This first story won a British Fantasy Award in 1989. It had some stiff competition, and I count myself lucky to have won. Whether it's frightening or not is for you to decide. If it's entertaining and gives that certain frisson, then I'm satisfied. One thing's for sure: there isn't any blood here. Mushrooms don't bleed.
My great-grandparents, and my grandparents after them, had been Easingham people; in all likelihood my parents would have been, too, but the old village had been falling into the sea for three hundred years and hadn't much looked like stopping, and so I was born in Durham City instead. My grandparents, both sets, had been among the last of the village people to move out, buying new homes out of a government-funded disaster grant. Since when, as a kid, I had been back to Easingham only once.
My father had taken me there one spring when the tides were high. I remember how there was still some black, crusty snow lying in odd corners of the fields, colored by soot and smoke, as all things were in those days in the Northeast. We'd gone to Easingham because the unusually high tides had been at it again, chewing away at the shalecliffs, reducing shoreline and derelict village both as the North Sea's breakers crashed again and again on the shuddering land.
And of course we had hoped (as had the two hundred or so other sightseers gathered there that day) to see a house or two go down in smoking ruin, into the sea and the foaming spray. We witnessed no such spectacle; after an hour, cold and wet from the salt moisture in the air, we piled back into the family car and returned to Durham. Easingham's main street, or what had once been the main street, was teetering on the brink as we left. But by nightfall that street was no more. We'd missed it: a further twenty feet of coastline, a bite one street deep and a few yards more than one street long, had been undermined, toppled, and gobbled up by the sea.
That had been that. Bit by bit, in the quarter century between then and now, the rest of Easingham had also succumbed. Now only a house or two remained--no more than a handful in all--and all falling into decay, while the closest lived-in buildings were those of a farm all of a mile inland from the cliffs. Oh, and of course there was one other inhabitant: old Garth Bentham, who'd been demolishing the old houses by hand and selling bricks and timbers from the village for years. But I'll get to him shortly.
So there I was last summer, back in the Northeast again, and when my business was done of course I dropped in and stayed overnight with the Old Folks at their Durham cottage. Once a year at least I made a point of seeing them, but last year in particular I noticed how time was creeping up on them. The "Old Folks"; well, now I saw that they really were old, and I determined that I must start to see a lot more of them.
Later, starting in on my long drive back down to London, I remembered that time when the Old Man had taken me to Easingham to see the houses tottering on the cliffs.And probably because the place was on my mind, I inadvertently turned off my route and in a little while found myself heading for the coast. I could have turned round right there and then--indeed, I intended to do so--but I'd got to wondering about Easingham and how little would be left of it now, and before I knew it ...
Once I'd made up my mind, Middlesborough was soon behind me, then Guisborough, and in no time at all I was on the old road to the village. There had only ever been one way in and out, and this was it: a narrow road, its surface starting to crack now, with tall hedgerows broken here and there, letting you look through to where fields rolled down to the cliffs. A beautiful day, with sea gulls wheeling overhead, a salt tang coming in through the wound-down windows, and a blue sky coming down to merge with ... with the blue-grey of the North Sea itself! For cresting a rise, suddenly I was there.
An old, leaning wooden signpost said EASINGH--, for the tail had been broken off or rotted away, and "the village" lay at the end of the road. But right there, blocking the way, a metal barrier was set in massive concrete posts and carried a sign bearing the following warning:
DANGER! SEVERE CLIFF SUBSIDENCE. NO VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT ...
I turned off the car's motor, got out, leaned on the barrier. Before me the road went on--and disappeared only thirty yards ahead. And there stretched the new rim of the cliffs. Of the village, Easingham itself--forget it! On this side of the cliffs, reaching back on both sides of the road behind overgrown gardens, weedy paths, and driveways, here stood the empty shells of what had once been residences of the "posh" folks of Easingham. Now,even on a day as lovely as this one, they were morose in their desolation.
The windows of these derelicts, where there were windows, seemed to gaze gauntly down on approaching doom, like old men in twin rows of deathbeds. Brambles and ivy were rank; the whole place seemed despairing as the cries of the gulls rising on the warm air; Easingham was a place no more.
Not that there had ever been a lot of it. Three streets lengthwise with a few shops; two more, shorter streets cutting through the three at right angles and going down to the cliffs and the vertiginous wooden steps that used to climb down to the beach, the bay, the old harbor, and fish market; and standing over the bay, a Methodist church on a jutting promontory, which in the old times had also served as a lighthouse. But now--
No streets, no promontory or church, no harbor, fish market, rickety steps. No Easingham.
"Gone, all of it," said a wheezy, tired old voice from directly behind me, causing me to start. "Gone forever, to the devil and the deep blue sea!"
I turned, formed words, said something barely coherent to the leathery old scarecrow of a man I found standing there.
"Eh? Eh?" he said. "Did I startle you? I have to say you startled me! First car I've seen in a three-month! After bricks, are you? Cheap bricks? Timber?"
"No, no," I told him, finding my voice. "I'm--well, sight-seeing, I suppose." I shrugged. "I just came to see how the old village was getting on. I didn't live here, but a long line of my people did. I just thought I'd like to see how much was left--while it was left! Except it seems I'm too late."
"Oh, aye, too late." He nodded. "Three or four years too late. That was when the last of the old fishing houses wentdown: four years ago. Sea took 'em. Takes six or seven feet of cliff every year. Aye, and if I lived long enough it would take me, too. But it won't 'cos I'm getting on a bit." And he grinned and nodded, as if to say: So that's that! "Well, well, sight-seeing! Not much to see, though, not now. Do you fancy a coffee?"
Before I could answer he put his fingers to his mouth and blew a piercing whistle, then paused and waited, shook his head in puzzlement. "Ben," he explained. "My old dog. He's not been himself lately and I don't like him to stray too far. He was out all night, was Ben. Still, it's summer, and there may have been a bitch about ... ."
