, things like local beef from the village butcher and homegrown veg.

Before Christmas, Clough had invited Forest’s spidery right back Viv Anderson – England’s first black international footballer – to his home in Quarndon, to the north of Derby, to help prune roses and rake leaves. It was important to drag first teamers over to the house from time to time. Not to bring them down a peg or two, but to remind them of the pleasure of getting their hands dirty, something many modern footballers were forgetting. To Clough’s mind, far too much footballers’ time was spent at the barber’s or “salons”. It had been a chatty morning, with Clough and Anderson discussing defensive tactics while working the borders. It was basic tactics that the manager and player examined because at its heart, football was not a difficult game.

“A defender should never dive in, Vivian,” Clough lectured, brandishing a hand fork, “because once you’re on the ground, you’re out of the game, you see. It’s far better to jockey sideways and backwards barring the forward’s run. What happens is, the attacker has to put his foot on the ball and look for other options – or the back pass. That’s your job done, young man.”

“You’ve got to harry, too, Boss,” Anderson added, “closing down players as quickly as you can, reducing the time the other player has of starting a run.”

“Why are you not club captain?” Clough asked, squinting into wintry sunlight.

Anderson shrugged: “Because Bowyer is?”

“Good answer – he’s a better player than you,” Clough replied with that unmistakeable North-east lilt. “He’s a good reader of the game. Now, don’t tell him I said that! Reading the game, that’s the real skill Vivian. What I do is, when that ball bobbles about the pitch, I play each pass in my own mind. It keeps my brain sharp and alert. I’ve scored 75 goals this season already.”

“It’s freezin’ today, in’t it, Boss,” Anderson stated.

“It’s because we’re stood about doing bugger all,” Clough cajoled. “Come on, there’s a dead bloody tree to chop down yet.”

Anderson fought to control the rolling of his eyes and forced a smile. Clough strolled with purpose towards the shed, with clouds of steamy breath trailing, to find his two-man saw. “This’ll warm us up!” he shouted across the lawn.

The glorious garden was an important tool in Clough’s player development; it was the personal touch missed by the likes of Don Howe and Mr Bojangles Ron Atkinson. You couldn’t have a two-way conversation during training. Training was a series of barked instructions. But in Quarndon, with a trowel in your hand, there was time for both manager and players to think and get matters off your chest.

Clough had never seen fog so impenetrable. Instead of crossing the Pennines to pick up the A1 at Scotch Corner, taking his life in his hands, there was no option other than to find a local hotel or B&B. Once safe, he’d have a couple of large whiskies, sleep like a log and make another attempt to drive home the following morning. But how could anyone find a bed when it was impossible to see five yards in front of your own face? Clough had no intention of steering blindly through the Cumbrian interior. These roads were treacherous enough in broad daylight. The danger was that he’d end up on the back seat of the Merc shivering, trying to sleep but counting the seconds till dawn. Clough decided to delegate the role of travel agent to his secretary in Nottingham, Carole Washington. First, he needed to find a phone.

Clough drove at a mind-achingly slow speed, occasionally using kerb and verge as a navigating device to remain on the carriageway. Fog lights were proving useless, simply adding to the confusion by creating a bright, ethereal circle that a sufferer of cataracts might be familiar with. Soon, the dark-grey murk transformed into bright-orange murk and the Nottingham Forest manager realised that he must have reached a bank of streetlights. And where there were streetlights, there would surely be a phone box, civilisation and maybe even a pub with bedrooms. He instantly perked up.

Clough edged the car into a layby and came to a halt. With the engine still running, to keep the heaters on, Clough swished his fingers from side to side in the rectangular tray of the centre console. Among wrappers of long-ago-sucked travel sweets, hardened orange rind and useful 2p’s and 5p’s, Clough was dumbfounded to locate a bar of barely used Cussons Imperial Leather soap, still with its paper sticker intact. He brought the bar of soap closer to his face to inspect the smooth surface.

“Why’s there bloody soap in the car?” Clough mumbled to himself.

Clough switched off the car engine and ran through the possible reasons why soap would have been deposited by the automatic shift of his Mercedes. The only sensible answer was that his daughter, Liz, was the culprit, probably bringing soap as part of a larger array of artefacts for attending to her dolly. Jersey sleuth Jim Bergerac, of course, may have had an alternative answer. Smiling now, Clough flapped his flat cap onto his head and scooped up the change from the tray. He didn’t know where to stow the bar of soap so he simply placed it in the pocket of his red Adidas padded jacket as he climbed out of the car. Still largely flummoxed by the soap mystery and in deep thought, Clough inadvertently left the keys in the ignition.

A knowledge of English street planning was soon proved spot-on as there, directly in front of Clough’s face, stood the familiar shape of a red telephone kiosk, its dull yellow interior light beaming tepidly onto a black phone within.

“Carole… Carole, it’s me, Brian,” Clough spoke calmly and clearly. “Now listen, take this number. Carlisle 35033. Have you got that? Right, I’ve only got 14p, so you’ll need to ring me back. I’m in a village near Carlisle and I need to find a place to stay for the night… No, no, I’m fine… Can you try and find me an address of a B&B or hotel, because the weather here is… [beep-beep] Carole? [Beep-beep] It’s bloody… [Beep-beep-clunk] Carole? Bloody hell.”

Clough replaced the receiver on the cradle. Standing in the cramped confines of the kiosk, Clough thought about the utter silence and bitter cold, breathing from his mouth so he could marvel at the thickness of the condensation. Two long minutes passed, then the phone brilliantly rang into life. Clough picked up.

“Thanks Carole, you are a bloody wonder,” continued Clough. “Now, I can’t drive in these conditions, not for much longer anyway, it’s become that bad. I’ve never seen fog like it – it’s like London at the time of the Ripper. What’s the weather like where you are? Not s’bad? Carole, love, I’m sorry to bother you when you’ve already left work for the day. What’s that? I’m in where? Dur-dur? What, like an ambulance? D-u-r-d-a-r… Durdar… oh, I get you now. How did you find out? Oh that was clever – and the operator was able to tell you that? Well that’s smashing, it really is. What? Vivian? Transfer? Why…? Wants to be playing regularly for England? I see. Yes. Yes. Hmm, I see. Yes. Bloody ridiculous. Two European Cup medals he’s got! Yes. I’ll talk to him when I get back, Carole. He never spoke a word of this in my garden before Christmas when we were collecting the leaves. Yes… yes, I suppose we were busy that day. Well, look, Carole, can you get onto directory enquiries and see what you can come up with? As close to Durdar as you can, preferably in Durdar instead. Basically, I can’t see a bloody thing, and even if I could, they’re not big on street signs round this way and the map in the car bears no bloody relation to reality. Yes, I’ll stay near the phone. I’ll just run back to the car to get a pad and pen. Thanks, Carole.”

Clough walked at pace, his padded jacket swish-swishing as his arms swept back and forth, his expensive leather slip-ons tapping a metronomic rhythm along the paved surface. Clough strolled but his brain began expressing alarm, like he’d made a wrong turn or had somehow failed to accurately retrace his steps. Clough stopped and pursed his lips in thought. Is the fog so thick that I’ve missed the Merc? He slowly turned 90 degrees and stood at the edge of the layby, the layby where, just minutes earlier, he’d parked his car, the car that contained his briefcase, his notepaper, his pens, his calculator, his Nottingham Forest chequebook, £500 in cash and a collection of receipts from his Scotland trip. Clough’s facial expression remained resolute, like the information that his car had disappeared was of no importance. It was the face he displayed in the dugout when a defeat was imminent, for disappointment wasn’t to be broadcast to a wider public. But at least he still had a bar of soap.

Clough walked back towards the telephone box, trying to work out a way forward in his tactician’s brain. An answer would arrive soon, it always did. He lifted the collar on his Adidas jacket and pulled his flat cap a little tighter on his head to prevent the cold further deflating his battered ego. He waited outside the phone box then heard the phone ring. Clough stepped inside the box and answered.

“Alan?” said the voice on the line.

“No,” replied Clough. “Wrong number.”

“Wrong, twat, it’s the right number – are you in a phone box?”

“I am in a phone box, yes, young man,” Clough spoke, agitated. “But I’m expecting a very important call, long distance, so you’ll have to ring off for now. I shouldn’t be long.”

“Is there a fella outside the phone box?” asked the voice on the line. “Have a look.”

Clough peered through the smeared and scratched glass and was startled to see an oversized figure in a pea-green snorkel coat with hood up.

“Be quick!” the man shouted from outside the kiosk. “Someone’s ringing me.”

Clough opened the door: “Are you Alan?”

“Yup. Is it for me?”

“I suppose it is,’ said Clough, standing aside, “but I’d be appreciative if I could use the phone at some point very soon. I’m expecting a call as well.”

The man offered no thanks, barged past Clough and took control of the receiver: “Mick!”

The kiosk door clunked closed.

Clough stood idly on the pavement, hands buried deep in his pockets, feet tapping the pavement to ward off the incessant ice-chill of the evening. Minutes passed and the conversation from inside the phone box continued at garish volume, largely regarding spare parts for vans, Page 3 girls and the unusual weather.

Clough knocked on the glass: “Will you be long? I have to use the phone. It won’t take all night.”

A gap in the door appeared: “Look, piss off dipstick, I’m busy,” Alan warned, then added: “I’ll be here half an hour yet, maybe more. What you going to do about it?”

The door closed, leaving a whispy cloud of stagnant, steamy breath.

At this, Clough’s expression shifted from its noncommittal match-day defeat to a deceptive conviviality. The Forest manager edged the door open again and said, “Hey, clever bugger, come out ’ere a minute.”

Alan let out a weary groan and announced to his telephone associate, “Hang on, Mick, I’m just gonna deal with this wazzock outside. Call me back in five.” He then cupped the phone and, angling his head towards Clough, said, “You’re askin’ for a good hidin’, you, pal.”

Clough smiled warmly at the escalation of events and voiced through the aperture, “Eh, don’t be long now, cos I could do with some exercise to warm me up.”

Alan, nodding, replaced the handset: “Want warmin’ up, do yer? I’ll soon ’ave you all toasty.”

Alan pushed open the door, emerged from the kiosk but found, to his dismay, an empty pavement, nobody around, not a soul to pummel to a pulp, not a single head to stove in, not a nose to pound into a flattened mess. With breath trailing from his nostrils like a cartoon bull, Alan peered into the orange cloud but could see nothing apart from swirls… swirls of fog, swirls of confusion.

“Buggered off, ’ave yer?” Alan shouted. “Wastin’ my fuckin’ time! Gone all nesh, thought better of it? Shithead! Twat! Prick! If I get my ’ands on you, you’re fuckin’ dead!”

And then events started to quicken up.

First came a whuuump! For Alan, complete loss of breath rapidly arrived, followed by the gradual realisation of a weight spread across his broad back and shoulders. Alan’s arms began rolling and twisting as he attempted to grab at the lithe being that had taken the air out of his lungs. Had Alan’s assailant superhero powers? Unbeknownst to him, Clough had managed total surprise by clambering onto the roof of the phone box before descending like an avenging angel. He was now riding Alan rodeo-style.

“Get off me!” Alan growled.

Clough placed his strong, calloused hands over Alan’s eyes and said, “Ooh, the lights have gone out!”

“You’re dead,” Alan raged, “dead, fuckin’ dead…” but was stopped mid-sweary rant by a fragrant brick that was placed into his mouth with incredible dexterity, which was then rammed deeper into position using the side of a fist.

“Aaaaagghhh,” Alan gasped. “Aaaaaaaaagggghhhh!”

The bar of Cussons Imperial Leather, increasingly damp, moved with ease towards Alan’s back teeth and throat.

“Waheueueugh!” Alan violently choked.

Clough shimmied down the ape-like back and said with finality, “Now let’s get that dirty fuckin’ mouth of yours washed out, shall we?”

Taking inspiration from the 1934 Laurel & Hardy feature The Live Ghost, Clough then thumped Alan’s chin upwards, breaking the mouth-clasped soap into fragments. Some pieces of Imperial Leather tumbled down Alan’s throat and windpipe while other bits became crushed around his molars, all the while the soapy sensation building and becoming increasingly unmanageable to his taste buds.

As Alan fought for breath, he began the tricky task of de-soaping his mouth and oesophagus by spitting and choking, then using his tongue as a bulldozer to clear away the undesirable magnolia-coloured clods.

Clough stepped to one side while his enemy, who’d been gagging for a good 30 seconds, could hold back no longer and threw up onto the pavement, bringing forth a psychedelic beam of orange and yellow cubes, replete with the regulation echoed sprinkle sound. It was while Alan heaved up a second load that Clough noticed the telephone ringing from inside the callbox. With a grin, he darted inside and, having picked up the receiver, heard the sweet tones of Carole Washington in Nottingham.

“Sorry I took a while Brian, but I’ve located a nice, four-star hotel around two miles from where you are,” Clough’s secretary reported. But before Clough could cogitate the information, the handset was forcibly grabbed from his hand. Clough looked with anguish as the pig’s-tail curl of telecommunication cabling became taut and the receiver was torn with physical fury from the telephone set.

“It’s for you-hoo!” Alan laughed, who’d made a remarkable recovery, and began wrapping the telephone cord around Clough’s throat. It was while Alan was throttling Clough that the European Cup-scooping manager of 1979 and ’80 began to think he’d seen his last football match. The scuffle inevitably spilled out onto the pavement, with Clough attempting in vain to loosen the tight cabling from around his neck. The situation then took a turn towards the absurd. Alan felt a resounding thwack on the back of his thick, bovine skull and, having managed to turn around like a biblical character in one of Rembrandt’s religious paintings c.1620, saw the unique lower-case b at 90 degrees scowl of Yorkshire sporting legend Geoff Boycott, who was holding a cricket bat in both hands.

“No, Zod!” Alan mouthed, perhaps influenced by his favourite film Superman, before dropping sidewards to the ground like a sack of locally grown maincrop potatoes, used for roasting or chips.

Boycott peered towards Clough and announced, “Sod it, I think I’ve dropped a contact lens.”

Clough called back, “I’ve not seen you strike anything as sweetly as that since Scarborough in 1970. ”

Boycott looked over to Clough using his one functioning eye and remarked, “By jingo, I thought it were you Brian, I just reckoned it a bit unlikely that you’d be bein’ throttled to death with a telephone cord five miles outside Carlisle as I ’appened to be passin’ – and not just passin’, but bloody lost!”

Clough carefully unwrapped the cord from his throat and said, “It’s a funny old night tonight, Geoffrey. And I think some shithouse has gone and nicked my car.”

“Well, mine’s just up road,” Boycott announced. “I suppose you’d better get in car wi’ me and start doin’ some map readin’. Luckily, I’ve brought a spare pair of contact lenses with me, as well as my full kit bag with bats, balls, bails, the lot!”

“Do you think this bloody big brute will be alright sprawled across the pavement, unconscious in temperatures nearing freezing?” Clough asked, gesturing towards the prostrate Alan.

“Happen,” Boycott replied. “But I’ll tell you what, ’e ’ad a lovely fragrant breath when I clobbered ’im one wi’ me best bat. It reminded me of our bathroom in Fitzwilliam when I were a young kid.”

“You’re a bloody sentimentalist you,” Clough grinned. “But I’ll tell you something, we’ll not be making Yorkshire or Derbyshire tonight. I know there’s a hotel two miles from here with warm beds and a bar. We just need to know which bloody direction to go in.”

Back at Boycott’s pristine Ford Granada, with the interior light shining, Boycott carefully placed his spare contact lens into his eye. “Well, way I look at it,” Boycott said, “is we either go that way or this way, forwards or backwards. Now, I’ve just come from that way and could see absolutely nothin’ of any use to anyone but then again, I could’ve passed Blackpool bloody Tower and not noticed it. I vote go forward.”

“Sounds good to me, Geoffrey,” Clough nodded. “Let’s bugger off out of here.”

  1. Four men in a Granada

Balding batsman Geoff Boycott nervously dabbed the accelerator, creeping forward into meteorological deep-grey shrouds, the needle on his Ford Granada’s dashboard waving up and down above the “10”. Beads of sweat formed on the controversial cricketer’s forehead. Total concentration was required to navigate Cumbria’s fog-enveloped B-roads: the sort of mind power needed when facing the wrath of Windies.

Clough switched on the passenger-side interior light to view the Collins road atlas but was quickly chastised by Boycott who was unable to see through the windscreen.

After a while, Boycott asked, “What is fog, Brian?”

“Fog?” Clough echoed, pursing his lips. “Low cloud, I think.”

“But why is it on ground?” Boycott wondered.

“Geoffrey,” Clough chuckled, “even if I had an encyclopaedia on my knee, I couldn’t look it up, could I? I’d have to put the light on. You’d not be able to see through the windscreen and I’d get another ticking off.”

Boycott gave a short, loud laugh and for the next half a mile, his 90-degree-pushed lower-case b smile remained set like concrete. Boycott enjoyed Clough’s company: they were cut from the same cloth.

Clough and Boycott had been allies since 1963. As a Yorkshireman, Clough had a long-standing appreciation of cricket. When he was a free-scoring centre forward for Sunderland in the early Sixties, Clough would travel to see Yorkshire play at Scarborough once training was over, usually catching the last two sessions of the day. Fellow Yorkshire stalwart Brian Close introduced Boycott to Clough in the players’ area at Scarborough’s North Marine Road Ground. It was the beginning of a spirited comradeship.

“It’s funny, Brian,” Boycott said, “but I were only thinkin’ about you this mornin’. Do you remember Chesterfield over ten year back? We were playin’ Derbyshire. I pulled Alan Ward straight to fielder at midwicket – I think it were Brian Bolus. I was out for four. Do you remember that?”

Clough’s face brightened: “I do, Geoffrey. Solid captain was Bolus, too. He was at Notts and Derbyshire, wasn’t he?”

“And a Yorkshireman,” Boycott added. “Born in Leeds. He’d just left Yorkshire as I was startin’. So anyway, backtrackin’, I was out for four. I was so angry and disappointed wi’ meself that I wanted to climb up crooked spire and jump off damned thing, only I’d probably have messed that up too. You were there that day and you came in to see me. I think you’d just taken over from Don Revie at Leeds.”

“I’d been for a meeting in Leeds,” Clough corrected. “I was still buggering about in Brighton. I thought you might have needed a bit of cheering up and when I saw you, you had a face like a Sheffield furnace. First thing you said to me: ‘I’ve ruined the whole day!’”

“I did, didn’t I?” Boycott nodded. “I’ll always remember what you told me; and this is why you win things, European Cups, and why you get best out of people. You said, ‘You see your colleagues outside. They don’t know if they’ll make 100 now or ever again. You’ll get 100, if not tomorrow, then next week. You’ll get plenty of 100s yet because you’re that good.’ Now, I’d just cocked up but you soon had me feelin’ ten-feet tall. I’ve never forgot that, Bri.”

In-car feelings of warmth and bonhomie spread through the Granada’s plush interior but soon evaporated when bright lights illuminated the whole of the back window. The light was so fierce that Boycott was unable to peer through the rear-view mirror. A horn sounded. Boycott scowled at the insolence.

“Bloody idiot,” Boycott raged. “Fancy tryin’ to take over in this bloody weather. He’s got ’is full beams on and ’e’s right up my backside.”

Clough glanced over his shoulder but was momentarily blinded. Boycott continued his composed crawl, maintaining a safe momentum. The roads became twistier and potentially more dangerous but thankfully the fog thinned for a few moments. It was on a bend in a rare fog-free gap that the following car shot past and roared into the distance with a victorious sound of the horn.

“What a prat!” Boycott cried out. “What a dunce!”

“That’s Capri drivers for you,” Clough said. “Kevin Keegan used to drive a Capri, you know, and Bill Shankly made him get rid. It was the driving angle; it affected Keegan’s ankles. He was injured for weeks and weeks. The car went and he was right as rain in a few days.”

Boycott tutted: “They’re a lothario’s wagon.”

But no sooner had the celebrated slogger’s distaste for sports cars been revealed than the fog closed in again.

Changing tack, Clough asked: “Are there many poofs in cricket?”

“Poofs?” Boycott queried. “Brown-hatters? No, Brian, I don’t think there’s a single one. It’s a very masculine game is cricket, wi’ a big drinkin’ culture, which you know I’ve no time for. I’ve never been a boozer.”

“I suspect,” Brian said leaning forward, with a finger in the air, “that there are more fairies in football than we think. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, Geoffrey, but I know a lot of the other players wouldn’t want to be around that sort of thing, especially in the changing room. The thing is, Geoffrey, when I go into a butcher’s, I don’t want to buy a loaf of bread. Do you see what I mean?”

Boycott looked puzzled for a moment and then recalled a message he’d recently read scrawled on a toilet wall. “I was in this lavatory in Leeds, caught short,” Boycott explained. “I’d been buyin’ underpants. Some silly swine had written in marker pen on wall, ‘Jimmy will be gay for you’, and there was a number to ring. Now, I know Leeds ’as ’ad it’s problems down he years Brian, but what sort of mentality do you have to have to put your own bloody phone number on the wall of a public toilet offerin’ those sorts of antics. You’re askin’ for trouble!”

“Liberace’s got a lot to answer for,” Clough expounded. “And Danny La Rue.”

“Oh, I like Danny La Rue,” Boycott responded. “So when I’d done, I went up to barman and said, ‘Some idiot’s written “Jimmy will be gay for you” on your lavatory wall. I’d get it cleaned off if I were you. You don’t want to read that sort of smut when you’re spendin’ a penny.” And everyone started sniggerin’, Brian. It was sick-making. That’s the sort of childishness we ’ave to deal with nowadays, and it’s everywhere. Sometimes I think I should just move to South Africa and be done with it.”

“You’ve still a job to do with Yorkshire,” Clough pointed out.

“That’s if we ever get out of Carlisle,” Boycott uttered, peering out of the side window, looking for any landmark of significance.

Soon, the loud clattering of a powerful motorbike became apparent and a single beam of light remained fixed to Boycott’s bumper for some time.

“I think this motorcyclist’s usin’ us as a safety blanket,” Boycott noted, “which, I have to say, is reasonable given the conditions…”

But before Boycott could complete his sentence, the motorbike edged to the side of the Granada and a gloved hand thudded against the glass.

“I think we’re wanted,” Clough spoke.

“I think you’re right,” Boycott added.

Boycott located a wide grass verge and brought the car to a standstill. The motorcyclist sidled up to the driver’s door and lifted the glass visor on his crash helmet.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” the rider explained. “You see, I’m lost. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. I’m heading for the A69. I’ve never seen fog like this before, man.”

“Where you going?” Boycott enquired.

“Newcastle,” the rider replied.

“I thought as much by accent,” Boycott said. “To be perfectly ’onest, we’re lost an’ all. We’re tryin’ to find ’otel that’s nearby but we’ve no chance of findin’ it in this blessed fog.”

“I was hoping to get back for the snooker on the telly, like,” the motorcyclist mentioned, “but I cannae see I’ll even be back for Anne Diamond on TV-am at this rate. I’ll follow you if that’s Orkee and hope to come across an A-road or even a Happy Eater, y’know, and get some scran.”

“I’m not drivin’ quick,” Boycott warned. “I’d rather get through tonight in one piece, if you don’t mind. We’re in a bad seam ’ere. It’s ’orsework just keepin’ car on road.”

“That’s fine by me,” the Geordie said, taken aback.

Boycott manoeuvred his car onto the highway and the convoy set off in search of sanctuary. But this irksome evening had many surprises still in store for Messrs Boycott, Clough and Healy. Less than two minutes had elapsed before the frantic arm waving of a pedestrian in a beige sports jacket grabbed Boycott’s full attention. With the commotion, Boycott applied the brakes heavily only to hear a dull crump from the back of his car. In a panic, Boycott flung open the door and raced to the car’s rear. There, lying horizontally on the Granada’s table-flat boot was the motorcyclist, while further back along the road lay his bike, light shining at an awkward angle into the drifting murk.

“Are you alright?” Boycott called out in a panic.

“Aye,” the motorcyclist said, lifting his crash-helmeted head. “Just thought I’d have a doze for half an hour, like.”

Clough jogged to the stricken motorbike and inspected the damage.

“Front wheel’s a mess!” Clough shouted along the lane. “It can’t be rode in this state.”

“Oh dear,” a voice spoke, and a figure in shadow emerged dramatically from the wings. “I feel somewhat at fault for this,” he spluttered. “I’ll pay for any damage, of course. Is the motorcyclist still with us or is he pulling a great wheelie at the Pearly gates?”

The Geordie motorcyclist climbed down from the Granada’s boot and timidly moved his body, one limb at a time, to check for immediate signs of damage to bones and internal organs.

“What was all that arm-wavin’ abart?” Boycott protested.

“Ah,” said the well-spoken gentleman and pointed through a hedge in the direction of a farmer’s field. “I was hurtling down this thoroughfare when I mistimed the corner, went straight through the brambles and the car’s now resting about half a mile in a turnip field with steam pissing out of the radiator. It was a lovely car, though. A three-litre Capri.”

Boycott leapt forward, grimacing. “You’re bloody crackpot that passed us earlier! You’re lucky you didn’t maim someone way you were drivin’.”

“Ah, a Yorkshireman in Cumberland’s fair pasture!” the stranger softly remarked with some enthusiasm.

“Eh, hang on,” Boycott frowned. “Aren’t you… Aren’t you Lawrence of Arabia?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Peter O’Toole replied. “He hasn’t aged a day! And you’re the batsman – Geoff Boycott! Is it true that you deliberately cock a deaf ’un to the authorities and slow-score?”

“He doesn’t slow score, he’s just in the crease for ages, cracking 100s week in, week out,” Clough answered. “Centuries don’t arrive in minutes. You work at them.”

“My God, look who it is!” O’Toole whooped. “Brian bloody Clough – the greatest football manager in the world! Well, what a smashing night this is turning out to be. I’m glad I crashed! So who’s the stuntman in the helmet? Let me guess. Daley Thompson? The Six Million Dollar Man? The Aga bloody Khan?”

The motorcyclist removed his helmet: “Just plain Tim Healy from Newcastle, I’m afraid.”

“But you’re an actor, aren’t you, young man?” Clough grinned. “You’re the one from the German programme. The brickie. My wife’s very fond of your show. Don’t you play the gaffer? The one in charge?”

“Well, that’s correct, but you’re the first person that’s ever recognised me so far,” Healy admitted. “I feel a bit chuffed now, like.”

“What a stellar collection we are!” O’Toole chortled.

“I suppose this means we’ve got a few extra passengers, Bri,” Boycott wryly noted.

“I’m still sitting in the front,” Clough affirmed.

Boycott glanced into his mirror to find out the frame of mind of the passengers on the back seat, as a captain might when assessing the fighting spirit of his team before an important match. “So where you headed to, Pete? You were obviously in a rush.”

O’Toole leaned forward: “I’m looking for a demented pile of bricks called Hangingbrow Hall. I know I’m near and I’m determined to find the bloody place before I leave Cumbria.”

“Have you got friends or family there?” enquired Healy, creaking in his motorbike leathers, rucksack placed on his knee.

“Sadly not,” O’Toole answered. “It’s a place of… historical interest, you might say.”

“It’s not an ideal night to be sightseeing,” Clough spoke from the front passenger seat. “Especially as you can’t see more than two feet in front of you in this weather.”

“As I’ve made a sizeable detour to find Hangingbrow, possibly writing off a brand new Ford Capri in the process, it would seem negligent not to have a nose around while I’m in the vicinity.”

“You say ‘historical interest’,” Healy squinted, looking sideways. “An old ruin you mean, or a castle?”

O’Toole gave the crackled laugh of a heavy smoker. “It’s a place I’ve read about. Haunted to buggery, apparently. Shatterhand Adolf – yes, Hitler himself – had shown some interest in adding the pile to his list of picturesque getaways. If I see a sign for this phantom-filled shed, I’ll jump out of the door, although this place is, I gather, rather off the beaten track. It doesn’t appear on any maps. It’s hush-hush. However, I have suspicions of where Hangingbrow is located. I made some notes and tucked the sheet of paper into my pocket. Were there’s a will, gentlemen, there’s a way.”

“Expect you’ll be after a pub first, from what I’ve read in papers,” Boycott spoke. “Aren’t you usually proppin’ up a bar at this time of a night?”

“My hellraising days are far behind me, smiler,” O’Toole admitted. “I’m now allergic to the stuff. My piss is pure Perrier water these days. They bottle it, you know, in the Cotswolds – when I can get there. But I miss a snifter terribly. I still go to the pub. As a rule, I don’t like the company of sober people. Et tu, Geoffrey?”

“Boozin’?” Boycott scoffed. “Do you know, I’ve only ever ’ad one ’angover and that’s been enough to put me off for life. It was monumental. It were end-of-season Scarborough Festival in ’68 after we’d won championship. We were sent cases of champagne and Closey – Brian Close – had swiped a whole magnum and put it in ’is bag. Now, I thought that was plain wrong. I took it out and ’e chased me all round changin’ room, trippin’ over bags and all sorts. I managed to get cork out and most of it came it in a wasteful shower. What were left, I gave to wives and girlfriends but I soon found another and by half-seven I’d become Britain’s most evangelical drinker, telling people to get some champagne down ’em. I quickly felt like I’d had ten gallons. I was so drunk that after I’d scoffed down a bag of fish and chips, I ’ad to be put to bed. It were nine o’clock. The rest of night were ’ideous. I felt like I were doin’ cartwheels inside a crashin’ ’elicopter whenever I closed me eyes. I still managed to make 102 following day.”

In the back seat, O’Toole quietly cried with laughter.

“I say Geoff, you’ve got a quiet car,” Healy said. “A milk float’d make more noise.”

Boycott glanced uneasily at his dashboard. “There’s a good reason for that,” he announced. “We’ve just run out of petrol.”

  1. CR33 KET

The choice was succinctly bleak. Either walk along a narrow, single-carriageway back lane facing oncoming traffic, trying not to be clipped by a raging, lost, Duel-like petrol tanker, or traipse across ploughed fields, hoping to pick up a well-trodden, signpost-filled trail or a whiff of civilisation. The decision was split: Tim Healy and Brian Clough were in favour of farmers’ furrows; for Geoff Boycott and Peter O’Toole, B-roads were best.

“Well, I think we should toss a coin,” Healy suggested in a positive tone, before placing his tongue in his cheek for effect. “Road or ramble, concrete or cross-country? The truth is, we’re in a pickle, lads.”

O’Toole presented a leathery glower: “An erratic course, surely, would be a ramble over hill and yonder dale. All roads lead to destinations, to villages, to snug pubs and roaring fireplaces. That’s why they laid the damned things in the first place! Roads lead to locations; yomps do not.”

“I’ve a feeling roads lead to an early grave tonight, pet,” Healy explained. “There are few pavements in these parts. But I’m willing to toss a coin to give us an answer either way.”

Clough placed a brotherly, training-ground arm around O’Toole’s bony shoulders. “Now listen, this TV brickie here’s got a point, right. We’ve found nowt tonight apart from hedges and ditches and between us, we’ve managed to write off a Capri and a motorbike, and my Merc’s been nicked. Geoffrey’s Granada’ll not last much longer cos it’s parked on a blind bend in the thickest fog Michael Fish has ever bloody known. In fact, this is more than fog, Mr O’Toole, it’s practically a material. It’s ten miles square of cotton bloody wool! If we take the road, we’ve a good chance of ending up as flat as a Dover plaice and not as much bloody use!”

“We could flag down a car,” O’Toole reasoned. “Not every driver can be lost!”

“Would you stop for four giddy figures trying to catch your attention in the middle of bloody nowhere?” Clough said. “There’ll be few daft enough to be out on the roads tonight. Maybe one or two, but they won’t be stopping!”

“Well, let’s just make a decision and stick by it,” O’Toole haughtily conceded. “I might be in my fifties but discomfort is no stranger to me, comrades. I’ve had some shockingly cold evenings on the deck of a Royal Navy submarine depot ship, pootling around the Baltic, waving to whales, watching icicles grow from the tip of the first mate’s bugle, and I’d rather not recreate the experience.”

Healy asked for a coin and Clough presented a predecimalisation shilling that, in 1984, was in use as a 5p. “I’ll let it drop to the road, to elongate the excitement, y’knaa,” Healy explained. “It’s a big decision this, like. Our survival could depend on it.”

The shilling spun into the air as if in slow motion and fell to the road surface with a lively ping. But with a will of its own, the coin rolled along the gutter and with a silvery glint, seemed to hop, jump and disappear down a roadside drain.

“Ahhh hell, man!’ Healy howled. “We’ve gan and lost the bob!”

“You should’ve just caught thing!” Boycott jeered, “instead of tryin’ to be showbiz abart it. Here, I’ve a 2p on me. Just be more careful wi’ this. If you lose it, I’ll still want it back.”

“Look, lads, the last of the big spendahs!” Healy glared at Boycott, and grabbed the currency. This time he flicked and caught, then said, “Heads it’s cross-country, tales it’s the roads, Orkee?”

One by one, they nodded, glancing at each other with a growing sense of unease. Healy slowly lifted his hand to reveal fate’s calling. “It’s…”

“Come on, come on,” said O’Toole with exasperation. “This isn’t Jack-a-bloody-nory.”

“I can’t see with all the darkness and fog, like, man – hold on, will you,” Healy replied. “It’s… it’s… I can’t tell what it is…”

Boycott stepped forward and peered at the coin closely: “It’s young Queen, so it’s ’eads.”

O’Toole shivered at the thought. “Well, of course it’s ’eads, because there’s less detail on that side of the coin, so the shiny side will almost always come up top!”

Clough was having none of it: “Eh, the referee’s decision is final,” he stated, “and under no circumstances will you remonstrate or show disrespect to Mr Healy, who is our match official this evening.”

Boycott’s expression stiffened and for a moment it looked like he might recite the full details of his favourite innings. In fact, Boycott was merely morphing into his natural captain’s role, weighing up the pros and cons of the situation, ascertaining the wind direction and condition of the ground. He stood resolute against a burst of oncoming breeze, which only brought with it more wisps of Hammer House fog, before declaring, “We’ll go wi’ wind behind us backs to start wi’, lads. It’ll gi’ us an extra ounce of energy should we tire after five or six hours. We’ll cut through ’edge and walk in a straight line. We’re bound to come across somethin’ sooner or later but I think this 2p of mine has actually done us a favour. Walking in bloody road is playin’ silly beggars and we’ll end up dead as dodos. At least ’iking through fields, only danger’s being poleaxed by a disoriented deer.”

“Although if we cannae find shelter within a couple of hours, we’ll end up like four big ice lollies,” said Healy.

“We’ll just put a stick up our arses then,” Clough chortled, “and a Wall’s wrapper over our heads.”

“At least a paper wrapper would provide a modicum of warmth,” O’Toole grimaced. “Imagine the newspaper headlines: ‘DIM STARS WILL SHINE NO MORE’. And I quote! ‘Yesterday, an unlikely collection of actors and sportsmen was found frozen to death in a farmer’s field near Carlisle, just half a mile from a pub. Police are not treating the incident as murder, just downright stupidity. Next of kin have been informed but were hardly surprised.’”

“Way I look at it,” noted Boycott, stamping his feet on the ground to illustrate how cold he was, “is if we stick round ’ere we’ll succumb to ’ypothermia.”

For a moment O’Toole appeared dumbstruck, then a grin rose on his face: “We’ll what to hypothermia?” he delightedly questioned.

“Succumb,” Boycott repeated in his broad Yorkshire accent. ‘I ’ope your ’earings not packin’ up, Pete.’

“Looks like there’s a fair-sized gap in the hedge over there, man, Geoffrey.” Healy pointed out.

“Man Geoffrey, he’s right,” O’Toole smiled widely. ‘It’s the start of our Yellow Brick Road.”

Clough ducked through the hedge and precariously pushed his flat-capped head through the aperture. “Last one to the bar pays for a round.”

A cacophony of chuckles followed as, one after the other, stars of screen and sport directed themselves through the prickly thicket.

Moist agricultural clods of fertile loam made rough work for ankles and knees, while the fog and pitch-black nothingness played tricks on the senses.

“Am I asleeeeeep?” O’Toole enquired with a perfect, RADA-trained howl. “Did I die in a car accident but haven’t realised it yet? This sensory denial – I’m seeing purple fireworks in the distance! All I can feel is how damp my socks are. It’s Wipers in the Great War all over again, and we’ve been blinded by Hun chlorine gas.”

“Howay, Pete, with a bit of luck, the temperature will drop close to freezing point, so this soil will turn hard like concrete,” offered Healy. “It’ll just be like walking down Carlisle high street on a crisp winter’s night.”

This was wishful thinking from TV’s Dennis Patterson. With the temperature doggedly hovering around 3-4°C, soles were not tapping firm, pavement-like frost but were sinking and slopping. Healy, wearing vintage motorbike boots, was fortunate in that he had warm, dry toes. The feet of the rest would remain chilled and wet for some time, while trouser ends were elegantly chocolate-dipped.

O’Toole pondered for a moment and growled, “‘If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in mine arms.’ Shakespeare, you know.”

“I’ll knock darkness to silly mid-off,” Boycott responded, playing a cricket stroke that nobody else could witness, “and score a sneaky run.”

O’Toole cackled: “Now you’re talking, tiger.”

Clough suddenly sprang to life: “Darkness and cold! I’ve faced Liverpool in the European Cup and beat them over two legs when nobody gave us a bloody hope. I’ve made ordinary players into heroes and I can tell the club chairman to piss off whenever I please, which I do often. I can pick a squad against darkness and grind out a victory. And that’s what we’ll do this evening – be strong at the back and score a winner in a counter attack late on in the second half.”

“Are we in second ’alf yet, Brian?” asked Boycott.

“Sadly not,” Clough replied. “If this was a football match, I’d say we’re about a quarter of the way in so far although with fog like this you’d expect the tie would have been called off and rearranged for next Tuesday. The referee has no doubt been bribed by our European counterparts – and they’ve been cheat-iinng.”

The four celebrities entered into personal battles with their own spirits, faces set like Easter Island statues as they made their way sullenly across yet another vast bare field, blind men connected by sound alone, with nothing but inclines, descents, walls, bushes and varying sized puddles to allay the tedium. There was nothing to see other than, occasionally, hands in front of their faces to check they were still living beings and not merely a floating dandelion clock or speck of dust drifting into the sky.

Sensing despondency setting in, Boycott attempted to rally the troops. “I ’eard a good joke on telly other week,” he spoke – and his voice woke his comrades like a rugby league klaxon. “It were Bernard Manning! By gum, there’s a good comic ne. He said, ‘Italian tanks are only ones fitted wi’ reverse lights.’ All deadpan, like. It took me a few seconds to get gist, cos I didn’t know if ’e were makin’ a joke or statin’ a fact. Reverse lights, Brian!”

“Cowards as well as cheats,” Clough called back through the dark. “They bloody well nobbled us at Derby in ’73. European Cup Semi-Final. Imagine what being European champions would have meant for a place like Derby. We had the team to do it as well. McFarland, Hector, Hinton… Juventus. Veccia Signora. The Old Lady. Ref’s have got a tough job in my book, but that one that night may as well have been wearing a Juventus jersey. Probably got a free Fiat afterwards as well. But to me a Fiat’s a punishment, not a gift.”

“Good grief,” said O’Toole, ‘we’re like an Atlantic sea convoy in 1943. Steaming on, communicating by signal lamp alone, but expecting the whirr and fizz of a torpedo at any moment.”

‘Cos you know Italians were neither use nor ornament in battle,” Boycott continued. “That’s what Bernard Manning were getting’ at. Me mother used to like humour like that. These grannies in audience could ’ardly breathe, they were laughin’ so much. Then ’e turned to one of these old biddies and said, ‘Do you know why seagulls have wings, my love? To beat gyppos to tip!’ Because gypsies ’ang abart at tips, don’t they? That’s two brilliant jokes in ten seconds. No wonder ’e’s got a Cadillac and a chauffeur. He deserves them.”

Clough’s face shone. With excitement, he asked, “Has he really got a Cadillac?”

“He ’as that, Brian,” Boycott enthused, “and it’s a smasher. He must’ve ’ad it imported from America. Only problem is that it’s left-hand drive. You’d ’ave a job on overtakin’ anything on road. He’s got ’is own numberplate. I think it’s COM 1C.”

“Listen, legends, I loathe pedantry in all forms,” added O’Toole, “but I think you’ll find that’s Norman Wisdom’s registration plate. I can’t quite fathom why I know that. A big star in Albania, by all accounts, although I could never get behind all that Pitkin, Mr Grimsdale nincompoopery.”

“Well, I was in Manchester earlier today at Granada studios,” Healy said as his vintage leather boots squelched onwards, “and funnily enough there was an American motor in the car park with the plate 1 LAF. I reckon that’s the car you’re talking aboot. That’s Bernard Manning’s wheels.”

“I think I’d go for CR33 KET,” remarked Boycott. “You know, crickeeet. That’d suit me.”

“You’d never get a registration like that, man,” Healy called out, shaking his head. “It’s has to be a numberplate that’s already existed at some time. You can’t just choose numbers and letters in any order you please.”

Boycott was startled: “Well, how do you explain 1 LAF then: ‘I laugh’? That’s never been on a car before! It’s been made special for a very good comedian, that has! You’re payin’ privilege!”

“No, no, no,” Healy said. “Before the use of suffixes on plates – y’knaa cos ‘A’ was used in 1963, ‘B’ in 1964, ‘C’ in ’65 and so on – they used to have a series of letters and numbers, or numbers and letters. 1 LAF was from before 1963. I know all this cos I took an interest in it when I was a bairn, noting down the numbers in a pad, like.”

“Sweet Jesus,” howled O’Toole, “when I arose this morning, I’d never in my wildest dreams believe I’d be walking across waterlogged agricultural fields in Cumbria discussing the history of car registration numbers. I mean, what’s next, typefaces on cans of supermarket soup?”

Clough smiled at the absurdity of the situation, then turned his thoughts to another long stroll from the previous summer – a four-day sponsored walk in the Pennines raising money for a disabled girl in Nottingham. That’s the moment when he’d found out his former ally Peter Taylor, by then the manager at Derby County, had signed Scottish winger John Robertson from Forest. Robertson, scruffy as he was, was like a son to Clough. He loathed Taylor for his duplicity, but missed his friendship. Taylor was the funniest man he had ever known, the good cop to Clough’s bad. Why didn’t you ring me, Pete? Clough asked in his head. Why didn’t you tell me what you were up to? Why go straight to the Forest board and not to me?

A curious aspect about sustained periods in pitch-black conditions is the sudden realisation that it has become suddenly darker, that the contrast has been lowered or you’ve somehow moved further into a tunnel.

“Howay man, did you notice that?” Healy enquired. “It’s gone blacker. It’s so black, we could be in a cave – do you not think?”

 “I’m still seeing fireworks,” O’Toole responded. “A cave, though… at least a cave would have a roof and there would be the small chance we could build a fire and bed down for the night.”

Healy rubbed his gloved hands together. “We could get the deckchairs oot, put a couple of spuds in foil in the flames. Get a bevvy from the fridge. ‘Git mortal’, as the kids roond Toon say these days.”

“Would this cave have an aga in the back?” Clough enquired. “I could set a trap and pick us up a lovely bit of venison and get it cooked while you lot dried your feet by the fire. Heeey, I love cooking, I do. Now that you’re asking, I’d have a whisky while preparing your teas. Not a Bell’s, no, because I’ve won so many bottles of that stuff down the years, and although I’ve drunk the lot and enjoyed it, it can be slightly rough on the throat. No, a decent single malt for me and you fine people. We’ll push the boat out tonight.”

“Might I suggest a peaty Islay?” O’Toole ventured, splashing through a puddle. “I was told I’d die if I ever drank whisky again but I’d take the risk tonight.”

“You absolutely may have an Islay dram, Mr O’Toole,” Clough smiled. “And if I knew where your hand was, I’d shake it. But would we have any ice or just take it straight?”

“Course we’d have ice!” Healy whooped. “They’ll have some at the cave’s bar!”

There was low-level laughter as sparkly particles of all-lads-together geniality floated through the cold night.

 “I’ll steer clear of booze but I wouldn’t mind you lot lettin’ your ’air down given circumstances,” said Boycott. “I’d ’ave an orange juice… no, a lemonade… no… steamin’-’ot tea in a big mug! One of them big mugs wi’ blue stripes on it. That’d do me smashin’, that would.”

“How’s your legs holding out, Geoff?” Healy enquired.

“Don’t worry about my legs, you rapscallion,” Boycott snapped back. “This is a puddin’ of a pitch, there’s no doubt about that, and I may ’ave a slight muscle spasm, but I’ve played on worse surfaces and scored undrids.”

 “I’ll tell you what,” Healy remarked, “I can’t wait to find this cave. If we ever get out of this godforsaken countryside in one piece, I think we should open it as a nightspot. We’d make a killing. I can see it now! The sign above the entrance in neon lights: Gan Undergroond. Y’knaa, like the hit-parade record.”

“It should be a painted sign,” Boycott called out. “If you’ve got bright lights, we’ll attract wrong crowd. Young ’uns, ’oodlums, louts, a rum lot, wi’ people who write indecent filth on lavatory walls. ‘So-and-so will be this-and-that for you’ – and then give a telephone number. You want a painted sign like you’d find on a decent café in the Peak District or ’aberdasher’s. I see it as more a place that also sells ’ot drinks, not a booze parlour.”

The wheezing of O’Toole’s laughter went largely undetected.

Boycott, still smartly dressed for his earlier covert meeting in a hillside hotel, with navy blue rain-shield outerwear and a baker-boy’s hat to keep his balding head warm, cut a bizarre figure strolling across bare fields on a winter’s evening, his large kit bag over a shoulder. His lace-up derbys were slowly turning into mud snowshoes, yet the smooth soles of his Northants-crafted leather footwear offered little traction. It was a wonder that none of the foursome had taken a tumble given the conditions underfoot, yet it was a shock to Healy, Clough and O’Toole that Boycott should be the first to fall. Swaaaash, “Whuuu!… Ooooph!” It was as if the controversial Yorkshireman had slid on a discarded banana skin. His feet gained altitude and his shoulders dropped in an advanced Fosbury flop.

“What was that??” O’Toole gasped. “Has someone been taken by a winged monkey on our Yellow Brick Road?”

“It’s damn well me,” Boycott grunted, regaining his breath. “I’ve gone ass over tip! Better than fair in Fitzwilliam Park when I were a nipper. But these slacks’ll need two spins in washer.”

O’Toole bent over double and let out a 100 per cent laugh.

Clough managed to discover Boycott’s hand flat in the soil and helped his old friend back to a vertical stance. While Boycott knocked earth from his coat, Clough edged forward and twisted his head to one side as a Labrador might when hearing a whistle. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was a swishing nearby. Was it the swaying of branches? “This way,” Clough urged, gesturing his compatriots forward. The foursome upped their pace. With every stomp, the fog grew less dense and with eyes fully accustomed to the dark, Clough could make out the shape of trunks. “It’s a forest!” Clough called to Boycott.

“Something you’ve a great deal of experience with,” Boycott called back. “I still say we keep going in a straight line. That was the plan and when you make a plan, it’s best to stick wi’ it and see it through. So we go through these trees and see where it takes us. Might be a woodcutter’s ’ut where we can get some rest and shelter.”

“My word,” O’Toole said with genuine surprise. “It’s an enchanted arboretum. But listen. I’m 51 and until last Friday, I smoked in the narrow hinterland between heavy and industrial. I have now stopped. Doctor’s orders. My heart might be hewn from Leeds rock but I’ll be honest and tell you that at this point, my legs are like a schoolboy’s dish of strawberry jelly. You men keep going and I’ll catch you up. If we’re walking in a straight line, our fates will remain exactly the same, only I’ll find out about it a little later. Do you get my gist?”

“I hope you’re not suggesting we leave you here, Mr O’Toole,” said Healy.

O’Toole rested a weary arm on Healy’s shoulder.

“Got it in one,” O’Toole replied. “Reach your hostelry with its roaring fire and superb range of beers and spirits, and, once you have imbibed and your poor, poor feet are bare and drying by the hearth, one of you can reach for the telephone on the table by the sofa and explain the cock up to Plod. They’ll send out a sergeant or two with, one would hope, a smashing great St Bernard. Make sure the cask has been filled to the maximum.”

“Not a chance, pet,” Healy replied. “Howay, we could be half a mile from a village green somewhere. All we need is a roof over wor heads but we’ll find something soon, I just know it. Right, come on, lads,” he chivvied. “Let’s get through these trees and see what’s on the other side. Like, if we find a train track, it’ll be useful. We’d follow it. Pete – we might still find a place in time for last orders.”

“Good man,” smiled O’Toole and exhaled. “Lead the way.”

  1. A forest away from Nottingham

To Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole and Tim Healy, the idea that woodland acres lacked footpaths worn out by generations of dog walkers or adventurous ramblers seemed implausible. Maybe in the Congo, yes, but Cumbria? Knitted between the ghostly trunks of silver birch were winding, thorny spider’s-web strands of undergrowth that tugged at trousers and snared sleeves. It was as if the ground had been abandoned for decades, like it was the scene of a massacre that had become overgrown and deliberately left to return to nature. Healy, in protective biking gear, took the forward position, blindly clearing a narrow channel through the outstretched barbed-wire brambles for the others to follow. This was the most effective mode of movement available to the troupe, but in his layers, Healy was building up a sweat.

“Hang on lads, it’s hard work this,” Healy panted. “Do you know what I could do with? A Mars or a Marathon. Pork pie, maybe. I’m famished.”

“We must keep moving forward,” O’Toole said. “It’s too cold for a night on the tiles. The Wooden Hill in Bedfordshire – that’s where we need to be. Not outdoors in bloody Cumbria in January.”

“It’s like being in a Tarzan film this,” remarked Boycott. “Or King Kong, where they’re ’acking through unchartered jungle, not knowin’ if they’re going to end up in a tribe’s cookin’ pot.”

King Kong,” O’Toole dolefully recalled and found himself looking out to the wings. “That gorgeous great monkey. The torment he endured! He didn’t mean that mistress any harm, he was simply minding her. Any sane person could see that! Why cage such an incredible creature? He was content in his dinosaur kingdom chomping big bunches of bananas, beating his mighty chest, looking for a dust-up with a brontosaurus that threatened to queer his pitch. No, what those captors did was unforgiveable. They chained him up so nosey New Yorkers could stand and ogle. No wonder he shimmied up the Empire State Building. It was the nearest thing he could find to a great bloody tree. Why did they have to terrify him so, blasting their machine-gun bullets from swarming biplanes? He swiped and swiped and swiped at those awful machines of death, putting up a terrific fight too, but it was all so unfair, so one-sided. I saw the film but vowed… never again.”

“I always found Lassie films a bit much,” Boycott admitted, sloshing through a small brook. “For a collie, it saw a lot of cruelty and there were usually way too much bother to deal with – but it tried. It were a dog for pity’s sake, but in a way, almost ’uman. If you were a farmer wi’ a dog like that ’un, you’d be made. It’d be like ’avin’ a partner rather than a workin’ animal. I turn them films over when they come on. There’s enough misery in world as it is, what wi’ Libyans, Argies and pit closures. It doesn’t do to get overly sentimental about pets. Give me a Carry On any day, or On The Buses.”

“Well, you’re in your own war film tonight, lads,” Clough said, cracking dry twigs and last autumn’s leaves beneath his feet. “Pity we can’t find two more lost souls and we could be the Dirty Dozen.”

“I wonder how the snooker’s gannin’?” Healy frowned. “If we get a shift on, we could still catch coverage on the box, I reckon.”

The further the gang edged into the wooded terrain, the less the unkemptness of the landscape made sense. This was a wilderness; unmanaged ground – almost a barrier. Britain wasn’t a vast nation and most of its countryside had to be used for money-making schemes, be it farming, tourism or forestry. So what was this?

Clough caught a thorny bramble on the cheek, which he batted away with his hand, but not before it had drawn blood. He called to his companions, “You know, I have my players running through nettles in training by the City Ground cos it toughens them up and strengthens them mentally. And when they come out, I send them in again. But I wouldn’t send them in here! We must have missed a trail somewhere! We need machetes and scythes to make any headway. Or a bloody Sherman!”

“It’s slowing us up alright.” Healy noted. “We might need to make a den and camp out. See what the morning brings. There aren’t even any animals or birds here, like. No hootun’ owls or anything.”

“We’ve made a mistake here,” Clough growled. “Dropped a clanger. This isn’t working. We’re tiring ourselves out just to cover a couple of hundred bloody yards – and no bugger’ll find us in here for the next 100 years.”

“Straight line, Brian, we agreed,” Boycott reminded. “No point turning back now. We’ve a game plan and we should see it through.”

“I understand the rules, Geoffrey, but even Romans had to deviate from their direct roads when faced with an immovable object, like a big block of bloody granite,” said Clough. “It’s similar to that farm on the M62. Sometimes we can’t have things our own way and what you do is, you curve round it. For all we know, there’s a rambler’s trail running parallel to this straight line, so we should go back and walk round the perimeter of this wood, just for our peace of mind. Try and find an easier route.”

Clough found himself outvoted, which he seemed to take with good grace and an indifferent smile, but inside he was appalled. He wasn’t used to asking people to do things; normally he told them and they said “yes”. Healy began his human thrashing machine, pushing onwards, kicking, karate-chopping and forcing a trail through the endless jagged melange he faced.

“What a bloody mess,” Clough complained. “We should have stuck to the bloody road and taken our bloody chances.”

“You swear more when you get tired, Brian,” Boycott spoke.

“So bloody what?” Clough laughed. “I’ve hours left in me yet, pal. Most of the players I buy are bought after midnight. That’s when I’m at my best! It’s the witching hour, Geoffrey.”

O’Toole looked as if he’d aged 30 years during the evening. Exhausted, with bulging eyes and open-mouthed like an angler’s catch on a riverbank, he suddenly barked, “I’m coming out of this doctor-imposed booze retirement at the earliest opportunity. If that is in the next half hour, my companions, you will find me the most genial company and what’s more, I’ll stick a fair wodge of ackers behind the bar. Geoffrey, as a Yorkshireman you’ll appreciate such a gesture.”

Boycott pondered for a moment and then nodded. “I like a free drink like next man, Pete,” he said. “If our Hollywood friend is willin’ to fork out for a cup of Horlicks or two with maybe a bit of grub thrown in, I’d be ’appy as Larry. Although I can’t stand curry. It gives me shockin’ ’eartburn.”

“Don’t worry Geoffrey,” said O’Toole. “I’ll get you some cod and chips, with your favourite – red sauce.”

“That’d be my dream come true right now,” Boycott accepted. “Plenty of vinegar of course and ’andful of perfectly broadcast Saxa. Maybe pickled egg perched playfully on side of plate. Buttered bread, of course – white. Not wholemeal wi’ bits and stones in it.”

Healy stopped dead in his tracks and placed a gloved hand over his eyes, wondering how and why he’d decided to tag along with this rag-tag bunch of over-the-top showmen. But their fortunes were shortly to improve – while worsening in the long-term.

No more than five strenuous minutes had elapsed before the foolhardy foursome abruptly came to a halt. “I-I-I cannae believe it, man,” Healy blinked. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

O’Toole stepped forward, wheezing, catching his breath. “What have we here then?” He gazed upwards at brickwork 15-feet high as if he were admiring a masterpiece in the National Gallery. “My guess is…” and then he stopped for a moment lost in thought. “It couldn’t be…”

“What’s up, O’Toole?” Boycott enquired. “You think we’ve been caught in slips?”

