In my Hector Mortlake books, the plot is interspersed with stories told by other characters. Here is an extract from the latest, the third adventure, during which Laird Baird recounts a strange encounter from his childhood.
When I was what the native speakers around these parts would call a ‘wee boy’, I attended the little school down in the village. The establishment was an indulgence of my father’s, a kind of patronising, philanthropic gesture. In reality I believe he was trying to ensure that the next generation of tenants in the crofts on his land were at least halfway literate. I was sent there, I suspect, to see if my father’s money was being well spent, and it was my sorry lot in life to endure complementary tuition every evening at the feet of my governess, the formidable Miss Trout.
All that is background to the crux of my tale. One afternoon – I must have been seven or eight years old at the time, if you can imagine such a thing – I was late home from school. There was no particular reason for it; I was merely dawdling along. Lollygagging, you might say. Footling about. Idling away the time. I was reluctant to get to Miss Trout’s lessons, which seemed to consist of knocking the local accent out of me. I was beaten as soundly as a rug, infested as I was with the vowel sounds and cadences of my classmates.But never mind any of that.
There I was, as I say, ambling through the valley, absently admiring nature’s beauty in small details: the hairs on a thistle, the splash of heather across the grass – when my eye fell upon a circle in the sward. The grass was of a darker colour describing the circumference and the blades seemed to be growing in a different direction to the rest. I knew what it was at once.
A fairy ring!
The schoolmistress, Miss Gander, had warned us of these things, declaring them to be as deadly as a body of water that has a kelpie in it.
Naturally, as a seven-year-old boy, I was thrilled to bits to find such a phenomenon but the teacher’s words echoed in my mind. I must not set foot in it or dire consequences would befall me and it would be my own stupid fault.
In the interests of science, namely to see what would happen, I scoured around for a pebble to toss into the centre of the ring. I was not a bad shot and quite the champion hopscotch player in the school’s tiny yard.
My little stone just sat where it landed, exactly as one would expect.
After five minutes of watching, I gave up and turned my back, resuming my homeward course. I had not gone more than a dozen steps when I was struck on the back of the head by a stone – my stone! I wheeled around but could see no assailant. The circle in the grass lay empty.
A chill ran through me and I was covered in goose pimples from the crown to the toe, as though I had very recently been plucked. An icy breeze curled around my bare knees, tugging at the kilt I was obliged to wear. On that breeze, or in it, for aught I could tell, came girlish laughter. I spun around again.
“Who’s there?” I stammered, my throat suddenly dry.
The breeze stopped. I stood stock still, too terrified to move or to run away.
“Show yourself!” I commanded, doing my best to sound as fearsome as Miss Trout.
The breeze whooshed around me; I tried to swat it away like a swarm of midges. The air shimmered. A twisting column filled the fairy ring and a figure appeared – the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
My height she was, but her slender, elongated limbs made her seem taller. Her hair was green as luscious grass and bedecked with garlands of daisies. Her skin was pale. Opalescent, you might say, and her eyes were large, like perfect emeralds. Her garments seemed to be fashioned from mist sewn together with cobwebs and studded with dewdrops.
This beautiful creature giggled and my head swam and my heart swam and my entire being was giddy with bliss.
If you have ever been in love, you will have some slight inkling of what I experienced. I was a seven-year-old boy – what did I know of falling in love? Now, at ten times that age, I am not sure I know any more on that subject than I did then.
But I knew, deep in the core of my soul, I loved her and I always would.
“I am called Merridew,” she said without speaking. “What be you?”
“I’m Jonathan,” I somehow managed to get out – or perhaps she plucked it from my head like one of her daisies from a meadow.
“Shall we play?” she smiled and all my insides melted like butter yielding to a heated knife.
We chased around the valley and rolled down the slopes. We paddled in the burbling brook and hopped from stone to stone. We blew dandelion clocks and made wishes – until a cold thought struck me: I must have been gone for hours. Miss Trout would have reported my absence. Father would be both worried and furious. He would have men out searching for me, beating the bushes as though I were a recalcitrant grouse.
“I have to go,” I announced, and we were both flooded with sorrow. “But I’ll come again tomorrow.”
“Aye,” said Merridew sadly. “If tomorrow comes. You must tell no one about me, or you will see me no more for as long as you live.”
She stepped into the fairy ring and vanished. I thought I caught a glimpse of gossamer wings at her shoulder blades but too soon the vision was gone, evaporated and lost, like the sudden awakening from a delicious dream.
I ran home at full pelt, as though that would diminish the punishment I had coming. Miss Trout was waiting for me on the front steps. How hideous she was in comparison with my new friend – my new love!
“You are just in time,” she declared. She marched off to the classroom. Puzzled, I checked the hall clock. I was only ten minutes behind my usual homecoming. How odd!
Needless to say, I took in nothing of Miss Trout’s lessons that evening. I have some vague memory of her rapping my knuckles with a ruler for something or other. Nor did I get any sleep that night as I relived the afternoon I had spent with Merridew and I anticipated, with unbearable eagerness, seeing her again the following day.
How the time dragged! And how I longed to tell someone – anyone! – about my fairy friend. But she had told me not to and so I did not.
Well, not directly, anyway.
The last hour of the school day was given over to drawing. Miss Gander doled out coloured chalks for our slates and we were instructed to depict our favourite flowers. Which seven-year-old boy does not have a favourite flower? All of them, I imagine.
I lost myself in that hour, the chalks skidding and smudging across the slate until its entire surface was covered. Miss Gander, touring the room to inspect our efforts, took up my slate and frowned.
“Jonathan Baird, what is this?”
It was my turn to frown. “Do ye no like it, Miss Gander?” How Miss Trout would thrash me for that!
“It’s – it’s – beautiful!” the teacher gasped. “But it’s no exactly what I asked ye to do.”
She showed me my own drawing.
The face of Merridew smiled at me from the slate.
“It’s just lovely. And the detail! And technique – how did ye –”
But Miss Gander’s questions were drowned out by a chant that arose from the other bairns.
“Bairdie’s got a girlfriend! Bairdie’s got a girlfriend!” they repeated, to my vexation, embarrassment and mounting fury. I snatched back the slate and, with tears springing from my eyes, erased the picture with my sleeve.
“She is not! She is not!” I cried. My stomach tightened like a fist and I hoped I had not said too much.
After school, I ran and ran, my face still hot with emotion, to the valley and the spot where I had found the fairy ring.
But of course, it was not there.
I have not spoken of it until now. I tried to live my life in the manner expected of me. I studied, I grew, I married, became a father and all the rest of it – all out of duty – but nothing, no joy, no feeling ever came close to that meeting with Merridew.
I devoted my time and all the resources I could muster to finding her again. This library was accumulated over the decades that have elapsed since that lovely afternoon.
But it has all come to naught. And now my grandson has disappeared – or perhaps he has been taken as punishment for my transgression. And I fear I shall see neither him nor Merridew again.