Part 1 is here
The Black Land: Matty Dunn’s story
Matty and his Granda drank their tea in silence, both of them staring from the window at the sea that heaved at the horizon.
“I want ye to gan now, sonna’” the old man said, as he placed his mug down carefully . “I want ye to leave now, and I want you to do something for me.”
“Right.” Matty’s voice was choked; he couldn’t look at his Granda. He couldn’t say goodbye, he didn’t have the words.
“But before you go, son, I want you to promise me something,”
Matty could only nod.
“Promise me you’ll put it back.”
Jesus, how could he have known?
“Promise me sonna’, right?”
How many years had it been?
“I promise, Granda, I swear…”
How the hell could he have known?
* * *
It was the feel of that stone in his hand that reared as the American spoke.
“Blamenholm.” Matty’s tongue tried out the word soundlessly as Triumph’s engine thrummed and Seahouses harbour grew smaller behind them in the light of the approaching dawn.
The cold spelks of the rock digging into his palm brought back the terror he had felt as he had passed Miss McKay’s desk that Friday when he’d finally had enough.
It had been getting worse and worse week by week that the hateful object sat there.
‘Work in SILENCE!” She screeched at them as the crooked sums on the blackboard coiled and twisted like witches’ fingers, nearly unreadable.
Woe betide you if she caught you not doing owt; that ruler of hers made your freezing fingers swell something rotten. You had to bite your lip not to cry out when she gave you a smack with that thing. There was no more sparkly laughing, no show and tell; that seemed as long ago as the sunlight that used to stream in delicious, golden slabs of warmth through the windows. As autumn fell on the North East coast, stories on the carpet had been replaced by what Miss McKay called ‘silent thinking’; which no one really got, but you stayed quiet as she paced between the desks, her teeth splintering and grinding behind her cheeks while the wind whirled dusty ghosts in the corners beneath the bare walls. You stayed quiet alright cos if you weren’t ‘silent thinking’ when McKay was having one of her ‘twitchy fits’ as Tommy Fenwick called them, you were for it. He did a good one of her, Tommy, in the corner of the yard at break; bulging out his eyes and staring around into the corners, like she did; like she was trying to catch something that was too quick.
There had been a frieze on the far wall that they had made when McKay first started with class six. It was one of those endless afternoons when they’d sat in the warmth and the brightness back when she allowed them to have the curtains open and the lights on. No one had been fighting, no one getting wrong or being cheeky; the boys were sat with the girls and had the radio been on? There had been music of some sort or was it just joy of the day itself? It wasn’t even that long ago, only weeks, yet it felt like an age.
Frogs, they had been making, frogs and tadpoles to go on the wall. The glitter was out, the gold stars and the glue. It didn’t matter, miss had said, you can do them any colour you like. She had been at the back that day, humming to herself and stapling great green lilipads of sugar-paper over a bright blue background.
Now though, the frieze hung by its last few tatters to the wall. Water had got in and swollen one corner of the room, casting great spots of mould across the gambling amphibians, rendering them sodden, their poster paint faces crying off the wall in bloated, black tears. Over the last few weeks Matty had heard each, individual, revolting splat as each one fell. ‘When it gets to the last one.’ He had told himself last week. ‘When that last one falls, I’m getting that stone, that fucking shitty stone and I’m throwing it in the sea. I don’t care if I get wrong, I don’t care, I’ve had enough.’
But it wasn’t just the frieze, the frogs; it wasn’t even Miss McKay and her moods and her screams and her ‘silent thinking’; it was the other things as well.
aal manner o’things
“Miss; there’s a boy, running in the girls toilets.” Anthea Brown had piped up upon her return to the room last Wednesday. Her eyes were already wet with tears and Matty felt a terrible pity for her as she shuffled from foot to foot before McKay’s desk.
“What boy, Anthea?” McKay intoned, not looking up from the bare wood surface before her at which she had been fixedly staring at for the last hour. “Speak up, girl!”
“A…a…little…” Now the tears came and a few weeks ago, Miss McKay would have gathered Anthea in her arms; today she didn’t even look up. “A little running boy miss, in the toilet…”
There were whispers, no giggles.
“What?” McKay looked up now, her eyes flicked deftly around the corners fo the room and a few at the back followed her gaze.
“He says he’s a little boy miss…” she gulped, sniffing frantically, “but his face miss…his face is all…”
“Shush now, Anthea!” Her voice was sharp and was that recognition in her eyes? “Sit down and stop being such a baby!” She had been shaking, Miss McKay, she just sat there, shaking.
aal manner o’things
There was the book cupboard door that was always open, no matter how many times anyone shut it.
There was that smell that drifted around the room at will, the open doors and windows made no difference to the reek of burned hair.
‘aal manner o’things.
There was the painting that someone had done, even though they hadn’t done painting for a long time, it had went up on the wall with the frogs. Matty thought he was the only one that had seen it because every time he looked round at the grungy tatters of paper and the mould, it made him jump.
“Who did that picture, miss?” He asked one day, his voice barely audible above the sound of the rain screeching down against the windows.
Miss McKay looked up at where he was pointing, looked to the back of the room where the tattered A3 paper clung to the damp ripples of the mouldy wall.
“I don’t…” she was getting up, her chair scraping on the polished wood, her eyes heavy, her voice swollen.
The others turned round too and some of them made small, disgusted noises. Miss McKay was walking over to it now; every eye was following her save for Matty who had seen his chance. A horrible, uncontrollable recklessness whirled through him, it frightened him, it was like being on the Waltzer, that moment where it peaked and you span and everything was a blur and you thought you were going to fly out.