“Caught in slips, perhaps,” O’Toole nodded, with a serious demeanour.

“Come on, we can get over this easy,” Clough said. “What we need is a bit of teamwork. I’ll give a leg up, provided you haven’t trod in dog shit, and if you, Peter, are up there first you can pull us all up after you.”

O’Toole flatly refused Clough’s linked hands. He’d need no assistance with this mini-cliff of jagged limestone blocks. O’Toole was a seasoned urban mountaineer, having scaled a multitude of drainpipes and window ledges in his time. He grabbed firm hold of a sharp projection and heaved himself upwards, scrabbling with slip-on shoes and nicotine-stained fingertips. With his last ounce of energy, O’Toole was able to place his chin and knee on the flat summit and inch his body up until he was laid horizontally, breathing deeply. Scanning the immediate vicinity, he noticed strands of rusty barbed wire hanging helplessly around him.

Clough followed, huffing and blowing, but determined to reach the summit of the wall with as little fuss as possible. His smiling face appeared in front of O’Toole’s: “Eh, give us a kiss!” he said.

Boycott, with heavy kit bag linked over a shoulder, complained with each movement of his hands and feet: “Get a shift on, mister,” he ordered himself. “Don’t you show me up, you lethargic bugger!” he continued. A slip almost sent the veteran sportsman hurtling down the wall, but Clough’s hand grabbed Boycott’s wrist. “Good catch, that man!” Boycott commended, regaining his footing. “Have you ever considered a career in crickeeet?”

Healy took up the rear, lightweight rucksack neatly spread across his back, showing a Spider-Man like ability as he scaled the craggy surface, feeling for crevices to gain purchase until at last he saw three faces staring back at him out of the darkness. “Did you miss me, bonny lads?”

“If we’re breaking into Slade Prison,” Clough spoke, holding a lifeless string of barbed wire in his hand, “I’ll manage the football team.”

“I’ll be your groundsman,” Boycott added peering into the black fog. “But to play a match you need to see goalposts from ’alfway line – so there’ll be no games played this evenin’, Bri.”

“I wouldn’t mind breaking in to a prison tonight, I can tell ya,” Healy smirked. “Anywhere with a roof, eh? I’m sure ‘Genial’ Grouty will be able to procure us a bottle of something strong for a reasonable price.”

“Mr Barrowclough!” Clough called into the darkness through cupped palms. “Get some glasses ready! We’re coming in!”

  1. Hangingbrow Hall

Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole and Tim Healy were perched like four naughty schoolboys on a scrumping expedition, legs dangling from their lofty position at the ridge of a 15-foot-high limestone-block wall. It was a solid structure, undoubtedly centuries old and a good five-feet thick. Healy peered forward into the grounds of what, for him, would ideally be a stately home or National Trust property. A dry level surface and some much-needed kip were surely just moments away, even if rest must come in stables or a barn.

O’Toole’s mind was a tightly packed box of significant questions. There was a puzzling mix of thrill and fear that he hadn’t felt since the infamous production of Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1980, which had the disastrous result of having the audience rolling around in the aisles. Hellraising was one thing – but what if the evening was drawing them to a sinkhole of souls, an exhibition centre of horrors that had been shrouded in rumour and hearsay since the war? If this was, indeed, the perimeter of Hangingbrow Hall, what lay ahead? Could he possibly have found the place? Did he give any weight to the supernatural stories he’d read about it? Of course not – it was poppycock! Well, it was too late to turn back now, O’Toole reasoned. Fate had decreed that this curious collection of thrown-together celebrities should face adversity as one.

Rather than leap from altitude and risk a sprained ankle, it was decided that a careful descent of the wall should be implemented. Healy, who by now had become the foursome’s de facto miner’s canary, began his return to earth with hands gripping the top of the brickwork. But unable to find a divot for his biking boots, he suddenly declared, “I’m gonna jump, lads!” He pushed away from the limestone and thudded to the ground. Healy’s training in the Parachute Regiment Territorials in the Seventies remained firm in his mind and he performed a professional Paras roll once he’d hit the grass to cushion the fall.

“It’s a bit farther than you think!” Healy shouted, getting to his feet. “But it’s all soft grass doon here! Just buckle when ya land! Absorb the impact, Orkee?”

A sudden hand on Healy’s shoulder made him leap with alarm. He spun round, ready to launch a firm elbow into a stranger’s cheek.

“Eh, it’s me!” Clough calmed. “I jumped at the same time as you. No use hanging about, is there?”

“Christ!” said Healy. “You wanna be careful doing stuff like that, man, Brian! We’re all on a heightened state of tension, y’knaa.”

Boycott and O’Toole disregarded Healy’s solid advice, not trusting their legs to take a rough landing.

“We’re takin’ scenic route!” Boycott called down.

“Just a pity we can’t see anything,” O’Toole ruefully added.

“Come on, Pete, no time for dilly-dallyin’,” Boycott replied.

Inch by inch, they clambered down until their toes were met by eager-to-assist hands.

Coarse tufts of hardy grass and spindly rushes proved far easier to traverse than thorny strands and hidden rattling streams. With the tangled forest behind them, fog once again closed in around these hunched figures, giving a now-familiar eeriness to their adventure. Healy was apprehensive but was determined to press on. Clough and Boycott, who lived their lives largely in the present, didn’t give the matter much thought. O’Tooles was simply trying to keep up with the pace.

“They could do wi’ getting’ a Qualcast through here,” Boycott noted as they strode a shallow incline. “I reckon we’re in some sort of overgrown garden that once would have been decorous and picturesque, like Peasholm Park in Scarborough. What a place that is! Naval battles wi’ model ships are mesemerisin’.”

“If there’s a house nearby and the squire’s in, we’re in luck,” spoke Healy, “but if the squire’s not home, we’ll break in and pay for the damage. Either way, as far as I can see, we win.”

O’Toole butted in: “Don’t be so quick to think we’ve found salvation here, gentleman, for I strongly fear this is the dotty lodge I’ve been hunting for.”

“What, ’Itler’s ’ouse?” said Boycott. “That ’aunted one you were rattlin’ on abart earlier?”

“’Itler’s ’aunted ’ouse, precisely, Mr Boycott,” answered O’Toole. “We should proceed with caution.”

“Brian, what do you reckon?” Boycott squirmed.

“Give over,” Clough threw back. “You don’t believe any of that claptrap, do you? There’s no such thing as ghosts! Bloody white sheets with black eyes and a big gob – come off it! You watch too much Scooby-bloody-Doo you do. It’s me you want to be frightened of! Now let’s find this rich bugger’s drinks cabinet and get slumped in front of the fire. Lads, I have a thirst on.”

Just then, a gap in the drifting fog and a brief flash of dazzling moonlight brought the surrounding area into alarming clarity. O’Toole gazed in dread at the nearby awkward shape of a lone twisted tree. “Good God,” he shrieked. “How can something organic have grown to be so deformed? Was it shattered by lightning strike?”

Whatever species the tree had once been, it now looked to have a sharp, crocodile-like head, jaws wide open, as if it was screaming upwards towards the sky having just crawled out of the earth and taken its first breath. A wide trunk made it appear like a strong, squat creature, while the few stumpy branches that had once grown from the cruelly curving torso resembled arms with long finger branches set in a position that seemed to suggest it had been frozen mid-movement.

“It’s Devil’s totem pole,” Boycott coldly announced.

Clough glanced across at Boycott with disbelief. “Looks more like Don Revie to me.”

 “It’s grotesque!” O’Toole commented. “You could almost imagine that it could move abart of its own accord.”

“It must have took some pruning, I’ll give you that,” Healy said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Dracula lives nearby,” Boycott gulped, “or a demented loony. Maybe I will take a drink wi’ you fellas after all. You know, a nightcap. A shandy, perhaps.”

“Listen to yourselves,” Clough berated, “telling each other your fairy stories. It’s an elm tree, a dead elm tree, like half the bloody elm trees in this country. It should have been brought down and burnt years ago. If the owner of this place has got a chainsaw, we’ll have a go at it in the morning and chop it into logs as a mark of our gratitude for their hospitality.”

Beyond the freakish reptilian silhouette, the outline of a large building was spotted by Healy. He pointed towards it: “There we are lads, home, sweet home. With a bit of luck we’ll catch the end of the snooker on Tyne Tees. That Steve Davis, eh, what a canny lad. The Ginger Magician!”

“I think it’ll more likely to be Granada or Border in this neck of woods,” Boycott corrected. “Did you check local TV listings before you set off?”

“Well, to be honest with you, Geoff, pal, I wasn’t expecting to end up spread-eagle over the boot of your car on a Cumbrian back road,” replied Healy. “Otherwise I’d have had a gander at the TV Times before setting off.”

“Look, it has crenellations, like a knight’s castle,” O’Toole commented. “The ivy on the brickwork is heavy in places. It’s not been maintained, that’s for sure.”

Bright strands of guiding silver moonlight shut off as if a switch had been tapped by a higher being and by the time Clough, Boycott, O’Toole and Healy had reached the exterior brickwork of the mysterious property, total darkness had once again joined forces with 13.5-tog fog.

The grand house, once reached, was seen to be a formidable structure of thick sandstone blocks and castellated edges with defence in mind. Being so close to Scotland, the building would no doubt have seen a lively history. In a recess, there could be seen a small three-panelled window, with glass still perfectly intact but no detectable lighting from within. Hung behind the glazing was a once-grand, ragged set of velvet curtains, with the pale lining facing outwards. Up close, the ancient blocks had a mottled effect, a random pattern of pink and yellow rectangles that merely appeared dark and pale grey in the monochrome gloom.

It became apparent that the hall was made up of a set of different-sized cuboids loosely joined together without much thought for symmetry. A central tower, two floors higher than the rest of the building, was festooned with small, irregularly positioned windows and battlements. It corresponded with a rough line drawing that O’Toole had seen during his years of research about Hitler’s British invasion plans. In his heart, he knew he’d reached the grounds of that macabre box of tricks that was so revered by the Führer and his schweinhund cronies.

Navigating the perimeter of the property, the foursome found themselves on a small stretch of crunchy gravel that was interwoven with established weeds and overgrown grass. Unusually, there didn’t seem to be a roadway leading away from the house, but with no clear view into the near distance, it was difficult to judge if there was, or had been, any connection with the outside world. They approached an ornate arch-shaped low-slung entrance and noticed that the solid wooden door was badly flaking its black paint.

“I think we can speculate that our reivers lord, landowner and historical sheep thief is away on business,” O’Toole concluded. “He’s told the milkman he’ll be away until further notice and when he returns, he’d be grateful of a bag or two of new potatoes. So we go down the criminal route and force entry because we’re not getting through that bloody great door in a hurry. A tinkle of glass will suit our needs admirably this evening. Tim Healy, your leather-gloved fingers and a fair-sized pebble should be ample for our task. It’s time we bid auf wiedersehen to a pane or two. Carefully does it now. We need no injuries.”

Healy’s eyes danced sideways in the direction of Clough and Boycott, then he squinted and screwed his mouth. “If this ruins the leather, I want compensation,” he affirmed. “Come on, oot tha way, let me smash this bit of glass – but if there’s a drink’s cabinet, I’m first in line, right?”

 Healy located a hand-sized rock and peered through the dirt-encrusted, leaded window.

Tissssh! And the glass disappeared into the darkened room.

Healy found the hand-locking fastener on the frame and quickly had the window hanging wide open. He was turning to update his comrades when his blood turned cold at the sound of footsteps slowly crackling the gravel from behind…

“Halt! Who goes there?” an angry voice called. “Ve haff vays of making you talk, Tommy!”

Near heart attacks were suffered in unison as two tall figures approached out of the shrouds of fog, now strangely backlit by moonlight.

 “I thought as much,” O’Toole called out, “You Nazi swines! The place is probably riddled with ’em and has been since 1945! We’ve been snared like rabbits!”

“On no, it’s the Erics!” Healy hooted. “Run for it!”

“Stop or ve’ll fire!” the German man called back.

Healy stopped dead in his tracks: “Is this the bit where ya ask us to put our hands up or something like that?”

“You’ll have to forgive my friend,” a well-spoken northern voice followed. “He’s from Prestwich, you know – not Peenemünde. He has a very developed sense of humour – caustic even. Are you the owners of this place?”

“Us? We reckoned you might be!” replied Boycott. “What’s going off?”

Neither O’Toole, Boycott, Clough or Healy recognised Tony Wilson, the co-founder of Factory Records, co-owner of Manchester’s recently opened Haçienda nightclub and occasional TV host. Nor could they have known that Mark E Smith was the frontman and lyrical mischief-maker of the highly alternative band The Fall. Angular indie music was not on their radar.

“Tell us, is this Hangingbrow Hall?” O’Toole enquired.

“It most certainly is,” Wilson replied. “It’s written above the door, look.”

“Then we could be in for an interesting night,” O’Toole grimly stated.

“Ahh, Stalag-on-the-Wold,” Healy added.

“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” Wilson queried, approaching the recent arrivals. “Why would a house in the middle of fucking nowhere not have a fucking driveway and not even a path? You wouldn’t want to be a paperboy round here.”

Frowning, with eyes bulging, Healy uttered, “Bit of an oversight, would you not say?”

O’Toole smiled without pleasure. He placed his hand on his chin and wondered. If the top-secret Gestapo paperwork concerning this creaking nest of iniquity were true then surely it was better to hotfoot it back the way they’d come than introduce themselves to Satan’s Aunt Sally. Of course, it could all be film-flam of the highest order – and most probably was.

“Well, we’re not gonna stay out here all night are we, lads?” Clough asked. “We’ll have to get in there otherwise we’ll bloody well freeze to death.”

“I ’ope they’ve hoovered up recently,” Boycott said. “I don’t like dusty ’ouses.”

With the darkness and drifting fog, Wilson could barely see the faces of the new arrivals but there was something in the voices that were familiar to him. His Cambridge-educated brain quickly placed voices to faces… It couldn’t be, could it?

“I thought for a moment that I was standing in the midst of some of the greatest artistes of stage, screen and sport that this country has ever produced,” Wilson ventured, “but it’s a strange night and the light up here, or rather lack of it, has a tendency to play tricks with the senses. Because the chances of Lawrence of fucking Arabia, the European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager, the cricket captain of that county at the wrong end of the Pennines, and the lead actor from last year’s most piquant TV offering featuring a gang of likeable Geordie labourers in Germany… well, the odds are against it. Would you agree, Mark?”

“But look Tone, it is them,” said Smith. “I knew straight away, of course.”

Wilson began shaking hands: “I’m Tony Wilson. This is Mark E Smith. We’re both from Salford – not Manchester, you understand. There is a difference. We’re what you might call lost.”

“Completely fucked might be a better way of puttin’ it,” Smith said.

“Things could be worse,” Clough noted. “Look there’s a big empty house right in front of us. And by the way, when you said ‘European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager’, that’s double European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager. Don’t forget. I won it twice – with Peter Taylor by my side.”

“And in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,” Healy corrected, “there are also workmen from Bristol, London and Wolverhampton. I just thought I’d make the point, like.”

It was at this point that Wilson noticed an old sign attached by bolts to the wall close to the front door. Using a handkerchief, Wilson was able to remove some of the decades-old grime and read the words aloud: “M.O.D. PROPERTY. KEEP OUT. THIS IS A PROHIBITED PLACE WITHIN THE MEANING OF THE OFFICIAL SECRETS ACT. UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS ENTERING THE AREA MAY BE… and the bottom bit is broken off.”

“Ohhh Christ, what now?” Boycott wailed. “This is turning into a right shonky do.”

After clearing away the remaining jagged shards of glass using a rock, Healy grabbed hold of the window ledge and eased himself into Hangingbrow Hall, with Clough and O’Toole helping push his legs through the aperture.

“That’s the tickeeet,” Boycott enthused.

Once inside, Healy ran his fingers along the lock of the main door and was surprised to discover a protruding key, which he turned. He then twisted the doorknob and pulled the heavy timber door inwards. A procession of smiling guests stepped across the threshold.

Healy led the group along an entrance hallway and opened the first interior door that he found and walked into what felt like a black void. “Has anyone got a lighter? It might help me to find a switch, like.”

“I’ve got some matches,” Smith responded. “England’s Glory.”

 “Well come on in, bonny lad – you’re the man of the moment!” Healy said.

“Ahh, a smoker, we’re in luck,” O’Toole smiled. “I’ll be through right behind you.”

  1. Foreign booze

Mark E Smith struck an England’s Glory match and a globe of dull yellow light emitted from the flame. Common-sense Tim Healy checked the wall and instantly located a Bakelite toggle switch. He flicked downwards and there came a dzzzz zzzzzz, as if the electricity wiring was waking from a long slumber, and after a pause the space became illuminated in a soft, understated glow.

“Wor mam and dad had light switches like that in Newcastle when I were a bairn,” Healy smiled. “It’s antique that, man!”

“I’ve put dimmers in at my ’ouse but I wish I ’adn’t bothered,” Geoff Boycott said with annoyance. “You spend ’alf night fiddlin’ wi’ knob cos it’s either too bright or too dark. And all you want to do is ’ave a proper sit down after takin’ Northants to cleaners. Floor lamp. That’s what me mam and dad ’ad. Real ’omely. Makes you want to read a nice book, which can only be a good thing.”

“Owners of this place must have been keeping up with the leccy bills, eh?” Healy spoke from the corner of his mouth.

“Curious, that,” Peter O’Toole nodded. “Perhaps the owner, having lost his fortune at the gee-gees, found himself on pancrack. With a small fund left from favourite aunt, Lady Docker, he can afford the utility bills but the cleaner has had to go.”

Smith struck another match in order to light a high-tar cigarette. “Before you ask, I’ve only got 14 snouts left,” he angrily explained, “so don’t mither me. Not enough to go around.”

Healy lifted his eyebrows in absolute amazement and found O’Toole and Clough performing similar facial expressions. Surely he could spare one!

In the centre of the grand home’s main hall hung the primary light source, a dangling brass and crystal-drop chandelier that was caked in cobwebs. Only three of the opulent fittings’ seven bulbs were operating but it was enough to give colour to the interior. The ceiling was a Spaghetti Junction of dust-covered strands running from chandelier to first-floor railings and back. Walls were oak-panelled, while a wide staircase led to timber balconies and, one assumed, bedrooms. The upper-level walkway was held in position by solid oak arches and sturdy props that disappeared into the masonry at 45-degree angles, and there were further arches upstairs as part of an overall gothic theme. Expertly carved balustrades stood to attention along the stairs and landing, while underfoot the parquet floor’s herringbone pattern may have once been a showpiece feature but was now covered in layers of dirt and filth. Most unusual though was a collection of oil paintings hanging on the walls positioned between small windows. The artwork largely depicted people and places from hundreds of years ago.

“These’d have been nabbed by now where I’m from,” Healy voiced. “Am I not the only one thinking how strange it is to have a ton of art in a derelict mansion?”

“You could swipe the lot if you could get a Transit van across miles of inaccessible moorland,” Wilson said.

“Aye, true enough,” Healy added, a little embarrassed. “In all the excitement, I’d almost forgotten that we’d risked life and limb to reach our holiday retreat. How did you find yourselves here, like?”

“Have you got a few hours to spare?” Wilson deadpanned. “Let’s fill in the details when we get settled in. And I’d suggest we tread carefully if this place has been closed off by the MOD. It might have been used for atomic experiments. Obviously I’m going for shock value here. The headline.”

For the first time in this extraordinary day, Healy had a moment to fully comprehend what a bizarre collection of personalities he’d unfathomably stumbled across. Earlier at the Granada studios he’d been in the company of Ralph McTell, Betty Slocombe, the one from The Liver Birds, Cato, Kenny Lynch and a smattering of Coronation Streetdenizens. Now it was like he was among Greek gods – a scene from Jason And The Argonauts.

He glanced across at Brian Clough, who was wearing a red padded jacket with an Adidas logo, flat cap and grey suit trousers. He looked like he’d taken part in a rugby union match, with broad brushstrokes of dried mud and grass across the fabric. The hugely successful football manager, forehead jutting, was staring intently at a painting that depicted a battle between various brightly dressed soldiers on horseback trading pistol fire in a life-or-death gallop across heath. But from Clough’s stance, he could easily have been waiting to head home a swinging cross in the Roker Park penalty area.

            Within cat-swinging distance stood Geoff Boycott, who was busy kicking clods of soil from his shoes and making himself generally more presentable. He was in a navy blue mac and light grey trousers, although both garments were now more a mix of cocoa, umber and taupe. Among the forestry shades, bright white skin could be seen in a tear in Boycott’s trouser material from knee to thigh. Occasionally, the edge of paisley-patterned boxer shorts appeared in the gap. Remarkably, Boycott still had his baker boy cap placed firmly on his head.

Deep in thought, lips mouthing silent words, Peter O’Toole was attempting to make sense of the location, searching for clues like a plain-clothed detective. His fair hair was neat and in a side parting. His beige waist-length sports jacket was adorned with slits and on his sleeve white stuffing had been caught, snagged and pulled. The garment would have to be binned if this adventure were ever completed. A flamboyant green and white neckerchief kept out the worst of the evening’s chill. He was also wearing chunky black cords that at least had given his legs some protection against Cumbria’s barbed flora. They were now in an earthy camouflage that was more pronounced at ankle level. However, for a man who’d stepped from a serious car accident hours previously, he looked in pretty good nick.

As for these new gadgies Tony Wilson and Mark E Smith, Healy knew nothing about them. And what was the “E” all about anyway? Literary pretensions, no doubt. To say they were in the music biz, they didn’t seem particularly Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow. They were like normal fellas. To Healy’s eyes, however, Wilson was dressed like a prat, although his mud-caked USA-bought high-top trainers, khaki combat trousers and trenchcoat strongly suggested he’d traipsed a similar problematic path to reach this peculiar setting. “…almost hit by a fucking train”, Healy overheard Wilson say to Smith.

The Fall frontman wore an unzipped casual grey jacket with black leather sleeves, which Healy thought must have cost a bob or two, over a turquoise cable-knit jumper that was ripped at the chest to reveal a white T-shirt underneath. His jeans were muddied in places and his lace-up shoes needed time to dry out, but his appearance made no allusions to a troubled journey.

“So we devise a plan, darlings,” Wilson said, rubbing his hands together for warmth, steamy breath trailing from his mouth. “You’ll notice a rather massive fireplace at the far end of this oversized, grotty room. It’s big enough to roast a hog. Getting a fire going will lift our spirits and we’ll think about a pig should the opportunity arrive. ‘What is genuine is proved in the fire, what is false we shall not miss in our ranks.’ But what did Engels know?”

“Bugger that, news reporter,” Smith responded. “We’re finding spirits first, the drinking variety. Then I’ll give you all the help in the world gettin’ a fire going. Lifting spirits comes second. You can’t be cock-a-hoop around the clock. How do you think they went on in the War? We can learn a lot from that generation. Drinks come first. Always have. If we have to, we can burn what little furniture we can lay our hands on and all them paintings.”

“You can’t do that!” Boycott exploded. “That’s what a yobbo would do. These are heirlooms, lad!”

“Obviously not that loved or that valuable, Yorkie!” Smith guffawed. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have been left here in this shithole.”

“Eh, shithouse, this shithole’s a mansion,” Clough cut in. “You don’t fill stately homes with crap. And at the end of the day, this is still someone’s property. We don’t touch a thing! Apart from their booze!”

“We should split up into groups, just like they do in scary films,” Wilson suggested. “We’ll be far more effective mapping this place and we’ll soon find out if it has a) a drinks cabinet, b) fuel and c) a copy of the Carlisle Evening News to get the fire started.”

“No, no, no, we keep together at all times,” O’Toole quickly responded. “Before we become too cosy and kick up our heels, I’ll need to give you and your fellow Lancastrian a few background details about this calamitous cauldron of bricks and mortar. All might not be as it seems and you should be aware of perils.”

As O’Toole expounded on supernatural small talk, Wilson found himself grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of being trapped in a haunted setting, and turned to Smith: “There you go, Mark – ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’. I’ve told you time and time again that The Fall should cover that wonderful track. R Dean Taylor – R for Richard. Perhaps the most underrated artist to have ever been involved with Motown and its various offshoots.”

“I know, I know, I know – it’s not a bad idea,” Smith nodded. “Holland-Dozier-Holland, yeah? Northern soul belter.”

“Never charted in America,” Wilson added. “They haven’t got a fucking clue over there. Not a fucking clue.”

“You know why northern soul happened?” Smith said. “Ballast.”

“Come again?” Wilson frowned.

“Ballast on ships,” Smith followed. “Yanks hated most pacey soul and America was making a lot of soul music in the Sixties. Boxes of the stuff were worth ten a penny. As you’ll know, Wilson, records weigh a fucking ton when they’re boxed up. The ships used them for ballast so they’d sit better in the water. And here’s the good bit. Ships arrive at Liverpool and Salford docks, and these records get stacked up on the quay as the boat’s being loaded and unloaded. You turn your back for five bloody minutes and the scallies’d swipe ’em all. The 7”s would be in the window of the nearest record shop within the hour. So all the fast soul music that them dumbfucks over there didn’t appreciate – not that I dislike Americans – ended up in the North-west. Nicked as soon as it arrived. No harm done and all for the greater good.”

“That’s enough, you two!” Clough announced, tapping his lips. “Save your history lessons for later. Right, gentlemen, if you’ll follow me.” He lifted his face and soon gave a very believable impression of is-he/isn’t-he leathery showbiz dancer Lionel Blair on mime programme Give Us A Clue, pressing his left index finger against his nose and using his right index finger to point the way.

Through a door and the six found themselves in a pitch-black space.

“I’ll do the honours,” Healy sniffed, and located a light switch. It worked, but the light was almost brown due to the build up of grime on the bulb.

There was a door to the left and Clough turned conspiratorially to his companions: “Let’s try in here, shall we?”

Clough pushed the door and it creaked waaaaaaaaaah.

“Lucan, we know you’re in there!” Smith called out and laughed.

Boycott tutted: “Eh, clever sod, you won’t be makin’ wisecracks if a massive evil glowin’ skull suddenly appears, will you? You need a course of thinkin’-on tablets.”

Manchester City-supporting Smith smiled: he’d just been told off by Geoff Boycott! They’d never believe him at The Ostrich tomorrow night. And Boycott, along with Wilson, was a Red, there was no way of getting away from that. Not great – he was outnumbered.

One by one they stepped inside.

“Allow me,” Healy smiled and flicked a light switch. “I’m getting good at this now, bonny lad.”

Bzzzz-zzzzzz and another chandelier, this time much smaller than the one in the main hall, fizzed into life. They entered a dusty, but fairly large living area that was sparsely furnished. A settee was covered in a dustsheet, indicating that whoever had left the home did so with an idea of preserving the objects inside. Closer to the window was an occasional table with an old-fashioned telephone on it.

“It’s like one of them that you see on All Creatures Great And Small,” Smith said, and he picked up the receiver. The line seemed dead apart from unrecognisable whispering, which Smith put down to some form of electrical interference. Smith played the part: “What’s that, Tricky Woo’s dropping flappy woof-woofs again? Then stop feedin’ it all them choice cuts from the butcher’s and put some aside for me and Mr Herriot’s next visit, you daft old battleaxe. He-he-heh! And give your gardener a raise…”

Smith’s expression soon changed to very interested toddler when Clough cheerfully announced, “Gentleman, the bar is open!”

Clough had skilfully jemmied open the locked doors of a curved walnut art deco D-shaped cabinet that resembled a small wardrobe. The bottom section held an impressive array of bottles of various shapes and sizes, while the upper tier was home to a collection of tumblers, flutes and wine glasses.

“Got to go!” said Smith and slammed the phone down.

“Look at escutcheon on that!” Boycott called out, tapping the fanciful keyhole.

O’Toole’s legs almost gave way as he fell into a fit of giggles that threatened to cut off his air supply. “Oh, mother!” he cried.

Clough lifted bottles from the cabinet and studied the labels like a librarian might with a new collection of reference books. “Never heard of half of these,” he said with a smile on his face. “Jägermeister – look at the Germanic writing on that, Geoffrey. Fernet-Branca… Prodotto in Italia. That’s a new one on me. Averna… Passione di Sicilia. All of it’s got a percentage on the label and most of it’s brown, which is a good sign, I suppose. Hang on, what’s this? Himbeergeist… That’s clear, look. Probably bloody lethal! Nice square bottle, mind.”

“I’ve had the honour of drinking a gallon or two of Averna,” O’Toole gleefully recalled. “La Gaffe, Hampstead. A novel eatery that, in a way, became my gaff. I lived a couple of doors away, you see, and it was the nearest place that sold this fantastic concoction they call al-co-hol. Averna is a herby sort of digestif, but as we haven’t got a digestive to nibble on, let’s wet our collective whistles with a nip of the colourless to begin with. By God we’ve earnt it.”

“Funny that it’s all German and Italian beverages,” Wilson noted, accepting a large glass from Clough’s outstretched hand. “It lends credence to the notion that Adolf Hitler intended to use this building for his own purposes once the Nazis had successfully conquered Britain. Plenty of booze, no spooks, so we’re up on the deal. Imagine living in a place like this. Hitler had his faults, but he had good taste in architecture. But it seems totally, totally implausible that a mansion in Cumbria could not only be empty, but cut off from civilisation. It’d make a good recording studio.”

“You never knaa what’s ganning on with the upper classes though, eh,” Healy said, then took a sip of his drink. “Oh aye, this is familiar. It’s schnapps! We drank this when w’woz in Germany filming Auf Wiedersehen. Although the Dusseldorf building site was actually at Elstree, would you believe? Back of the studio, like. They had to import German bricks to make it look realistic.”

“Is that so?” said Wilson. “If I’d have known, I’d have got New Order to shoot the Blue Monday video there. We could have had the band working on the site with you, building a wall. Opportunity missed. We’d have figured out the meaning later. That’s called praxis, you know. The video we eventually shot wasn’t half bad, though. Do you know, we sold more than half a million records.”

Blue Murder?” asked Healy.

Monday,” Wilson corrected. “It’s a drug reference.”

Boycott shook his head with irritation: Of course it is; then sipped from his glass and found himself pleasantly surprised. “It’s like peach juice and flames mixed into one,” he said, nodding approval.

Smith drained his glass and strode to the cabinet for a refill. “Be careful with this,” he warned. “I got fuckin’ wankered on this stuff in Reykjavik last summer. I thought someone had stolen me legs. It’s funny, in Iceland you can still see swastikas spraypainted on walls and they date from the War. It was kept quiet, but the Icelandics backed Nazi Germany. It’s why the Brits and Yanks invaded the place – to stop the Germans getting an invite. It would have played fuckin’ havoc with the Atlantic shipping.”

O’Toole shifted towards a wall to study a walnut art deco sideboard and moved a finger through the dust on its surface. He savoured a sip of Himbeergeist, allowing small glugs to depart down his throat from the reservoir he’d created in his mouth. He opened a sideboard door and found various items of crockery and boxes of paperwork. He picked up a German, English, Italian and French phrasebook dating from 1932 and read how to order a bespoke suit in each language.

Above the sideboard was a painting of a small island comprised of white rocks with four or five cypress trees enclosed within craggy cliffs. An oarsman was rowing towards the shore. His passenger was a standing figure dressed in a white robe. It was a serene scene, yet it filled O’Toole with dread.

“Ahh,” O’Toole spoke. “This is headline news. It’s one of a number of paintings titled ‘Die Toteninsel’ by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. ‘Isle Of The Dead’.

“‘I Love The Dead’?” remarked Boycott. “A bit grim.”

“‘Isle’, Geoffrey, ‘Isle,’” O’Toole huffily corrected. “It’s turn-of-the-century dreamlike twaddle. A certain A Hitler Esq was something of a fan of Arnie’s peculiar oeuvre, although almost every home in Berlin once had a print of his on their walls, next to a portrait of their beloved Führer. It’s ‘Crying Boy’ territory; ‘Wings Of Love’ – Woolworths exotica.”

“‘Wings Of Love’… what, that big swan?” Boycott roared. “It’s virtually pornographic, that painting. Sid Fielden on Committee’s got one up on his sittin’ room wall in Doncaster. I’ll tell you what, I couldn’t get out quick enough. It’s got this man and woman on it, and they’re not even wearin’ any smalls.”

With the thought of Boycott agog at the site of nudity in a South Yorkshire home, O’Toole needed three attempts to take up his story again. “Now… Now…. Now to my knowledge there are five versions of ‘Isle Of The Dead’ in various museums and galleries around the world,” he continued. “This could be an unknown sixth. The question is: Why is it here? There’s a stack of paperwork in this cupboard and I intend to go through some of it with another of those drinks to keep me company.”

“I’ll tell you what, I’m bloody famished,” Healy said. “We might have to go foraging in the morning, catch us a rabbit or something, before we head off, y’knaa. With a bit of luck, this fog will have lifted.”

“We used to live off rabbits when I were a lad,” Clough beamed, finishing off his double measure. “Free nosh! We’d need to set a trap and find some carrots or apples as bait. I said earlier that I’d make venison for this lot. Well, we might have to make do with Bugs Bunny instead, with a dandelion, lamb’s quarter and dockweed salad. Now, I don’t want you lot getting pissed. We need to get that fire going and dry our socks off. Then we’ll have a nightcap and I’ll tell you all a bedtime story. How does that sound? And do you know what, Geoffrey?”

“What’s that Brian?”

“I told you there was no such thing as ghosts!”

  1. Shredded Wheat bought in Wakefield

“Did you know you can make nettles into beer?” Brian Clough divulged, as a conversation concerning edible wild plants gained traction among the six marooned leviathans of British culture. Fortified with alcoholic curios from Central and Southern Europe, they walked in single file through a low-ceilinged dimly lit passageway like schoolchildren. Clough, unafraid of the dark, led the procession, with Mark E Smith, who kept an open mind about supernatural shenanigans and believed himself psychic, bringing up the rear. “It’s crackers, isn’t it?” Clough continued, lifting a finger to emphasise his point. “With a bit of yeast, lemons, a bag of sugar and some other ingredient that I can’t bloody remember, you can have bottles of beer within a week! And eh, it’s lovely! Bloody lovely! It doesn’t sting your mouth like you’d expect and it’s very refreshing on a hot day after you’ve been gardening. Now! There’s tons of nettles near our football ground. Tons! Obviously it’s not free booze in the strict sense because you’ve got to get your wife to buy you your sugar and lemons down at Fine Fair, but half your ingredients are growing by public bridleways!”

“Dandelions are edible,” Tony Wilson added. “Every bit of them – stem, flower, root, the lot. Full of vitamins. Not so cool on a Didsbury driveway. Ian Curtis detested dandelions. He was a fan of a neat lawn. But I would certainly consider eating a fucking dandelion now if I could get my hands on one.”

“Wet-beds?” Geoff Boycott cried. “That’s what they call ’em. White stuff in stem makes you lose control of your bladder in night. That’s a scientific fact datin’ back years. I’ll pass on your salad, thanks.”

“Genesis name-checked Fine Fair in one of their records,” Smith spoke. “‘Aisle Of Plenty’, ages ago, back in the Seventies. It’s probably the nearest that lot’ll ever get to Fall territory, reading out prices of Fairy Liquid and jelly. Good if it’s done properly.”

“Oh, very interestin’!” Boycott bellowed. “You’re not in youthie now, you know, comin’ out wi’ all sorts of nonsense!”

Smith stomped forwards to Boycott with a contorted face: “Boycott, you’re a balding bag of contradictions. Mr White Rose all the way, yet you’ve sold out your fellow Yorkshireman by supporting Fat Ron’s Reds. How did that work out, then? It makes no sense. It’s a geographical abomination.”

“Here we ’ave it… I take it you’re a Man City fan!” Boycott sneered. “I support Man United because I appreciate quality and decent application, simple as that. I idolised Denis Law. What a striker ’e was, a master of ’is craft. No sulkin’. A real trier.”

“Law, who sent you down to Second Division when he played for City!” Smith cackled. “Without trying! Little-dink back-heel. Fantastic! What a great day that was! Like winning FA Cup!”

“And look at face on ’im when ’e back-’eeled it into net!” Boycott shrieked. “Devastated! He didn’t run off cheerin’, did he? It were agony for ’im! Anyway, you’d not make much of a pundit, mister. You get relegated over course of a season, not a single game.”

“You ought to be supporting a local set-up like Barnsley or Leeds!” Smith responded. “Proper sides, them. Liverpool, they’re a proper side an’ all.”

 “Well, clever dick, I played for Leeds – you didn’t know that, did you?” Boycott rallied. “Only one appearance, for under-18s, I’ll grant you. Belle Vue, Doncaster. Guess who was alongside me in midfield? Bremner! So I weren’t all that bad! But me ’eart weren’t in soccer, it were in crickeet. I mean, you say you’re a pop star, but I’ve never ’eard of you! ’Ave you even been in ’it parade? I shouldn’t think so!”

“We topped the indie chart a while ago.” Smith bristled.

“Indian?” shook Boycott. “Well that counts for little!”

Tim Healy, nearing total exhaustion, eyes bulging with wrath, pushed himself between the belligerent batsman and defiant singer to divert a potential altercation: “You two, pack it up, man! We’re looking for something to burn here, right, and the sooner we’re back in that hall getting the fire ganning, getting warmed up, the happier we’ll all be. Quick nip of tha booze and we’ll be in dreamland in no time. So let’s cut all this crap out, eh, and get on with the basic job of surviving the night!”

“You get this invective with City fans,” Wilson smiled sullenly. “Study their history and you can understand it to a point. Most of them are from Wythenshawe.”

“Shut up you an’ all, right!” Healy scolded and pointed a digit in Wilson’s face.

“My esteemed acquaintances, we’ll wake up the dead at this rate,” Peter O’Toole chortled. Despite their grave predicament, he was rather enjoying the evening.

Another door and another ghastly creak: waaaaaaaah.

“I’ll do the honours, eh?” Healy sarcastically smiled and tapped a nearby wall to locate a light switch. Bingo! He flicked and, to his consternation, the space remained a black void.

“Looks like the bulb’s done a runner,” O’Toole commented.

“Mark Smith, man, we’re gonna need your matches again,” Healy called out.

“Well, I’ve not got many of these left either,” Smith complained. “We’ve got to be thinkin’ long-term, not waste everything willy-nilly.”

“Here we go, acting the goat again,” Boycott said. “You’re in a team now – start thinking what you can do for it, not what it can do for you!”

Swiiiiiish-shaarrr. The struck match’s yellow glow gave outline shapes to large items of furniture. There was a centrally placed long wooden table with drawers, tall cabinets against the walls and, bizarrely, the ruined remains of a bed’s iron headboard. Beyond were a good-sized cooking range and the silhouette of a large fireplace. Pots and pans were hung from rails, but there were various items of cutlery and smashed cups littered on the worksurfaces and floor. Smith winced, “Oooh yer ffff…” as the flame licked his finger ends and the dead match fell to the ground.

“Looks like the kitchen to me,” Clough stated. “And do you know what kitchens have?”

“Kettles?” wondered Boycott.

“Kettles? Candles!” Clough said. “So let’s get them bloody cupboard doors flung wide open and drawers hanging out, and we might get some light in here.”

“Eh Mark, you come wi’ me,” Healy beckoned. “Bring ya matches cos if this place is dry, and I can smell no damp here, there’ll be more matches somewhere, so you can have your last smokes all to yaself in peace – what do you say to that, eh?”

“If the odds are tasty, I’ll have a Lady Godiva on candles being near the sink, by the Brasso, grate polish and Mr Sheen,” O’Toole ventured.

Smith struck another match but to his dismay the flame extinguished the moment he and Healy moved forwards.

“I’m not doing that again,” Smith said. “Not wasting any more matches. It’s too draughty to bollocks about. So we’ll move together, linking arms like a blind Charles and Lady Di until we reach the sink. Then we’ll slap around to find cupboards and open a few doors. Let the bats fly out – ha-ha! Then I’ll strike a match. Got that, cocker?”

“Right you are, bonny lad,” Healy replied, taking hold of Smith’s elbow.

“And if I’m holding the match, it’ll be you has to go through the cupboards, alright?” Smith affirmed.

Healy sucked his lips then looked sideways at Smith: “Orkee, let’s just get on with it then. I’m gonna put my biker’s gloves on for this job though mind. You never know, under the sink could be rodent shit and all sorts. Don’t want to come down with diphtheria or the black death! Lead the way, your royal highness.”

Rough Riders, 4×4, you can trrrryyyy to stop ’em,” sang Smith. After some extended foot shuffling, they reached a sideboard, found the sink, felt the shape of taps and from there, lowered themselves into a crouching position to investigate nearby storage space.

“You give me light and I’ll see what I can find,” said Healy. “It’s darker here than down a bloody pit!”

Swiiiiiish-shaarrr. Another match was struck. Glorious flickering illumination arrived. Healy slowly opened a cupboard door to prevent a current of air that might kill their precious flame. Smith shielded the matchstick like it was a new-born kitten, and, using a cupped hand, gently moved the light forward.

“Hurry up, I’m getting’ cramp,” Smith warned.

Using an entire arm, Healy dragged a cupboard shelf’s entire contents in one sweep onto the stone floor. The match went dead. Smith lit another, and Healy cleared a lower shelf. The pair rapidly studied their booty with what was left of their light.

“Candles,” Healy laughed. “And look here, two boxes of kitchen matches!”

There came a cheer from the back of the room.

Smith struck another match and grinned while reading the labels. “He’s right enough. Price’s Candles in an old box. Not seen them for years. They’ll probably be made out of whale oil, ha-ha! And a big tin of Diamond Matches. There’ll be a hairy tarantula inside but worth the aggro, I suppose. It’s like being a bloody kid again with these packaging designs. The older generation were so much better at this sort of thing.”

Smith struck the last of his modern dry matches to get a candle started and passed it to Healy. Smith then carefully took a light from Healy’s candle and stood up, surveying the surroundings.

“Aggghhh, fuckin’ pins and needles,” Smith growled. “Urgggghhhh… Wait, wait, wait, wait… I’m OK now.”

Taking hold of more candles, Smith and Healy soon had the kitchen bathed in a flickering Victorian warmth. O’Toole, Clough, Boycott and Wilson gazed in dismay at the wrecked room around them and were startled to discover twisted cutlery lying on the worktops.

“Maybe Uri Geller pops in from time to time to practice here,” Wilson frowned and lifted a deformed spoon for the others to view. “Look at that. Bent at 90 degrees. There’s loads of them. ‘Nothing useless is truly beautiful’, as William Morris once said. Maybe I should have got Uri Geller in on the Haçienda opening night instead of Bernard Manning. The London crowd who’d come up on coaches would, I now think, have been more disposed towards a cutlery bending con artist. But Manning was right for the moment. He belongs to Manchester, and we’re here to create life moments, not just put on events to please Southerners.”

“He lasted 15 seconds,” Smith reminded.

“And waived his fee,” Wilson said.

“I was there and that was the best part of the night,” Smith added. “You’re best off not trying to think things out too much. Go for the immediate and the present, and then leave it for other daft bastards to figure out.”

“I were only talkin’ about Bernard Manning earlier,” Boycott proclaimed. “He’s brilliant. Me mother liked ’im, as do a generation of ’ard-workin’ people.”

“Bloody hell, we might not have such a bad night after all,” Smith tittered.

Clough, having taken a candle for a tour around the wrecked kitchen, opened a cupboard directly above a sideboard and smiled. He began removing tins as if he was filling a shopping basket. “Look at this bloody lot!” he called out. “Libby’s Red Alaska Sockeye Salmon… HP Baked Beans… St George Corned Mutton… Taistbest Casserole… Anchor Dripping… Walls Pork Sausages. And see this here – tinned cake!”

Healy arrived to view Clough’s historical unopened-can banquet. “You’re not thinking of trying out any of this nosh,” Healy frowned then widened his eyes. “These have not been touched since Vera Lynn was last on Top Of The Pops!”

“I’m sure I read somewhere that tinned food lasts indefinitely,” O’Toole recalled. “I’ve rarely been hungrier and the treacle pud would be a proper treat, but to come down with a dicky tum miles from brandy or a nursecake to wipe my feverish brow would be unthinkable.”

“It would be utter madness,” Wilson nodded. “Dandelions are one thing… these tins will have spoilt over 40 years. Saying that, I saw a documentary on BBC2 the other night about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and they came across tins of food in one of the shelters they’d used. I was nodding off – I’d had an argumentative day with New Order manager Rob Gretton – but I think they took a tin opener to it and had a few forkfuls of 75-year-old beef. Apparently, low-acidic food can last a long time. Canned meat, soup, peas. Freeze-dried canned food lasts longer. I’m usually up for experimentation but for the want of a square meal, I can hold out till tomorrow.”

“Is there no bleach under the sink?” Boycott asked.

“Why’s that, like?” Healy wondered.

“I’ll need to clean the loo before I use it,” Boycott stated.

A small pile of chopped logs was located by the kitchen fireplace, along with a scuttle that was full of dusty-topped coal and a bundle of kindling. These, along with the previously discovered bottles of European alcohol and a good selection of glassware were transported back through the dark passageways to the main hall.

“I’d suggest for now we piss in the fireplace,” O’Toole said. “No wandering off. We keep together at all times until we know whether this home is as deranged as Hitler imagined, or is merely derelict and ramshackle.”

Boycott was deeply troubled by this idea. “What if we need one of other?”

“Other of what?” O’Toole questioned, before the penny dropped. “Ah… well,” he smirked, “a bit of self-control might be the best action for now.”

“Self-control?” Boycott continued. “I eat Shredded Wheat every mornin’, like a lot of sportsmen do. I’m regular as clockwork.”

“So you’ll be needing the facilities available at sparrow’s fart,” O’Toole replied. “Do not fear. At first light, we’ll set out to map Hangingbrow Hall and I promise you, Geoffrey Boycott, you fine, fine Yorkshire cricketer, that we’ll find a shitter you can be proud of.”

“Well, I’m so busy in day that I’ve set meself up to go before bed,” Boycott sheepishly said. ‘About naaarr, actually.”

Even Clough, busy getting the fire going with the assistance of Mark E Smith, rolled his eyes at this. “Just hold it in Geoffrey,” Clough called across. “Mind over matter.”

“Well, I’ll try,” Boycott conceded. “I’ll tell you what, there’s a right draught from that window we broke earlier in ’allway. I think I’ll ’ave a look and try and board it up with somethin’. That’ll keep me mind wanderin’ from matters of unmentionable.”

“Have a shit through the gap in the window while you’re there,” Smith called from the fireplace, as assorted detritus and kindling accepted the flame from one of the ancient kitchen matches. ‘Wipe your arse with the curtain. That’s what I’d do – ha-ha!”

Boycott, who was rummaging through the contents of his kitbag to find his contact lens solution, tutted, then said, “You dirty Arab! There’s too much of this sort of conversation nowadays.”

“You brought it up!” Smith reminded.

Wilson noticed that Boycott was having difficulty removing his contact lenses beneath the poor light of the chandelier and brought forward a candle on a saucer. “Does this help?”

“Much appreciated Tony,” Boycott thanked. “They’re tricky blighters are contact lenses. They’re a real ’andicap. I bloody loathe them, to be honest. But I dislike spectacles even more!”

“So what are you going to board the window up with?” Wilson enquired.

“I’ve got a big box of Shredded Wheat in my ’oldall that I picked up in Wakefield this morning before fog came down,” Boycott stated matter-of-factly. “I bought some carpet tape an’ all. I’ll use card from cereals box to fit gap and tape it in.”

Healy swung round with a furious face. “You’ve got what?”

Wilson appeared confused and almost dropped his candle: “Did you say a box of Shreddies?”

“Shredded Wheat,” Boycott corrected.

“Shredded Wheat, my apology,” Wilson said. “Is the box full, empty…?”

“I said I bought it in Wakefield this mornin’. Has everyone got cloth ears?”

A cacophony of swearwords was hurled at Boycott from many directions.

“Well, I din’t think anyone would want Shredded Wheat wi’out any milk!” Boycott defended. “They’re too dry by ’alf!”

 Another barrage of abuse followed, which rapidly turned into disbelief and finally roars of laughter.

Clough walked from the fireplace, which was already beginning to provide some warmth to the hall, and handed out glass tumblers. Filling each receptacle with a good few fingers of peach schnapps, he declared. “Gentleman, I propose a toast: to Shredded Wheat!”


  1. War and peace

Mark E Smith placed two more logs on the crackling fire and crunched into his haystack of Shredded Wheat. With hunger, the nuance of flavour packed within the golden strands was startling. Of course, Smith had once bought a box of Shredded Wheat at the start of a fitness phase – he’d cut out whisky for a while, moved onto red wine – but had dismissed the cereal as tasteless knitting wool, even when liberally sprinkled with sugar and using cream from the top of the milk bottle. He took a sip of Averna and pulled up the dusty curtain that he was using as a blanket. Momentarily mesmerised by the flames and face warmth, he thought about his socialite American wife and fellow Fall band member Brix sleeping off her hangover in a warm, clean-ish Glasgow hotel, and of Rob, his roadie pal, who he assumed must be hitching back to Manchester following their unfathomable car incident. It seemed almost a dream.

“How much wood have wa left?” Tim Healy enquired.

“Not much,” Smith answered. “Another hour. Chimney needs sweeping. It’s not drawing proper.”

“We should’ve ’ad a gander upstairs,” Geoff Boycott said. “There’d ’ave been beds or mattresses for us to sleep on. Brian’s right, this ghost yarn is plain dotty. I’m not sayin’ we would’ve all been sprawled out in our own rooms ringin’ down for room service, but we could’ve found somethin’ to keep us off this floor. There’s still a right draught from somewhere.”

“The odds of us copping a spook are lengthening by the minute,” Peter O’Toole admitted with a degree of disappointment.

“Well, be my guest if you want to go for a snoop around but I’m done in, lads,” said Healy. “My arse is staying right here in front of this warm fire, draughty floor or not. I’d suggest getting a bit of kip and taking a sweep of the premises when it’s light.”

“We should bugger off before too long in the morning,” Brian Clough suggested, cracking the Jägermeister. “Forget wasting energy on a grand tour. Get back on the trail and find civilisation. This Shredded Wheat won’t last all that long. Pity about that haul of cans in the kitchen, mind. If it was 1964 and not 1984, I’d have been tempted to find a tin opener.”

“What about this rabbit casserole you promised us, Brian?” asked Boycott.

“Aye, but we need bait!” laughed Clough. “Something tastier than grass. Do rabbits eat Shredded Wheat?”

O’Toole drained his Averna. That’s enough for tonight. He studied the dustsheet he’d been handed and flapped it to cover his stockinged feet. The thin material would provide little warmth, but he’d be buggered if he’d complain. There will be times like this in life, he thought. And this was no new territory. He’d slept rough on a number of occasions when he first arrived in London from Leeds with good pal O’Liver, who he’d met while working as a reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post all those years ago. Park benches, deckchairs, and, when nothing else was available, the cold hard ground.

O’Toole produced his reading glasses from an inside pocket and started to rifle through a fistful of paperwork he’d discovered in the nearby living room. For a time, there was little of interest other than grocery bills dating from the War, and, by the look of the lists, much was spent on gardening and maintenance.

Then he came across a scrappy collection of yellowed foolscap titled Westküste: Militäergeographische Angaben über England 1943. Interesting, thought O’Toole. West Coast: Military Geographic Information About England. But 1943? He’d always been under the assumption that the idea of conquering Britain had been scuppered in September 1940 following the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air supremacy over the RAF. And once North Africa had been lost and the debacle at Stalingrad, the seesaw had swung in favour of the Allies and the Hun was on the back foot.

The gist was a fanciful strike at Cumbria, seizing Carlisle and, what the document called, “die weiche Schultern von Schottland” or “soft shoulders of Scotland”. O’Toole could scarcely believe what he was reading. Scanning rapidly with his semi-understanding of German, O’Toole soon realised that the radical plan involved a secondary invasion at Stranraer, prior to a two-pronged push upwards and east across to Edinburgh, cutting off the Highlands, taking control of ports and runways, and eventually knocking out the Royal Navy’s chief naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. The reason, O’Toole presumed, was to keep Norway firmly in German hands and continue its heavy water production plants and, by extension, its atomic weapons programme.

To O’Toole’s horror, part of the dastardly vision was also to take by force Dublin and a stretch of the Irish east coast, including its ports at Drogheda, Greenore and, to the south, Waterford. Was the idea that Ireland would simply roll over and accept its lot? It was difficult to ascertain.

The Isle of Man would be shown no mercy, hammered by the Kriegsmarine and, in smoking ruins, would become a de facto aircraft carrier, rather like Malta for the British in the Mediterranean. From there, Scotland was to come under the black cloak of German rule. Furthermore, the document stated that a number of Scottish landowners were in favour of breaking from the Union and the Auld Enemy – in effect, welcoming the Germans with open arms. And wouldn’t those coalfields be a rich prize to the Nazi cause?

The whole show was pure bluster from a drug-addled Adolf; for a start, it would have taken huge amounts of materiel from the Eastern front.

O’Toole thumbed through pages until the words “Hangingbrow Hall” smashed his eyeballs like arrows from Robin Hood’s bow. Now, what have we here? O’Toole shifted to ascertain better light from the grimly webbed chandelier. The page had an English translation attached to a page with a tarnished paperclip.

“Hangingbrow Hall”, Borders, England: to be secured for immediate research. Potential “Brunnen” – “Well”. 1937, British Government sealed area 4sq kms due to “unaccountable disturbances”, pending further investigation. Site of interest to Führer, Reichsführer-SS and Ahnenerbe to assist with rapid conclusion of War. Area lightly defended. Forward party of Brandenburger special forces to secure building and surrounding area prior to arrival of “Invasion Force”. Hangingbrow Hall home to collector of antiquities, Gerhard Twisteaux, born Zurich, 1888. Collection includes previously unrecorded version “The Germania”, thought to be original from 98AD, by Roman historian Tacitus. Much valued by Reich. Evidence also suggests “Receiver”, age unknown, connected to Celtic mythology, said to restore life and/or grant eternal life, is at location. Twisteaux much interest in neo-pagan ideas and occult. Corresponded frequently with Reichsführer-SS 1933-36. Twisteaux further invited Germany’s scientific assistance. NOTE: G. Twisteaux possible links to German pre-history.

“Unaccountable disturbances”, wondered O’Toole, removing his glasses. What the devil does that mean?

Tony Wilson approached and crouched by O’Toole’s side, glass in hand, having accepted a Jägermeister from Clough: “Strong stuff this,” he admitted to O’Toole. “Anything of interest?”

“Can you read German?” O’Toole replied.

“Top of the year, De La Salle Grammar,” Wilson proudly proclaimed. “English too, come to think of it. I’m a quarter German, you know. I think that means I’m eligible to play football for West Germany if the call ever came. ‘Kaltz to Hrubesch… to Rummenigge, sells the dummy… to Wilson, the No.13, and Wilson scores!’ Doesn’t sound right, does it? Nice shirts though.”

O’Toole, disregarding the faux commentary, passed Wilson the documents, pointing to specific places of interest. Wilson rapidly digested the information but questioned the logic.

“You’re shaking your head,” O’Toole noticed.