While he had talked I'd looked him over and decided that I liked him. He reminded me of my own grandfather, what little I could remember of him. Grandad had been a miner in one of the colliery villages farther north, retiring here to doze and dry up and die--only to find himself denied the choice. The sea's incursion had put paid to that when it finally made the place untenable. I fancied this old lad had been a miner, too. Certainly he bore the scars, the stigmata, of the miner: the dark, leathery skin with black specks bedded in; the bad, bowed legs; the shortness of breath, making for short sentences. A generally gritty appearance overall, though I'd no doubt he was clean as fresh scrubbed.
"Coffee would be fine," I told him, holding out my hand. "Greg's my name--Greg Lane."
He took my hand, shook it warmly, and nodded. "Garth Bentham," he said. And then he set off stiffly back up the crumbling road some two or three houses, turning right into an overgrown garden through a fancy wooden gate recently painted white. "I'd intended doing the whole place up," he said, as I followed close behind. "Did the gate, part of the fence, ran out of paint!"
Before letting us into the dim interior of the house, he paused and whistled again for Ben, then worriedly shookhis head in something of concern. "After rats in the old timber yard again, I suppose. But God knows I wish he'd stay out of there!"
Then we were inside the tiny cloakroom, where the sun filtered through fly-specked windows and probed golden searchlights on a few fairly dilapidated furnishings and the brassy face of an old grandfather clock that clucked like a mechanical hen. Dust motes drifted like tiny planets in a cosmos of faery, eddying round my host where he guided me through a door and into his living room. Where the dust had settled on the occasional ledge, I noticed that it was tinged red, like rust.
"I cleaned the windows in here," Garth informed, "so's to see the sea. I like to know what it's up to!"
"Making sure it won't creep up on you." I nodded.
His eyes twinkled. "Nah, just joking," he said, tapping on the side of his blue-veined nose. "No, it'll be ten or even twenty years before all this goes, but I don't have that long. Five if I'm lucky. I'm sixty-eight, after all!"
Sixty-eight! Was that really to be as old as all that? But he was probably right: a lot of old-timers from the mines didn't even last that long, not entirely mobile and coherent, anyway. "Retiring at sixty-five doesn't leave a lot, does it?" I said. "Of time, I mean."
He went into his kitchen, called back: "Me, I've been here a ten-year. Didn't retire, quit! Stuff your pension, I told 'em. I'd rather have my lungs, what's left of 'em. So I came here, got this place for a song, take care of myself and my old dog, and no one to tip my hat to and no one to bother me. I get a letter once a fortnight from my sister in Dunbar, and one of these days the postman will find me stretched out in here and he'll think: 'Well, I needn't come out here anymore.'"
He wasn't bemoaning his fate, but I felt sorry for him anyway. I settled myself on a dusty settee, looked out of thewindow down across his garden of brambles to the sea's horizon. A great curved millpond--for the time being. "Didn't you have any savings?" I could have bitten my tongue off the moment I'd said it, for that was to imply he hadn't done very well for himself.
Cups rattled in the kitchen. "Savings? Lad, when I was a young 'un I had three things: my lamp, my helmet, and a pack of cards. If it wasn't pitch-'n-toss with weighted pennies on the beach banks, it was three-card brag in the back room of the pub. Oh, I was a game gambler, right enough, but a bad one. In my blood, like my Old Man before me. My mother never did see a penny; nor did my wife, I'm ashamed to say, before we moved out here--God bless her! Savings? That's a laugh. But out here there's no bookie's runner, and you'd be damned hard put to find a card school in Easingham these days! What the hell," he shrugged as he stuck his head back into the room, "it was a life ... ."
We sipped our coffee. After a while I said, "Have you been on your own very long? I mean ... your wife?"
"Lily-Anne?" He glanced at me, blinked, and suddenly there was a peculiar expression on his face. "On my own, you say ... ." He straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath. "Well, I am on my own in a way, and in a way I'm not. I have Ben--or would have if he'd get done with what he's doing and come home--and Lily-Anne's not all that far away. In fact, sometimes I suspect she's sort of watching over me, keeping me company, so to speak. You know, when I'm feeling especially lonely."
"Well." He shrugged again. "I mean she is here, now isn't she." It was a statement, not a question.
"Here?" I was starting to have my doubts about Garth Bentham.
"I had her buried here." He nodded, which explained what he'd said and produced a certain sensation of relief inme. "There was a Methodist church here once over, with its own burying ground. The church went a donkey's years ago, of course, but the old graveyard was still here when Lily-Anne died."
"Was?" Our conversation was getting one-sided.
"Well, it still is--but right on the edge, so to speak. It wasn't so bad then, though, and so I got permission to have a service done here, and down she went where I could go and see her. I still do go to see her, of course, now and then. But in another year or two ... the sea ..." He shrugged again. "Time and the tides, they wait for no man."
We finished our coffee. I was going to have to be on my way soon, and suddenly I didn't like the idea of leaving him. Already I could feel the loneliness creeping in. Perhaps he sensed my restlessness or something. Certainly I could see that he didn't want me to go just yet. In any case, he said:
"Maybe you'd like to walk down with me past the old timber yard, visit her grave. Oh, it's safe enough, you don't have to worry. We may even come across old Ben down there. He sometimes visits her, too."
"Ah, well I'm not too sure about that," I answered. "The time, you know?" But by the time we got down the path to the gate I was asking: "How far is the churchyard, anyway?" Who could tell, maybe I'd find some long-lost Lanes in there! "Are there any old markers left standing?"
Garth chuckled and took my elbow. "It makes a change to have some company," he said. "Come on, it's this way."
