Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney: exclusive excerpt
5 years ago
He sees them in his dreams...
A column which extends for miles. It comes down from the mountains, a snake of people marching south with the rime and bite of the high passes written on their wind-burnt faces. Warriors in furs with iron swords, leading tall horses. Women crammed in the few wagons that have survived, or stumbling along beside their mates. Children hollow-eyed and silent, tramping with their elders or carried on bent backs. An entire people is on the move, their faces set towards the green world of the south whilst behind them the huge snow-covered peaks and ridges pierce the sky as far as the edge of sight—mountains they once deemed impassable. Tens of thousands march south bruising the grass and scattering the wild things as they go. Thousands more lie frozen and still on the road behind them. They march like an army intent on conquest.
At night he hears the stamp of their feet, the thunder of a hundred thousand hooves. In his sleep they move ever farther south, and he can smell the close-packed smell of the Host at their campfires. They are never stilled. They eat away at his reason.
The early shift—the one he hated most. A dark, just-birthing morning, and the whole wing was filled with the sluice and clatter of buckets, brushes, the catwalks crawling with the pail-emptying queues, the smell already inching out of their covered containers. All the excrement of the night was being poured away by men still half asleep. They shuffled in blue-clad lines, yawning, grinding the slumber from their eyes or staring stupidly into space. Unlit cigarettes dangled from the lips of a few. They were pasty, grey-yellow in the light of the overheads.
‘Come on, Greggs, we haven’t all fucking day.’
‘I dropped me fag in the bucket—me morning fag!’
A ripple of laughter. ‘Shouldn’t have been sticking your nose into it, then! What were you looking for, your breakfast?’
‘Screw you!’, but said without conviction.
‘Move along and shut your mouth.’
They shuffled past endlessly. Most did not look at Willoby as he stood, a black, silver-flecked statue, but some raised eyes filled with blank hatred, flicking away just before his own locked with them. A few, a very few, smiled or winked at him.
Mawson the Mass-Murderer paused beside Willoby with his mop and pail. He was a tiny, wizened broomstick of a man, his bald head as pale and pitted as a golf ball.
‘Morning, Mr Willoby—another fine day in our salubrious establishment. ‘
Willoby only grunted in reply. Mawson made his flesh creep. Despite his nickname, he was only in for one murder: that of a pretty young man on a London to Edinburgh train. But he had been in so long and behaved so well that he had become a trusty of sorts. Christ knew the Governor made some odd decisions in that line.
‘A nice film lined up for tonight we have, and ping-pong for those as likes it. I’m thinking we—‘
‘Fuck off back to work Mawson,’ Willoby said mildly, and the man shuffled away, mopping as he went, face expressionless.
Some screws cultivated Mawson, for he knew all that went on in the wing—in the whole prison. But he was a queer, a right fucking nut-case in Willoby’s opinion. When he got out, whenever that might be, he would be chatting up pretty boys in trains again.
Christ, the smell. The piss smell in the morning, the unwashed smell, the old food smell. It had sunk into the very bricks and boards of this place. It had clotted in the mortar. High time they pulled the shithole down, built something new. Something’ different, for God’s sake.
He snatched a glance at his watch. Eight hours to go. Purgatory passing. Looking up, he saw the blackened skylights high above. Still dark. Still night. Somewhere beyond the glass the stars wheeled; Canopus the Dog was rising and Venus was a last gleam on the lightening horizon, but not a man in here would see them until the steel gate of Her Majesty’s pleasure had banged shut on his back. Years hence it would be, for some of them.
The prison tang caught in his throat for a second and the sweat popped out along the rim of his cap as he fought the panic, the screaming pressure of the walls and the creeping queues.
Oh, Jesus, not here.
But it passed, and he was Willoby the big bad screw again. Willoby the hard bastard with the flint eyes.
My luck won’t last for ever, he thought as the last of the trembling died away. One day it’ll hit me as I stand here, and they’ll laugh their fucking heads off as I go down.
