The first half of a story about Magic Mushroom misuse, mental illness.
EE-lee: variation of Eli "ascended, uplifted, high"
Tom hadn’t considered them for years, not really, but he would occasionally search online to see how things had changed, especially with the law. Back in the day though, he would head off to a strange place called Priddy in the Mendip Hills, and here pick them prodigiously, while the grungy types grazed the same patches to oblivion for measly reward, trampling other rare and endangered species much to his annoyance. Magic Mushrooms, Shrooms, Liberty Caps; Tom also knew them as Psilocybe semilanceata. He knew a lot about fungi, including how to cultivate them, as he’d once done from the spores of a Mexican species known as ‘Yucatánas’; something the average connoisseur of psychedelics would consider akin to alchemy.
It was funny because back then, the law in the U.K. proscribed the dried, but not fresh fruitbodies of Liberty Caps, and not the active ingredients psilocin and psilocybin. Then it was Class A for both chemicals, which made picking shrooms akin to picking MDMA berries from the Ecstasy Bush, something farmers who’d contended with dodgy trespassers must have learnt about and taken further umbrage at. Growing them was no better: they’d gone for the spores too, which Tom felt was cunning and unfair. The laws abroad were a farrago, with some countries as strict, most less; legal in parts of America, which Tom felt made Britain seem backward – unless perhaps you’d tried them.
What really interested him now was how to import them, and take them once more and for good. It just came out of the blue, like some old residue in his spinal column had woken up and wanted to party – if you believed that myth. It wasn’t like some raw chemical craving from the bad drugs, as Tom imagined their rapacity; it was transcendent, like a quandary that was itching to be resolved. It wasn’t the season for ages, and he didn’t want to go traipsing around fields even when it was. He wanted them now, or at least soon. The omniscient internet beckoned.
Of course, to import them was no different than picking them, and he soon found websites that wouldn’t play ball, not with shrooms, and the ones that claimed to he didn’t much trust. But there was so much besides, veritable emporiums of the most exotic and outlandish stuff, like: Peyote, Hawaiian Baby Woodrose, Kratom, Blue Lotus, Ayahuasca, even the extract of the Colorado River toad, containing: 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin. And plenty more, with their zany commendations. This wasn’t the sort of stuff he had in mind; it evoked images of deranged witchdoctors and jungle shamans, and even cannibals.
After some hours of fruitless searching, he was beginning to review his options as, A: giving up, B: trying something different – other than toad – like Ayahuasca, or even Fly Agarics, C: making do with dope, and postponing this till September and having a crack at the Mendip fields, farmers or not. Then came Ely’s Highs, which seemed to be the psychotropic apothecary at the end of the line, though who really knew.
The entry page was just a black background, the name in lime green, above a photo of a giant totem resembling a fly agaric (nicely hewn) around ten ft high and perhaps four ft wide about the red and white-spotted cap, somewhere in North West America judging by the Douglas fir woods setting. It was pretty amateurish, but that could be seen as good and honest. Clicking ENTER elicited an animated technicolour shimmer-effect suggestive of hallucination, which segued to a photo-scene of a stalky harvested crop field, behind a youngish farm-boy every bit the cornpone cliché, with his dungarees, check shirt, straw hat, and stompin’ boots; attractive with his platinum blonde hair and cornflower-blue eyes. But lo, clamped between his teeth was a very-long-stemmed clay pipe, actively issuing purply-greenish smoke. He was mugging for the camera anyway, but then the right side of his face screwed up and winked, and after a few seconds reset, winked, and so on. Then, there was what he was holding between his hands at waist height. It looked like an asteroid, creamy white, about the size of a dinner plate. Tom knew what it was, the scientific name too: a giant puffball.
Whoever this was, Ely himself probably, whether contrived or not, he looked like the sort of person who partook of the wares herein, which was a good sign (never trust a skinny chef). Tom wondered if he kept the best stuff for himself, or wanted others to share the magic, whatever that was. But there seemed no way into this realm of his. And it seemed that this Ely – Ely? Whoever – was nothing more than an infantile hoaxer. Then as if Ely, or whoever, had anticipated such sentiments, a MENU icon appeared, and Tom clicked it hoping that maybe he could end this mad pursuit here with Ely.