He led the way back to the barrier where it spanned the road, bent his back, and ducked groaning under it, then turned left up an overgrown communal path between gardens where the houses had been stepped down the declining gradient. The detached bungalow on our right--one of a pair still standing, while a third slumped on the raw edge of oblivion--had decayed almost to the point where it was collapsing inward. Brambles luxuriated everywhere in itsgarden, completely enclosing it. The roof sagged and a chimney threatened to topple, making the whole structure seem highly suspect and more than a little dangerous.
"Partly subsidence, because of the undercutting action of the sea," Garth explained, "but mainly the rot. There was a lot of wood in these places, but it's all being eaten away. I made myself a living, barely, out of the old bricks and timber in Easingham, but now I have to be careful. Doesn't do to sell stuff with the rot in it."
He paused for breath, leaned a hand on one hip, nodded and frowned. "Dry rot," he said. "Or Merulius lacrymans as they call it in the books. It's been bad these last three years. Very bad! But when the last of these old houses are gone, and what's left of the timber yard, then it'll be gone, too."
"It?" We were getting back to single-word questions again. "The dry rot, you mean? I'm afraid I don't know very much about it."
"Places on the coast are prone to it," he told me. "Whitby, Scarborough, places like that. All the damp sea spray and the bad plumbing, the rains that come in and the inadequate drainage. That's how it starts. It's a fungus, needs a lot of moisture--to get started, anyway. You don't know much about it? Heck, I used to think I knew quite a bit about it, but now I'm not so sure!"
By then I'd remembered something. "A friend of mine in London did mention to me how he was having to have his flat treated for it," I said, a little lamely. "Expensive, apparently."
Garth nodded, straightened up. "Hard to kill," he said. "And when it's active, moves like the plague! It's active here, now! Too late for Easingham, and who gives a damn anyway? But you tell that friend of yours to sort out his exterior maintenance first: the guttering and the drainage.Get rid of the water spillage, then deal with the rot. If a place is dry and airy, it's OK. Damp and musty spells danger!"
I nodded. "Thanks, I will tell him."
"Want to see something?" said Garth. "I'll show you what old Merulius can do. See here, these old paving flags? See if you can lever one up a bit." I found a piece of rusting iron stave and dragged it out of the ground where it supported a rotting fence, then forced the sharp end into a crack between the overgrown flags. And while I worked to loosen the paving stone, old Garth stood watching and carried on talking.
"Actually, there's a story attached, if you care to hear it," he said. "Probably all coincidental or circumstantial, or some other big word like that--but queer the way it came about all the same."
He was losing me again. I paused in my levering to look bemused (and maybe to wonder what on Earth I was doing here), then grunted, and sweated, gave one more heave, and flipped the flag over onto its back. Underneath was hard-packed sand. I looked at it, shrugged, looked at Garth.
He nodded in that way of his, grinned, said: "Look. Now tell me what you make of this!"
He got down on one knee, scooped a little of the sand away. Just under the surface his hands met some soft obstruction. Garth wrinkled his nose and grimaced, got his face down close to the earth, blew until his weakened lungs started him coughing. Then he sat back and rested. Where he'd scraped and blown the sand away, I made out what appeared to be a grey fibrous mass running at right angles right under the pathway. It was maybe six inches thick, looked like tightly packed cotton wool. It might easily have been glass fiber lagging for some pipe or other, and I said as much.
"But it isn't," Garth contradicted me. "It's a root, afeeler, a tentacle. It's old man cancer himself--timber cancer--on the move and looking for a new victim. Oh, you won't see him moving," that strange look was back on his face, "or at least you shouldn't--but he's at it anyway. He finished those houses there," he nodded at the derelicts stepping down toward the new cliffs, "and now he's gone into this one on the left here. Another couple of summers like this 'un and he'll be through the entire row to my place. Except maybe I'll burn him out first."
"You mean this stuff--this fiber--is dry rot?" I said. I stuck my hand into the stuff and tore a clump out. It made a soft tearing sound, like damp chipboard, except it was dry as old paper. "How do you mean, you'll 'burn him out'?"
"I mean like I say," said Garth. "I'll search out and dig up all these threads--mycelium, they're called--and set fire to 'em. They smoulder right through to a fine white ash. And God--it stinks! Then I'll look for the fruiting bodies, and--"
"The what?" His words had conjured up something vaguely obscene in my mind. "Fruiting bodies?"
"Lord, yes!" he said. "You want to see? Just follow me."
Leaving the path, he stepped over a low brick wall to struggle through the undergrowth of the garden on our left. Taking care not to get tangled up in the brambles, I followed him. The house seemed pretty much intact, but a bay window in the ground floor had been broken and all the glass tapped out of the frame. "My winter preparations," Garth explained. "I burn wood, see? So before winter comes, I get into a house like this one, rip out all the wooden fixings and break 'em down ready for burning. The wood just stays where I stack it, all prepared and waiting for the bad weather to come in. I knocked this window out last week, but I've not been inside yet. I could smell it, see?" He tapped his nose. "And I didn't much care for all those spores on my lungs."
He stepped up on a pile of bricks, got one leg over the sill, and stuck his head inside. Then, turning his head in all directions, he systematically sniffed the air. Finally he seemed satisfied and disappeared inside. I followed him. "Spores?" I said. "What sort of spores?"
He looked at me, wiped his hand along the window ledge, held it up so that I could see the red dust accumulated on his fingers and palm. "These spores," he said. "Dry-rot spores, of course! Haven't you been listening?"
"I have been listening, yes," I answered sharply. "But I ask you: spores, mycelium, fruiting bodies? I mean, I thought dry rot was just, well, rotting wood!"
"It's a fungus," he told me, a little impatiently. "Like a mushroom, and it spreads in much the same way. Except it's destructive, and once it gets started it's bloody hard to stop!"
"And you, an ex--coal miner," I stared at him in the gloom of the house we'd invaded, "you're an expert on it, right? How come, Garth?"