The thought steeled him. His face stiffened further. Passing prisoners avoided the fish-cold stare, affording him a grim kind of pleasure. He was lucky in being a big man, with a prize-fighter’s nose and shoulders broad as a door. The years were thickening his middle, but by Christ he could still hospitalize any bastard that tried it on with him. Oh, yes.
They were filtering back to their cells now, preparing for breakfast. He jangled the chain of keys in his pocket gently. When this shift finished he would not go straight home. He would drive out of the city, up to the moors, and he would sit with the windows open and listen to the wind and the silence.
Except that he would not. He knew he would go homewards, and pick up Maria from school, and crack Jokes she never understood on the way. And he would doze in front of the telly until Jo came back from work and cooked his dinner.
Just there, hovering still—the panic and the blackness at the edge of vision. The need for violence, shouting and running. He closed his eyes momentarily, hoping to see something else when they were open again, some other world, perhaps. Mawson slopped water on the shining boots from his mop and went ashen, but Willoby did not even see him.
But no cigar. Not this time. He had sweated through it again, and the inmates had not even noticed.
‘You all right, Will?’ another black-uniformed figure asked, striding up.
‘In the pink, Howard. These bloody early shifts, though—I hate them. It’s a God-awful hour to be awake.’
‘The dog watch, I know.’ Both Howard and Willoby had been in the army before this, and they knew the limb-leaden weariness of the last hours before dawn, when the body was at its lowest ebb.
‘Still, finishing at three isn’t so bad. I get a lot done around the house after an early, and the wife likes the dinner cooked for her for a change.’
Willoby looked at him quickly. Howard was a purple-faced, corpulent man, the kind who would accumulate weight with every year he made it past thirty until the first heart attack at forty. He liked his grub. So did Willoby, but that did not necessitate cooking it himself.
‘Things to do.’ AndWilloby walked away with his hands behind his back. He was blind to the line of prisoners; the last of the slopping-out line. Breakfast smells wafted from the mess hall below overlaid with a rancid veneer, like greasy fingerprints on a glass. His own stomach was knotted and closed. He was not a breakfast person. A tot of whisky, though—that would be welcome now, by Christ. A little pick-me-up. And he glanced around as though the thought had been audible. But the kitchen clatters and the talk and the feet on the metal catwalks were enough to drown out a storm.
What is wrong with me?
The notion popped into his head, as startling and un-welcome as a whore at a wedding. It sat there with the early morning racket playing around it.
‘Give us a fag, Bromley!’
‘Fuck off—smoke your own!’
‘You tight bastard!’
‘That’s enough there, Sykes.’
Nothing wrong that a stiff drink and a bit of quiet wouldn’t cure. The wind-rushing stillness of the moors, with only the buzzards for company.
‘Move along there. We don’t want our breakfasts to get cold, do we lads?’
‘It’s always bloody cold anyway.’
‘Yesterday’s bloody leftovers, I shouldn’t wonder.’
Oh, Christ, that fucking noise! Couldn’t they shut their mouths just for one morning—just once?
The sweat was trickling down his face and his back felt like l sun-heated sand under the heavy tunic and shirt. Too warm—too warm in here. Too many people, all of them fucking scum, criminals, wasters. Wouldn’t they love it if hard man Willoby cracked up in front of their eyes? They’d fucking cheer.
Here it comes again.
Mustn’t, mustn’t. Must not. All that money spent keeping them here, just so John Willoby could walk up and down this brick and iron hell in a stifling coat, with a black hat squeezing down on the bones of his skull.
He groaned aloud, the sound lost in the morning cacophony. The world blurred, and he had to grip the metal handrail that bordered the catwalk with both hands.
Sweet Christ, what’s wrong with me?
It was the voices again, the voices in his head, except that they were louder this time, more insistent. He could never understand the words. They were speaking foreign gobbledygook.
No one else heard them. They were his alone. He had carried them for months now, as some men carried a hidden cancer. Ghosts, spirits, demons—they haunted him like a conversation heard through a thin wall.
