Home » A Shining Beacon by Matthew G. Rees

CHRISTMAS FICTION 2018

 

A SHINING BEACON  

By MATTHEW G. REES 

 

THE small town of Skelmere Junction, in the English North Country, isn’t easily come upon, particularly since the closure of its railway connection.

It is, by all accounts, a much quieter place than was once the case. Indeed on some nights it is said to lie silent in its rural and unstirring valley. Save, that is, for the soft clink of bulbs on various wire-strung lights swayed by the wind that cuts over the neighbouring mere.

In its day a hub of the wool trade, Skelmere has vanished from almost all maps, its name erased from timetables for buses as well as trains. Forgotten in its frost pocket, it might be said.

Improbable as it seems, its Christmas illuminations are perhaps now its claim to fame (if that’s the word: some might favour another).

If yours is a wandering nature it’s possible that, one evening, you might find yourself entering Skelmere’s still-pretty squares and straying down its narrow ways, thereby witnessing the aura of those hanging lanterns in person.   

For the present, what follows, as far as the events are known, is an account of how those lights – ‘curious’ is an adjective some have used – came into being. Or maybe that last word should be… beings.

You, dear readers and perhaps rovers, can be the judges of that.

***

‘NOW Harold, don’t go taking any of what I’m about to say personally,’ Walter Wheeler began – shuffling some papers while seated at his desk in the mayor’s parlour.

Harold Watts didn’t like the sound of that. If ever a word was loaded it was personally. It was a stab in the back and a punch on the nose at the same time. That’s the kind of word it was.

‘… but you and me need to have a conversation…’

Conversation. There was another. A wheedling, weaselly word. Typical from the tongue of a politician like Walter Wheeler (even if he was only mayor of Skelmere Junction). Not having a conversation was what it really meant. Being told was an appropriate translation.

‘… about the lights,’ Wheeler said and looked up.

Up to that point Skelmere’s first citizen had avoided his visitor’s gaze. Now he studied Watts keenly, to see how his words had sunk in.

‘The lights?’ said Watts, nonplussed.  ‘What about them?’

Harold Watts hadn’t expected this. When Rosie Dawes rang to ask him to come to the town hall – for ‘a spot of business’ in the mayor’s parlour – he’d formed an entirely different impression. In his mind, the receipt of some award had loomed large: a scroll signed by Wheeler, sherry afterwards, maybe even an alderpersonship (if that was the term).

He’d been up a ladder, angled rather awkwardly, against the spire of St Hilda’s. Right beside the weathercock. Installing a new lightning rod which now poked past the bird’s back in a way that made it seem, to Harold at least, like the shiny old rooster had been skewered for a spit-roast.

Reaching in a pocket for his mobile, he’d almost slipped.

Weirdest thing was that, despite the height, the signal had been terrible: Rosie’s voice somehow scrambled: a strange, throaty, furry sound, lisping and clicking in Harold’s right ear.

‘Yes!’ Watts had said loudly before ending the call. ‘YES!’

‘What about the lights?’ he now repeated to Wheeler while tusking and tutting in his head. The Christmas lights? Was that it? Blumin eck! The money he’d paid to dry-clean his suit! Cheek for his pains from the girl on the counter.

‘Terylene?’ she’d said, looking at the label. ‘This must be an old one.’

And how it now reeked. Like the purple bergs in the urinals at The Swan.  He’d seen Wheeler back off as he walked in. The bloody pen and ink.

‘Well,’ his host continued, ‘there are some in the community who think it’s time for… a change.’

Watts leaned forward in his seat. ‘A change?’

‘And as mayor it’s my job to listen to what folk are saying. And, frankly Harold, folk are saying rather a lot.’

Wheeler put on some specs, took a sheet from the pile in front of him, began to read aloud.

‘“Dear Mayor, I’m asking you for pity’s sake to put a stop to our town’s annual humiliation in the form of its so-called Christmas lights. To say that the illuminations’ (Wheeler negotiated the word syllable by syllable) ‘of Skelmere Junction have seen better days would be a gross…”’ Wheeler mumbled for a moment, moved on. ‘“The Santa and sleigh, which has been strung across High Street these past twenty years, is now so lacking in bulbs that on its last outing it resembled nothing so much as a scarecrow on water-skis. It’s time you pulled the plug on the whole…”’

He stopped, looked up, gave Watts an embarrassed half-smile.