“Let’s say Hanginbrow Hall had some interest to Adolf Hitler,” Wilson pointed out. “History tells us that the invasion of Cumbria and Scotland never happened. You seem pretty certain that Hitler himself wanted to check out its supernatural properties – real or not. We’re convinced the place is no more threatening than Play School on BBC2 at half-past three, and as for Humpty, Jemima and Big Ted, they’ve fucked off to God knows where. Things don’t add up. It’s cut off from society, which has to be unique unless it was some sort of a cult heavily influenced by Tom and Barbara Good. Always more of a Margo person myself. As for finding this document here – you’d have thought it would be in the Imperial War Museum archives. That’s if it’s genuine.”

“Could’ve been an oversight,” O’Toole ventured. “It was among the shopping receipts. Looks like the building was abandoned with some speed. Adolf Hitler was a poor military tactician. A blast on the amphetamines and he’d have been strutting in front of his maps concocting all sorts of over-the-top schemes. He was, in all possibility, a raging drug addict even by France, 1940. His interest in German mythology was deep. Crackpots by the pound, the Nazi top brass was obsessed with the notion that Germans were either from Atlantis or had a common ancestor called Tuisto – a god or demi-god, and the fourth son of Noah. They had an idea that the planet used to be jam-packed with giants and dwarfs, and that when these creatures were living out their fairy story existences 250,000 years ago, we had three suns.”

“And Noah divided the world between his sons,” Wilson recalled. “But I thought he had three kids.”

“Some believe four, some five,” said O’Toole. “Tuisto was the fourth and given Scythia and Germany to rule from scratch. The Nazis were selective historians.”

“I read somewhere that Hitler had a sense of humour,” Wilson smiled, putting down the papers, “He once told the story that Mrs Göring found her husband waving a baton at his underwear laid out on the bed. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked. ‘I’m promoting my underwear to overwear!’”

O’Toole let out a tired laugh. “Sleep calls, I believe,” he said, and shook hands warmly with Wilson. ‘And I say to you who have seen war like a wasp. Worse things shall be than have been. But they shall yet be better.’”

“Who was that?” Wilson asked.

“Would you believe, I can’t remember.”

“A good one, though,” Wilson nodded. “This is my favourite – and it’s pertinent for our bollocks of a situation. ‘It’s my belief that history is a wheel. “Inconsistency is my very essence,” says the wheel. “Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you are plunged back down into the depths.” The good times pass away but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.’ A starter for ten, who was that?”

O’Toole thought, then said. “Confucius?”

            “It’s a good answer, but not the right answer,” Wilson smiled. “You’re only a thousand years out. Consolation of Philosophy; Boethius. Roman guy. He wrote these words while locked up, right at the end of the Empire. Executed for treason a year later.”

O’Toole placed his cadaverous head on the edge of a tattered rug. “Ah, the dogshelf,” he spoke. “It’s been some time.”

Wilson looked across at Clough and Smith by the hearth and caught part of their conversation. “…but we beat you 2 bloody 1 at Maine Road!” Clough voiced.

Boycott was already fast asleep propped up against the wall, head slumped forwards, arms twitching as he faced the Aussies at Headingley.

Wilson lay himself horizontally and placed his head on the back of his hand. He longed to be in Manchester with his new love. “Tomorrow,” he muttered, “tomorrow.”

  1. The trip to the toilet

The crack of a knee and the gentle swish of clothing material brought Tim Healy out of his semi-snooze. Opening an eye, he searched the room as if looking through a periscope and in the stark light of the wood-panelled hall he made out the outline of a hunched figure. Healy raised himself onto his elbows and shout-whispered, “Who’s that?”

The voice spoke back calmly, “Never you mind.”

Healy squinted and screwed up his mouth. “What are you doing, like?”

“Lavatory,” came the reply. “I can’t wait longer.” And Geoff Boycott picked up one of the two flickering candles from the mantelpiece.

“You cannae go on your own, man,” Healy hissed.

“Watch me,” came the gruff West Yorkshire response. “I’ll end up on a kidney dialysis machine at this rate.”

“Do you remember where it is?”

“Other side of kitchen,” said Boycott.

“Awwww, hold ya horses, I’ll come wi’ ya,” Healy uttered, and rose to his feet, bike leathers creaking.

“No, no, no,” Boycott responded, placing his baker-boy cap on his head. “I don’t need a partner for a trip to conveniences.”

“Well, I could probably do wi’ a lash meself,” Healy stated matter-of-factly and climbed out of his leathers to reveal a navy V-neck jumper over a checked white shirt and jeans – all spotlessly clean. He jammed his feet back into his muddied biker boots. “What’ll you do for bog roll?”

“I’ve got ’anky,” Boycott replied. “Best I can manage in circumstances.”

If this was a supernatural film at the Odeon or ABC in the mid-Eighties, Boycott and Healy’s candle-lit creep through whining doors and dank passageways would have been accompanied by spooky incidental music courtesy of a bassoon. The yellow glow from the candle wick danced and swayed, animating the corridors as they advanced. Some electric lighting worked, most didn’t. Healy stopped for a moment to look through a gap in a set of curtains but any view of undulating Cumbrian fields remained obfuscated by dark swirls of brown-grey fog.

“Never known weather like this, have you?” Healy whispered. “I’ve heard of peasoupers but this is like being in the tin.”

“I’ll give an answer once deed’s been done, sonny Jim,” Boycott replied. “I can’t think of owt else.”

“When wa saw the bog earlier… did it have any water in it?” Healy enquired.

“How do arrr know?” Boycott said with exasperation. “And what ’appens in there is between me and Armitage Shanks. There’s no need for Richie Benaud to commentate.”

Through another door and the unlikely pair found themselves close to the kitchen. Healy slapped the corridor’s wall switch and the light bulb made an unnerving bat-like squeak, became very bright and then died. Healy flicked the switch on and off without success.

Eventually, ten feet further on from the kitchen entrance, they came across a door they had opened earlier. On it was a sign, “Toilet”, hanging at an awkward angle from a single screw. It represented the furthest extent of the group’s original investigation. Using candlelight, Boycott and Healy could see that the tunnel-like corridor continued to a T-junction and on into unchartered territory.

Healy turned to Boycott: “Me first.”

“What!?” erupted Boycott.

“The lash, you remember?” Healy replied with raised voice, then quietened to near-silence. “It makes sense for me to go before you.”

“Be damn-well quick then!” Boycott danced.

“I’ll need the candle, man,” Healy smiled. “I wouldn’t want to piss all over the floor, y’knaa, and the seat. It’ll just be a box of black in there, like being in a cube of outer space.”

Boycott thrust the candle into Healy’s hand.

“Not be long,” Healy spoke, hiding a smile. “I’ll try not to be anyway…”

The door closed and the lock clicked. For Boycott out in the corridor there was complete nothingness. He was a child whose eyes had been covered prior to a pin-the-tail competition, or worse he was a miner trapped underground. Then came a faint sound from the toilet… blololololololopblololopblop.

Moments later Healy re-emerged. “Well, you’ll never guess, there’s water in the bottom of the pan,” he said excitedly. “Black water! And there’s toilet roll on a wall holder. Last person to have wiped their arse in there would have been at war with the Erics!”

“Imagine that,” Boycott grimaced in the dark. “Now, if this is agreeable to you, look after my ’at and give me candle. Wait ’ere. And mind you don’t talk to any strangers.”

Boycott gave the slightest of grins and took hold of the candle. In the corridor, inky totality arrived in sections as the door closed. Healy’s eyes widened, but he didn’t look around, not yet. He simply gazed in the direction of the door, resembling a naughty schoolboy outside the headmaster’s office. It was cold and time stood still.

“Eh, you’re not out there listenin’ are you?” Boycott cried. “Can’t a man ’ave a bit of peace?”

Healy grinned at the absurdity of the situation and took a step back. “I’ll go and get meself a newspaper!” he spoke towards the lock.

He looked to his side. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, up at the T-junction there appeared to be minimal grey light from, possibly, a curtain-less window that was out of sight. He thought: Shall I close my eyes until Geoff Boycott has had a shit? He bit his lower lip, judging the idea. Come on Geoff, man! Healy shook his head.

To his surprise, the toilet door pulled open a fraction and tepid yellow light glowed from behind Boycott’s head.

“Do you think I can trust this toilet roll?” Boycott enquired. “I’m very fond of this ’anky.”

“Fill your boots, I reckon,” Healy replied. “Bit of dust won’t hurt yar arse.”

The door closed.

Healy turned and glanced towards the corridor intersection once more. He decided for peace of mind to discover what was around those mysterious corners. He paced forwards and then stopped abruptly. Then he moved forwards again. Always better to know, he thought. He continued until he was two steps from the T-junction. The grey light must be from a window, he thought. It was now visible on the wall and floorboards. Closer, closer, closer, Healy’s hands on the peeling paintwork, edging his eyes along the wall inch by inch to take a peek, a peek around the corner – all very normal.

He found himself speaking: “You’d better present yourself, bonny lad.”

Nothing; nothing.

He hesitated. Cold beads of sweat popped on his forehead. There was the realisation that he was still tightly holding Geoff Boycott’s hat in his hand. He felt a hole in his sock on the left big toe. Why am I not at home in bed after watching the snooker? he thought.

“There’s more of us than there is of you,” Healy followed. “Six men here. All handy men, y’knaa. All tired men with tempers.”

A noise: shhwwwwww

Healy’s hair stood on end. Regardless, and taking control of his fear, he strode out into the next corridor.

And there, 15 to 20 feet along the lengthy passageway, he saw a floating presence. Healy, having committed himself, faced it like a cowboy in a duel.

Paralysed with terror, he tried to take in what he was experiencing. Is this real? It was gently drifting, that much was true, grey-white and in human form. Its gown was swishing around like, like, like… maybe the toilet roll on the wall down the hall with Geoff Boycott. The apparition was slowly sailing away from Healy, but then it halted. Gradually, it looked over its shoulder and Healy noticed… the face of an old lady.

The spectre spun at an agonisingly slow rate. And there they stood, the living and the dead.

“Look, pet, we’re just stopping the night, Orkee?” Healy explained. “We’ll be gone first thing, I promise ya that. Six lads who’ve got lost, that’s all.”

Twisting strands emitted moon-like illumination and the wraith appeared to be considering Healy’s comment. It lifted a glowing finger to its lips and said, “Sssshhh, it’s late…”

Healy blinked, considering his next move.

Then the ghost moved at alarming velocity, like a Honda VF1000R, Healy thought, its face switching from fragrant bingo-going spinster to absolute skeletal fury. It roared at him with arms outstretched.

Healy turned and ran, biker boots the wrong footwear for such an emergency undertaking. Despite this, he reached the toilet door at a speed he didn’t realise he was capable of. He also found the ability to see in the dark and located the toilet doorknob instantly.

He tugged on the handle: “Geoff, man, let me in, let me in!”

There came the sound of an incredible rumble from inside the toilet: rrrrr-rrrrrrr-rrrraaaAAAAAAHHHHHRRRRRR-rrrrrssshhhhh.

The door flung open and Boycott said, “It’s one of them raised cisterns with a proper pull chain. Flush is like a bloody Vulcan bomber!” And he sounded quite pleased with this. “Reminds me of an outdoor toilet I used to frequent in pit village, which frightened bloody life out of me!”

“Get back in, get back in,” Healy urged.

“I’d gi’ it a bit yet, flower,” Boycott proclaimed, barring Healy’s entrance. “I thought you’d just been anyhow!”

“I’ve seen it, man! I’ve seen it!” Healy protested.

“Seen what?”

“Ghost! I’ve just seen it, Geoff, man! Just seen it up there!”

“I thought I told you not to talk to strangers,” Boycott joked, accentuating his 90-degree flipped lower-case “b” smile. “You’re cream-crackered, duck. You need a bit of kip and you’ll be right as rain in mornin’.”

“Geoff, man, I’m tellin’ yer – get in the bog right now.”

“Well, you might need to switch to mouth-breathin’ for a bit,” Boycott admitted, and the pair closed the door behind them.

“Never seen a ghost before, man, Geoff,” Healy said, clinging hold of the rim of the small side sink. “First time. Never believed it.”

“And you still ’aven’t seen owt, you daft apeth,” Boycott affirmed. “Look, I’m wi’ Brian on this one. There’s no such thing. Show me this ghost you saw. Come on, I want to see it for meself. Cos you’ll find you’re mistaken, chum.”

Healy’s head dropped, then he looked up to see his reflection in a cracked wall mirror. He slapped the sides of his cheeks and turned to Boycott. “Awww man, man, man, that’s the most frightening thing I ever saw. It’s oot there, right now. I’m being totally honest with you on this.”

“Keep calm, for pity’s sake,” said Boycott witheringly. “You’re becoming ’ysterical.”


Boycott allowed the moment to pass.

“Look at us pair, fastened up literally in a shithole!” Boycott whispered. “I thought touring India in ’81-’82 were bad enough!”

Healy smiled at this: “Eh, hope you washed your hands,” he said, regaining his composure.

They both laughed due to the extreme tension, and then giggled some more.

“Sound of this bloody lavatory!” Boycott howled. “Scared life out of me! Ha-ha-haaaa!”

“Ha-ha-ha! Oh-ho-hooo!” Healy chortled.

And then…

BUUUMMMP! – right outside the door.

Healy froze in the candlelight and stiffened. Boycott looked like he’d swallowed a Scotch egg that had gone off.

“D’y ’ear that?” Healy said.

“The bump noise?” Boycott asked.

“Aye, man,” Healy frowned. “What else, a low-flying aircraft?”

The Yorkshire batsman and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star listened like their lives depended on it. There was intense quietness and then came the rapid thudding of their hearts.

“Well we can’t stay here all night in this latrine,” Healy whispered. “It’s like something from Laurel & Hardy.”

Boycott nodded as common sense seeped back into his bones: “Right, you ’ead art first.”

“Me?” said Healy, uncomprehending. “You’ve captained your country – it’s me should follow you.”

“I’m ’olding candle, aren’t I?”

Healy looked sideways at Boycott, then took hold of the door handle. He twisted it and stepped forward. Both slowly and quietly emerged into the corridor, familiarising themselves with their troublesome surroundings.

“So where were it?” Boycott asked. “This thing of your’n.”

“Up there at the end, like,” Healy stated apologetically.

“Could be kids buggering abart,” Boycott said in hushed tones.

“Kids?” Healy spat. “You’re jokin’ me, right?”

“What with Amstrad home computers and colour torches from the catalogue, they could get up to all sorts of pranks nowadays,” Boycott added.

“Look, I know wharra saw,” Healy affirmed. “And it might’ve slipped ya mind how long it took us to get here! This place is not on some bairn’s paper roond!”

“We should go and have a look,” Boycott suggested. “Gi’ me back me ’at, there’s a good ’un.”

Placing his baggy cap in position, a haven’t-got-time-for-this expression could be seen emerging on Boycott’s face and he marched towards the T-junction of corridors as if he were heading to the crease at The Oval. Healy, emboldened by Boycott’s pluck, followed a step behind.

Boycott bounded round the corner and glanced forwards while holding the rim of his hat, then span to look the other way. “Not a dicky bird!” he thundered. “There’s a window up there wi’ a hole in it and it’s flappin’ the damned curtain. That’s what you saw… Sorry, I forget your name, lad.”


“Tim, aye.”

The rattle of a door handle made O’Toole awake with a start. He was a poor sleeper at the best of times but the discomfort of the solid wooden floor offered no support for his narrow torso and boney limbs. He lifted himself into a seated position in manageable stages. Like a house pet, O’Toole observed as Boycott and Healy followed the outline of the far wall. The cricketer placed his candle carefully back on the mantelpiece. Lifting a shirt cuff, O’Toole checked the time: 3am. He’d slept for less than an hour.

“Had fun?” O’Toole enquired with a gravel voice.

“Of sorts,” Boycott replied. “Something’s gone off.”

“Gone off?” O’Toole asked with surprise.

“Aye,” and he motioned to Healy. “Go on, spill yer guts.”

Due to the volume and seriousness of the conversation, Clough and Wilson were both roused from their slumber. Clough lay there blinking, while Wilson kept his weary eyes closed, following the proceedings like a radio show.

“Well let’s have it,” O’Toole said, looking from Boycott to Healy and back again.

“Well, I did see summat, yeah,” Healy divulged.

“White sheet, big gob on it, two discs for eyes?” Clough mocked.

“Not exactly, no,” Healy replied, lowering his head to look at the Nottingham Forest manager through sheepish eyes. “I know how it seems. May have been a ghost… It was lit up, black and white and y’knaa, grey in places. It looked a bit like me granny actually.”

Factory Records’ impresario Tony Wilson slowly turned his head: “Not wanting to belittle your experience, but maybe it was your granny, and you are so tired right now, you’re seeing things. Just a thought. Rather than Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) stuff. A great show, by the way.”

“Aye, that would explain it,” Healy said with tightened lips, shaking. “That would explain it alright.”

“Let’s, for argument’s sake, say that you did indeed see something that was possibly not of this earth,” O’Toole continued. “I’d like to hear what happened next. Tell us what you saw.”

“Where were you when this was going off?” Clough looked at Boycott.


“Ah,” Clough smiled widely.

“Keep it down, I’m trying to sleep here,” Smith added.

“Gentleman, please,” O’Toole voiced. “Let’s hear this story and then we can rest.”

“Orkee,” Healy said, collecting his thoughts. “It was illuminated, y’knaa. Giving off some light, like. It was floating, like you’d expect a ghost to do. It was… sort of regular height for a granny.  It had strands of material flapping aboot, a bit like a shirt on your mam’s washing line… And then it came doon this corridor at me, picking up speed, and it’s face changed, screaming. I didn’t hang aboot. I went like the clappers, I can tell ya!”

“And then we heard this other noise,” Boycott added. “Some bangin’ abart, but that could’ve been owt really.”

“Could be someone else in the house, like a tramp, or some bloody pigeons or something,” Clough offered. “It’s a big place.”

“Or Bela Lugosi,” said Smith.

And then from upstairs came a dreadful running sound: BUMP-BUMP-BUMP-BUMP-B-B-B-B-B-BUMP-BUMP!

All eyes look towards the upstairs landing.

“Not a nice noise,” Boycott noted. “Someone’s chargin’ about!”

“It’s ‘Blue Monday’ on 12”,” Wilson smiled. “Whoever or whatever it is, it’s got decent music taste.”

Even Smith stirred at the racket: “I reckon that were Carl Lewis!” he added. “Did he die recently?”

Clough was dumbfounded and, for once, lost for words.

O’Toole smiled at his fellow travellers: “Perhaps we should go and introduce ourselves.”

  1. A typeface from Hell

Embers in the dying fire glowed hot-orange with the flurry of activity in front of the centuries-old stone hearth. Muddied-up footwear was hurriedly placed over dried socks, while supportive shots of Jägermeister were passed around by head barman Tony Wilson (Geoff Boycott demurred). Unlike the footwear of his companions, Smith’s Freeman, Hardy & Willis-bought lace-ups showed little sign of wear and tear. He’d taken the shortest route to Hangingbrow Hall, although it hadn’t been an easy ride. Having plunged down a cliff-face in a Vauxhall VX saloon with his now-disappeared roadie and scaffolder acquaintance Rob Carroll, a brusque 15-minute twig-cracking stomp had brought him to the hall’s dishevelled grounds and an unlikely meeting with Factory Records chief Wilson.

Smith, however, was feeling some discomfort. With the plum job of hearth/fire attendant, his soles, which had remained tied to his feet upon drifting to sleep, had been directly facing the heat source for some time and were now like a pair of small pizza ovens.

“Ooh-yaa,” Smith hopped.

“What’s wrong?” called Wilson. “Dead leg?”

“No, shoes are ’ot,” Smith grunted.

Wilson glanced down at his own ruined, sodden, muddied Nike high-tops and wished he had similar problems.

With a keen grin, Brian Clough made it first to the foot of the wide, carpeted staircase, convinced there was nothing more teeth-chatteringly frightening to face than a nervous squatter who’d been disturbed as he went about his ablution-free existence. Boycott approached, anguished, mouth set like granite: “It’s a right buggeroo this, Brian.”

Clough lifted an accusing finger to his friend: “Now you should know better,” he scalded. “Did you see anything unusual when you were out on your spook trail earlier? The answer to that is ‘no’.”

“Well, there were this big bump sound,” Boycott asserted. “That were unnervin’ bit abart it all.”

“I’ll give you a big bump in a minute,” Clough derided. “Snap out of it. This lot are looking to you and me for answers and direction. This is our bread and butter. Cos if any of this gets out, press’ll make mincemeat of you. They’ll say you’ve lost the plot!”

Smith soon joined them, glass of Jägermeister still on the go. “How d’yer do,” he smirked. “Will you sign an autograph for me?” – and he laughed.

Boycott nodded at Clough: “You’re right, Brian. We’re in middle of a Looney Tunes cartoon ’ere. There’s ’omeless, destitute fella upstairs, I’m convinced of it narr. He might ’ave some food we can pilfer.”

“It must be a down-on-his-luck Olympic sprinter then,” Peter O’Toole breathlessly mentioned as he stepped forward, running his hands through his hair as if he was readying himself for a scrum on a churned-up rugby field. “Allan bloody Wells in clogs, getting in a bit of practise before Los Angeles. Faster than shit through a tin horn!”

“His middle name’s Wipper,” Smith mentioned.

“Who?” asked Tim Healy, squinting.

“Allan Wells, sprinter,” Smith answered.

“Wippy? “Boycott frowned. “Like ice-cream man? Are you makin’ up stories, yer daft striplin’?”

“It’s a good fact Mark, but possibly not the right time,” an avuncular Wilson cut in. “And we’re about to come face-to-face with an errant spirit with, you would imagine, very little interest in modern British athletics. But I could be wrong.”

“Without going over old ground Mr O’Toole, I’m starting to find all this phantom-flinging a bit of an inconvenience,” Clough expressed. “Worst of all, I don’t think you believe any of this tosh either but you’ve got a mischievous streak, I can see that. What I’m saying is, let’s not bloody milk this one.”

“Cloughie, Brian, my dear friend, we’re merely wishing our neighbour a good morning and apologising for the inconvenience!” O’Toole smiled. “Let’s take a cup of sugar up as a gesture of goodwill and compliance.”

A fresh collection of candles were handed out and lit. If there had been a film camera at the summit of the staircase, the director would have seen six eager faces, from left, Clough, Boycott, Smith, Wilson, O’Toole and Healy, all looking upwards into the lens.

The scene then became reminiscent of the start of the Grand National – and they’re off! Twelve legs attacked the magenta-carpeted stairs, puffs of dust rising from the well-fitted surface as they ascended. From the landing, up among ornate dark-timber arches, the main hall’s dimensions beneath seemed to constrict, while the rising odour of the log fire added a strange and not unwelcome homeliness.

The bunch hurried along like doctors in a Seventies big-budget US hospital drama, judging on the hoof the direction that the mysterious tramp or ghoul must have toddled. They barged open doors, finding little except abandoned items of furniture and light fittings festooned in cobweb decoration. As with the ground floor. some electric switches worked, most didn’t. Bulbs that were functioning were so dirt-encrusted that they may as well have been absent.

Smith switched to a cod-American accent: “Obscure and metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon. Reasons dredged from the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it parallel planes or just in-san-ity-uh. Whatever it is, find it… in… The Twilight Zone-uh! Ha-ha-ha! That was on other night. It was about doppelgängers trying to kill their lookalikes. Interesting stuff, good ideas.”

“You musn’t worry about doppelgängers, darling,” Wilson smiled, patting Smith’s shoulders. “They broke the mould when they created you.”

There was a bedroom – the master bedroom, presumably – with a four-poster pushed up against a wall, two dark-wood wardrobes and a set of drawers, the latter of which was found to contain clothes and underwear, men’s and women’s, all neatly tucked away, all from decades ago. Curtains were drawn across wide windows, trapping Hangingbrow Hall in a never-ceasing night from which it could not awaken. By the underpants O’Toole discovered a book, The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. He waved it in the air. “Antisemitic text dating from before the First World War that purported to lay out Jewish plans for world domination,” he reported. “Hitler’s bible. A great stack of untruths – dangerous stuff.” He pushed the copy into Wilson’s hands, who replied, “I read it when I was 12.”

“Not even the Three Bears have tried that mattress out,” Clough noted. “I don’t know what Goldilocks will make of all this.”

O’Toole slid the drawer shut. “Curious that our own displaced resident, whom we are yet to meet, could make little use of the complimentary wardrobe or cantankerous reading material on offer,” he noted.

“I cannae understand this at all, y’knaa,” Healy said, scratching the back of his head, eyes widening. “We’re in a fantastical museum.”

Perplexed, they departed the bedroom and trudged further along the passageway. A white-painted door, shielded by darkness, was the furthest extent of the corridor. O’Toole, leading the gang, paused. The door and what lay beyond it felt somehow extraordinarily sinister. Clough glanced across at Healy in a condemnatory manner: the trouble you have caused!

“What’s the bloody hold up?” Clough barked. “Get in there!”

O’Toole took hold of the handle. The door creaked: Wrrrrrrr-aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

“Nothing a bit of oil won’t fix,” Healy said, making light of the nerve-shredding seriousness.

One by one, they filed into the large space, breaths trailing. Instantly, they noted that the temperature felt farcooler than the rest of the house – if that were possible. In the candle gloom rows of skeletal single beds matted in dust were observed – a dormitory, yet there were no blankets to be seen. Tim Healy flicked the light, but there was no bulb in the fitting. Shadows conspired on the walls.

“It could do with a radiator or two installing in here,” Smith reasoned. “Central heating. It’s got an exterior wall on two sides, and there’s your problem. Me grandad were a plumber, y’know. He had a big shop near Strangeways. A real pragmatist. He’d have had a solution for this room.”

By the curtains stood a dappled rocking horse that once would have looked down over the home’s previously attractive grounds. On a desk was a lone bottle of Parker Quink fountain-pen ink. A tiddlywinks board game and a chess set sat on a shelf. A wind-up steam locomotive with two carriages on an oval track took up a whole low table. On the floor, near the horse, a doll’s house was spotted, which was fully stocked with miniature furniture.

As the six scattered about the room, they each noted, one by one, a ventriloquist’s dummy perched upright on a lone chair. It was child-sized and wore a dapper tweed suit. It had the regulation terrifyingly jovial expression, with blue eyes and an elongated mouth that was U-shaped with mirth. Its upper class neat hair was styled in a side-parting. A circular nose was red and shiny, as was its tongue behind those stretched lips. Limp by its sides were white podgy hands, life-like and glossy.

O’Toole’s bared his teeth as he realised the dummy wasn’t dusty and that it had black-painted wooden shoes. He touched the hair on its head and the head felt strangely warm.

As O’Toole gazed into the face of the unfathomably clean figure, Smith suddenly pulled his head back as if suffering from an instant violent migraine, before lurching forward, growling and twisting like a man deranged.

“He’s ’avin’ a fit!” Boycott cried. “Daft as ’e is, we’ll ’ave to mind ’im till it passes. It’ll be all that boozin’ ’e gets up to.”

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Smith responded, lifting a hand into the air as he caught his breath. He seemed cured of his ailment but then the writhing and gyrating started afresh. He rocked, head in hands, swinging back and forth, wailing in torment.

“Maybe the drink was off,” Healy uttered. “He sunk a fair few. So that means… maybe…”

“We’re all for a bout if that’s the case,” O’Toole glumly stated.

“I shun’t be too bad then flower,” Boycott said. “I only ’ad a nip.”

Smith froze. His eyes began swivelling. Rapid head movement followed as if he was a detective piecing together a complicated murder mystery. “I’ve got it now,” he proclaimed. “I’ve seen what happened.”

“Got what?” Wilson queried. “Rabies?”

“Uh-uh,” Smith said, shaking his head. “Remember what I said in the Haçienda last week?”

“About your connections with MI5 and MI6?” Wilson frowned. “I thought that was mostly bollocks, but, y’know, print the legend.”

“Nah, nah, nah…” Smith returned. “The other thing.”

“What, the psychic stuff?” Wilson added. “Again, I never took much notice… Anyway, it’s like you mentioned, what good’s being psychic and knowing that the bus is going to be half an hour late.”

“Whoaaa, some ’eavy stuff went on ’ere, cocker,” Smith said, touching his forehead with his fingertips, thinking, thinking, thinking. “So, fella who lived here, right… killed a woman and some kids. He lured them here. Did away with them the first night they arrived. I think O’Toole’s got something. This place is haunted. A real psycho once lived here.”

Clough knelt down by the doll’s house to take a closer inspection of the tiny furniture’s intricate detailing. Despite the wild conversations occurring around him, he became transfixed by the mini home and looked in disbelief at one of the first-floor rooms. In it, four figures were hanging by the neck with sewing thread from a gallows. The Nottingham Forest manager was dumbstruck, yet he still couldn’t allow himself to believe that anything happening was beyond the realm of science and reason.

“Someone with a very odd sense of humour has run amok in this room,” Clough said, getting to his feet. “A prankster, someone with too much time on their bloody hands. A footballer, perhaps. Cos I don’t think you can buy toys like that from Fisher Price.”

Wilson bent down to view the scaled-down scene of horror and waved Smith across to join him.

It was while Smith was on his knees, lip curled in disgust, that an almighty VLAAAAAMMMM was heard from behind. It was apparent that the door to the landing had closed shut as if caught in the middle of a hurricane.

“I told you this ’ouse were draughty,” Boycott chimed. “It could do wi’ some of them long snakes and sausage dogs to stop air shiftin’ abart.”

Boycott attempted to re-open the door to the landing but there came a whipcrack of electricity from the handle and the cricketer quickly withdrew, flapping his hand. “By Jiminy, it’s wired up to mains!”

At that moment, a closet door opened with a loathsome screech and as it reached its widest point, a blast of icy air issued at force from the space and blew out all the candles as if it were the breath of a child at a birthday party.

Smith sensibly waited for a repeat gust, but once satisfied that the incident was a one-off, he struck a match and re-lit candles from outstretched hands. A welcome yellow glow returned to the room.

The sight hit them instantly and mouths gaped with shock and confusion. Red lettering was daubed on the wall, six-feet tall.


“Not very welcoming,” O’Toole mused.

“It’s Akzidenz-Grotesk,” Wilson recognised. “A German font dating from the late 1890s. A little overused if we’re being unkind. A bit of a cliché.”

Waaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! Just then, the main door to the landing suddenly unlocked itself and opened invitingly.

“Well, y’knaa, I think we should leave,” said Healy smartly. “Like the nice evil spirit said.”

“Eh, cut that out,” Clough warned with a vexed-red face, and he scrutinised the room looking for cameras, electrical devices, spying equipment, anything that could be used to frighten the living daylights out of a gang of unsuspecting passers-by. He then turned his attention to O’Toole and barked out instructions as if he were on the touchline of a training-session match. “We don’t need hysteria at the smallest turn of events,” he chided. “We need reasoning, a bit of rest, and we’ll be able to think things through that much clearer.”

“But the words on the wall!” O’Toole wheezily croaked and waved ostentatiously towards them. “A message for us. Communication from the dead. Perhaps from Hitler himself!”

“I don’t think he spoke much English, bonny lad,” Healy replied. “Would it not be in his mother tongue, like?”

GEH RAUS, that would be,” Wilson helpfully revealed. “Top of the year in German, De La Salle Grammar. But you knew that already.”

Smith appeared truculent. “Too many chief swans here for my liking,” he voiced. “Sooner we’re on the march, the better.”

“Pity we didn’t run into a vicar when we were out last night and not actors,” Boycott voiced. “I wonder what a man of the cloth would make of all this.”

“Probably tell you it was all a load of bloody rubbish, just like I’m telling you now!” Clough furiously replied. He turned his head towards Smith. “You,” he pointed, “go and see what’s in that closet, quick as your legs can carry you! Then we can get ourselves back to what’s left of the fire and get some bloody shuteye.”

“Would you believe, this isn’t the worst day I’ve had this week,” Wilson summarised. “It’s only the second-worst. I had a fucker of a row with Rob Gretton on Wednesday, the New Order manager – over money as usual.”

As Smith approached the wide-open closet door, his shoes gently tapping the floorboards, he noticed a pale light emitting from its depths. He slowed but was soon halted in his tracks as, through the gap, a huge glowing skull-like face emerged and launched itself into the room using boney stilt arms for movement. It roared so loudly and with such bass-laden lion force that Smith’s hair flapped about his ears. Beams of grey light fired out of its black eye sockets and bashed Smith squarely in the chest, almost knocking him off his feet. Rather than turn and run, like any sane person would have done, Smith instead balled up on the floor and shouted, “Is that the best you can do, you soft bastard?”

“Told you we’d see a big moosehead if we meddled!” Boycott barked. “Sometimes it’s best to leave well alone!”

O’Toole looked across to the ventriloquist’s dummy and noted that it’s smile seemed more intense.

Smith was pulled from the closet’s threshold and the clutches of the luminescent monster by the deft fingers of Clough and Healy. With another almighty booming bellow, the beast backed through the door and disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

En masse, the group scrambled to the relative safety of the landing. Smith reeled against the corridor wall and tugged his green cable-knit jumper to reveal a polar-white stomach with livid burns. “Dracula red fang marks!” Smith hollered. “That big Muppet bit me!”

They trotted, Maasai tribesmen with candles replacing spears, towards the main hall, passing doors and small paintings, abandoned wall lights and endless trails of cobwebs. For a moment, the grand carpeted staircase looked like a bizarre variety performance show as six Fred Astaires deftly danced across its glamorous incline.

“We should leave this place now,” Healy suggested as the six gathered at the fireplace. “Get as far away from here as we can as quickly as we can.”

“We’d freeze to death,” Boycott said. “Still thick fog out there.”

Smith seized a lone wooden stool and placed it directly onto the smoking ashes, upholstered seat included. Nobody raised a complaint at the loss of this antique and its perceived monetary or sentimental value. Concerned faces were illuminated by the flames.

“We should have put that bloody dummy on the fire,” O’Toole suggested.

“I swear to God it was watching our every move,” Healy added.

“Do you want me to get it?” Smith asked.

“Mark E Smith, you never know when a night is done, do you?” Wilson replied.

“I still say none of this is what it seems and we’ve bugger all to worry about,” Clough retorted, accepting another glass of strong alcohol from Smith.

There were serious murmurs of doubt.

“Well,” said Healy, “I’ve seen a ghost who told me to be keep my mouth shut, a creature that was like an atomic-powered guard dog and witnessed words appear on a wall telling us in no uncertain terms to get knotted. So you could say I’m not all that sceptical at the moment!”

“Well, we’re stuck here till daylight,” Clough reasoned. “And if you’re asleep, you can’t see owt.”

 “Let’s try and get an hour or two’s kip,” O’Toole added. The last thing we’ll want to do come first light is hike across moors having been awake for two days.”

Bodies became a Tetris jumble of shapes in front of the crackling fire, while ragged curtains and foraged dustsheets were used to cover legs for added warmth.

“I’ll tell you who I wish were here,” Boycott announced as his eyes began to droop.

“Who?” Clough spoke from a tired crumpled face.

“Arnie Sidebottom,” said Boycott. “There’s no flannel with Arnie. Fast bowler, useful batsman, and ’e played soccer an’ all, gettin’ Man United out of Second Division. Never played for England, which were a real shame cos he deserved it. Skinny and tall but tons of guts. He’d ’ave been a real asset to us tonight.”

“But he’s not here,” Clough pointed out. “He’ll be in bed snoring somewhere at home in bloody Barnsley. And I’d give my left arm to be tucked up with him.”

  1. Grass is greener

Brian Clough sat bolt upright and blinked the blurriness from stringy eyes. After a side-mouth suppressed yawn and a flex of the back, he gazed gratefully at shafts of sunlight streaming in through the hall windows, uprating the trails of dusted cobwebs from a battleship grey to a pearly off-white. Timber panelling glowed amber warmth, while the colours in the period artwork along the walls lifted to vivid life. Looking around, Clough assumed each framed composition would make a couple of bob in an auction.

He unwrapped himself from the dirty curtain that was acting as both thin mattress and bedding, and turned to see whether anyone else from the bizarre menagerie of stage, screen and sport was awake. Then, like a hammer striking his eyeballs, Clough caught the fiercely intense stare of Geoff Boycott, who was sitting with his back against a wall.

“A felicitous morning to you, Brian,” Boycott calmly spoke.

“A what?” Clough replied.

“Did you sleep well?” Boycott enquired.

“Aye, I did,” said Clough in astonishment. “Considering all that carry on last night.”

“We’re still duckin’ and divin’,” Boycott commented. “Winners, me and you. Winners.”

Clough checked his watch. The crystal was cracked, obscuring the face. He lifted his wrist to his ear: nothing. He waved it, as one ridiculously does when a watch isn’t ticking. Still nothing.

“It’s after two,” Boycott confirmed. “Imagine that!”

“Two?” cried Clough. “Christ, we need to get a shift on! I’ve got to get home!”

“And we will, Brian,” Boycott said. “But this lot’ll not thank you for wakin’ them up. They’re lazy as a bunch of teenagers at a polytechnic in London. As for that ’un laid over there, Mark E Smith, ’e wants ’is brain feelin’.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Clough said rising to his feet, suddenly red-faced and agitated. “I’ll have them ready to trot in five minutes flat.”

“Oh let them rest,” Boycott smiled. “They’ve been through ordeal. People like you and me, we’ve adapted to stress through experience, so none of this makes much difference. In fact, I wouldn’t mind another night ’ere.”

Clough couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Place appears to be haunted, we’re not staying here again. And I’m parched to piss. I need drinking water. All that Italian dandelion-and-burdock glug is fine enough but in the morning you need a good glass of water just to get your mouth opening and closing, then some orange juice for the vitamin hit, then three cups of PG Tips.”

“What about them monkeys they have!” Boycott said.

“The tea ones?” Clough smiled. “Bloody brilliant adverts. They make me and Barbara laugh. Kids love it, too. ‘Do you know the piano’s on my foot?’ ‘You hum it and I’ll play it.’”

“I’ve found somethin’ in my bag that might appeal to you,” Boycott divulged. “I’d forgotten it were in there to be ’onest. It must’ve fell behind box of Shredded Wheat.”

Boycott rummaged in his holdall and pulled out a bottle of unopened Lucozade, its orange liquid content glowing like a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow. The cricketer’s uncharacteristic ta-daa! face made Clough feel momentarily uneasy.

“What else is in that bag of tricks, a bloody Land Rover?” Clough asked. “Go on, giz a swig.”

“It’s been marketed narr to sportsmen as well as infirm,” Boycott remarked and walked slowly towards Clough, unscrewing the bottle top.

Clough took a deep fizzy mouthful and felt joyfully refreshed. Boycott then grasped the bottle and luxuriated in a long draught.

“Leave some for these buggers,” Clough spoke, waving his finger towards the floor. “We’ll make it onto their Christmas card list if we do. And it’s the right thing after all that’s happened. O’Toole’s on death’s door as it is.”

Boycott glanced sideways at Clough and ceased swallowing. “I owe you an apology, my friend,” Boycott said, wiping the side of his mouth with his sleeve. “I were scared silly by what I witnessed last night but guess what? You were right.”

Clough was confused. “Right about what?”

“The spooks, the ghouls, them words miraculously appearin’ on the wall,” Boycott replied. “It were all a load of cobblers. A revealing nonsense.”

“How do you know all this?” Clough questioned.

“I’ve been up a few hours and I went rootin’,’ Boycott said. “Let me show you somethin’.”

Up the wide, carpeted staircase and along the dark corridor Clough and Boycott hurried, retracing their steps from the previous night’s daunting episode like journalists on a scoop.

“Yesterday I were weak, Brian, and not only did I let you down, I let meself down,” Boycott stated, leading the way. “I wavered, like a confused budgie that’d escaped through an open window. I was preposterous and, worse, a jessie.”

“But you had the guts to hare up here on your tod when I was still sock-on,” Clough said. “Even I’d have had second thoughts traipsing this way to have another encounter with that big bloody illuminated bison!”

The fleet-footed pair rapidly arrived at the door to the children’s bedroom, which, in the welcoming daylight, lacked the forbidding quality that it so strongly held just hours previously. Despite this, Clough’s stomach was aflutter and he had to take firm control of his emotions. The door creaked open wwwwwrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaahhhhhh. At that instant, he wished he had some chewing gum. A stick always gave him an additional jolt of clarity in tricky situations, especially during matchdays. To Clough’s surprise, Boycott lifted a fresh pack of Freedent from his jacket’s inside pocket and offered one to Clough.

“Sometimes I think you’re a mind-reader, Geoffrey,” Clough said. “But that’s why you’re top of your game. You can scan a situation decisively and come up with quick answers. I wish I had someone like you in my midfield at Forest right now. We’d be winning European Cups whenever we fancied it.”

Clough folded a minty grey sheet into his mouth.

“Follow me,” Boycott instructed.

Clough tentatively walked through the door and found the curtains had been dragged apart and glorious spring-like sunshine was washing into the room. Even the windows had been opened to let in some fresh country air. The dusty room was much as they’d left it. The train set, the odd-looking ventriloquist’s dummy on a wicker chair, the grisly doll’s house with its gruesome scenario, the board games and the beds were all present. Rather than feel threatening, it all seemed so pitifully sad.

“What do you see, Brian?” Boycott said.

“Well, for a start, someone’s scrubbed the words off the wall.”

“That’s right,” Boycott nodded, “and do you know why?”

Boycott walked to the wall and looked down towards his feet. Bending, he took hold of a black cable, lifted it and held it as if in a tug-of-war competition.

“What have you found there?” Clough asked.

“The answer,” Boycott replied.

He yanked the lead and clomp was heard from across the room. Clough stepped beyond the train set and held an adaptor in his hand. Glancing up he noticed a lens poking through a collection of dolls that was pointing towards the far wall.

“It’s a projector,” Clough said sternly. “A bloody projector.”

“You understand we saw what we wanted to see,” explained Boycott.

“Aye, I know that now,” Clough said. “What a bunch of ninnies we’ve been. And what about that huge growling yak from the depths of hell?”

Boycott briskly opened the closet door and ushered Clough through. “Be my guest,” he motioned with his hand. “And mind you don’t trip and break your neck on jumble of flexes. Must ’ave some whoppin’ power bills, this place.”

Clough disappeared into the closet and flicked the light switch. It came on instantly. To his untrained eye, the bulb seemed modern. On the ground, angled upwards, he discovered another projector, and, on top of a cupboard, a flashy Sony hi-fi and some large, powerful speakers. Clough looked over his shoulder and recognised the faint outline of the glowing beast but seen from behind. They’d obviously tripped a sensor as they’d walked in. The terrifying otherworldly creature moved forwards using its bat-like arms, whereupon another projector flicked into life in the children’s bedroom.

“But it were making a right racket when we saw it last night,” Clough recalled.

Boycott stepped over to the hi-fi and notched the sound up. It was a recording of a lion roaring.

“I turned it down when I come in this mornin’,’ Boycott said. “I reckon it’s a tape from start of a Metro Goldwyn Mayer film and looped. Still, an expensive bit of kit I’d imagine. It’s all a ruse. Obviously owner is abroad, maybe can’t get back and has set up this elaborate security system. It worked on us! What a waste of a nice house, though.”

“Bloody Poirot’s got nowt on you,” Clough grinned widely, patting his friend on the back.

“There’s more,” Boycott spoke. “You’ll like this.”

Out into the sunshine Clough and Boycott wandered, shielding their eyes until they became accustomed to the brightness. For winter, it felt ridiculously mild, and rather than claggy fog, today you could see to the horizon, with its purple peaks and faraway church towers. It was breathtaking. They skirted the perimeter of Hangingbrow Hall, taking long strides to step over wild clumps of grass. Another turn and there stood the twisted tree that had unnerved them all as their long trek had reached its troublesome conclusion. Underneath its outstretched wooden arms, Clough pondered to take in its size and squat pose. Soon, Clough and Boycott were in a meadow, fruit trees bare save for the odd hanging apple that had refused to abide by autumn’s rules. Camouflaged by a thick coating of ivy stood a large box-like building. There was a side entrance but the main feature of the structure was a set of double doors painted in a luscious forest green.

“You came down here earlier, on your own?” Clough asked.

Boycott pulled a handle on one of the large doors and it opened easily.  “Oh aye, I ’ad a real good neb,” he replied.

It was dark inside, but glass panels on the main doors brought in enough light to see that this was a groundsman’s domain. The smell of oil reminded Clough of his own lock-up at home in Derby where he kept his forks, spades, canes, seeds and string. He was astounded by the neatness of the interior. On the walls were various implements for keeping foliage and lawns trim. Clough could even smell the cut grass from summers long gone.

“What a smashing place this is,” Clough spoke. “I can imagine the fella who looks after these grounds, in shirt and tie no doubt, smart like they used to be, but wearing a pair of old black wellies. See how everything has its place. There’s a lot of discipline here.”

Clough pulled back a drawer from a wooden chest, possibly Victorian, and ran his fingers through nails and screws, some rusty, some silver and shiny. He pulled out another drawer, which he thought would once have housed fine cutlery before the chest’s declassification from the dining room, and found a treasure trove of pliers, screwdrivers and spanners, all pre-war, all built to last beyond a lifetime. He turned to see Boycott lifting a heavy grey sheet from a contraption that didn’t look all that different to the moon buggies from the Apollo missions 12 or 13 years ago.

“Now this is something interesting,” Boycott smiled. “I’m ’oping if I turn this key and push this button…”

The machine roared into chattering life, a cloud of exhaust fumes rising from a high-perched pipe. Clough noticed the leather seating arrangement had enough space for two.

“What is it, a mower?” Clough asked. “Looks bloody top-end if it is!”

“Must be,” Boycott replied. “Probably not seen use for 40 year and started first time!”

Boycott pointed forward and mouthed, “Doors.” The cricketer and football manager pushed a handle each, and despite the knotted straitjacket of ivy on the exterior, they managed to force open just enough room to fit a two-seat sit-on lawnmower.

“We’d ’ave been asphyxiated if we’d stayed in ’ere much longer!” Boycott smiled. “Now, do you want to drive?”

Clough slipped in behind the wheel and Boycott arranged himself like Mother Hen in the passenger position.

“It’s a funny-looking thing this,” Clough commented. “It’s like nowt I’ve ever seen before.”

“My guess is it’s either a prototype or a specially made model,” Boycott shouted above the din. “Chief ’ere were obviously not short of a quid or two.”

Carefully Clough released the brake and edged forward, the engine hammering as he pushed the foot pedal. He turned and grinned at Boycott.

“Well gooh on then, what’re you waitin’ for?” Boycott gestured.

Easing through the aperture, Clough steered a course towards the meadow’s overgrown grass and pushed a lever to lower its rotary blade. There came a series of jolts and then the whir of the spinning sharp edges was heard. Boycott adopted his lower-case b pushed through 90 degrees smile as Clough cut swathes of undergrowth, the engine happily clattering to human control.

“Like a knife through butter,” Clough remarked. “Lovely petrol smell.”

“It’s obviously Rolls-Royce of lawn cutters,” Boycott added. “A real pleasure to ride.”

“Just don’t forget we’ve to be off, though,” Clough reminded his companion. “We can’t stay here all day. As it is, Barbara will be worried sick I didn’t make it back last night. I expect Carole rang her to say I’d been looking for a place to sleep.  At least I hope she did. She’s very good, you know.”

“Bloody mitherin’ bitches,” Boycott angrily expressed.

Clough wasn’t sure how to respond to this clumsy attack from his fellow Yorkshireman. He then felt the pick-axe ice-chill of a hand touching the top of his thigh but with the concentration required to maintain his cutting technique, he was unable to physically remove the offending item. Had Geoffrey lost his marbles?

“I’ve been meanin’ to have a word with you, Brian.”

“Aye, well get that bloody hand shifted for a start,” Clough warned.

Boycott slowly and reluctantly removed his errant extremity, as Clough span the sit-on lawnmower for another long line, engine enthusiastically spluttering.

“We’ve been good friends for a long time now Brian, me and you,” Boycott continued. “I just wondered if you were ready to take things a step further.”

Clough rolled his tongue around his mouth, feeling like he’d been the victim of a particularly smooth-toned con artist. “Take what one step further?” he spat.

“Us, Brian. We get on well…”

“Now listen, I don’t know what you’re getting at…”

“Oh, I think you do.”

“For a start I’m married to Barbara – happily! – and I’ve got three kids!” Clough said, voice raised. “You think I’d jack all that in to shack up wi’ you?”

“We’d live up ’ere in Cumbria,” Boycott stated, laying out his vision. “It’s a very progressive part of the world, this. They’re very welcomin’ to ’omosexuals, vegetarians, the Irish. It’s probably cos it’s underpopulated and it’d help economy, but regardless, there’s some lovely cottages around.” And he pulled some brochures out of his jacket pocket.

Clough dismissed the sheets of glossy A4 paper without even looking at the picturesque properties and floor plans. “You can put them away,” he seethed.

“We’d be bum-chums,” Boycott stressed. “We’ll ’ave a one-bedroom place somewhere in ’ills, away from pryin’ eyes. Maybe run a tea shop together when dust has settled, and at night get to bed like Morecambe & Wise do.”

“No, no, no,” Clough shook his head. “Are you pissed?”

“On love, yes!” Boycott admitted.

“We’re taking this mower back where it belongs right now, and we’re getting away from this bloody lunatic’s nuthouse once and for all,” Clough decided, bumping and jouncing, steering towards the garage.

Boycott, voice lowered, declared, “Don’t make me angry, Brian. You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

Clough let out a smile, but with little warmth. He pulled the lever to lift up the thrashing blade and deftly manoeuvred the mower towards the green double doors. “Listen to you,” he dismissed. “Quoting crap from kids’ TV shows. The Incredible Hulk says that when he’s about to go barmy!”

“He can’t be that incredible,” Boycott grimaced. “I’ve never ’eard of ’im!”

Clough walk-trotted from the garage, up through the freshly mown meadow, eager to build some distance between himself and his now former friend and ally. The betrayal bit deep. All those great conversations they had enjoyed down the years had amounted to little but pillow talk! He dashed underneath the arm-like branches of the twisted tree and made towards the front entrance of Hangingbrow Hall and its obscured Ministry of Defence warning sign.

The thick wooden door was slighty ajar. Nothing unusual about that, he assumed, because the others, Peter O’Toole, Tony Wilson, Tim Healy and Mark E Smith, would surely have been awake by now and readying themselves for a trek to civilisation – only this time, with no fog, they’d be able to see where they were going.

“Shop!” Clough called out as he ducked beneath the low-slung archway, through the entrance and into the main area. Although there was no reply, Clough felt a sense of relief once he’d smelt the fire. However, rushing into the hall, there was no one to be seen except Boycott, who was crouching by the hearth, placing logs onto crackling flames.

“Eh, shithouse, how d’you get here before me?” Clough hollered.

“Side entrance,” Boycott replied. “I thought you must ’ave gone to lavatory or taken in some scenery, you were so long.”

“No, there’s no side entrance, so that won’t wash with me,” Clough insisted, striding forward.  “You’d better start talking sense. Where’s others?”

“Gone,” Boycott said.

“Gone? Gone where?”

“Puffer-trottin’ on a donkey,” Boycott added. “Now forget dartin’ off and come and ’ave a warm by fire next to me.”

“Where’s all the wood from?” Clough asked.

“I did a bit of splittin’ earlier,” Boycott said, and revealed an axe in his right hand. Its sharp edge practically made a “ping” sound as light shifted across its surface. “Like a crickeeet bat, you grip an axe wi’ two ’ands, Brian, which is instinctive enough. If you’re right-handed, skill with an axe comes from left hand. The right gives power and some control, but that’s all.”

Clough took hold of the previous night’s Jägermeister and drank directly from the spout.

“You’re not ’aving any more of my Lucozade, if that’s what you’re thinkin’,” Boycott childishly clarified.

Clough noticed traces of red light appearing on the hall’s small windowpanes. Sunset was approaching and he needed to be on his way. And yet, despite everything that had happened, he felt a pang of doubt over his old chum. After all, some of the motivational talks Boycott had given to Clough during runs of poor results had genuinely given him inspiration when he’d needed it most. Did it matter that Boycott had admitted his true feelings? Could they move on from this setback and remain friends, albeit with a new understanding? I mean, Clough thought, I’m a good-looking fella. Perhaps not in the same category as Peter Shilton, but not bad considering the age and miles.

“Come with me now, stop buggering about with the fire, leave the axe where it is, and we might get out of this in one piece,” Clough suggested. “I shan’t ask you twice.”

Boycott said nothing and looked forlornly into the fire.

“Well, I’m going,” Clough spoke, his voice echoing in the expanse of the cold hall. “I wish you luck. You be careful, do you hear me? And have you considered, you might not be a fairy, you just need a holiday or a break.”

At this point, events took an unusual turn. To Clough’s considerable surprise, Boycott’s head began rotating, round and round, round and round, while his guttural Yorkshire accent became something akin to a dog growl, as if his body had been overtaken by an alien spirit. “Lucozade aids recovery, Lucozade aids recovery, Lucozade aids recovery, LUCOZADE AIDS RECOVERY, LUCOZADE AIDS RECOVERY…”

Boycott’s spinning head then abruptly stopped and he looked at Clough through wide, soulless, demonic eyes. “Brian Clough!” he squawked, “In three minutes, you will be dead!”

Boycott raised himself using the axe as a crutch and began walking leisurely towards Clough, swinging the blade like a contented woodcutter returning from a successful forest chop.

Clough turned and legged it, shoes clocking on the parquet. He rapidly reached the entrance’s old wooden door and seized hold of the handle. To his consternation, he found it to be locked. Locked? How? He began shaking the handle – rattle, rattle, rattle – hoping it had merely jammed, yet it refused to yield. Clough needed Plan B, fast. He dashed back into the hall and glanced at the window they had broken the night before. Clough dodged a lazy axe swipe from Boycott and ran to the window, where he began tearing away at Boycott’s supremely tidy Shredded Wheat box and masking-tape repair job. The locking handle refused to budge. Placing a foot on the windowsill, Clough grabbed an overhanging curtain rail to propel himself upwards in order to give the glass a kick but, unable to endure the additional weight, the pole snapped with an explosive crack and Clough found himself spreadeagled on the floor underneath a 1940s velvet curtain. He struggled to free himself from the darkness of the material, all the while Boycott’s footsteps nearing and the swoooosh of the keen blade becoming louder. I’m running out of options here, Clough thought.

“Two minutes!” barked Boycott, and let out a laugh.

Panic rising, Clough fought free of the velvet, rose to his feet and darted across the parquet quick as a whippet to the carpeted staircase. He hurled himself up to the first floor and sprinted with determination along the darkening corridor towards the children’s bedroom. But rather than reach the door, it seemed to be disappearing further into the distance. It was like he was running backwards!

There was a door to Clough’s side. He grabbed the handle, pushed with his shoulder and squeezed inside, slamming the door shut and turning the key. The late-afternoon orange-red winter sunset was just enough for Clough to recognise a toilet, sink and bath. He attempted to open a small window but the frame had been painted in and no amount of arm work could force the issue.

As Clough weighed up his diminishing options, a great thud came from the corridor side of the bathroom door. He pulled a this-is-not-good scowl. By far, it was the biggest quandary he’d ever found himself in.

“Brian, are you going to be long in there?” the voice thundered. “I’m releasin’ chocolate ’ostage ’ere.”

It took Clough a while to understand what Boycott was talking about.

“I’m having a problem with the lock, Geoffrey,” Clough called back. “There’s a toilet downstairs, remember, if you’re desperate.”