Like maggots squirming through his brain.
He lurched into motion. He had to get off the wing, back to the staff quarters. He had to get away to where he would not be seen.
A prisoner in his path was shouldered aside and left sprawling, shouting obscenities. Willoby was almost running.
He hit the bars and wire of the catwalk door with a crash, and for a second a scream was gagging in his throat, his eyes wide and white, the voices crawling across his mind; incomprehensible, alien, impossible. He scrabbled frantically at the bars, then remembered his keys. The voices were shouting now, shrieking—and underlying the unknown words was the growing thunder of hoofbeats. Galloping horses, a squadron of them coming up behind him. He heard a high, aching whine, like that of a child, but never thought of it as coming from his own, tightening throat.
His keys, his keys. He jabbed a shaking hand into his pocket, dropped them to the length of their chain, got them again, stabbed them clattering against the lock.
‘Open, open, Christ God. Open you bastard...’
The hoofbeats were right at his back. They were an earth-trembling roar.
The key turned, the door opened and he fell through it, crawled forward and kicked it shut behind him with a clang. Shutting them out.
Safe now. Safe here.
His cap was off, lying beside him. His chest was easing. He felt as soaked and racked as a sprinter. The voices were a final, whispering echo that died into soothing silence. Nothing. Nothing there but the prison noises.
Oh my God, what is wrong with me?
‘What have you done to him?’ the Prince asked curiously. ‘What was it you put into his mind to make him act so?’
‘What was it I asked you to think of, sire?’
‘Why, the—the manhunt, the pursuit of the traitor Carberran. Is that then what he was seeing?’
‘Partly. The link is tenuous yet. This is a shadowed land we walk in, my Prince. Best we tread slowly, and as softly as a cat’s footfall.’
‘Indeed. It is a hideous land also. This man, though, he interests me. We will stay with him. He may suit our purpose.’
For the first time in fourteen years Willoby did not complete his shift, and the occasion was like a mark of shame, following him as surely as the puzzled looks of his colleagues. He had walked these corridors hung-over, bronchitic and exhausted, but hitherto had always lasted out his eight or twelve hours, even if it meant Howard covering for him whilst he groaned over a toilet rim. Not this time. His ailment was different, and no longer possible to ignore.
The prison receded. It was a cold winter’s morning, the keen air spearing in through the open car windows and watering his eyes, clearing the fug from his brain. He had a few miles of open countryside to motor through before plunging into the sprawl of the city where he had his home.
And he had time, time to play with. The thought made him pause with his lighter halfway to his mouth, the cigarette drooping and forgotten.
Why, then, was he hurrying?
To get back to Jo? She was still at work. Maria was at school. There was no one else.
The novelty of the situation fascinated him. He slowed down, lit the cigarette, dragged deeply.
Open moorland, the end heights of the western Pennines. It was all around him, a bleak, sombre bowl of vast emptiness, populated only by sheep and stone walls. He stopped the car, opened the door and laboured out.
Cold, bloody cold. The wind caressed his thinning hair, sped the glow of his cigarette into a tiny, bright hell.
This is better. This is better for the head, for everything.
The morning’s events slid to the back of his mind. There was something about this country that soothed him. The city scab was a distant blur on the horizon. Here the fells swelled from streams and rivers to green slopes, then up to tops purple-grey with heather and rock, desolate.
This feeds my soul, he thought, and tossed away the cigarette, drew in a big lungful of the sharp air.
Someone on a horse behind him.
He turned, feeling the hoofbeats through his soles. They drew near, then faded again. The chink of harness had been audible, and the animal’s breathing.
Except that there was nothing there.
Strangely, he was not alarmed. Nothing threatened him here. The noise was not burrowing into his head in the same way it had in the prison.
Ghosts? Poltergeists? Hallucinations?
And the calm broke. A car flew past, the passenger’s face a white blur. Willoby felt the first hard spots of rain.
Am I going mad?