‘Well, perhaps that one does go a little far. Native of these parts if ever there were. But that’s the tenor. And I have to tell you Harold, the writer’s not alone.’

Wheeler picked up another letter.

‘“Mr Mayor, The near blacked-out state of the snowman in Bridge Lane last year was obscene. His flashing carrot nose…”  And I think I can safely leave that one there. Marjorie  Potts, the wool shop,’ Wheeler indicated. ‘Needless, I’m sure.’

Watts heard Wheeler in stunned silence. So this was their game was it? Not a thank you, a handshake and the right to graze sheep on Sowerby Road roundabout, but a stab in the back – cuts, multiple wounds – with poisoned pens. Just like Julius Caesar. Skelmere folk! Nothing but—

‘Ay now, Walter…’ Watts reared.

But Wheeler was off again with another missive. ‘“The reindeer on the lamp standard outside my shop has been leaping there so long the animal must be positively arthritic”’ (This last the mayor pronounced as if invoking the name of an ancient king.) ‘“Any humane electrician would have had the thing put down be now.”’

Watts could contain himself no longer. ‘You don’t have to tell me who that’s from. Clive Ashton! The swine! Been after my contract for years!’

‘But he’s a butcher,’ said Wheeler, looking up. ‘What’s he know about electrics?’

‘Exactly!’ said Harold, eyes swelling in their sockets (rather like lightbulbs, Walter Wheeler thought).

‘Not for him!’ Watts followed-up smartly. ‘For his brother-in-law. Over at Sowerby Sands. Does lights ont seafront… after a fashion.’

‘Now don’t go blowing a fuse, Harold. I told you not to take it personally.’

There it was again, thought Watts – that word. Oh he’d bloody well take things personally with Clive Ashton all right. There’d be no more pork sausages from his shop. Or chops on a Saturday. Harold Watts would be up the supermarket from now on, like every bugger else. Shop Skelmere’? Be damned!

Wheeler was reading again. ‘Reverend Wilson. “I’d like to put on record my appreciation of the work done over the years with regard to our Christmas lights by Mr Harold Watts.”’

Ah! Now that was more like it, thought Harold. At least the vicar knew which side his bread was buttered. Quite right too. A respectable note went on St Hilda’s collection plate every Sunday. Same in his father’s time, and his grandfather’s.

‘“But the angels on the clock tower are looking more shabby than seraphim,”’ continued Wheeler. ‘Whatever that means,’ he said, glancing at Harold. ‘“And (for several years now) we’ve had two wise men rather than three in the nativity on the railings. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful but…”’  Wheeler let the letter peter.

‘Is that it?’ Watts asked.

‘Need I go on?’ Wheeler replied.

Watts saw the look of a man whose mind was already on his haddock supper. And doubtless there was a grumble in his pile from Stanley Sugden about the state of some illumination outside his fish bar: a wild exaggeration about something battered or burnt-out.

Watts wondered for a moment if it was Sugden who’d cooked-up the whole thing. He and Wheeler were committee men: the Loyal Order of the Skels. The town’s ‘friendly society’, or so it styled itself. It met upstairs at The Swan. Men only. Watts had only ever been an infrequent attendee. He tried to remember if he’d renewed his subs.

‘May I now speak?’ he began.

‘Of course,’ said Wheeler, knowing full well what was to come.

‘My family has been doing the Christmas lights in this town since 1901,’ said Watts.

‘I know that,’ said Wheeler.

‘And it was my great-grandfather who brought electricity to Skelmere Junction in 1896.’

‘I know that also,’ said Wheeler, with a sigh. ‘Appen it’s a fact you’ve acquainted me with more than once.’

‘You could actually say that, in so far as Skelmere Junction exists on any map, it’s because we, the Watts family, bloody well put it there. Electricity is in our blood. It’s in our name.’ Harold’s eyes were blazing now. ‘It was the Wattses, it might be said, who took Skelmere out from the Dark Ages. A fact some folk round here seem to have forgotten. Perhaps they need reminding, Mr Mayor.’

