From the author: Merry Christmas!
UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR
by Stephen Dedman
"You on your own, then?"
It was a question I was sick of hearing, and I guess my expression showed it, because the goth recoiled slightly. "Yes," I said, more mildly than I felt.
"Uh-huh." I stared out of the window, pretending to look at the northern English scenery, which consisted of snow and not much else and even that wasn't easy to see in the darkness. At least it was warm in the bus, but why do I always end up sitting next to some weirdo?
"How far you going?" she asked. I didn't answer. "I'm getting off in Carlisle."
"Hawick," I replied.
"Got friends there?"
"Family?" I shook my head. "Then what you want to go there for? We're having a party tomorrow; why don't you come along? We can find you a bed easy enough."
I stared at her balefully, and noticed that her earrings included linked female symbols and a double bladed axe. I admit, since I caught Stuart in bed with one of my students, I've occasionally thought that all men should be given a choice of castration without anaesthetic or the electric chair - but that doesn't mean I'm a dyke. "No, thanks."
"I mean... well, spending Christmas by yourself is bad enough, but spending it in a hole like Hawick..." She pronounced it 'Hoik'. "It'll be a great party..."
"I won't be staying there; I'm going straight to the castle." I replied. "I'm from L.A., and I've never had a chance to sleep in a real castle before - and Christmas is just a rip-off, anyway." Ho ho bloody ho.
She smiled - and then turned even more pale beneath her make-up. "Hermitage Castle?"
She was mercifully quiet for a while, as though thinking of something to say. "Must be difficult, though, travelling on your own. Dangerous, even."
I laughed, probably for the first time since the plane landed. I'd heard that too often before, too. "Dangerous? This place?" She looked and sounded sincere enough, though it was hard to be sure with that make-up and accent. "I teach jeet kune do and self-defence. The scariest thing I've seen since I got here was Phantom of the Opera. I admit, I didn't actually plan to be making this trip alone, but my fiance dumped me in November, and I was stuck with the ticket. I'm enjoying it more than I expected. So, what have you got around here that's dangerous? Serial killers? Or just drunks?"
She was silent for a moment. "Are you superstitious?"
I laughed. "I'm not even Californian."
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
She stared past me into the darkness, and I did the same. It was easy enough not to believe in ghosts in L.A., but this was a much older world... I shivered slightly, and then told myself I was being stupid.
"I guess you could call him a serial killer," said the goth, softly. "He's probably killed at least a hundred people by now - all of them lone travellers, like yourself, backpackers and hitch-hikers and walkers. If there is just one of him, that is: there may be a gang, or maybe a whole murderous family. It's hard to tell what's real, and what's some sort of urban myth. Well, not really urban, not out here, but a myth, anyway."
I nodded. I'd been on a Jack the Ripper walking tour while I was in London, and I know how legends grow up around even the most unglamorous killers, thugs like Manson and Dillinger and Wyatt Earp.
"They call him Redcap, because he wears this floppy red cap, like an old fashioned nightcap. They say he dyes it with blood, human blood, and when he's been very busy he dyes his jacket red, too, sometimes even his trousers. When he's been frantically busy he's red from the tip of his cap to the top of his great heavy boots. And this is his busy time, his favourite time - close to the winter solstice, when the nights last forever, and its too cold outside for people to venture out, or even go to stare out of a window, unless they desperately need to.
"He likes the old ruined abbeys and monasteries, and other places like the Roman roads. I suspect that's where he finds his victims, because there's not much else but ruins to attract the travellers, up here. But he never travels very far from the border; maybe he's staking out a territory, or maybe he doesn't have a car. Maybe he's homeless, and lives in one of the ruins..."
I shuddered again, and then got a grip on myself. I've encountered plenty of street people near Venice Beach, and worse. "Does he have a gun?"
"I don't think so."
"No problem, then."
The goth shook her head violently. "I think he uses an axe - a large axe, maybe even a halberd or something, though I've heard some say he has a machete, or a claymore, or a scythe. Anyway, he decapitates his victims, and he must take the heads with him, because none of them have ever been found. Fortunately, most of them still have their passports, or they'd be impossible to identify." Her voice sounded slightly dreamy, but terribly sincere. I stared at her, but she didn't even smile; she just looked through the window of the bus. "Carlisle," she said. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather come to the party?"
