THE car sped almost silently down the monochrome road, the dark shadows thrown by the grey trees shaking with great violence on both sides. It was dusk on a moonlit night, and the colour had gone out of the world. The road spooled out before them, the shade of lead and granite.
“If we opened the window, we would hear the sound of the trees shaking,” she said.
“Are you trying to scare me?”
“I’m trying to get scared. I got a thrill from being in that place, back there.”
“The old inn? Me too. Why was it so eerie?”
“It’s the age of the place – the creak of it, the uneven walls and the shadows in the corners of the rooms.”
“Yeah.” He was smiling. “And the way that the wind pushed into the place through the windows. Like they weren’t windows at all, but something more porous.”
“Like the holes in our eyes. There are holes in our eyes, aren’t there? The black bit in the middle of the iris is a hole. It’s like that.”
After a while, she said, “Why is the wind in the trees so unnerving?”
The car continued down the road.
“It could be a folk memory,” he said.
“Like fear of the dark. We learnt to be afraid of it, long ago. And now we pass on that fear to our children, without remembering why.”
“That makes sense,” she said, “like, the way I find a light on its own in the dark, is scary.”
“A lit window in an unlit house, or a flickering light in a dark room. It’s like a warning, somehow.”
“Maybe it’s the memory of an animal’s eyes, catching in the campfire.”
“Yes, something like that. From long ago.”
“One eye open on a sleeping dragon.”
“Yes,” she said, her own eyes shining, and then: “do you like ghost stories?”
“Yes, yes I do. Do you know any?”
“Maybe we could make one up.”
They both considered for a little while. The white light pushing out from the headlamps lit the grey expanse of road, leaving darkness in its wake. The sky glimpsed between the trees was dark blue and clear. The monotonous sound of the tyres on the tarmac had vanished into the background, to leave them in what seemed like silence.
“What will be in the story?” he said.
“How about a library in an old church building?”
“Yes. Where the librarian is quite like…”
“A monk? Like the monks who used to….”
“Yes – there’s a library there now, but the monks never left.”
“Their souls never left.”
“That’s good. Wait – did we miss a turn?”
“Back there, a little while ago – we were heading towards somewhere, but now…”
“I don’t think so – I’m not sure. You know, I’m not sure at all where we are.”
They were silent again for a time. A sound like rushing water was in the air, though it was the leaves of the trees that made it. The car kept moving onwards, onwards.
“Listen,” she said.
“Are – are you trying to ..?”
“No, no, it’s just – it sounds like water. The wind in the trees. Like we’re on a boat with a dark river rushing out before us.”
“I thought it was…”
“Don’t,” she said, smiling nervously, her hands tightening on the wheel, “let’s go back to our story.”
“Maybe there’s an old stone bridge, and the river rushes towards it.”
“In the moonlight.”
“Yes, and the moonlight on the old stone bridge casts odd shadows.”
“As if the shadows are thrown by invisible things, not by what’s really there.”
“And beneath the bridge there’s a meadow, an old meadow, never built on.”
“Because it floods, really. But the locals say that strange lights are seen there, so people stay away, in the twilight and the dark. And there are stories from years ago about a strange dance that the villagers danced on Lammas Eve, and no one can quite remember where it came from, or what it means.”
“Yes,” she said, “that sounds familiar.”
“Familiar?” he said.
“Yes: that’s where we were, before, isn’t it.”
“I thought we were just telling stories,” he said, and then paused for a little while, thinking, “though maybe you’re right – anyway – I remember that the meadow was a dark, dead green beneath the bridge. A primeval green. Like it was always night. And there was a tower on a hill on the horizon that never looked quite – what was that?”
They stopped talking and stared, first out of the windscreen at the long straight road along which they were driving, and then at each other.
“Did you hear…” he said, looking across at her.
“I think, maybe…?”
“It was just something….”
“It was outside, wasn’t it?” she said, not moving her eyes from the road.