“One minute to go!” Boycott raged. “Your time’s almost up! I’m going to savour every moment of this!”

There came a crack and the sharp edge of Boycott’s axe blade appeared through the wood.


Thud! Crack!

Thud! Crack! Snap!

Thud! Crack! Snap! Splinter!

Boycott’s strength from years of top-level batting with county and country made light work of the timber. Clough, meanwhile, manoeuvred his body so that he was almost crab-like on the edge of the bath and attempted to destroy the window and frame using quick blasts with his heel. The glass tinkled and fell but the criss-cross black-painted metalwork remained doggedly in place.

“Come on!” Clough sweated but the strain on maintaining his awkward position soon tired him out.

Behind Clough, a whole panel in the door was obliterated by the power of Boycott’s latest axe strike. He pushed his head through the gap and with a fierce grin said, “Heeeeere’s Geoffrey!”

Calmly, Boycott reached through the broken panel and twisted the key in the lock.

“When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go!” Boycott japed.

He entered the cramped bathroom as if arriving at a party. “You’re finished,” he said to Clough. “Aye, I’d say you’re all done. Have you a last thing you’d like to tell me, before I make mincemeat out of you?”

“Yes,” said Clough in defiance. “I blame your mother.”

The axe swung and Clough juddered violently. Then there was stillness and peace.

Clough opened his eyes slowly. Was he in heaven? Was he just no more? He could smell mustiness, dirt and a hint of smoke from burnt wood. Next to him lay Mark E Smith, cracked lips and a cold sore, breathing heavily through his nose. Near his feet, head on the edge of the carpet was Peter O’Toole, appearing more like he was in his seventies than his fifties, mouth open and snoring like a bear. By the actor’s side was Tony Wilson, eyes fluttering as he engaged in a heated discussion with members of A Certain Ratio about their on-going dedication to jazz fusion. Tim Healy appeared the most content, barely making a sound, glad of the sleep, looking forward to getting home and catching up with the snooker. And there, slumped up against the wall on the other side of the hearth, head bowed, was Geoff Boycott. The main hall was grey and silent, but Clough was alive at the very least. He glanced as his watch. It was working. Eight-thirty am.

Boycott stirred and Clough waited to see if he would fully awaken. The cricketer groggily opened his eyes, noticed that his footballing friend was also conscious and said quietly, “Christ, what a dream! I were just a nipper and Sunil Gavaskar was ’eadmaster at my school. I’d been playin’ up a bit. I’d stolen a lass’s egg and salad-cream butty and I was going to get a canin’ for it. Fair enough, but when I got to Sunil’s office, I told him ’e were maybe guilty of overreactin’ and I promised to recompense the now-famished schoolgirl. I said she could ’ave my corned beef and mustard sandwich instead. Sunil went bonkers and I realised ’e weren’t going to ’it me across ’and wi’ a stick, no. It were a crickeeet bat, and one of me own, too! All while this were ’appenin’, I didn’t ’ave any trousers on, and I can’t recall if I had any undercrackers on either. I’ve no idea what was going on there. Then me teeth started droppin’ out.”

“Howay, man, keep it down!” Healy grunted. “Can’t a man get a bit of kip when he’s staying over at a haunted house?”

Clough smiled brightly and then said to Boycott, “Eh, time we got on our way.”

Boycott nodded. “I’ll order us a taxi.”

  1. 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?”

  1. Through the keyhole

Perfectly satisfied that the Nottingham Forest manager, troubled Yorkshire batsman, Factory Records head honcho, frontman of The Fall and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet actor were fully ensconced in departure preparations, wily Peter O’Toole quietly ascended the wide carpeted staircase with I-won’t-be-a-moment deftness. He was nearing the summit when a shrill training-ground voice atom-bombed the busy silence. “Eh, hold it right there! Where do you think you’re off to?” It was Brian Clough.

O’Toole halted as if he’d been caught in a POW camp’s spotlight and turned slowly to offer an explanation, arms raised. From his lofty position, he noted five pairs of burning eyes, while Smith had gone the extra mile by partly pushing his denture from his mouth to enhance his expression of surprise.

“I believe I dropped my wallet upstairs,” O’Toole lied, meekly pointing skywards. “I’ve looked everywhere for the bugger.”

“Ohh, no you don’t,” Clough called, shaking his finger. “You must be some basket case to be visiting that bloody room on your own. Did your mother never tell you that curiosity killed the cat?”

“Mummy told me that and much more,” O’Toole smiled. “Daddy, on the other hand, was more a gambling man.”

“What’s your game?” Clough asked, striding to the foot of the stairs.

“I’d like to be a busy, busy bee, being just as busy as a bee can be,” answered O’Toole. “Now, if you’ll excuse me for a few moments, I’d like to say bye-bye to our host – the light-emitting Orthrus.”

“Loiterin’ wi’ intent,” Boycott accused, which O’Toole thought was accurate enough. “You could be puttin’ us all in peril, all for want of childish inquisitiveness. Whatever it is, it obviously wants to be left in peace – as do I! It’s like pokin’ a stick at Doberman Pinscher… that’s on steroids.”

“I’ll accompany him,” Wilson stepped forward, “to make sure he doesn’t go needlessly rattling anyone’s – or anything’s – chain. I’m on this earth to experience things, even if these things are not of this earth. Pity I haven’t got a film crew here. It would make a good shaggy dog story.”

“You’re nuts pair of yer,” Boycott stated.

“Anyone else for tennis?” O’Toole asked.

“And get mauled again, no ta,” Smith spoke. “I’m gonna keep an eye on my cups filling with water. Drink meself fitter. Get this headache shifted.”

“Listen, we’ll give you 15 minutes, then we’re through that door,” Boycott announced. Next, like a conjurer at a Butlins holiday camp during a sensational Saturday-evening show, Boycott pulled a cricket bat and stitched leather ball from his bag.

“Eh, is that the instrument you used to clobber that gobshite last night by that phone box?” Clough laughed.

“Aye, it is,” replied Boycott. “To be ’onest, I’d forgot I’d brought them. No wonder me bag felt so weighty on that walk yesterday. Now, Smithy, be a good egg and stand that stool up near fire. That’s us wickeeet. Healy, sunshine, put my ’at on floor up other end. That’s where you bowl from. Are you any good at deliveries? I’m first man, of course. I’ll declare at ’alf century and show you ’ow it’s done. Shouldn’t take me long.”

Smith and Clough dutifully took up their positions in the “outfield”, placing themselves at the far end of the hall. Silly mid-off would have been suicidal. They expected a lively contest and were not to be disappointed. However, this was a cruel twist of events for keen cricket fan O’Toole and he found himself in turmoil. Did he want to miss out on an impromptu match with the great Yorkshire and England batsmen or did he more strongly desire tormenting a slavering supernatural beast?

“We have an appointment with beings from another dimension,” Wilson reminded O’Toole and gestured with his hand. “Please sir, after you.”

“Good man!” O’Toole winked. “Let’s not waste a second. We observe – see what piqued Hitler’s interest – and we bugger off.”

The Oscar-free actor and the servant of Granada TV paced purposefully along the landing, glancing down to see Boycott take the crease with his bat under his arm. A consummate professional, Boycott made a great spectacle of the occasion. He narrowed his eyes to judge the distance to an imaginary boundary and tapped his bat on the parquet floor to ascertain the ground conditions. Just as O’Toole and Wilson entered the darkness of the dusty, cobweb-strewn first floor corridor, an almighty cloccckkk was heard as leather struck willow, followed by the sound of breaking glass.

“Put me down for six!” Boycott could be heard shouting from the hall. “At ’Eadingly it would’ve dropped in Kirkstall Lane!”

The door to the children’s bedroom alarmed O’Toole and Wilson, not least because strips of yellow light could be seen blazing from its edges. O’Toole licked his lips, reached for the handle, paused and applied pressure. To his dismay, it was locked. He yanked the handle and gave more force but the door remained firm.

“Let’s not push our luck,” Wilson said.

O’Toole thought this through and finally nodded.

“Wait a second,” Wilson added, and gathered internal strength by running his fingers through his wavy brown hair and lowered to his knees. He then pushed his left eye up to the keyhole. “Well, the funny thing is, there’s no key in the lock,” he reported.

“What can you see?” O’Toole asked.

“It’s interesting,” Wilson said.

“Elucidate,” O’Toole demanded.

“Yeah, hang on, hang on… The light’s on. It’s bright in there. Curtains are drawn. Now, remember the ventriloquist’s dummy? It’s alive and it’s playing with the dolls house. And… oh fuck, it’s seen me. It’s looking at me.”

“Move aside,” said O’Toole.

Wilson sat back against the wall, eyebrows knitted with bewilderment. “The fucking ventriloquist’s dummy was moving. Extraordinary. Fucking creepy. Very fucking creepy.”

O’Toole steadied himself and placed an eye up to the lock. He scanned the room with a Popeye sweep but to his agitation failed to spot anything of note. He was ready to question Wilson’s journalistic prowess when there came a scuffle from the room and the noise of wood on wood.

“Did you hear that?” O’Toole murmured in low, secretive tones. “But I still can’t see… Ah, what’s this?”

The view through the keyhole suddenly darkened and, in a flash, a wide-open eyeball appeared in shadow, looking straight back at O’Toole. The thespian launched backwards through shock and ended up sprawled on the grubby floor as if he’d been thwacked by Frank Bruno.

“What happened?” Wilson excitedly enquired.

“It’s on the other side of the door!” O’Toole shout-whispered. “Inches away from us.”

Wilson’s blood ran cold and his hair stood on end. He realised he was in fight or flight mode. Despite this, his news-yielding instincts took the fore and he decided to take a last view through the keyhole to corroborate O’Toole’s account. To his revulsion, he saw the face of the dummy framed perfectly by the aperture, it’s face contorted into a wild, evil, dreadful smile, lips a stretched “v” and it’s eyebrows angled to accentuate its terrifying features. It waved its stubby finger at Wilson: you’ve been a naughty boy.

Wilson grimly smiled and turned to O’Toole. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

O’Toole nodded. “I think we’ve seen enough.”

Wilson wonkily stood. Noticing that O’Toole was having problems with his ageing knees, he offered a hand. At that point, the door opened with stunning violent force and the duo found themselves bathed in light. Wilson was able to stagger away from danger but, looking over his shoulder, saw with horror the outstretched fingers of the dummy seize O’Toole by the ankles and began tugging the actor of Irish descent into its grisly playroom.

“Come with me – ha-ha-ha!” the dummy snarled with a curiously well-spoken manner.

“Wilson,” O’Toole squirmed. “If I’m going to end up in Hell, I’d rather go under my own steam!”

Wilson grabbed O’Toole by the wrist and there began a crazed tug-of-war, Factory Records chief versus crazed possessed dummy. The puppeteered prop’s smile intensified and it seemed to be gaining dominance. Wilson, acting rapidly and overcoming extreme fear, span round on his backside and flicked a Nike accurately into the centre of the dummy’s perverse kisser. O’Toole sprang free and scrambled clear, this time having no difficulty finding his feet. Wilson grabbed the door with both hands and eagerly pulled it shut before the dummy, nursing a shattered nose, had time to retaliate. The two ran literally like their lives depended on it.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the main hall, Boycott pounded a Clough delivery at full toss and smashed the maroon ball towards the back wall. Healy had already decided that to place any part of his body in its path would lead to the pulverisation of bone.

“It’s yours!” Clough bawled.

“Howay man,” Healy laughed, “it’s going the speed of sound!”

The ball remained arrow-true on its upwards trajectory and obliterated a wooden wall panel before vanishing.

“Your grandmother could’ve caught that in ’er pinny!” Boycott shouted.

“She’s welcome to it!” Healy responded.

“And that’s another six for Boycott,” the batsman commentated. “There’s no stoppin’ Yorkshire captain today! He’s immense! And ’e recognises roar of crowd!” – and Boycott waved his bat.

Smith grinned at the complete mayhem and wanton destruction he was witnessing. This was more like it. There then came a satisfying clunk as the ball landed at ground level inside the wall cavity.

“I’ve another ball in me bag, Brian,” Boycott announced. “Just reach in.”

Healy attempted to retrieve the lost ball from the wall, if only to postpone more danger at the hands of Boycott and his thrashing bat. He manoeuvred his arm down through the gash in the plastering but instead collapsed headfirst into the damaged space. Turning to free himself, he glanced to his left only to see a skull emerge out of the grey dust, it’s skeletal jaw swinging open as if it was screaming – “Yaaaaaah!” Then black beetles escaped from its mouth and eye sockets. “Wuuuuh!” Healy panicked. Things were little better when he looked to his other side. A bony hand landed chummily on his shoulder. All of a sudden he was dancing with the dead, skulls busily arriving out of the blackness like rush hour at Newcastle Central rail station, mouths opening and gaping, “Yaaaaaah!”, “Yaaaaaahhh!”, Yaaaaaahhhhh!”, and beetles clicking. As Healy began to accept his fate trapped among ribcages, period costume and shiny black insects, Clough’s hand grabbed him by the collar and tugged the actor free from the chattering corpses.

“What’re you buggering about at?” Clough chided.

“There’s dead bodies everywhere, look, man!” Healy pointed out.

“So what?” Clough testily answered. “I need my fielders alert and ready!”

Clough heard a commotion from behind and saw a blur of movement as O’Toole and Wilson zoomed down the stairs as fast as their legs could carry them – O’Toole choosing to slide down the banister on a bottom cheek to speed up his descent.

“We need to go!” O’Toole waved, “and I mean right now!”

Healy batted the dust from his bike leathers and his eyes swivelled waiting for a command from cricket captain Clough.

“Twenty-four not out!” Boycott totted up, then slung his bat in his bag, rapidly zipped it up and collected his hat from the floor.

Wilson skidded into Hangingbrow Hall’s entrance and flung open the heavy wooden door. They each dashed into the rain, expertly slaloming the array of pots and pans of water laid in the grass, and on to the safety of the woodland and Smith’s Back Passage.

Breathless, coughing, choking, but still jogging, they gradually regained their senses.

“Did anyone pick up my contact lens solution from fireplace?” asked Boycott.

“Or any matches?” Smith added.

  1. 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 upward!” O’Toole beamed. “To Narnia and the North!”

  1. Onwards and upwards

When did Peter O’Toole last test his climbing competence? The Sixties seemed a never-ending urban rope climb inching up iron drainpipes and daring foot scrapes across solid-wood window ledges. A tap on the glass, the look of shock on the inhabitant’s face and you were in. “Now, do you have whisky, ice and two glasses, my dear?” Possibly the last occasion was three years earlier when he’d lost the keys to his flat in the early hours having been out to dinner with… was it Richard Harris at the Dorchester? If it was, it was a quiet night by their standards. Nothing stronger than tonic water had passed their lips but their evening’s recollections covered many nights of strong liquor, most of which had passed into legend. Drunk on drinking memories. O’Toole had asked to take in the bouquet of another restaurant-goer’s flowery white wine. He’d sniffed, closed his eyes, announced, “Mmm, wonderful,” and passed the glass back. And then the inside-outs of pockets on the doorstep and hands on hips wondering if the keys were in the back of the cab that had fleetingly departed towards the West End with a wink of an indicator. Always keep a top window of your property ajar. It let’s the air circulate; 20 minutes later O’Toole was indoors.

Looking into the spattering rain, O’Toole knew he was in for a tough task ahead, yet hunger, thirst and weariness proved improbable allies. I must go, he thought. A foot off the ground and the trial was underway but O’Toole hurriedly understood that the day’s torrential conditions would only add to his vulnerability. He considered the white and green stone and whispered, “Play your part Mr Cliff and don’t arse things up for me, there’s a good chap. Six lives might depend on my successful scaling of your pockmarked pallor.” He edged upwards.

“You see it’s all in the mind!” O’Toole shouted to the spectators below, and he grated and grinded from small ledge to divot to crevice. With the concentration required, the rattle of relentless rain had all but been tuned out. O’Toole plotted his course, planning seconds ahead, face additionally catching moisture now from the dripping limestone. He shifted sidewards, shaking his head to remove his flopping fringe from his eyes, jockeying for simpler routes and potential locations in which he could rest.

“The trick is not to concentrate on the ascent as a whole,” O’Toole called out. “It would be overwhelming. Take it stretch by stretch, rather like reading a book. It’s a collection of chapters and you’re never quite sure how it’s going to end until you reach the last page. Apart from Mark E Smith, of course! That bugger’d instinctively know the conclusion from reading the first paragraph! May I catch this Fall of yours at some point?”

“Guest list!” Smith spoke with cupped hands. “I’ll dedicate ‘Perverted By Language’ to you!”

“That would be marvellous!” O’Toole grinned.

From below, eyes scanned O’Toole’s every move, mapping out an itinerary for the actor in their own minds. The next section was a doddle, like climbing a stepladder, but a bulge 20 feet up, which ran the length of the more-navigable cliff, required care and attention. Gravity has a strong effect on the backside when there is nothing between it and the hard ground below. A scrape of O’Toole’s shoe as it fought for purchase on the rock surface brought gasps from the onlookers, but a tightrope-walker’s foot along the narrowest of seams while tightly hugging the rock gave precious time to devise the next action. O’Toole felt with delicate fingertips and pushed with precision from his knees, and then he was above the natural protrusion and able to rest and regain his composure.

The difficult section behind him, O’Toole was aware that complacency could yet prove his undoing. Cracks and crevices were few and far between and for a moment, 60 feet high, O’Toole wondered if he’d happened upon a dead end. He clawed at a clump of moss and it fell away from the wall, giving him an extra pocket to utilise. Sweat gathered on his forehead, which he wiped using the rock as a cool sponge. Then, suddenly, O’Toole could view his job ahead via a series of pits and depressions that were so beautifully laid out that he thought for a moment that he was taking a stage-one mountain-climbing certificate on an artificial wall.

Moving to his right before the final push to the top, O’Toole ridiculously mistimed a simple foot manoeuvre and found himself clinging for dear life by his resolute hand grip.

“What on earth is he doing?” Tony Wilson spoke and looked away.

“He’s tiring, that’s what,” Brian Clough said. “There’s nowt we can do. We can’t catch him if he drops. He’s on his own. If he was in my first team I’d be getting Kenny Swain warmed up on the touchline.”

O’Toole gambled and grasped at a scrappy bush whose roots thankfully were firmly entrenched in a pocket of deep soil. Using its woody base he was able to swing his legs until he was practically horizontal and from there, with a burst of arm strength, he could re-assemble in an upright position and make a scramble for a sizeable ledge that allowed him to summon further resolve.

“Almost there,” he muttered. He allowed himself a brief view of the dark woodland below, the ant-like figures from music, sport and TV so many feet beneath, and the remains of the Vauxhall VX seized by the pine tree’s spindly branches. Hidden in a natural shroud, there was no sign of the tower and castellations of the secretive Hangingbrow Hall. A crow, in search of a pester-free mealtime alternative to Mark E Smith’s deceased driver, landed on an outcrop close to the summit and eyed O’Toole to ascertain whether he was worth the effort. O’Toole in return glanced at the shimmering feathers and blood-stained beak and stated, “You come within an inch of me, crasher, and your flying days will be over.” The crow seemed to understand this unfriendly sentiment and thumped and flapped into the sky with the heavy ascension of a fully laden bomber aircraft.

O’Toole was elated to feel scrub grass in his grasping hands and with elbows over the precipice, he was able to pull his shaking legs upwards and over for a Fosbury flop to sweet freedom. He rolled onto his back with eyes closed, rain spilling from a wild, dark sky, the most difficult climb in his life now completed. Was there still time to become a polar explorer?

“That was almost a piece of performance art,” Wilson pointed upwards. “Grace, technique, jeopardy, it had the lot, and it was a pleasure to behold. I’m almost speechless that he made it.”

“That’d be a first,” Smith declared.

“I’ve seen some crazy things in my time but this takes biscuit,” Geoff Boycott shook his head. “Madness, utter madness. Bravest thing I’ve seen since Aussie Kim Hughes worked West Indies pace attack of Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft a few year back and come art wi’ a century.”

O’Toole waved enthusiastically from the summit as if he were a passenger on a steam ship that was about to embark on a transatlantic voyage. His delight was easy to recognise from the foot of the cliff and each of the five stricken characters below could almost sense O’Toole’s piercing Columbia blue eyes bidding them all a fond farewell. Then he was gone.

With O’Toole’s audacious departure, a sullenness descended on the remaining rain-sodden wretches as they set their minds to following what they perceived to be the route of the road that skirted the crag edge. However, Cumbria’s flora had other ideas. O’Toole had already seen that thick vegetation barred their way around the limestone perimeter, and, added to the quandary, the foot of the incline had been strewn with rubbish. Amid the bramble mass were builders’ rubble, half toilets and unwanted furniture, which had all been dumped from altitude for years – another job ticked on a local contractor’s to-do list.

Realising there was no effective passage through thorny wilds, the five delirious travellers then noted with repugnance a 15-feet-high concrete-panel fence emerge from the near-blackness topped with over-officious amounts of twisting rusted barbed wire. Once again they were captives of the landscape. A foray by Boycott and Clough quickly revealed that the barrier and its razor-sharp peak adornment had been meticulously attached to the cliff and even raised 30 feet up its sheer face to prevent trespass or escape. Defeated, the five followed the easier path through the woodland, a journey that gave as few hindrances as possible.

Wilson passed time by explaining to whoever would listen about his utter dislike of London and how both NMEjournalist and ZTT Records co-founder Paul Morley had, in effect, discredited the entire North-west by relocating to the capital. “ZTT have got that fucking awful Scouse troupe Frankie Goes To Hollywood bothering the charts with ‘Relax’,” he lamented. “I’ve nothing against people from Liverpool, you understand. The city is, after all, our little brother further along the M62, although, perhaps, they should develop their sense of humour. But ‘Relax’? Man, I hate the record. Absolutely loathe it. On Wednesday, that mid-Atlantic twat Mike Read at Radio 1 banned it due to its obscene lyrics, but as we have seen with the Sex Pistols, once prohibition is in place, people want it all the more. Luckily at Factory it isn’t about selling records.”

Clough and Boycott exchanged expressions of tedium.

Healy, who was only half-listening, asked, “What does ZTT stand for, like?”

“Zang Tuum Tumb,” Wilson seethed. “Are you familiar with initialism? No? Then you should read more. It’s derived from the sound poem “Zang Tumb Tumb” by an Italian guy called Marinetti, founder of futurism and who, as it transpires, was also the author of the Italian fascist manifesto. The title refers to the sound of a machine gun from some conflict or other that Italy had become embroiled in around 1912. Probably got their arses kicked. Interestingly, Marinetti hated pasta. He thought it was part of the reason why his fellow countrymen were prone to apathy and ennui. He may have a point. I want to nap after a spaghetti alla carbonara.”

“Zang zang… what?” Healy spat. “To be honest, it sounds like a right load of bollocks, man.”

“Again, that’s an opinion,” Wilson concluded.

Boycott gritted his teeth as his holdall strap bit into his shoulder, not assisted one iota by the confusing conversation he was being subjected to. He switched his bag to the opposite shoulder and began another countdown to pain. At the very least, Boycott believed, the bag could be used as a pillow should they have to rough it. He was beginning to feel fragile and that he should quietly lie on the ground, leaving his destiny in the hands of others. And yet, he couldn’t let the side down.

“If I were a tennis champ,” started Boycott with renewed vigour, “I might call my country mansion Fifteen Hall.”

“Eh, Geoff Boycott’s just cracked a joke, man,” Healy perkily responded. “Mike Yarwood and Jim Davidson must be quaking in their boots!”

This brought a hint of a smile from Clough, perhaps the last smile he had the energy to pull that day. “Eh, if you’d hit hard times, you could call it Sod Hall,” he quipped. “I wish Sod Hall was nearby. Or Bugger Hall! I could do with a kip. I must have lost a stone in weight today, but gained a stone in wet clothes.”

“It’ll read well in your autobiography,” Smith said.

“I wonder what Hangingbrow Hall is named after?” Wilson wondered. “You don’t think…?”

Mark E Smith shook his head. “What, you think it were a place where they strung folk up in Middle Ages? Wouldn’t ’ave thought so, cocker. Imagine you’re building the chimney on the place, y’know, job’s almost done, and one of the workers says, ‘You know that tree over there, that’s where they used to execute local sheep thieves. You should name your new house after that.’ Not very ’omely is it? I should think it’s more likely that a tree nearby had a low branch on it. Not that any of this has any consequence on us literally walking ourselves to an early grave. It’s funny, Hangingbrow’s spooks now seem almost welcoming, although Wilson’s scotched that one with his endless man-on-TV prying. Stirring up a hornet’s nest of the dead with his accomplice O’Toole. Anyway, too late now. We’d never find the gaff.”

“I’ll tell you what, we can’t walk indefinitely, lads,” Tim Healy admitted. “We’re making a habit out of this. Here we are, middle of a forest once again, miles from anywhere, no food, no water, it’s dark and we’ve got foot rot from the trench-like conditions and forced marches.”

“Funny that Hitler fancied shackin’ up this way,” Boycott spoke. “It makes you think ’e were wantin’ to use power of all these ghouls at Hangingbrow for ’is own dastardly plans. But question is, ’ow? Perhaps ’e were intent on creatin’ a ghost bomb that, when detonated, would frighten people to death. He were obviously a total nutcase so that sort of thing would’ve appealed to ’is twisted logic. Pity Pete’s not ’ere. He’d ’ave ’ad a fully thought-out prognosis of stinkin’ plot.”

“Although it stands to reason what the Germans did was wrong, you have to remember that a lot of people nowadays have an obsession with Nazi imagery,” said Smith. “Isn’t that right, Tony? It’s Factory through and through.”

“Well, of course you’re talking complete nonsense, Mark, and you know it,” Wilson defended, stepping over a fallen tree trunk. “Not so very long ago – and this is on record – you used to walk about Manchester with a swastika on your sleeve or has that been conveniently forgotten?”

“Whaaat?” Boycott howled.

Clough tutted. “I’d have thought better of you, Smithy.”

“All true,” Wilson smiled.

“Not true at all,” Smith responded, “and this is something I need to be careful about, cos that is massive disinformation. When we formed The Fall, it was Bramah, Baines and Friel used to wear the Nazi Youth armbands. I don’t know what they were thinkin’ of. My dad would have kicked the living shit out of me if he’d spotted me wearing owt like that. We used to drink in these biker pubs where you could buy acid, and my daft musicians automatically assumed bikers were Nazis. Maybe in America, but not ’ere. Friel was half-Jewish. We’d go in a bikers’ boozer and the band would usually end up cowering under a table being shoed by leather-clad fellas! Sex Pistols were not shy of slipping an armband on either. Tony, here, has had a band give themselves not one, but two Nazi-inspired names in Joy Division and New Order, while the band he personally manages dresses in Hitler Youth uniform. It’s indefensible.”

“I no longer manage Ratio, but you’re right in that I’ve had the Jewish Telegraph on my hands,” Wilson admitted. “‘Granada man owns Nazi nightclub’, or words to that effect, was the front-cover headline.”

“But that was about you using Claude Bessy’s German propaganda videos in the Haçienda,” Smith reminded. “Just tactless.”

“Provocative,” Wilson said, holding up a finger to further make his point. “The name New Order was Gretton’s idea and comes from the Khmer Rouge rather than Nazi Germany. Who would have guessed that Gretton’s a secret Pol Pot fan? The Khmer Rouge had just changed its name to the New Order of the Kampuchean Liberation. But with Joy Division and punk, and to a lesser extent post-punk, you’ve got to look at the situationist and postmodern perspectives, Mark.”

Smith shook his head. “University crap. What you lot do is borderline dangerous.”

“Bowie moves to Germany,” Wilson explained. “Comes back to visit London and gives a Nazi salute at Victoria station. You’ve got Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren using Nazi symbolism as a shock aesthetic in their bondage-inspired fashionwear. It’s about the destabilisation of art but it means nothing. It’s an absence of values. Then comes our own Warsaw – named after the Bowie record ‘Warszawa’– soon to be re-titled Joy Division, and here you’ve got to bring in the semiotics of the punk movement: signs and symbols and their interpretation. There’s the shock value to the older generation.”

“Why get them involved in the first place?” Smith countered, wiping the rain from his eyes. “My mam’s got enough on her plate keeping her house tidy and puttin’ money away for Christmas and birthdays!”

“Mark, darling,” Wilson said in a high-handed manner, “the situationist’s epater le bourgeois was a subculture strategy.”

“It was sloppy,” Smith replied. “Get involved with movements and you’ll date. The Fall never attached themselves to anything. We were not punks.”

“Which you sidestepped to your credit,” Wilson decided. “You were looking long-term.”

“The band wanted to be punks, but not me,” said Smith. “They’re thanking me for that now. But all your Nazi shit, Barney bawlin’ out Rudolf Hess’s prisoner-of-war number and ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP with that Hitler Youth chap on the sleeve bangin’ his drums. You deserve all the flack you get, Wilson.”

            “You understand that Ian, Barney and Stephen had a wider interest in German culture,” Wilson further commented. “Kraftwerk, Can and Krautrock are the bedrock of Joy Division/New Order. I’ve no idea what makes Hooky tick apart from speedway, although I will say he’s the only one who gets off his fucking arse to help out with running the Haçienda and the endless shit that that entails. Gillian, God bless her, just goes along with whatever’s happening.”

“I hope you two are well-paid for knowing all this twaddle,” Clough grunted. “Cos I’ll tell you something, that was just noise to me.”

“They’re intellectuals, pair of ’em,” Boycott stated, and meant it as disapproval. “Pol Pot they’re in thrall to would’ve clipped their wings and more. You’d get very little done in sportin’ world if your ’ead’s full of useless info like that. Sounds to me like these punks wanted Germany to win War.”

“But that’s just the thing,” Wilson remarked. “It’s the evaporation of meaning; the simple act of antagonism. To punks, the swastika’s just symbolism – the SS, oppression, unspeakable evil has been removed. There was an interview with a punk girl, I forget where I read it, but she said, ‘We just want to be loathed.’ That’s the sentiments in a nutshell, and Mark might not believe this, but I like nutshells.”

“Sounds like Hitler was the original punk to me, if all what you’re saying is correct, like,” Healy put in. ‘But I expect those six million Jews he got rid off might have a different take on all ya ‘symbolism’.”

“Leave it for now, Wilson, we’re all fuckin’ done-in,” Smith uttered as he started closing one eye at a time in an attempt to get some rest, making him appear like a railway-crossing signal in slow motion.

Like an unsolicited gift, the rain halted its appreciative raucous football-ground applause and the result was a clarity of hearing that had been absent since the gang’s break for freedom almost ten hours previously. Drip, drip, drip, blop, and Cumbria breathed a sigh of relief. It was cold beyond reason, gusty too, but any ideas of camping out and starting a health-reviving bonfire with fragrant smoke and friendly colour were instantly dismissed due to the vile dampness of the countryside. Teeth chattered, clockwork jaws wound to the maximum. An overall feeling of abject failure fell screaming like an Acme anvil in a Road Runner cartoon.

Smith disgustedly flung the worthless saturated contents of his pocket into the unknown and experienced the first flush of anger and confusion as nicotine withdrawal began its party at the host’s expense. “An Averna wouldn’t go amiss right now,” he thundered.

It was Healy who first spotted the tree, leaf-devoid, but round and robust, with a single long low-slung branch reaching out into its woodland setting, keeping opposing trees at arm’s length. Healy reached up and wrapped his fingers around the black wet wood, hanging to stretch his spine and collect his thoughts.

“I suggest we get some rest by Robin Hood’s oak ’ere,” Boycott spoke. “Keep close together for warmth, try and get an hour’s sleep at least, wait for light and ’ope to find a rescue team’s Labrador lickin’ your cheeks at some point after that. At least rain is ’oldin’ off.”

“I’ll keep a distance if you don’t mind,” Smith replied. “I sleep better on my own.”

“Aye, me an’ all, bonny lad,” added Healy with a reluctant smile. “I’ll plonk mesel’ by that sapling over there.”

“I won’t need tucking in either,” Clough added and stood like the Colossus of Rhodes, taking in their predicament with hands on hips.

Wilson peered into the darkness beyond the tree’s unusual bow and as pennies began cascading in his mind in a style reminiscent of the 2p falls in a seaside amusement arcade, he danced forward, gothic coat trailing, to get a better view. “Whoooaaa,” he groaned. “Oh. My. God.” Walking slowly, face slightly raised, hands placed on cheeks, he proceeded from the cover of the woodland and found by his feet a collection of rain-filled pots, pans, bowls and other assorted kitchen items, laid out in a wide circle. Like the victim of a seriously fiendish practical joke, he marvelled at a house with a central tower, castellations and higgledy-piggledy extensions at its wings.

Healy wasn’t far behind and when he too saw the outline of the building, this pile of bricks that had so tormented the troupe, he stumbled back as if struck by a wizard wielding his wand.

“Well I never,” Clough said quietly to himself and gave a brief grin of defeat.

“Maybe there’s two ’ouses built similar,” Boycott suggested. “And we’re at other, 15 mile away, that’s got ’appy family livin’ in it.”

“No, we’ve walked in a big bloody circle,” Clough affirmed. “We’re back where we started, Geoffrey.”

In an upstairs room, curtains partially drawn, a frantic light show was in mid-performance, a no-go for any epileptic due to the rapid skipping between light and dark. A TARDIS-style whooshing and howling could be detected emanating from the forbidding flickering illumination. Then the bizarre sound of high-pitched laughter and 1930s music scratching a gramophone tore through the night.

“Looks like the snooker’s on,” Healy announced with bulging eyes.

“Yeah,” Wilson nodded. “Hurricane fucking Higgins.”

  1. Clock watching

Bawdy gusts and typically ear-invading North-west rain whipped across clumpy brown grass as Peter O’Toole dashed at a 45-degree angle, looking like a hero from a Commando comic strip outstepping the spotlights of Stalag Luft III’s angry watchtowers. In keeping with everything else during the weekend thus far, what O’Toole was seeing made little sense. Where was the hairpin bend with its line of traffic heading to and from a metropolis? A small easy-to-miss signpost stated “Danger – Cliff edge” and showed a simple pictogram of a man falling backwards amid disturbed rocks. Stopping to kneel and take in the new territory, O’Toole looked forwards and noticed the faintest outline of tyre tracks, which he followed to a bank of rustling black bushes. Here, he spotted a breached mesh fence; in fact, the stretch was poorly maintained and O’Toole picked out other points of entry, easily recognisable by sacks of building waste liberally strewn on the grassy stretch. In the failing light, O’Toole identified an area of shredded shrubbery that had practically sealed itself due to the action of the stiff breeze. He lowered through the Vauxhall-sized tunnel of smashed twigs and entered a crescent-shaped layby lit by a single orange sodium streetlight. Beyond, an A-road beckoned and to his delight, O’Toole heard, then observed, an articulated lorry drone by.


The formidable actor paused to reflect and his conclusion was that, in the turmoil of the fog, Smith’s driver had simply mistaken the layby for the continuation of the road. Most probably embroiled in a fascinating conversation about some television programme or other, the vehicle would have trundled idly through the layby, smashed through the decrepit fence, jounced along the scrub heath and taken to the sky, regrettably without wings.

O’Toole absentmindedly thought, Well, it could be worse, but then checked himself. How could it possibly be worse? There’s a dead man in a tree being eaten by crows! Scowling, he was quick to add, And you’ve just spent the last 24 hours in a haunted carapace in Carlisle! He regarded his internal conversation as that of a man in dire need of deep sleep and scurried on towards the carriageway with the intention of hitching a lift.

There was no refreshingly orange lighting hanging above the arterial road to guide a traveller’s trail and O’Toole wondered if this would assist or hamper his chances of thumbing a ride. Judging his appearance, O’Toole was startled to see how much of a tattered mess his beige sports jacket had become. It was two-tone due to its damp and dry areas and the material had been liberally daubed with earthy impressionist brushstrokes. Along the length of both arms were rips and exposed white lining. Passable, just. His oversized black cords had proved the correct garment to maintain warmth but they had soaked up a great deal of moisture and needed wringing. There was no mirror to check the state of his face and hair, and he hadn’t brushed his teeth since he’d set off from Ireland. He could perhaps use a Polo or two. O’Toole tossed his fringe into place and, spotting a set of sparkly white-yellow lights approaching, readied himself in the flinging rain.

To boost his chances of being seen, O’Toole stepped from the grass verge, stuck out a hand and paced along the shoulder of the highway, facing the oncoming vehicle. The car, a Ford Orion, slowed, windscreen wipers whapping, and the driver nervously eyed the bipedal lagoon creature in his midst. A scream from a female passenger – “Don’t stop or we’ll die!” – was enough information for the gentleman behind the wheel and the Escort-with-a-boot Orion hurtled off with revs high. It was a grave failure, but it was only the first attempt. O’Toole needed to make himself more appealing, so he pushed up his sleeves to reveal bare arms. He thought it might make himself more approachable.

The downpour ebbed to a manageable mizzle and for a time, O’Toole was able to discern the hum of a faraway factory unseen by the eye. He wondered about the plant’s chief concern and settled on tinned dog food. Striding through the darkness, stepping along a fast-moving road-gutter River Nile, he imagined the cans clattering along conveyor belts, brown and yellow labels automatically being applied, each with a photo of a well-groomed Afghan hound waiting for his bowl to be dropped to the floor. Without sight of a car, the minutes stretched and stretched. Where was everyone? Greater London, this was not.

The distant splutter of a motorcycle engine raised O’Toole’s spirits. To remain awake, he occupied his time working out the backstory of Hangingbrow Hall. Possibly built in the early 1700s. Border clashes between the English and Scots and a few unpleasantries on or near the premises. This fellow Twisteaux arrives in the Twenties or early Thirties and something happens. Was he a black-magic wizard, able to call on underworld forces and orchestrate incredible power? He was Swiss, that much was known, and he had the ear of the Nazi top brass. He had a wife and three children, a simple ruse to establish his credentials as a family man to the local community. But they are expendable and expend of them he does in the most grisly Nazi-like time-is-money fashion, as witnessed in wild contortions by the Prestwich psychic Mark E Smith. Twisteaux is in constant contact with Berlin. Hitler, no champion of Christianity, glad to see its demise in fact, believes in older gods and that the Germans were not only subservient to these ancient deities, but somehow directly related. Hitler was also obsessed by Atlantis, from which he was convinced his Aryan brethren were derived. Was Twisteaux’s heritage linked with this blonde-haired, blue-eyed mythical island?

Another set of dazzling lights sprung up on the horizon. I’ll stop this ferret, O’Toole mouthed, and he stepped with purpose into the middle of the road, hands raised, waving, hoping his white exposed forearms would act like enticing beacons. He could hear the engine become louder, its lights brighter, but this car was not slowing. Soon there was the blare of a horn, a hard get-out-of-my-bloody-way stab of raw racket that made O’Toole wince. The car nipped past O’Toole’s pelvis at 70mph and the 51-year-old thesp practically cartwheeled away with shock. Glancing up prostrate from the black tarmac, he wondered, Am I so untrustworthy unto your peepers?

Desperation chomped and bared crooked teeth, but a curve in the road brought a sight as fine as a full house at a provincial theatre. Further along the carriageway stood a telephone box tucked away neatly by a trim hedge. Its illumination within was so welcoming, it could have been rays emitting from an angel. The metal of the door handle fitted O’Toole’s fingers perfectly and he swept into the chamber and found himself marvelling not just at the black receiver sitting on its cradle, but the whole science behind telephones.

O’Toole dialled 100 to speak to the operator. “Yes, could I reverse the charges to a London line?” he asked, and read out the number.

“One moment,” the voice replied. “Could I ask your name, please?”


“I’m putting you through now…”

There came a click and a beep-beep.


“Steve, spot of bother,” said O’Toole. “Can you assist?”

“If I can – I’m your agent, after all.”

“I’m in Cumbria.”

“Has this anything to do with alcohol?”

“No, but I’d like it to play a part.”

O’Toole’s representative at William Morris, Steve Kenis, chuckled. “OK, go on.”

“I’ve had the most incredible two days, which I can’t talk about right now. I don’t know where I am, other than I know I’m in a telephone kiosk in the countryside. I’m trying to hitch, but… well…”

“Peter, what’s happened? Do you have any money on you?”

“No money, just a bloody Access card. Listen, can you try and find out where I am through this phone number, and then somehow get hold of a local taxi firm to pick me up. I need a hotel with six rooms. Do you understand, six?”

“Six? Peter, what are you up to? Wait a minute, let me get a pen. I’ll write this down.”

“Good man.”

“OK, go ahead.”

“I need a taxi. A hotel with six rooms, preferably with bath and/or shower facilities. I need clothes, and I don’t know how you’ll manage this at…” O’Toole looked at his watch. “My God, it’s half-seven already.”

“Let’s see what I can do. What do you need?”

“The whole nine yards. I look like Stig of the bloody Dump’s derelict uncle. Shirt, jacket, trousers, socks, shoes. Pyjamas, but not essential. Undies. I need undies! Lovely clean undies, yes.”

“Have you been mugged?”

“No, no, no,” O’Toole answered. “Now here’s the important bit. You know the batsman Geoff Boycott.”

“A-hmm. Cricketer.”

“You should expect a call from him before ten this evening.”

“A call from Geoff Boycott? Christ, why? He’ll have representation already, Peter.”

“Don’t go off on a tangent. I’ve given him your number.”

“Why should I expect a call from…?”

“For God’s sake, listen. Geoff bloody Boycott. If you hear or don’t hear by 10pm, either way I need to know. I’ll ring you a minute or two after that.”

“And you can’t tell me what the problem is?”

“It’s a long story, Mr Fixer. Another time.”

“OK, lunch is on me next week. For now, sit tight and wait.”

“I’ll bring you back some fudge.”

“I’m sure you will. Speak later, Peter.”

“Thank you, Steve.”

O’Toole replaced the receiver and crumpled on the concrete floor, life’s discarded dishcloth, his legs tucked up to his chest, head resting against a dirty glass pane. His eyes blazed. He was ravenously hungry and thirsty, but at least he felt safe and not completely cold. He thought of the war, of the concentration camps, of the striped-uniform degradation, of the barking dogs, of the experiments, of Anne Frank, that smashing girl, of her last moments, of the Warsaw Ghetto, the blind panic, those valiant souls. He thought about Adolf Hitler as a child and the unwarranted love bestowed on his riddled dark soul. O’Toole blistered with anger. He blinked, blinked, drifted, drifted, drifted…

O’Toole was presenting an Afghan hound with its dinner in a farmhouse-style kitchen. Within the bowl were shiny chunks of meat straight out of a tin topped with a crunched-up pillow of Shredded Wheat for added fibre. O’Toole was in his Lawrence Of Arabia-era Sixties pomp and gave the flamboyant dog a deep piercing look with his striking blue eyes. This meant many things at once: love; respect; kindness; you’ve-deserved-this exuberance; and even equality. Hitler, in full military regalia, entered the kitchen from an adjoining room and switched the kettle on. He gave O’Toole a radiant smile. “I love ze dogs!” he joyfully affirmed. The long-haired creature yawned so widely that O’Toole thought its head might turn inside out and then it started honking like a goose. There followed a shrill whine, heavy clatter and a great deal of scraping.

“You Ortul?”

O’Toole raised an eye and was temporarily blinded by the dull light.


“Whaat?” O’Toole said with gravelly croak. “I’ve fed the dog!”

“Radio Taxis! Been bibbin’ me ’ooter for five minute.”

“Taxi, ahh, wonderful,” O’Toole smiled, rising to his feet. “Just the man!”

“You drunk?”

“No, more’s the pity, just lost and tired, friend.”

“Can’t ’ave you in my cab if you’re spewing.”

“I haven’t screamed ‘Hooray!’ since I was a teenager.”

“Come on, it’s Sat’day. Busy night. You’re lucky. I’ve got an address to drop you off. You’re pre-paid. Never ’ad pre-paid before.”

O’Toole rested in the back of the cab and instantly recognised the fresh aroma of a pine forest. Dangling from the rear-view mirror was a tree-shaped air freshener that reminded O’Toole of the Spar supermarket logo. “Expedient car you have here. Not British, is it?”

“Colt Tredia,” replied the driver with an accent that seemed the perfect cross between Pakistan and the local Cumbrian dialect. “These are better than British cars in the cold. Just more reliable. Our firm’s got five. Three years unlimited mileage warranty from a place at Carleton. Eh, what ’appened to you? You cave rescue or something?”

“Have you ever read in a newspaper ‘death by misadventure’?” O’Toole explained. “Well, I remain alive by misadventure.”

The taxi driver nodded and took a close look at O’Toole through the mirror. “You look familiar to me.”

“I have one of those faces,” O’Toole returned the stare.

“Yeah maybe,” the taxi driver nodded. “Nice ’otel you’re off to. I’m not sure they’ll let you in the bar like that, though!”

“You should have seen the place I stayed last night.”


“It was hell!”

The taxi driver was a man of haste, not torpor, and at a painted roadsign the Japanese car braked sharply, turned and quickened along a single-track access road. With a click of a stalk full beams lit the way, scouring the woodland setting with its searching shine. Gazing along the thoroughfare through the semi-condensation of the window, O’Toole glimpsed a grand neo-Georgian house and he knew he was minutes from running water, hot food, clicking radiators and possibly a whisky for medicinal purposes. Haven’t I merited a thimbleful?

In warming wet clothes, the sharp bite of Cumbria’s outside air felt raw to the bone and O’Toole pulled an expression of barely concealed discomfort. Age, he sneered. Lifting his nose, he recognised the unmistakeable fragrance of a nearby waterway, and it reminded him of his green, soggy Connemara. Familiarity was a fine thing and he breathed in greedily.

With a farewell to the no-nonsense cab driver, O’Toole ascended a small set of stone steps and shuffled through a foyer towards the hotel reception desk. Guests in smart get-up heading to the dining room slowed their stride to fully appreciate this muddied marvel in their midst. A blue-suited blonde woman in her late twenties, a large perm lacquered into brittle security, rose from her seat, unsure whether to welcome O’Toole or alert security. In the brilliant light, O’Toole caught sight of his reflection in a large-format mirror adorning a wall. “Good God!” he called out. “Ring London Zoo! There’s Sasquatch on the premises!”

Men chuckled inwardly, always glad to witness mirth or mischief, while wives and mistresses, exuding anxiety, as well as the new fragrant spice and amber notes of Coco by Chanel, were eager to move on.

“Good evening,” the receptionist said with trepidation. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, I believe I have a reservation under the name O’Toole, possibly Kenis, K-E-N-I-S.”

“And your booking is at Daventry Hall?”

“I haven’t the faintest,” O’Toole replied, and then glanced over his shoulder to judge the class of the clientele. “I asked for six rooms,” and his eyes once again fell on the receptionist. “I have some acquaintances who will follow later if the traffic is good to firm. The M6 can be a bugger of a racecourse, you know. And this weather! Ducky Lucky would feel hard done by.”

The young lady checked her diary and this time knew a smile was the correct response. “Ah yes, O’Toole. The manager would like to see you. If you could take a seat.”

“Where’s the bar?” OToole brusquely enquired. “The manager can see me there.”

The receptionist felt unusually unsettled by O’Toole’s aura and to her own annoyance she blushed. Even though this new arrival resembled a potato that had been dragged from the ground, he exuded grace, confidence and even danger. She pointed to an arched doorway from which gentle laughter and tinkling glassware could be heard. O’Toole slunk in its friendly direction.

Once inside, the bar was seen to be a small yet inviting library that sold a fine array of intoxicating liquor. O’Toole was famished, hungrier than he’d been for years and his expression did little to hide the fact. His startled eyes danced from his dirt-encrusted features, while seated people who were idly checking newcomers struggled to conceal their surprise. There were check brown-patterned settees, sumptuous armchairs, low tables and shelves holding leather-bound novels and reference books. A fire crackled with a slow-moving, sleepy yellow flame, giving a sweet aroma of wood smoke and, by association, safety. There were a smattering of guests, middle aged and upwards, and tweed was flavour of the month. O’Toole surveyed the artwork, mainly framed prints of hunting scenes with blasting guns and alert dogs. It wouldn’t do to be a pheasant in this northern quagmire. He approached the bar, which was small and barricaded with bottles and pumps, and held up a hand to gain the attendant’s attention.

“Pint of water to start with, skipper,” O’Toole ordered. “A Macallan to follow, large and straight. And bags of ready salted crisps, nuts, pork scratchings… anything.” O’Toole craned his neck to further study the room’s embellishments. Antique furniture was narrow in style and tastefully curved, fitting the environment so perfectly that they were almost invisible. Windows were practically floor to ceiling in length, curtains yet to be drawn, although nothing could be viewed through the panes at this hour. Small lamps privately burned, providing a homely glow.

The barman, a local, smiled like a bobby on the beat and asked, “Do you ’ave a room number, sir?”

“Not at this precise time, but all is in good order, and in three minutes, I’ll not have one room number but six to choose from.”

“Or would you prefer to pay in cash?”

“Alas, not a penny on me,” and O’Toole conspiratorially squeezed up to the bar to explain. “I’ve ridden a rough excursion, you see, and thankfully I’ve reached the terminus. All change please!”

A draught of air and O’Toole suddenly felt he had company; whether benign or malicious he was yet to discover. He span ostentatiously to find a red-faced, rotund, headmasterly/CEO figure in his early sixties resembling a small tank engine that was uncoupling from its sniggering trucks in a Rev W Awdry Railways Series yarn. The gentleman’s moustache quivered and judging by his attire and perturbed state, he’d spent a miserable day firing at, and missing, large colourful birds in the wet Cumbrian countryside.

“Now see here,” the portly soul began.

“The television programme for the deaf?” O’Toole interrupted. “Sundays. I’ve seen it. Usually as I’m getting in from Saturday night.”

“What the devil are you talking about? This is a private bar for the guests of the hotel and furthermore there’s a dress code. Where’s your tie?”

“Fuck off,” O’Toole jabbed a finger, in no mood for fools. “It’s Scarecrow Night.”

“You can’t simply walk off the main road after a day’s dozing in a farmer’s barn, bolt into the first place you find and order yourself a livener, you… you… vagrant!” the man complained. “I can’t work out whether you’re bloody rude or plain insolent?”

O’Toole appeared shocked for a moment. He then broke into a jaunty smile and softly replied, “Sir, I have the same problem.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the man spoke, shifting up a gear and keen for a rapid solution. “You’re upsetting the tenor.”

“Your companion was cheap for the price,” O’Toole commented, copping a view of the angry individual’s female friend, and instinctively shifted to one side as a dumpy fist shot through the air. Events appeared to be hotting up when a smartly dressed figure of authority in black suit, white shirt and shiny blue tie raced forward to restore order. “Major, Major, please, this man is a guest of the hotel, despite appearances. Please pass on complaints to staff and allow us to deal with these in the appropriate manner.”

“Guest?” the Major rolled back with indignation. “He’s a dosser!”

“I’m Carlisle Council’s chief dustbin inspector,” O’Toole explained. “It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. This is my final job of the day. The hotel passes with flying colours, once again.”

The ears of the seated Chuck Mosley pricked up. The mixed-race singer and guitarist with San Francisco post-punk band Haircuts Would Kill scribbled It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it on the back of a Bass beermat, and then crossed out has to in favour of gotta. It sounded less British and stuffy. He was enjoying the Limey fracas but felt sympathy for the hobo. Mosley would shortly replace Courtney Love in the American rock band Faith No More. He tucked the beermat into his bag and continued drinking his pint of John Smiths “bitter”, which he liked more than he’d expected.

The hotel manager gestured towards an empty table with two accompanying high-backed chairs and beckoned O’Toole towards them. The Major, silenced and chastened, returned to his wife, who promptly handed him a tablet from a plastic container. It was swallowed with a G&T.

“I’m Darren Stockdale, hotel manager at Daventry Hall. And you are Peter O’Toole, the actor, right? Lawrence of Arabia?”

“I’m heavily disguised,” O’Toole cracked a grin. “It’s the only way I can travel.”

“I doubt you’ve been recognised by a single person,” the hotel manager followed. “I’ve had a Mr Kenis from London on the phone. Your agent? He mentioned you’ll need six rooms. I’m sorry but I can only offer two. It’s hunting season in these parts and we are busy at the weekend. We should be completely full but the fog last night took its toll. I’ve never seen conditions like it.”

“Yes, it was quite something,” O’Toole accepted.

“You can stay in our largest suite for no extra cost and I’m sure we can find space, with a little shifting around of furniture, for you and your five friends, but you might be three to a room. It’s best we can do.”

“That would be fine,” O’Toole smiled. “I’m sure they’ll be fit to drop once they arrive. Could I order a drink?”

“Of course,” the manager said. “What’ll you have?”

“Pint of water. Whisky, large. Bagged snacks of your choosing, preferably four,” O’Toole affirmed.

“How about a steak? We can set you up a place here, no bother.”

O’Toole’s eyes lit up. “Medium rare. Hold the crisps.”

The manager conversed with the barman using a secret language of clicking fingers, hand movement and eyebrow manipulation. Two mats were rapidly slapped on the table followed by a pint of tap water and two tumblers, one containing a divine brown liquid, the other rocks of ice and a long spoon.

“Apologies for the misunderstanding, sir,” the barman spoke. “Your clothes threw me. The Macallan is a largelarge. Fifteen Year Old. A top drop. You look like you need warmin’ up. On the house.”

O’Toole reached for the pint of cold water and downed it in one. He placed the glass back on its mat and contemplated. “Isn’t it amazing?” he expounded. “In times of trouble your body instinctively knows what is best, and right now, that is a glass of ten-furlongs.”

Stockdale looked perplexed. “Ten furlongs?”

“Ten furlongs mile and a quarter,” O’Toole smiled. “Water.”

With deliberation, O’Toole lifted the tumbler to his nose for a long-drawn-out sniff and then lowered the rim to his lips. He eyed his tranquil surroundings and thought of his companions traipsing dejectedly away from the cliff face hours before, their own adventure far from completion, with uncertainty their only certainty. He sipped his Macallan with due respect and commented, “Absolute heaven. How do they make it so cheap?”

“As for clothing, we’ve a few items that should suffice,” Stockdale added. “You’ve arrived with nothing, is that correct?”

“I travel light,” O’Toole replied.

“Room 9 is free now,” the manager confirmed and passed over the key. It’s upstairs. There’s a bath and shower. Your clothing is on the bed, but they’re lost-property pieces. Nothing new but they’re clean. Carlisle closes at five on a Saturday and doesn’t stir till Monday morning. I can call an outfitter but whether he can drop by, I wouldn’t like to guess.”

“Don’t go to the trouble,” O’Toole dismissed, taking another small drop of smooth firey warmth. “I’m sure your second-hand selection of clobber will be ideal for my evening’s entertainment. I can’t thank you enough.”

“We believe the jacket once belonged to Geoff Boycott, the cricketer,” the hotel manager stated. “He stayed here a while back when he were signing autographs for a book launch in a sport shop. Afterwards, we tried contacting him but he never rang back. It’s a shame. I’m a bit of a fan. It’s too tight for me, like. I enjoy me mother’s Sunday dinners too much. ”

O’Toole sunk back into his seat, face reddening, and just as the hotel manager suspected his guest might be suffering a heart attack and that he should call an ambulance, O’Toole rocked forward, tapped the table with the flat of his hand and let out a bronchial laugh. “Oh, Mother!” he breathlessly heaved.