No answer in the rain or the flanks of the fells. He smiled; an expression that, unknown to him, chilled prisoners and fellow warders alike.
Big Will, a basket case.
Visions of himself strait-jacketed and drooling, banging his head against a padded wall.
The smile faded.
I need a drink. Several.
And then drive Maria home from school? She’d love that, her dad smelling like a brewery. Fucking teenagers. You give them the best days of your life but nothing is ever enough.
‘My daughter hates me,’ he said aloud. The smile again. Several drinks. Several and several. Maybe Jo would be in the mood tonight.
Quite suddenly, he ached to hold his wife, be held by her. And he laughed, running his big fingers over his face. I must be mad, he thought. When had he last screwed his wife? No-
When did we last make love?
What was in his head, messing up his thoughts like this? These stupid questions.
A vision of Jo as a fresh-faced girl, dark, cropped hair and that upturned nose. The light in the brown eyes, long ago. She was blonde now, for she had hated the grey hairs. Blonde and tired, and she wore too much make-up.
He shook his head, a big mountain of a man running to seed, standing baffled by the roadside with the rain pelting down on him unheeded.
Get a grip, Willoby.
Just for an instant, he caught a glimpse of some internal desolation, his mind’s skeleton parading across a wide expanse of pallid years. The rain dripped into his eyes and he knuckled them dry.
Wasting fucking time, here. Good drinking time. He climbed back into the car, puffing slightly as he fastened his seatbelt, and slammed the door.
See a doctor?
The rain pattered tinnily on the roof, blurred the view beyond the windscreen. An odd sound came out of Willoby’s throat, a strangled sob, a whimper. He choked it into silence. His face as he started the car was that of a maniac.
Cold air ripping past my face. I am on a horse, full gallop, the ground an undulating blur below the stirrups, my ears full of hoofed thunder. In my right hand is a heavy sword. I am pursuing something.
A man, stumbling among the heather ahead.
Words shouted back over my shoulder—unknown words full of exultation. I bend over in the saddle, predatory, eager.
—Swing the sword at the man’s head and feel the jar and click of impact, the blade wrenching free of the skull as I rein in, laughing.
Other riders—a crowd of tall figures on champing horses, sun glittering off metal everywhere.
They dismount, hack at the body and toss the bleeding chunks aside until there is nothing left—a slick, broken place in the heather, the shine of entrails, the white glint of bone.
And I laugh again, kiss my bloody sword blade and taste the coppery shine of man’s-blood.
‘Tallimon!’ the others are shouting. ‘Tallimon First Prince!’
And he was awake, open-eyed in the darkness of the conjugal bed, I0 breathing softly with her back to him.
He licked his lips, fully expecting the butcher smear to be there still, but they were dry as cotton.
The click and crunch of steel in bone...
He sat up, pressed his fingers into his eyes and watched the spangled lights dance in the darkness.
‘Bastard dreams,’ he said softly. A solitary car whooshed past below the bedroom window. The streetlights cast an amber rectangle into the room.
He got out of bed and padded out of the door in his underpants, silent as a cat despite his size.
And paused on the dark landing, suddenly fearful.
What was out there, in the dark—what lurked I0 the lightless corners?
The electric light banished the shadows. He screwed up his eyes against it, cursing under his breath. Another broken night—what he’d give for a blank night’s sleep: ten hours of nothingness to restore the thinning fibre of his nerves.
See a doctor?
Yes—and get a bottle of pills and a pat on the head, some medical gibberish about stress, or insomnia. Bollocks, all of it.
It’s my mind, he thought. Nothing belongs in there but me. My problem alone.
His throat rasped, parched as cardboard.
What the hell time was it? Three, four? Time to get up soon, get ready for another early shift.
And his spirits plummeted. Back to that bloody madhouse. He grinned weakly at his mind’s choice of words.
I could take the day off. Ring in sick.
See a doctor.
‘Well?’ the old man asked.