There was no header, footer, or navigation section. It was just the wares, good photos thereof, arrayed in frames, four across and five down. Two offerings were obviously shroomy, while the other stuff looked to be mostly herbal, or thereabouts, and not a little witchy. It was shrooms all the way, but everything in here was worthy of perusal. The first item Option 1, he clicked and it enlarged for closer inspection. It was a fuzzy green mass of what could only be mould, growing on some substrate in a petri dish. It reminded him of the apocryphal Tannis root from Rosemary’s Baby, which although unseen, he envisaged as not rhizomic, but thus. The description read: Unknown and mysterious species of fungus isolated from cellar walls 6-21-2007. Smoke or eat. Effects: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious + dreamy. Price $14 per10g + P&P.
Hilarious. Tom moved on to Option 2, which resembled a stock cube, though it was an alarming shade of blue. It was: Fermented Coltroot paste. Used by Geechee in their ceremonies. Smoke only. Effects: wondrous dreamyastralboomboom; psychodiabolical if abused. Price $8.20 each + P&P (only forty left!).
He laughed so much the whiskey went down the wrong way and he spluttered, spraying the monitor. This Ely called to mind Mad Ely in Bath city centre, the one who dressed as the Mad Hatter, impersonated the Mayor, and assumed the non-existent role of Town Crier. Ely was a good name for a mad person, and not much else. And this was just a joke shop; the mould could be anything, and contain substances that could be toxic, or antibiotic, or, possibly hallucinogenic, but who would dare find out, apart from, Ely? Not he. As for the Coltroot, a quick search turned up nothing, although it could be a very idiomatic term, for something quite effective, or not at all; maybe it was an emetic or a laxative, or both – Ha-Ha!
But now scrolling right down, he noticed there was a footer to the page. There was a click counter currently registering 307,416. And there were terms and conditions, even a money back guarantee –??? Contact details: Enumclaw, Washington State. There was even a company registration number. But no phone number.
Anyhow, his mission was clear, and it did not concern the likes of Witch’s Butter, Devil’s Hornpipe, Wendigo Nuts, or Enchanter’s Nightshade, with all their bizarre, and gimcracky encomiums, including a ‘Reality Transplant’.
The first of the shrooms he could see were fresh examples of those Yucatánas he’d once grown, which certainly worked, but were a good deal less potent than the native Liberties, twenty of which could bring about a six-hour trip to wonderland – typically! Ah, the classic trip: serious elation, like…that feeling you get from taking off in an airliner – probably more like a jet fighter – and for hours; and then there was all the distortion, all the senses, psychical warping, genius.
He pinned his hopes on the other clutch of specimens, another equally toadstooly affair, but different morphology, a species he did not recognise at all (he felt he should though). He did not doubt for a second they were bona fide psilocybes because A, there was the bluing about them where the psilocybin had oxidised from bruising (a dead giveaway for the genus), and B, they looked so goddamn weird, with their caps like the conical hats worn by paddy field farmers, but with a pronounced folded nipple at the apex, atop wavy stalks. They looked like something out of Fantasia, which was obviously conceived on magic mushrooms, or some such. They were described as Psilocybe okanaganensis (a plausible scientific name). They were: grown from specimens picked in Nickel Plate Park in British Columbia. They were: eat only. The psilocybin content was listed and it was: circa 2% (now we’re talking). The effects were: spandangling cosmic bigbang epiphany + primal-electric-love-thrum (whatever). $12.15 per 10g. It was: Grown to order, about month’s wait. Fruitbodies freeze-dried. There had to be some kind of lab. Anyhow – Sold.
Clicking the ‘Purchase’ tab on that product window went to a payment page that was just like any other, but for the hallucinatory shimmery graphics again after paying, like a farewell. Although it seemed like a farce, Tom felt he’d gotten enough entertainment out of the experience to justify his spend of $29.37, whether anything arrived or not, or whether it worked – probably not.