“Take it down miss!” Called out Tommy and a few others joined him.
Matty slid his chair back ward as slowly as he dared as Miss McKay passed his desk, glaring at the painting.
“Who’s done that?” She was snarling, “It’s horrid.”
“Not as horrid as you.” Matty thought, grimly, his gaze now turning to his target that squatted like a vast grey toad on her desk.
As Miss McKay reached he back of the room there began a skittering sound from behind the back wall; the rain intensified and the wind began to low a ghastly wail up into the ceiling. Some of the girls began to cry
‘I hate you.’ Matty was stood in front of her desk now. He glared down at the rock that stared back, defiant in its blankness. He took one look behind him and saw two faces; one of them was Anthea Brown on the front row and he saw the pleading gratitude in her eyes as his fingers closed around the ancient, frozen surface. The other face was the painting on the back wall; daubed by what looked like fingers, long, muddy fingers; black and brown lines that somehow held together into a bony, grinning visage that glared up at Miss McKay with its single, boiling eye before she ripped it from the wall.
‘I hate you and I’m going to sink you to the bottom of the sea.’
“You’ll promise me.” Matty’s Granda had stood, staring from the window of his bungalow all those years ago. “You’ll promise me, Matty, that you’ll never set a foot on that place as long as you live.”
“Why?” Matty had almost sobbed; the end was coming.
But he had heard his Granda and his father talking as he had slept on the single, shelf-like bed that sat in the corner of Triumph’s cabin that morning as they trawled the catch home to the harbour. He had heard the name spoken only once, the name of that place, Blamenholm.
“Not in front of the bairn!” His granda’s voice, hushed, full of fury.
And he knew, he knew from the years they had fished the seas between the Farnes, three generations of Dunns, he had pieced together the story from those long, morning chats when they thought he was asleep. He knew about his granda as a young man, the storm that had carried his boat out to sea and the fear that had raced through him as he felt death all around him, that he thought it was his time, that he was to drown that night as the darkness fell and the wind wailed around him. He knew that the boat had run aground and that it was the island of Blamenholm his granda found himself clinging to for one, dark night.
Men who fought in wars often would not speak of what they had seen in battle; there were things, atrocities that a man could not begin to fathom, let alone recall, his brain would not allow it, for to look back on what he had seen, would be to stare into the crazed fury of insanity itself. Matty never heard his Granda speak of that night he spent upon the island until he had promised he would never go there himself.
“You’ll promise me, Matty, that you’ll never set a foot on that place as long as you live.”
…aal manner ‘othings…
* * *
aal manner o’things
Drugs? Even these days where the young ‘uns showed their flesh like floozies and spoke to one another on little screens; this stretch of the coast was too small for drugs. This yank fella with his wide eyes and twitchy movements must have thought Matty had been born yesterday. There was nowt like that going on round here.
“They’ve got my family.” He had said.
Matty watched the fella stood out on the deck, his arms wrapped round him as he battled to stand upright while Triumph crashed through the larger waves that spoke of further out to sea. There were no drugs on Blamenholm, but what was there?
The yank eventually staggered across the deck and opened the door of the cabin.
“Is that it?” He was gesturing to the faint fuzz of land ahead of them. Matty could hear the twitch in the yank’s voice, but he could also hear the frayed edges of something desperate in there too. The fella’s eyes, that’s what had disturbed him most, it reminded him of Miss McKay, it reminded him of her ‘Twitchy-fits’. Great, wide and saucer-like with pinprick pupils…he had nearly believed it was drugs. But not on Blamenholm, not there.
“So whatta’ you know of Blamenholm then, mister?”
Matty sniffed, careful to hide the derision and doubted the yank would have heard it anyway.
“All ‘a knaa about that place is that it’s dangerous….” Matty spoke with care, “there’s nowt there…full of holes, fissures they call ‘em. They’ll swallow a fella…”
“…whole…yeah, I know.” The yank’s voice was suddenly close, right beside Matty’s ear. He could almost taste the madness on the man’s breath.
“What else? What else do you know about Blamenholm? What don’t you tell people eh? What don’t you tell people like me?”
Matty was not scared, not of this crack-pot, but he felt that familiar stabbing pain in his thigh, the cold weight that sank his heart, that cold weight that had stayed with him all these years.
‘I thought you hated me, Matty.’ It seemed to say, ‘I thought you were going to sink me to the bottom of the sea.’
“I could tell you,” Matty’s voice was calm, he could feel the rock in his pocket pressing its frozen fingers against his flesh. ‘You couldn’t do it then, Matty, just like you can’t do it now. You’re scared, Matty, you’re still too scared and you know it.’
“Tell me.” This guy stank not just of madness, but of desperation.
‘I’ll just come back again, Matty,’ Matty Dunn gritted his teeth and reached into his pocket, ‘I’ll keep coming back, because you’re too scared to take me home.’
“You won’t come back.” Matty said, ignoring the bafflement on the yank’s face as he lifted the rock from his pocket.
“I’ll tell you about Blamenholm, mister,” he said, smiling, the first smile he remembered since they had cut and stuck those frogs to the classroom wall on that bright afternoon all those years ago.
“But I need to you to do something for me,” he pressed the cold, sharp stone into the yank’s hands and felt forty years of misery slide from his shoulders. The wind began to scream, as if in defiance.
“Sure.” The yank smiled, clutching the rock to his chest.
His is teeth looked horribly long.