Horla Fiction (December 2020)

 

SPEEDWELL

by KEITH DAVIES

‘Veronica chamaedrys. Also called cat’s eye or bird’s eye in Wales for the flowers resembled the bright blue eyes of a doll, tear-you-mother’s-eyes-out, because picking it was thought to risk your mother’s eyes being pecked out by birds, farewell, goodbye and speed you on your way in Ireland, where it was sewn into travellers’ clothes to ensure a safe journey. The leaves were once sold in London markets to make infusions to treat coughs or asthma and to purify the blood. Germans drank it daily as a tea, but believed that picking it caused storms – perhaps the reason why it was also known as strike-fire. It was believed that those who destroyed it could expect an imminent account with an avenger.’

The Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland’  

Charles Coates.

Robin had never seen a church burn before – or blazes other than Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfires, and damp wisps seeping from raked autumn leaves. The saints sang in their painted windows, stained glass crackling as the leaded solder buckled. Flames fed by parched oak, pew cushions, hymnals, kneelers, and a hundred and fifty years of beeswax, varnish and mouse droppings , roared upwards to the North Aisle’s bossed ribs. Elizabeth of Hungary clutched her waifs closer to her gold and crimson robes; Gregory, Augustine, Oswald and Bede’s daintily slippered, sandaled or chain-mailed feet were horribly underlit, and the chubby angels snug amongst the acanthus, myrtle and columbine at the bases of each martyr’s three lights, unfurled livid, fiery wings.

He looked for them each March, just in the lee of the tallest sycamore in the Garden of Remembrance – a smudge of pale blue, with tiny oval leaves. More than the bedlam of swifts zooming above the rooftops; lengthening days, fattening buds, or trees greening through, and the early showing of wood-sorrel, cow parsley, sanicle or ramsons – the year’s first sight of speedwell brought with it that deep-in-the-belly feeling that Spring had come. The primroses, celandine, lords-and-ladies, forget-me-not, dog-violets, foxgloves and red campion would follow in overlapping sequences, just as Robin Parry, Greensman at Saint Aidan’s Church, recalled, smiling, they did in a childhood mnemonic for Spring flowering: ‘Why Burp?’ White-Yellow-Blue-Red-Pink.

Coming late to Anglican Conversion in his early sixties, Robin had retired on a modest government pension after thirty-six unremarkable years with the Department for Work and Pensions: too intuitive, bright, and unerringly decent  to snag a lucrative career arc.  

His life was now orderly; he liked the stillness and ease: each week with its interlocking preoccupations – talks, readings and concerts at the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society, brisk hikes over tawny fells with the District Ramblers’ Group; days set aside to tidy each room in his mid-terrace home; buying fresh produce at the town market; coffee and a pastry at a Quayside café; drizzly afternoons in the municipal library – and on Sundays, morning church service at Saint Aidan’s, which he liked for the rumbling hymns, polished quiet; the play of coloured light, and the kind company. God was too big a puzzle, but Robin knew his Larkin and recognized:

‘A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.’

On Sunday afternoons he sat until dusk assembling, converting and painting 54 mm Napoleonic-era model figures -British, French or Prussian; happily lost in detailing coatees, epaulettes, tunic piping, shakos, crossbelts, tiny muskets and swords. He was currently preoccupied with a set of French Artillery: three gun crews with their sergeants, field pieces, carriages, limbers and horse teams. A troop of Cuirassiers, ready-coated in primer, were frozen in mid-charge nearby, awaiting scabbards, carbines and breastplates.

It was from this table, opposite an upstairs window, where he sensed, saw or heard signs of The Emergency drawing closer; seeping from the city into the suburbs. On still nights, or carried by the prevailing breeze, it began with the first whoomfs of stolen, torched cars exploding: these were not the primary indicators – those were the converging, cumulative, yappy, zipping trails’ bikes – teen dispatch riders spliced into the home-delivery takeaway routes: bringing pizzas, kebabs, burgers, spice, smack, weed, cash and ‘burner’ throwaway phones, along with coordinated plans for the night’s looting spree – thwarting Police social media intercepts.

Smoke came bellying in – hazy grey-white at first, smelling of petrol and plastic, lingering in low pockets; then the dirty red glow and the seamless cacophony: a hell-blend of yelling, window-smashing, sirens, alarm bells and the circling helicopter’s rotors.