Again there was that troubled expression on his face, and in the dim interior of the house he didn't try too hard to mask it. Maybe it had something to do with that story he'd promised to tell me, but doubtless he'd be as circuitous about that as he seemed to be about everything else. "Because I've read it up in books, that's how," he finally broke into my thoughts. "To occupy my time. When it first started to spread out of the old timber yard, I looked it up. It's--" He gave a sort of grimace. "--it's interesting, that's all."
By now I was wishing I was on my way again. But by that I mustn't be misunderstood: I'm an able-bodied man and I wasn't afraid of anything--and certainly not of Garth himself, who was just a lonely, canny old-timer--but all of this really was getting to be a waste of my time. I had just made my mind up to go back out through the window when he caught my arm.
"Oh, yes!" he said. "This place is really ripe with it! Can't you smell it? Even with the window bust wide open like this, and the place nicely dried out in the summer heat, still it's stinking the place out. Now just you come over here and you'll see what you'll see."
Despite myself, I was interested. And indeed I could smell ... something. A cloying mustiness? A mushroomy taint? But not the nutty smell of fresh field mushrooms. More a sort of vile stagnation. Something dead might smell like this, long after the actual corruption has ceased ... .
Our eyes had grown somewhat accustomed to the gloom. We looked about the room. "Careful how you go," said Garth. "See the spores there? Try not to stir them up too much. They're worse than snuff, believe me!" He was right: the red dust lay fairly thick on just about everything. By "everything" I mean a few old sticks of furniture, the worn carpet under our feet, the skirting-board, and various shelves and ledges. Whichever family had moved out of here, they hadn't left a deal of stuff behind them.
The skirting was of the heavy, old-fashioned variety: an inch and a half thick, nine inches deep, with a fancy moulding along the top edge; they hadn't spared the wood in those days. Garth peered suspiciously at the skirting-board, followed it away from the bay window, and paused every pace to scrape the toe of his boot down its face. And eventually when he did this--suddenly the board crumbled to dust under the pressure of his toe!
It was literally as dramatic as that: the white paint cracked away and the timber underneath fell into a heap of black, smoking dust. Another pace and Garth kicked again, with the same result. He quickly exposed a ten-foot length of naked wall, on which even the plaster was loose and flaky, and showed me where strands of the cotton-wool mycelium had come up between the brickwork and the plaster from below. "It sucks the cellulose right out ofwood," he said. "Gets right into brickwork, too. Now look here," and he pointed at the old carpet under his feet. The threadbare weave showed a sort of raised floral blossom or stain, like a blotch or blister, spreading outward away from the wall.
Garth got down on his hands and knees. "Just look at this," he said. He tore up the carpet and carefully laid it back. Underneath, the floorboards were warped, dark stained, shriveled so as to leave wide gaps between them. And up through the gaps came those white, etiolated threads, spreading themselves along the underside of the carpet.
I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "It's like a disease," I said.
"It is a disease!" he corrected me. "It's a cancer, and houses die of it!" Then he inhaled noisily, pulled a face of his own, and said: "Here. Right here." He pointed at the warped, rotting floorboards. "The very heart of it. Give me a hand." He got his fingers down between a pair of boards and gave a tug, and it was at once apparent that he wouldn't be needing any help from me. What had once been a stout wooden floorboard a full inch thick was now brittle as dry bark. It cracked upward, flew apart, revealed the dark cavities between the floor joists. Garth tossed bits of crumbling wood aside, tore up more boards; and at last "the very heart of it" lay open to our inspection.
"There!" said Garth with a sort of grim satisfaction. He stood back and wiped his hands down his trousers. "Now that is what you call a fruiting body!"
It was roughly the size of a football, if not exactly that shape. Suspended between two joists in a cradle of fibers, and adhering to one of the joists as if partly flattened to it, the thing might have been a great, too-ripe tomato. It was bright yellow at its center, banded in various shades of yellow from the middle out. It looked freakishly weird, likea bad joke: this lump of ... of stuff--never a mushroom--just nestling there between the joists.
Garth touched my arm and I jumped a foot. He said: "You want to know where all the moisture goes--out of this wood, I mean? Well, just touch it."
"Touch ... that?"
"Heck, it can't bite you! It's just a fungus."
"All the same, I'd rather not," I told him.
He took up a piece of floorboard and prodded the thing--and it squelched. The splintered point of the wood sank into it like jelly. Its heart was mainly liquid, porous as a sponge. "Like a huge egg yolk, isn't it?" he said, his voice very quiet. He was plainly fascinated.
Suddenly I felt nauseous. The heat, the oppressive closeness of the room, the spore-laden air. I stepped dizzily backward and stumbled against an old armchair. The rot had been there, too, for the chair just fragmented into a dozen pieces that puffed red dust all over the place. My foot sank right down through the carpet and mushy boards into darkness and stench--and in another moment I'd panicked.
Somehow I tumbled myself back out through the window and ended up on my back in the brambles. Then Garth was standing over me, shaking his head and tut-tutting. "Told you not to stir up the dust," he said. "It chokes your air and stifles you. Worse than being down a pit. Are you all right?"
My heart stopped hammering and I was, of course, all right. I got up. "A touch of claustrophobia," I told him. "I suffer from it at times. Anyway, I think I've taken up enough of your time, Garth. I should be getting on my way."
"What?" he protested. "A lovely day like this and you want to be driving off somewhere? And besides, there were things I wanted to tell you, and others I'd ask you--and wehaven't been down to Lily-Anne's grave." He looked disappointed. "Anyway, you shouldn't be driving if you're feeling all shaken up ... ."
He was right about that part of it, anyway: I did feel shaky, not to mention foolish! And perhaps more importantly, I was still very much aware of the old man's loneliness. What if it was my mother who'd died, and my father had been left on his own up in Durham? "Very well," I said, at the same time damning myself for a weak fool, "let's go and see Lily-Anne's grave."
"Good!" Garth slapped my back. "And no more diversions--we go straight there."