‘Yes. He suits our purpose admirably. There is that undercurrent of desperation in him. It will see him through it. Such men do not greatly care whether they live or die, so long as they can do something different to what they have been doing.’
‘Such men are dangerous, unpredictable—this one at least is not easy to control. Can you be so sure you will master him?’
‘I am the King’s heir.’ Sneering. ‘Am I not fit for anything?’ ‘All the same, sire, he troubles me, this man. He is like a mountain cat pacing a cage.’
‘He is past his best. His youth is gone, but he has enough strength for what we want.’
‘He may yet surprise us with his strength.’
‘I may yet surprise you with the finity of my patience. This is the man. He is mine.’
Later in the dark morning Willoby did ring in sick, said he had caught a bug of some kind—even held his nose as he spoke to the phone, like a schoolboy intent on truancy. Howard would cover for him, he told the duty officer. Howard was a good man.
Relief washed over him in a tepid wave. A free day. It was what he needed to set him on his feet.
The winter sun had not yet risen when he reJoined his wife in bed. He was freezing, his feet numb with pacing the cold living room downstairs, and he pushed up against her until her warmth oozed into him through the nightdress. She shifted in her sleep at the cold under the duvet. A heavy sleeper, Jo—not a morning person, whereas he had always been easy to wake, bright as the sun in the mornings. In the beginning it had been a game of his, to wake her with touches, caresses. He burrowed closer, until they were lying like spoons in the big bed and her buttocks were pressing against his groin. He felt the first stirring, and edged his hand under the nightdress as furtively as an adolescent. Warm, smooth skin, the curve of her hip, the spreading bulge of her belly with the deepening navel.
She twitched like a horse with a fly on it. ‘God’s sake,’ she mumbled, and pushed his exploratory hand away, turning in on herself in the bed.
His erection faded as he drew away, still cold. He felt the familiar surge of anger and sadness, and lay flat on his back with his hard eyes fixed on the ceiling.
But she was awake now, and turned to look at him.
‘What time is it?’ Muzzily, pale hair covering her forehead.
‘Just gone seven.’
‘You’re late. You’ve slept in.’ She blinked, coming slowly to life.
‘I’m not going. I called in sick.’ And yesterday I left early.
She did not know that yet.
‘What’s wrong with you—a cold? Don’t give it to me, for God’s sake.’
‘I... just didn’t want to go in this morning; he said lamely, on the defensive. Anger, irritation at her questions.
She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and asked what was wrong with him again.
I hear things that aren’t there, he thought. I dream of killing people. I can’t ever sleep a night through. And my wife will not let me touch her.
‘Nothing. I’ll get breakfast.’
If there was a thing he liked about early shifts, it was the solitary breakfasts he made himself—breakfast in his case being coffee strong enough to walk on and at least two cigarettes. He loved the peace and silence of the early hours, though it was better in summer when he could watch the sun come up. At such times the city would be almost as quiet as a country village.
But he had barely finished his first cup when Jo came down in a pink dressing gown, yawning and looking frowsty, sleepy. She shouted back up the stairs for Maria to get up for school, and Willoby’s morning quiet died instantly. The television was switched on and began its meaningless noise in a corner. No one looked at it in the mornings; it was just a necessary noise. Jo needed noise, voices, activity around her all the time. She could not stay in a silent room without switching something on. Now she was clattering with the teapot and the toaster, still yawning.
Maria came down. Willoby’s daughter was a slim, pale girl with dark, straight hair she had cropped short. She reminded Willoby of the wife he had married . Fourteen—the worst age in life—she spoke to him rarely, and then mostly in a mixture of wariness and defiance. Willoby was not sure if it was entirely their fault, but there was a wall between his family and himself. It had been growing silently for years, a little at a time, and the little things that would have helped break it down had been too much trouble. Now it was a high, massive, thing. He was no longer sure there was a way through it. Worse, he was no longer sure he cared.
‘Home sweet home,’ he said quietly, draining his cup. No one heard him.