Four million unemployed; an imploding Government of National Unity, rioting in Teesside, Hull, The West Midlands, Yorkshire, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and London: forty-three dead, including three firefighter stoned to death in their appliance’s cab; army escorts assigned to fuel and supermarket resupplies; seventeen schools ransacked, then burned: Robin did what millions of others were doing at nightfall – he drew the curtains, switched on all the downstairs lights, and went to bed, stuffing cotton wool into his ears to filter out the windborne, pulsing, babble.

In the early hours the house shuddered. Military helicopters tracking North: Pumas, Merlins and Chinooks.

In April, when he resumed voluntarily mowing the   2,085 combined square yards of sycamore, beech and lime-lined Green and side lawns at Saint Aidan’s after the last cut in mid-October, Robin had turned onto Laburnum Avenue – a pretty street he walked down before turning left onto Church Road – and simply, reflexively, spoken out loud to render what he saw intelligible:

This is wrong. This isn’t normal. The entire lower length of the street- pavements, hedgerows, lampposts, railings – is clearly visible. I can see clear down to the junction. Every single car windscreen is…missing.

They had all been systematically smashed: wing mirrors wrenched off, headlights, indicators – gone: only crazed glass edges and rubber trim left; cars sagged on slashed tires, door panels gouged; some kind of white gloss or emulsion slopped over bonnets. He crunched past over thirty, their white-faced owners, still in nightwear, talking to a Police crew, one man holding a child’s plastic toy, sobbing.          

The big mower- technically a sit-upon Honda HF 2315 HM hydrostatic drive 530 cc V-twin 4-stroke ‘lawn tractor’ with a 280-litre grassbag capacity- was garaged in a steel-shuttered outhouse alongside a stout Victorian Parish Hall -now rebranded a ‘Hub’. Robin pulled thick gloves, then circuited each lawn before mowing, carrying a telescopic grabber and a binbag; litter was thankfully negligible – crisp packets, fizzy drinks bottles, single gloves, , upended takeaway cartons or foil disposable barbecue trays in summer. He checked the mower’s oil and petrol levels, flipped on the power and reversed it onto the Green, steering it carefully past the Garden of Remembrance, squeezing between the willow and birch trees, then up a short bank; set the rotary blade height, glanced around for safety, and began: edges first, then stripes.  

On fine days, with the sky clear to the East, he worked for two hours – or until he reached the mid-point: the Tennis Club pavilion roof, visible above the beech boundary hedge, then lunched under the oldest sycamore –  topped out at a hundred and three feet, planted in 1888, when the church was built and its grounds acquired by the Diocese – with the generous assistance of local grandee, Ironmaster Sir Belvedere Trevelyan, whose descendants’  ‘unstinting liberality and generous support’ would provide a baptistery with its famous Crawford-Hicks’ carved canopy; chancel screen, pulpit, brass lectern, East and West windows, decorative stonework, a flagpole; Annual Sunday School Treats for Ragged Boys, and funds for the Reverend Doctor Stirling’s 1897 missionary expedition to Gaza, where he ‘slept in Arab tents accompanied by the howls of jackals.’   

Robin knew the original Parish Council’s declaration by heart: This Green is to be mowed regularly and kept in good order: drained, levelled and planted to enrich the life of the parish with fetes and festivals, jubilees, Sales of Work, summer concerts, fund-raising necessitated by Quinquennial Inspections, displays, processions, dramatic performances, musical concerts – liturgical, classical or choral- activities for the youth organisations, outdoor services, bonfires and ecumenical picnics.

Requested by the Curate to write about the Green for the Annual Parish Reports, Robin had retrieved and read parts of the Agendas and Minutes written up by the Parochial Church Council and its Fabric Sub-Committee under successive Incumbents: fat volumes with marbled end-pieces, smelling of burnt cork and old wax, kept in the Choir Vestry.

Entries under ‘Grounds’ or ‘Gardens’ were lamentably rare. Victorian proprietary insisted on separate Ladies’ and Gentleman’s Gardening Parties – both groups appeared equally reluctant to keep or submit detailed accounts, receipts, or formal reports.

By 1892, the grounds were reported to be: Exemplary – a source of singular pride and pastoral refreshment throughout often turbulent times continually planted and improved.

