The Way To Strangton: Part II

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For half an hour he drove, flat out; through the winding, turning country roads which only seemed to want to slow him down. He had an eerie feeling that even though he was clearly moving, he wasn’t going anywhere. He didn’t stop to go to the toilet, urine could be traced. Nor did he stop for food when he got hungry. He tried to carry on as he did before and, but for the nagging, anxious chill in his body, he did. He desperately tried to get his mind off the events of the past hour. He noted many things of interest going on in this part of the country. There was a vintage car rally at an old manor house he passed; and what appeared to be a Victorian country fayre on in one of the fields. Had it not been for the events of the day, he would have stopped to see it, but the nagging chill stopped him with a resounding "no". Something that unnerved Ted about the people he saw were the looks he received, especially from the children. They all seemed to wander about him, like thoughts wandered about the head. He got the impression that they didn't like city-types in Strangtonshire.

The road had become more of a path at this point. He drove between two small, stone walls with two sets of thin wheel tracks between them. Nevertheless, he kept on driving. His current plan was to carry on as if nothing had happened, while trying not to leave any clues to his identity, and to live out his days in the country as a happy man. Then it suddenly dawned on him that he still didn't know where Strangton was. He had to stop to ask for directions. In his mind, he slowly considered the possibilities of any actions he might take. He needed directions, he didn’t need to be caught. He decided that he needed directions more. He stopped at the nearest farmstead, got out of the car and walked to the large farm gate. It had enormous, rounded hedges either side of it, which made it hard to see the farm itself. As he peered over the gate, he saw what appeared to be a small cottage about half a mile away. In the near distance he could make out someone working in the fields. He marched towards the figure. As he got closer, he made out a small boy in a flat cap and trousers a size too big wielding a scythe twice his size. This he did with quite some skill, however Ted thought that sharp objects and children were not to be combined. As he approached, the boy noticed him and stopped working. He stood holding the scythe upright. It was almost comical. He looked like the Grim Reaper of midgets. The boy, who couldn’t have been older than seven, gave him a stern, questioning look. Ted didn’t know what to say. The expression held on the boy’s face. Ted chose not to speak, but to back away slowly. He then heard a shockingly reassuring sound.

“Hullo, down there,” he turned to see yet another friendly country face march towards him. Ted looked back. The boy was still there, still sternly staring. “Take no notice of him, sir, he means no offence,” said the man, “ he does not often see people of such stature and breeding as yourself.” Ted was pleasantly surprised by this. The words “stature” and “breeding” came into his everyday use, but not once were they ever used to describe him.

“Well,” he replied, bashfully, “I wouldn’t sat that.”

“No, no, no sir,” the man insisted, “It is indeed a pleasure to see a man of your kind in our humble fields. How may I be of service?” he questioned, half-bowing.

“Oh, well. I just wondered if I was heading the right way for Strangton.”

“Strangeton, sir?” the man replied, “Strangeton’s not more than half a day’s journey from here, due north.”

“So I am going the right way.”

“Indeed you are, sir.”

“Alright then, thank you kindly.” He shook the man’s rough, hard worn hands and strode triumphantly back to his car. The man and his son semi-escorted him back to the gate, at which point Ted bid them farewell and got back into his car. The two stared in wonderment at him. Ted thought they were overdoing it a bit, but he didn’t mind. As he happily drove away, he didn’t hear what the man said.

“See that, son, that’s a rich man,” he tutored his boy. “What great folk the rich must be. Now they don’t even need horses.”

Ted was now driving through the leafy forest tracks. The leaves rustled in the wind and vague shapes of light broke through the canopies. It was a beautiful sight to behold; it seemed untouched, yet somehow shaped by someone or something. Momentarily, Ted forgot the worries of the past few hours. His mind was now at peace. His head was clearer, yet much lighter. He imagined the spring glades and pine clearings. The fresh air invigorated him. It felt timeless. He couldn’t explain it in words, or images, or feelings. It was almost magical. He could hear haunting music coming from the trees. It seemed to be following him through the forest. Ted realised that it wasn’t just his imagination. It was definitely a woodwind instrument being played, rather badly. It was beginning to irritate him now, like a small fly trying to enter his mouth. It continued to come from all directions, it wouldn’t go away. Ted had to find out what on earth could be making such an awful racket. He stopped the car abruptly and got out. Behind him stood a man with a large white beard, wearing a white gown, and playing a wooden flute, badly. He pranced oddly as if he was trying to tap dance barefoot on hot coals. The man stopped playing and looked about himself oddly. From behind him he pulled a large chain of rather grubby items. On closer inspection, they appeared to be parts of long-dead animals. Bones, stones and other things unrecognisable to the human eye. The man seemed to find Ted’s gaze at last and smiled with bloody, stained teeth.

“Lucky charm, sir?” he asked

“You WHAT?”

“Lucky charm, Toe of Joseph, Eye of Gabriel, Corn of St. Barnabus, I got ‘em all, sir.”

“Oh, those things. No, I don’t think I need one of those.”

“Sure you do, sir. They work on all sorts of things. Cure ailments, remove curses, ease guilt.”

“What?” Ted barked.

“Guilt, sir. It makes a burden that much lighter to bare, sir.” Ted stared at the man, horrified.