Stockdale, smiling yet baffled, stood and announced, “We’ll get two mattresses and extra blankets in your room once you’ve had a moment to freshen up. We’ll have a key at reception for the extra accommodation. Do you want to go up now or are you ready to eat shortly?”

“Eat!” barked O’Toole. “I forgot to pack my sandwiches this morning.”

The Major gave O’Toole a withering stare and the actor merrily raised his glass in his direction. “What about the tie?” O’Toole asked Stockdale.

“Not required. Don’t worry, these are unusual circumstances.”

“They are not!” O’Toole harrumphed. “I’m in fine company. You must have a tie somewhere!”

Stockdale slowly nodded and disappeared, returning minutes later with a tie that had a criss-cross design of muted countryside shades. O’Toole thanked the hotel manager for his can-do capabilities and as soon as he was alone, he removed his beyond-repair jacket to reveal a brightly coloured pink, blue and white striped shirt that, apart from damp stains at the shoulders and residual blemishes at the chest from his cliff ascent and scrape with an evil ventriloquist’s dummy, belied the struggle he’d endured in reaching Daventry Hall. With the Major busily observing, O’Toole fastened his tie around his forehead like a Rambo sweatband.

The waiter, who’d been pre-warned that a world-famous actor had descended on the hotel, was professional enough to conceal his amusement upon spotting O’Toole’s oddball appearance. Wait till I tell Dad! he inwardly beamed.

A place was set with knife and fork, fork and spoon, and when dinner eventually arrived, O’Toole’s face straightened to take in the majestic offering.

“Steak Diane, sir,” the waiter revealed with a Borders twang. “Might I suggest a red wine to go with ya dinnah? A Chianti, perhaps?”

O’Toole nodded his approval. “Just a glass, mind. Certainly no more than two. If I have three, I shall be annoyed and hold you responsible.” He placed his napkin dutifully into his shirt. This dragged a smile from the waiter. I mean, why is ’e botherin’? the staff member wondered.

“I’ll ’ang ya coat up, sir,” the waiter followed, which brought tired thanks from O’Toole, who was hoping to remain awake long enough to fully appreciate the bounty before him.

With alcoholic accompaniment delivered, O’Toole’s stomach let out a radio-interference whine, such was his hunger. He launched into the steak like a wolf in a wildlife park. It was served with skinny chips that were fancifully titled French fries on the menu and a mixture of vegetables including white, overdone cauliflower and leathery broad beans. Incredibly, the flavours were out of this world. O’Toole felt like he was taking part in an Olympic race to clear his plate in record time, an act witnessed with much interest by the barman.

A second glass of rocket-fuel Chianti invigorated O’Toole and his eyes widened. A flash of his watch and he realised time was pressing and that his body was aching to be submerged in piping-hot water. He declined pudding and asked for the bill to be charged to his room. With haste, O’Toole picked up his key, retrieved his ragged jacket and bid a theatrical good evening to the guests in the bar, including a huffing Major and his flapping umbrella of a wife. Chuck Mosley called over, “Fuck, man, you got a good look! You’re like Oscar from Sesame Street! He’s the deal!” With O’Toole departing, the Major approached Mosley’s table to reprimand him about his foul language.

Following directional signs to Room 9, O’Toole bounded a set of supremely well-hoovered stairs, passing a tense-looking couple on the landing, who gave the ascending figure a wide berth despite the actor’s cheery approach.

Room 9 was located at the far end of the corridor and for a moment it reminded O’Toole of the children’s room and the horrors of Hangingbrow Hall. Two camp-bed mattresses had already been pushed up against the passageway and this eased his fears. O’Toole wondered who he’d most appreciate as his dormitory chums and assumed the elder duo Brian Clough and Geoff Boycott would naturally gravitate his way. Not that he could foresee much idle chatter into the early hours. Even Clough had his limits.

Inside, the room was joyously warm, dry and welcoming, with a bouncy king-size bed, two large windows with drawn yellow floral-patterned curtains, a desk and seat in which a business traveller might check his invoices and receipts, a set of well-polished wooden drawers and, laid neatly on the bed, Geoff Boycott’s discarded blazer, a pair of denim jeans, a white shirt, a maroon V-neck Slazenger jumper, grey socks and, importantly, Paisley underpants of a medium size. By the side of the bed lay a pair of well-worn golden-brown brogues, which appeared to have been glued at the sole to extend their life. He had no sartorial plans for his beleaguered friends. Some bridges had to be crossed as and when.

O’Toole stepped into the bathroom and span the hot tap, pouring a slug of bubble bath into the steaming water to assist the dirt-scouring. He undressed and twisted the cold tap to avoid cooking like a lobster. He ran his hand through the foam and rapidly swiped the water from side to side to give a steady sub-boiling-kettle temperature. He wiped the steam from a mirror to study his bedraggled state and smiled at his reflection. He slipped the Rambo-style tie from his head and found himself mesmerised by the sheer amount of grime and red scratches on his gaunt face.

Gloriously, the bathwater was so searing that O’Toole’s feet and lower legs, accustomed to nothing but cold and damp, tingled painfully. He slowly descended into the water until his shoulders were submerged and it felt like he’d climbed into a shaft of sunshine. He washed his hair and to his joy saw small clods of dirt float past his knees, as if he’d departed a rugby field not five minutes earlier. He took hold of the soap and scrubbed until his skin glowed pink.

The towel was white and fluffy, which he tied at the waist. To his dismay, there was no toothpaste so he wiped his teeth using his forefinger. The clothing was not an ideal fit but when on a war footing, such inconveniences could be discounted. O’Toole then sat anxiously at the end of his bed holding his watch in his hand and counted the minutes until 10.01pm.

There was a trim phone by the bed, and once O’Toole had navigated the complexities of dialling an outside line, he placed a call to London.

“Yes, hello.”

“It’s O’Toole.”

“I’m sorry, Pete…”

“What do you mean sorry?” O’Toole veered forward. “You must have received a call!”

“I did,” O’Toole’s agent Kenis revealed. “The police in Cumbria. They found a wrecked Ford Capri in a field that had been rented by a Mr P O’Toole in Dublin. Irish plates. A write-off. Upside-down. Bag in the back. Are you injured?”

“No, not at all,” O’Toole spoke. “So much has happened since then, I’d almost forgotten. What did you say? Did you tell them I’d called you?”

“Yes,” said Kenis. “What else could I do? I told them that I suspected you were concussed and possibly in need of a doctor.”

“Did you reveal my whereabouts?”

“No, although I said I was expecting you’d ring back at 10pm and explain what was going on, and that I’d call them back as soon as I knew.”

“You did the right thing,” O’Toole responded. “I’ll call flatfoot myself.”

“That would be appreciated,” said Kenis. “And ring back if you need any more help. I’ve a phone by the bed so I won’t miss it.”

O’Toole replaced the wedge-shaped receiver, and picked it up again. He tapped the buttons, 9 (outside line)… 9… 9… 9…

“Hello, which service do you require?” asked the operator.


There was a click and another voice said, “Hello, police.”

O’Toole cleared his throat. “I’d like to report five missing persons. Their names? Geoff Boycott, Brian Clough, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy.”

  1. Come and play, everything’s a-OK

Perhaps ill-advisedly and contrary to Peter O’Toole’s stern warnings, the gang decided to split into two teams in order to limit the time it would take to complete their primary tasks of providing warmth and impounding Axis refreshments. Tim Healy had been correct about Brian Clough, of course. To Ol’ Big Head, idleness was an illness and jobs, however menial, were its cure. After all, a busy mind was a happy mind – and that’s fair enough, thought the Geordie. Soaked from their soul-sapping hike, hungry to the point that cannibalism was being considered as a long-term alternative, and critically sleep-deprived, Clough knew that booze and the kindly warmth of a flame was the best they could hope for given their increasingly perilous circumstances.

Clough had naturally paired off with Geoff Boycott in a search for timber. Anything made out of wood, apart from a stool that might be used in the future as a makeshift cricket wicket, was considered fair game. Mark E Smith, Tony Wilson and Tim Healy were given the more stress-free project of alcohol scouts and needed no directions in locating Hangingbrow Hall’s living room with its fancy cocktail cabinet and dreamlike turn-of-the-century schmaltzy artwork favoured by a crackpot dictator.

Out into the black night Clough and Boycott rushed as if driven by the spirits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, traipsing over tufts of spongy grass and invading saplings. They paced eagerly around the grounds scrutinising the dank surroundings for any sign of an outlying structure. “There’ll be a shed round here someplace, mister,” Clough spoke matter-of-factly. “We just need an axe or a saw and, if possible, a ladder.”

“You might find this strange but I can be quite ’andy wi’ an axe,” Boycott admitted.

“Aye, I’ll bet you can,” Clough responded with a wary glare. “You’ve a lot of power in them forearms from years of successful batting. I wouldn’t want to be in the road when you’re taking a swing at owt.”

“You’d be last person I’d ’ack to death,” Boycott stated. “I mean, I’m not sayin’ we’d kill anyone to eat them even if we were goin’ barmy with starvation, but I reckon that Tim Healy fella, if cooked well and delicately sliced, would taste a bit like bacon.”

“Well, it’s always an option I suppose,” Clough half-heartedly replied, using his hands like horse blinkers around his eyes to better inspect the grounds.

“It’s just too blasted dark, Brian.” Boycott said. “These are ’ardly ideal conditions to go tree-climbin’.”

“There, look,” Clough pointed. “See it? That hut? This way, Geoffrey.”

Skirting a barrier of bog bilberry and stepping over the thorn-entwined skeleton of a decaying bike, a black-painted rotting structure was reached and was seen to be constructed from slimy wooden planks with moss liberally clumped on its damp exterior, making it appear like a cuboid reptile.

“Christ alive, ’ow on earth did you spot this old shack, Bri?” Boycott spoke with admiration.

“The roof!” Clough boomed. “It’s sopping! Light and shadow. And I could smell the CCA wood treatment. It’ll be the only reason this place is still in one piece.”

“Light?” Boycott replied. “It’s like being down Hemsworth pit art ’ere.”

“Listen I can spot a referee getting grief from 75 yards off at Blundell Park on a foggy Tuesday night when the floodlights are malfunctioning,” Clough stated. “You need eyes in your backside in my game. Luckily, I’ve got ’em”

Despite the darkness, the shed was seen to be a good size and would have belonged to a proficient gardener on a full-time wage. It was roughly the same proportions as Clough’s at his home in Derbyshire’s Amber Valley that was so well known to the Nottingham Forest staff. Clough yanked a handle and the entire door came away from the frame and crashed sidewards like a Glaswegian drunkard alighting from a Saturday-morning British Rail service at Blackpool North station. The pair filed inside and waited for their eyes to adjust to the dingy interior.


A brilliant white camera-cube light brought vibrant illumination to the shed’s interior, bringing the walls into fascinating clarity. Then the light was gone and there followed a distant drum roll.

“Hell’s bells, that’s all we bloody well need,” Clough said. “Thunderstorm.”

“Was that lightnin’?” Boycott cried. “I thought you’d found an operable strip light. I saw some rusted-to-buggery gardenin’ implements ’angin’ from wall ovver theer. Despite dereliction, I’ll bet it were once neat as a pin in ’ere.”

Clough stepped forward and felt the outline of vital gardening equipment, their metallic edges cool to the touch. “Bingo,” he delightedly declared. “Look here, there’s an axe and even better, a two-man saw. It feels bloody oxidised, that’s all. I reckon they’ll hold up, though. Now, let’s go and see that big wooden brute round the other side of the house. It’s about to lose a few limbs.”

The doors of the curved walnut art deco D-shaped drinks cabinet remained ajar from the troupe’s exploration the night before and to Smith’s pleasure, he realised that its hoard of exotic intoxicants from Central Europe and the Mediterranean had barely been tithed. Another bottle of Jägermeister was removed by Smith, followed by Slivovka, a clear liquid in a no-nonsense, design-free pop bottle with a colourful painting of plums on the label.

Looking at the booty, Smith smiled warmly. “I’ll have one from the top, one from the middle and three of your choosing please, Carol,” he japed as the bottles busily clanked around his fingers. To get the ball rolling, Smith unscrewed the cap of the Slivovka. “Danger, waaaaa, danger, waaaaa,” he wailed and poured a few healthy fingers’-worth into three glasses. Wilson and Healy gratefully received their measures.

“What we got?” Healy squinted, eyeing the colourless liquid with interest. “It looks serious, this stuff, man. Mind oot the way, Tony, my socks are aboot to fly off.”

Wilson inspected the label and announced, “Looks like it was once fruit, so it must have some vitamin C content in it somewhere,” and he studiously swallowed a mouthful. He closed his eyes and allowed the inferno in his throat to work through his network of neural highways and sinews, and out to his extremities. “Fwooaaahhh!” he eventually spluttered. “Is that legal?”

“Plum brandy,” Smith announced. “Be careful with this stuff. It’ll fuckin’ remove your brain, squeeze it and place it back sideways.” Smith drained his glass. “You could power a jet fighter with this sort of shit.”

Smith filled their glasses once again, larger than the last, then set himself the task of bringing every bottle out of the cabinet and placing them carefully on the floorboards in small neat rows. Lifting his head, he marched in front of the curious congregation of alcohol like a sergeant major taking a drill on a military parade garden. “Atten-tion!” he ordered, before spinning on the spot and retracing his steps, all the while keeping a stern eye on the troops in his command, even though one of his eyebrows had swollen into a blue lip beneath the liberally applied plasters. “Keep those feet up!” he bawled and then, from the corner of his mouth, spoke, “Lovely boy.” Catching sight of a bottle of Luxardo Amaretto, Smith roared, “You ’orrible liquer! Get on the deck and give me ten! On the double!”

Wilson smiled at the spectacle. This was performance art, backing up his firm belief that all Mancunians and Salfordians were put on this earth to entertain. Walk down any street in Prestwich, Cheetham Hill or Alkrington, knock on door after door and you would meet singers, DJs, magicians, comedians and comperes.

Healy sipped his drink but made no show of its strength or the ensuing oesophagus blaze. It had an instant warming effect, helping his body temperature rise within his saturated motorcycle leathers. In fact, having seen his frightening phantom for a second time, robust alcohol was just what he needed. The Newcastle actor placed his empty glass on the art deco cabinet. What was required was a swag bag to transport bottles back to the main hall. A dustsheet covering a table in the corner of the room would have to suffice. A grey cloud emerged in the dull light as Healy shifted the sheet sideways and he rapidly gathered up the material. “What the…?” Healy jumped, realising something was amiss. On the tabletop sat a simple earthenware bowl, which at some point might have held a selection of fresh fruit, but on this bizarre evening was stocked with three Golden Wonder Pot Noodles, all cheese and tomato flavour.

Healy was dumbstruck. He rummaged through his brain to ascertain whether the Pot Noodle, with its monosodium glutamate and flavour enhancers, could possibly have had its roots in World War II Britain, Germany, Italy or even Japan. He picked one of the containers from the bowl and marvelled at its plastic packaging and tin-foil lid. He shook the pot and was rewarded with a tambourine rattle. He read out the English words beneath the cartoon-like logo. “Noodles. Processed soya pieces with dried vegetables. Add water, stir well. I’ll be honest with you,” he turned to his companions, “I’ve never eaten one of these things.”

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Wilson spoke. “The lunch of choice for A Certain Ratio, Section 25 and New Order, although Gillian won’t go near them. She’s on a health kick.”

“I love a Pot Noodle,” announced Smith. “They’ve got it perfect, that Golden Wonder lot. You never need a second one, do you?”

“Then you’re in luck, bonny lad,” Healy smiled and lobbed one across to Smith. “There are three here, untouched and in pristine condition.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Wilson frowned. “When did Pot Noodles first appear, 1977, ’78?”

“Aye, I’d say you were about right there,” Healy replied.

“So someone’s been here in the last seven years,” Smith added, placing the Pot Noodle back on the table. “I’ll bet it was Pete Murphy. It’d explain a lot.”

Flummoxed, they packed the three instant meals into their makeshift thieves sack followed by a smorgasbord of high-alcohol liquids. It was at that moment that the light bulb let out a high-pitched whine and burned like a dying star. It brought a harsh yellow glare to the room, accentuating the web and dust decoration draped from the ceiling and making the ethereal painting “Isle Of The Dead” by symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin even spookier than it already was. With a click, the door to the hallway closed of its own volition and the handle began moving erratically up and down.

“We could be undergoing military psychotropic visions, y’know,” Smith ventured. “CIA skulduggery, in cahoots with MI6. We’re the protagonists in an experiment and one of these walls is bulletproof glass with special see-through wallpaper covering it.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Wilson noted sceptically, scanning the room for undercover espionage evidence. “But would we react differently if we knew none of this was real and we were under observation? We know escape is practically impossible. The visions we’ve seen are just real enough to keep us on edge.”

“They’ll be waiting for us to start turning on each other and noting down the results,” Smith spoke. “That’s normally what these shitshows boil down to. Human endurance and the limits of the mind. They tend to throw in a couple of kitchen swords when things start to get tasty and see how things pan out. To be honest though, this is actually pretty straightforward compared to being on the road playing gigs in America with a bunch of mithering musicians on chokey.”

“But the question is, pet, why us?” Healy asked. “Why would we be personally chosen out of all the people in Britain, huh? Only a real nutcase would handpick us lot and shove us in a big house to try and frighten us to death as an experiment. It doesn’t add up, man. It’s just happened, that’s all. Could’ve been anyone. It’s a coincidence, and a rough one, but a coincidence no less.”

“It could be that I’m the second messiah, and this is a test of my resolve,” Smith added. “That’s my best guess at the moment. I’ve thought this a few times before, you know. The facts rack up. There’s this electrician who goes to my local who I’ve often thought was the Angel Gabriel. Stares at me a lot, but not in a funny way. It’s almost benign.”

Wilson looked across to Healy and with a withering expression said, “Well, there’s your explanation in a nutshell. We’re bit-part players in part three of the Bible.”

While Healy processed the preposterous hypothesis, the decorative light fitting began trembling like an ostrich shaking its tail feathers. The bulbs then cut out and there came a triple flash from the window followed by a sky-tearing crackle of bass-laden thunder. The door handle suddenly ceased its excited clanking and illumination quickly returned, but erratic changes in brightness from dull to intense did little to settle the nerves of the trio.

“Get the booze in the dustsheet and let’s get the hell outta here, darling,” Wilson suggested. “And I mean let’s get out of this room, out of this building and take our chances in the woods. We’re not welcome here, we’re not wanted here, we shouldn’t be here. It’s like being in Liverpool.”

As if things couldn’t get worse, the door flung open with brute force and hit the wall with such alacrity that a section of plaster clattered to the floor. “Oh, but you are wanted here!” a baritone voice boomed from the corridor, and there came a slow slapping sound, which made the corners of Wilson’s mouth turn downwards.

Healy whipped a glance across to Smith and affirmed, “The window’s our best way out if this heads south, kidda. You got that?”

Smith nodded but his attention was sucked towards the doorframe and the horror it would inevitably reveal. Instinctively, the singer grabbed the Slivovka brandy, took a hefty swig, replaced the cap and held the vessel like a club. “Whatever it is, I’m gonna bottle it,” he declared and patted the plasters down on his eyebrow to ensure unencumbered vision.

Into view emerged a pair of mournful, too-close-together eyes whose diameter was so extraordinarily large and unnatural that Wilson, Smith and Healy weakened at the stomach. The irises were large and black and shifted about among a white sea of sclera. Upon seeing a dangling hairy brown hose of a trunk, the three Northerners drew in breath. And yet to Smith, there was something vaguely familiar about this hairy abomination, and it sent an electrical shiver down the length of his spine. The creature paused in the doorway, peering into the room.

“Proboscidean,” Wilson muttered.

“Huh?” Healy squinted.

“Elephantine,” Wilson confirmed. “Large, clumsy, awkward, ponderous…”

Whatever its genealogy, it shuffled forward to reveal that it was roughly the size of a racehorse, with scruffy shag-pile brown fur that was longer and more fringe-like on its large dome of a head. Had David Attenborough been standing on the barren Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, he might have whooped with joy and slapped the back of a BBC cameraman at the sight of a pigmy mammoth with a long powerful trunk that reached all the way to the ground. Its fat baggy legs were almost from the pantomime stage.

“Ponderous?” The word was ejected with an American accent from a flappy brown mouth. The spectacular notion of an English-speaking four-legged mammal was not lost on the alcohol-pilfering visitors.

Smith’s brain crackled with images of test tubes, flames, bubbling liquids, cave-like walls and huge glass tanks, and he let out a tormented groan at the fragmented images. Was he seeing the past once again, witnessing scientific crimes that had been captured by psychic videotape?

Then the singer remembered. There was the time after the Bristol show, when Smith had had his drink spiked by disgruntled members of London gothic band Alien Sex Fiend. He had admitted that he’d never heard of them and that they looked like a bizarre collection of black clowns – it was fair comment. They had sat with him discussing John Peel, Joy Division, the usual Man City pleasantries, their idea to release an 11” single – which Smith thought admirable – and drugs v booze, as if the two were somehow separate pleasures. The ride back in the van had been a multi-coloured Disney version of Cannibal Holocaust, an Amazonian hell-trip where the motorway carriage’s lights had become a huge 170-mile-long patterned anaconda stretching from the M32 at St Werburgh’s to his front door. “See you Monday,” Smith had grunted, forcing every ounce of brain power to utter these three simple words, knowing that the South American gloop he’d ingested would have killed the next man.

Colourfully disturbing scenes of jungle terror continued into his living room through to the dull grey of the Manchester morning, the BBC test card his only connection to a world that seemed to be slipping into a high-octane cartoon carnival without any hope of it ever fading. And then at 9.30am came Sesame Street and the wonderfully toned bright yellow plumage of Big Bird and the Morecambe & Wise niggling companionship of Bert & Ernie. Just as the highball concoction seemed to be easing, onto the screen shuffled Mr Snuffleupagus, “Snuffy”, a brown baggy woolly mammoth that nobody ever saw apart from Big Bird. It was at that moment that Smith’s existence upended. The beast marched past his avian chum and pressed its furry honker right up to Smith’s Radio Rentals TV screen. With an evil scowl, it pushed forwards against the glass and through force of will blooped out of its New York pretend world and entered a Manchester reality, chasing the curmudgeonly entertainer around the settee, huge eyes bulging, tickling Smith’s backside with that promiscuous probing nasal hose.

“We meet again,” greeted Mr Snuffleupagus.

Smith turned to Wilson and Healy, and asked, “Are you witnessing this?”

“The elephant, aye,” Healy responded.

“Thank God for that,” Smith nodded.

“God?” Wilson affirmed. “Your father, you mean?”

“It’s viable,” Smith said. “Now this is uncanny. I’ve never mentioned it before to anyone, not even the wife, but I have a low-grade fear of this animal, Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, because it’s eyes are too big and it visited me when I’d been poisoned by musicians who looked like bats in the West Country. I turn it off the telly now when it comes on. It’s a secret buddy of Big Bird, y’know that massive yellow emu. No other fucker ever sees it so you’re never 100 per cent if it’s a figment of Big Bird’s imagination.”

“Oh, I do exist,” grumbled the heavyweight beast, and within his gaping mouth revealed hundreds of shark-like dagger teeth. “It’s feeding time at the zoo, Mark Edward Smith. You know too much for your own good and you must be devoured. It is my task to end your life here tonight. I have to tell you that I particularly enjoy eating human liver. I’ll pierce a hole in your flabby Limey stomach and suck the organ out using my trunk like a vacuum cleaner, huh-huh-huh. It can make a helluva mess, I can tell you. Tonight, I am in luck. Three humans is a gift.”

“We’re hard livers with hard livers,” Smith spoke. “Our internal organs are already spoken for, cocker. We need them. They have to be fully functioning to deal with the amounts of sauce we have to put away as part of our professions. All of us are drinkers. It goes with the territory. I’m giving you a warning now to bugger off back to your Children’s Television Workshop Walter The Softee world with your pals Alien Sex Friends or you’ll end up with a knuckle sandwich, you ’ear me? Last thing you need is two black eyes.”

Mr Snuffleupagus merely opened his sack of a mouth revealing those white blades and swivelled his eyes from left to right judging the mood in the room.

Wilson pointed a finger at the carnivorous herbivore. “I’ve got a question for you, Mr…?”

“Snuffleupagus,” Mr Snuffleupagus replied. “But you can call me Snuffy.”

“Right, yeah, Snuffy darling, how come you don’t have any tusks?”

“As you’ll discover, I need no additional self-defence mechanisms,” Mr Snuffleupagus divulged. “And it might scare all the nice American children. Now, let’s get this over with. Enough of the niceties, already. I’m afraid you are all in the final pages of your own tedious autobiographies. Your stories end tonight, and no one will ever know how it ended.”

“Are you familiar with aluminium?” Wilson ventured.

Mr Snuffleupagus’s large black-dot eyes danced in Wilson’s direction. “What’s the purpose of this enquiry?” he asked. “And it’s aluminum. There’s no need for the additional ‘i’.”

Smith smiled. “Your associate on Sesame Street should be called Biscuit Monster,” he said. “We don’t ’ave cookies in this country.”

“Never met him,” Mr Snuffleupagus responded.

“And to hide your bollocks from grannies and kids, you should be wearing trousers, bonny lad,” Healy added.

“Trousers?” Mr Snuffleupagus queried. “You mean pants.”

“If you’re wearing trousers, you need pants as well,” Smith stated. “Always wear kecks in case you have to go to hospital. Did your mam never tell you that?”

“I think he said ‘paints’,” Wilson said.

“Like Berger or Dulux?” Healy frowned. “Well, this place could do with a lick of emulsion, that’s for sure. Maybe a countryside tone, like mushroom.”

“No more playing for time,” Mr Snuffleupagus complained. “Any decorating from this point on will be in gaudy shades of red. It’s dinnertime.”

“That would make it midday in these parts, you woolly woofter,” Smith shook his head. “Have you not got a watch? It’s dark outside.”

An enraged Mr Snuffleupagus focused squarely on Smith and manoeuvred smartly in his direction as if powered by two internal motors within its body – one for the front legs, one for the back. The door to the entrance closed with another firm slam and steam sizzled from the handle as if it was hot as an iron. At first the scene was almost playground-esque, with Wilson, Healy and Smith darting to the furthest reaches of the living room to maintain a safe distance between themselves and the brown trunk that writhed and stretched.

“We don’t leave without the booze,” Smith commanded, thinking ahead, but as he bolted towards the dustsheet swagbag, he slid on the edge of a rug and careered across the hard parquet, bashing his knee on the floor. He was momentarily paralysed with the sort of pain that doesn’t arrive instantaneously but you know it’s in the post. When the agony came, it shot up and down his leg from thigh to ankle. Mr Snuffleupagus trotted to the spreadeagled figure and, using his powerful trunk, seized Smith by the waist, lifting him skywards like a stop-motion animation. Wilson and Healy could only watch with helpless horror. Stricken with a leg spasm, Smith was unable to gather enough strength to resist the python crush of the muscly trunk. The meat-eating, possessed mammoth could now smell the aroma of blood from the recent gash on the singer’s eyebrow and pulled the author of “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Kicker Conspiracy” and “Hip Priest” towards its open holdall of a mouth with impatient greed.

“It’s Mancunian on the menu for appetizer,” Mr Snuffleupagus bellowed. “I’m going to crush your ribcage and suck your insides clean.”

“We… call… it… starter… in this country,” Smith gasped as the air departed his lungs.

Wilson’s eyes searched the room for a suitable weapon with which to assist the stricken artist and found a dust-whitened fireplace companion set on the hearth replete with poker, shovel, tongues and brush. He made a dash to the hearth and rifled through the coal-management tools, inexplicably opting for the brush, and he ran towards the rear of the beast. Approaching the crease of Mr Snuffleupagus’s backside, Wilson swished the brush up and down, tickling the matted brown fur. “Rrrrrrr,” Snuffy growled and shifted forwards. Wilson followed and tickled some more.

Distracted, the Jim Henson creation attempted to manoeuvre its under-soft-attack sphincter closer to the wall to countenance any interference from Wilson and his maddening brush. Smith, recognising a mounting confusion, dinked the end of the Slivovka bottle that he was holding on the edge of a solid oak table, sending the plum-based liquid splashing to the floor. Amid the crisis, Healy rapidly gathered up the clonking bottles of booze along with the Pot Noodles and dragged them towards the window. Smith was within striking distance of Mr Snuffleupagus’s features and jabbed his jagged weapon directly into the centre of an oversized eye. Its black disc dropped to the foot of the lens and a mass of retinal tissue oozed onto the parquet. “Whurrrr,” Mr Snuffleupagus complained.

Healy seized the heavy fireplace companion frame with its claw-shaped feet and smashed the large pane of the exterior window with a single blow, dragging fresh wafts of Cumbrian breeze deep into the room. Carefully, he lifted the swagbag across the window ledge and dropped it in a clunking heap onto flagstones below. Meanwhile, Smith waved his broken bottle in order to attack the elephant’s soulless other eye, which regarded the weapon as a giant squid might a passing porpoise. “Desist!” Mr Snuffleupagus ordered Smith. Wilson continued his interference with the creature’s wrong end. “Desist!” the Muppet repeated to Wilson.

Smith changed tack and aimed the end of the bottle into the powerful furry trunk, stabbing with a frenzy that quickly brought fizzing squirts of bright blood. A shrill elephant trumpet filled the room, which made Healy wince as he busily cleared the window edges of glass shards using the fireplace poker.

With another wild stab and tear with the jagged bottle, the trunk’s tight embrace gave way and Smith hit the floor. The originator of the country ’n’ northern sound wasted no time in scrambling to his feet. “Wilson,” he bawled. “Get out of ’ere!” The erstwhile Granada newsreader merely flipped the brush and thrust it into the flaps of the creature’s backside handle first, before dashing in the direction of the obliterated window. Healy could be seen standing outside Hangingbrow Hall beckoning with welcoming hands, offering assistance through the gap. Wilson and Smith were across the ledge as if being played on VHS cassette fast-forward. Peering into the living room with morbid fascination, they watched with awe as the children’s TV mammoth sprayed blood from its wrecked trunk like a Catherine wheel firework, covering the walls, ceiling, parquet, hearth and Arnold Böcklin artwork with an increasingly wild frenzy, all the while trumpeting and thrashing, the black disc pupil of its one operable optical organ darting from left to right, up and down.

“I quite enjoyed that fracas,” Smith commented. “Given me a second wind.”

In a final flourish, and with its last stores of energy, Mr Snuffleupagus charged at the window like a demented bull. Smith, Wilson and Healy turned and bolted, the bag of bottles and hot-water meal options chinking and clonking on Healy’s back. The mammoth rammed the wall and window frame with such blind force that the foundations of the building shuddered, sending snapped timber and flecks of masonry into the cold night. Turning to witness the damage, all that could be seen as the three jogged to safety was bulging brickwork and a critically damaged hairy trunk idly flopping through the broken window, hanging limp, dripping blood onto the floor below.

There was a resplendent flash that brought the grounds into perfect daylight followed by a sky-breaking rip and a bang-boom of overhead thunder. In the illumination the evil-looking tree stood erect and capable, its crocodile head stretching towards the cauldron of purple bubbling clouds. With its twisted trunk and bare, outstretched branches it appeared to be captured by a photograph mid-struggle as it fought for leverage from the soil. Upon its shoulder, two busy black figures could be seen and then came the distinct sound of a saw scraping wood.

“Eh, shithouse!” came the distance-defying call. “Get yourselves over ’ere and give us an ’and!”

  1. Lily Law

A firm hand to the shoulder and an accompanying robust shake. Rozzer, Peter O’Toole squirmed. Unquestionably. He opened his eyes and waited. What, where am I, when? These were the familiar tripartite gambits for the former notorious boozer, who’d spent some of the Fifties, much of the Sixties and all of the early Seventies with either a glass to his lips or awakening in unfamiliar territory. And didn’t he, one deranged session, declare last orders an infringement of his civil liberties and promptly write out a cheque to purchase the pub – taps, towels and trough lollies all – so he could sup till sun’s-up? There was much shifting and backtracking the following morning after waking with a whump shock. Did I do that? Praise be, the convivial proprietor had caught a taste of the mirth and had played his part in the production to Olivier standard. The bar would remain in solid hands. O’Toole had been outclassed – and he smiled at the memory.

There was the taste of wine around his clacker, but it was not unpleasant, and the walls were seen to be cream, clean and welcomingly hospitable. Hotel room, Cumbria, he remembered. I escaped. A whip-crack vision of Hangingbrow’s possessed ventriloquist’s dummy stiffened his heart valves and his glow vanished in an instant. What on earth did I experience? he thought. It was all real. O’Toole found two uniformed police officers looming, and beyond, by the door, an anxious woman in a drab brown suit holding a set of keys like a jail warden from Prisoner: Cell Block H.

“Mr O’Toole,” spoke the nearer constable. “We knocked. You must have dropped off.”

“Dropped… off… I…” O’Toole began, and then sat upright, knuckles wiping shrunken sultana eyes, his narrow craggy face the ungrateful owner of a few additional lines.

“We’ve come about the missing persons,” the taller of the officers explained, pulling a notepad from his pocket, and fixed a glare at the female staff member from the hotel. She smiled, wanting to stay and hear the details in full, but graciously accepted her expulsion and said, “Let me know if I can be any further help,” and disappeared through the doorway.

“This is PC Noble, I’m PC Hodgson,” introduced the officer, a porcine, round-faced, balding individual with a dark moustache. “Do you know the missing persons?”

“Yes, yes, I know them…” O’Toole croakily explained. He slowly turned and placed his feet on the soft carpet. “Well, I got to know them well doing bird up at Hangingbrow Hall. Bird, bird lime, time. It was only a single night but felt like an eternity.”

“Hangingbrow Hall?” asked Hodgson. “That’s a new one on me. Noble?”

Noble, smaller and younger than his colleague, with thick dark hair that gave him the look of a startled caveman, was puzzled. “Is that the garden centre near Brunstock?”

“Well, this is the conundrum,” O’Toole revealed. “The place had been abandoned since the War, that much we understood. There are no driveways leading to its entrance in which a princess’s carriage might sweep away at midnight. Brideshead Revisited, this is not. It has been cut off, left to its own devices… erased. It sounds faintly ridiculous, I realise. This is 1984, after all. Grand properties can’t be hidden. Or can they?”

“And your friends are still there?” ventured Noble.

O’Toole shrugged. “I hope not.”

“Why did they not follow you to safety?” asked Hodgson.

“I scaled a cliff,” O’Toole announced wide-eyed. “Big bloody thing, too. With the rain, the slippery conditions, they didn’t have the stomach for an all-or-nothing shimmy. And you can’t blame them. I gambled and it paid off but that may mark my retirement from climbing. I’m getting a little long in the tooth. I was regarded as the Old Vic’s Chris Bonington – part of a RADA mountaineering team that included Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Ask them, they’ll tell you.”

Hodgson dragged a chair across the floor and said, “Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” O’Toole replied. “Please, PCs, park yourselves, be seated. Can I get you both a livener? I can call reception.”

“Oh no, no, no, sir, we’re on duty,” Hodgson’s tache twitched.

“So you’re the actor, right?” asked Noble, although he realised his eagerness was unprofessional. “Sarge said you were in that Lawrence Of Arabia.”

“And as you’ll soon realise, that Supergirl,” O’Toole admitted. “Promise me you’ll give it a miss.”

“I have to tell you, I haven’t seen any films you’ve been in,” Noble confirmed with no sign of embarrassment. “I will after today, next time one of them’s on telly.”

“What films do you like, if you don’t mind me asking?” ventured O’Toole.

Rocky,” Noble said. “I love that one. Godfather. Alien. James Bond. Zulu. Sci-fi. Loads of stuff, really.”

“So these friends…” continued Hodgson.

O’Toole rose to his feet to better help his thought process. “You may find this a little,” and he eyed the police officers warily… “far-fetched.”

“Go on,” said Hodgson, biro at the ready.

“Brian Clough…”

“What, the Nottingham Forest football manager?” Noble cried.

“Should be England manager,” Hodgson attested.

“Undoubtedly,” Noble agreed. “A travesty!”

“And in no particular order,” O’Toole wheezed, “Geoff Boycott…”

“The Yorkshire cricketer?” Noble jumped.

“The Yorkshire cricketer,” O’Toole nodded. “Tony Wilson…”

“Not heard of him,” Hodgson admitted, writing in his pad. “Is he a sportsman too?”

“No, no, no,” O’Toole dismissed. “More a sort of music svengali. He’s from Manchester. Six-feet tall. Long coat, military-looking trousers and those new kind of training shoes that cover the ankles. Then there’s Tim. He’s an actor. Five-eight. In bike leathers.”

“Tim?” pondered Hodgson.

“Healy,” O’Toole affirmed. “He’s in a show on television at the moment about bricklayers in Germany. I haven’t spotted it myself but apparently it’s popular.”

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?” Noble enquired. “Does he play… the gaffer?”

“Possibly,” O’Toole frowned. “Strong accent. Ends every sentence with ‘bonny lad’ or ‘pet’, which is quite endearing after you’ve spent a night together surviving on your wits. And then there’s Mark E Smith. The ‘E’ is important. I’m damned if I know why, but he’s a singer in a band from Manchester called The Fall. Six-feet again. An old head on young shoulders and a peculiarly opinionated package. He knows Tony Wilson, if that helps, although I can’t say with any degree of certainty that they meet for church on Sundays.”

“The Fall?” Noble said, staring into space, and flicked through the Rolodex of his mind, eventually admitting defeat with a dismissive headshake. “Not come across them and I listen to the chart rundown most Sundays. When I’m not workin’, like, or on nights.”

“And where were you all going?” Hodgson asked.

“We just met up by chance in the fog.” O’Toole answered. “A fluke of circumstance, I suppose. I’ll no doubt laugh about it one day, but the place we ended up… Well, it was my fault, really.”

“The fog… the other night?” Noble asked.

“That’s right,” O’Toole nodded. “I’ve not seen conditions like that since my national service in the Navy riding Arctic chop. It was the pea-souper’s pea soup and got us in a bit of a muddle.”

“We need to ask about a rental car,” Hodgson added. “A Ford Capri was found in a field upside down by a farmer. Irish plates and we found out that the car was hired in Dublin by a Peter O’Toole, which we assume to be yourself, sir.”

“Spot on,” O’Toole smiled. “Mistimed the corner. A terrific car. I have a driving licence, an Irish licence.”

“Not a British one?” Noble asked.

“I, err,” O’Toole stammered. “Well…”

“A bag of belongings was found in the boot,” Hodgson butted in. “It’s down at the station. We’ll need to interview you further about the crash for insurance purposes. The car’s a write-off. You were lucky.”

“Any idea where this hall was?” Noble probed. “Hangingbrow, right?”

“Hangingbrow,” O’Toole said and blinked uneasily with his recollections. “Decent block of bricks. We had to hop over a fair-sized barrier to reach it. We were expecting to find a squire sat by a roaring fire with a set of six tumblers awaiting us. A wee dram… ‘Another?’, ‘Why not.’ A wiggle of our toes by the hearth, a quick snore and we’d have been on our way.”

“Bit of a mystery,” Hodgson added. “I know this area like the back of my hand and I’ve never heard of such a place.”

“You must be aware of the cliff?” O’Toole glowered from officer to officer. “There can’t be too many of those around here. Maybe an abandoned stone quarry. I made a call to my agent in London from a phone box a mile or so away from it. He took the number and rang me back. It was reverse charges, you see. A taxi picked me up from there. Which reminds me… A car went off the side of the cliff and ended up in a tree. There’s a big hole in the perimeter fence. The vehicle is still there, suspended in the branches. That’s how Mark E Smith ended up with us.”

Hodgson looked to Noble and back to O’Toole. “When you upended the Capri, sir, did you knock your head?”

“No, no, no,” waved O’Toole and he scribbled down the name and number of his representative Steve Kenis and handed the slip of paper to Hodgson.

“OK, well that’s a start,” Hodgson accepted. “There’s the MoD land that covers a couple of square miles but that’s a bit of a top-secret place. They’ve got very high levels of security there. You wouldn’t have got in, though. No way. You’d have been shot!”

“The security’s now run by a private firm, I believe,” Noble recalled. “The gradual privatisation of our works and services, eh? It’ll be the railways next.”

Hodgson smiled and flicked his notebook shut. “Get some sleep,” he suggested to O’Toole. “We’ll get these names out to our panda cars, bus drivers and train drivers, so all eyes are open for miles around, OK? Five men should be easy to spot. Let’s see what first light brings. And we’ll ring if we hear anything. They’ll turn up. They usually do. We’ll come and see you in the morning and bring you down to the station about the car smash, right? Shouldn’t take long and we’ll make sure you get your overnight bag back.”

“Thank you, officers,” O’Toole smiled.

“And, er,” Noble mumbled, reaching for his own notebook, “could I have your autograph?”

O’Toole dozed and drifted but was unable to enter the peace and solace of deep sleep. For a while, he found himself once again scaling the cliff that he’d successfully conquered hours before, only this time his grip was weak, his decision-making slack and his luck out. His foot slipped and his hands were unable to take the weight of his body. Hitting the ground brought an almighty jolt. O’Toole opened his eyes and was relieved to find himself alive and well in darkness, but shattered with exhaustion and with a racing heart. Once more he fought for his thoughts to shut down but anxiety was fuel for the nocturnal mind. Finally he switched on the bedside lamp and was glad to feel the comfort of its soft glare. Scanning the room, he could find no sign of a kettle so making sure the cord on his borrowed pyjama bottoms was tightly fastened, he placed his feet into slippers that were too big for his feet and quietly unlocked the door.

Stairs were creaky but finely carpeted in autumnal shades and he found there was not a soul stirring as he made his way to the ground floor. The reception area was lit but the front desk unmanned. Assuming this was a temporary absence, O’Toole waited and, with arms folded, waited some more. Roughly four minutes had dragged by before his stores of patience ran dry and he strode away mouthing expletives while explaining that he only wanted a cup of bloody tea. The kitchen was found easily and once the main lights had flickered into life, he was able to locate a kettle, fill it with water, and then find a mug, a teabag, a bottle of milk and a sachet of Tate & Lyle.

O’Toole perched on a stool and slurped his hot beverage. He noted that the taste was laced with mineral notes and imagined this was the result of soft water in an upland region. He looked around at his kitchen surroundings, then gazed down at his white T-shirt tucked into striped pyjamas and oversized slippers. Marvelling at his predicament, he gave a grateful smile and hoped that his five companions had been picked up by a police Transit van and given warmth, a cuppa and a Fruit & Nut chocolate bar in a nearby cop shop.

Another slurp and – what’s that? Echoing voices from the reception area. In the calm sanctity of the kitchen with its spotless gas range, wipe-clean countertops and cool white light, O’Toole felt cocooned from the commotion that was afoot. He turned an ear to decipher the meaning, hoping the ferment was another person’s mini-panic and nothing more sinister than a missing wallet perhaps or an umbrella with great sentimental value that had gone astray.

“Well he must have passed through reception!” came an alarmed cry with public-school clipped tones. “Did you not see him?”

“Is there a back entrance?” another voice demanded followed by the apologetic explanation of whoever was on sentry duty that night. It was like listening to a live performance from the wings and oddly addictive. O’Toole, you’re a tittle-tattler of the highest order, and be damned with you!

Through the expanse of the kitchen window, beyond the reflections of the strip lighting and cabinets, O’Toole detected the merest hint of blue flashes amid the dense foliage of surrounding evergreens. An ambulance? wondered O’Toole and raised a concerned eyebrow. Some poor devil with a dodgy ticker from the shooting party. He took another sip of hot tea. Just then, the voices became louder and clearer, and the kitchen door burst open.

“Ah, found him!” a suited man declared. “He’s in here, in the kitchen,”

Shoes gently clip-clipped along the timber floor and O’Toole found himself surrounded by a dozen or so individuals, some in police uniform, some in well-worn suits and some, confusingly, in Army shades. A flurry of broken sentences crackled from two-way radios.

“Mr O’Toole,” said a grey-haired man of seniority, who surged forward in khaki barrack dress and green beret. “Would you mind accompanying us?”

“And you are?” O’Toole enquired with hang-dog poise.

“Brigadier Peter Huntington-Winstanley, Special Ops, British Army. We need to ask you a few questions… urgently.”

“When I’ve finished my tea, yes,” O’Toole calmly spoke and took another sip.

The cavalcade of jam-sandwich police Jaguars and Range Rovers snaked along Cumbria’s deserted narrow country lanes and silently broke the speed, blue lights flashing but without sirens on this dank, brass-monkeys-cold Sunday morning. Soon, houses and family run shops lined the road and here was Carlisle in its wintry wet glowing majesty, the Emerald City O’Toole had dreamed of reaching for what seemed like months. The vehicles turned sharply, accelerated and scraped to a halt outside a prominent limestone-block building with large rectangular windows and, on its roof, conical embellishments. The façade reminded O’Toole of Wembley Stadium. Steps led up to a double door and then they were walking along well-lit wide corridors, with busy figures holding battered mugs of hot drinks to keep out the ice-finger draughts of the night shift.

A beige room, a table, chairs, a big boxy tape recorder.

“Tea or coffee, Mr O’Toole?” a uniformed policeman asked.

“Coffee territory now,” O’Toole replied. “And would a biscuit be too much to ask for? Nothing fancy.”

The officer nodded: “Sure I can find something.”

A thud and the door closed firmly, leaving O’Toole with Cold War tactician Huntington-Winstanley and a tape operator in the interview room. Record/play…

“We understand you have some first-hand knowledge of Hangingbrow Hall,” Huntington-Winstanley asked from his standing position, arms folded and without a trace of tiredness.

“I spent a rather uncomfortable evening there,” O’Toole grimaced.

“You stayed at Hangingbrow?” Huntington-Winstanley followed. “Overnight? You are sure it was Hangingbrow?”

“I wouldn’t award it any more than two stars,” O’Toole admitted.

There came a sucking sound from the doorway as two plain-clothed gentleman promptly entered and plonked themselves down on plastic seats with much scraping of chair legs. One, a mighty, well-built man the height of Herman Munster, cleared his throat and with baritone authority said, “I’m Longley; this is Ward; MI5.”

“Box 500,” O’Toole spoke.

“We’re from the Northern Operations unit in Manchester,” Longley explained. “Department…” and he caught Huntington-Winstanley’s eye, “Well, we’ll come to that.”

To O’Toole’s tattered mind, Longley’s sidekick Ward appeared ridiculously fresh-faced, perhaps even a schoolchild, although this sensation was becoming a regular occurrence for the actor as the years tumbled by.

“The director general will be joining us, sir,” Ward said to Huntington-Winstanley.

The high-ranking soldier screwed his features and rocked with genuine surprise: “Is that so?”

A tray of various beverages arrived with sugar and milk, and the cups were divvied out on the basis of smell, for the liquids were all much of a similar hue. A packet of unopened Pennywise custard creams was slammed onto the table surface and hands reached forwards like it was a block of gold bullion. O’Toole had longed for fresh coffee but found it to be instant. Nevertheless, heat was felt in his temples once the caffeine had eeked out O’Toole’s final reserves of energy. As the seasoned night owl was aware, a second wind often presented itself when you were most in need.

The door was theatrically held open and salutes given as the evening’s leading player appeared, grey swept-back hair expertly set in place, a full face that was familiar with a Sunday roast and the beginnings of a double chin. He was immaculately turned out in a smart dark-grey pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt, maroon tie and perfectly polished black shoes. The MI5 duo stood as a greeting to this figure of power. A simple hand signal suggested they be seated. The new arrival held in his hand a bundle of papers, which he studied for a time. He sat across from O’Toole and presented a hand across the Formica. “Jones. John Jones, director general MI5.”

“O’Toole, Peter,” replied O’Toole. “Director general MI5, you say? Top Cat? What brings you to these parts?”

“Would you believe I’m local?” Jones smiled. “I was actually visiting family for the weekend when the phone rang. Now, Mr O’Toole. I’m afraid by bad luck or misjudgement you have ended up with information that must remain a secret. National security, international security – you get the general idea. Which is why we’ll need you to sign a form,” and he placed a few sheets of A4 on the table along with a Mont Blanc rollerball pen.

“What this?” O’Toole enquired.

“We require your signature… if you’d be so kind,” Jones confirmed.

“Official Secrets Act? I’m not a Crown Servant,” O’Toole rebuffed.

“You are now,” Jones added.

“But I’m an Irishman,” O’Toole argued.

“No you’re not!” Jones lent forward and scraped the form nearer to O’Toole. “You’re a Yorkshireman, as English as I am.”

Glum, crestfallen and white-faced, O’Toole dutifully scribbled.

The bulb above the table burnt O’Toole’s tired eyes and he shifted angrily to one side.

“So tell us how you breached security,” Jones questioned.

“Breached security?” O’Toole scowled.

“To get into Hangingbrow…”

“We climbed over a bloody wall,” O’Toole answered. “Not easy. A huge, belting thing. Must be centuries old. In all the fog, we almost headbutted the stonework.”

“And you just hurdled over the top of it?” Huntington-Winstanley asked.

“We’d walked so far,” O’Toole shrugged. “Miles across field and o’er dale, then through the thickest woodland I’ve ever known. It was like a cold Burma. The wall was one of the simpler obstacles of the night.”

“Impossible,” Huntington-Winstanley dismissed. “You must have cut through the barbed wire.”

“Barbed wire?” O’Toole spluttered. “Rusted to buggery – hanging like a barmaid’s ear-rings.”

Huntington-Winstanley spun to face the MI5 agents. “Can’t be. They’ve a strict contract to maintain it.”

Ward glanced down at his notes and said, “And you were with Geoff Boycott the cricketer, Brian Clough the footballer manager, Tony Wilson, who runs a record label in Manchester, a singer called Mark E Smith” – with much emphasis on the E – “and an actor from Newcastle, Tim Healy. And they’re all missing.”

“That’s correct,” O’Toole nodded.

“Longley, find out how the perimeter was violated so easily,” Jones hissed. “There’s supposed to be round-the-clock observation.”

“Yes, sir,” Longley said and departed to make his enquiries.

Despite the coffee, O’Toole began to resemble Droopy the Dog and he wished he were in the warmth of his hotel bedsheets because now, finally, he was ready to be carried away to the depths of dreamland. He stretched his legs in order to concentrate and continued his tale. “We scratched and scraped across the top of the wall and wended up to the main house,” O’Toole revealed. “That’s where we met Wilson and Smith.”

“And how did they find their way to Hangingbrow?” Ward asked.

“Smith flew straight in,” O’Toole grumbled. “Route One. His Vauxhall light aircraft and his pilot are still stuck up in the branches of a mile-high pine. As for Tony Wilson, he got there the same as the rest of us. A Fosbury and a dash to the front door. Not an easy place to find.”

“And yet six of you made it from three different directions,” Jones spoke. “Curious, wouldn’t you say?”

“I have an interest in history,” O’Toole smiled. “The Second World War is my speciality and if you are a collector of information and antiquities, and if you are willing to suspend reasonable judgement, you can hear some queer old tales on the grapevine.”

“It’s a fascinating area,” Jones responded.

“Quite,” O’Toole said and placed his head in his hands. “That’s how I came by Hangingbrow Hall. I know Hitler had an eye on the place and this is on record, if you read up on the subject in detail, as I have done for decades. Grizedale Hall too, which was nearby, demolished now, was where the Nazi elite were fastened up after capture. The ‘U-Boat Hotel’, they called it. That would have been Little Alf’s English country retreat after invasion and it was close enough to the insane power of Hangingbrow for his scientists and supernatural emissaries to conduct a few tests. I thought the myth of Hangingbrow pure nonsense, of course. But I was in the vicinity so I thought I’d… well, have a look for myself.”

“And you went inside?” Jones asked.

“True,” O’Toole nodded. “We found a stash of Euro booze and dined on Shredded Wheat courtesy of Geoff Boycott.”

“Did you spot anything… untoward when you were in the old house?” Ward added.

“Yes, there were a few things,” O’Toole responded and he took a sip of coffee. “The place is haunted to buggery, but you know that already. I found a bundle of papers detailing a German thrust into Cumbria, which seems frankly bizarre, but there you have it. We got as far as a bedroom and came face to face with an illuminated guard dog whose bark matches its bite.”

Huntington-Winstanley scraped his stubble and narrowed his eyes. “You got as far as Room X, the upstairs bedroom? Our experts lasted seconds in there and retreated in abject terror. Half of them are still in the loony bin. There’s an incredible force in that room, O’Toole.”

“Yes, I can corroborate that alright,” O’Toole nodded.

“It sounds like the Gatekeeper,” Ward spoke, raffling through his notes.

 “Yes, there was a to-do when we visited,” O’Toole nodded. “The bloody thing took a nasty nip of Mark E Smith. We returned the following morning to say ta-ta but whatever lurks there was not in a mood to be agreeable.”

Huntington-Winstanley appeared inwardly impressed and stifled a smile. “You went back for a second look?”

“One likes to be sure about what one has seen,” O’Toole said. “I was once a newspaper reporter, you know.”

The door clunked and the lanky Longley ducked beneath the doorframe. He approached Jones. “Sir, the perimeter security is run by an outside company called Avocet. It’s a business concern of a certain Mark Thatcher.”

“The Prime Minister’s son?” Huntington-Winstanley twitched. “Could be a trifle awkward.”

“Get him on the phone,” Jones commanded.

“Well therein lies a problem,” Longley responded. “He’s missing.”

“Missing?” Jones glared. “What do you mean, ‘missing’?”

“He’s racing a rally car in the Australian outback and hasn’t shown up at the checkpoint, sir,” Longley explained. “Not the first time this sort of thing has happened. There was the embarrassing case in the Paris-Dakar recently. They’ve got an Aussie air force 748 looking for him.”

“Damned idiot can’t read a map,” Huntington-Winstanley commented.

“What happened to Twisteaux?” O’Toole asked. “His close family are buried outside along with half a dozen Brandenburger troops.”

Huntington-Winstanley looked at Jones, Jones looked at Ward, and Ward glanced over to Huntington-Winstanley.

“We don’t know,” Jones admitted. “He vanished.”

“A crooked vessel,” O’Toole said. “He murdered them, didn’t he? His own flesh and blood.”

“Twisteaux is a modern variation of an ancient name,” Huntington-Winstanley cut in. “A subterfuge, perhaps. We can’t quite piece him into the jigsaw, as it were.”

“He’s Swiss,” O’Toole stated. ‘It says so in the German notes.”

“I’m afraid he may predate Switzerland,” Jones added.

“Predates?” O’Toole questioned.

“It is thought he is thousands of years old, the fourth son of Noah, the divine ancestor of the Germanic people – the ancestral god of the Teutons,” said Huntington-Winstanley. “But a negative force, Mr O’Toole, hence Hitler’s fascination with him.”

“Some form of deity, you’re saying?” O’Toole frowned. “How did he end up at Hangingbrow Hall, of all places?”

Jones leant forward: “There’s no easy way to tell you this. We believe it’s one of a few Earthly gateways to… to where, we don’t know.”

“They don’t mention that in the Lake District tourist guides,” O’Toole smiled and sat back with alarm. “Where are the other gateways?”

“I’m not at liberty to reveal locations,” Jones admitted. “And we’ve enough on our plate dealing with this one gateway.”

While O’Toole cogitated this incredible snippet of information, there came a bass-laden chopping thud from beyond the interview room’s exterior window. The noise was, for a moment, deafening and O’Toole raised his eyes to meet Jones’s.