The 1897 Vicar’s Report added: The turf is in excellent condition and the side lawn beds glow with snowdrops, scillas, dwarf daffodils, and aconites in the spring; crocosmias, astrantias, day lilies, hostas, primulas, anemones and astilbes all contribute. The climbing roses and chaenomeles, planted against the South Wall bordering the Garden of Remembrance ensure Beauty complements Solace for visitors seeking quiet reflection. Out Green is neatly striped, ensuring the gardener’s foes – hawkweed, creeping buttercup, knapweed and clover are kept at bay. Trembla Herba!’  

Foxed clippings from ‘Punch’ and ‘The Church Times’ were pasted into several accounts. For October 1909, a worn photograph of six men in boots and belted corduroy trousers, wearing waistcoats, beaming under sunhats – their chests thrown out in exaggerated heroic poses – had been slipped between pages.

A wooden wheelbarrow bristled with tools close by: billhooks, pruning saws, six pitchforks, and spades with curious acorn-shaped heads. An early cylinder mower with a geared rear roller, the type usually used on bowling greens, was propped against it.

An inscription in almost transparent lilac ink on the reverse read: The Six: ‘Skipper’ PB Barker, Lionel J Matthews, Dr. Stuart Cooke, Frederick Bindley, Captain CC Harrison and Charles Woods. Topiara spiritualiter reficit animam – sed tergo nocet! In red ink, now almost the colour of a faded sherry spill, another hand had added: Hic est statio itineris ab Regna Caelorum!  

Another two hours – which always entailed an early start, for Robin took note of the year-round sunrise and setting times – using the smaller Mountfield petrol walk-behind mower, and the Garden of Remembrance and side lawns were finished, though he paused respectfully if someone, usually alone, came in through the small side gate and sat on a memorial bench: ready to assure them that all vases, and any wreaths or flowers left behind after an interment, would be carefully replaced.

It was a bonny place in mid-May: beyond a three-stepped plinth, surmounted by an oak and bronze crucifix, there were densely-planted flowerbeds, plum, wild cherry and hawthorn tress in blossom; surrounded on three sides by a low, rustic stone wall, and the climbing roses still grew against the church’s southern stonework.     

The North Porch included the parish’s Great War memorial – gilded lettering on panelling – but the ’39-’45 Fallen were commemorated on a newly -commissioned memorial: their names etched into a length of thick, frosted glass, socketed into the outside wall with stainless steel bolts. Robin, mindful that he was cutting a lawn above a hundred and forty years of compacted human ash, for Saint Aidan’s had no cemetery, took particular care to marry up the stripe-lines both sides of the central plinth: looping around the speedwell when it was in flower, along with the snowdrops, dog violets or cyclamen; to rake up fallen leaves, and clear away any tree brash after gales.

It was the penultimate cut of the year: October- the splayed leaves from the horse chestnut trees along Church Road already falling to mulch on the pavements and verges; the Green’s beech hedge had turned pale and its leaves rasped drily. He had just stooped to pull the start toggle on the smaller mower, anxious to finish in the last hour of good light, when he heard the gate skrake, and paused.

He saw an elderly woman, soft-faced, snug against the chill in an elegant grey tweed coat, sit down, and knew from the tilt of her head, and stillness, that she was praying. He wheeled the mower to the side of some laurels and waited quietly.

After some minutes she lifted her head and smiled in recognition of his courtesy, then approached him up to the foot of the Green’s churchside bank.

‘My, it all looks so well kept here, with lawns so properly cut and such flowers! The Japanese anemones are thriving so late into the year! It’s a credit to you.’

‘Oh that would be the Gardening Group. I just look after the lawns really.’ He offered her his hand and helped her onto the edge of the Green. He could always turn out early and put in an hour tomorrow.

A blackbird was singing under its breath deep in the laurels. ‘It’s a big job here,’ she added, peering beyond him into the now-thickening light. ‘Not much shy of a quarter of an acre – does it take you very long?’

‘Four hours or so. I -’

‘Your friends over there are very grateful.’

Robin assumed the chill darting from his upper ribs and through his shoulder blades to the back of his neck was autumnal. She smiled again, half-waved, and left along the path to the gate. He started the mower, and knowing that the only other occupants on the Green were two rooks investigating the newly-turned grass, he followed her gaze along the southern edge, past he privet, elm and beech, to the corner composting area – a compound made of old railway sleepers, with lopped and wind-fallen branches heaped against it by the Brownies for over-wintering hedgehogs. It was screened by crowded, overlapping planting: rowan, elder, birch and willow, already drawing the late afternoon shadows into them.

Soon the tawny owls would start their calling from the taller sycamores and limes. He looked directly across to the western boundary’s beech hedge, and saw no-one.

