Merry Dance: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems

By James G Riley

Short stories

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82
10 mins

MERRY DANCE

I’d been sitting outside the Witch’s Cauldron enjoying a pint of bitter, between bites of crisp pickled onion and mature cheddar cheese. Uninvited, the stranger approached and sat opposite. The battered stovepipe hat made of rabbit felt, once removed revealed a weathered face, heavy eyebrows, a dark stubbled chin. He wore a beige jacket, bleached almost white by the sun; tassels of colored ribbon hung from his shoulders like epaulets, part of the Morris Men’s costume.
On the bench beside him, the stranger placed his fiddle, together with his heavy gabardine coat. From a distance, the garment might be mistaken for a cloak. Admirable apparel against the inclement weather but, on such a pleasant day, over pessimistic I thought.
For a few minutes, he was polite enough to remain silent as he watched the spectacle for me eating a ploughman’s lunch. When I paused to sip my beer, I was offered another pint.
As the Fiddler puffed on his cob pipe, I was drawn into his conversation, becoming captivated by his tale of legends from the dark hills which hung above the valley.
Meal over, I discovered he was heading the same way as myself, and glad of the company, we set off together.
The assent gradually becoming steeper and steeper. My companion seemed unconcerned. He shortened his stride just a little, his only concession to me less used to walking these parts.
At the summit we paused. My face was streaked with rivulets of sweat. My breaths came short and hard. The stranger looked as fresh as when we started. He frowned. Was that a comment upon my mortal frailty?
As I stood, I felt the pull of his deep, penetrating eyes, like swirling whirlpools, sucking me towards him. My mind filled with early childhood images of ghosts and demons, relayed in stories told me before bedtime. Only when he suggested we be on our way was the spell broken.
The Fidler pointed north along the ridge, then east, then south. We would follow the horseshoe for “six miles, six miles more and six more again,” to use his own words.
Reading my face, he smiled as he placed a hand on my shoulder. An act of reassurance no doubt, friendship even. However, I felt a coldness creeping along my arm, to my elbow, to my hand, down to my very fingertips. “Do not be so despondent, lad,” were his words. That was when he made the invitation. “Let’s go this way. It’s a shortcut.”
I had known the man barely an hour, yet, like a puppy, I followed, never questioning, close on his heels.
Sure-footed, agile, like a mountain goat, the Fiddler had no regard to the drop over the edge of the narrow path. Loose stones troubled him not. My companion stepped from rock to rock, his movement reminding me of the earlier Morris Men’s dance. Again, my taste-buds savored spicy pickle and cold beef, as I recalled their merry tune. But my mouth felt dry. At that moment, how I longed to quaff another pint of the local ale.
Gradually he forged ahead of me. Now wearing his gabardine, the wind whipped the coat-tales behind him as the distance opened. Occasionally the stranger would halt, turn, and wave his cloaked arms – fiddle in one hand, bow in the other – in encouragement. Then he was off again, never waiting. I was left to pick my way as best I could.
Soon he was a dot in the landscape, leaving me to contemplate the solitude of my situation. As the wind intensified, dark cloud scurried towards me from the horizon.
The rain, when it came, stung my face like slivers of glass. Despite the thick sweaters and the anorak with the hood pulled over my head, I began an involuntary shiver. If this was his shortcut, I wished I’d taken my chances along the way-marked route. Bending low, I ventured on.
I had been battling along for over an hour. I felt tired, so tired. The rain was joined by mist, which swirled about me like the gossamer veils of dervishes inviting me to join them in a twirling trance. I only caught glimpses of the track ahead. Occasionally I would see the valley floor, far below, but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. I wondered where I was. My companion was long gone, but I doubted if he too was lost.
I had to rest. Stop beside this boulder for just a minute. Snuggle down; gain what shelter it offers. Close my eyes. Rest.

