Everyone knows the stories about the marshes. The coach that got lost there, the lights that lead down impossible roads, the sounds. The music. Everyone knows and everyone, as they do in all the places which are old and not quite uninhabited, keeps it in the corner of their eye. There are certain conversations you don’t have, certain things you must accept as part of village life. On occasion, certain funerals to attend.
Sam’s old guard though, from the time before the time. He’s alone now, his poor wife passed a few years back and he keeps himself to himself. There was some business with the old house, something unpleasant that he was indirectly involved in and it broke him. That much is clear from the moment Sam comes in; he’s a little stooped, unsure, grey where he used to be black, the magnificent old motor car outside,once the first in the village, now as old and as slightly tattered as it’s owner. There’s still marsh mud on the wheel hubs and it’s matched by the mud on his shoes. Sam’s been out walking, and that’s never a good thing.
She walks in the marsh.
But then again, no one talks about that. Except Sam.
He’s greeted warmly though, the old guard knowing what he’s been through, what’s coming, happy to see part of the town’s history alive and well and muddy-shoed. Sam politely checks in with the few old faces he remembers, listens with interest to the few young faces who’ve survived to adulthood. For their part, they look at Sam the same way they look at his motor car; like a fascinating antique, something in surprisingly good condition because it’s been left alone for years and years. He’s vintage, a class act, proper, completely and totally out of place. Everyone checks in on him, not just because it’s been a while but because they know why he’s here.
It’s the story.
It’s always the story. The one about the woman, and the young man and the deaths.
There are empty chairs in the pub because of the story, your school photograph was tiny because of the story. The story has been part of the town from the start and whilst you always knew Sam had been a part of it, you never expected to see him here, in the flesh. Sam and the young man, and the dead woman, and the ghosts, were part of whispered conversation after dinner, the one word in three you caught crouched on the stairs listening to the grown ups talk. Listening to them weep. Watching them hold each other through the bannisters. It was all a game, all grown up and adult and exciting and all on the other side of the coin to the endless funerals, the bitterness in the Priest’s voice, the dead eyes of parents with no one to look after. Now it’s real, now it’s in front of you, now Sam is talking about the fire. The way the young man, Arthur Sam thinks he was called and you know, you know he knows full damn well the young man’s name. The way Arthur dived into the flames, what he said he saw there. The more Sam talks, the more animated he becomes and you can see the years fall away like the mud from his shoes. This is a man recanting an adventure and as he keeps talking, you get a sense of the showman to this polite old man as much a part of the town’s history as the Earth it’s built on. He’s changing the language, the timbre of how people talk, adapting it for his modern audience and whilst he falters a little he never loses the beat, the pace of the events. The dog, that you know was vital to so much, is relegated to a guest appearance whilst the horrors the young man saw, the things Sam has no way of knowing for sure, are embellished and polished. In his hands, in his words, they become oil slick pieces of night, a horror moving across the world with as much sadness as rage.
He stops short and you know what he’s not talking about, see the shape of it in the story. You can see the chubby little boy, his face mottled by years beneath the waves, hear his voice as he calls to his father. You can see every inch of this man wanting to do nothing but more run to his child and knowing that the second he does, he’s lost. Sam was wounded by this town long, long ago and he’s never recovered. The only way he’s kept going is by seeing, understanding, trying to throw his arms around the impossible, give it shape and form and imprison it.
Lock her in words so she can’t take any more children.
He failed. He knows it. It’s not killed him and he wishes it had. You can see that from the way he moves and talks, the way the story follows a parabolic arc out of his mouth and up to the glorious, horrifying insanity of Sam and Arthur hauling a carriage with a dead child aboard out of the marshes and down to the moment where he says goodbye to Arthur, unaware of exactly how final that goodbye will be. For a brief shining moment, you see him for what he was; a proud, vital, kind man who had refused to let tragedy break him and loved his wife desperately. In a kinder town Sam would have been a mayor or a headmaster. In this town he’s an antique people forgot to polish.
There’s silence after he finishes speaking, as always there is. The entire pub has gravitated towards and around him and his silence is like a light going out, it changes the tone of the room. Sam, bless him, knows when his time’s up and makes polite, faked excuses and leaves. You see him look at every empty chair on the way out and, against your better judgement you watch him leave.
You’re not alone in doing it. At the far end of the street, positioned so Sam can see her but no one else can, is the woman no one talks about, the one who hasn’t been alive for decades now. She makes Sam see her as he drives past and there’s just a hint of a chubby face and a smile to her right side. You close your eyes and remember the old man’s broken voice, just for a second. Then you open them and watch as his headlights become an abstraction, a hint, a ghost. Sam does this every few years, and he won’t be back for a while. He’s told the story, warned a new generation. Now he’s just another of the ghost lights, twinkling dimly, somewhere over the marsh.