Following the paved path as before and climbing a gentle rise, we started walking. We angled a little inland from the unseen cliffs where the green, rolling fields came to an abrupt end and fell down into the sea; and as we went I gave a little thought to the chain of incidents in which I'd found myself involved through the last hour or so.
Now, I'd be a liar if I said that nothing had struck me as strange in Easingham, for quite a bit had. Not least the dry rot: its apparent profusion and migration through the place, and old Garth's peculiar knowledge and understanding of the stuff. His--amnity?--with it. "You said there was a story attached," I reminded him. " ... To that horrible fungus, I mean."
He looked at me sideways, and I sensed he was on the point of telling me something. But at that moment we crested the rise and the view just took my breath away. We could see for miles up and down the coast: to the slow, white breakers rolling in on some beach way to the north, and southward to a distance-misted seaside town that might even be Whitby. And we paused to fill our lungs with good air blowing fresh off the sea.
"There," said Garth. "And how's this for freedom? Just me and old Ben and the gulls for miles and miles, and I'mnot so sure but that this is the way I like it. Now wasn't it worth it to come up here? All this open space and the great curve of the horizon ..." Then the look of satisfaction slipped from his face to be replaced by a more serious expression. "There's old Easingham's cemetery--what's left of it."
He pointed down toward the cliffs, where a badly weathered stone wall formed part of a square whose sides would have been maybe fifty yards long in the old days. But in those days there'd also been a stubby promontory and a church. Now only one wall, running parallel with the path, stood complete--beyond which two-thirds of the churchyard had been claimed by the sea. Its occupants, too, I supposed.
"See that half-timbered shack," said Garth, pointing, "at this end of the cemetery? That's what's left of Johnson's Mill. Johnson's sawmill, that is. That shack used to be Old Man Johnson's office. A long line of Johnsons ran a couple of farms that enclosed all the fields round here right down to the cliffs. Pasture, mostly, with lots of fine animals grazing right here. But as the fields got eaten away and the buildings themselves started to be threatened, that's when half the Johnsons moved out and the rest bought a big house in the village. They gave up farming and started the mill, working timber for the local building trade ... .
"Folks round here said it was a sin, all that noise of sawing and planing, right next door to a churchyard. But ... it was Old Man Johnson's land after all. Well, the sawmill business kept going till a time some seven years ago, when a really bad blow took a huge bite right out of the bay one night. The seaward wall of the graveyard went, and half of the timber yard, too, and that closed old Johnson down. He sold what machinery he had left, plus a few stacks of good oak that hadn't suffered, and moved out lock, stock, and barrel. Just as well, for the very next springhis big house and two others close to the edge of the cliffs got taken. The sea gets 'em all in the end.
"Before then, though--at a time when just about everybody else was moving out of Easingham--Lily-Anne and me had moved in! As I told you, we got our bungalow for a song, and of course we picked ourselves a house standing well back from the brink. We were getting on a bit; another twenty years or so should see us out; after that the sea could do its worst. But ... well, it didn't quite work out that way."
While he talked, Garth had led the way down across the open fields to the graveyard wall. The breeze was blustery here and fluttered his words back into my face:
"So you see, within just a couple of years of our settling here, the village was derelict, and all that remained of people was us and a handful of Johnsons still working the mill. Then Lily-Anne came down with something and died, and I had her put down in the ground here in Easingham--so's I'd be near her, you know?
"That's where the coincidences start to come in, for she went only a couple of months after the shipwreck. Now I don't suppose you'd remember that; it wasn't much, just an old Portuguese freighter that foundered in a storm. Lifeboats took the crew off, and she'd already unloaded her cargo somewhere up the coast, so the incident didn't create much of a to-do in the newspapers. But she'd carried a fair bit of hardwood ballast, that old ship, and balks of the stuff would keep drifting ashore: great long twelve-by-twelves of it. Of course, Old Man Johnson wasn't one to miss out on a bit of good timber like that, not when it was being washed up right on his doorstep, so to speak ... .
"Anyway, when Lily-Anne died I made the proper arrangements, and I went down to see old Johnson who told me he'd make me a coffin out of this Haitian hardwood."
"Haitian?" Maybe my voice showed something of my surprise.
"That's right," said Garth, more slowly. He looked at me wonderingly. "Anything wrong with that?"
I shrugged, shook my head. "Rather romantic, I thought," I said. "Timber from a tropical isle."
"I thought so, too," he agreed. And after a while he continued: "Well, despite having been in the sea, the stuff could still be cut into fine, heavy panels, and it still French-polished to a beautiful finish. So that was that: Lily-Anne got a lovely coffin. Except--"
"Yes?" I prompted him.
He pursed his lips. "Except I got to thinking--later, you know--as to how maybe the rot came here in that wood. God knows it's a damn funny variety of fungus after all. But then this Haiti--well, apparently it's a damned funny place. They call it 'the Voodoo Island,' you know?"
"Black magic?" I smiled. "I think we've advanced a bit beyond thinking such as that, Garth."
"Maybe and maybe not," he answered. "But voodoo or no voodoo, it's still a funny place, that Haiti. Far away and exotic ..."
By now we'd found a gap in the old stone wall and climbed over the tumbled stones into the graveyard proper. From where we stood, another twenty paces would take us right to the raw edge of the cliff where it sheared dead straight through the overgrown, badly neglected plots and headstones. "So here it is," said Garth, pointing. "Lily-Anne's grave, secure for now in what little is left of Easingham's old cemetery." His voice fell a little, grew ragged: "But you know, the fact is I wish I'd never put her down here in the first place. And I'd give anything that I hadn't buried her in that coffin built of Old Man Johnson's ballast wood."