“Wh...why...wh.. What on earth would I be guilty for?”

“Don’t know sir,” the man said, smiling with the expression of one whose place was, most definitely, in the right. “But we all got one, don’t we?”

“Got what?”

“Guilty somethingorother sir. A secret, a deed. Something which nags on the soul like a chill wind, sir.” Ted had been scanning the man’s face during this time. He was indeed a haggard, weird looking man. His features looked like they had been taken from somebody else’s face and sowed on with a blunt needle. However, there was a certain comfort in the man’s voice. Before Ted stood a man who knew exactly what he was doing, where he was going and where he had been, conning innocent travellers into buying complete rubbish and pocketing the profits. Ted found this especially awe inspiring from a man who was totally blind, for the man’s eyes were all white. But Ted was too scared to take advice from a man who preyed on people with a God-fearing nature.

“Why are you doing this to me?” he asked anxiously.

“Well, everyone’s got a make a living, sir. I sell charms that have been blessed by the Almighty, and that’s the truth, so help me God. I followed you through the forest in order to offer you the opportunity to make peace with God.”

“You’re blind,” continued Ted, looking for a chink in the salesman’s armour, “how did you know I was here?”

“Well, I smelled thee, sir, so to speak. I was wanderin’ through the forest and I smelled something like a fire. ‘Funny, smellin’ fire’, I thoughts to myself. So I followed thee until you got out of yer’ cart. And that’s why we’re speakin’ now, sir.” Ted was still trying to convince himself that this man was indeed a con artist, and tried hard to believe that the man had not mentioned the words “nagging chill”.

“Well, whatever it is you’re selling, I want no part in it.” Ted arrogantly turned back to his car.

“Fair enough, sir. But let me warn thee, a guilty conscience grows as a child. With its size it consumes, with its age it corrupts. Anyone who bears such evil for too long will undoubtedly become wholly, irreparably evil.” Ted stopped in his tracks. He slowly turned around and reluctantly strode back to the pauper.

“Alright,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I’ll take one.” He handed the pauper a few coins, snatched a trinket off him, and marched back to the car door. He peered at the strange thing in his hand.

“What is this?”

“Ohhh, that?,” said the man, fumbling the piece of rope for the missing item. “Sheep’s Toe, sir. Good for almost anything.” Unimpressed, Ted got back in the car. He looked at the man in his mirror, who seemed to be cheerfully mumbling something or other about one of something being born every minute. Ted turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear and pressed the accelerator. To his surprise, he was moving backwards, and accelerating. He looked about him and nothing seemed to be wrong. The car halted with a sharp, dull thud. At first he couldn’t work it out. Then, slowly but surely, recognition dawned on his face. He didn’t know what to think. Whether to pray, or to cry, or to run. His breathing became heavy and uncomfortably tense; he had sharp stabbing pains in his chest and was losing all feeling in his hands. From what he knew he was in shock or was having an anxiety attack. He scrambled for the paper bag full of liquorice allsorts out of the glove compartment and emptied them out messily on the floor. He put the bag to his mouth and breathed in and out of it as slowly as he could. The smell of liquorice seemed to calm him somewhat. After a while, when he felt stable enough, he used his free hand to open the car door and stepped out, still breathing into the paper bag. Walking to the back of the car, he saw the mud brown, cloth-covered feet that belonged to the old man sticking out in front of the rear wheel. The rest of him that wasn’t under the car stuck out of the back. In vain he took a pulse, but it didn’t take a genius to work out he was dead. Another man dead. Once in a lifetime was just about bearable, but twice in a day, it would take a special kind of stupidity to do that. Of course, the police wouldn’t see it like that. In their eyes, he had now been promoted to the rank of serial killer. Now he was a special case, to be singled out. In other words, a psychopath. Blood was now slowly trickling down into the man’s yellowy-brown teeth and ran into the vastly decayed crevices and rotten gorges between them. By the smell of him, it seemed like he had been deceased for at least a week or so, but it was still another dead man. Ted was now wondering how the man felt when he died. His morbid imagination began to run wild on the concept. He could see through the man’s eyes now, so to speak. Seeing the darkness, followed by a succession of swift blows to the back, falling straight onto his head, feeling the crack of his neck. Then the darkness faded, only to reveal more darkness; leaving a sightless world to join a senseless one. Ted had given up all hope of trying and left the body where it lay in the mud. As he drove away from his second victim, he saw the small sign reading: “Strange Town, 40 miles”.

Ted wasn’t seen or heard of for two weeks after that. When the police found him he was shambling down the A11, his clothes ragged and stained with all manner of substances; his face was grubby, his hair unkempt. They took him in and he confessed to two murders, which he had supposedly committed in the last fortnight. One vaguely matched a police file of a murder that happened ten years before, the other seemed like the ramblings of a drunkard. He was charged with wasting police time and recommended for psychiatric evaluation. The psychologist reviewing his case was not too impressed either, but was intrigued by the one thing Ted said had finally driven him mad. After many hours of driving and roughing it on the road, his car had broken down. He had to walk the rest of the way, but stopped when he saw something. Something that filled him with dread: a strange group of people in the middle of the lane. Upon closer inspection, he said, he saw a bunch of Romans. They were digging up his road.

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