It was just shy of six weeks when the clap of the letterbox summoned him, and he lurched down the hallway to blearily discover that this time a package had arrived, and with none other pending, it seemed Ely had delivered. He put his mug of scotch on the what-not and stooped to pick the elastic-bound bundle, nearly losing his balance as his socks slipped on the parquet, frantically grabbing the doorknob for support. As he repaired to his makeshift lair, he discarded the unwelcome letters like cards dealt, his attention drawn to the American airmail stamp and Washington State postmark talismanic on his prize. It seemed so light (freeze-dried), yet so profound with possibility it might have weighed a kilogram; but that was assuming Ely hadn’t scammed him, or even made a mistake. By now, he was seriously considering trying whatever had arrived, even toad.
He placed the tawny package on the computer desk where this had all begun, and took two large gulps of whisky from the litre bottle to calm his nerves in anticipation of the outcome good or bad. The address was handwritten in biro in a neat but childish fashion, and this imparted a sense of material connection between him and the purveyor, like an autograph, or even a handshake. Without further ado he scissored off one of the ends of the padded envelope now steeled to consume whatever remotely organic substance lay within. But first, he prised out an attendant little slip of paper which was lime green, and on it was printed in black: Ye Of Little Faith. Option 17. Not For Human Consumption. ;). Pax Vobiscum. Ely.
Tom knew the Latin. He tittered; this was like A-Level results again: what is in the envelope? Oxford, or not-Oxford, joy or despair – like a drug in its own right, an hors d’oeuvre. Yes, out you come my sweet…Oh, good – OH-YESSY-YES-YES-YES! The baggie was stuffed, with slightly glossy, blue/grey flaky stuff, and little spindles that had to be the now desiccated stems of the shrooms. And when he opened it, that smell, the clincher, a smell like no other, like, like…the smell of magic itself, of cartoons – like Oxford.
Although there were no warnings printed on shrooms – notwithstanding red, and the white spots; or cyan-blue – it probably wasn’t wise to mix alcohol with them, not given what he’d already had, but what was another glug! Actually, from experience, shrooms had a great way of taking over and regulating things, as if they wanted a smooth ride too.
Down the hatch.
Whoa – He was somewhere else that was for sure, a dimension of consciousness like a no man’s land, not quite nod. A demented crescendo of bells summoned him in here with the stridency of a fire alarm. Rousing was like extricating from a tar pit, but awake, lifting his face from the keyboard, confronted by the dead monitor, he realised his whereabouts, but was otherwise oblivious to the circumstances. A familiar taste, and tingling in the mouth, and general obfuscation suggested the bottle had once more been abused, and there it was in a commensurately incriminating state of depletion. He was expecting to feel hungover, but instead he was starting to feel high. His vision became blurred, cleared, wavered. The cacophony of bells seemed outside now, the village church perhaps – but if so, the ringers were loons.
Pure Class A rapture. If you weren’t expecting it (let alone the other aspects of a trip) it would probably be very alarming – at least at first. And at first, he was slightly perturbed, but then he saw the slip of paper and the baggy – then he realised he had consumed the lot! Strapped in for the ride then, as was the plan, and no holds barred.
He thought he knew the drill with shrooms, they were wondrous; unless things went wrong, which shouldn’t happen, as long as you were sensible. One time, things did go wrong, and that time was as bad as all the good times put together. Anyone in the know would have shuddered at such a plan, not that he would have cared. It was around 11pm he set off for the woods, his stomach already tingling with the effects. Having heard they were haunted, he would go and find out, in a state of mind much more conducive. He found a spot amongst some old beeches where you could see the full moon through the branches, and there was much Tawny owl hooting to add to the ambience. This time, the moon looked like a panda bear, with kohled eyes and silver fur. Enchanted with it, he was waving at it and thought it was smiling back at him, even replying. Then it didn’t look so cute, was growling. And someone was crashing through the woods, wildly imprecating. She was a variety of Witch, you could tell that. Her right eye was milky opaque with disease. He cowered as she tried her spells on him, and when that didn’t work, she screeched and chased him over the ley line beyond the range of her curdling oaths. The next day, as he was removing the briar thorns, he noticed a new mole on his inner thigh.
There was safety beyond the ley lines here. But the bellringing was like a headache rendered wall of sound: it was inside then outside and back as if it couldn’t decide its whereabouts.