The plot was a neat oblong picked out in oval pebbles. Ithad been weeded round its border, and from its bottom edge to the foot of the simple headstone it was decked in flowers, some wild and others cut from Easingham's deserted gardens. It was deep in flowers, and the ones underneath were withered and had been compressed by those on top. Obviously Garth came here more often than just "now and then." It was the only plot in sight that had been paid any sort of attention, but in the circumstances that wasn't surprising.
"You're wondering why there are so many flowers, eh?" Garth sat down on a raised slab close by.
I shook my head, sat down beside him. "No, I know why. You must have thought the world of her."
"You don't know why," he answered. "I did think the world of her, but that's not why. It's not the only reason, anyway. I'll show you."
He got down on his knees beside the grave, began laying aside the flowers. Right down to the marble chips he went, then scooped an amount of the polished gravel to one side. He made a small mound of it. Whatever I had expected to see in the small excavation, it wasn't the cylindrical, fibrous surface--like the upper section of a lagged pipe--that came into view. I sucked in my breath sharply.
There were tears in Garth's eyes as he flattened the marble chips back into place. "The flowers are so I won't see it if it ever breaks the surface," he said. "See, I can't bear the thought of that filthy stuff in her coffin. I mean, what if it's like what you saw under the floorboards in that house back there?" He sat down again, and his hands trembled as he took out an old wallet and removed a photograph to give it to me. "That's Lily-Anne," he said. "But God!--I don't like the idea of that stuff fruiting on her ... ."
Aghast at the thoughts his words conjured, I looked at the photograph. A homely woman in her late fifties, seated in a chair beside a fence in a garden I recognized as Garth's.Except the garden had been well-tended then. One shoulder seemed slumped a little, and though she smiled, still I could sense the pain in her face. "Just a few weeks before she died," said Garth. "It was her lungs. Funny that I worked in the pit all those years, and it was her lungs gave out. And now she's here, and so's this stuff."
I had to say something. "But ... where did it come from. I mean, how did it come, well, here? I don't know much about dry rot, no, but I would have thought it confined itself to houses."
"That's what I was telling you," he said, taking back the photograph. "The British variety does. But not this stuff. It's weird and different! That's why I think it might have come here with that ballast wood. As to how it got into the churchyard: that's easy. Come and see for yourself."
I followed him where he made his way between the weedy plots toward the leaning, half-timbered shack. "Is that the source? Johnson's timber yard?"
He nodded. "For sure. But look here."
I looked where he pointed. We were still in the graveyard, approaching the tumbledown end wall, beyond which stood the derelict shack. Running in a parallel series along the dry ground, from the mill and into the graveyard, deep cracks showed through the tangled brambles, briars, and grasses. One of these cracks, wider than the others, had actually split a heavy horizontal marble slab right down its length. Garth grunted. "That wasn't done last time I was here," he said.
"The sea's been at it again." I nodded. "Undermining the cliffs. Maybe we're not as safe here as you think."
He glanced at me. "Not the sea this time," he said, very definitely. "Something else entirely. See, there's been no rain for weeks. Everything's dry. And it gets thirsty same as we do. Give me a hand."
He stood beside the broken slab and got his fingers intothe crack. It was obvious that he intended to open up the tomb. "Garth," I cautioned him. "Isn't this a little ghoulish? Do you really intend to desecrate this grave?"
"See the date?" he said. "1847. Heck, I don't think he'd mind, whoever he is. Desecration? Why, he might even thank us for a little sweet sunlight! What are you afraid of? There can only be dust and bones down there now."
Full of guilt, I looked all about while Garth struggled with the fractured slab. It was a safe bet that there wasn't a living soul for miles around, but I checked anyway. Opening graves isn't my sort of thing. But having discovered him for a stubborn old man, I knew that if I didn't help him he'd find a way to do it by himself anyway; and so I applied myself to the task. Between the two of us we wrestled one of the two halves to the edge of its base, finally toppled it over. A choking fungus reek at once rushed out to engulf us! Or maybe the smell was of something else and I'd simply smelled what I "expected" to.
Garth pulled a sour face. "Ugh!" was his only comment.
The air cleared and we looked into the tomb. In there, a coffin just a little over three feet long, and the broken sarcophagus around it filled with dust, cobwebs, and a few leaves. Garth glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "So now you think I'm wrong, eh?"
"About what?" I answered. "It's just a child's coffin."
"Just a little 'un, aye." He nodded. "And his little coffin looks intact, doesn't it? But is it?" Before I could reply he reached down and rapped with his horny knuckles on the wooden lid.
And despite the fact that the sun was shining down on us, and for all that the sea gulls cried and the world seemed at peace, still my hair stood on end at what happened next. For the coffin lid collapsed like a puffball and fell into dusty debris, and--God help me--something in the box gave a grunt and puffed itself up into view!
I'm not a coward, but there are times when my limbs have a will of their own. Once when a drunk insulted my wife, I struck him without consciously knowing I'd done it. It was that fast, the reaction that instinctive. And the same now. I didn't pause to draw breath until I'd cleared the wall and was halfway up the field to the paved path; and even then I probably wouldn't have stopped, except I tripped and fell flat and knocked all the wind out of myself.
By the time I stopped shaking and sat up, Garth was puffing and panting up the slope toward me. "It's all right," he was gasping. "It was nothing. Just the rot. It had grown in there and crammed itself so tight, so confined, that when the coffin caved in ..."
He was right and I knew it. I had known it even with my flesh crawling, my legs, heart, and lungs pumping. But even so: "There were ... bones in it!" I said, contrary to common sense. "A skull."
He drew close, sank down beside me gulping at the air. "The little un's bones," he panted, "caught up in the fibers. I just wanted to show you the extent of the thing. Didn't want to scare you to death!"
"I know, I know." I patted his hand. "But when it moved--"
"It was just the effect of the box collapsing," he explained, logically. "Natural expansion. Set free, it unwound like a jack-in-the-box. And the noise it made--"
"--That was the sound of its scraping against the rotten timber, amplified by the sarcophagus." I nodded. "I know all that. It shocked me, that's all. In fact, two hours in your bloody Easingham have given me enough shocks to last a lifetime!"