The bus was already slowing. I noticed a girl standing at the stop, waiting; her head was shaved, and she carried a potted palm and a skateboard. "No, thanks," I said, snapping out of it. It had to be the best pick-up routine I'd ever heard, but not good enough to make me give up on men just yet.
"Okay," she said, looking rather crestfallen, and then grabbed her daypack from the overhead rack as the bus groaned to a halt. Then she reached into her jacket, removed a notepad and a calligraphy pen, and scrawled something on a page, which she ripped out and handed to me. "My name and number - in case you change your mind about the party. Have a merry Christmas," she said, sadly.
"Thanks. And to you."
* * *
"You'll have the place to yerself," said my host, puffing slightly as he struggled to get my backpack up the ancient stairs one-handed. "We've only done up the one tower, and there's nobody else here tonight."
The room in the castle didn't look as large or as comfortable in reality as it had in the brochure, but I was used to that. Most of the renovations had been for the sake of weatherproofing, and were obviously anachronistic, even the tiny four-poster bed. I didn't really mind; I prefer a toilet to a garde-robe, and rugs (even tartan rugs) to rushes, any day. I would have liked some electricity, too, but the fireplace near the bed was a nice touch - big enough for roasting a pig, if not an ox, and with a real fire behind the grate.
"I'll be in the cottage if you need anything," my host wheezed, as he dropped the pack just inside the doorway. "Goodnight - oh, and Merry Christmas," he added, a little hesitantly, leaning on the doorframe with his left hand slightly extended. I took out my wallet to give him a tip, and noticed the piece of paper. "Have you ever heard of Redcap?" I asked.
He blinked, and his blue eyes seemed to disappear into his scarlet face. "The fairy?"
"Elf... goblin would be the best name for him, I guess." He chuckled. "Scottish elves aren't like American elves - mostly, they're a bit like life in the middle ages: nasty, brutish and short. Redcap's one of the worst; he's small but strong, with red eyes and big teeth, and he likes to kill travellers just to dye his cap red. Or he did - in old wives' tales. They say you can keep him out by leaving a sock under your bed; it always works for me." He shook his head, and chuckled again. "So who's been telling you fairy stories?"
"Just a girl I met on the bus," I replied, feeling a little foolish, and tipped him twice what I'd intended. Ho ho bloody ho.
He grinned. "At least you didn't ask about the castle ghost."
"Is there one?"
He shook his head. "I could rattle some chains outside your door if you like, but no, I've certainly never seen one. Mind you, I don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster either."
"Who does? Thank you; good night." As soon as he was gone, I locked and bolted the door, and began peeling off my clothes. I was too tired to go back down to the cottage for a shower; I just wanted to go to bed. Alone.
The bed was barely big enough even for one of me, and as hard as it was small: nevertheless, I fell asleep immediately.
* * *
Fa la la la la la, la la la la!
I was dreaming that I was Lady Macbeth, when I was woken by the sound of a voice murdering a Christmas carol; I rolled over, disoriented by the huge shadows thrown by the dying fire.
Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, fa la la, la la la.
"'Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!'" I muttered, and tried folding the pillow around my ears. When that didn't work, I grabbed the electric lantern my host had left me, and rummaged through my overnight bag for my earplugs and nightmask. That muffled the noise enough for me to ignore it, and I rolled over and tried to return to sleep. I had almost succeeded when I heard creaking footsteps, and something that might have been singing punctuated by laughter. I pulled one of the earplugs out, and listened. The footfalls sounded as they were coming from the room above me, but that must just have been an echo; my host had told me the room was empty...
O'er the fields we go, I heard someone sing, laughing all the way. The voice sounded thin, and stretched, rather like one of those musical Christmas cards that's been left in a box of ornaments for too long, so that the battery's gone flat and turns 'We wish you a merry Christmas' into the funeral march.
I peeled my nightmask off, and stared at my travel clock. Twelve past midnight. Bells on bobtail ring, the singer continued. Making spirits bright... It still sounded as though he was in the room above. Maybe it was my host, more than a little drunk, playing some sort of prank - a ghost act, to frighten the tourists...
Oh what fun
Or maybe it was the goth and her friends, having a slumber party joke, bringing the party to me after I'd refused to go to it. Ho ho bloody ho.
The voice sounded clearer, now - still harsh and unmusical, but loud, as though it were coming down the -
There was a crash, and two huge boots appeared in the fireplace, scattering the embers. Above them was a pair of red trousers. Santa Claus?
