Yes, this is the house and this is the field where I dug up that hoard of coins…
No-one had lived here since the terrible thing that happened in the forties. The war had just started and the woman who lived here with her writer husband came from Hamburg (she pronounced it ‘haybag’ which made people laugh) but the war was a far-off event and unlike her husband she was a friendly, good-humoured soul so it was difficult to see Helga as ‘the enemy‘ although no doubt there was someone unable to see further than her nationality.
And unlike some, she was free with her money which endeared her to the butcher, the baker and the young lad she employed to come once sometimes twice a week to help with the garden (her husband had more important things to do than push a lawnmower or howk tatties).
Anyhow one day the postie noticed that the parcel he’d left for Helga propped up against the front door the morning before was still there.
” How could it have been still there when the accused had gone out of the house before you made your round?” the lawyer asked.
The postie shrugged. ” A dinnae ken, ” he said.
” He doesn’t know, ” the lawyer translated for the judge (a youngish man from somewhere doon Sooth).
So the postie pushed open the door (nobody locked their doors in those days, still don’t, most of them) and went in and called out her name ( she and he were on first name terms ).
Perhaps they had gone over to the mainland, he thought, to visit the writer’s parents in Fraserburgh more than was likely (the father had his own trawler, so folk said) and he was just about to leave was the postie when he heard a strange noise from upstairs, not really a cry, not so much a groan but something in between, the sound you yourself might make with a bag or a pillow-case or a letter-sack pulled over your head.
So he went upstairs to that room high up on the left (you can just see the window) and stood outside the door for a wee while, his ear pressed against the wood, just listening.
Sure enough he could hear a sort of muffled sound, a human sound but not words exactly, not like someone trying to cry ‘Help’ or ‘Desist’ with someone’s hand over your mouth and their arm toght round your throat, nothing like that, more like someone away down a pit shaft, deep down, shouting up to someone, anyone, way up there, out there on the surface, shouting with their two hands cupped like a trumpet round their mouth, trying without too much hope to catch anyone’s attention.
Desperate. Terrified. Lost.
Then the sound was suddenly stopped altogether, cut off (the postie made a cutting up-and-down gesture with his hand) just like that.
He could hear the seagulls squabbling outside and a whirring from downstairs that was probably the freezer from the kitchen starting up or something like that but from the other side of the door… no sound whatsoever.
He coughed, knocked gently on the door, called out the woman’s name
his voice rising on the ‘kya’ bit, then when there was no reply, more loudly, with a note of concern in the way he said it
at the same time trying the door handle which turned easily enough in his hand.
The door, almost of its own accord, swung open.
Something went past him, was all he could say later. Something cold like the draught when someone rolls down the car window in winter to chuck out his cigarette without warning you first…
Folk blamed the writer (a teuchit bugger whose only friend was his big daft dog).
The jury blamed the writer( wee eyes too close thegither).
The newspapers blamed the writer (Novelist Held in Island Mystery).
Not that he had nothing to say in his own defence. Men who earn a living by stringing words together sometimes have surprisingly little ability with the spoken word, but not him, not Ian Stewart Loudon Leitch. He relished an audience…
” Yes, we had a quarrel,” he said. ” No, nothing serious. Just a tiff. A tiff about nothing at all, if you really want to know: about whose turn it was to collect the eggs; about whether Lawrence was a good man but a bad writer; about why I didn’t take a solid job working for my father instead of scribbling my life away. Something of that ilk. Anyway I took Argos for a walk along the cliff top path, to cool down, I suppose, but I’d just gone the length of the field out there when Argos turned and as if someone had called her name raced back to the house. I thought nothing of it, capricious creatures dogs, especially the female of the species so I continued on my merry way, it was a fine morning, the sea was a shimmering sheet of green glass, the azure sky full of bird calls, the air clean as a whistle, it felt so good to be alive that the war being fought on foreign fields and soldiers dying in distant lands was the last thing on my mind…”
And so he went on. As if he was writing a novel. ” It was a woman’s scream, ” he eventually said, ” that brought me running back in time to see Argos standing splay-legged in the doorway, growling a warning to whoever, whatever, was inside trying to get out . ”
The postie wasn’t so wordy: ‘Something went past me’ he repeated over and over again as though whatever it was that passed him that sunny Summer’s morning had clean taken away his wits with it.
” In which direction?” he was asked and he cut the air in front of his face from right to left with his open hand and made a sort of whistling sound to indicate that whatever it was had been travelling left at a fair old rate of knots.
“Into the house or out of the house?” the lawyer asked in a weary voice.
The postie frowned and didn’t answer and all he said when the question was repeated was, Something went past me.
That’s how the trial went, stories that didn’t match; questions asked but not answered; lines followed that led nowhere.
What about the parcel that was the thing that supposedly led the postie to go into the house? Did he pick the parcel up? Was the parcel still there when he rushed out? Was there ever a parcel in the first place? (It turned out that the writer – like lots of folk hereabouts – always used the back door, never never the front door)
And Helga? Why did he do nothing to help Helga?
After a long pause and without a shrug this time he said, not looking anywhere, ” A dinna ken ” which the lawyer again translated for the judge’s benefit.
Folk weren’t comfortable with the postie after all that and it was no surprise when shortly after the end of the trial he left the island, joined the army, didn’t see any fighting, married a WAAF from Torquay, settled there, nice wife, two kids, good job, never returned.
The writer wrote ‘A Parcel of Lies’ – (short listed for the Booker prize) – which became a best seller and probably did a lot to earn him his early release from Ford open prison. When it was made into a film he went to La Gomera where most of it was shot, fell in love with the place, never returned.
Only the house remained to remind folk of what once happened there, tall, grey, gaunt and haunted, not the sort of place you would want to buy, however cheaply, for you and your wife to turn into a home fit for bairns to grow up in.