"But you see what I mean about the rot?" We stood up, both of us still a little shaky.
"Oh, yes, I see what you mean. I don't understand yourobsession, that's all. Why don't you just leave the damned stuff alone?"
He shrugged but made no answer, and so we made our way back toward his home. On our way the silence between us was broken only once. "There!" said Garth, looking back toward the brow of the hill. "You see him?"
I looked back, saw the dark outline of an Alsatian dog silhouetted against the rise. "Ben?" Even as I spoke the name, so the dog disappeared into the long grass beside the path.
"Ben!" Garth called, and blew his piercing whistle. But with no result. The old man worriedly shook his head. "Can't think what's come over him," he said. "Then again, I'm more his friend than his master. We've always pretty much looked after ourselves. At least I know that he hasn't run off ... ."
Then we were back at Garth's house, but I didn't go in. His offer of another coffee couldn't tempt me. It was time I was on my way again. "If ever you're back this way--" he said as I got into the car.
I nodded, leaned out of my window. "Garth, why the hell don't you get out of here? I mean, there's nothing here for you now. Why don't you take Ben and just clear out?"
He smiled, shook his head, then shook my hand. "Where'd we go?" he asked. "And anyway, Lily-Anne's still here. Sometimes in the night, when it's hot and I have trouble sleeping, I can feel she's very close to me. Anyway, I know you mean well."
That was that. I turned the car round and drove off, acknowledged his final wave by lifting my hand briefly, so that he'd see it.
Then, driving round a gentle bend and as the old man sideslipped out of my rearview mirror, I saw Ben. He was crossing the road in front of me. I applied my brakes, let him get out of the way. It could only be Ben, I supposed:a big Alsatian, shaggy, yellow eyed. And yet I caught only a glimpse; I was more interested in controlling the car, in being sure that he was safely out of the way.
It was only after he'd gone through the hedge and out of sight into a field that an afterimage of the dog surfaced in my mind: the way he'd seemed to limp--his belly hairs, so long as to hang down and trail on the ground, even though he wasn't slinking--a bright splash of yellow on his side, as if he'd brushed up against something freshly painted.
Perhaps understandably, peculiar images bothered me all the way back to London; yes, and for quite a long time after ... .
Before I knew it a year had gone by, then eighteen months, and memories of those strange hours spent in Easingham were fast receding. Faded with them was that promise I had made myself to visit my parents more frequently. Then I got a letter to say my mother hadn't been feeling too well, and another right on its heels to say she was dead. She'd gone in her sleep, nice and easy. This last was from a neighbor of theirs: my father wasn't much up to writing right now, or much of anything else for that matter; the funeral would be on ... at ... etc, etc.
God!--how guilty I felt driving up there, and more guilty with every mile that flashed by under my car's wheels. And all I could do was choke the guilt and the tears back and drive and feel the dull, empty ache in my heart that I knew my father would be feeling in his. And of course that was when I remembered old Garth Bentham in Easingham, and my "advice" that he should get out of that place. It had been a cold sort of thing to say to him. Even cruel. But I hadn't known that then. I hadn't thought.
We laid Ma to rest and I stayed with the Old Man for a few days, but he really didn't want me around. I thought about saying: "Why don't you sell up, come and live withus in London." We had plenty of room. But then I thought of Garth again and kept my mouth shut. Dad would work it out for himself in the fullness of time.
It was late on a cold Wednesday afternoon when I started out for London again, and I kept thinking how lonely it must be in old Easingham. I found myself wondering if Garth ever took a belt or filled a pipe, if he could even afford to, and ... I'd promised him that if I was ever back up this way I'd look him up, hadn't I? I stopped at an off-license, bought a bottle of half-decent whisky and some pipe and rolling baccy, and a carton of two hundred cigarettes and a few cigars. Whatever was his pleasure, I'd probably covered it. And if he didn't smoke, well I could always give the tobacco goods to someone who did.
My plan was to spend just an hour with Garth, then head for the motorway and drive to London in darkness. I don't mind driving in the dark, when the weather and visibility are good and the driving lanes all but empty, and the night music comes sharp and clear out of the radio to keep me awake.
But approaching Easingham down that neglected cul-de-sac of a road, I saw that I wasn't going to have any such easy time of it. A storm was gathering out to sea, piling up the thunderheads like beetling black brows all along the twilight horizon. I could see continuous flashes of lightning out there, and even before I reached my destination I could hear the high seas thundering against the cliffs. When I did get there--
Well, I held back from driving quite as far as the barrier, because only a little way beyond it my headlights had picked out black, empty space. Of the three houses that had stood closest to the cliffs only one was left, and that one slumped right on the rim. So I stopped directly opposite Garth's place, gave a honk on my horn, then switched off and got out of the car with my carrier-bag full of gifts.Making my way to the house, the rush and roar of the sea was perfectly audible, transferring itself physically through the earth to my feet. Indeed the bleak, unforgiving ocean seemed to be working itself up into a real fury.
Then, in a moment, the sky darkened over and the rain came on out of nowhere, bitter cold and squally, and I found myself running up the overgrown garden path to Garth's door. Which was when I began to feel really foolish. There was no sign of life behind the grimy windows, neither a glimmer of light showing, nor a puff of smoke from the chimney. Maybe Garth had taken my advice and got out of it after all.
Calling his name over the rattle of distant thunder, I knocked on the door. After a long minute there was still no answer. But this was no good; I was getting wet and angry with myself; I tried the doorknob, and the door swung open. I stepped inside, into deep gloom, and groped on the wall near the door for a light switch. I found it, but the light wasn't working. Of course it wasn't: there was no electricity! This was a ghost town, derelict, forgotten. And the last time I was here it had been in broad daylight.
But ... Garth had made coffee for me. On a gas-ring? It must have been.