‘Maybe you should see a doctor. You’ve not been sleeping lately,’ Jo said over her shoulder.
‘You noticed, then.’
‘Of course I noticed. You need a pill or something, something to knock you out at nights.’
His face darkened. ‘I don’t need any fucking pills.’
‘You watch your language in front of the child!’
Willoby looked at his daughter. Maria was smiling into her cornflakes—the same smile, had he known it, that he used himself. It was unpleasant on her young mouth.
‘I don’t need a doctor, just a—a rest for a while, that’s all.’
‘You’ll not get much of that without a line from the GP.’
‘I know, I know.’ He stared at her as she buttered her toast. His wife’s face was small, oval. Without make-up the deep lines at the corners of her mouth were more visible and her lips were thinner. She plucked her eyebrows, which he hated. When they had met she had possessed thick, dark brows, wonderfully expressive. She had looked like a cross between a pixie and a witch.
‘Nothing.’ He poured himself more coffee. No one else in the house drank it. Jo preferred tea and Maria drank only milk and water—and cider, he suspected.
‘What are you going to do all day?’
He looked up, surprised. ‘I don’t know. I never thought—‘
‘You can take Maria to school, then. It’ll save me a journey, and you know I’ve never liked that road in the mornings.’
He nodded. By God, if the prisoners could only see him now. Big hard Willoby bobbing his head to this shrill woman as though he was a schoolboy. His fingers tightened round the coffee cup.
Wind in my hair, cold and fresh as spring—thundered hoofbeats—the sound of a cavalry squadron at the canter; and a guidon cracking in the air. What is the device upon it? A mountain?
‘John—John; are you listening to me?’
He shook his head, baffled. ‘What was that?’
‘I said Maria’s got something to tell you. Go on, love.’
‘It doesn’t matter—he doesn’t care.’
‘Of course he does, love.’
Willoby collected his unravelling wits with an effort. ‘What? Tell me, for God’s sake.’
His daughter looked at him sullenly. ‘I’ve been picked for the netball team, so I’m staying on this evening for the training.’
‘There you are,’ Jo said triumphantly, but Willoby stared closely at his daughter and she dropped her eyes.
‘Netball is it? Mind if I watch the game?’
Her eyes were huge, outraged. ‘No you can’t—no one else’s parents will be there. It’s only a try-out.’
Willoby smiled at her. She lied well, like himself. To his surprise he found that he did not care about this, either. He leaned forward into his daughter’s face.
‘I hope he’s nice.’
Maria flushed crimson, and her glare turned into an icy smile.
‘I’ll be late for school.’ She swept out of the kitchen like a princess.
‘I don’t know why you do it to the girl,’ Jo complained, eating toast.
Willoby looked at her, full of sardonic amusement. ‘Maria can take care of herself, I think.’
‘She’s only fourteen! And I don’t like the crowd she hangs about with.’
What parent ever did?
‘When I was her age all I wanted was to be a soldier,’ Willoby said. Jo rolled her eyes with a here-he-goes-again look.
Maybe it would have been easier if he had had a son. Maybe not. Knowing Willoby’s luck his son would have been a mincing little faggot. He laughed at the thought, and the laugh turned into a churning cough. He swore.
‘They’ll kill you yet, those things,’ Jo told him, nodding at the cigarette.
‘Probably.’ He paused, and asked, genuinely curious, ‘Would that make you happy?’
She blinked. ‘What?’
‘Me turning up my toes.’
‘My God, John! What a thing to ask.’
‘Just wondered, dear.’ He leaned over the table and kissed her crumb-grained lips. She wiped her mouth, staring at him. He grinned. There was an odd sense of carelessness in him this morning. He truly didn’t give a monkey’s, and he had a day of his own stretching out before him like a jewel in the dark of a mine.
‘Don’t forget to take Maria to school.’
See a doctor.
‘What are you going to do all day?’ This time she was genuinely curious.
‘Frankly my dear, I have no idea.’ Thank Christ, he thought.