Wheeler didn’t care for the colour that Watts, in his anger, was turning: a kind of electric blue.

‘Ay! Come on! Calm down! There’s no need for any of that Mr Mayor stuff tween thee and me.’

Wheeler sought to soothe things. ‘Glass of water?’ he asked.

‘No,’ Harold snapped. ‘Water and electrics don’t mix. Everybody knows that.’

‘Well you’re the expert,’ said Wheeler. ‘It’s all double Dutch to me. Fret about changing a lightbulb meself. First thing the wife says is “Call Harold – he’ll know”.’

Wheeler sensed Watts brighten, the mood lighten (a little).

‘What I’m wondering,’ he began, ‘is whether – not for this year (too late for that, I’ll warrant) but the Christmas after – there might be… another way – a middle way, so to speak.’

‘Middle way?’ asked Harold.

‘I’ve had a letter,’ he picked up a lavender-coloured sheet (one that Harold fancied Wheeler had clearly set aside) ‘from Lavinia Bloom. Runs that shop int square – boutique, I think she calls it – Guiding Light. Candles, smelly stuff, that kind of thing.’

‘I know it,’ said Harold. ‘Only been there five minutes.’

‘Two years, actually,’ Wheeler continued.  ‘And in my opinion the kind of forward-looking business this town needs (albeit some folk seem keen enough for it to die on its feet). Ask me, that lady’s planted something here.’ He paused, searched for a phrase. ‘Sown a seed.’

‘What?’ cried Harold. ‘Cheesecloth blouses! Tank tops crocheted by kiddies in some ruddy sweatshop! Water bottled from backyard tap! That’s our future, is it? Give over Walter!’

‘Don’t knock it, Harold. Tourists love it. The wife swears by her bath salts. Reckons they’ve done wonders for her lumbago. Nepalese, or summat.’

Wheeler went back to the letter.

‘Anyway, she says “Dear Walter” – Wheeler coughed – “I mean, Mr Mayor… Although relatively new to Skelmere I hope you won’t mind me pointing out that the Christmas lights are a little jaded.’”

‘Jaded!?’ Harold exclaimed.

Wheeler continued: “‘Could I possibly suggest the creation of something more in keeping with our times that would also establish Skelmere as a shining beacon’” – Wheeler repeated this last description (with evident relish)  – ‘“for the whole district. I am happy to offer my services in support of same. Yours truly, Lavinia Bloom. PS If your wife…” Oh—’ Wheeler cut himself short. ‘No need to bother ourselves with that last part.’

Harold said nothing, sat in silence.

‘So, all I’m asking,’ Wheeler began, ‘is that you call on Lavinia’ – he corrected himself – ‘Ms Bloom, and talk about what might be done next year. Too late for us to do owt this Christmas, as I’ve said. No doubts you’ll be busy anyroad – sorting out spare bulbs for your reindeers and snowmen, and whatnot.’

Wheeler stared at Watts. Eventually Harold spoke. ‘So what you’re saying is: this Christmas is my last.’

‘Well, yes. I mean no. No. I mean… maybe,’ Wheeler said.

With this Harold rose and made for the door, leaving the panelled parlour and its glowering portraits – among them his heavily-whiskered great-grandfather Augustus – behind him.

Wheeler called after him. ‘Go see Ms Bloom. As for this Christmas… well, go out with a bang.’

The door slammed. The letters on Wheeler’s desk blizzarded against him, the links of his chain rising and falling in a soft plinking shuffle.

The voice of Rosie Dawes, at her desk in an ante-room, came through the intercom. At least, Wheeler thought it was her voice. The line was weighty with fuzz, static. More a growl than a trill.

‘How did he take it?’

‘Personally,’ Wheeler said. 

***

That night, in the heavy, gloomy lounge of the villa built by his great-grandfather (a property undeniably imposing though always having a certain chill at odds with its pioneering place in the history of electricity) Harold Watts looked down from its hillside vantage point  to the community of Skelmere Junction lit-up below.

Was it not now, at hours such as this, that Skelmere – on the shores of the darkened water from which it drew its name – was at its most beautiful?            

He gazed upon the lights of the little town, with awe.