§ § §

 The wind had abated; the air was still. To my surprise, the ground was soft, covered in lush green grass. It was night. A full moon shone in a cloudless sky. A distant stream announced its presence as it tumbled softly over small pebbles. How long I had lain there, I could not tell. By some strange miracle, I had reached the safety of the valley.
The crack of a twig roused me from my languid state. I raised my head a few inches but saw nothing. The noise came again. There, amongst the trees, I perceived the outline of a man. I got to my knees and made to cry out. Dry-mouthed, no sound came save a hoarse croak audible only to myself. By the time I had scrambled to my feet, the figure had crossed behind the stonewall and was lost to view. Leaving my rucksack, I sprinted after him.
Passing through the opened gate, I expected to see him only yards in front of me. To my surprise, there was no one. I stood, waiting, hoping to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. When it came, he was a hundred yards away. How could someone move so quickly?
I chased after him, one-minute losing sight and then seeing him once more. Still he way ahead of me. I felt like the greyhound that never catches the hare.
Soon I was out of breath. I wondered if I had any chance of reaching him.
About to give up, I saw a distant light. Walking now, as I grew nearer, it was apparent its source was the open door of a small stone cottage, the slate roof in disrepair. Whiffs of smoke snaked from the chimney, drifting listlessly to nowhere in particular. Unlike me. I was drawn like a moth to a candle, despite feeling a sense of foreboding.
Not twenty yards from the porch, in the half-light, I saw the man again. A cold shiver, starting at the nape of my neck, went down my whole body to my very toes. I swallowed hard, trying to form spittle in my mouth. As I was about to cry out, an old man came from within the room, halting at the threshold. The pair exchanged greetings.
I froze. I recognized that voice. It was the voice of my companion; the one who had abandoned me upon the mountain. I recognized the name he uttered; it was my name.
The old man replied in my voice. He was I.
At that moment I opened my mouth. I did not speak. I screamed. I was still screaming as I passed my rucksack; still screaming as I regained the narrow path. Only once did I look back. The stranger in his gabardine coat was on the porch, playing his fiddle, as the old man hopped from one foot to another, stepping out the dance of the Morris Men.

§ § §

They found me three days later. A miracle, they said, that I was still alive. Nobody paid much attention to my ramblings. They knew nothing of a lush green meadow, a stream, a copse, or shepherd’s cottage. The valley was as inhospitable as the mountain, offering only outcrops of granite rock with a scattering of stunted bushes.
Shock they said. I’d be all right in a few days.
It took a team of eight to stretcher me up the steep ascent, back on to the ridge. They wondered what had possessed me to take such a dangerous route and why I had strayed from the tourist path. When we reached the road, the ambulance was there, waiting. With croaking voice, I thanked my rescuers. I shook their hands; they shook their heads.
The drive to the hospital would take over an hour. The paramedic, who sat with me, soon ran out of conversation. He resorted to staring out of the window whistling quietly to himself.
Suddenly. I grabbed the man by his arm and shook him in desperation, unable to form my words. It took the medic a minute to calm me down; even longer to understand my request. Why I should be so interested in a tune popular with the Morris Men he could not fathom, but he indulged his patient by singing the words:

The Fiddler, he’ll lead a merry dance,
Whilst mountain storms doth rave.
To show the fool, who takes the chance,
A shortcut to their grave.