Soon time had ceased to function, a la blackholes, which was understandable. Then the warped sense of smell, a classic symptom, came online. There was a peculiar tang, protean, with offerings such as burnt rubber, now disinfectant, now stinkbug, now something utterly unique, and so on. And the damned ringing was back inside with a vengeance, rising and falling, all over the shop, as if competing with the euphoria, but losing. It was a mixed picture for sure, as attested by the beaming smile on his face, slightly askew.
His pupils resembled gunbores by the time the other form of aberration came to pass, the main event really for many. Notwithstanding the variable blurring, things in general were morphing nicely, subtly at first. Then he noticed his hands. Waving his right, it emanated a lambent rainbow effect, trailing flame the hues of burnt metal salts in a Roman candle. And then it ceased, as if the magic locus had relocated, to somewhere else. Like the monitor, which was old-model, which he would have accepted resembled an eye stone cold. He studied its dull glassy surface, something about its nothingness suggestive of the vacuum within. And nothing more – but Ely’s stuff was better than that.
The screen came alive, turned lime green, then to visual snow. The madly scintillating salt-and-pepper motes had him rapt. It could have been hours he was watching them before he noticed the change. They started rotating and coalesced into a clockwise swirl. As the eye of it contracted, his face met the screen; when his skin touched glass, he snapped back, the swirl reversing and forming an iris. Then the screen turned a putrid yellow. It began shrinking into a disc, a cataract, the rest of that venomous eye infilling from the sides; the rest of the face shrinking into shot. When the nose with its stud appeared, he switched the monitor off. There was a fading banshee-wail, he was sure of that.
The keyboard now. The characters of the keys were aloft and jumbling off the bat, moving amongst one another like in a 3D word game, forming patterns alien yet compelling. They soon restored to their respective keys, the show over. But the keys began bulging out like goggling eyeballs, and when it looked like they were going to pop, they shrank right back into the frame. And what looked like sparking white hot metal, or liquid light, started leaking out like tears, and filled the interstices, until it looked like it would breach the sides. And then it went into reverse, as though sucked right back in.
The G key was different now, there was something under it, peering out. G rose and fell, and stayed up long enough for Tom to make out a pair of cartoon eyes down there, then a pair of stripy antennae popped out; a whole face, a chimerical mix of human and leonine features, like something out of a children’s book. Whatever it was, it looked shy and benign, even cute. He moved his finger towards its little niche, and it disappeared like a garden eel, the other keys joggling according to what must have been its wild course about the keyboard, settling at P, where it went to ground.
He grabbed the paperknife. He knew from experience that shrooms could result in expensive havoc to be regretted after the magic, but it always seemed felicitous to act at the time, absurd not to. And here was an irresistible little escapade – a safari.
Not wanting to startle it, he began at Z, popping it out, sending it flying past his face, then advanced, slowly demolishing the land of Qwerty. Closing in, he was already thinking about how to contain it for later inspection: an upright glass covered by a CD case (he wasn’t really expecting it to be there for long).
By the time he’d removed most of the keys and torn out the plastic frame between them, his quarry was gone, and he was wondering if it had buried itself further into the keyboard, though there didn’t seem enough depth. Now he noticed the green membrane which he assumed was the interface between the keys and the circuitry. It actually looked like star jelly, the mucilaginous cyanobacteria you got on the patio when it was wet. It looked alive, been thriving down here for some time. He touched it and it squirmed like an anemone. It was the obstacle to his quarry, and it had to go. He skewered it, filleted it out and flung it against the wall where it splatted noisily.
And here was a whole little world. A cityscape with sparse great round towers, and flat structures that could be warehouses, or factories, or even malls. Communicating with them throughout the vista were tracks, or roads running in parallels ten or more across, and many smaller lanes crisscrossing and intersecting in the unbuilt tracts, the wasteland. It was like a dystopian Sci-Fi version of L.A. 2119. There were little whizzing dots making up bi-directional traffic. He followed one of them as it sped around downtown, out into the suburbs, wasteland, back again, all over the realm. It was growing with its progress. It was soon an elongated shape, a caterpillar with its stripes and antennae; expanding rapidly now, blocking out its surrounds. The head slowly turned, revealing that same chimerical face, though its mouth was bloody and it boasted shark-teeth, glowering horribly, wholly unsuitable for a children’s book now. A loud POP, and something streaked past his face, screeching and flashing, bouncing off the walls like a bottle rocket, and then it was gone.
