June 2002 – Slipping and sliding along the scruffy shingle beach at St. Bees, West Cumbria, I am awed by the callousness of the place. It is basic and hard, a place where everything you can see, touch and smell is necessary. All without frills or fancies.
I feel no spiritual penance from treading the sharp pebbles that burrow through the soles of my city shoes, nor from the wind that scarifies my skin. And although my ears burn and unseen bells ring within them and all the while my nose drips horizontally I feel little except discomfort. And yet . . .
Above, where the horizon throws a bow-belt around the globe, seagulls dangle from wires operated by novice puppeteers. They swoop clownishly, ride the air bareback with wings outstretched precariously balanced, braving the old postal route between Belfast, the Isle of Man and the nibbled coast of Scotland. Their screams are snatched away in the wind whenever a sudden down draught forces frantic flapping and furious toe-dipping along the crests of waves. Even with my fingers stuffed in my ears, I can hear the swish and hush of stones followed by a distinctive, fruitily discordant chuckle from a playful god.
But, like crude oil spilt from a shipwreck, the menace of hopelessness seeps from every rock and blade of grass. This is a rotted place fit only to be the backdrop for humiliating daftness. At one time in history, St Bees beach provided a lonely welcome for a deluded French romantic who stepped from a rowboat and claimed the Scottish throne in the name of St. Evangeline and Rome. It is a landscape in which the first fighter pilots were instructed in the art of ducking and weaving, diving suicidally in their Sopwiths and Merlins, flying so low their sweat spattered washing hung out to dry in Egremont, 4 miles away. It is the perfect landscape in which was built the first commercial nuclear decommissioning plant, Sellafield.
At the far end of the beach is the Seacote Hotel where I sit and drank “builders tea” and write these notes about Jon the Pin’s* terror of the Spite.
Jon uncurled his burdened back, snapped sinews he would normally have given no thought to and swung his arms outwards in his chair, cruciform, and scratched the air behind his head. He hoped for connection with something good, something tangible, something magically redeeming. He puffed on his pipe, stifled a yawn and an involuntary twitch scattered sparkling ash down his shirtfront leaving a trail of smouldering pinpricks. He was reminded of snowfall and the scuffed trails of slavering dogs, of sweat turned crisp as unhealed scabs and sub-zero snot icicles. This place, just below the rim of ice was warmer though there was a cloying moisture hanging in the air that stuck to the roof of his mouth and coated his teeth with a thin, spongy film.
“Bastards!” His sinuses had been pickled in the stink of corpses rotting in tundra so long he thought he would never taste sweet fresh air again – bad eggs and stale vinegar – heating up and decomposing – freezing and preserving, “that’s how they work these little things; they pile ‘em up one on another ‘til you’re buried. Suffocated. Everything The Spite does, every gesture, nuance and whispered falsehood is to a plan. It has an end to its means.”
He turned to the window and his gritted eyes traced green and purple hilltops, a world of clinging frost and onwards over the horizon, beyond forever into the frothing cloud, the beard of a wise deity, an uncertain reality. His mind ran, flew, through steadfast hatred, then hard to soft, and finally forgiveness for those who had allowed themselves to be used. He begged to see one last glint of sunshine on steel, or a mirror purposefully deployed, on a hill or mountain top, to seek out a friend.
It would be a trap of course, and he shuddered, it was hard not to at the thought. Traps laid by The Spite always involved using the torn bodies of innocents as bait. The Spite favoured terror as the weapon of choice. And to propagate fear the Spite always acted instantly, decisively and viciously.
In 2003, American military scientists adulterated a serum which was originally designed to replicate healthy cells in a body and, through some complicated biology, to communicate with the brain and other senses that those affected limbs and nerves had been regenerated and were now functional. It virtually eliminated the risk of the body rejecting new tissue and was hailed as a major breakthrough in medical science. When military scientists got hold of the serum, they simply switched the chemistry so when it was injected into a soldier whose arm or leg had been blown away by a roadside bomb, for example, the drug fooled the brain into believing the limb wasn’t needed and any associated pain was eliminated. The soldier could be back on active duty very quickly. The Spite took the experiment to the Nth degree by injecting victims before severing all their limbs. The drug ensured their brains continued to function for many hours afterwards, during which time the victims remained fully conscious, aware of their physical state, confused perhaps at the lack of pain but soon overwhelmed by the horror of the situation. Sooner or later every single one of them was driven beyond the brink of madness.
Jon closed his eyes and replayed images of the battlefield. Redundant legs, arms and feet flip-flopping in pools of blood and urine while the torsos, twitched convulsively, flaps of torn skin and jutting bones stripped of flesh; alive and bloody trying to rise using the head as a lever. Their eyes rolling in confusion, awash with terror. The Spite ripped off their heads, not with a blade or guillotine, there was nothing clean or precise about dispatching those unlucky souls, but a vicelike machine, designed for the purpose.
“The Spite doesn’t dig out eyes with pointed knives but with blunt spoons. The Spite rips off heads!” Jon yelled into the gathering darkness. Much more fun! And when the heads of friends, family, women and children are catapulted over the barricades and the rebel warriors trample them into the mud so their eyes cannot follow them. Heads kept alive beyond normal endurance by the drug, their eyes begging, pleading for blackness, their mouths capable only of silently mouthing their agony, something dies within them. The resilience they possessed seeps away. The rebellion crumbles and will eventually destroy itself from the inside.
Shaking himself, he opened his eyes and scanned the bleak distance, the icy mist was clearing revealing indistinct parts of the landscape glued to thin sticks along hard, dark edges. Sonic Manipulators made them jump and sway as if by nature. Irregular patches in shades of green, blue and amber were crudely stitched con-mixing a patchwork cloak hanging casually from a grey sky.
The breeze swelled to become a stormy wind and it howled like a starving wolf. The landscape hunched over, stunted trees bent their heads, gorse knelt before it in supplication and at the heart stood a vast black monolith, erect and sharp. Jon’s pulse quickened as it began to emit a low bass hum. His eyes grew narrow as he sharpened his vision. Its walls were surgically smooth but for precise geometrical cuttings sliced along the full length, from its roofline to the ground. Jon surmised they must be entrances because a single file of grey hooded figures were marching into the blackness. It struck him that their movements were automatic, automaton, invisibly controlled and their blank silence, their vacancy was terrifying.
Acid mist dribbled over purple outcrops and Jon shuddered. He forced his mind away from the stinging menace, the fatal consequences for anyone who valued their lives so little to disbelieve or disobey the Spite. Belief was everything, after all, he believed he would have to be sacrificed in the end.
The tea was good and by the time I finished writing, the sun had come out and had warmed the air. On the way out of the hotel, by the drunken swing doors, there was a stand with a range of tourist leaflets displayed. The reason I decided to go fishing in the Irish Sea the next day remains unclear.
* Jon the Pin is a character in the second book of The Others by Rivenrod.
In three books – The Others: Seth, The Others: Jon the Pin and The Others: Scauldron Rif – I explore human delectation for subjugation, torture and genocide. While the subjects are magical, mystical and occasionally dark, the tale is one of companionship, hope and ultimately survival
© Rivenrod 2011