THE GREAT PYRAMID

Major Anthony Roberts was not one to loosen his tie. He considered it not the done thing, himself a retired Guards officer and a gentleman. His only concession to the mid-day heat was to briefly raise his Panama hat, and surreptitiously wipe his brow with a handkerchief hastily secreted from his trouser pocket. He considered the whole thing a mistake, from the unplanned last minute trip to Egypt to today’s visit to a street market. All at his dear wife’s insistence, despite her failing health.
“Treasures from the Great Pyramid. You buy? Genuine treasures from the Great Pyramid.” Roberts took no notice of the ill-kempt street vendor. “Twenty pounds. You buy for pretty lady?”
Treasures indeed. I bet they are bits of brass, thought Roberts. The place reminded him of his time during the North Africa campaign. Remove the scent of cordite and the stench of death, and it was still the same dirty, filthy squalor, full of flies. The Bible was wrong. It was not a plague of locusts that had been sent to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but swarms of flies. He knew that personally, for a fact. He hated flies.
“Aren’t they sweet, Tony?” Marion concluded slipping one of the two golden rings onto her finger. She always called him Tony when she wanted something. “Perfect,” his wife declared, holding it up so that the ring caught the rays of the sun, “You would think it was made for me, wouldn’t you dear?”
“You try?” said the merchant, thrusting the second ring under the Major’s nose.
“Go on, dear. Do as he says.” Reluctantly Roberts did as his wife commanded. “Yours is a good fit, too, darling. We simply must have the pair. Please, Tony?”
“Ten pounds!” said the Major, commencing the haggle.
“Twenty!” the merchant replied.
“Fifteen pounds!” exclaimed the Englishman, reaching into the inside pocket of his blazer for his wallet. “Not a penny more,” he added, producing a crisp twenty-pound note.
“Tony, don’t be an old meany.” Marion snatched the pristine piece of paper out of her husband’s hand and handed it over. “Thank you, my man. Come on darling, this way.”
Before the Major was able to argue, she was halfway down the street. Hurriedly he followed, never turning to see the blacked teeth showing through the vendor’s disingenuous grin.

§ § §

The evening meal did not go well. The Major picked at his food, while he brooded over the loss of five pounds. Marion, giving up on her one-sided conversation, protested a headache, and retired early to bed. Alone with his own morose company, and the sounds of the night, Roberts sipped at his whiskey and soda, his sullen mood not improving. At eleven he decided to call it a day.
Once in bed, sleep did not come easily. The alternatives were either to lie awake listening to the rattle of the faulty air conditioning, or open the windows and risk the mosquitoes. He compromised; windows remained closed, fan off. Despite the oppressive heat and Marion’s snores, eventually, he drifted into a fitful slumber.
Waking with a start, he sat up. At the end of the bed stood a figure of a man dressed in an ancient garment, the like he had seen depicted on the walls of Pharaoh’s tomb. Beckoned, the Major found himself elevated from the bed, and then he began gliding across the room. Looking down, his dressing gown had become a robe similar to that of the stranger. Around his neck hung a gold seal. The two men floated to the balcony, and on towards the Great Pyramid, which, in the moonlight, cast a long shadow across the sand.
Once inside, Roberts was taken to an embalming room. He questioned the authenticity of such a chamber inside the tomb, but then anything could happen. After all, he told himself, it was only a dream. He witnessed the embalming of a beautiful princess. He noticed the ring on her finger; similar to his own.
The ceremony, conducted in complete silence, was finally over when slaves placed the mummy in its sarcophagus and closed the lid. Then came movement to his left. He expected to see his former escort, but the face of his companion had changed. He knew the man well. It was his father-in-law, Cheops.

§ § §

Roberts awoke covered in sweat. It was morning. The noise from the bustling street filtered through the window. His head ached. The thought of breakfast caused his stomach to heave. The Major struggled out of bed and reached for the bottle of Scotch. Unscrewing the top, he poured a stiff measure into the accompanying glass. He downed the contents in one go. Feeling better, he decided he needed a shower. Removing the ring, he carefully slipped it into the inside pocket of his blazer and went to the bathroom.

§ § §

“I have taken the liberty of packing your bags, Major,” said the smartly dressed man in a dark lounge suit. “Your car will be along directly, to take you to the airport. Are you ready, sir?” The Major nodded, and the Embassy Official, in turn, nodded to the porter. All three left the room and proceeded to the elevator. They waited impatiently. The Official fidgeted, wringing his hands, shuffling from foot to foot.
At last, he broke the silence. “On behalf of the Embassy, may I take this opportunity to express my deepest…”
There was a pinging noise announcing the elevator’s arrival, cutting off the well-rehearsed speech.
“Yes, yes!” said the Major, displaying some degree of annoyance as he waited for his luggage to precede him.