Standing there in the small cloakroom shaking rain off myself, my eyes were growing more accustomed to the gloom. The cloakroom seemed just as I remembered it: several pieces of tall, dark furniture, pine-paneled inner walls, the old grandfather clock standing in one corner. Except that this time ... the clock wasn't clucking. The pendulum was still, a vertical bar of brassy fire where lightning suddenly brought the room to life. Then it was dark again--if anything even darker than before--and the windows rattled as thunder came down in a rolling, receding drumbeat.
"Garth!" I called again, my voice echoing through theold house. "It's me, Greg Lane. I said I'd drop in some time? ..." No answer, just the hiss of the rain outside, the feel of my collar damp against my neck, and the thick, rising smell of ... of what? And suddenly I remembered very clearly the details of my last visit here.
"Garth!" I tried one last time, and I stepped to the door of his living room and pushed it open. As I did so there came a lull in the beating rain. I heard the floorboards creak under my feet, but I also heard ... a groan? My sensitivity at once rose by several degrees. Was that Garth? Was he hurt? My God! What had he said to me that time? "One of these days the postman will find me stretched out in here, and he'll think: 'Well, I needn't come out here anymore.'"
I had to have light. There'd be matches in the kitchen, maybe even a torch. In the absence of a mains supply, Garth would surely have to have a torch. Making my way shufflingly, very cautiously across the dark room toward the kitchen, I was conscious that the smell was more concentrated here. Was it just the smell of an old, derelict house, or was it something worse? Then, outside, lightning flashed again, and briefly the room was lit up in a white glare. Before the darkness fell once more, I saw someone slumped on the old settee where Garth had served me coffee ... .
"Garth?" The word came out half-strangled. I hadn't wanted to say it; it had just gurgled from my tongue. For though I'd seen only a silhouette, outlined by the split-second flash, it hadn't looked like Garth at all. It had been much more like someone else I'd once seen--in a photograph. That drooping right shoulder.
My skin prickled as I stepped on shivery feet through the open door into the kitchen. I forced myself to draw breath, to think clearly. If I'd seen anyone or anything at all back there (it could have been old boxes piled on the settee, or a roll of carpet leaning there), then it most probably had beenGarth, which would explain that groan. It was him, of course it was. But in the storm, and remembering what I did of this place, my mind was playing morbid tricks with me. No, it was Garth, and he could well be in serious trouble. I got a grip of myself, quickly looked all around.
A little light came into the kitchen through a high back window. There was a two-ring gas cooker, a sink, and a drainer board with a drawer under the sink. I pulled open the drawer and felt about inside it. My nervous hand struck what was unmistakably a large box of matches, and--yes, the smooth heavy cylinder of a hand torch!
And all the time I was aware that someone was or might be slumped on a settee just a few swift paces away through the door to the living room. With my hand still inside the drawer, I pressed the stud of the torch and was rewarded when a weak beam probed out to turn my fingers pink. Well, it wasn't a powerful beam, but any sort of light had to be better than total darkness.
Armed with the torch, which felt about as good as a weapon in my hand, I forced myself to move back into the living room and directed my beam at the settee. But oh, Jesus--all that sat there was a monstrous grey mushroom! It was a great fibrous mass, growing out of and welded with mycelium strands to the settee, and in its center an obscene yellow fruiting body. But for God's sake, it had the shape and outline and look of an old woman, and it had Lily-Anne's deflated chest and slumped shoulder!
I don't know how I held onto the torch, how I kept from screaming out loud, why I simply didn't fall unconscious. That's the sort of shock I experienced. But I did none of these things. Instead, on nerveless legs, I backed away, backed right into an old wardrobe or Welsh dresser. At least, I backed into what had once been a piece of furniture. But now it was something else.
Soft as sponge, the thing collapsed and sent me sprawling.Dust and (I imagined) dark red spores rose up everywhere, and I skidded on my back in shards of crumbling wood and matted webs of fiber. And lolling out of the darkness behind where the dresser had stood--bloating out like some loathsome puppet or dummy--a second fungoid figure leaned toward me. And this time it was a caricature of Ben!
He lolled there, held up on four fiber legs, muzzle snarling soundlessly, for all the world tensed to spring--and all he was was a harmless fungous thing. And yet this time I did scream. Or I think I did, but the thunder came to drown me out.
Then I was on my feet, and my feet were through the rotten floorboards, and I didn't care except I had to get out of there, out of that choking, stinking, collapsing--
I stumbled, crumbled my way into the tiny cloakroom, tripped and crashed into the clock where it stood in the corner. It was like a nightmare chain reaction that I'd started and couldn't stop; the old grandfather just crumpled up on itself, its metal parts clanging together as the wood disintegrated around them. And all the furniture following suit, and the very wall paneling smoking into ruin where I fell against it.
And there where that infected timber had been, there he stood--old Garth himself! He leaned half out of the wall like a great nodding manikin, his entire head a livid yellow blotch, his arm and hand making a noise like a huge puffball bursting underfoot where they separated from his side to point floppingly toward the open door. I needed no more urging.
"God! Yes! I'm going!" I told him, as I plunged out into the storm ... .
After that ... nothing, not for some time. I came to in a hospital in Stokesley about noon the next day. ApparentlyI'd run off the road on the outskirts of some village or other, and they'd dragged me out of my car where it lay upside down in a ditch. I was banged up and so couldn't do much talking, which is probably as well.
But in the newspapers I read how what was left of Easingham had gone into the sea in the night. The churchyard, Haitian timber, terrible dry-rot fungus, the whole thing, sliding down into the sea and washed away forever on the tides.
And yet now I sometimes think:
Where did all that wood go that Garth had been selling for years? And what of all those spores I'd breathed and touched and rolled around in? And sometimes when I think things like that it makes me feel quite ill.
I suppose I shall just have to wait and see ... .