Yes, in the day it still wasn’t half-bad compared with many places – even allowing for some of the fangled stuff and ways that had come in. But at night—at night, nestling there… twinkling, as it did… It was like… Bethlehem.

‘And all the work of the Wattses,’ he whispered, in the drawing-room’s cold air.

He drew away from the window and took from a shelf one of several albums relating to his forebears. He turned the leaves, lingered over certain of its contents: old monochrome images, pamphlets, bookmarks, badges from flag days (their pins rusty), yellowed cuttings from newspapers: Josiah Watts, brother of his great-grandfather, illuminating a paddle steamer that plied the mere, ‘gay bulbs burning brightly from bow to stern’… Julian Watts, a cousin – his very name a nod to the family’s obsession with energy – who’d apparently been mad as a hatter but had supplied the engineering nous for everything from the signals on the steam railway to the circuit board for Skelmere’s first road traffic light and staged a spectacular son et lumiere – The Snow Queen – against the walls of the town hall. It had drawn farmers and folk from the hills for miles around… Harold’s grandmother Augustina – another great Watts – pivotal to the introduction of telephony to Skelmere (at a time when interest was switching from the wool trade to charabancs of trippers). ‘The lady who connected Skelmere Junction to the world,’ stated the caption of a foggy photo that accompanied a printed obituary…

The page went dark, flashed back, dulled again, then reappeared as, above Harold, the ceiling light flickered.

The bulb began to dim in an all too familiar way. For, although the Watts family had worked wonders for little Skelmere, the wiring of their own residence had been their private shame. As the last of their line Harold, unmarried and heirless, had felt little compulsion to act beyond a never-ending series of patch-ups and solderings with nightly descents to the cellar and its rust-crusted fuse box, always undertaken to the same incantation. ‘Cobblers and shoes, cobblers and shoes, cobblers…’

Now though, still holding the album (and in a faintly liturgical way), he wandered back to the bay window of the drawing-room and surveyed Skelmere Junction. He recalled his words with Walter Wheeler.  About how his family – the Watts family – had single-handedly taken the town from the Dark Ages.

‘And, if we wanted to,’ Watts thought to himself, looking down on the little, glinting town, ‘we could just as easily send it back.’

Moonlight appeared on the waters of the mere. In Harold’s mind the silver beam seemed to signal a path – a way, to use Wheeler’s word. 

‘With a bang,’ Watts whispered, absently.

***

In the morning Harold stepped inside what he had to confess was the pretty frontage of Guiding Light in Skelmere’s square.

A wind chime over the door summoned Lavinia Bloom from invisibility at the back of the shop, a weighty cloud of scent wafting with her (noticeable even above the several burning sticks discharging incense-like smoke that quickly assailed Harold’s eyes and throat).

‘I’ve come about making Skelmere a beacon,’ he said.

‘A shining beacon!’ Lavinia Bloom corrected him. ‘And you are Mr Watts. Good! I’ve been expecting you.’

Watts looked at her. She was a largish woman, made-up, dark-haired, and wearing something, thought Harold, like the smocks boatmen on the mere had once donned (only hers was patterned with a pattern that wasn’t quite a pattern… of lines and blobs). Across her forehead, strapping in place her straight, centre-parted hair, was a mauve bandana. The slappity sound that had accompanied her advance came from the sandals that Harold registered on her feet.

By now his eyes were watering and he began to cough.

‘May I offer you something?’ Lavinia Bloom asked. ‘A glass of water, perhaps?’

‘Water would be nice,’ Harold said. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket, dabbed at his eyes, blew.

‘Come on through,’ said Lavinia Bloom, and she led him – past various ornaments, carvings and candles – into the back of the shop, via a bead curtain.

In a small office that she called her boudoir she told Watts to sit. She returned with a glass whose contents were scattered with what seemed to Watts to be petals, of a kind.

‘There,’ she said. ‘Drink that. You men on your own… you need taking care of.’       Watts took a sip, put the glass down, wondered how she knew about him and his ‘status’. Wasn’t that the term?

‘I was saying the same only the other day to Reverend Wilson,’ Lavinia Bloom continued. She began to work her way through the names of what seemed to Harold to be most of the membership of the Skelmere Skels. The sound quickly became a drone.