§ § §

During the five-hour flight of the homeward journey, a stewardess offered Roberts an English newspaper to help pass the time. He found himself leafing through the pages, hardly reading a word. Other things filled his mind. Only when he came to page six did he pause. He reread the headline: REMARKABLE DISCOVERY AT THE TOMB OF THE PHARAOH EXCITES THE ARCHEOLOGICAL COMMUNITY. Intrigued, he read the article in full.

§ § §

Disembarking the aircraft, he felt in a trance. Roberts drifted with the flow of fellow passengers, passing through the Arrivals Lounge and then joining the wait at Passport Control. A smartly dressed young man lightly touched his arm.
“We can’t have you waiting like this, sir, considering the circumstances. Please come with me, Major.”
Roberts made no reply but dutifully followed the public school voice until they reached the head of the line.
“Oi! Don’t you know there’s a blooming queue?” asked a short man with a north London accent.
“Be quiet, George,” said the stout woman at his side. “He’s probably some sort of VIP.”
George looked first at the Major and then sheepishly at his wife. “If you say so Gladys, dear.”
The Major, still lost in thought, took no notice of the conversation. He waited as the Immigration Officer opened his passport, glanced down at the photograph, glanced up at the face, glanced down and read the name: Roberts, Anthony.
The Officer returned the passport, “Thank you, Major Roberts. Everything is in order.”
“Quite so,” said the Major’s escort, referring to the official’s last remark. “This way, sir, I’ll see if I can speed up the collection of your baggage.

§ § §

Professor Abdel Gamel of the Department of Antiquities, Cairo University, spent some time studying the X-ray image. Now it was time to decide whether or not to remove the ring from the mummy’s finger. To do so would damage the bandaging. If left in place, the Professor would forgo examining this unique find in detail.
Gamel went to the window and looked out at the avenue of palm trees. He closed his eyes and imagined the Great Pyramid of long ago with its shiny limestone coating and gold capstone. He tried to picture what it was really like to live in the time of the Great Pharaoh. If only I had a time machine to take me back.

§ § §

The elderly gentleman sat by the open fire, while his daughter fussed, first tucking in the blanket around his legs, before handing over the mug of hot cocoa. Her father did not even say thank you. He was clearly brooding.

“Now you must not let Uncle David upset you so, dad. No matter that he keeps harping on. It was Mum’s dying wish that she be buried in Egypt. You did the right thing.”
Her father nodded and patted her on the back of the hand.
“Yes, Alice dear, I know. I know. Since your mother died, I don’t seem to have the strength to stand up to him. They say you can choose your friends, but not your relations.” He permitted himself a short, forced laughed. “I certainly would not pick David as a brother-in-law by choice. Who would?” Once more he laughed.
Alice bent forward and kissed her father on the cheek.
“Now are you sure there is nothing else I can get you?” she asked preparing to go and supervise the children’s baths.
“No nothing, thank you,” he replied. How much she reminded him of Marion. She looks so much like her mother when she was her age, he thought to himself, permitting himself a smile.
“Okay, then. It’s time I put those two scalawags you call grandchildren to bed.”
She moved towards the door.
“Oh, Alice,” said her father, interrupting her leaving. “Be a dear and look inside the pocket of my blazer.”
Alice went to the wardrobe. “This?” she asked, holding up the gold ring.
“Yes, that’s it. Would you bring it here?”
Once alone, the Major finished his cocoa. He slipped the ring onto his finger, before closing his eyes.
“Marion, my darling; I’m coming,” were his last words, before he fell asleep. As he slept, he dreamed. He dreamed of another place, another time. A time when all that was great was Egypt A time when he, High Priest, Ra, was about to take Marænah, youngest daughter of the mighty Pharaoh Cheops, as his bride.



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