“Right on cue,” Jones shouted, and rose to his feet. “RAF Chinooks, Peter. Now, would you like a ride in a big helicopter? We’ve some business to attend to.”

O’Toole was led down a narrow staircase and out through a rear entrance of the police station. Into the cool darkness the men hurried, along a footpath and out onto a quiet tree-lined street, all the while the relentless bump-bump growing louder. Seconds later they were in the open grassland of Bitts Park heading towards the red flashing lights of two perched double-rotor helicopters. O’Toole was ushered towards the rear cargo door of one of the Boeing transporters and once aboard he took a seat by Jones’s side. O’Toole gasped at the sight of troops in full combat clothing, with their rifles and machine guns. And then they were in the air, the lights of Carlisle twinkling below them.

“It’s like Apocalypse Now,” O’Toole bellowed.

“Crossed with The Omen,” Jones returned.

  1. It never rains…

“Geoffrey, let the teeth do the work,” beckoned Brian Clough, who had relaxed his managerial backside into the damp nook of a bare branch. Jabs of crazed lightning made the wet bark of the twisted, monstrous-looking tree seem snake-like and waiting, while its stretched crocodile head towered towards the turmoil of shifting clouds. Clough smiled at the thought of gardening so many miles from home and once again, the two-man sawing operation burst into life.

“Damp’s not ’elpin’ much, Bri,” Geoff Boycott complained, a derby lace-up pushed hard against the bow to gain better purchase with the tricky cutting implement. “It keeps gettin’ fast in wood.”

“We could do with a drop of kerosene as a lubricant,” Clough admitted. “It’d soak into the logs and give a lovely flame later on.”

Thlump. Another stubby wooden extremity fell to the earth and the saw musically wobbled.

A buffoonish smirk drifted across Clough’s face. “Tie me kangaroo down, sport,” he sang with an Aussie burr.

“Tying kangaroos down,” Boycott shook his head. “What on earth were that all abart?”

“Bloody well beats me!” Clough grinned. “If it was in this country, you’d be bloody prosecuted!”

A vast, illuminated railway sidings of fork lightning lit up the rainswept blackness beyond Hangingbrow Hall and the air ripped from horizon to horizon before a furious thunderblast cannon assault was unleashed.

“We had a storm like this last summer!” Boycott wailed. “I was like Ducky Lucky – I thought sky were fallin’ down!”

Mark E Smith, Tony Wilson and Tim Healy shuffled below, Healy resembling one of Santa’s helpers with his makeshift sack of booze clanking down from his shoulder.

“What yer doing, conkering?” Smith called up.

“You’ll get conkered in a minute!” Clough shouted back.

Smith, wearing Boycott’s suit jacket, looked like he’d had a pot of Post Office pillar-box red paint thrown across his midriff during a particularly raucous edition of Saturday-morning anarchic kids TV show Tiswas. Wilson’s long studenty LA-bought overcoat was matted like Manchester United CEO Martin Edwards’s butcher’s apron. Healy, in sodden bike leathers, was muddied from ankle to waist but was practically spick and span on his upper half and this made Clough subconsciously believe that he wasn’t putting in the required effort.

“Eh, shitheads, pick that lot up!” Clough directed, pointing towards the harvested timber scattered at the foot of the tree. “Every last bit!”

Healy squinted and gazed upwards. “Can you not put a boot in it for just a few minutes, man, Cloughie? We may have had a few problems of our own, y’knaa!”

“You can ’ave your minutes and your seconds, your clocks and your watches, your pots and your pans, when you’ve got your feet up by the fire with a mug of booze in your mitts!” Clough fired back. “And I’ll wait on you hand and foot!”

“Aye, while being attacked by 17th century vagabonds flurting aboot the cornicing and breaking oot the cracked plarster,” Healy followed.

“Just close your eyes – what you can’t see won’t hurt you,” Clough scalded.

Smith and Wilson blankly collected twigs and cuttings in their arms. Clough glared with bewilderment at the vague faces of his staff and halted his busy pushing and pulling of the saw. “What’s wrong wi’ you lot?” he rollocked. “You look like you’ve missed the last bus home!”

Boycott shifted to prevent pins and needles prickling his damp bottom-cheek, bedtime screaming to him. “One more bit and I reckon we’ll have enough for tonight,” he summarised hopefully.

“Well, if we lop off that big branch near your foot, we can always break it in pieces once we get inside,” Clough suggested.

Boycott camouflaged his disdain: he supposed an extra 10 minutes on the day was no great hardship in what was the most difficult weekend of his life.

The double-handled saw resumed its amputation, biting through bark and crunching deep into wood. As they grafted, the storm intensified, its blustery blasts clanking ears and howling through the bare branches to play enraged recorder tones. Voices trailed as instructions were passed from one alpha male to the other.

Raaaaah-raahh, raaaaah-raahh the blade relentlessly intoned until a gunky gooey liquid bubbled from the slit followed by flabby splashing on the ground below.

“Bleedin’ tree’s bleedin’!” the observant Smith confirmed.

“I’m just a Catholic grammar-school boy,” Wilson explained, hand over face, as if in confession. “I’m now wondering if I’d bought Martin Hannett that Fairlight, as he’d wanted, as he’d begged me, would I be here now, watching Brian Clough and Geoff Boycott give a Chelsea Flower Show topiary display?”

“We must’ve tapped sap,” Boycott helpfully commentated. “It’ll ’elp get fire going, any road. It’s flammable. Smells like a knacker’s yard, though.”

“It’s like tripe,” Clough blared.

“Dead pigs,” Boycott sniffed. “Off offal. The Devil’s black puddin’.”

Slowly, timber began to creak and groan in the fashion of a Georgian sailing ship crossing a gale-churned ocean in search of faraway fortunes, and for a second, Clough and Boycott felt as if they were riding the high seas wearing 1800s Admiral’s hats. Clough grabbed tight hold of a bare branch to steady himself and then glanced across at his fellow Yorkshireman in order to weigh up the seriousness of the situation. A bass growl rattled abdomens. Wrwrwrrrrrrrr…

“Bloody thing’s moving!” hollered Wilson from the ground. “It’s alive! Has nobody brought a VHS camera to record this?”

“All to be expected,” Smith answered. “It’s that sort of weekend.”

Stiff wood cracked and strained while the throaty ululations grew in resonance, the reverberation travelling from the upper section where the “neck” of the tree stretched to the heavens. The two-man saw that Clough and Boycott had been wielding woppled and fell from their hands, bloinging down the expanse of the trunk and flonking onto the grass. There followed an almighty whining and the stiffened skull of the tree grinded into a more manageable work-a-day position. Its body squirmed and stretched, then wooden arms flailed in search of its human tormentors. Boycott’s baker-boy cap toppled, much to his consternation because it wasn’t cheap, which brought a lower-case “b” pushed at 90 degrees scowl. Clough decided it was time to abandon ship and began his descent, feet stretching, tapping for a sure footing amid the swaying branches. It was while contemplating his rapid escape that he felt the tight grip of twisted nature wrap around his midriff.

Clough drifted silently through the night air, a not unpleasant sensation, and found himself being lowered like a Mattessons sausage towards the opened jaws of the deranged tree. Straitjacketed by sticks, Clough’s legs involuntarily entered the agape beak-like maw and, unable to manoeuvre, he slid silently into the oily hole, shoes first. The tree let out a contented mmmmmm. Boycott watched with misunderstanding eyes before urgently clambering upwards like a Congo chimp through the fronds. Using the most precarious of twigs for leverage, he was able to grasp Clough’s wrist just as his friend was dipping towards a gruesome Venus flytrap slow death.

“No, Brian!” Boycott roared. ‘No!”

Boycott pulled with all his force using muscle-bound batting arms and, for a short time, Clough’s terrifying plunge into the throat of the man-eating plant halted, but then the downwards trajectory started afresh and there seemed no degree of tugging and pulling that could prevent Clough’s progression towards the tree’s monstrous gullet.

Calmly, Clough peered upwards at his old friend and remarked, “I wouldn’t say this is the most frightened I’ve ever been, but I’d say it’s in the Top 1.”

Boycott, smiling, tugged at Clough’s wrist but he was no BA Baracus. The Yorkshire cricketer nodded at the football chief and uttered, “Viv Richards once said to me – and it were one of wisest things I ever ’eard – ‘Test matches are caviar as far as I’m concerned. Having ability and constitution to triumph over five days is what it’s all about.’ Me and Viv are long-game players – and you are too, Brian. So shape thee-sen, motivate your resources and think of a way to get yoursen back in tie. James Bond would’ve managed it, and ’e ’asn’t got your nous. You always told me you ’ad biggest mouth in business but this thing’s puttin’ you to shame. It’s got a bigger gob than you – and you’re acceptin’ it wi’out a struggle.”

Clough appeared confused: Do your eyes deceive you, Geoffrey? – but then he thought better of responding and instead began to plan.

Another electrical crackle zipped across the sky and a sonic thud was felt like the concussion-causing blast of a military field gun. Clough wriggled but began to contemplate that his plight might be doomed. “Smith!” he screamed. “Get up here and give me a swig of some of that booze, quick sharp! I may as well get bloody pissed if I’m going to be consumed in the stomach of a Dutch elm over the space of the next five to six weeks!”

From the ground, the sound of sawing commenced and Clough began to realise a rescue mission was already afoot and that he might be saved eventually. He relaxed; he was with thinking people, team players. Mark E Smith should be a goalkeeper; Healy and Wilson midfield maestros! Precious moments passed with Clough wondering if there was much point plotting in his head the upcoming season of new signing Jim McInally in the English First Division, then the humorous grin of Mark E Smith arrived, clinking and clanking as he dragged the haul of heavy bottles to altitude.

“Superman appears… his face in penance.” Smith voiced. “Sat next to Captain Caveman’s sweaty family.”

Smith reached inside the sack and brought out a bottle of Jägermeister. Playfully he removed the cap and took a life-affirming swig. “Aaahh,” he smiled. “Does the job, this. Juju dandelion & burdock.” He poured a few finger’s-worth into Clough’s grateful mouth; Boycott declined. Clough beckoned for more but Smith waved a finger.

“No, not too greedy Cloughie,” spoke Smith. “I’ve got an idea. Just try and stay alive long enough and I reckon we can get you out of this omnishambles not of our making. Nah then, Mr Tree, drink up, drink up. I want you to drink all of this.”

Smith poured the entire contents of the Jägermeister past Clough’s shoulders, lobbed the bottle into the chasm, then reached into his bag and brought out another bottle.

“Schnapps. One for the ladies.”

Smith poured, glug, glug, glug, into the hole.

“Now, let’s try this clear stuff.”

Glug, glug, glug.

“Brown booze – serious hangover material. You go steady with this, Mr Tree. Don’t want you yackin’ up in the cab home, showin’ me up. They have a tough job them drivers, you know. You hadn’t thought of that, had you?”

Glug, glug, glug.

Bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle, all poured into the chasm of the crocodile-esque tree’s throat.

“Last orders, please!” Smith called out amid the lightning flashes, thunder booms, timber-creaking and guttural belching, all the while the sound of sawing drifting from the ground as Wilson and Healy back-and-forthed on the two-man blade against the gnarled trunk.

Clough maintained his gaze upwards from the throat of the wooden monster, an arm still raised, his wrist held by the now overstretched Boycott.

“OK fellas, it’s a lock-in,” Smith declared and tore off the screw cap of yet another devilishly potent alcoholic beverage from wartime Central Europe. Just when it seemed that Brian Howard Clough might never see the bright lights of the East Midlands again, the tree began to shake violently. Bwooooorrrrr! The tremor rose so fiercely that Boycott was unable to hold his grip on Clough’s wrist.

“Brian, fight, damn it, fight, man,” Boycott urged.

“What’s that, Mr Tree, you want one more?” Smith cackled. “You’re a bugger you, aren’t you? Go on then – as I don’t you see that often. You’ll be a wreck tomorrow, mind. Are you workin’?”

The clapper-jaw beak of the possessed perennial opened to its maximum apex, allowing Clough to edge his elbows over its wooden lips to prevent his conversion to vegetative nutrients. A silvery grey compound began seeping from the vast interior of the tree’s throat, giving the Forest functionary an acrid buoyancy. It was like being immersed in liquid metal.

From the base of the tree came a delighted shriek as Wilson and Healy’s sawing struck more rich, red sap and a spurt of sticky jam had them both running to escape a full-body drenching.

The tree swayed and swung, its branches rattled and from deep within its bark came earthquake shockwaves. Like Freddie Mercury about to sing the chorus from a particularly raucous Queen number, the tree arched its creaking back. With violent force, it swung forward and sprayed a vicious viscous ectoplasmic spray of green and yellow gloop in a bizarre umbrella fan. Clough shot out as a circus cannon daredevil might, and came to rest 20 feet away in the safety of moorland heather. Stunned, he instantly sat up and spun his head. There came another blinding flash of lightning, in which Clough was able to see Boycott and Smith leaping for their lives from the lower sections of the tree.

There followed an incredible roar and a wild fury of sucking air. A swirling grey vortex descended from the clouds and began hoovering up the surface of the ground. It rumbled like a freight train carrying tons of coal to a power station and as confusion rose, the demonic tree was ripped from the soil, spiky roots and all, and was carried above the heads of the five. It hovered, resembling a military jump jet over the surface of the unkempt grounds, then was lifted above a wing of the hall and vanished out of sight.

“It’s a tornado!” Wilson excitedly shouted. “Never seen one before – it was incredible!”

“Well, I never,” Healy stood open-mouthed. “I thought they were just in America, like.”

“Tree must have been rotten,” Boycott added. “There’s not a trace of damned thing left. Just ’ole.”

Clough, dripping with bright-coloured ectoplasm, waddled to the edge of the cavity and started chuckling.

“What so funny, Bri?” Boycott prompted.

“Look,” Clough pointed towards his feet. “After all that carry on, I’m still wearing my slip-on shoes.”

  1. Whale of a time

“Eh, have we much of that booze left?” enquired Brian Clough, who was using his hands to de-gunk his sleeves and trousers of gloopy bright-green jelly ectoplasm and not managing a particularly good job of it.

“Two bottles, cocker,” Mark E Smith replied like a helpful supermarket shelf-stacker, peering into the flaccid makeshift bag that had been fashioned from a tablecloth. “Your tree had rest.”

“My tree?” Clough shook with bewilderment. “Why’s it mine? It’s got nowt to do wi’ me.”

“Well,” Smith shrugged, “you seemed to have an understanding.”

“Understanding?” Clough stopped abruptly. “What are you gettin’ at? Now, enough of your bollocks, young man. What pop is there left?”

Smith peered at the labels in an assisting double flash of lightning. “Branca Bitter and, er, Kummel… something, Kummel Arco,” he spoke above the ensuing grumble of thunder. “Better suited to your city centre swinebar. Do you have them in Nottingham yet? We’ve a few in Manchester now. Not my sort of thing – too Del Boy Trotter, and I’ve told the band to keep well away. You can’t be seen to be turnin’ soft – The Fall fans wouldn’t stand for it, anyway. But as needs must tonight, we’ll finish off these tipples. Should be interesting. We’ll be popular with the ladies.”

“What, ones that’d snuffed it in 1940s?” Boycott grimaced. “Heaven ’elp us. If my poor dad could see me now.”

“We might see him before the night’s out,” Tony Wilson proffered.

“And we’ve these, don’t forget,” Smith added, lifting a container from the depths of the limp sack. “Three Pot Noodles. Cheese and tomato flavour, too. We’re kings. Just need a 555 or a Vanguard to smooth events out.”

“Pot Noodles?” Boycott said with a crumpled face. “Were they brought out in War?”

“They’re a mystery, that’s for sure, bonny lad,” Healy followed. “We were saying, we think they’re fairly new, y’knaa, 1978, that sort of time. Recent. I mean, you don’t think Pot Noodles are the product of… well, the Devil, like? And this is the processing fact-a-ry?”

“And there’s a subterranean supply chain to bring in the freeze-dried vegetables and cheese powder,” Wilson added. “Maybe the ingredients are piped directly from the Hades warehouse itself. Imagine running a party in that space! Whatever the providence, I’m thoroughly looking forward to boiling up some grey rainwater to try it out – that’s if we’re left at peace long enough by the malign forces that stalk this particularly abhorrent setting to fork some cryodessicated morsels into our mouths.”

Not for the first time, options appeared south of disheartening. This was Falklands-conflict SAS territory – with a supernatural zing. Should they find shelter under the roof of horrors in their midst or chance their arm in Cumbria’s deathly winter night? Wilson believed they were at their mental finishing point but certainly wouldn’t be the first to utter sentiments of such negativity. He favoured the outdoors approach but knew he was in the minority. Surely, thought Wilson, Peter O’Toole would have raised the alarm by now.

The two bottles of exotic beverages, three cheese and tomato Pot Noodles and chunks of wood were carefully transported by industrious hands and bundled tablecloth across overgrown and unmanaged terrain towards the haunted hall, following its brickwork to better shelter from the relentless battering of wind and rain.

“It’ll be a relief to get these blasted contact lenses out,” Boycott admitted, not for the first time. “You should only wear ’em a couple of ’ours a day. You see, your eyes dry out. Then, after a bit of shuteye, I suggest we get some curtains to spell out SOS on lawn art ’ere when it gets light. Maybe a passin’ jumbo on its passage to America can telephone local police – ‘Callin’, callin’, looks like an emergency near Scottish border, over.’ That sort of thing.”

“Planes to America wouldn’t fly over Carlisle, man!” Healy scoffed. “Maybe to Iceland or Greenland, but why would they come this far north? Surely Cornwall’s the right direction.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” corrected Wilson. “Some of the transatlantic traffic heads north towards Scotland and then west across the Atlantic. It’s to do with the curvature of the earth, darling. Not that they’d spot an SOS message spelt out in curtains. They’d be at 35,000 feet, re-setting their watches to Eastern Standard Time and buying duty free. But there’ll be flights from Glasgow that come over here – although not in these wild conditions. Planes will be grounded or diverted.”

“Bloody hell,” remarked Clough as they strode towards the exterior wall of Hangingbrow Hall. “They teach you that at Oxford?”

“Cambridge,” corrected Wilson. “And yes, I have an interest in aviation, like all inquisitive grammar school boys. And you should probably read more.”

“Read? I work on instinct, me,” Clough proclaimed. “I keep my feet firmly on the ground.”

            And with that, Clough vanished from view. If it wasn’t for the initial void of silence, his removal might not have been noticed for a while amid the shaking and rattling of the reedy grasses. The remaining four drifted to a something’s-up pause. Healy turned and retraced his steps with care, then kneeled and passed his hand through a dark hole that was like a puddle with no reflection.

“Rotten wood,” Healy stated. “Maybe once a door to a basement or a coal chute.”

Boycott knelt and surveyed the damage. “Brian!” he called down. “Briaaaan!”

“Be quiet, I’m here!” came the dull reply from below.

“Are you badly?” Boycott shout-whispered through the hole. “Broken ankle, perhaps?”

“A sprain possibly,” Clough responded and carefully rose to his feet. “No breaks. Eh, but it’s a fair drop down here, mind. Good job I landed on a load of boxes. Look like medical supplies. What the bloody hell is this place?”

“We’ll get you out Brian,” Boycott announced. “After survivin’ bein’ eaten by a tree and then sucked up by a whirlwind, this is small potatoes to us!”

Clough looked skywards towards the worn-out chute door and shook his head with weary resignation. Gathering his composure and surveying his surroundings, to the Nottingham Forest manager’s profound astonishment he found himself in a cleanly swept, extremely spacious laboratory setting with black power cables neatly webbed across the floor and the unmistakeable aroma of bleach and seaside salt. Gently tapping his shoes on the smooth concrete, Clough shifted slowly and quietly towards the largest aquarium he’d ever set eyes on. It must have been 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. Rather than containing a biome of coral with brightly coloured angelfish playfully skitting about sunken ships and half-opened caskets of treasure – which would have been lovely – he found himself peering at a huge slab of grey wrinkled skin and muscle. What the bloody hell is that? wondered Clough.

In the still water of the tank were highways of wires with electrodes attached to the body at various points and there, in the middle of the mass, was a closed eye. Clough slowly rotated to take in the staggering scene and attempt to understand the purpose of this bizarre location. Lighting was tastefully subdued in a James Bond lair sort of way and the room temperature was cool but not like the frosty grimness upstairs in the decrepit house. Incredibly, there were a dozen accompanying water-holding vessels, all containing… sperm whales. The sheer scale was breathtaking and made the hairs stand on Clough’s head.

Clough purposefully strode back beneath the rotten door in the roof and noticed, lowering from above, a collection of hastily-knotted-together branches giving the appearance of a ridiculously long witch’s broomstick. Clough looked upwards and said, “What am I supposed to do wi’ that?”

Boycott, with a hiss so as not to attract unwanted attention, explained, “Just grab ’owd a t’sticks, Bri, and we’ll do all donkey work.”

“You silly devils!” Clough reprimanded. “You think I’m climbing up your beanstalk? I’ll break my bloody neck! Anyhow, I think you lot should come down here.”

“What’s down there, like?” Tim Healy squinted over Boycott’s shoulder, peering down.

“Apart from the draught coming from the roof where you lot are, stood gawping, it’s warm and it’s dry,” Clough revealed. “Don’t ask me how. I reckon our chances of making it out of here in one piece are better down here than up there… We could get some kip for starters. There’s even radiators down here. Bloody radiators! And they’re working!”

             Clump. Smith landed flat-footed and hard, swag bag of alcohol and Pot Noodles tied in a bundle around his wrist. He stood like an ice statue for a moment as the pain dissipated around his heel, arches and toes. “I’ll find some glasses,” he declared. “And a kettle and some forks.”

“You’ll wait,” Clough barracked. “We need Tony Wilson down here quick-sharp so his university brain can work this mess out.”

Smith was dumbstruck: “Moby-Dicks! Good name for a special-interest flick, that. Not my sort of thing, obviously.”

Healy arrived with a thud and rolled expertly on the floor, like he’d done this sort of thing hundreds of times before – which, of course, he had in the Paras in the early Seventies.

Smith faced the ceiling. “Wilson, you’re wanted!” he barked.

“When you want me, I won’t be there,” Wilson called back. “But when you need me, when you need me, you’ll find me.”

“Tone, get fuckin’ down here!” Smith shouted.

Wilson landed roughly and jerked forward, spilling his small collection of firewood. “Thinking about it,” he spoke, “did I need to bring fuel down here?”

“That’s your BA (Hons) education filling up your head with useless information,” Clough smiled. “You’ve no space for the day-to-day stuff. People like me are not clogged up by that sort of crap – and neither is Geoffrey Boycott up there.”

            They both gazed upwards to see Boycott dangling by his fingertips, commanding, “Get a mattress from somewhere and urry’. I need to be fit for Somerset!”

“Just jump, it’s not far!” Healy called up. “Remember to distribute the shock, bonny lad.”

“I’ve had enough shocks already today!” Boycott snapped back with a boiling red face.

Boycott leapt and stretched his arms and legs like a flying squirrel. He clattered to the floor and screwed his face up. “Oh Lord, no,” he complained.

“Bad fall?” Healy enquired.

“No,” Boycott shook his head. “I’ve left me bag up there in grass. That was me last hope of dry socks and takin’ me contacts out.”

The underground environment was a world removed from the unhinged supernatural battleground above them. There was peace and tranquillity in the bowels of the building amid the massive tanks of sleeping sperm whales. Lighting was solemn, while the temperature, although in the realm of cool, was a damned sight more civilised than the Arctic inconvenience of the main hall and fridge-interior chill of the bedroom. And yet, the feeling of menace had not subsided.

“University man,” barked Clough, fingers linked behind his back, “what do you make of this?”

Wilson, his analytical mind whirring like the mechanism of a superb Swiss watch, admitted, “I don’t know.”

Boycott nodded with depressing pleasure. “This so-called super-brain can’t make ’ead nor tail of situation.” Just as the batsman was about to expound on the amounts of money wasted on tertiary education, he was beaten to the spotlight by a reinvigorated Wilson.

“I don’t have firm answers but…” and Wilson placed his fist on his chin, assessing the clues laid out before him. “You have to wonder why sperm whales specifically. No other whales here, you’ll note. We know these animals have a supply of oily liquid – spermaceti – in their head. They ran lamps from the stuff in the Victorian era and what was particularly good about it is it didn’t solidify in cold conditions. It could conceivably be used as a fuel. To power what, well, the possibilities are endless. But a whale could give a huge amount of oil – 2,000 litres or so from the head alone. Could it naturally regenerate this oil if it were progressively pumped out? I don’t know the answer to that. Not all that long ago, penguins were thrown on fires for whaling operations. Penguins burn well. They’re oil-rich. Bernard Manning’s probably the same.”

“Burning penguins?” Smith sniffed. “Not something Harrisons coal merchants offer round my way.”

“And then there’s ambergrise,” Wilson continued.

“Amber-what?” Healy questioned. “Bearing in mind I’m ready for a kip and this is getting like a night-time lullaby.”

“The jewel of the sea,” Wilson revealed.

“I’ve ’eard of this,” Boycott jumped in. “You can find it on beaches and it’s worth a small fortune. Poncy perfume places use it in Paris and they’ll stick their ’ands in their pockets for privilege an’ all.”

“Yeah, Orkee, but what is it?” Healy demanded.

“Short answer please, gentlemen,” Clough said.

“It’s only produced by sperm whales,” Wilson informed. “They eat squid, which have beaks. Not easy to digest, a beak. From what I gather, the sperm whale produces a secretion to deal with the beaks and it either vomits these bits out or it’s pushed out the wrong end. It floats around in the sea. It has properties which make perfume last longer.”

“So Tramp and Yardley is basically fish sick?” Boycott summarised.

“And here is a man who doesn’t mince his words,” Wilson said, gesturing to a non-existent TV camera, breaking the fourth wall.

“Err, they’re not fish, they’re mammals…” Healy corrected, but his voice trailed off; he felt the extra information was not required at this time.

“I wouldn’t like to sprinkle this sod’s flakes of an evening,” Clough japed. “What I’d like to know is how do you get something this size all the way here? Who supplied it? It’s not from the bloody fishmongers at Workington, that’s for sure. How much is one? Cos that thing there is bigger than Kenneth Burns!”

“Jerries were allies wi’ Japs in War,” Boycott grimaced. “Japs ’ave a natural loathin’ of sea creatures. They’re not lovers of land ones, come to think of it. They’re a very cruel race. Well, if you’ve seen Bridge On River Kwai you’ll ’ave an inklin’ of what they’re capable of. What they do at sea is deplorable. Wicked, even. They don’t like dolphins much, who largely ’elp ’umans in time of crisis and are really spaniels of water. This might be Jap-related.”

Wilson approached the tank, placed his hands on the glass and examined the whale’s closed eye. What brutality was occurring here? Suddenly there came a jolt within the aquarium and the eye opened to its maximum wideness, giving the Manchester impresario the biggest fright since witnessing the deranged death struggle of a kids’ TV woolly mammoth 45 minutes earlier. The huge slug-like body rippled and the still of the water was disturbed, splashing over the sides of the hefty container.

“Did you never pay any attention to the notices in pet shops about touching fish tanks?” Healy spoke from the corner of his mouth.

“You’ve only gone and woke devil up!” Boycott scolded.

A red light shone on a nearby control panel and a tube that led into the tank gently vibrated. The swishing and splashing continued, then the whale’s movement lessened until the creature lay still once again and its soulless cow’s eye closed.

“I’d say it’s been sedated,” Wilson proclaimed. “We are witnessing the perversion of nature and we have to ask, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

“Might be worthwhile finding bathroom cabinet in here and see what delights can be found within,” Smith grinned. “Imagine what a whale trank would do. You’d wake up in a different dimension.”

“Find some glasses first,” Clough suggested. “I’m thirsty.”

            It was at that moment that a chorus of threatening click-clacks came from the shadows and out of the umbra stepped an ageing gentleman in ragged German SS uniform with a scar theatrically running down his cheek. He was surrounded by a handful of armed soldiers equally shabbily dressed, each pointing firearms from waist height towards the five bedraggled heroes.

“I sink you haff all caused quite enough fuss for one night,” the SS Gruppenführer jovially stated. “For you, Tommies” – and he chuckled, having waited decades to utter this classic comic-book phrase – “ze Var is owfer.”

“It’s been over for nearly 40 year, pet!” Healy reminded. “Do they not deliver newspapers here?”

“Is he English?” the German pointed. “He appears to speak more of a Scandinafian, how vould you say, brogue?”

“He’s got funny accent, flour,” Boycott explained. “They can be ’ard to comprehend from up Newcastle way. They’re like Vikings. I struggle meself wi’ ’em sometimes.”

The German turned to the gun-wielding soldiers and remarked, “Vhat a curious collection of indifiduals we haff stumbled across who are invadink our hidden military industrial complex and special supernatural gateway. I could not understand a single vord of vhat he said eifer.”

“What are you hiding from exactly?” Wilson enquired.

“Ah that is much better,” the German promptly replied. “You haff a clear way of ze speakink. So, ya, it is true, ve are vaitink. Bidink our time. You see, ze Var is far from complete. But don’t trouble yourself wiz zese uncomfortable questions at zis instance. All vill be refealed. Come, let us make you more comfortable. Ve are not… barbarians!

One of the soldiers swished his gun and ordered, “Mach schnell!

“Can I bring this bag of booze and Pot Noodles?” Smith enquired.

“Drop it!” a soldier ordered.

Smith placed the bag carefully on the floor and held his hands up.

“If you are all good children, ve might offer you a small aperitif and a little sauerkraut,” said the SS leader.

The Gruppenführer led the way and Clough, Boycott, Wilson, Smith and Healy followed with weary heads bowed. The accompanying soldiers filed behind, with one stating, “Try anysink funny and I’ll blow your eyeballs off.”

Despite the aching seriousness of their plight, Wilson and Smith exchanged camouflaged schoolboy smirks, the sort where you’re almost making an O-shape with your mouth in order to counteract the urge to laugh out loud. They were frogmarched past voluminous tanks of sleeping giants, with their nodules, sensors, cables and electrodes maintaining a gruesome peace.

Through a hospital-style swing door, they entered a long, electrically lit corridor that even featured the occasional framed photograph on the wall. It was assumed these were Bavarian landscapes, black and white images of a home they missed and hoped to see once more when they had become masters of the world. They stood aside as a single file of German soldiers silently shifted towards them and it was only when the men were passing that it became apparent that they were free-floating apparitions in period wartime uniform.

“They’re deceased!” gasped Boycott.

“Yes, it is quite a place, zis,” said the SS Gruppenführer. “Ve haff an understandink here, you see, wiz ze owners of ze land – and ze territory beneath! But you vill get your info all in good time.”

“So,” Clough ventured, “when will be set free? We’ve all got busy jobs to get back to, and family, with people relying on us.”

“Oh, really!” scoffed the German. “You English are quite somethink. You know Ze Führer was taken wiz your spirit of adventure. You are all as vily as foxes and twice as cunnink, too.”

“Well, ya Führer’s not here now is he, bonny lad?” Healy reminded.

“Bonny… lad?” The German military man looked with disdain from the corner of his eyes: “In fact, you vill speak to Ze Führer here zis fery efenink. Ve’ve been expectink you.”

Wilson stopped in his tracks. “Hang on, darling, you don’t mean to say…?”

Jawohl,” smirked the Gruppenführer, “you are lucky zat he has no ozer engagements.”

“But he took his own life, cock, right at end,” Smith dismissed. “You know that. He didn’t want to be transported to Moscow in a cage like a wild animal, so he bit a phial of killer poison and necked it. If I’d have had some, I might have made a night of it and ended up at Ostrich. But it killed your gaffer. He had no gumption. That’s on record. And then his wife. And they shot bloody Alsatian an’ all, poor bugger.”

“All true,” accepted the German. “But death is merely a passage to ze next reality, as you vill also discover before ze sun rises. Now, you musn’t be confused by heafen and hell and all zat misinformation, but realise – or start to question – zat ze Christian version of efents purposefully glosses over ancient facts.”

“What are you talking about, facts, man?” Healy complained. “God, Jesus, the Disciples…”

“Gods,” the Gruppenführer said. “More zan one. And demi-gods, too. Once more you shall see for yourself on your little adventure this fery night.”

“So what’s the score upstairs, like?” Healy demanded. “It’s like a Hammer House version of Scooby-Doo.”

“For sure, but do you not sense ze incredible power of zis place?” the Gruppenführer followed. “Zis single collection of crumblink bricks wiz its trapped souls, and the vell of spirits and secrets beneath, vill ultimately hand power back to ze Germans. Ve have access to arcane knowledge from unknown superiors. Black forces, infisible hierarchies… ah, here ve are.”

With a key, the Gruppenführer opened the door to a cell and beckoned the captured celebrities to enter. The five shuffled into the dimly lit, windowless space. The SS man stood in the entrance slapping a glove against his hand. “Vhen you speak to Ze Führer, please refrain from lookink directly into his eyes,” he instructed. “He doesn’t like zat.”

“A bit like Prince,” Wilson said.

“And he has ze small patience,” the Gruppenführer added, “so it’s perhaps better if ze five of you don’t be yappink your questions towards him like puppies zat are jufenile. Please, one of you choose to be ze interfiewer. Who is best at askink ze meaningful teasers?”

“That’ll be this young man here,” Clough pointed at Wilson. “Does a lot of work for Granada.”

“The region in Spain?” the German queried.

“Granadaland,” Wilson proudly proclaimed. “A vast area in the North-west of England. The greatest television company in the world. Populism with intellect at its core but with a serious socialist underpinning.”

“Vell, ve are National Socialists,” stated the Gruppenführer. “Ve are hindered wiz Border TV here. Ve sometimes catch Mr And Mrs wiz Derek Batey. We do not understand Ze Krankies, though. Is it a joke act? Perhaps zey are, as you vould say, niche? Please, vhat is your name, television man?”

“Anthony H Wilson.”

“Vould I know any of your programmes?” asked the German.

World In Action?”

“Oh ve turn zat ofer. It is too serious for our efening’s viewink. Please make yourselfs at home in your prisoner cell and ve vill call back in 20 minutes. Mr Wilson, choose your questions carefully. Zey could be your last.”

And with that the door clunked and the lock rattled.

There was a low wooden bench, a bedstead with no mattress and a toilet with no sign of toilet roll. Mark E Smith peered into the bowl and was satisfied to find clear water at the bottom. Looking upwards, Smith noted a metallic fitting with slats and said, “Well, at least they’re humane enough to provide us with some fresh air.”

“As if we ’an’t ’ad enough already,” Boycott said wearily.

Healy sat back on the bench and placed his head in his hands. “So, how are we gonna get out of this scrape this time, lads?”

“Well, you reckon you’re our leader,” Smith smirked. “Why don’t you come up with some decent ideas yourself instead of constantly asking us lot for our input?”

“What’re you talkin’ aboot, man?” Healy shot back. “I’ve never said I’m the gaffer or put meself forward as the main gadgie in the 24 very long hours I’ve been in your acquaintance. Although I have to admit there’s too many chefs for my liking here.”

“I’ll tell you who’d be good in a situation like this,” Boycott spoke.

For a moment nobody replied, because they didn’t want to know the answer. Eventually, Clough lifted his head and said, “Tell us, Geoffrey.”

“Mike Brearley,” Boycott grinned, accentuating his lower-case “b” pushed to 90 degrees scowl. “Best captain I played under for England. When ’e ’ad ’is thinkin’ cap on, anythin’ were possible. I only saw ’im blow ’is top twice. One time with Phil Edmonds and other time wi’ me! I told ’im in Australia before second test match in 1980 that I’d done me neck in playin’ golf and he went bananas. Unlike Healy ’ere who assumes ’e’s in command – which is no bad characteristic to ’ave, I might say – Brearley was good at drawin’ out experience of them around ’im in order to get best result for team.”

“Listen,” said a disgruntled Healy, narrowing his eyes, “if you think I’ve had designs on becoming your foreman from the moment I clapped eyes on you, then I’m afraid you’ve been very much mistaken!”

“You play the chief on your television show,” Clough cut in.

“That’s make-believe!” Healy roared. “Dennis Patterson isn’t me! He sounds like me, looks like me, but I’m no whizz with a bag of cement, man, and the last person you’d want to build a wall around your garden is Tim bloody Healy!”

“The gentleman doth protest too much!” Smith guffawed.

There was a clatter from the lock and the door creaked open. The SS Gruppenführer appeared in the space surrounded by his gun-wielding crew and said, “Ve could do wiz a spot of Abus lubricatink spray on zis lock.”

The five dutifully rose to their feet. “That was a quick 20 minutes,” Clough pointed out.

“Vhen you’re hafing fun ze clock flies, does it not?” the Gruppenführer genially replied. “Now, Mr Wilson, you haff your questions in good workink order, I assume.”

“All things are ready if our minds be so,” Wilson smiled. “Shakespeare.”

“Maybe Mr Wilson, Ze Führer will find you amusink,” the Gruppenführer brightly smiled. “He is a fan of your Shakespeare, especially Ze Merchant Of Fenice. Ve broadcasted it on German radio shortly after Kristallnacht, you know.”

“So we’re going to have a meeting now with the ghost of Adolf Hitler,” Mark E Smith spoke. “Just to clarify that fact. And will there be any refreshments? My client here, Mr Wilson, would like a rider. Branca Bitter, Kummel Arco and three Pot Noodles, cheese and tomato flavour, is all we ask.”

 “Now please, gentlemen, come zis vay,” the Gruppenführer rebuked. “You are such a bunch of chatterboxes.”

  1. Granada Reports v Nazi Germany

Would this night ever end?

Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy were led under armed supervision from their cramped cell to a wooden-panelled subterranean fitness centre that was fitted out with slide-away ropes, ladders and hoops. The parquet floor was buffed and glossy, but what was most intriguing were rows of flip-flap seats for a small audience – a gathering that had already started to take its place. It was a motley collection of armed servicemen, mainly grizzled SS crew who were past their use-by-date, while others were the former living – gently glowing ghosts with skeletal jaws delightedly agape.

Wilson noted with a flash of interest a bulky television camera of 1960s vintage and felt a frisson of excitement at its presence. Technicians busily strode around the makeshift studio clasping tools. Lights were adjusted, nuts and bolts were tinkered with and wiring expertly nipped.

Clough, Boycott, Smith and Healy were ushered to front-row seats among high-ranking soldiers in grand uniforms. A smorgasbord of cured meats and batons of salad items were set out on a low table in front of the British prisoners, along with jugs of water and stacked tumblers. Due to his presenter’s VIP status, Wilson was given his own selection of Germanic cold morsels by the side of the stage. Sliced charcuterie might have smelt like tramps, as was the case with much prosciutto-like meat, but this was nevertheless a lifeline for the starved travellers.

A peculiarly antique male with a Father Christmas beard and hair ‘away kit’ in alarming orange-ginger was perched at the end of the row with an open-mouth smile of cartoonish pleasure, such was his anticipation. He was wearing an oversized brown bedsheet dress and, due to his archaic attire, looked like a shepherd in a particularly tedious Church of England school play. On his feet were brown leather sandals, while his grey and blackened toenails, it could be argued, were in need of medical attention. Smith presumed he was in the midst of an old-fashioned drop-out heroin addict, and this brought a scowl of irritation. Heroin indicated a complete lack of self-respect and furthermore was an opting out of the world of work. Regardless, Smith rose from his seat, ambled slowly so as not to attract unwanted attention and crouched in front of the vintage individual.

“Eh, ’ow you doin’, cock?” Smith enquired.

“Huh?” the man in brown responded with deep impatience. “Be extremely swift in your dialogue. The performance is shortly to embark and I am required for my valuable insight.”

“Oh right, you spraken ze Englisch?” Smith observed.

“I spraken ze everything!” the oddly attired man commented without giving eye contact. “What is it you require?”

“D’you know if there’s a papershop nearby?” Smith ventured.

“A ‘paper… shop’?” the ginger Santa screwed up his face and fixed Smith with a glare. “You need paper – in which to write, to record these events so that they might become a historical parchment?”

“I noted some of your colleagues were smokers…”

“Smo…? Ohhh…” The grand character flinched to hide his frayed tolerance. He clicked his fingers and a youthful Nazi wearing a cap leapt to his side. There was a crackle of German conversation and the eager servant dashed towards the back of the hall like his life depended on it. Moments later a small packet with Gothic German writing on the surface was slapped into Smith’s grateful palm.

Smith’s visage lifted beneath the purple shading of his gouged eye: “Oh great, ’ow much do I owe you, sunshine?”

Gratis,” the tangerine-tinged living heirloom stated. “Normally I would state that these things will kill you but perhaps it is of no consequence to you on this evening.”

“That’s very decent of you,” Smith nodded. “You know I always look out for East Germany’s results in internationals. Blue jerseys, DDR, not a bad design ethos. Pretty simple, really. They’ve ’ad ’arsh deal of it that lot. I mean with the Russians and whatavya. Just need a spark and I’ll shift out of your road.”

The biblical character lifted his fingers and thumbs, and flames shot from the end of each like small blowtorches.

“Cookability – that’s the beauty of gas,” Smith winked and leant forward. “I once saw Paul Daniels do that at Bernard Manning’s club in Harpurhey. If you’re ever over that way, give us a shout.”

Still in attendance, the young Nazi gofer placed matches in Smith’s hand and like a Wimbledon ballboy re-took his position at the perimeter of the gym wall.

Inhaling, Smith narrowed his single not-blackened eye and asked, “What’s your name, friend?”

“Some call me Tuisto.”

“Is that with an ‘x’ at the end? Swiss by any chance?”

“On occasion, for appearance’s sake,” Tuisto smirked, eyes fixed firmly on the stage.

“I’d get that lintel looked at over the door upstairs,” Smith suggested. “It’s failed. The whole lot’ll come crashing down if you’re not careful.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tuisto bristled. “On your recommendation… Mark Edward Smith. You’re a seer, no?”

“That’s very astute of you,” Smith replied. “Though it’s not always the gift it’s made out to be. Like, I know you’ve been a bad lad. Stroppy at times. And don’t think I ’aven’t noticed. None of my business, of course. I’ve got enough to contend with as it is.”

“A formidable attitude,” Tuisto grimaced. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” he said, getting to his feet. Smith noted that Tuisto was all of 5’2” and thought: small man syndrome.

“Yeah, get on your way, don’t let me stop you,” Smith uttered and with hunched shoulders he headed back to his seat.

Brian Clough removed a segment of raw cabbage from his molar using his tongue and fixed his attention on Tony Wilson, who was in quiet conversation with the camera operator and what appeared to be a floor manager. Upon seeing this, Clough felt a sense of pride for the highly professional and unfazed Granada TV presenter. He was doing what he did best despite the extraordinary circumstances he found himself in. Wilson pointed at floor zones and expressed ideas with exaggerated hand gestures, to which a compliant technician nodded and said, “Jawohl, mein Herren!”

More men shuffled into the gym, even three ageing personnel in kitchen uniform, who took their place at the rear of the hall, indulging in a break from their endless preparation of sauerkraut, schnitzel and schweinshaxe. Each was busily slopping through Pot Noodles that had been fortuitously deposited in their kitchen. There was a hum to the room but a hush of suspense slowly enveloped the space. Smith re-took his seat and handed out his king-size booty of Euro nicotine to a grateful Clough and Healy, who happily accepted a light from Smith. Boycott winced and said, “Could you lot not bloody well wait?”

A crackly gramophone scraped through Wagner’s 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman, an ear-wrenching din that eclipsed the sound of a set of double doors being opened by guards. First, a shadowy bespectacled gentleman with a full, flabby face, dressed in a black knee-length leather coat and black trilby, strode purposefully down the aisle. He was followed by a drifting, gently illuminated being with a toothbrush ’tache. The aura of Adolf Hitler flicked a hand of welcome to the now-standing crowd and seemed thrilled at the applause. Mark E Smith was struck by the intoxication of the moment and noted Hitler’s double-breasted field-grey jacket of the German army, the white shirt, black tie and black trousers. There was no braiding and no decoration except for the Iron Cross worn to the left of the chest. Keeping it simple.

The pig-like man in spectacles, having hung his coat on a collapsible coat hanger that could easily have doubled as a torture instrument, approached Wilson and confidentially explained that Hitler was unfortunately existing in a perpetual state of near-victory, and any notion of an Axis defeat would be met with unnatural fury.

“Ahh,” smiled Wilson. “Always read the terms and conditions.”

“It is far better to keep ze chancellor on your side, as it vere,” the amused German explained with a nasal whine, “because in a rage and confused he is likely to… vell, throw a few items around… Order an execution, rant about ze Jewish question, zat sort of thing. He is a fery powerful presence, you understand, even in death. Actually ze anger is interestink to vitness – if you should survive… Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!”

Wilson shifted weight to his other foot. “What you’re saying is, if I ask something that isn’t to your dead boss’s taste, I could end up being the star guest at a rope party.”

“Oh no, no, no,” the German replied. “Ze Führer prefers ze guillotine, wiz ze condemned facing upvards to see ze trajectory of ze blade. A little German twist, you know. Ze French in ze Revolution vere too… compassionate. Zey deserfed all zey got in ze Var.”

“But the French ended up administering swathes of Germany and districts of Berlin,” Wilson added. “They’re still there now.”

“Vell, let us not schplit ze hairs,” the German conceded. “Remember, ‘mama’ is ze vord!” He walked away tittering like a weird spoilt child.

By now Hitler was seated and was quickly joined by the brown curtain-adorned Tuisto and the spectacles-wearing intermediary. Hall lights darkened, while spotlights aimed at the stage area grew in intensity. The cameraman took up his position and the stage manager appeared from the wings with a clipboard. “Take it from ze top, Herr Wilson!”

Wilson, moving towards the camera, mic in hand, rapidly selected historical texts from his multi-floor library of a mind in which to begin an introductory monologue. He decided under the circumstances that something throwaway and self-deprecating would break the ice. He gazed warmly at the lens like he might when approaching a friend or relative.

“Welcome all, and thanks for joining us here at Hangingbrow Hall for what promises to be an unusual discussion, most possibly a lively discussion, with some very special guests,” Wilson began. “It’s become the fashion to talk about mysticism, even to pose as mystics, and – need it be said? – those who talk the most on such subjects are those who know the least.” He placed one hand in the other, calm yet alluring, before lifting a finger. “Not my words, but those of Thomas Aquinas, Italian guy, 13th-century Catholic priest and some would say father of modern philosophy. As always, the great Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby put it way better: ‘An empty kettle makes the most noise.’ With that in mind, I’ll shove a proverbial cork in it and introduce you to the congregentur. The dude in the cloak is Tuisto, resident in Carlisle, indeed resident here at Hangingbrow Hall, for centuries. If you haven’t had a chance to leaf through Babylonian records of late, well that’s understandable, but sit yourself down because you’re in for a surprise. It is said that Tuisto, aka Twisteaux, with an e-a-u-x, is no Swiss businessman but the fourth son of Noah. Noah – remember him?”

Tuisto shifted uncomfortably and placed a hand in his pocket.

“Noah,” Wilson clarified. “Notable seafarer; not a bad builder of vessels for zoological purposes in his time. Flooding of the world, lions sharing space with giraffes, you know the story. This fella is history. Once the rain stopped he was told to go forth and multiply, and off he shuffled to Central Europe. Perhaps he’s your ancestor? Perhaps he’s my ancestor? Gentlemen, we’ll test the theory. Please show your appreciation.”

Tuisto gave a joyless nod of recognition amid loud, enthusiastic clapping.

Wilson placed his fist on his mouth for dramatic effect. “Après moi le déluge,” he deadpanned into the lens as the audience quietened.

Boycott nudged Clough: “Dam Busters motto, that is.”

Clough gave the briefest of nods: “Points scoring. Dangerous game.”

“With Tuisto tonight,” Wilson followed, “the dictator with the dynamo glow needs no introduction from me, but for the sake of professionalism and entertainment value, let’s milk the moment. For many an Engländer, just hearing the name Adolf Hitler would drive terror into the hearts of those following the news on their Bakelite sets. Fear pumped directly into the British family home. And yet, anybody with a soft spot for the Lake District can’t be all bad… can they? Although it should be recognised that the Führer’s fascination with the North-west is – or certainly was – strategic and that this funny old shack we find ourselves cooped up in is in fact a cap, a lid on a curious causal network of considerable supernatural power that has drawn us like moths to its flame. Please give a warm welcome to the Führer, the chancellor of the German Reich and supreme commander of the German Army – Adolf Hitler!”

The crowd rose to its feet, all except Clough, Boycott, Smith and Healy, who instead remained resolutely still. They realised that obsequiousness might spare their lives for the short-term but they couldn’t bring themselves to stand in celebration of one of history’s greatest evil-doer.

“Me dad’d fuckin’ murder me if I kowtowed to this sort of shit,” Smith side-mouthed to Healy.

“Aye well,” Healy ruminated with a tired, folded face, “it’s not everyday you get to hang oot with a dead dictator and the murderer of millions of helpless Jews, Poles, Russians, spastics, grannies and grandads, gypsies, kids… Did I miss anyone out? Fella’s a complete wanka, but I’d just sit back and accept it if I were you, y’knaa.”

The rapturous reception gradually silenced.

Wilson swung round with arm outstretched: “And here also is Major Walter Schröder of the Gestapo, a sorter-outer, the thrashing feet beneath the calm surface of the water, an Alka-Selzer for awkward moments, a PA, PR and a persuader for all matters invasively German in the North-west of England. People, let’s start the show!”

The place erupted. Hitler, who in death could comprehend all languages, seemed fascinated by the amusement being provided by the Factory Records decision-maker and seasoned television presenter.

Wilson faced the panel. “Tell us about the whales.”

The three instantly sunk into an uncharacteristic sheepishness.

“If I may,” Schröder spoke after a lengthy silence, filling the silent void, “zis is in fact an ingenious plan to provide power for our bunker, vhich indeed is already occurrink, but also to create livink bomber aircraft, whereby ze schpermaceti of ze vhale is pumped and fed directly to ze engines. Free aviation fuel! Ze beast vill be given a schtimulant intravenously in order to overcome ze fear of flyink and from ze sensation of beink outside of ze vater. Vater tanks vould be too heafy for transportation. Ze creature vould in all probability be wrapped in damp sackink. Once back from bombink, say New York or Washington, ze unterdersee mammal vould be reunited with ze vater tank and allowed to recuperate. Furzer drugs vould assist ze vhale in ze reproduction of schpermaceti. Ser gut, ya?”

“Ingenious,” Wilson frowned and appeared lost in thought for a moment. “Imagine whales having a fear of flying. Where’s your runway for this freakish fleet?”

Hitler rose and his head glowed a morbid crimson. For a moment he barked in an unintelligible dialect and gesticulated like a pigeon in the midst of feathered courtship, but slowly the words morphed into English. “…vill be plenty of runvays once ze British Isles haff been conquered!” he spoke in a heavily accented semi-bark. “You vill accept German might in all circumstances, from Schetland to ze Scilly Isles, takink your orders from beneath ze boot of ze German soldiery!”

“Yeah, OK, we get that bit,” Wilson nodded. “But whales – living creatures? What did they ever do to deserve such retribution?”

“Retribution?” Hitler huffed. “You forget vhales profided ze British Empire wiz cheap lightink for centuries! Industrialised slaughter! Ve haff a plan to return zese beasts to zeir natural habitat upon completion of a Luftwaffe tour of duty. Forty missions!”

There followed a polite ripple of applause.

“What about plugging into the power of this place?” Wilson queried. “You could propel space rockets, bombers, long-range missiles, any weapon you liked, if you could somehow harness the electrical energy of the force beneath your feet.”

“You are most correct about ze potential of Hangingbrow Hall, Herr Wilson,” Schröder accepted. “It is, after all, vhy ve are here. We haff our top scientists vorking on zis fery obstacle as we speak but it is no easy matter. In ze meantime, with ze vhales, ze livink fuel – lebendes Kraftstoffsystem – you understand ve are perhaps a year from masterink zis science but ve vill make it vork. It is inevitable. And ve should haff a vorkink prototype bomber in six months.”

“Now, one of your guys earlier said, ‘The War isn’t over yet,’” Wilson continued. “What did he mean by that?”

“Precisely as he told you!” Hitler followed. “Ve are vaitink, recuperatink, gainink strength before ze battle can be decisifely rejoined! Ve haff allies – industrialists, politicians and leaders – around ze vorld vaitink to resume ze ideals of ze Reich!”

“And zis is most interestink,” Schröder cut in. “Ze Verevolf Mofement is a resistance force formed in 1944, mostly youths, some of whom you see here zis fery efening. Ve are sittink it out till we can turn on ze enemy. Zen zere vas ze Deutsche Reichspartei, which begun after ze 1945 layink down of arms and ze rape of Berlin, to maintain ze ideals of ze schtruggle.”

Hitler rose to his feet again. “Ve are ze Aryans of Atlantis!” he loudly asserted. “Atlantis is ze German root. Ve are ze founders of all culture and vhen our home vas submerged ve travelled to ze empty lands of Tuisto. Zis is so and it is undeniable! German culture extends back more zan 200,000 years, and zis is a fact zat is as strong as iron, a time vhen zere vere three suns in ze sky, giants, dwarfs and ze old German gods. Among zem, ze Aryans liffed and thrived as a master race. Mighty of mind, fair-haired, blue-eyed, fit and supremely healthy, ze instigators of all art, music, language, writink, agriculture, architecture and ze folk rituals. Zis is an incontrovertible reality!”

“We’re all entitled to an opinion,” Wilson said. “But you must realise that to myself, to the Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough seated over there, to the Yorkshire cricketer Geoff Boycott, to the frontman of The Fall, Mark E Smith, and upcoming actor from the Tyne, Tim Healy, this will sound absolute bunkum.”

The audience murmured with shock. Was he mad?

Hitler rocked and lifted a wild fist. “Bunkum? BUNKUM!? You vould call us liars in our own house? You, you… English pigdog!”

“Please, my Führer, ve must allow ze questions to be formally placed,” soothed a smirking Schröder. “Ve must record eferysink as evidence to ze future generation of our genius and will. And please remember… zis is ze free country! Ha-ha-haaaa! Ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”

The attendees guffawed with delight.

Clough glanced over his shoulder to take in the scene. He was met with a set of crazed goggly eyes peering from a hazy skeletal face beneath a camouflaged field cap.

“Your friend pissed on my grafe,” the spook leaned forward.

“Thinking about it now, I wish I’d bloody joined him,” Clough replied.

“Let’s turn to you, Tuisto,” Wilson pressed on, fighting the schedule’s clock. “Where’s your German military uniform?”

Expertly, Tuisto allowed a moment’s silence to pass in order to build drama and then his chair lifted from the ground. Still seated, Tuisto rose and slowly flew above the heads of the studio audience, rotating like the Moon as it circles the Earth. Wilson patiently allowed the spectacle to play out. Tuisto hovered like a silent Harrier jump jet and finally with great skill and accuracy clunked back into his original position. Tuisto then fixed Wilson with a mischievous grin and said, “My apologies, what was your question?”

Laughter and cheers rang out. Even Hitler was ebullient.

Wilson feigned amusement: “You’ve done that before, I can see.”

“Well, where to begin,” Tuisto cried above the cheers.

“Let’s start with Christianity,” Wilson offered.

“Indeed,” Tuisto smirked. “Are you a Christian, Mr Wilson?”