He had toppled back on his chair onto the floor. There was a gunpowder tang in the air, and the bells, unnoticed during that adventure, were back and hounding. It was time to leave.
He rose and went for a door. It opened to a void which resolved into a clutter of oddments, including a hoover. He briefly took this medley for the ruins of that miniature circuit city. There was a lot of buzzing in here, an ominous drone. Things clarified more, and he noticed the wasps, a cloud of them, connected to the mouth of the hoover hose in a narrow stream in flux. The mass of them had noticed him and were forming up into a face, a bear; a human. Behind, on the wall, red-and-black spiders were issuing from a fissure, spewing out in all directions. The wasp swarm disbanded and they started to pick them up and fly them towards him, as though recruited. He shut that one and pushed the chair against it.
The only other door in here either led to the corridor and escape, hopefully from the whole deranged house, or he might as well be in an asylum, or mad beyond mad.
He shut the office door with a decided slam, like a book of errant spells. But it was no better out here; it was more like a tunnel, with the walls encrusted with accreted gunk, like soot, or wine cellar mould, covering the paintings, the poker table buried in it like it was spume. There were gooey stalactites dripping onto the carpet, which was a roiling black and ruby murk worthy of the Styx, though evidently solid.
The front door was technically a straight run of under ten metres, but that was pre-Ely. Its size kept changing, yo-yoing back and forth. He looked back towards the kitchen, and it was the same gunky tunnel for a few metres, depthless black beyond. There was no going that way, or back into the lair. He didn’t need to choose, because there was a faint breeze, a rhythmic clatter, and he could see faint lights growing. Either his legs were shaking or it was the floor. A few mournful toots, a rush of fumy wind, and he fled as though propelled like a bullet down a barrel to the fluctuating door.
He slammed into it and fumbled with the lock fearing every microsecond, and when it seemed he was down to his last, a click and turn of the doorknob, and he was out.
He slammed that door like a truly evil grimoire. And here was refuge. Morning in late May, sparse puffy clouds slowly drifting, a little birdsong, a mower or strimmer, a plane engine, a little traffic, but otherwise the peace and quiet of the countryside. Here was the front lawn, the gravel driveway with a fence one side and trees and shrubs on the other, the village beyond. He was still buzzing supremely, but it was sane and normal out here. He sat down on the doorstep.
He guessed there was about six hours of the trip left at most, and then maybe it would be safe to return inside. This was definitely the last throw of the dice; he’d even warn others not to partake, do the school talk thing. Not that he wasn’t enjoying himself right now, far from it, but abashedly.
Hereon, this could be as heavenly as possible. He could see it out in the back garden down by the stream, under the weeping willow, watching for fish, poking around for other things in there, even a benign pixie wouldn’t go amiss. Except there were cats down there, and he didn’t like them right now.
There was also the pub, The Golden Sparrow. It was a short walk on the same side of the road (there was no way he was crossing one). A slow pint or two to keep things ticking over, ease the way down, while reading one of their books. He didn’t feel drunk, and knew that you didn’t really look anywhere near as madcap as you felt. Inane laughing was quite likely, but as long as it was to himself, no one would mind; and anyway, there would be no more than a few topers in there mid-week at lunchtime; also, those half-way house types went there on their stuff, so the way was paved for odd clientele. It had to be too early for that. First thing, he would take a wander around the garden.
He couldn’t stand up. It was as though he were glued to the doorstep. It wasn’t as if his legs couldn’t work, just that they wouldn’t; as though he were stuck up a tree and daren’t move for gravity’s and his safety’s sake. Sat like this he kept trying to move but couldn’t; and then he understood that it was something to do with the threshold, where the concrete frontage met the gravel, and like a precipice, his mind refused to risk it.