I stared, as one of the boots kicked the grate aside, and a lumpy sack was thrown into the room. I'd stopped believing in Santa Claus twenty years ago, but...
the neck of the sack parted, and a human head rolled out. The fat, short elf in the fireplace stepped towards me. He was wearing red from the tops of his boots to the floppy cap on his head, and carrying a scythe.
to sing, he warbled, and lashed out with the scythe. I tried to parry it, but misjudged, and the blade sliced into my arm and cut it to the bone. The pain was worse than anything I'd ever experienced before, and I almost blacked out. The elf grinned, revealing long, sharp, brown teeth, and held out his cap to catch the bright red blood spurting out from my arm as I screamed. The scythe rose again, and I rolled over and fell out of bed an instant before the blade penetrated the mattress. I grabbed the first item of clothing I could to wrap around my arm then scrambled backwards to the door and, without taking my eyes from him, reached up for the latch.
His grin broadened, and he crooned a slaying song tonight as he walked slowly towards me. I opened the door, backed away through it onto the landing, then fell down the tower's spiralling steps. He continued to sing as he followed me, his huge heavy boots ringing on the stone stairs.
I lay there at the foot of the steps, wanting to move but unable to get my legs to co-operate, as though my body refused to believe I was in any danger. The elf oozed his way down the narrow staircase like toothpaste through a nozzle. At least he'd stopped singing.
"Get away from me!" I shrieked. "You're not real! I don't believe in you!"
He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then raised the scythe. It was a clumsy weapon for such a confined space; there was no room to slice, only stab, but that would be lethal enough. I reached for the latch, opened the door far enough to squeeze out, and ran.
The ground was thick with frost, and I slithered painfully towards the cottage, not daring to look back. This isn't happening, I thought, as the pain in my feet subsided to numbness, I don't believe it, there's no such thing as -
The cottage was dark and silent. I hit the front with a thud, but there was no response. I screamed for help and beat on the door with my fists, pausing occasionally to listen, but no-one stirred. I glanced back over my shoulder, seeing my bloody footprints where the skin of my feet had frozen and peeled away, and then the door to the tower opened and Redcap hurtled out. Despite his fat and his nailed boots, he ran quite quickly, maybe too quickly for me to outrun him for long. I continued to pound for a few seconds, then glanced around for somewhere else to hide. There was a phone booth twenty yards away, an old-fashioned box of wood and glass; still screaming, I hurtled towards it. The elf grinned, then changed his course to intercept mine. His scythe swung at my neck, and I dropped to the ground and slid. I shut myself into the phone booth and collapsed on the floor, panting. It smelt of piss, but maybe that was me.
For the first time, I noticed how cold I was, naked apart from a t-shirt and whatever I had wrapped around my arm - which turned out to be my Levis. I looked around for Redcap, but he'd vanished. Hunting for easier prey, perhaps? Or just waiting behind the opaque side of the booth for me to venture outside?
I slithered into my jeans, wrapped the T-shirt around my bleeding arm, and put my hands into my pockets for a little extra warmth. I found coins in one, a screwed-up scrap of paper in the other - a name and phone number. The goth. I hesitated for a moment, then dialled 999 and asked for an ambulance. The operator wearily promised to send one as soon as possible; her tone implied that she thought I'd cut my arms myself, though that may just have been her accent. Lots of people committed suicide at Christmas, didn't they? I sat there and shivered for a moment, trying to convince myself that I wasn't crazy or suicidal, that I hadn't done this to myself, that there really was a red-capped elf with a scythe waiting outside to murder me if I left the booth... It was hard enough convincing myself; how was I going to convince the paramedics?
What if he killed the paramedics? Maybe I should call the cops as well... no, British bobbies don't carry guns, they'd be walking into a trap too... if they came, if they believed me, if they didn't try to lock me away as a suicide...
Maybe I was just having a nightmare, but I'd never been this conscious of smells and pain and other sensations in a nightmare: my arm was throbbing, my feet were hurting more as they thawed slightly, my nipples were so tight from the cold they felt like toothaches. I'd never been able to read in a nightmare, either. I blinked, and realised I'd curled up into a foetal ball. I took a deep breath. I wasn't crazy, I wasn't trying to kill myself, I had seen a homicidal Santa Claus try to decapitate me, seen a head roll out of his sack... Redcap did exist, the goth knew about him, she knew I wasn't crazy...
I looked around, reached for the receiver again, inserted a few coins in the slot, and dialled the number on the scrap of paper. The phone rang a dozen times before someone picked it up and yelled, "Whaaat?" over the background music.