“Anthony, please,” Wilson said. “In answer to your question, I’m a lapsed Catholic. I blame my grammar school education. I started asking tricky questions. Lapsed, but I’m on this planet to promote positivity. Positivity – and to encourage the city that I live in and love to reach its global potential.”

“And yet your religious wars bring out the worst in millions,” Tuisto threw back.

“Yes, depravity,” Wilson accepted. “Absolute depravity – by some, that is. But the gas chambers of the Third Reich moved things along, would you not accept?”

“You mourn ze enemies of ze Aryans?” Hitler cut in. “Your Christianity is but one chapter of a book whose pages vould stretch from here to ze sun and back. History has been hidden from ze German people by ze Catholic faith!”

Wilson stalked the stage. “So you’re saying that the Third Reich is part of a far bigger agenda, something astronomical, something supremely natural. That’s your gist here, darling.”

Tuisto gave a slow handclap. “This is history that is not on the curriculum – a Roman word, you will note.”

Wilson eyeballed the TV camera. “First Reich, Holy Roman Empire, universum regnum, the legal successor of the Roman Empire, 962 to 1806 – dates emblazoned on any ‘A’ Level student’s retina. Then along comes Napoleon and the Battle of Austerlitz, and the French control Europe. He has an idea to invade the United Kingdom, starting with a stab at Ireland. Not a single Frenchman lands in Britain or Ireland and it’s a total failure. There’s a reason it’s called the English Channel. Along comes the Second Reich, German Empire 1871 to 1918, and we all know what happened there. The Third Reich, that’s you guys…”

“And now ze Fourth Reich,” Schröder declared. “It has begun here at Hangingbrow Hall. You are all fortunate to vitness history in ze makink.”

“Only zis time, zere is a union wiz a force far more powerful zan any nation,” Hitler caterwauled. “Italy, Rumania, Japan – zese countries are derelict of fibre. Vhat fooIs ve vere! Zis is ze perfect union of ancient and modern vorlds, ze livink and dead under a single banner marchink ever onvards to ze racially pure Aryan world, and ze annihilation of all untermensch, ze inferiors – ze hordes from ze East.”

“And yet you forged an alliance with Croatia and Bulgaria,” Wilson reminded.

“Ethnically better zan ze Slav,” Schröder defended. “Croatians are descended from ze Goths and vere forced into ze Panslav ideal. But zey were not part of our grand scheme!”

“You see, your Catholic church is in reality an occupation of ancient German lands by the Roman Empire and a persecution of the German tribes,” Tuisto put forward. “They have been denied access to the old gods – denied access to the truth!”

“But didn’t God speak to your father with some inside information about a tricky weather front approaching?” Wilson asked. “The great reversal of creation.”

“Oh, I don’t know, it was a long time ago,” Tuisto responded – and this brought a laugh from the crowd and a broad smile to Hitler’s face. “Perhaps my father had been partaking of the grape. He was the planet’s original drunk, you know. Might the god who spoke to Noah be another ancient being? Perhaps we will never know the answer.”

“Now, my bible stated that Noah had three sons,” Wilson pointed out. “Shem, Ham and Japeth. You’re a turn up for the books.”

“Was historical accuracy ever the Bible’s strong point?” Tuisto dismissed. “It states that my father lived to be 950 years old, but I could have sworn we celebrated his 1,000th birthday. Who was counting? He had, as you English say, ‘a good innings’.”

Boycott smiled, then checked himself.

“But that would make you thousands of years old,” Wilson pressed. “You’ve clearly seen better days but you don’t look old enough for a bus pass yet.”

“A bus pass?” Tuisto chortled. “That is most amusing. I have seen moving pictures of your modern transportation on the television. Incredible things, quite incredible. Wild colours, unusual motifs.”

“That’s right,” Wilson accepted. “If you think the swastika is a decent piece of graphic design, I suggest you seek out our wonderful Double M logo from 1974 and the words Greater Manchester Transport in lower-case Helvetica script. Designed by Ken Hollick – a Londoner. But I won’t hold that against him.”

“You must understand zat ze Aryans are truly ancient,” Schröder cut in. “Zey bred through electrical means rather than by… ahem, copulation. Zat came much later from interbreedink wiz lower species many, many centuries ago. Ze female is, sadly, to blame for zis great fall from grace. But possibly wiz selective breedink, such paranormal powers can be reclaimed. Ze extermination of all other inferiors vill hurry zis process along. Worth a go, ya? Destruction, Herr Wilson, is completely necessary before any peace can be contemplated. It is for zis reason zat Hangingbrow Hall became so important to ze Reich strategy. It is essential for ze eternal Fourth Reich. Ze power here is staggerink. Ze house is a stopper on top of a vell of unspeakable magnitude. If ve could understand zis force, who can say vat zis might mean for ze Aryans and ze future of ze Germanic tribe.”

“OK, you’ve said your bit,” Wilson commented, “but have you considered that you might be playing with fire – and if you get burnt here, you could end up with very sore fingers? But I suppose that’s where your man Tuisto comes in.”

“Man?” grinned Tuisto. “I prefer demi-god.”

“My apologies,” Wilson said, and placed his hand on his chin. “But sometimes there’s a fine line between demi-god and demagogue.”

Tuisto spluttered. “Your lack of respect is astounding.”

“Tell us what your role is here,” Wilson continued. “You’re an agent, a link between two worlds. A sort of priest or vicar.”

“I have provided a conversation with Them,” Tuisto stated.

“Them?” Wilson frowned. “Who, or what, are Them?”

“That is indeed the key question, Anthony, and one which I cannot fully answer at this time,” Tuisto replied. “I have been waiting here for hundreds of years to understand more, but you must see that our scale of time cannot be compared with the billions of years that these superior entities have been living for.”

“And yet you have their ear,” Wilson continued. “Whatever Them are – or is – they listen to you, and Them, in turn, provide you with information. They allow you to remain here unharmed and have given you, it would appear, endless life.”

“True enough,” Tuisto accepted. “Oh, and this helps too…”

He carefully pulled a hand-sized bronze lump from his pocket.

“And this is?” Wilson enquired.

“I call it the Receiver,” Tuisto explained, studying with awe its polished lustre. “It is wonderful, isn’t it? I found it nearby, oh, I don’t know, 1,500 years ago. You see, I have been in the British Isles for such a considerable time. It is metal, look. It has a hole in it, and I use this to communicate with Them. I haven’t aged a day since I first came across it – so it must be doing me some good! I talk into it, and if I place my ear to the hole, I hear voices. It is Them.”

“Could I have a look at this ancient telephone?” Wilson enquired.

“It is precisely what you are already doing!” Tuisto replied with confusion. “You look with your eyes, not your hands.”

Hitler elbowed in: “Ve liff in a magical vorld that is littered wiz clues guidink ze German to ze old order. ‘Them’ is ze forces of destruction – violence and disorder. Ze true vays of nature. I fancy you vere hopink we vere in league wiz ze Deffil himself! Is zat not so, Engländer? Ve haff one aim, and zat is returnink Germany to its former glory – to a perfect time! But ve must massacre our opponents in ze first instance, ze beast-people, even zose lukevarm to our plans, with utter ruthlessness! Remoofe zem from ze script!”

Wilson stepped back from Tuisto, Hitler and Schröder and pondered for a moment. “Earlier on during this eventful evening, a few us battled with a pygmy woolly mammoth from an American children’s television programme,” Wilson explained. “This creature was a figure of long-standing anxiety for our friend Mark E Smith and yet the three of us had to unite to defeat this adversary. Why not something from my own imagination or Tim Healy’s? Why Mark’s specifically?”

“Vas zis upschtairs in ze side of ze house zat faces ze evil tree?” Schröder asked.

“The evil tree – that’s gone,” Wilson calmly relayed. “Tried to eat Brian Clough over there and then was torn from the ground by a whirlwind.”

“Oh dear!” Schröder grinned. “You guys haff had ze stomach-full tonight, haff you not? Zere is a particularly – how vould you say? – playful spirit in zat part of ze property. Perhaps your ‘Schmit’ has ze overactive imagination or maybe special powers zat you are unaware of. It obviously vanted to impress him or attract his attention. But a woolly mammoth, you say? Zat is interestink. Ve had one of ze SS guys brutally murdered up zere by Pittiplatsch – a puppet from ze German TV. It’s like ze brown Moomin wiz fried eggs for eyes. Another soldier escaped but lost a leg in ze process but was able to speak of their plight. We were cross with Tuisto and Them after zis incident but, you know, it was a small setback. Ze ‘big picture’ and all that.”

“Are you sure Them are committed to the long-term Reich plan?” Wilson asked. “I mean, do they give a fig about your claims of racial superiority?”

“Them – they have long, long memories,” Tuisto stated. “They also play games for their own amusement, Anthony. I’m sure you are aware of the Greek myths. It is a sense of humour unlike anything a human can comprehend. You might consider it… pranksterish.”

“You’re a bit of a prankster yourself, Tuisto,” Wilson reminded. “Some would label you ‘murderer’. You killed a local woman and her children on these premises, among countless others.”

“A shroud of respectability was required, this is true,” Tuisto revealed. “A family provided the means so that I might assist the greater cause. To inform the German High Command of the supernatural capabilities of Hangingbrow Hall, I needed access to modern communication and this entailed what you might call a public face.”

“Were the three children your own?” Wilson asked.

“What use do I have of children?” Tuisto spat. “They were her own offspring from a previous relationship. The gatekeeper smashed a hole into their quarters on their first evening here and gave peculiar life to an entertainer’s dummy that I was once given as a gift. I liked its jovial features, I must admit. I hoped I might have controlled our resident spirit but… well, it wanted its fun. The dummy carried out the deed.”

“But you did nothing to bloody stop it!” Clough called from the front row.

“This information is piffling!” Tuisto laughed. “It is of no use to our entertainment this evening.”

 “You lived a lie,” Wilson continued. “You deceived innocent people. They took your assumed Swiss name and paid the ultimate price. You also filled a wall with bodies hundreds of years ago, didn’t you? As a prank? And these are just a few of the crimes we’ve discovered. What is the purpose of all this death?”

“All gifts,” Tuisto smiled. “Payments. Keeping the landlord happy. Simple offerings to the old gods. You see, there is no easy escape from Hangingbrow Hall to the higher plain. Spirits here become trapped as if in a spider’s web. They might drift around for a few hundred years but ultimately they are consumed. This is like no other place on the planet, my friend. I recognised that the Receiver had magical properties and this offered me the ultimate gift of never-ending life – to be as one of the old gods. And then by chance to find this location! I will live as a king in the Fourth Reich for all time, and only the Germans have the technical ability, mental foresight and the will to make a deal with the ancient world and create a new reality! But such negotiations can’t be rushed and time is on our side. All this is inevitable and it will be.”

Finger raised, Wilson was on the verge of posing another question – How did the whales get here? – when a commotion from the rear of the gym-cum-TV studio forced an unexpected pause. A fit of wild coughing and spluttering was heard, and what sounded like the agonised cries of multiple strangulations occurring at the same time. Chair legs scraped the timber floor and a rush of activity ensued.

What was going on? Using his hands, Wilson shielded his eyes from the spotlights in an attempt to find out but all he could see were figures hurrying to the source of the disturbance.

Doktor, doktor, schnell, schnell!” was heard above the din.

Schröder, his trademark look of cruel amusement momentarily absent, shifted along the perimeter of the room to gain a better view of the spectacle. Ear-piercing shrieks rang out – “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” At this, Wilson rushed through the seating and found himself alongside Schröder.

“What is it?” Wilson enquired. “Cramp?”

“Chokink, perhaps,” Schröder replied sternly, who then pushed through the ring of onlookers to take personal command of the situation.

Through the gap Wilson spotted the three cooks sprawled on the floor, writhing, twitching and gurgling, their empty Golden Wonder Pot Noodles – a prize half an hour previously – laid like spent bullet cartridges beyond outstretched hands. A middle-aged medic with an old leather bag rushed to the scene and once through the scrum of onlookers was able to crouch and examine the afflicted. He checked pulses and shone a small but powerful torch into unresponsive eyes.

The medic turned to Schröder and gravely shook his head. “Dead, Major!” he melodramatically confirmed. “Poisoned!”

Schröder’s porcine face turned translucent white and beads of sweat popped on his brow. He seized one of the Pot Noodles from the ground and speed-read the English words on the container. Breathless with anger, he picked out Wilson and tapped the plastic. “Telefision man – vhat is zis?”

Wilson placed a hand on his forehead, mind racing. Poison? He’d almost eaten one of the instant snacks himself! They must have been laced with some deadly compound far more powerful than the powdery ingredients housed within. But by who? “We found them in the house upstairs,” Wilson offered as an explanation. “We had no idea…”

A raging Schröder approached Wilson and removed his leather gloves. Using these, he slapped Wilson’s face twice, once with a forward stroke and another on the backhand. “Lies!” he yelled. “You vere sent by ze British government to kill us wiz your plastic pots of death. And you almost succeeded in your assignment. Now, ve haff no cooks and vill haff problems ascertainink flavoursome food! Vhat haff you to say?”

“Is this all real?” Wilson squinted.

“You vill find out how ‘real’ this is,” Schröder roared. “Guards, take ze prisoners to zeir cell and… bring forth ze guillotine!”

Amid the furore, an SS guard spotted that Hitler was slowly morphing into a bright ball of searing red light and raised the alarm in the nick of time. “Achtung! Ze Führer is furious! Run for your life!”

At first, it felt like somebody had inadvertently opened a large window during a hurricane. Hitler by now had become highly animated, flapping his arms in a style reminiscent of scientist Magnus Pyke on video fast-forward. Using his supernatural strength, he sent fold-away seats flapping from the floor which smashed at staggering velocity into the wood-panelled walls. As confusion built, soldiers knitted their fingers across their scalps for protection and crouched while sobbing as splinters and chair fragments rained down on them. Wilson suggested a getaway to his famous associates but as they joined the stampede for the exit, a group of grim-faced German soldiers barred the way and lifted their firearms. “Kommen Sie! Ze game is up! Come wiz us, Tommies!”

Wilson glanced back into the pandemonium and saw Tuisto and Schröder knelt by Hitler’s frame cowering like dogs as their Führer unleashed his ire. The floor manager and camera operator clung to the 1960s television camera, their faces betraying their abject fear, before both were decapitated by flying seats. A gun was jabbed into Wilson’s spine and he was informed in no uncertain terms that he should keep moving.

Eventually, the British prisoners were pushed back into their small cell and the heavy door slammed shut. A tinkle of keys indicated that the door was locked in two places.

Healy covered his face with his hands. “So we end up getting our heads lopped off – and by the sound of it, that’s just the start of our troubles. Then our souls become prisonah here – for an eternity. Let’s hope there’s a snooker table, eh?”

“Even so, a decent bit of telly back then, Tone,” Smith chuckled. “You’ve still got it – I’ll give you that.”

They each rested on the floor, backs leant up against the cold wall, and a heavy silence descended as they contemplated their grisly fate.

“Do you know who I wish were ’ere wi’ us now?” Boycott spoke.

Clough lifted his head. “Harry Houdini?”

Boycott shook his head. “No Brian. Peter O’Toole. Instead of mopin’ abart, ’e’d be coming up with a plan of escape.”

“Aye,” said Clough. “But he’s not here, is he?”

  1. Save the whales

The prisoner cell that Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy found themselves in was a minimalist nirvana. There were no windows with bars from which a poignant bird might sweetly trill and no scratched graffiti on the wall to add some much-needed human ingredient, although the sea-grey paint scheme was certainly to Wilson’s personal taste. German World War II camouflage colours suited the loft-apartment lifestyle to which he aspired. Furnishings were sparse. A low wooden bench would prove difficult for anyone over the age of 40 to get up from, and with no mattress and devoid of slats, a metal bedstead was as good as useless. However, there was a toilet tucked up against a wall should it be required but it offered nothing in the way of privacy. The only feature that gave any consideration to luxury was a rectangular ventilation grille in a corner of the ceiling for a few whiffs of fresh upland air.

Beyond the solid cell door, heavy boots clunked and scraped on stone as the ragtag bunch of Nazis dashed on the double from one emergency to another, blunders and cock-ups on a never-ceasing schedule for world domination.

Boycott fixed his stare on the vent’s pill-shaped holes and considered “Them”, these mysterious monstrous toddlers that he would shortly know so intimately. It was almost beyond the cricketer’s comprehension.

“If it’s to be believed that power of these-’ere Them is so potent that dead can co-exist among livin’, ’ow come we never ’eard owt about it till now?” Boycott queried. “I mean, is Maggie Thatcher aware of it? Maybe she confers wi’ Anthony Eden and Benjamin Disraeli on quiet.”

“It’s been covered up, man, Geoff,” Healy commented. “No kid’d ever go to bed again if they thought the Bogeyman under the bed was real, y’knaa. It’s not in the public interest.”

“In my book, whatever Them is, it seems a crackpot set-up, constantly playing daft beggars and demandin’ ’uman sacrifice – and for what aim?” Boycott pondered. “Surely Them ’as got bigger things to be gettin’ on wi’ than standin’ abart in their own realm ’opin’ that guillotine is goin’ to present it wi’ some poor bugger’s soul to fiddle abart wi’.”

“Well that’s the quandary, Geoff,” Wilson answered. “We’re not fucking gods and we don’t know how they think or what their raison d’etre might be. So how are we supposed to fucking react when we get a window to their world?”

Boycott tutted. “Do you mind not swearin’ and usin’ foul language all time?” he complained. “Wi’ ten minute left to live before enterin’ a new reality that makes ’Ell look like ’olidee camp, I can do wi’out effin’ and blindin’, thank you.”

“Eh, imaging having to see Adolf Hitler every bloody day,” Clough chimed. “Now there’s a fate worse than death.”

“It can’t be any worse than having Del Amitri as your warm-up group,” Smith added. “That’s become a benchmark of woe for me.”

“Is that right?” Wilson scowled. “I’ve booked them for the Haçienda next weekend.”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” cackled Smith. “Ha-ha-ha-ha! You’re better off in here.”

Boycott rested his heavy cannon-ball head against the hard wall and fixed his stare at the grille, lost in thought at the prospect of a sharpened blade violently smashing into his neck and the resultant clunk, and his seeing eyes falling into a wicker basket. Any ideas of ever representing Yorkshire again seemed a far-off notion now – bonkers, even. Despite the seriousness of his situation, Boycott couldn’t help but drift into daydream territory. The murmur of crowd expectation, more clobbering of deliveries on home territory, this time Essex’s Derek Pringle at Headingley.

Just after he’d raised a hand to the adoring Yorkshire crowd, Boycott was shaken from his reverie by a twinkle of light from behind the vent cover. Believing he must be suffering from the severe effects of an almost unique tiredness or a calcium build-up on his contact lenses, he studied the gaps in the grille for the merest hint of movement…

And there it was again! A pair of eyes – a pair of eyes that blinked! What the…?

There came a shuffling and scraping from beyond the cell, seemingly within the wall itself.

“Eh, d’you hear that?” Clough mumbled, looking from left to right and back again. “Maybe the mate of that elephant you slaughtered has come back to get its retribution.”

“I wish I’d brought its trunk back with me as a trophy,” Smith sneered. “I could’ve wrapped it round your neck like a feather boa.”

“Weeeaaaaayyyy, what you, you soft soak?” Clough laughed. “This is the problem with Man City supporters…”

“Button it,” Boycott warned, and he rose to his feet with anticipation. “Somethin’s afoot.”

Quiet wrenching and tapping brought ceiling fragments falling like a short-lived snow flurry. Next there was hissing – sssssss – and the flicker of a small blue flame shot through the bars. There followed the distinctive aroma of a school’s metalwork room and then a reverberating dooooiiinnnggggg as a blunt instrument struck the grille with force. Unable to withstand such an onslaught, the panel fell and clattered to the ground. Each individual remained still, frozen as if starring in a film that had been paused on videotape. To considerable relief the door to the cell remained bolted and closed. Could it be that not a single German had heard the commotion? Attention then fixed on the rectangular gap above them and slowly from the darkness emerged the narrow, craggy, humour-filled countenance of Peter O’Toole.

“Man, you’ve gotta be joking,” Healy grinned. “You came back for us, Pete.”

“Did somebody mention my name?” O’Toole grinned. “Now, I have two capable and eager members of the top-secret, supernatural wing of the Special Air Service with me. Gentleman, please refrain from putting your hands together, indeed remain resolutely silent, for Captain Wood and Corporal Hart.”

Two hands appeared on either side of O’Toole as a greeting.

“As Elvis Presley once crooned,” Healy joked, “‘Maybe I would die cos I don’t have a Wood and Hart’. Well, that’s no longer our problem.”

“Even so, get your Aristotles on the hop,” O’Toole directed. “It’s a bloody Nazi viper’s nest here. And be good fellows. Drag the bedstead over to this wall and hoist yourselves up. Once you do, you’ll need to go on all fours like a banker in the Irish Derby. It’s an aluminium tunnel and a bugger of a squeeze, but that’s the hand you’ve been dealt. I’m afraid there is no space for bulky coats or hats up here, but if all goes to plan, you won’t need them. You should have followed me up the bloody cliff face in the first place and all this could have been avoided.”

O’Toole was off like a toddler that was two weeks into serious crawling, scurrying behind a lightweight equipment pack being dragged by Captain Wood. Still above the cell, a camouflaged arm belonging to Corporal Hart reached down from the vent to assist the celebs’ ascent into the dusty, musty, cold, cramped environment of the ventilation system of Hangingbrow Hall and its Fourth Reich subterranean extension. Healy, his Army past never far from the surface, opted to be the final figure to leave the lock-up. He assumed that if there had been a guard by the door, they either had poor hearing or had nodded off. In this instance, both were correct and some long-overdue luck was on their side.

Once into the enclosed world of the supernatural site, Healy, his much-loved motorcycle leathers regrettably discarded, was greeted with a pat on the ankle and an SAS order: “Follow that arse.” Never had a British voice sounded so welcome to Healy’s ears and he began his chase into the darkness with a proud smile on his face. Hart wasn’t far behind, pulling his own bag of essentials. Up ahead Healy spotted shards of light at the front of the column. Soon there was light from his rear too – Hart’s torch.

At times, the space was so narrow that it was like taking part in a caving expedition deep beneath the Pennine’s limestone landscape. The ventilation network was post-war and brought in air for the huge, secretly constructed underground complex – a nice architectural touch when you considered the full picture of what was going on here. Despite the tight sections, the tunnel was fairly simple to slide along, although a 90-degree bend necessitated shifting to your side and pushing through the angle like a slug. Thankfully there were no clues as to the existence of rodents or much dampness, and most instances of spiders’ webs and long-departed arthropod skins had been cleared by the pioneering passage of O’Toole and his SAS acquaintances.

Even though the conditions were confined, a brisk pace was set by the human convoy but the distance proved painful work for chilled knees that had felt little in the way of warmth for days. Then suddenly, from some distance behind, Healy recognised raucous and outraged voices echoing along the metallic highway. It sounded like avenging Daleks.

“Time to gife up, Tommy!” came a barked warning with a German lilt. “You’re in trouble now, for sure!”

“Ah hell, it’s the Erics,” Healy whispered through the pitch-black to the nearby SAS hardnut. “They’re onto us, man.”

The reply from beneath a barely visible bushy moustache was lost among a sudden almighty rattle that ravaged eardrums, followed by fwiiiip, fwiiiip, wizzzz, cloing, patong, bing, ding, dang-dong. Healy was confident that the sharp bend they had navigated offered complete safety until a bullet with an orange glowing tip came to rest by his hand. It was now vividly apparent that their daring escape had been discovered and the chase was on.

“Right, stating the bleeding obvious, they’re in the vent,” Hart confirmed from the rear. “Quicken up and stay focused. We’re close to another 90-degree turn, then we’re pretty much in the clear. We’re on the final stretch.”

Through the brickwork the bass thud of a pair of RAF Chinook helicopters could be detected, which for now were maintaining height a safe distance from Hangingbrow Hall, circling in a nearby valley after dropping a crack squad of supremely trained soldiers and rescuers to the grounds. Healy’s mind flooded with thoughts of freedom but another menacing clang of distorted gunfire along the aluminium channel brought his stomach veering back to the vicinity of his mouth.

An anxious crawl along the dust-strewn duct resumed until a face-to-bottom traffic jam developed at a T-junction. At the front of the column, Wood, torch fastened above the ear on a head band, listened with precision and care along the left-hand spur and glanced back at O’Toole to his rear.

“What is it, Captain Marvel?” whispered O’Toole. “Have we dropped…” and stopped himself mid-sentence. “What was th…? Oh, bloody hell, German voices?”

“SNAFU,” replied Wood. “Situation normal: all fucked up. That’s our way out. Now it no longer is – they’ve found our way in and way out. They’re heading towards us. We’ll have to detour – right turn, Clyde.”

“Then let’s not waste time,” O’Toole replied. “We’ll take the high road – there might be better views.”

“Corporal!” Wood gruffly called through the darkness. “Change of plan. Leave a little gift at the junction.”

“Gotcha, sir,” Wood called back through the darkness and busied himself retrieving explosives from his pack.

Again, each manoeuvred through a precarious turn on their sides – in silence, stomachs tucked in, stretching muscles that now burned from strenuous exercise.

Alarmed at the prospect of an imminent explosion from the rear, Healy shuffled onwards with a rapid rhythm but soon found his nose pushed up against the flannel material of Brian Clough’s mud-caked grey trousers. There was another spray of stupendously loud bouncing gunfire from the rear, which made Healy jerk forward. In the darkness, his forehead nudged into Clough’s backside, who in turn agitatedly flapped his fingers in Healy’s face as a warning to leave space.

“Alright!” Healy grunted, but rocketing concern for his personal safety forced words from his mouth: “C’mon, c’mon, move, man, move…”

Clough edged forward, rose and was gone, a movement that momentarily stunned Healy until a guiding hand appeared in front of his face. He realised that a hole had now presented itself above his head and he was able to wriggle through the gap without need of SAS assistance.

The scene that greeted the troupe was astoundingly unsettling and would have made the average Greenpeace activist shocked, outrageously angry and tearfully helpless all at the same time. Within the subtly lit setting a 50-feet long sperm whale was stranded mid-air in a canvas sling, which itself was dangling above the body of a swastika-festooned, four-engined, propeller-driven Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. On its fuselage was painted a cartoon depiction of a whale pointing forwards with an arm-like flipper. The eery silence was broken when the aircraft’s upper fuselage clanked into life and upwards-facing doors gradually opened to accommodate the unfortunate creature.

The gathered menagerie of 1980s celebrities and niche soldiery exchanged anguished expressions. O’Toole visibly seethed. Casting his eyes towards the 40-ton beast he quietly growled, “What sort of deranged crackpot would devise such an idea? I’ll tell you who – a damn German!”

“Surely it would struggle to get off the ground due to the sheer weight,” Wilson quietly spoke. “It’s a dead-end idea – as I’ve said before, like ACR going jazz.”

“Aircraft ’angar, right? queried Boycott. “Not biggest one I’ve ever seen, but all same, it’s some size. It must be underneath lawn.”

“Far end of the room there’s a ramp, look,” pointed Hart. “There’ll be a set of doors to reach the grounds, probably with grass on the opposite side to conceal its purpose. It’s bloody impressive.”

Above the aircraft, fitting snugly within the dimensions of the hangar, stood a motorised crane on rails. Its operator was blissfully unaware of the British observers below but the dull crump of a subterranean explosion – the booby trap left in the ventilation tunnel by the SAS – and resultant muted screams made him slide open his cab window to listen for further unfathomable noises. It would be his final act on Earth as an expertly fired bullet from Hart thwacked into the German’s temple. The force pushed the crane driver back into his box where he sat awkwardly upright with a red gash in the side of his head. This brought a lower-case “b” pushed through 90 degrees smile to Boycott’s dirt-camouflaged face. At last, they were turning the tables on their Nazi and supernatural adversaries.

The whale remained dormant but then its tail began twitching caused by the gunfire and for a moment it seemed in danger of struggling free and falling to the ground. From the safety of darkness, Peter O’Toole edged forward. “Smashing creature!” he called upwards, clear and strong. “Boldness be my friend. Where were you born, fine fellow?”

There came an ear-piercing series of whale squeaks and rapid gunshot-loud clicks that made the weary travellers thrust their hands upwards to protect their ears.

“You don’t say!” O’Toole replied, as if taking part in a normal, everyday conversation. “A very noble waterway if you don’t mind me commenting. I sailed across its chop during national service, you know. A frightening place for a lad from Leeds! Now listen, you wonderful giant of the deep. If you want good news then I’m afraid I can furnish you with precious little. You’re a big brute and that’s a fact, and it’s unlikely we could ever get you out of here. But consider this, Basher – we’re lost and in terrible danger and you might be able to help us. Will you assist fellow travellers in their hour of need in this house of barbarity?” O’Toole froze with craggy face skywards.

The whale remained still, like it was processing O’Toole’s attempt at cross-mammal comradeship, before a hammer of pulses clattered human eardrums once again.

O’Toole instinctively flinched but broke into a smile. “I knew we could count on your support,” the actor called up to the dangling cetacean. “Now let’s see if we can lower you from this godforsaken contraption and at least make you more comfortable on the ground. I’d imagine vertigo would be a crippling affliction for one whose life has been spent leagues below.”

The actor volunteered to climb the crane ladder and locate the appropriate levers to lower the sling but the accompanying SAS were not keen on the idea and furthermore were worrying that the escape was veering violently adrift of the original plan. A near-silent debate about priorities quickly developed.

As if on cue, a door far beyond the aircraft’s tail opened providing a small rectangle of yellow light on the smooth concrete floor. Nonchalantly a pair of figures strode forward in pilot’s garb, footwear clipping, one in a full black leather suit and peaked cap that in the 1980s would be regarded as kinky, while his sidekick sported a lined sand-coloured suit with lightweight flying helmet and goggles. Each was carrying coffee in large mugs for their nightshift tasks and were blissfully untroubled by the British figures hidden in the shadows, crouched behind a series of mechanics’ tool drawers.

The pilot in the black leather gear loudly voiced his concerns about inactivity towards the crane operator and let out an audible groan of barely contained anger when his demands were met with no discernible movement from either crane or whale. In this test department, he was used to the animal not only being already strapped into the cavernous interior of the wide-bodied Focke-Wulf but for it to be rigged up through pipes and electrotrodes to allow the running of the “biofuel-fed” Bramo nine-cylinder piston engines. Peering up beyond the cradled creature the leading pilot noticed a protruding arm slide out limply from the operator’s cab.

If the sight of the flopping limb were not reason enough for alarm, the movement of the writhing whale in the sling couldn’t be ignored and the leading airmen called out, “Hey Rainer, wir sollten besser von hier verschwinden!” [“we’d better get out of here!”]

Aviation underling Rainer moved rapidly towards the large tyres of the aircraft for cover and gave a cautious scan of his surroundings. The pilot in black ostentatiously drew a pistol from his pocket and waved it towards the door. Slowly and silently, both airmen began to withdraw towards the hangar exit, arms held out as if they were on a tightrope walk. From above, the suspended whale let out an ear-wrecking squeak, which brought a snarl of anger from the leather-clad pilot.

“Damned vorthless creatures!” the German shouted at the whale – in English, as he believed all marine mammals captured in the North Atlantic were non-German speakers. “When we haff finished wiz you, you vill be fed to ze dogs!” To prove his superiority, he let loose a bullet in order to frighten the beast. Rather than land in a timber beam or masonry, the bullet pinged off a metal ceiling joint and ricocheted with a melodramatic perkowwwwww and lodged itself in one of the whale’s flukes – a lobe of the huge whale’s tail.

A tear of fabric and a riotous rattling of chains further unnerved the Germans, who began to dash in a panic for the exit – but the in-pain, partially freed whale swung earthwards, massive tail outstretched, and caught the German pilots in its furious arc. One moment the humans stood; a second later there were just two pairs of legs – and these stood resolutely while their upper torsos slid through blood and bile and came to a stop some distance beyond their meaty thighs. The sperm whale thumped at maximum force into the hangar wall, bursting through masonry and continuing in an upwards trajectory to smash a hole into the room above. The stricken marine predator, now freed from its canvas tether, crashed with a boom to the ground amid the rubble of its demolition work. It breathed a huge sigh and then its movement halted, eyes staring and open, but now no longer seeing.

The SAS fired volleys of bullets at the still moving German aviators and shifted towards the halved men to make sure they had no access to firepower. O’Toole, meanwhile, leapt from his hidden position, hurdled the mess of airmen’s legs – which had toppled – and slid to a stop by the stricken sea creature. He looked at its torn flesh and blood oozing from puncture marks. He patted the lifeless grey hulk and, walking around the animal, noticed that its long and narrow lower jaw had opened like a drawbridge.

The actor was soon joined by his fellow runaways.

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” voiced Boycott.

“Beg your pardon?” frowned Wilson.

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Boycott repeated. “It’s somethin’ Columbo ses when ’e’s surprised by outcome.”

The SAS duo assessed the damaged walls and looked upwards towards a black gash in the upper masonry and ceiling.

“Gentlemen, that’s our safest way out,” Captain Wood ascertained, pointing at the hole.

“It should at least be at ground level and that’s where we need to be right now,” nodded Corporal Hart.

“Howay, man Captain, the ceilings too high up,” Healy spoke-whispered. “We’d need a rope or a winch or something. We’ll never get up there otherwise.”

“I noticed there was a ladder fixed to the crane,” Wood answered. “We could crowbar it off and I reckon it’ll be long enough to get us through that hole.”

Wood and Hart darted away on fleet feet with O’Toole and Healy following like faithful border collies, ready to assist. The Nazi climbing apparatus was rapidly requisitioned and placed against the wall, using the whale’s agape jaw as a makeshift chock.

“Well, that were a stroke of luck,” Boycott said, sounding genuinely pleased. “A ladder and a whale wi’ its gob open in just right place.”

Wood tightened his backpack and placed a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Just move on up-uh,” sung Smith. “Towards your destination-uh.”

Though you may find, from time to time…” added Wilson…


  1. Luftwaffe will tear us apart
  •  With sweat running into his eyes, Captain Wood, from his cramped horizontal position, feverishly cut his way through rotten floorboards using a serrated-edge tool, pulling and snapping pieces of wood to create enough of a gap for eight individuals, size M to XL, to squeeze through. Corporal Hart, bringing up the rear, was still up high on the repurposed crane ladder in the hangar, passing his backpack to Tim Healy who was lying in the shallow world of underfloor pipes and cobwebs above. Healy used every ounce of power in his biceps to lift the backpack free of Hart’s outstretched fingers and dragged the bag into the tight space by his side.

    To Hart’s befuddlement, a vibration suddenly reverberated through the metal of the ladder and with consternation he gazed downwards. To his disbelief, the tormented face of a blond German aviator, no longer wearing headgear, was staring up at him, a body devoid of legs, shreds of flesh smearing the floor red like a bizarre mop. White hands slapped agitatedly at rungs of the ladder but unable to climb, the living torso instead tried to scupper the escape by pushing the ladder along the wall. Hart sought to quicken his ascent, beckoning Healy to grab his arm. The ladder slid sidewards and rocked momentarily on one leg. Hart’s wrist slipped from Healy’s grasp, but the SAS man grabbed for the Geordie’s fingertips and was able to steady the ladder. The aviator made another attempt to disrupt the show by shifting the lower jaw of the deceased sperm whale so he could gain better purchase on the metal.

    On a night of unwelcome surprises, the material of his Luftwaffe uniform snagged on a whale tooth and the Fourth Reich pilot soon felt the sensation of a dislocated shoulder as the whale’s mouth snapped shut with force, the result of an electrochemical reaction in the creature’s nerve endings. The German became trapped in a fishy smelling hell from which he’d never escape. He couldn’t have imagined a worse conclusion to an already bizarre life.

    A precarious reverse manoeuvre by Healy in the netherworld between floors allowed the SAS corporal to fix his elbows above a beam and lever himself upwards to safety amid a volley of gurgled German profanities from below.

    “I should say something James Bondian, like, ‘Luftwaffe pilots aren’t half the men they used to be’, but I won’t,” Hart panted.

    “We’re past jokes now, bonny lad,” Healy replied. “Our sense of humour vanished many moons ago.”

    Suddenly movement started and once through the sawn-through tight hole that tore and tugged at clothing, each found themselves in the unnervingly familiar surroundings of Hangingbrow Hall’s wide kitchen, back among its twisted Uri Geller cutlery, wartime tinned food and abandoned wall-hung pans. Cupboard doors gaped open fresh from a ransacking the previous day when the idea had been hatched to catch rainwater in a variety of receptacles. Despite the grimness of the workspace, it was a relief to be able to stand upright and stretch once more, but now shorn of outer layers of clothing, the chilled air brought on shivers and set teeth chattering.

    Torch beams shone through the visible breath trails. Captain Wood studied a map of the building’s layout using his light, familiarising himself with the floorplan. Meanwhile, Hart bent down to cover the hole they had just crawled from with pieces of timber. A set of drawers was then scraped across the aperture and left as an added obstacle should anyone reach the kitchen through the unorthodox route of the aircraft hangar ceiling. Wood brought a walkie-talkie from a pocket and pressed a button on the set. Seconds later a dzzzz was heard in return.

    “That’s our taxi booked,” Wood stated. “OK, gentlemen, this way – we need to leave,” he beckoned, and they pushed through the kitchen’s double doors and entered into the excessively creepy, wide passageway.

    “Ah, Spook Alley,” Healy quietly grumbled. “We meet again.”

    With the scent of freedom in their nostrils, they scurried towards Hangingbrow’s main hall. The crackle of gunshot and tinkling of broken glass was by now a constant background soundtrack as British and German soldiers traded fire in the grounds of the troubled building. Reaching the main hall, Wood, a Browning High Power single action pistol in hand, slowly pushed the door ajar, which naturally gave a bone-chilling, haunted-house waaaaaaahhhhh.

    “You’re better off pushin’ damned doors quick in ’ere,” Boycott stated. “They make a right din. Every one’s alike in this place. A bit of ’ousehold oil wouldn’t go amiss in my view.”

    “He’s not wrong,” affirmed Smith. “Whenever you open a door and it creaks, somethin’ wrong follows a few minutes afterwards.”

    The leading SAS expeditionary nodded and asked his gaggle of famous adventurers to take a step back. He then gave the door a heel-kick and, from a low, crouched position carefully edged forward, checking to his left and right with alert eyes and gun outstretched. The procession filed into the wide expanse of the main room, with its grand carpeted staircase, its timber walkways held aloft by oak beams and its painted portraits and battle scenes that ought to have been on permanent display in a Carlisle museum. The chandelier was lit, its dull glow throwing a yellow pall across the wide space.

    “Why are the lights on?” Wood asked in low tones.

    “We switched ’em on on Friday when we got ’ere,” Boycott replied. “I don’t like wastin’ electricity like next man, but you learn to make exceptions with this ’ouse. There’s a stack of candles over there an’ all if you want more light.”

    “Smells like the fire’s been lit recently,” Wood commented.

    “Oh, we had all the comforts of home, Captain,” Healy smiled. “It was a real five-star attraction after we’d been here for a few hours.”

    Despite the low illumination from the dust-caked chandelier, SAS torches remained on, shifting across the interior walls, but even the trained killers were shocked by what they saw. Skeletal arms, legs and skulls hung from smashed plastering, trapped in a bone-knitted crowd scrum following Geoff Boycott’s forthright batting. Discarded bottles and torn curtains littered the floor, while at the top of the stairs sat the ventriloquist’s dummy with a wide smile, its back resting up against a spindle. It seemed pleased to see them.

    Hart, handlebar moustache twitching, turned to O’Toole and said, “This is the malicious dummy you told us about, right?”

    “Malicious is an understatement,” O’Toole grimaced. “It has a pet Rottweiler too, ten feet tall, that’d rip your throat out just for looking at it. Be ready for that pisser showing up too.”

    Wood motioned to his fellow soldier and said, “Keep an eye on that bastard. If it moves, zap it.”

    From his small backpack, Hart retrieved a screw-together weapon that, when complete, looked as if it had been made during an infant school’s craft morning from washing-up liquid containers and toilet roll tubes. It seemed a tricky device to set up as well, for it required much pushing of buttons and sliding of panels. A digital display with futuristic red LED numbers sprang into life.

    “Battery time 11 minutes, maybe 12 if we’re lucky, Cap,” Hart announced.

    “We won’t be hanging around that long,” Wood called back.

    “What has he got in his hands?” Tony Wilson enquired. “A ray gun?”

     “We call it the ‘Double D’ or ‘Dobbin Destroyer’, y’know, after Rentaghost, but its actual name is the NSAF Tactical Anti-Spectre Rifle,” Hart confirmed. “NSAF is the Nottingham Small Arms Factory. Still in trials – maybe by the mark II it’ll be smaller and look more suited to its task. Even so, it packs a punch. You wouldn’t want to be a spook with one of these around. It dissolves them.”

    “What?” O’Toole guffawed. “Can I have a go? I’ll wipe the smile off that heathen’s clock.”

    “There’s only a few of these weapons in existence, and this is nuclear powered, so you need a bit of training,” Hart explained, although he appreciated O’Toole’s willingness to muck in.

    “Nuclear powered?” Wilson frowned with alarm. “That doesn’t sound completely safe. Should you not be wearing gloves?”

    “It’s worth half-a-million quid,” Hart said. “Only us and the Yanks have got them, but they’re manufactured up in the Midlands. Keep that to yourself for now. Anyway, enough chatting. We need to get out of the main entrance door to meet up with our bus drivers.”

    Wood led the way across the filthy parquet floor and shuffled towards a partially opened door at the opposite end of the main hall – the door that led to Hangingbrow’s entrance with its Ministry of Defence warning sign. The SAS captain halted briefly to marvel at a Shredded Wheat box that had been taped into a window panel to prevent cold air from further chilling the building’s interior – what was the point?

    The leading SAS man waved an encouraging arm as the throbbing wuppa-wuppa of a pair of mighty Boeing Chinook HC Mk Is approached the grounds. A leisurely jog to the camouflaged helicopters should have followed but Wood’s exit to Hangingbrow was suddenly blocked by a miniature individual with Santa Claus-style hair and a bushy beard, albeit all in a firey ginger. Bathed in soft yellow light from the chandelier, the pint-sized obstacle was wearing a brown cassock that reached down to his sandals, which themselves acted as a frame for a set of gnarled grey-brown toenails. Wood instinctively took a step back and raised his Browning.

    “Greetings,” Tuisto mischievously introduced himself and moved into the gap of the ajar door. “I wondered if we might mull over a few misdeeds… as friends. As equals.”

    “What have you come dressed as?” the SAS soldier barked. “No one told me it was fancy dress.”

    “Well, yes, we have some ground to cover,” Tuisto nodded, gazing down at his attire, and further opened the door to the hallway so that he might catch sight of Tony Wilson, whom he considered to be the party’s most senior representative thanks to his impressive, if chaotic, on-stage Q&A performance.

    “I wish to speak to the television man,” Tuisto pointed. “I demand a conference with him, and, should an understanding be reached, I might offer my services. A switch of allegiance, perhaps.”

    Wood span to face Wilson and said, “We’ve no room for passengers. The helis won’t hang about. This is not in the plan – if he doesn’t get out the way, I’ll force the issue.”

    “What’s his bleeding story?” Hart called across.

    “He claims to be a sort of demi-god sprite,” Wilson divulged, hands animated in the soft light to power home his words. “The original German, mystical fourth son of Noah, also available for kids parties and bar mitzvahs. Personally, I think he’s nothing more than a murderer with a lucky charm, but if he’s to be believed, shooting him won’t do any good. He’s like something from a video arcade game. He can’t be killed.”

    “Double D might have other ideas,” Wood suggested.

    At the top of the stairs to the right, the ventriloquist’s dummy slowly rose to its wooden-clogged feet and stood in quiet contemplation, eyes scanning from side to side and splaying its upper lip. In spite of Hart’s training in this astoundingly niche field of warfare, witnessing a possessed child-sized puppet move of its own free will made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

    “Cap, the ventriloquist’s dummy is now mobile,” Hart relayed. “And I never thought I’d say that.”

    Wood flashed his eyes to the top of the staircase and then returned his attention to Tuisto: “Corporal, if it takes another step forward, you know what to do. Right, you, man in a dress, fuck off out of it or I’ll give the order to have you evaporated.”

    “Oh no you won’t!” Tuisto said.

    “Oh yes he will!” Mark E Smith deadpanned.

    “Oh no he won’t!” Tuisto added.

    “Bugger me, we’re at the panto,” O’Toole commented.

    Tuisto pulled a well-polished lump of bronze from his flabby brown pocket. “Do you forget?” he bellowed. “I have this! The Receiver! Now you people have been most embarrassing to me, for you were to be a gift to the ancient gods, or whatever beasts lay beneath this place, by the removal of your heads vis-a-vis the guillotine. But I am willing to forgive and forget on this occasion – if you grant me freedom!”

    “We’ve no time for your bollocksing around,” Wood responded. “You’re staying put with your Nazi buddies. You’ve made your bed. Lie in it.”

    With surging interest, Smith’s focus shifted to a section of wall directly above the doorframe. While Tuisto staked his claim for a first class ticket on a Chinook and thereafter a palace that was well stocked with voluptuous courtesans, hair-like cracks suddenly appeared in the plastering and spread like a map of the railways in Victorian Britain. Smith assumed its appearance might be attributed to the earlier plastic explosives in the bowels of the building and he took a precautionary step away from the wall.

    The Fall singer placed a warning hand on the arm of Wood, who merely spoke from the corner of his mouth, “Seen it.”

    “What if I was to say that I wasn’t who I said I was,” Tuisto continued, almost bashfully. “What if I said that I wasn’t the son of Noah, but I’d told my lodgers, these… these Germans, misinformation so that I might live like a king in their glorious Empire for thousands and thousands of years? I now think that the outcome for these cataclysmic bunglers might not be so triumphant…” – and he gave a nervous giggle. “I read up on the Nazi’s plans, their ideology, their beliefs, and became an expert. I was an avid magazine reader earlier in the century.”

     “Who, or what, are you if you’re not this demi-god who can fly aboot on furniture?” Healy asked, temples pulsing with rising anger.

    “We must study the panorama and drink in the view,” Tuisto expressed, settling in for a nice discussion. “The Receiver, as you are by now aware, has rare qualities,” he explained, hoisting the bronze object above his head. “It gives its possessor such rich rewards. With it, I am assigned a place at the top table – forever! I discovered it, of course, a millennia ago. I was then a thief, a wrangler – livestock primarily, sometimes children, the latter of which was a profitable sideline for me. Then to find this astonishing tool! To be able to confer with powerful entities, to be granted endless life, to never need to eat or drink – or even defecate! Well, it is impossible to return to normality after that. I had Hangingbrow Hall built to the highest standards so that it might last for an eternity. It is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of my brilliant self. I uproariously offered the space as an execution point for the local authorities many centuries ago and the Cumberland lawmakers readily agreed to my suggestion, especially as I was permitted to keep the bodies for a price, which I used to sate the appetites of the great elder beings in the bowels of the earth.

    “This committee you call Them?” Boycott called. “Old gods.”

    “Yes!” Tuisto beamed. “They talk to me! I’m sure of it!” And he hid a snigger with a hand.

    “I reckon it’s just a shiny seashell you’ve got there,” Smith suggested. “Put your ear to it and it sounds like whisperin’. We’ve all done it as kids on the beach. Now, I don’t doubt it has some power, I’m not daft, but you’re probably overplaying that device.”

    “It is not mere whispers,” Tuisto threw back with indignation. “What a time it has been. I summoned the spirits you have witnessed! Such enjoyment could only ever have been dreamt about. The walls here, the floors, the rafters – they’re crammed with the dead,” and Tuisto let out a satisfied chuckle. “Their souls become trapped here. A prison of pain! I remain permanently in good health. My last cold was in 807, which I contracted from a Viking farmer. Then the modern foreigners arrived from the sky in the 1940s in their drab, grey uniforms. I invited them, of course. I saw the advantages of their scheme. These Germans, the living ones, the dead ones, the spirits… they live a managed decline, even though rich industrialists around the planet provide them with financial viability and, yes, personnel.”

    From the rear of the hall a rush of air made a lone, still-hanging thick curtain momentarily swish and flollap. There followed the menacing clip-clip of footsteps on the wooden floor. The chandelier began creaking and whining on its long iron chain, its flint glass tinkling. To the astonishment of onlookers, the whole ornamental mass slowly shifted to a 45-degree angle, as if being held aside by an invisible giant’s hand. Strings of dust that had collected over decades easily broke and fell. Into the dull yellow gloom strode the urgent figure of Major Walter Schröder, arm raised, Luger pointing forwards, his pig-like features appearing amused yet business-like beneath a wide-brimmed black hat. He was accompanied by the silent Adolf Hitler who drifted amid a sphere of sparkling red-light energy, eyes assessing the scene, palm up to manoeuvre the chandelier.

    “Here’s Darth Vader,” Smith grunted. “And C-3PO.”

    “So you vould make fools of us, Tuisto!” Hitler boiled, fist waving madly. “Wiz your magic lump of shinink metal you thrust your dagger into my back and ze back of efery lifink and dead German! Yes?

    Tuisto was considering his explanation when a startling monumental clap and piiiiiing ripped through the hall, forcing the British group to wince and duck. Tuisto staggered in a circular movement and appeared stunned. Schröder lowered his semi-automatic pistol and dabbed his sweating forehead with a handkerchief. Whether intended or not, the Receiver that had been held aloft in Tuisto’s hand had taken the full brunt of Schröder’s shot and diverted the bullet into the network of fresh cracks above the doorframe. The bronze device now lay on the floor inside the main hall tantalisingly out of Tuisto’s reach. Tuisto – or whoever he was in reality – looked shocked and confused. Studying his own cassock, he was relieved to find that the Receiver had saved his life and that the bullet had miraculously ricoched from its true course. However, he quickly realised that the better outcome might have been taking the projectile after all. That way, the Receiver would have remained in his hand and magically fixed his ailing body.

    Eyes blazing in maroon sockets, Tuisto gestured to Captain Wood with flapping hands. “Come, come, you dolt, pass the Receiver to me. Quickly! There’s no time to waste. It’s mine! It’s mine!”

    The cracks above the door spread and multiplied and the wall let out a stomach-ache groan. Suddenly the doorway slumped and Tuisto, beneath the frame, was violently donked directly on the crown of his woolly head by a timber beam. The bisected oak slab cracked Tuisto’s head with such resounding brutality that his neck disappeared into his shoulders, meaning his height was reduced from 5’2” to 5’1”.

    “Ha-ha!” Smith privately laughed and looked to Geoff Boycott in order to share the mirth, but Boycott found little humour in the events and merely scowled back.

    Rivers of thick red blood trickled down Tuisto’s temples and cheeks, and soaked into his bright bushy beard and cassock. He was able to stumble forward and mumble, “I’m ntttt rddddy,” before lifting inquisitive fingers to the top of his head. It was a horrific spectacle to behold. Tuisto’s ginger mane had been parted, revealing a mishmash of shiny grey brain, specks of bright blood and off-white skull. Once again he beckoned for the return of the bronze device – his only hope of survival. “Re… cei… vhh,” he forced through clenched teeth.

    “I warned you about that lintel, cocker,” Smith reminded. “I was doin’ you a good turn.”

    “A… gdddddd… trrrrnn,” Tuisto repeated and looked imploringly for help. To the onlookers’ surprise, Tuisto began ageing as if on fast forward, orange hair turning to a cobwebbed mat, then white strands, and finally ashes, while his grey cadaver skin sunk into his cheeks and his mouth gaped for air. He raised his skeletal arms and for a moment he seemed trapped in the force of a wild storm as his ragged clothing shook and tore. Wooooaaaahhhhhhhh!

    There came another ear-splitting creak followed by a ground tremor. At that point, the wall above the door buckled further, sending an avalanche of masonry crashing down onto the decaying figure of Tuisto, who collapsed and vanished amid the ensuing turmoil of brickwork, centuries-old concrete and smashed timber. Beyond the debris, Hanginbrow Hall’s exterior wall sighed and a whole section of the hallway thumped to the ground, leaving a gaping hole that gave views of the black sky. The exit to the grounds and the landing Chinooks was now barred. The Receiver, Tuisto’s protective force for so many years, was nowhere to be seen, completely smothered by rubble. The danger now was whether the whole building would collapse around them.

    It was a complicated stand-off. SAS stalwart Captain Wood, who had seen service in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Dhofar and that tricky assignment in a ghost-filled mansion house near Dover at Christmas in 1982, was pointing his pistol at Major Schröder, who, in turn, had his Luger aimed at Corporal Hart. The resolute Hart still had his ghost-busting apparatus directed at the ventriloquist’s dummy, which remained standing eerily at the top of the wide staircase, gazing down at the melee in its midst, raising and lowering its eyebrows. Hitler, who had committed suicide in his Führerbunker in 1945 to prevent himself being paraded through Moscow like a caged animal, upped his ethereal crimson glow to that of a warning beacon. Using his supernatural powers and waving his wizard’s arms as if conducting an orchestra, he gradually forced the muzzle of Wood’s pistol away from its intended victim – Schröder – and it once again seemed that escape from Hangingbrow Hall was impossible and that the Germans had miraculously wrestled back control.

    The SAS soldier shook with exertion as he fought Hitler’s beyond-the-grave force. O’Toole and Healy leapt to the SAS captain’s assistance but even with the three of them straining to re-direct the weapon, its barrel continued to lurch inch by inch away from Schröder and towards Wood’s own head. Meanwhile, to Hart’s dismay, the LED read-out on his ghost-melting instrument flickered and failed.

    To add to the calamity, an unruly clattering of doors haphazardly opening and closing started from the upper floor as if an entire hotel was emptying of its paying guests due to a fire alarm set off by a drunken prankster. The doors ceased their racket as quickly as they had begun and the ensuing silence was broken by a low-frequency roar of depressing ferocity. Slowly, a great white-glowing being, larger than a polar bear, with a skeletal head, swirling white hair, two great black sorrowful holes for eyes and a wide open mouth revealed itself on the upper walkway and strode across the landing on long V-shaped praying mantis bone legs. It was as if someone working nights had been woken up by noisy children.

    Boycott, crouching, eyes searching desperately for an escape route, motioned to Brian Clough, “Christ, that’s all we need, that big bloody moose showin’ up – and that’s swearin’. We’ll never get out of ’ere at this rate, Bri! Do you think it’ll recognise us?”

    Manoeuvring to the summit of the grand staircase and snarling like a dog on a chain in a scrap merchant’s yard, the beast rounded the ventriloquist’s dummy and began crawling down the staircase, it’s maggot-like body trailing behind on shorter spindly legs.

    Schröder squeezed the trigger of his Luger and clipped Corporal Hart in the right deltoid, sending his out-of-order ghost-busting washing-up liquid weapon crashing to the ground. Hart let out a brief, contained yowl but despite the shards of hot-splinter pain in his shoulder, he retook hold of the anti-spook device in an attempt to re-start the faulty electric system.

    Schröder eyed the approaching beast with curious interest. He knew of its existence but had never had the honour of seeing the phantasmagorical entity in the flesh before. “It’s beautiful!” he rejoiced.

    Despite its alarming appearance, Schröder felt no immediate danger from its nefarious presence. Both living and deceased Germans fully expected that the evil spirits within the house were in full compliance with their extravagant claims for complete rulership of the planet, with the add-on of an everlasting alliance with whatever realm existed beyond the reality of Earth.