Harold fixed his eyes on a pendant – more a disc, in actual fact – of the sun, suspended on his hostess’s chest.  It lay there like the pendulum on a glass-cased clock: stuck in the valley between Lavinia Bloom’s undeniably large breasts.

It had eyes and a mouth, and it seemed to draw Harold in.

He gathered his thoughts. ‘About the shining beacon,’ he began.

‘Well,’ said Lavinia Bloom, promptly embarking on what seemed to Harold to be another endless ramble. A sharp ray of winter sun pierced the room’s small window, causing the disc of her pendant to emit a curious, flame-like glint.

As she continued, Watts found himself drifting drowsily in a world far removed from Skelmere Junction (with its telegraph poles, scuttles of coal that still kept many a home fire burning, washing lines and whist drives). This other world was a place of ancient rites… symbols… exotica…setting suns and rising moons (or was it rising suns and setting moons?) It was a warm, easeful, sun-drenched place of coconut palms and honeyed balms. He heard the words ‘Mayan temples’, ‘Egyptian pharaohs’, ‘Araby’, ‘Cathay’ and ‘Ancient Greece’. All utterly unlike Skelmere and, in particular, his own chill villa, with its mildewed cellar and fiddlesome fuse box.

All that was required, Lavinia Bloom intoned, was a little… sacrifice.

Sacrifice?

Harold Watts didn’t like the sound of that. It was rather like… personally. Hadn’t he made enough sacrifices for the good of Skelmere Junction? Personal ones an’ all?

He shook himself, came-to.

His sight was blurry. Slowly, like the figurehead of an old ship, the heavy-chested form of Lavinia Bloom solidified out of the mist.

‘Yes, yes, well I’ll…’ said Harold rising from his seat and making his way out.

‘Bear it in mind?’ Lavinia Bloom called after him.

‘Yes, yes, I’ll bear it in mind,’ he said, nearing the door.

The ends of the wind chime drew over his thinning crown as he hurried out – their jangle and touch like laughter, mockery.

He shuddered as he moved quickly across the square, imagining some horrible, trailing creature in the murky depths of the mere. 

***

That night Watts slept badly. He went up to his draughty bedroom early. The lights of the house had failed in their all too familiar fashion. Ordinarily he would have traipsed down into the cellar and put things right. But that night, for some reason, he felt disinclined. He undressed (partially) and climbed into bed by the pewtery moonlight that fell through his curtainless windows.

The night was clear and from his pillows he was able to gaze out at the star-lit sky. He found himself thinking about the house, its past, his ancestors: imagined them devising things, in the way that he knew they had, in its various outbuildings, one of which had been known as ‘the laboratory’. He thought about the state of the building now: gripped by ivy, its clay-tiled roof caved-in. He recalled a cutting from one of the albums downstairs. About a dinner one Christmas at The Swan. The whole town had been there – all the needy folk anyway – near enough. And all paid for by the Wattses.

He thought about Wheeler and the lights. Yes, things had… got away from him. But there were reasons. Among them the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Watts tree. He knew that. He had the genes, but somehow lacked the drive, the energy. That was what happened – wasn’t it? – come the end of the line, the last of the wick, the dying of the light. It was ‘mend and make do’, ‘batten down the hatches’ – conserve not create. Sacrifice? What more did the town want from him? Blood?

As the night wore on he found himself to be both hot and cold – and above all restless – under the bedclothes. He wondered if he hadn’t caught a chill while up the spire of St Hilda’s. He also wondered about the petal-strewn water proffered by Lavinia Bloom. Hadn’t Walter Wheeler-bloody-Dealer suggested some similar refreshment in his parlour?

On the walls of his bedroom the branches of trees that had turned wild in the villa’s once neatly-groomed gardens cast moving moon shadows that had the look of antlers and horns.

Suddenly, Watts saw himself upstairs in a room at The Swan – a meeting of The Skels. An extraordinary meeting, it had to be said. For there, on a huge silver platter, on top of the table in the centre of the room, was he – Harold Watts – in flagrante with Lavinia Bloom. The two of them bare as the day they were born, their mound of pale flesh looking like nothing so much as a plucked and oven-ready turkey.