It was light now by 6.21 am, and, though fresh, there were only a few scraps of stratus about- after a week’s rain and gales; this would be the latest he could recall putting in the final mowing for the year. Then he would brush down both mowers and their hoppers, wipe them with an oily rag, and fix tarpaulins over them, before locking the shutters until April.

As Robin turned the corner on the path to the Parish Hub, he saw curious gouts of soil arcing across his way: then the white-yellow sockets of branches torn or hacked from their trunks; a wreath upended and speared on a railing – then the full horror shockwaved into him as he rounded the South Wall to the Garden of Remembrance: all three family-dedicated benches with their backs, arm-rests and cross-pieces ripped away or stamped on until they split; shrubs and flowers uprooted, strewn about. Every. Single. One.  Just the cratered beds left. The climbing roses ripped from their wires and trellises, the entire length of the wall, and the War Memorial smashed to fragments. The lawn, churned up with motor or quadbike tracks; shards of plastic vases thrown onto the central plinth; the crucifix spray-gunned with paint.

A huge, coiled, foully-mottled, almost neon-orange turd lay at its feet.

So much hyperfury and malevolence intent on obliterating every trace of grace, colour, beauty, sanctity or respect, broke him, and Robin reeled: appalled, numb.  

Then the converging sirens split the morning- the traffic backed up and snarled. He saw a white haze approaching, distant figures running through its whorls – and the stuff bit into his eyes: Teargas! The now-familiar yelling was close – it came from the High Street, only a few minutes away. Another riot.

Phoning the Police unless there was an Immediate Risk to Life was now an indictable offence; he tried anyway, and a recorded message urged him to Stay Indoors as Try Later. The Vicar, Church Warden and Curate’s numbers all sent him to voicemail.

Robin conceded that normally his mind had two modes: race or idle. Now he felt a limitless clarity, unlike anything he had experienced. Wiping his eyes, he ran for the front door of the Parish Hall, pulling bunches of keys from his coverall pockets. He jabbed in the passcode and clattered downstairs to the basement where assorted youth groups, clubs, societies and associations kept a chaos of sports gear, drama props, barbecue and camping equipment.

In the Mothers’ Union Great Tidy Up of 1971, it had been partitioned with now-bowed plywood into Sections and Seasons. Even as the striplights fluttered on, he tore into ‘Christmas’: both seventeen-foot-high fake trees with their slotted trunk and wire fronds were stowed, after dismantling, in huge builders’ rubble bags, each Epiphany, as the dark watches of Lent, and the ritual of stripping bare the altar for Easter approached.

He yanked each bag open, and they became improvised war chests as he added coiled nylon ropes, torches, gaffer tape; red and yellow acetate sheets used as stage lighting cells by the Young People’s Players; four furled Badminton nets; assorted lengths of timber, the Verger’s toolbox, tins of nails, packets of coach bolts, and a twelve-foot high double-ply furious-looking figure of Goliath: fretworked and battened by the parish carpenter- a wood-turner by trade.

The thing was a marvel. It hinged at its greaves, vast belly and neck to make it portable for Schools’ Outreach Week. He was luridly painted in the colours of old seaside postcards: fleshtones and silvered armour; with formidably muscular arms and legs, pivoted so they could be adjusted; a buckler and wicked-looking bloody sword could be added. His head had cleverly-inserted, battery-powered LED glowing eyes, and featured a terrific beard and a wild shock of hair.

Both bags were dragged upstairs with fire extinguishers unclipped from the main hall, office and kitchen walls, flung in. Then he headed into the Hall’s narrow back yard – normally where the Ladybirds’ Play School tots wheeled about on garish vacformed toys or jabbed at their pretend garden – now deserted, and unlocked the tool shed, taking out loppers, shears, and a pruning saw..

Robin pushed both mowers out into the yard and set to work. He recited fragments from Corinthians 2.11.9 as he lashed, taped and sawed: Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. Wheresoever any is bold, I am bold also.’