But it was beyond ridiculous, and he had to act. It took some feat of cathexis to get up, and using the doorknob as a support, he made it up, and on to the gravel, and straight back again.
The gravel had crunched profoundly and squeaked; and it had felt like his legs were going to collapse, or sink into the ground. The first part was the shrooms alright; but with the legs, it felt purely physical, like he was paralytic, or suffering severe alcohol withdrawal.
Sat back down, he was both scared and high. All things must pass and so must this. He guessed he would be sitting it out here for some time, repeated making essays onto the gravel until his legs felt stable, and the gravel could squeak and crunch all it wanted. It was so odd because everything else seemed so normal. And that should have been the giveaway.
Still with the pub in mind, he checked his watch, a Breitling Super Ocean; it resembled a bad Dali, but at least it was smiling. Oh dear. Round two! This was going to be worse than with the witch. This could be the one. Many recreations had their risks, and mind adulteration was one of them – Icarus came to mind, and the asylum.
Not that it mattered now, but you could tell the time from the position of the sun, which he’d seen askance. With the puffy clouds, fantastical at the best of times, he guessed he was in for a treat.
Why not: a baby’s face in a dandelion corona, like something from a washing powder add, or kid’s TV. Smiling, gurgling no doubt, it looked down on him winningly, bobbing around up there like a cork. Then a glowering cauliflower nimbus blocked it out, its mother perhaps.
He gazed at the lawn assuming it would just be boring and anodyne. The grass was this wavery cartoony green which was characteristic of shrooms, and it was gently steaming. He could stare at that as long as the trip. But he felt he was being watched, from the flowerbed.
Tulips, agapanthuses, delphiniums, narcissi, even peonies were in bloom. They were looking at him, little faces in their petal coifs; flapper girls eyeing him gladly, the peonies especially chichi today – tres épanoui.
They looked so sassy while swaying in sync. “Ain’t he the bee’s knees” a narcissus cooed, and all of the flowers laughed like tinkling broken glass. A Miss Peony fluttered her petals and anthers, and nodding said, “Hey big-timer, up for a little barney-mugging? I got allll the sugar, hummingbird” then giggled. “He’s mine”, “No, mine”, “Mine, mine, mine” “Heee’s Miiiine, you slunges”…the lot of them bickered.
Tom closed his eyes and blocked his ears. ELY! He screamed inside. “Ye of Little Faith” the flowers replied, in a taunting Munchkin chorus, which sounded inside too. Then silence, and in here was a fresh refuge, it seemed; but he guessed that that would change – the outside would find a way in.
The birdsong was absurd, backwards, or even sideways, but it wasn’t too loud. There was a bumblebee flying around near him that was wearing a waistcoat, top hat, and boasted a monocle. It dawned on him that if things didn’t sort themselves out, he might have to get help, call someone: parents, a friend, even 999 – even if it ended with him in an asylum. It also occurred to him that there might be someone else on the other end of the phone, not that he had one on him.
As if on cue, he felt a twinge, and tugging from above and behind, like a tidal pull. Like when he used to stare at the sun as a child, drawn to the blinding torment, acceding when resistance was even worse than the sun, he now relented. But it was the other one.
It isn’t out during the daytime much, not in its full glory; today its vestige looked like a pill dissolving in the hazy blue. He gazed at it wondering what was so exigent. It was just the moon, ghostly yes, but nothing more. But of course it wasn’t, because the moon doesn’t stare back.
It was all in there. The pretty young thing, they had poisoned her eye with a magpie’s beak when she wouldn’t join their coven, made her one anyway. Her rage, she had taken it out on innocents over the centuries. It howled up there on the space blown surface like an overamped seashell. It was bone; it was cataract. He was the first to blink. He wrenched his gaze away, clutching his head. The pain usurped the high like a knife through butter. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and ears, himself off from it. Then he was fine. High again.
There was pounding on the door from the inside and other worrying noises, and he no longer trusted it. He did consider peeking through the letterbox, but thought that would surely break the seal, do something in there’s bidding – let it out. It was time to leave here too. He tried his feet again, and up, tested the gravel like a cat pawing water. No; it was probably quicksand, or a pitfall. He was scared and buzzing in varying measure.