Around them rotated the entire male membership of the Loyal Order of Skels who appeared to have removed the hotel’s collection of antlered stag skulls from its walls so that they paraded with these same objects on their heads as they enacted their circular dance.

‘Sow a seed!’ called out Walter Wheeler – recognisable (as he pranced) by his mayor’s chain.

‘Bare me in mind!’ cried out Lavinia Bloom as she clamped Watts to the salver in two powerful white thighs – naked save for her mauve bandana and the sun pendant that swung from her bosom.

Its disc spun hypnotically before Harold’s eyes, the metal catching the light cast by the cut-glass chandelier above them (installed by Harold’s great-great uncle Jeremiah, some ninety-nine years earlier).

‘Shining beacon!’ Watts heard someone call out.

‘Guiding light!’ answered another.

‘Sacrifice!’ the swirling, antler-skulled Skels demanded as one.

Suddenly, in the decorative mouldings of cherubs and vines that covered the ceiling, the face of Harold’s grandmother – Augustina – appeared: her head squeezing from the mouth of a cherub’s clarion – a piece of madness visible only to Watts, pinned as he was on his platter by the legs and knees of Lavinia Bloom.

‘You have the power, Harold! You have the power!’ the black-bonneted head of Augustina Watts called down to him from her height.

‘Sacrifice!’ the Skels bellowed around the table below her.

You have the power, Harold!’ his grandmother called out one final time as her head squirmed back into the cherub’s clarion, like a crab into a shell.

‘Sacrifice!’ the circling Skels once more snorted, their ceremony seeming to near its climax, the panelled room appearing to pulsate around them.

Suddenly, seen only by Harold, the ceiling started to crack. The chandelier began to shake, slip and then shower the room with sparks. Smoke and dust engulfed Lavinia Bloom and the antler skulls of the Skels – who rocked and circled and chanted on regardless.

Next, the chandelier’s great, shining bulk – it had been delivered to The Swan on a horse-drawn dray, such was its weight: Harold had the clipping in an album – was detaching – falling – from the white, splintering ceiling.

‘No!’ Harold Watts screamed. ‘No!’

And then he sat up in his bed.

***

The next day Watts busied himself with a series of small jobs around the town. His clients – the authors, or at least co-signatories, of those complaints to the council about his Christmas lights – were surprised to find him cheerfully knocking their doors. In fact, they were taken aback. Not only by his chirpy manner but his insistence on waving any fee. All part of his service, he told them. Wasn’t Christmas a time for giving? A little sacrifice wouldn’t hurt.

So it was that, among many other calls, he found himself re-wiring the pie-warmer at Stanley Sugden’s fish bar (‘Engineering update from supplier, Stan – this’ll keep your steak and kidneys piping’), adjusting the drum speeds at Ena Allsopp’s launderette (‘That’s a much more suitable spin for you, Ena’), fine-tuning the circuitry of Clive Ashton’s bacon-slicer (‘That’ll give thee a far sharper cut, Clive – fittest rasher this side of Sowerby an’ no mistake’), correcting the intercom at the town hall (‘There you go, Walter – you and rest of council will be hanging on each other’s every word’) and sorting the burglar alarm at Marjorie Potts’s wool shop (‘Goodness your cables were a mess, Mrs P – I’ve tied you off good an’ proper now).

The most taxing task was at St Hilda’s. An alteration to the circuitry of the lightning conductor beside the weathercock.

The maker, Watts informed Reverend Wilson, had come up with an ingenious way of harnessing energy in the event of a lightning strike – a more or less failsafe way of warming the pews. Not to mention his lectern, of course.

Finally, for Lavinia Bloom at Guiding Light, a motion sensor for when she was in the back of her shop, which, in place of her wind chime, would play any tune or carol of her choosing. Downloadable from the internet at her mere – ‘Pardon the pun,’ said Harold – press of a red button. (‘And it’s all systems go.’) From California Dreaming to Little Donkey… whenever a soul came in.

***

IT is the uncannily detailed and intensely life-like (if that is the term) nature of Skelmere’s lanterns (of recent years at least) that has held wanderers so rapt. Shocked it may even be said in the case of certain inquisitive souls who’ve seen fit to brush from bulbs their winter shrouds of frost and snow: eyeballs, hands and ears – or so it has seemed – suddenly exposed.