"Morgan?" I croaked.
A moment's hesitation, just long enough to wonder whether I'd dialled the wrong number, then, "Nah. MORG! PHONE!"
One of the booth's glass panels shattered; I turned, but saw nothing but darkness, and screamed into the receiver. A moment later, I heard "Hello?"
"Morgan? It's Julie - the girl from the bus. I'm at the castle and, uh... the Redcap's here, he's trying to kill me -" I heard my voice rising and quavering, and tried to get a grip on myself.
"What? Where are you?"
I gulped for breath. "In the phone booth outside. He's still hanging around somewhere, he has a scythe, he's cut my arm open with it, I've called an ambulance but I don't know when they're going to get here is there anything I can do?"
There was a long silence. "You're serious, aren't you?"
I stared at the hole in the side of the booth. "Dead serious."
More silence. "What are you wearing?"
"It's just a legend," she said, sounding flustered, "but wearing your clothes inside out is supposed to be protection against elves. Or there's crosses, or iron knives, or... I can't remember anything else. Sorry."
"Turn my clothes inside out? What's that supposed to do?"
"I don't know; act as armour, maybe. Look, I can borrow a car and drive over, just in case the ambulance is late..."
"Thanks," I said, and, unable to think of anything else to say, said, "Goodbye," and hung up. I peered into the darkness for a moment, then unbuttoned my jeans and struggled to turn them inside out. I stepped back inside them, then unwrapped the T-shirt from my arm, tore a few pages from the phone book to serve as a bandage, turned the shirt inside-out, and pulled it over my head as though it were a sack. I heard another pane of glass shatter and screamed, then heard something whisper Tsk, tsk. A big girl like you, can't even dress yourself properly
Maybe it was Redcap, maybe it was just a voice inside my head, I didn't know. To drown it out, I started singing. "Silent night, holy night,"
A big girl like you wetting herself like a baby
"All is calm, all is bright..." Another pane smashed. How did the rest of the song go? I drew a deep breath, and began, "Hark the herald angels sing..."
A big girl like you believing in fairies
I wanted to look, but didn't dare. Seeing him out there would have been bad enough, possibly even fatal, but not seeing him would mean it was just a voice in my head.
A big girl like you believing in Santa Claus
"Glory to the new-born King, Peace on Earth and mercy mild..."
You're going to bleed to death, you're going to freeze
"We three Kings of Orient are," I quavered. "Bearing gifts, we travel afar..."
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb, the voice sneered. I tried to keep singing, but my voice had dried up; it sounded too much like his to bear. I sat there in silence for what seemed like hours, until I heard the door open. Someone grabbed my arms, and I screamed.
* * *
I opened my eyes, and saw nothing but whiteness until I managed to focus. There was no point in asking where I was; old hospitals have a stench of disinfectant that you could cut with... well, you know. I looked around; my arm was bandaged from palm to elbow, and tethered to the side of the bed. There was a little box with a button near my hand; I pressed it, and a nurse walked in a few minutes later.
Morgan visited me after breakfast, and told me that the caretaker had found me in the phone booth, having wandered out after hearing the glass breaking. "They think I'm crazy, don't they?" I asked. "They think I did this to myself."
She hesitated, then nodded. "You're on your own in a strange country, you've just had a relationship break-up, it's Christmas... big time stress, no-one would be surprised if you were depressed - amazed if you weren't, really..."
"I'm fine - well, I was until yesterday..."
A shrug. "They've tried to contact your fiance, but he didn't answer, so they got your parents instead. Your insurance covers you for a stay in hospital if they call it an accident, so if I were you, I'd go along with that; you'll get out of here a lot sooner that way. Say you cut your arm on something, opening your Swiss Army knife or whatever, you ran to the phone, you passed out there... they'll buy it."
"And what about Redcap?"
She blinked, then shook her head. "Better just call it an accident. Do you need anything? Books or whatever? They brought your backpack in..."
"Not now, thanks."
"I'll leave it where you can reach it. Anyway, I'd better go; it's a bit early for visitors. Would you like me to come back?"
"Yeah, thanks. What is the time?"
She smiled. "About four a.m. Merry - uh, bye."
"Bye." I sat there for a few minutes, then rolled onto my side, leaned down, and unzipped my backpack. Stuart's head grinned up at me, and I heard someone whisper Merry Christmas.
This story originally appeared in gothic.net.