The Scouts’ halved barbecue oil drum was lashed and nailed onto a timber cradle, then bolted onto the front of the sit-upon mower-though Robin winced at the damage to the cherry-red paintwork. Seven powerful torches, batteries replenished, were gaffer taped onto the top and sides, each one with layers of red and yellow acetate sheets over the lens. Two fire extinguishers, their nozzles facing backwards, were crazily taped and roped onto each side of the big machine. He sawed through a timber board and shaped it until it could be wedged hard against the accelerator pedal. The grass hopper removed, Robin could fit Goliath into the seating bay and-for Robin was an ex-Scout and knew  his reef knots, clove and half hitches by heart-bound tightly to the mower’s frame. The smaller Mountfield mower, its bracket collapsed, he rigged onto the top of the lawn tractor’s casing, rotary blades facing forwards. Wincing again as he overrode the stencilled warning never to operate it on its side.

He had the oddest sensation that the work went rapidly and smoothly, despite the bulk and weight involved, because it was almost as if others were straining to help him haul and drag and lift.

The intention was to replicate something which would look like a mash-up between a cool sequence from The A-Team, a lumbering, menacing medieval siege engine, and the closing sequence of his favourite horror movie, the classic Night of the Demon, with Goliath replacing the hellish monster astride the thundering steam locomotive-but the effect was rather more like a bizarre, slightly camp, fairground bulldozer ride.

Finally, he took a pot of pale blue paint and a brush from the Young Saints’ craft cupboard, and carefully added a name-like the wartime nose-art on a B17- to the side of his infernal lawn tractor: Speedwell.     

He had the same odd sensation of others straining their backs alongside him, when he pushed Speedwell up the bank and onto the Green. He dismissed it as shock-induced adrenalin. Now he could hear the yelling progression along the High Street, alarms pleading uselessly: sirens were seamless, incessant; Police drones zizzed overhead, looking for heat blooms. Poor Thorpe’s-the little ironmongers, where they still stocked mantles for Tilley lamps; Robertson’s the photographers with its ‘Days Gone By’ displays in the window; Bevans the cosy newsagents; the little shopping precinct too, with Rosie’s Teashop; Williams Butchers and the local bank-they’d ransack that first. They must have broken through the Police lines and swarmed up the Great North Road.  

Speedwell was tucked between the trees next to the composting bay; he draped the Badminton nets over the whole thing to conceal it, adding all the fronds from the Christmas trees, and armfuls of lopped and fallen branches. Robin looped a rope around both ends of the rear axle, and then fastened another attached length trailing behind it to a tree trunk, and tightened it as much as he could, so that it formed a taut, inverted ‘Y’: this did, somehow, at last, begin to invest Speedwell with latent menace.    

It was mid-afternoon: aching, horribly filthy, and with lacerated hands, he sat down behind his makeshift camouflage, ate his sandwiches, finished the tea in his Thermos, and read Charles S Bayne’s Exploring England, a pocket-sized late 1940’s reprint with CF Tunnicliffe’s wonderful line drawings. He had read it outright, to the foot of the last page, in the final section, Farther Afield: The true joy of nature-craft is not the collection of skins or of dried plants, but in the knowing and understanding and loving of the living creature. Then it became too dark to see clearly.

At dusk, they came back, as he knew they would.

Two-then three more top-range four-by-fours: side windows knocked out, presumably stolen. There was a great deal of engine gunning and reversing until they stopped, and dark shapes spilled out, yelling: they all wore the default branded leisurewear, hooded tops, black, thermal gloves, faces masked by scarves. Trinity, Saint George’s, the Grove Street Mosque and the Amble Street Synagogue, burned down within the last week alone. Not, he supposed, because they were Faith Spaces, but outside the triplet: Mine. Not Mine. Smash.

One of them, the tallest, urinated against the church wall.

‘HowayBekkagerussonfugginTikTok!’

Bekka and the others obliged by filming themselves and each other on their mobiles. They hunted around the planting troughs, found rocks, and began stoving in the stained glass window nearest the North Porch door – he knew it was the most recent one: Saints Hilda, Beverley and Wilfred. It took them seconds to obliterate all three. Then two surged past the others with bottles retrieved from the cars: there were rags stuffed into them. They were lit and flung through the gaping window accompanied by whoops and jeers.

Robin wrenched at the wheel to align Speedwell; he slopped an entire jerry can of barbecue fluid into the front-mounted half oil drum; hit the ignition, jammed the wooden template against the accelerator, pushed the throttle all the way up its gradated gate-from a tortoise symbol to the last fat black stripe alongside a sprinting hare. The effect was extraordinary. Speedwell thrashed and roared; he doubted the engine could last long under he added weight; it must surely seize or fly apart. Goliath, his sword and buckler held aloft, rocked convulsively. 