Those with some passing familiarity with the mere-side settlement have – though opting not to articulate the thought for fear of looking foolish – detected a certain similarity with former well-known figures in the town.

A glowing ass in the stable of a nativity on the churchyard railings has, for example, caused some to remember a particular past mayor: the sparkling ‘rope’ to its neck felt to resemble a chain of office (of all things!). A flashing snowman meanwhile has recalled to others a Skelmerian once prominent in the butchery trade – this connection kindled by the frosty fellow’s ‘parts’ – among them (but not exclusively) his nose, eyes and the buttons on his coat – crafted, so it seems, with pork sausages, black pudding and home-made faggots and rissoles.

As far as the angels on the clock tower in the square are concerned, one has been said to bear an uncanny likeness to a past vicar (the halo above his shock of hair thought to be not unlike a cleric’s collar). A second angel, locked – or so it has appeared – in a rather unholy union with the first, has meanwhile been likened to a certain lady not known for her cheerfulness who once ran a wool shop (shuttered and closed these past several years).

And while ‘holly’ and ‘ivy’ would in any other town take the form of lights keenly burning bright-green and berry-red, in Skelmere Junction’s case these are the monikers apparently given to two electrified old ladies  ‘grumbling’ sourly – so accounts have it – across a glowing garden gate.

Strangest of all though is the fairy that tops the town’s tree.

Such figures are of course normally garbed prettily in silver and pink. But Skelmere’s, at the pinnacle of a tall, bulb-decked fir, is said to be both a little large for the task and to wear – of all vestments – nothing more than a mauve bandana.

Those are but a few of the oddities some believe  that – in perhaps the way watchers see faces in a fire – they’ve witnessed in the lights of Skelmere Junction. ‘More Old Nick than Saint Nick,’ is a comment that’s been heard from travellers who’ve departed the strange street theatre (with a shiver).

Not Bethlehem then, as Harold Watts once called it. But a shining beacon? Well, yes, in a way…

Longer-standing Inhabitants of outlying villages in that part of the North Country well recall the spectacle of a sudden bright light in the sky above Skelmere (an explosion, some took it to be, or even the landing of an asteroid) the white glow gradually giving way to a steady pink sheen.

The precise date more often than not escapes them, other than it being a late afternoon not long before before Christmas.

In many respects that juncture no longer matters. For the greater curiosity about Skelmere is this. Those odd, haunting lights (their aura imitative of a shepherd’s delight, visible from afar when skies are clear) never, ever extinguish.

As those able to locate the lonely old wool town will attest, its peculiar lamps glow not just at Christmas, but on every night of the year.

 And what of Harold Watts, last in a line of great English illuminators, whose story, it could be said, this is?

 Reliable reports to the rest of the world from Skelmere Junction are rare. But intelligence has it that, one late autumn evening, callers to his empty house on its melancholy hill eventually came upon a cinder – beneath the fuse box at the foot of the cellar steps. The wiring of the damp, old villa was proclaimed to be – for the seat of such a luminary family in the field of electricity – in a truly shocking state.

 

 

 

In recent times Matthew G. Rees has been undertaking a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales, exploring the influence of imagery on the writing of short fiction.

A collection of 22 stories by him, drawing on the supernatural, is in preparation for publication by the Three Impostors press, of Wales, in 2019.

In his early career he was a newspaper journalist. Later he entered teaching. For a period he lived and taught in Moscow. He’s also been a night-shift cab driver, a farm worker (when much younger) and for a while kept a candy store (dangerous for someone with a sweet tooth). His fiction has been published by the likes of The Lonely Crowd, The Short Story, Three Impostors, Oddville Press and Horla, among others. A play Dragonfly – a comedy fantasy about the (alleged) world’s first aeroplane – was performed at theatres in Wales in 2018 by Theatre Fluellen.

One recent story, ‘The Word’, which describes the strange fate of an antiques dealer who calls on a remote farm in Wales, has been published as a limited edition by Three Impostors as part of its Wentwood Tales series (influenced by Welsh-born horror writer Arthur Machen).

Hand-numbered copies plus further information about their other and forthcoming books can be found here: www.threeimpostors.co.uk

Follow Horla on Twitter@HorlaHorror