He looked at her in alarm. “What?”
“That cry. It was outside the car. Wasn’t it?”
The hairs on the back of his neck pricked up one by one, like the tines on the cylinder of a music box rolling inexorably towards the steel comb. He refused to turn around.
“Turn around,” she hissed, “look in the back.”
“There’s no one there,” he said.
She glanced for one thunderous heartbeat at the mirror and saw nothing but darkness behind them.
“There’s no one there,” she said.
They continued driving through the blank dark space.
“It reminded me of that time that the rooks came,” she said, eventually.
“When we lived at the old farm,” he said.
“When the rooks came with the dark, first one and then another, landing in the old ash tree down by the well.”
“Each one made its own distinct cry. Its own distinct echoes.”
“And each was answered by just one other cry.”
“As if they were welcoming each other. Soon the old ash tree was thick with them, and the moon threw down their shadows onto the dust of the yard.”
“The shadows of their wings and of the shaking branches,” she said.
“We couldn’t sleep – each minute that passed in silence was…”
“We were waiting for the next rook to call.”
“And so we could not sleep, for hours and hours.”
“The cries, and then the creaking of the branches.”
“Until eventually, mercifully, we slept.”
“They were quiet then. They must all have been welcomed. They held their silent coven.”
“And then eventually, we woke.”
“And what woke us – was it the sound of day?”
“It was the sound of a million feathers on a thousand wings that woke me,” he said, and shivered.
“When they left, as one.”
Ahead, the faint white line in the centre of the road was flashing beneath them like foam on rapids. There were suggestions of trees on either side, skeletal branches that appeared in the periphery for a moment. There were faces in the shadows, figures in the branches, and nothing on the straight blank road.
“Where were we?” he said.
“We were in the meadow, beneath the bridge.”
“And the old tower on the hill ahead of us.”
“How long ago was that?”
“When we lived in the village? I don’t know.”
“And – was that near the old church, too? And before that, we lived on the farm.”
“We lived there too; yes, I think so,” he said.
“And then – it was so long ago I can’t remember – where did we go after that?”
“After the rooks woke us?”
“Yes, after that sound.”
“We came here, I think.”
“To the road?”
“Yes. We have been driving.”
“And the road kept unrolling. And you said you needed a break.”
“And that’s when we stopped at the old inn,” she said.
“That’s right. It seems…”
“It seems so far away.”
“Long ago, do you mean?”
“I don’t think so, no. Far away, beyond here, somehow.”
“Like a dream.”
“Or a story.”
“We were telling ghost stories in the inn, too.”
“That’s right, the wind in the trees, the river beneath the bridge.”
“And then the thin man behind the bar said, hurry up please, it’s time.”
“And that’s when we had to go.”
They were looking out upon the white line and the dark straight road. She made an occasional glance at the black oblong of mirror above her. Neither of them looked out to either side at the rushing trees and the shapes within their branches.
“How does the story go on?” he said.
“It goes like this,” she said, “on a dark night, on an endless road; two figures rushing onwards in a car which is the only island of light in all eternity. They are telling stories.”
“I thought we were remembering.”
“I don’t know how it’s different; I can’t remember living in those places, but I know the stories that we told.”
“So is telling stories the same as living?”
“As living there?”
“As having lived there, once upon a time.”
“I think so. Or at least, stories are the same as living on.”
“You might as well say that there’s no difference between a ghost story, and a ghost.”
“That’s what I mean, that’s just exactly what I mean.”
And the car continued down the dark straight road, past the old farm and its ash tree, over the stone bridge across the dark green sea that was the meadow. The car was a bright spot in the darkness. The car moved past a church; they saw the shadows of cowled figures moving against the stained glass windows. When they drove past the coaching inn on the old highway, they saw that instead of the reluctant light and the strange shadows that they remembered, the whole place was dark and derelict. The road spooled out before them.