The demonic torches and Goliath’s glowing eyes were flipped on; Robin hauled aside the badminton nets, ran around the jolting mower, pulling out the pins on all four fire extinguishers. He cinched the steering wheel to the seat pillar, and then used the pruning saw to cut through the quivering, fast-unravelling tether: he had seconds only.   

As the rope twanged apart, slashing the side of his face, he pressed the button down on the gas hob lighter retrieved from the barbecue kit, taped it down and threw it into the front scoop.

They did not hear-or see-the improvised, hissing, roaring comet-chariot hurtling at hem at first, bestrode by a blazing Goliath; they were bellowing and too intent on capturing the effects of the petrol bombs on the church’s interior: the  blast, glare and immediate roar blotted out all peripheral sound.

To Robin, the effect, when they saw it rolling horribly down the bank directly towards them was one which he had scarcely dared to hope for. They screamed in unison, in an almost inhuman, single howl – and fled.

Speedwell hit a concrete begonia planter and overturned; Goliath’s burning sword defiantly aloft, as the product of four years’ worth of fund-raising: Christmas Fayre takings, Bake Sales, and Pot Luck Suppers, ended in a charred pile.

Robin dashed to the South Porch, to the coiled, wall-mounted fire hose, spun the valve fully open and ran into Saint Aidan’s, wrenching open the nozzle. He endured about seven minutes, remarkably, saturating the pews and woodwork around and ahead of the blaze, until the smoke-and the fear that the flames would jump from the North Aisle to the central Nave, trapping him, proved overwhelming: he thought his clothes and hair might ignite if he stayed a moment longer. He left the hose kicking wildly, and ran out, tearing off his melting boots, retching.

He reached the base of the oldest sycamore, slumped against it, face smarting, eyes streaming. The last thing he saw before unconsciousness engulfed him was the arrival of two fire engines.

‘B’ Watch had not stood down for thirty-six hours; they had orders to withdraw to the suburbs and concentrate on domestic fires and life-saving – abandoning shops and businesses. Which is why Saint Aidan’s is now clad in scaffolding; its roof partly restored, and the church’s two glories-the carved reredos and East Window, intact. Forcing a way through the Vestry door, the two crews smothered the fire with foam within twenty minutes. One crewman was setting up perimeter arc lights on tripods when he found Robin.

He gave him oxygen from his own breathing apparatus, wrapped a foil blanket around him, and checked vital signs. They couldn’t stay for support crews or paramedics. A triage label was clipped onto Robin’s jacket: Gave O2. Smoke inhaled. Alive at 0216 – and the casualty’s GPS coordinates radioed to Control.

It was almost light when he came round with a jolt. Everything hurt. He remembered to wiggle his toes and flex his fingers. The rioting seemed to have relocated further to the West. The Police must –

They stood around him. The Six. Entirely solid. He could see tanned, shirt-sleeved arms, the curious, complicated, heavily-laced boots they wore; was aware of the concern in their eyes. One of them stepped forwards and, smiling, gave him a smart salute-then they stepped back, dissolving into the beech hedge-and were gone.

They found ‘Bekka’ three blocks away-the others had scattered. They may be running still. He was on all fours, screaming over and over:

Gerrawaygerrawaygerrawayfromusfugginrunitsinthe trees!

He was howling – and quite unhinged. The Police Armoured Response Unit officers arrested him because he reeked of petrol. As one WPC clipped on the cuffs, she noticed grimly that he had soiled himself.

When they searched him they found him covered from his feet to the insides of his ears, in a fine, pale powder, flecked with what looked like tiny fragments of eggshell.

Bekka and his pals had not seen Robin’s blazing chariot at all. What they saw, that night; what they ran from – was a boiling cloud of pinkish-grey ash, hissing and seething, blotting out everything, and coming for them. Ash. Human ash.   

 

***   

 

 

Author’s note

Keith Davies writes: ‘It may be helpful to offer translations for the Latin used in Speedwell:

‘Trembla herba!’= ‘Tremble grass!’

‘Topiara spiritualiter reficit animam sed a tergo nocet!’= ‘Gardening refreshes the soul-but hurts the back!’

‘Hic est statio itineris ad Regna Caelorum!’= ‘But it is preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven!’

 

***

‘Speedwell’ is the fifth story we’ve been pleased to publish by Keith Davies, a retired teacher and former newspaper journalist living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

As with all of the writers we publish, Keith’s previous stories at Horla can be found by entering his name in the search engine at the top right of our pages.

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