The flowers were dead, their petals withered, foxed and falling off. He was glad of that. He decided that it was best to return his focus to the lawn, which was still that virid-flamy green and steaming, but no worse so. Five or so hours of that then, and back into the house, and never again, and...
He burst into laughter and it echoed like in a cave. What if someone should come down here? He wasn’t expecting any visitors; but imagine a party canvasser? Or, even…A Jehovah’s Witness? (they were in town). Oh, and what if Ely came down here! He knew where he lived, and maybe he knew just when he’d taken the stuff, knew everything. He laughed until he cried, tears of alloyed emotions, they were silvery on his cheeks.
It wasn’t too long before the lawn developed a bulge. Moles weren’t strangers around here, but you never saw them at work. The grass broke, and soil gently spewed out. A mole was O.K., it could even have spectacles, but if it was one, it was a whopper. Its hill grew alarmingly now with sods tumbling down, all this in a jerky fashion like a special-effects scene from a primitive movie. It wasn’t a mole, it was a hat, one with a bobble. Now a head, humanoid, popping up like a mushroom. The back of the neck. The ground heaved; shoulders, a stripy red and black T-shirt. The figure was stuck at elbow height. It shimmied violently like the ground was its egg, there was a rumble and it sprung out in a spray of dirt and landed on its feet. Tom was too stunned to consider this anything other than real.
Here was the rest of the figure, with blue jeans and black boots; not quite five feet tall. It turned to him, and its face was that of a beardless gnome, with a fixed waxy complexion, eyes like black marbles. It walked over to the drive, turned back to Tom and beckoned him in one motion with its right arm, and ran up the drive. Tom leapt off the doorstep as if he was slackly strung to that arm, running to catch up, his legs now pounding full steam.
The gnome was at the top of the drive, where the pavement began, waiting for Tom. It turned left up Chapel Lane towards Devizes Rd when Tom was around twenty feet away, in tow.
Tom wasn’t surprised to see the old couple on Chapel Lane, but this was John and Myrtle Harrison with their dog Max, all of whom should have been dead over ten years ago. He slowed down and observed them, their cartoony-flamy-green faces, badly decayed, though intact enough to manage a joint smile, and even “Morning Tom”, which sounded as corrupted as their flesh. As ever, Max tried to jump up on him, he looked like roadkill.
He found his guide was waiting a little along Devizes Rd at the head of a path known as the drung, which headed down to and over the stream that ran through his own garden, and then up steps to Barrant’s Lane. It was little used and in parts overgrown with nettles and brambles, which the gnome barged though ethereally, followed by Tom, painlessly stung and scratched through his pyjamas.
They passed Old Telford’s place, which having long fallen into ruin, now resembled a Roman villa very authentically indeed. Further on, the gnome had stopped on the old clapper bridge looking downstream.
Tom got within twenty feet of it, wary of getting too close to the bizarre excrescence. Its skin was now light blue, as if glowing from within; and it was developing a net-like pattern on the neck, like reticulation. It looked more and more like a fungus as he evaluated it. The blue was glowing stronger, and it reached a point where he felt mesmerically drawn to it, to touch its skin, as if something climactic would happen – the ending of the trip. Moving slowly, hand held out, he was a metre away, when it turned to him, turned back, walked over the bridge and simply vanished.
Down here was a special place, high or not, and Tom was very high. The bridge was composed of two great sarsen stones laid by druids, according to lore. It certainly looked like the work of druids, and old enough; the stone was worn by feet into two depressions, one of which formed a puddle when it rained, and another alike, was worn all the way through just a touch, so that when the stream flooded, the water rose up through it. It was a place of ghosts, fairies and willow-the-wisps as far as some villagers were concerned. And every force had been through here from the Romans to Cromwell’s New Model Army.