    On a roll, Hitler began his much-practised party piece, lifting the scant items of furniture, framed paintings and discarded heavy curtains left in the main hall and directing them with his old-fashioned iron will towards the would-be escapees of stage, screen and sport and their highly trained hostage-release experts. There was little shelter for O’Toole, Clough, Boycott, Wilson, Smith, Healy or the SAS duo. As the indoor whirlwind grew in intensity, the glowing monster methodically moved towards Hitler, opened its mouth and simply took hold of the raving mad deceased dictator like a Hallowe’en reveller bobbing for an apple. Hitler appeared confused. He struggled and grunted insults in German before succumbing to wild shrieks and barked orders to let him go. Psychopathic Schröder merely drunk in the spectacle with greedy enjoyment and even let out a high-pitched giggle as Hitler was mauled. The Führer’s celestial red light dimmed and shone in irregular patterns as he was shook, waggled and chomped.

    “Schröder!” Hitler screeched. “You vill do my biddink! Destroy zis slaferink beast! Aaaaaaaggghhhh!”

    The irresistible force on Captain Wood’s Browning pistol was suddenly released and once again he was able to direct the weapon as he chose. Having a wail of a time, Schröder unleashed a close-quarters volley into the caterpillar rear of the glowing beast, which in response let out an almighty roar at the insolence of such action and dropped the tattered electrical heap of Hitler onto the parquet filth. It turned with some degree of awkwardness due to its bulk to face Schröder and let out a thunderous bellow that was so MGM-roar loud, the chandelier trembled and chunks of ceiling fell down. Then, with its bony praying mantis V-shaped arm, it struck Schröder across the shoulder, sending the Nazi official sliding headfirst to the foot of the stairs, losing his wide-brimmed hat in the process.

    Sensing an opportunity, the evil ventriloquist’s dummy descended the stairs and made for Schröder, stomping down the centre of the carpeted incline like a posh child chasing a ball – a deplorably hellish reminder to Peter O’Toole and Tony Wilson of the previous day’s fracas. The dummy danced towards Schröder who, shorn of his hat, revealed his baldness. He now bore a striking resemblance to Bill Badger from the Rupert Bear comic strip rather than farmyard swine. The dummy’s overbearing smile turned into a grin that stretched wider and wider revealing sharp, needle-like teeth and he addressed Schröder with a growling, “I’m going to eat you!”

    Amid the confusion Corporal Hart tapped and shook his nuclear-powered anti-spectre device and after resignedly shouting, “Come on, you bastard!”, the red LED figures miraculously reappeared on the control panel. A flick of a switch and the weapon was once again live. Suddenly a red, white and blue toothpaste surge of twisting bright light swished from the end of the weapon and caught the dummy square in the head. It shrieked as if trapped in a fire, beating its own head to deal with imaginary flames, its angry expression altering to one of alarm – and its eyebrows fell to the floor. From the tip of its side-partinged hairstyle downwards, it gradually started turning to ash, all the while snarling like a vicious animal.

    At the sight of this, Schröder let out another high-pitched titter, which grew into voluble hooting as the dummy was reduced to a pile of granules on the floor beside him. Another roar blasted through the room and the glowing ghostly creature, having flung the barely existing remains of the former German chancellor into the fireplace, strode purposefully towards Schröder, seized him by the legs using its illuminated jaw and dragged the spiteful German major up the stairs. Schröder screamed with terror, mouth wide open, while desperately grabbing at spindles to prevent his transit to the first floor and the grisliest of grisly deaths. “Stoppen, stoppen, halt, ahhhhhhhh!” It was to no avail.

    “Send us a postcard, darling,” Tony Wilson called after him.

    With Hangingbrow’s entrance now blocked by rubble, there seemed no easy escape route for the beleaguered ensemble but then, to the astonishment of Tony Wilson, a disguised door at the far end of the hall that was set into wooden panelling suddenly opened and the glowing figure of a tall, hunched individual appeared and called to the Factory Records chief: “Wilson, you’re a c***!”

    “I-I-Ian…?” Wilson stammered. “Is that you?”

    “This is the way! Step inside!” the ghost sang.

    Wilson was dumbfounded. He was being quoted the lyrics to Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” – the opening record on the band’s much-lauded final album from 1980, Closer.

    “Quick now,” the Maxonian apparition warned. “There’s no time to lose.”

    Wilson turned to his comrades and boomed, “Come with me! I know this guy. He’s here to save us!”

    Scarf trailing, Wilson led a single-file procession along the perimeter of the room and on towards the guiding spirit, who was dressed in shimmering silky shirt and demob trousers. Wood and the injured Hart dashed through the door first, followed by the cricketer, football manager, two actors and singer-songwriter. Wilson brought up the rear but stood for a moment, looking up into the dimly lit face of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis – who, as every NME reader knew, had committed suicide three and a half years earlier.

    “We have to talk,” Wilson said.

    “No time, Tony,” Curtis shook his head. “Go on. I’ll follow you to the garden and then I’m out of here. That’s my job done – and we can have no further contact.”

    Through the dark tunnel the group hurried, the flash of torchlight from the SAS soldiers flickering at the front, with Ian Curtis gently emitting a white-grey glow at the rear.

    “You know, you’re a total twat for doing what you did,” Wilson spoke over his shoulder. “For fucking leaving us all like that, I’m fucking furious with you.”

    “Keep walking Tony,” Curtis demanded. “How’ve you ended up here, at the arse-end of the universe? And you thought Lower Broughton was bad.”

     “All you had to do was go to America on tour, win that lot over, have a break, sort out your family problems, watch Closer get into the top ten of the album charts and then we’d have dealt with your fucking illness, your epilepsy,” Wilson said. “I admit, I should have done more. I should have done more to help you.”

    “But it’s all over with,” Curtis replied. “I’ve gone. But I’ll see you again. And you should hear the album I’ve done up there with Keith Moon, Peter Laughner and Stuart Sutcliffe. Started learning a bit more about synths, what with not havin’ Barn and Hooky around.”

    The short passageway, choked in centuries of dust, led to a door with a long rusty key protruding from its lock. Wood twisted the key and instantly the cramped space was filled with the ear-filling thump of Lycoming T55-L-11E-powered rotors and the crackle of intermittent gunfire. The SAS beckoned the civilians to follow. Wilson span to Curtis and pointed a finger. “You should have stayed,” he scalded. “‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is already regarded as a classic. I forgive you, of course. We built a nightclub, you know.”

    “I know – the sound is awful,” Curtis replied in the darkness of the cold night air. “I pop in most Fridays. You’ve dropped a bollock with Del Amitri. Now, look after yourself Tony. I might come and see you in a dream one of these nights.”

    Wilson nodded, breath drifting. “If you ever fancy doing a bit of haunting, you know where I live.”

    Curtis smiled at the humour. Wilson ran and with 50 feet covered, he stopped and looked back towards Hangingbrow Hall. Curtis waved and broke into his trademark mad-fly dance amid a halo of disco colours. Wilson could have watched forever but instead dashed onwards towards one of the waiting helicopters. When he looked back again, Curtis was gone.

    The pair of Chinook troop carriers rose gracefully into the night air, then tipped forward before gaining altitude. A medic attended to Hart’s shoulder wound, while an eager civilian in a suit and spectacles asked about the effectiveness of the anti-spectre weapon. Viewing Hangingbrow Hall through the circular windows of the helicopter, spectators could see a bright light pulsating from the roof of the old building before the exterior walls started crumbling inwards, as if being sucked towards a central force.

    “My God, the place is being consumed!” O’Toole commented. “Look!”

    Even from height the racket of grinding and crushing bricks, glass and timber on the ground could distinctly be heard. Electrical flashes and mysterious green and red illumination stained the ground, and then Hangingbrow Hall, or whatever was left of it, was out of sight, hidden once again in its forest setting as the Chinook banked and powered towards Carlisle.

    “How was Curtis?” Smith enquired, leaning across to Wilson. “He still owes me two quid, you know. I suppose it was lucky him turnin’ up when he did, otherwise, who knows… we might never have got out alive.”

    “Funnily Mark, it was almost worth going through all that fucking shit this weekend to see him for those two minutes,” Wilson admitted. “I forgot to ask him what his new album was called.”

    “No doubt something meaningless and prosaic,” Smith consoled. “Like Seraphic.”

    Wilson returned the eye contact: “I suppose when you’re in the afterlife you’ll be making picture disc 7”s called The Bingo Halls Of Stoke-on-Trent.”

    “With a bit of luck, aye,” Smith smiled.

    Across the main cabin of the Chinook, in the jolting darkness, a soldier sat in silence with searing eyes, mouth a fixed scowl, glancing across at Smith and Wilson, listening but not fully comprehending their excitable supernatural war stories and dry Mancunian ribbing. His battle dress was ill-fitting, his smock just a little too tight across the chest, his flak jacket shabbily unfastened, too much sock on show, with a beret that sat high atop a wide expanse of fair-coloured hair. Clough, sitting by his side, leaned in and, above the relentless cacophony of the aviation engine, said, “Hey, I say, young man, there’s only room for one Big Head in this helicopter and that’s me! You need a new beret – yours has either shrunk in the wash or your head’s expanded.”

    The dirt-smeared face turned to Clough. “Vell, you know vhat zay say… Who dares – vins.” In lightning-fast movement, the irked presence thrust upwards, grabbed Clough and rested a Luger pistol to the side of his head. “Nobody mofe a muscle!” the soldier ordered. “Or ze annihilator of Hamburger SV dies in zis helicopter in a hail of bullets. Pass me your guns. Ve are goink back to Hangingbrow where you vill face… justice!”

    “You kill that man and you get a bullet between the eyes,” Wood confirmed, his Browning pistol now raised.

    “Hey, shithouse, stop tearing at my tufts will you?” Clough raged. “I can put up with just about anything apart from having my bloody hair pulled.”

    “Hey now bonny lad, put the gun doon,” Healy reasoned. “Hangingbrow has gone, orkee – it’s no more. It’s been sucked up by a giant Hoover in the groond. Now, I don’t know what you’ve done in that haunted military industrial complex doon there, but there’s no need for this. The game’s up.”

    “Not so!” Healy was told. “Germany must prevail – forever! It is nature’s destiny – I am of the chosen few and victory is ze only solution. Zis is a mere setback!”

    “Which Germany, East or West, cocker?” Smith enquired.

    “A reunified Germany, for sure,” the Nazi affirmed. “Fair-haired people enchoyink ze outdoor life… Rocket ships enablink passengers to reach Tokyo from Europe in an hour… Steins of beer from our great German breweries – Edinger or Beck’s” – and he smiled at this. “Jelly swastikas from Haribo wiz the help of slafe labour… Strong, powerful Arian athletes in Adidas footwear… Ze younk drinkink Fanta after zey have been swimmink in clear mountain pools… Ze folk in ze offices in Berlin in zeir Hugo Boss outfits discussink incredible enchineerink projects… Colonisation of ze moon… Functional, good-workink transportation from zose fellows at Siemens… VWs hurtlink along wide autobahns…” The soldier stifled a yawn and lessened his grip on Clough’s hair – and then, to the astonishment of those inside the Chinook, the German fell asleep while standing before slumping sidewards across Clough’s prostrate body. The day had taken its toll even for the baddies.

    Wood swept forward and tightly tied the hands of the exhausted Fourth Reich fanatic, who slept peacefully through the whole procedure.

    “Dear God, you cun’t mek it up, could you?” Boycott commented.

    “Shall we have a quick drink when we land?” Smith voiced. “I’d say we’ve deserved it.”

    O’Toole shifted across. “Count me in.”

    “Me an’ all,” Clough added, straightening his tussled hair.

    “Aye, that’d do me, bonny lad,” Healy spoke.

    “When in Rome,” Wilson chimed in.

    “I wun’t mind a cup of tea first,” Boycott said staring through the glass behind his seat at the now peach-coloured sunlight warming the horizon. “I’m absolutely parched.”

    33 Frankly, Brigadier Huntington-Winstanley

    Where am I? What day is it? How much sauce did I put away last night? Where’s Brix? Am I still in mortal danger? Will I ever see Manchester again? Mark E Smith’s mind clicked into coherency, his administrative brain reeling out information like the chattering vidiprinter on Grandstand’s Final Score. The Fall frontman carefully scanned the room, head rotating on its soft pillow foundation. There were pockets of light around the heavy curtains, which hinted at bright sunshine and simple normal-life regularity beyond. The walls were white and noncommittal, while above the bed hung a painting of an upland landscape – Lakes, no doubt; scenery, Smith thought. His languid gaze then fell upon a set of eyes: humorous, recognisable, head sideways, body covered by sheets and blankets. Just a head. A head that had escaped a Nazi guillotine.

    “A fairly regular weekend for people like us,” croakily concluded the Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson. “If you can wake up on Monday still breathing, you’re up on the deal. You have no worries. You’re a rich man. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”

    “Can’t say I’m in full agreement,” Smith murmured with uncharacteristic politeness, his pronunciation softened without his dentures. “We’ve witnessed something that most folk are protected from. What we went through, it’d’ve been safer wanderin’ round Moss Side with just your baggy Eddie Yeats underpants on and £50 in nonsequential notes sticking out the waist. It reminded me of an American tour actually with a freakish surprise at every turn. You don’t know where your next kip’s comin’ from. I’m lucky. I’m better than most at dealin’ with unusual shit. Being psychic, ’avin’ gifts like that, helps. And you have to remember that a lot of our generation’s gone very soft. Me mam and dad would’ve put it all down to experience. Me grandad would’ve treated it like a break and sorted the plumbing out. Eh, we’re not paying for this hotel, are we? Strictly speaking hotels are not in the budget for the band. I was saying that to Rob Carroll other night before… well, before he rode pale horse.”

    “Hooky was best man at Rob Carroll’s wedding, you know,” Wilson said, who by now was sitting upright on his single bed, bare feet on the carpet, toes wiggling. “The marriage lasted six months and Hooky… well… Anyway, hotels are tax deductible – your accountant will sort that out. This is a work trip.”

    “I do the sums these days,” Smith admitted. “I sort the lot, everything, the whole nine yards. The band don’t know how fortunate they are. They don’t know the bleedin’ half of it. Nice ’jamas, by the way.”

    “Thanks,” replied Wilson. “But they’re the same as yours, aren’t they? Ministry of Defence basic, which in its own way is quite alluring. Imagine being the designer of MoD jimjams. I might see if they’ll let me have these as a keepsake. I’ll tell you what, darling, that shiner of yours has come up a treat. You’re lucky you didn’t lose an eye. I can see every colour of the fucking rainbow in it. Do you want a cup of tea?”

    “Aye,” Smith gurned, gently nudging the bruise around his eye socket with gentle fingertips. He yawned like a toothless dog, then glanced at his watch on the bedside cabinet: 1.50pm. He took his dentures from a glass of water and placed them in his mouth, then took a sip from the water. “You should see bite marks on my chest from being chewed on by that phantom. You been awake long?”

    “Half an hour,” Wilson replied, and he picked up the telephone by the side of the bed. “Hello love, could you send up two strong cups of tea, mugs if you have them, to Room…” and he frowned. “Mark, what room number is this?”

    “No idea,” Smith shrugged and walked into the en-suite bathroom.

    “You’re Room 13,” said the woman on the phone.

    “Of course we are,” Wilson chuckled. “Had to be 13. Did you know that in Italy, 13 is considered a lucky number? China, too. The rest of us idiots… It all goes back to Judas Iscariot. He was the 13th arrival at the Last Supper, meaning it’s not always cool to turn up late to parties. You should remember that. Thirteen wasn’t a problem for Gerd Müller of West Germany, though, was it? That was his number of choice. Ten goals in the 1970 World Cup Finals. A figure that will never be beaten. Please tell me to shut up if I’m boring you, love. I’m boring you, I’ll shut up.”

    “Your tea will be around five minutes,” the hotel employee confirmed. “We’ll bring your laundry up too.”

    “Clean clothes, thank you, love – many thanks, many thanks,” Wilson smiled and hung up.

    The Granada news anchor drew the curtains aside to take in the spectacle of the Cumbrian countryside. The large wooden sash window, condensation around its edges, overlooked the hotel’s car park and a nearby gently curving river. Wilson wondered what fish might be found in it. Salmon, I’d say. The sky was white-bright, with low sunshine causing deep blue and purple shadows from lone trees and banks of bushes. Wilson gratefully took in the view but what he was most pleased to see were the parked vehicles. Civilisation. Safety. The car park was crammed with police Transits, Jaguars and Granadas, along with a number of olive green Land Rovers and a Bedford troop carrier or two. Curiously among the motoring mass sat a pair of identical silver coupé sports cars with what looked like cables attached along the bodywork leading to oversized twin exhausts at their rear. These low-lying cars must have been highly regarded because they had an armed guard. Beyond a copse rested RAF Chinook helicopters, similarly guarded, rotors drooping. Military personnel appeared busy and engaged, and it was clear to Wilson that the hotel was closed to the public. He glanced down at the headed notepaper on the desk. Daventry Hall, Carlisle.

    Wilson’s concentration was broken by a knock at the door, from where he accepted two mugs of tea and paper sachets of white sugar.

    “We put milk in already,” said the grey-uniformed hotel woman with a distinctly local twang. “I hope that’s alright for you.”

    “Very perceptive,” accepted Wilson.

    An accompanying staff member then shifted past Wilson to place two large polythene bags of clothing on top of the room’s writing desk. “This is your laundry,” Wilson was told. “All your shoes are still drying out, though. We’ve got them by the fire downstairs. You must’ve been wading through rivers, the state of them. I don’t know what’s been going on with all these police and even the Army are here. We hear it might be a Hollywood film they’re making with Michael Douglas. But you’ve obviously found slippers. We’ve cleaned the clothes as best we can in the time we had.”

    Once the hotel workers had departed, Wilson set the hot drinks on his bedside cabinet. Smith opened the bathroom door and marched towards the steaming cup. He shook a handful of sugar sachets and poured three into his beverage. “I’d leave it a bit before going in there,” Smith warned.

    Wilson blinked and said, “Fine.” Of course, the bands on his own record label wouldn’t have bothered to issue such a warning. Could it be that The Fall were more cultured than Joy Division/New Order and ACR? Wilson didn’t doubt it.

    The hotel’s reception was an ant’s nest of activity with men shuffling back and forth, some in mundane suits, others in camouflage hues, hands clasping paperwork. MI5 and Army footwear shone black. Hotel staff meanwhile seemed to be taking the intrusion in their stride despite being kept firmly in the dark about their six famous guests’ business. Darren Stockdale, the hotel manager, stood in a central position like an Italian policeman directing Fiats and scooters by Rome’s Colosseum. Dark eyes suggested his work shift had begun many hours ago.

    The sweet smell of bacon – that wonderful nose-filling aroma – drifted through the ground floor. Before Wilson and Smith had reached the library-styled bar, Brian Clough could be heard providing solid advice about maintaining good health to a gathered group of star-struck soldiers. “You lot will all be fit as bloody fiddles right now,” he jovially spoke at pitch-side volume. “Fitter than butcher’s dogs. But I’ll bet you get pissed when you go out round town, birding it…”

    Wilson and Smith de-tuned the Clough bark and strode into the bar, with its dated books on hunting, fishing and country life resting on spotlessly clean wooden shelves. Recognising the North-west duo, Geoff Boycott announced loudly, “Here’s sleepin’ beauties, look. What a sight for sore eyes. And one’s got me jacket on!”

    Smith offered no greeting as he entered but Wilson raised a hand in tired recognition. Hungry, Wilson seized a pair of bacon butties on brown bread from a nearby tray – although white bread was by far in the majority. Food had taken on a whole new dimension of flavour following a weekend of near-starvation. Scanning the room, Wilson noted that his erstwhile adventurers were also dressed in clean, dry clothes – although the hotel launderers, despite their undoubted expertise, were unable to remove the deep stains of mud, grass, blood and ectoplasm from fibres. Boycott’s suit jacket being worn by Smith was, in all probability, ruined by Mr Snuffleupagus’s disturbing slaying.

    Peter O’Toole and Tim Healy had dispensed with hot drinks and were allowing themselves whisky and lager respectively. Geoff Boycott appeared relaxed, cross-legged, arms stretched along the top of the settee on which he was sprawled, speaking in glowing terms about Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar to a pair of entranced cricket-loving RAF helicopter pilots. For a moment, Wilson realised that he might miss these most alpha of alpha males when their paths eventually diverged – as they must. And yet, as the Salfordian media personality knew, they all had a great deal of difficult information to process. No one would attach any blame if they had been reduced to gibbering wrecks. Their experiences would need to be categorised internally. Despite this, he was astonished at how well each man was coping.

    Perched on high chairs at the bar were Captain Wood and Corporal Hart from the top-secret SAS supernatural division in green combat uniform and sand-coloured berets. Smith grabbed a free stool and lifted a finger to the barman, who seemed momentarily mesmerised by the singer’s swollen, bruised eye. “Pint of bitter thanks, cock,” Smith ordered, sweeping his fringe to one side, “and whatever these war heroes want.” Smith took a sip of froth and asked the strapped-up Hart about the extent of his injuries after being shot by a Nazi major.

    “Flesh wound,” Hart answered. “I’ll get two weeks with my feet up hopefully – so not bad, considering.”

    “You’ll live,” Smith said. “Unlike that German chappy who fired at you in the hall. I’ll bet he had a night to remember.”

    In turn, Wood and Hart enquired about Smith’s eye and called a medic across to conduct a careful examination.

    Ray Longley and Brian Ward from MI5 Northern Operations, a little-and-large duo in grey suits, approached O’Toole. The baritone growl from the 6’7” giant Longley could be detected amid the hullabaloo of the bar. O’Toole nodded to the information being presented and leant across to his fellow celebrities. “The time has come for our tittle-tattle to be made official and recorded for posterity,” the actor explained. “We are required on stage in five minutes in the Eden Room, so named after the picturesque river in our midst.”

    “You seem to know this place like the back of y’hand, Pete, man,” Healy smiled, taking a sip of his pint.

    “I’m practically a resident,” O’Toole replied. “Although I find they’re a little strict on the dress code of an evening. They’re sticklers for ties. I mean, this is 1984 – not 1954.”

    As O’Toole rose, he found himself suddenly face to face with Boycott. “Ah, just the man,” O’Toole beamed. “You’re no stranger to these parts either, I am led to believe.”

     “That’s correct, Pete, I stayed ’ere once before but under less-contrived circumstances,” Boycott admitted. “But ’ow do you know? Don’t tell me you’re psychic an’ all.”

    O’Toole flapped open his suit jacket to reveal a label: James Personal Tailor & Son, Corporation Street, Manchester. “Look familiar?”

    “By jingo!” Boycott whooped. “’Ow did you get ’old of that? It went missin’ in 1979 when I did a signing for my book Put To Test.”

    “Another coincidence in a long weekend of coincidences,” O’Toole summarised. “Where will it all end, Geoffrey?”

    “Well, you can keep jacket,” Boycott spoke from the corner of his mouth. “I seem to be givin’ away clobber like confetti these days. That’s three of us dressed like a world-famous Yorkshire crickeeeter nah – you, me and that moanin’ Minnie Man City fan over there.”

    There was little chance of going astray en route to the Eden Room. It was prominently signposted and even if it hadn’t been, Clough, Boycott, O’Toole, Wilson, Smith and Healy, by now in moderately dry footwear, were guided like delinquent sheep by highly attentive military shepherds. White-painted double doors were held ajar by hotel staff and once through these and into the conference space there could be seen a huge rectangular dark-wood table running through the centre of the room. Two large windows framed yet more Cumbrian scenery, which made Smith think that you could easily be overstimulated in these more picturesque parts of the country. He was looking forward to seeing housing estates, Chinese takeaways and orange buses.

    Seats were dutifully taken and drinks offered by military gofers. Smith, naturally, wondered if there was any chance of another pint. Clough, Wilson and Healy also opted for pints, while O’Toole ordered a large whisky with ice. Boycott, not in need of alcohol-infused stimulation, poured himself water from a glass jug.

    The top seat at the table had been taken by a greying man in his early sixties, slightly saggy at the seams, jowly, in an immaculate made-to-measure pinstripe suit that Wilson assumed – correctly – to be the handiwork of Saville Row. They were joined by a menagerie of men in business attire and camouflage uniforms, some sitting at the table, others taking position on window ledges or perched on plastic chairs by walls. The drinks arrived and finally the Eden Room’s double doors were closed and locked – and as an extra security precaution the curtains were drawn.

    Ward leaned forward and studied a large tape recorder that had been positioned a safe distance from the water jugs. Buttons were pressed and Ward broke the library hush by speaking into the machine, reeling off a jumbled code of officialdom followed by the names of the principal attendees in the room and the start time. It was 3.15pm.

    Ward reclined in his seat and the senior figure in well-cut cloth coughed to clear his throat.

    “We won’t keep you for too much longer, gentlemen, because I know you have busy lives and families to return to,” he spoke. “As you may know, I have previously spoken with Peter O’Toole and I’m delighted that the combined operation between MI5, the SAS and the RAF went well.” He looked around the table before taking a mouthful of water. “I’m John Jones, director general MI5. Now, Mr O’Toole informed us about your unfortunate accidental trespass on Ministry of Defence property last Friday evening, which triggered a set of catastrophic and, dare I say, cataclysmic events. I’m glad to see you are in fine health and have had a chance to eat and take a well-earned bath. Now to fill in a few details,” Jones continued and gestured towards another grey-haired figure of authority further along the table, albeit in military olive green. “Gentleman, I’ll allow Brigadier Peter Huntington-Winstanley to bring you up to date.”

    “Thank you, Sir John,” spoke Huntington-Winstanley in clear, loud tones. “The perimeter of Hangingbrow Hall, and thus the security of the site, had recently been handed over to a private company, Avocet, and it now appears that the running of this operation was not up to the standards that were required as per the government contract. Unfortunately you gentlemen managed to cross the few sections of the perimeter that were not protected with barbed wire, etc, in three separate locations. This was, we have been informed, due to those sections of wall and fencing needing repair and the fog we had on Friday the 13th had precluded these repairs from taking place. That’s by the by, the mistake has been made and in all probability the perimeter hadn’t been properly maintained and/or adequate checks made.”

    “So we were just unfortunate,” Healy squinted.

    “Akin to rolling a dice 10,000 times and each time scoring a one,” Huntington-Winstanley replied. “Almost the exact opposite of winning the pools.”

    “Almost the exact opposite of winning the pools,” Wilson repeated. He allowed himself a nose-blow laugh and shook his head.

    Huntington-Winstanley continued: “We’ve been inside Hangingbrow Hall before but the supernatural forces we encountered were too great and we had no choice but to retreat. To hear that you six gentlemen spent the best part of three nights in that house of horrors almost defies belief.”

    Jones cut in: “As you will be aware, Hangingbrow Hall is the site of highly unusual and unstable energy and it is something we do not fully understand and may never fully understand. It has been far easier to build a wall, section it off and study it from afar. However, it is fair to say that our knowledge of this place has increased greatly following your weekend acquainting yourselves with its morbid sights and sounds.”

    Huntington-Winstanley nodded in agreement and said gravely, “This is not a unique site. Other such ‘wells’, as they are referred to, exist in six other locations on the planet and likewise these have been fenced off and hushed up. Before the Second World War, when the British Government knew little about Hangingbrow Hall and its grisly secrets, Adolf Hitler was made aware of its existence by correspondence with a Swiss businessman who went by the name of Twisteaux – T-W-I-S-T-E-A-U-X. Gerhard Twisteaux. We know this because we have the letters.”

    “Murdered his wife and kids,” Smith stated, “as well as half of Elizabethan Cumberland.”

    “It would appear that a family gave him an air of respectability, for his own gain,” Huntington-Winstanley pointed out, “although he was not the natural father of those children. Hitler made it a priority to investigate the building’s force further and this only increased once the Allies began making significant gains in the War. Twisteaux became a country squire of sorts. Diminutive and with firey red hair, there is documentary evidence of his presence going back centuries but the name alters every so often. Twisteaux was a recent alias to woo the Germans. The name derives from German folklore and an ancient figure – Tuisto, T-U-I-S-T-O.”

    “The fourth son of Noah,” Wilson spoke. “He was keen to let us know that – for a while anyway.”

     “Indeed,” said Huntington-Winstanley. “This would have sat well with Nazi religious beliefs of the early 20th century. We think he’s a historical con artist, born maybe 2,000 years ago, who’d stumbled upon a ‘lucky charm’ and by incredible chance and for whatever reason settled on the site of a well. The next nearest one is Siberia. His real name is something of a mystery, but even since yesterday’s events we’re building an ever-stronger picture. Analysis by a specialist team has conjured the name Malcolm Ead from parish records going back to the 1400s.”

    “He had a term for his magic wand – the Receiver,” Clough added. “He must have had a decent supply of Brasso because it was so well polished you could comb your hair in front of it.”

    Huntington-Winstanley scribbled in his pad, then said, “Such lucky charms are, as you would imagine, extremely rare but they do exist. We know them as bonus fortuna, which I believe is Latin for ‘good fortune’. How many are there? We don’t know. Are they naturally occurring? We don’t know. How do we know that Twisteaux had one? He told Hitler as such in code by letter. The British government would like one, which was why we were very keen to get into Hangingbrow Hall… as well, also, to rescue you people.”

    “Ah right,” Healy grinned and threaded his fingers on the table surface. “So we were, what’s the word… expendable?”

    “I wouldn’t have left without you, smiler,” O’Toole cut in. “Remember, these people did a grand job getting you out of clink. You had no chance.”

    “These devices don’t come onto the market very often, Mr Healy,” Jones added. “They’re incredibly desirable. Once found, their owners are loath to let them go and they learn, sometimes over a millennia, how to get the most from their acquisition. They will be secretive. But this individual, Ead, Twisteaux, he was a troubled soul and he kept a very low profile.”

    “So are you saying there’s a handful of people on the planet who’ve been walking aboot for hundreds of years with one of these devices stuffed in their pockets?” Healy enquired.

    “Absolutely,” Huntington-Winstanley nodded. “And whatever the power is – or was – beneath Hangingbrow Hall, it may have been drawn to the device’s presence and allowed Twisteaux to set up shop, as it were.”

    “He ’ad rub of green,” Boycott commented. “A proper wrong ’un. He needed ’is pants pullin’ down and given a real good ’idin’.”

    Huntington-Winstanley narrowed his eyes at the notion and decided a nod would suffice. “A clever and manipulative individual, he used his home as an execution point for the local authorities – possibly a corrupt bunch themselves who were pleased to outsource this service without asking too many questions. Over hundreds of years Twisteaux had the time and inclination to learn about a whole host of subjects, including it would seem German folklore and whatever history Hitler was spouting to his political favourites during the Nazi Party’s ascendancy. Twisteaux had been made aware that Hitler was motivated by black magic and supernatural fantasy. Twisteaux’s ownership of a copy of Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus lent credence to his claims of being a wandering German demi-god. How did he get a copy? It’s most likely a very good, very convincing fake. These things show up from time to time in private collections and Twisteaux was very well connected in the realm of antiquities. We also know that a gateway – possibly the gateway to Hell, or ‘a hell’, if such a fantastical notion exists – was located in a part of the house. Monsters in the cupboard of the worst kind.”

    “Them kids, what poor buggers,” Boycott seethed. “They’d ’ave been bloody terrified. I feel ’onoured to ’ave watched that swine Twisteaux’s pathetic, comedic death.”

     “Now,” Clough spoke, lifting a finger into the air, “he said the Receiver gave him the ear of the old gods in the centre of the bloody earth or some claptrap like that.”

    At this fresh information, there was a low-level buzz of interest in the room.

    “The old gods?” Huntington-Winstanley quizzed and began writing a few words in his notepad. “Did you pick up any further information about this?”

    “Twisteaux and the Erics were discounting Christianity,” Healy replied. “They reckoned their old gods were the real deal and the Receiver was a communication object, y’knaa, like a walkie-talkie to these monsters.”

    “Aye, this ’orse brass of ’is might’ve granted ’im endless life,” Boycott said, “but ’e dropped it. I suppose if you’re alive for 2,000 years you’re gonna be in wrong place at wrong time at some point.”

    “Little man syndrome, if you ask me,” Smith grunted. “And a total psycho. But could he have really been 2,000 years old?”

    The oversized Longley from MI5, sitting directly opposite Mark E Smith, shrugged: “It’s possible – but you say he’s now dead. And the Receiver. What happened to that?”

    “Buried under a ton of rubble,” Smith explained. “Then sucked up into the centre of the bleedin’ earth by how it looked from the chopper when we escaped.”

    “What are your thoughts of these so-called old gods?” Huntington-Winstanley asked. “Do you think there’s anything in it?”

    “Twisteaux called them ‘Them’,” Healy said. “They were believable enough when you were just about to be presented to them as a gift after being beheaded. And that’s what was in store for us, like.”

    “But we only had Twisteaux’s word for it,” Wilson answered. “He’s not what you could’ve called an accurate witness, as we discovered. He admitted to us that he had no links with a Biblical heritage. Still, the Germans went for his view – until the end, that is. Can you hoodwink the dead? It would seem so.”

    Longley pushed a black and white photograph across the table showing a small individual in a smart suit, cleanly shaven, at a Carlisle fête in the 1920s with a maypole standing tall in the background. “Does he look familiar?”

    Smith gazed at the picture and passed it to Wilson. “Definitely little enough,” Smith admitted. “Frizzy hair. What’s he doin’, the Peter Bowles routine in To The Manor Born?”

    “Before the war he would occasionally host soirees in the grounds of Hangingbrow Hall to ingratiate himself with local community leaders,” answered Longley. “The main reason for this was so he could access communications – the post office, namely. He would send letters and telegrams to Germany via a contact in Switzerland. That’s how he met his wife, Sarah, and her children. Trips into Dalston for the post office or, less regularly, Carlisle.”

    Wilson held the image close to his eyes to study the head shape of Twisteaux captured in time. “Could be him, I suppose,” he said and passed the photo to Clough.

    Clough scrutinised the image with a strained face but it quickly infuriated him. “I don’t bloody know,” he admitted. “If it was in colour we could tell instantly – him being ginger and all that. Anyhow, he got what was coming to him.”

    “What we know for sure is that the place was crammed full of the dead,” Wilson continued. “As you say, it was an execution spot in the middle ages, and he offered the deaths of these criminals to the old gods – which is something he’d drone on and on about endlessly. But his story didn’t add up for me – and let’s not forget, he hoodwinked the Germans. We were playing cricket downstairs in the main hall when we came across a menagerie of bodies in a wall cavity.”

    “Aye, that’s right, bonny lad,” Healy nodded. “When Geoff was batting and caught a full toss. Put it straight past me and into the wall.”

    Jones smiled with disbelief and looked up from his pad. “You played a game of cricket… in Hangingbrow Hall?” he asked. “Indoors? How did that go?”

    “I reached ’alf century, flower,” Boycott was quick to reply. “I’d ’ave got undrid I reckon if we’d ’ad more time.”

    “That was when the ventriloquist’s dummy tried to consume myself and Tony Wilson,” O’Toole added, waving a flamboyant hand. “We all made a run for it.”

    “We understand that Twisteaux tried his hand at ventriloquism to ingratiate himself with Sarah and her children,” Longley spoke. “He called it Mr Fortescue.”

    “From previous excursions we have witnessed, upon goading, the entity known as the Gatekeeper,” Huntington-Winstanley added, “which Mr O’Toole tells us you have also seen.”

    “Seen?” answered Boycott. “We were practically on first-name terms by time we left. And what abart German graves in garden?”

    Jones turned to Huntington-Winstanley, received a nod, and then looked back at Boycott. “German graves – a forward group prior to an invasion. Mr O’Toole mentioned this to us.”

    “We thought there was possibly a German landing party that was repelled,” O’Toole said.

    “It seems that there may have been plans afoot for a full-scale invasion at the border on the west coast,” Huntington-Winstanley regaled. “According to paperwork Mr O’Toole had read, Hitler had eyes on Grizedale Hall as a German headquarters for the UK, not Hangingbrow Hall as such, which instead was to be a laboratory. Grizedale was an elite prisoner-of-war camp where officers were kept. Cumbria was damned nonsense from a tactical point of view.”

    “Not if you had Irish ports and the Isle of Man already in the bag,” O’Toole reasoned. “That is also information I happened upon.”

     “It’s a pity you weren’t able to remove these documents from Hangingbrow Hall,” Huntington-Winstanley glared. “Get the experts to look them over.”

    O’Toole reached below his chair and pulled a carrier bag up onto the table. He then placed a set of yellowed papers on the wooden surface. Squinting at the print, he said, “Excuse my poor German, but Westküste:Militäergeographische Angaben über England 1943. The rough interpretation is West Coast: Military Geographic Information About England. It’s all in here. Even how the Germans should converse in the local butchers. I do apologise, I should have handed these to you last night. They were drying on my radiator.”

    “Good heavens!” Huntington-Winstanley jumped and seized the papers. Scanning them rapidly, he frowned and beckoned over an underling who had been standing by a wall. “Have these despatched to the National Archives, quick as you can. Take them personally, and take somebody with you.”

    The door was briefly unlocked and the chosen delivery man hurried into the hallway with the papers.

    “The buried soldiers were Brandenburgers, Germany’s best-of-the-best,” Jones explained. “They arrived by air. Came in by glider – bits of it are still in the grounds. A storm had whipped up and they had a bumpy landing. Some died, some obviously survived and when the invasion was postponed, they remained to oversee the building of the annexe. And when the War went against them, they stayed.”

    “Captain Wood and Corporal Hart of the SAS Supernaturals have already given us a full run-down about the goings-on at Hangingbrow Hall and the internal state of the building and its underground annexe as of early this morning,” reported Huntington-Winstanley. “Could you corroborate their story that the ‘spirit’ of Adolf Hitler was spotted, and was operating in tandem with a…” and Huntington-Winstanley looked down at his notes, “Major Walter Schröder – a Nazi in his mid to late-40s?”

    ”Where do you want us to sign?” Clough replied.

    “Wilson interviewed Hitler and your fellow Twisteaux,” Smith added, “in front of a [and he switched to a cod American accent] live stoodio audience.”

    “Interviewed?” spluttered Jones, unfolding his arms. “Please explain…”

    “It was beyond madness,” Wilson declared. “And a career high, if I’m being honest. Adolf Hitler. Who would have imagined? He was a typical politician too, evading every question. Not so much World In Action, but Underworld In Action.”

    “When you say ‘interview’,” Jones said, “how did this transpire?”

    Clough interjected: “They had him in this gymnasium with a crowd. A makeshift TV studio. Not exactly Parkinson on a Saturday night but I have to say that Tony here wasn’t half bad. Hitler and that little sod Twisteaux were on a stage, along with that busybody with the dots in his name. Don’t ask me to pronounce it!”

    Peter O’Toole sat transfixed. “What a party!” he spoke. “I wish I’d stayed put.”

    “TV studio?” Huntington-Winstanley questioned. “And they… recorded the proceedings?”

    “With 1960s equipment,” Wilson nodded. “A four-tube camera. Black and white, I’d say. Then some chefs were poisoned by Pot Noodles in the audience. Pandemonium broke loose.”

    “Poisoned by Pot Noodles?” Jones jumped. “What the blazes?”

    “Ah, that would be from our 1979 mission,” Huntington-Winstanley sheepishly confirmed. “We suspected there were people on the site, personnel getting in and out somehow, and we thought that laced Pot Noodles might have wreaked havoc among the young workers there. They were all the rage in ’79 if you remember and there was some evidence to suggest that whoever was at Hangingbrow was eating food that was supplied locally. We spotted what looked to be teenagers in uniform from reconnaissance photography. We fly a Canberra over the site once a week. One very detailed image showed a bin with packaging of Bird’s Dream Topping, Ski yoghurt and Findus Crispy Pancakes – all British packaging. No sign of it the following week but it was a lapse on their part. We knew a Pot Noodle would be like catnip to a young man. But things quickly got ‘on top’, you could say. We departed rapidly but left a few of the poisoned Pot Noodles on site. You obviously unearthed a few. Would have killed you if you’d eaten one.”

    “Well it got us in a spot of ‘hot water’, you might say,” Healy spoke. “For poisoning their cooks, they were going to knock our blocks off – with a guillotine. Pete and these SAS gadgies got us oot in the nick of time, y’knaa.”

    “How did you end up back at Hangingbrow Hall?” O’Toole queried. “Could you have not gotten over the perimeter wall further along from the cliff?”

    At this question there was a great deal of squirming and exhaling before Healy narrowed his eyes and said, “I think we were always going to end up back at the hoose, Pete, man. We walked for hours and hours in a never-ending downpour and there we were, back again. Soaked, drained of energy, tired to the point of total exhaustion. Shattered. So in we went, but not out of choice.”

    “Things went south from that point on,” Smith told. “Led by the Devil’s compass.”

    “So…” Healy sighed, “we then had a fight to the death with this meat-eating kids TV elephant that had been conjured by Smithy’s imagination somehow. How we got through that, I’ll never knaa.”

    “Then we were attacked by an evil tree that me and Geoffrey were trying to cut up for firewood in a thunderstorm,” Clough recalled. “We managed to get the tree absolutely piddled before it was ripped up from the ground and blown away. We were riding our luck at that point.”

    “True enough, Bri,” Geoff Boycott nodded. “Tree were tryin’ to eat you like a fish-and-chip supper. Then you fell through floor to that factory compound where they were keepin’ whales for fuel fo’ future Nazi aeroplanes – so they could bomb New York.”

    “Whales?” Jones leapt. “The sea creatures?”

    “Christ, I’d almost forgotten about the whales,” Wilson said, covering his face with his hands.

    “Kept in big aquariums,” Smith reported. “Fuckin’ cruelty on an unimaginable level.”

    “Down there, beneath Hangingbrow Hall, you had the living and dead co-habiting – and they were being financed from abroad,” Wilson added. “They had a ready supply of people being ferried in from all corners of the globe. They were happy to admit that. It was the embryonic Fourth Reich.”

    “But how were personnel getting in and out?” Huntington-Winstanley asked. “There must be evidence somewhere.”

    The question hung in the air like a barrage balloon before an urgent rap at the double doors tore fast-working minds from any potential hypothesis-building. Jones glanced towards a pair of guards at the entrance and gave a nod. The doors were unlocked and in strode a red-faced soldier in camouflage colours and muddy boots. He made his way towards Jones and Huntington-Winstanley and grandly saluted. “We’ve found a supply tunnel, sir,” he revealed, out of breath. “It’s on the coast and seems to run all the way to Hangingbrow Hall. Solid construction with a railway, electric locomotives and wagons. Around 50 men gave themselves up, mostly German. One of them was hysterical, shouting, ‘Avocet! Avocet!’ We’ve taken the prisoners to RAF Spadeadam for questioning. Unusually,” and the soldier shook his head with the nonsense of what he was about to say, “they were transporting a sperm whale under a damp tarpaulin sheetsinland. An Icelandic whaler had been seen in the Irish Sea the day before, and we have had news from the Admiralty that Conqueror has stopped the vessel in British waters.”

    “Icelandics were big Nazi supporters in the War,” Smith told the room. “That’s why the Brits and Yanks invaded. None of this surprises me.”

    “Thank you, Corporal,” Huntington-Winstanley said to the messenger and the merest hint of a smile appeared on the brigadier’s face. The pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place.

    The soldier saluted, turned and marched out, and once again the double doors were closed and locked.

    Jones lowered his eyes, skip-read his notes and asked, “What happened to the Gatekeeper?”

    “It ate ‘Itler,” Boycott announced. “It were like a Dobermann pinscher. Then it buggered off back to its lair with that Jerry major in its big gob. It got both of ’em.”

    “And did the NSAF Tactical Anti-Spectre Rifle perform to standard?” Jones asked, looking along the table to the SAS contingent.

    “Yes sir,” Hart replied. “The Dobbin Destroyer took out one of the spooks – the possessed dummy. Turned it to ash.”

    “And Twisteaux?” Huntington-Winstanley questioned. “What happened to him?”

    “A cracked lintel crowned him,” Smith answered. “I’d told him – told him the house needed some urgent repairs, including that lintel, but he wouldn’t have it.”

    Huntington-Winstanley glanced down at his paperwork and then fixed Wilson with a stare. “Mr Wilson, could you tell us who Ian Curtis is – or was – and why he was present at Hangingbrow Hall?”

    Wilson sat back in his seat and placed his knitted hands behind his head, as if lost in thought. He gazed at the ceiling and then rocked forward. “That’s a very good question,” Wilson eventually spoke. “I’ll keep it short because you don’t want the entire history of Factory Records in all its details – although it is a fascinating story. Basically, we go back, Ian and I, right to the start of the label. His band Joy Division released two albums on Factory and Ian was the singer – and oh boy, what a singer. On the verge of hitting the big time, he topped himself, just after making one of the greatest LPs ever to come out of the UK – and although Mark here doesn’t agree with that statement, history will prove me right. All the records that U2 are selling right now, Joy Division should be selling. Bono actually rang me after Ian hanged himself to tell me they’d be taking the idea of Joy Division forward. To me, they sound nothing like Joy Division, but that’s just my opinion. I’ll send you guys a 7” of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” so you get the general idea. As to why Ian was at Hangingbrow Hall, I can only guess.” Wilson paused for a moment. “Maybe he thought he owed me one.”

    The young MI5 operative Brian Ward opened an A4 envelope and placed a collection of colour photographs on the table. “Air reconnaissance images taken at first light this morning show that Hangingbrow Hall has gone. All that is left is a crater. Whatever has stood there for 500 years or more has vanished. It would seem that whatever evil was lurking at that site, it couldn’t cope with the combined force of Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy. The Americans are very interested in meeting you. They have some difficulties at a site in Nevada and have made enquiries as to your availability.” Ward then looked towards the back wall before once again focusing on the faces around the table. “Do you gentleman have plans in the coming weeks? This could be very lucrative.”

    Clough firmly shook his head. “No chance. I’ve got to get back home. We’ve a game on Saturday against Norwich.”

    Boycott appeared similarly unimpressed at the gruesome prospect. “I want to play for Yorkshire for another season, not go chasin’ spooks round globe. This was a one-off as far as I’m concerned. A bit unusual and not wi’out its interestin’ points, but not to be repeated.”

    “Yeah, we’ve got Del Amitri at the Haç this weekend,” Wilson stated, rolling his eyes. “The Haç – Haçienda – anightclub I co-own in Manchester. Well, it’s more of an industrial experiment than a club. So a holiday in Nevada and a battle against the evil dead is actually fairly tempting.”

    “I’m seeing Del Amitri at the Haç this weekend,” Smith grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m a massive fan.”

    “Fuck off, Mark,” Wilson said.

    “Ha-ha-ha!” Smith pub cackled.

    “Well, I’m going to see my mate Dennis Waterman at the weekend in the Big Smoke,” Healy explained. “We’ve been pals a few years, me and him. I’m in Minder later this year. So count me out.”

    “I’m going to America to kidnap my son,” O’Toole said apologetically. “And I’m a little old for all this phantom-ferreting.”

    “Fully understood, gentlemen,” Jones smiled, wondering if he’d heard O’Toole’s response correctly. “You are, of course, bound by the Official Secrets Act and you are forbidden from speaking a word of what has transpired. If it is acceptable to you, you will also undergo what we call ‘counselling’ with a trained therapist to help you through your experiences.”

    “Counselling?” Clough frowned: “I’m fine – I haven’t got time for any of that new-age stuff. We’re in the Quarter-Finals of the UEFA Cup. That’ll keep my mind busy enough.”

    “I’m putting it down to experience,” Smith said. “Taking a leaf out my folks’ book. If I feel down about it, I’ll go and see my pals down the pub and talk about football, their messy divorces and the dolly bird that works in the bookie’s.”

    O’Toole flapped a dismissive hand. “Not necessary for me on this occasion. Sleep is my grand healer. And there is no greater evil on the face of the earth than the frankly ridiculous film I’m involved with. Supergirl – please give it a miss.”

    Boycott, Wilson and Healy gave brief shakes of the head.

    Ward leant in towards the tape recorder and spoke, “Meeting concludes at 3.55pm.” He pressed the stop button and began rewinding the spool.

    Healy drained his pint and wiped his mouth. “Don’t suppose anyone caught the snooker results on Friday night?”

    An orange fireball sun hung low in the western sky, staining elongated clouds with glowing brush strokes of vivid colour. It was a crisp winter afternoon, although the abject gloom of New Year could still be detected in the air. It would be a chilly night ahead, not that this would cause undue discomfort for either the Nottingham Forest manager, legendary Yorkshire cricketer, former hellraiser, indie record label co-owner, edgy singer or TV actor de jour. Huntington-Winstanley and Ward led the way through the car park, breaths trailing in Cumbria’s nip, threading between parked police cars and chunky Army vehicles. Finally they reached two gun-wielding guards standing watch by the pair of bizarre-looking fastback cars that Wilson had earlier spotted from his room.

    Huntington-Winstanley halted and raised an arm. “So gentlemen, as you have signed our forms to keep your tongues firmly tied, I think we are safe enough to show you a few gadgets we’ve been trialling in the more exotic regions of MI5 before we let you get on your way. Even Ian Fleming would be surprised by the complexity of this project. If you have a few moments,” – and Huntington-Winstanley raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

    The guards stood aside to allow the visitors a closer inspection of the pair of sleek, silver two-door coupés.

    “They’re Opels,” Clough remarked. “German Vauxhalls, really. Very nice too. Eh, one of these might replace my missing Merc! I’m not sure I’d appreciate these cables running along the bodywork, though.”

    “You’d need to be careful driving one of these around, Mr Clough,” Ward explained. “Get some decent speed going down the M6 and you might end up getting robbed by a highwayman. ‘Stand and deliver!’”

    Clough screwed his face. “A highwayman? How do you mean?”

    “They’re Opel Monza GSEs,” Huntington-Winstanley added, “with the 1982 facelift. The top model of the Monza series, 3-litre, six-cylinder and fairly spacious inside. Now, as you noted Brian, there are various cables festooned across the bodywork and there are two large vents at the rear for cooling purposes that have been built into the sloping hatchback. It’s the only place they could be sensibly attached – and they are very much needed. Even so, the glazing on the rear window has had to be made bespoke. And they’re a devil to park.”

    “Interesting numberplate,” Healy commented. “‘Q’ prefix. Kit car, right?”

    “Of sorts,” Ward nodded. “It’s also a reference to the James Bond character. Q… bit of an in-joke.”

    Huntington-Winstanley opened the driver’s door of the nearest Monza and squeezed into the driver’s seat. “Yes, Q registered,” he said. “These prefixes are given to kit cars, or cars that can’t easily be dated or cars cobbled together from a number of different vehicles.”

    The special ops brigadier placed a key in the ignition and tapped in a code onto a central console. The whole of the interior lit up like a spaceship. “Opel Monza on the outside and the 3-litre engine gives pretty good performance on the open road, but these two vehicles are very special. Do you know why?”

    “Do they drive themselves or something, like that talking car off telly?” Smith enquired, pushing his head into the Monza’s interior. “KITT, it’s called. Right load of Yank bollocks.”

    “Not quite,” Huntington-Winstanley chuckled. “Self-driving cars are a 100 years away yet.”

    “How do you know they’re 100 years away?” Wilson asked, looking confused.

    “If you’ve got a minute, I can prove it,” Huntington-Winstanley enticed. “Come on, get in. Hey, Ward, you take the other Monza.”

    “Yes sir,” responded the MI5 special agent. “If we’re not going to be long – I’m getting hungry. Pass code’ll still be the same, won’t it?”

    “Yes, it’s not changed.” Huntington-Winstanley cheerfully responded. “Just remember to fill out a TTX form when we’re back. You know what Jim Manston’s like.”

    Clough opened the passenger door of Huntington-Winstanley’s Monza and flicked a lever on the seat to allow Boycott and Healy to climb into the rear; Brian was a front-seat man. O’Toole, Wilson and Smith shuffled behind Ward and disappeared inside the second car. The back seats offered a surprising amount of space and comfort, although a centrally positioned box in the rear footwell meant legs had to position at a slight angle. Huntington-Winstanley twisted from the driver’s seat and reached with an outstretched left hand to flip a switch on the box by the feet of Boycott and Healy. A small backlit screen on the surface of the box shone and the word TRAVEL appeared on the display. Moments later the engine rumbled into life. Clough was astounded by the amount of buttons and dials, and equally entranced by the lack of dials on the dashboard. Speed was marked with an LCD display – but curiously there was room for four numbers. Clough quickly noticed that tenths of 1mph were also shown after a full stop and also that the car was an automatic.

    Huntington-Winstanley’s Opel Monza, headlights beaming and bright, slid through the car park and out onto a narrow road that followed the course of the nearby river. The cars sped to 50mph, which seemed to excite the banks of machinery, whose lights intensified as velocity increased. Once at 60mph, the noise of the Monza’s fuel-injected engine was accompanied by a high-pitched whine. A bend in the road meant applying brakes and many of the internal lights disappeared. Then the cars came to a stop. Huntington-Winstanley snapped a button on the central console and said, “Ward, can you hear me?”

    The line crackled and Ward replied, “Loud and clear, Brigadier.”

    Wilson, seated up front alongside Ward, asked, “This might seem a daft question but are these… time machines?”

    “We’ve set up a number of safe places in the past and the future,” Ward announced. “Nothing can go wrong.”

    Wilson placed his face in his hands – something he was becoming accustomed to.

    “Now to actually travel through time, we have to switch on a reactor,” Huntington-Winstanley spoke in the leading car.

    “You mean this bugger’s nuclear?” Boycott called out from the back seat.

    “Ward?” spoke Huntington-Winstanley into the radio. “Head for exactly 100 years from now. Sunday, 16 January 2084 – 3pm so there’s some light. Now, we’ve already ascertained that this stretch of road is still in existence 100 years from now. We won’t slam into a housing estate or anything like that.”

    “I’ll follow you, Brigadier,” Ward replied.

    “The problem is, we have to gain enough speed to make time travel possible,” Huntington-Winstanley continued nonchalantly, as if he was about to begin a day’s work on a bus route. “It used to be 130.7mph and we had a special track to reach that speed but we’ve brought it down to 70.9mph over the last six months, which makes life that little bit easier.”

    “You’ll never hit 70 round these little B-roads in Cumbria,” Clough exclaimed. “They’re too twisty and there’s farming machinery round every bend in these parts.”

    “Opel on the outside, Rolls-Royce on the inside,” Huntington-Winstanley revealed. “Ever heard of the Harrier jump jet? Now, make sure you’re strapped in.”

    At that moment, the Monza vibrated and there could be heard a wild hissing from beneath the car. A sudden jolt was felt and a hedge that skirted the road suddenly began to disappear from view. The cars hovered 20 feet in the air before slowly rotating. As the Monzas picked up speed, interior lights danced and the engines began to whine.

    “Just need to skirt these telegraph poles,” Huntington-Winstanley helpfully commented.

    Boycott gritted his teeth, which accentuated his lower-case letter b pushed through 90 degrees mouth shape: “I reckon where we’re going Bri, we don’t need B-roads!”

    The bare chocolate-brown farmer’s fields below blurred as velocity picked up.

    “Do you know who’d I’d like to be with us nah?” Boycott spoke.

    “Who, Geoff?” Clough wearily replied. “Who?”

    “Dickie Bird…” Boycott announced, and with a neon-blue flash and a crack-crack-bang the silver Opel Monza GSEs on Q plates were gone.