Occupying the gnome’s place Tom was looking downstream. The water was briefly iridescent as if polluted by petrol, but the colouration had depth, like those earlier flames on his hand. Soon, there were fish coming upstream, just a few, and they were nothing like the occasional tiny brook trout you expected in there; they were far too big and looked like they’d come from the sea. Their number swelled to maybe twenty, until it resembled a mini Alaskan spawn run, with the fish crammed together and mostly out of water. He recognised cod, mackerel, ray, gurnard among their number. The chaotic huddled mass pushed under the bridge and stalled a little past it, and it looked like they would die there. But the water started rising from downstream rapidly, forcing them up. A new contingent of different species from elsewhere in the seas came with the next surge, notably a small tuna swimming on its side, its big eye peering upward, and a bloated porcupine fish bobbing around like a spiny ball as it was carried forth. There was the distinct briny smell now, the sea somehow over twenty miles inland. And here came a section of crustaceans atop one another in the procession: lobsters and crabs, claws waving out of the water wildly in the moil, forced back under by the bridge.
A rushing sound and a new surge of water, a mini-bore thrashing at the banks ripping turf and plants out, spilling into the gardens. There followed shore detritus: a loose green glass fish float caged in netting, a sandal, a plastic spade, a water wing, seaweed; driftwood, a large piece, covered with the tentacles of a large squid and an octopus contesting it.
The pulsating water was now nearing the bridge level and spurting through, and there was a slapping sound under it as the air was trapped. It threatened to drench Tom’s feet but he was too absorbed to care yet. But it stopped rising just a few millimetres over the stones, and when it settled, it was a metre deep or more, and well over neighbouring lawns. It fizzed, and cleared, and resembled an aquarium, with little fish darting around, and sea urchins, starfish, shrimps, even anemones settled there. There were two strange visitors down there too, that had to be from the benthic depths. One was a wide-mouthed frilly toad-like fish with a luminous blue light on its head that it flicked around; the other skinny, anaemic, appeared to be on three stilts. Then something darted into view from downstream, a short, squat, stripy eel. It swam up to the toad-like fish and bit a chunk out of its face, sending it reeling. It came to the surface, up to Tom, its head out of water, exposing gnashing cookie-cutter teeth, writhing side-to-side, posturing. Then back down and under the bridge; Tom quickly crossed over but it didn’t pass beyond.
Back downstream, a fog had been building just by Tom’s garden, and he noticed it now. It was rising slowly, as wispy tendrils crept up along the water’s surface, like a stage smoke advance party. As he watched its progress on the stream, he hadn’t noticed it had outflanked him on the left and filled the path the way they’d come, not until it was pooled around his feet, and flowing back into the stream like dry ice vapour. The other way was almost clear, and it looked like he’d be heading up the steps to Barrant’s lane and into the village. But not yet; something in the murky stream had him rapt.
There was a faint thrashing sound on the water. Two diffuse lights encroaching. The thrashing sound was growing, like water being rhythmically beaten. There was a foghorn blast. He could see a shadow in there, something square and as wide as the stream now was.
Up there, where the lane began, a figure was framed in the arch of shrubbery. Backlit in gauzy swirling fog, like someone on a music shoot, she was wearing a variety of long toga, and thin shawl, both lime-green. Her hair was braided in a coif and crowned with a gold leaf band. She had an exotic statuesque beauty, a Helen of Troy. He stared at her but her eyes were looking beyond. He could hear the thing on the stream closing, thrashing and blaring away, about to strike, out of harm’s way. She raised her right hand the thumb upturned. He ran up the steps to her, and into the space she had occupied.
It wasn’t the first time he’d woken up on a beach with little idea of how he’d got there. The first thing he saw was a volcano off the coast, but it resembled a school science project, made of plasticine, and spitting and spewing lava that resembled cherry sauce unconvincingly, was what he thought. He rose and found his feet, and tried to find his bearings – he was alone. It was a pebbly shoreline a few hundred metres deep at most, hemmed in by a steep and beetling cliffline that extended either way for some miles before turning inland out of sight.
He had been feasted on by insects during his slumbers and itched about the welts. His main concern was to move, because if there was civilisation here, it had to be elsewhere, though he doubted any was on offer.
There was a rumble and the sea shook, and his attention was once more turned to the offshore volcano, which was now spewing an ash cloud, and there was lightning in there. But it looked like it had been painted on above the volcanic cone, and badly. He was wondering if he had taken anything, something that was very hallucinogenic, but lacked the buzz. Ho hum, he had to make a move.