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Symbol Stone Chapter 3

by Anglisutuel 

Posted: 18 July 2005
Word Count: 2851
Summary: Next instalment!

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Chapter Three

We watch the train rushing into the night, leaving behind the cities of the South. It is purposeful this journey.

It was a journey, nothing more nothing less. 600 miles by train. The mechanics of travel ordinary and modern. They had a sleeping compartment, his mother called it a couchette with everything compressed into it neatly, and they passed the evening in the restaurant car rattling north playing cards, talking. It was nice in a way to have time together like that, making private jokes about the other people on the train, particularly the stewardess in the dining car furnished like a lounge in a tragically out dated hotel. Low, ugly brown chairs on swivel bases arranged around wood-effect tables presided over by a blowsy blonde called Vera with an interfering manner. She was too attentive and eventually they left her and the dining car to go back to their sleeper and get ready for bed.

Cal took the top bunk and slid into its narrowness between cold sheets tucked too tightly – he shoved the stone under the pillow. Mairi kept her light on, busy with her notes. “Night, darling,” she said and he fell asleep quickly.

The two figures stand again.
“Show him the place, show him the stones,” the Patternmaker says.
“I have, Cailliach, I have,” he replies wordlessly.

Cal did not know what woke him in the cold moments before dawn. He was stiff, and his head was awash with remnants of dream images flying before the thin grey light let in through the frosted glass. He blinked, not feeling good, a sour taste in his mouth. Among the fugitive pictures was an odd place shaded by big, dark trees, damp short grass, and large mounds of grey stones ranged around stayed in his mind. There were big flat standing stones in this place too. Even as he came round, he could still almost feel their mottled texture of the lichens on their ancient surface. In his dream he had known his way around this place. He had known exactly where to find a low passageway leading tunnel-like deep into the heart of one of the mounds. He had known that he must go into it even though it was cold, cold as death.

Cal reached beneath the thin pillow and felt for his stone. It was there, hot against the cold air. Sliding it back into the pouch, he lay and listened to his mother’s even sleeping breaths regular and calming and tried to piece together his thoughts about the stone. He wondered about the intermittent power that surged through it at times, the warnings it seemed to give him. He knew as surely as if he had been told that it carried a message, but equally he knew it was beyond his understanding.

At first he did not notice the change –sound was muted, the insistent thrumming of the train’s wheels on the tracks suddenly distant – but then he became aware of a ghostly glimmer of light seeping in. It was then that he realised as if in a nightmare, that he could not move. He lay rigid not even able to panic.

“Child, you have something that is not yours. Give it to me” she said, the voice saccharine and deadly. There in the compartment was the stewardess Vera, her face white and ghostly. She was reaching up to him.

And then it was over.

“Cal,” mother’s voice came in the darkness, “are you OK?” bleary with sleep.

He managed to speak, to say “yes” over the noise of the train.

“You must have been dreaming. You shouted out really loudly. Anyway I’m here, so go back to sleep. “The pitch of the train changed momentarily as it surged on.

“Night,” he said quietly

“Night, darling.”

Had he been dreaming, he wondered? But he could not answer and he could not shake off the image of that woman standing by the bunk. It was the stuff of nightmares.
- - -

In the morning, the only real disappointment with the sleeper was that he couldn’t see out. Clouded glass did ensure privacy, but didn’t do much for the view. They took turns in getting dressed as there wasn’t room for the two of them to stand at once, and then they ventured out to get some breakfast. Swaying towards the link between the carriages, they had to steady themselves as they went. The windows in the corridor were clear and Cal saw daylight flickering on fields and the darker green of pines on the hills. Colour shone out strong and true.

Crossing between the carriages, there was a blast of fiercely cold air and a roar of noise. Opening the door into the next carriage was like passing through an airlock, making it seem insulated and calm inside the restaurant car. It was early still. Vera appeared on cue, through a half-door, followed by another steward whom he had only glimpsed briefly when they boarded on the train.

“Why, if it isn’t young Cal and his mother,” Vera beamed at him, “bright and early I must say. I was going to come and knock on your door in a bit because you don’t want to be missing such a beautiful morning. Well I shan’t need to now! Come along – I’ve saved you the best table.”

“NO!” the word hisses like air being released under pressure. Released but not heard.

“Hot chocolate with your breakfast, young man? Coffee madam?” asked the other steward. He was less invasive.

“That would be lovely thanks,” Mairi answered for him before saying “just look at that Cal,” nodding at the landscape racing by. The views were awesome. They were among mountains or giant hills at the very least: bare, open, and grand. This was country to get lost in.

“Here we go now,” Vera deposited a tray in front of him with a flourish, “be sure you eat it all up now. You’re a growing boy.”

Mairi smiled at Vera and then, when her back was turned grimaced at Cal as if to let him know she found either the breakfast or its bearer off putting. The breakfast was an unappetising collation of individual portions in cellophane bags and plastic pots. Vera swung back to him with a pair of institutional coffee-pots, one with a brown dribble identifying its contents.

The dismal meal was hard to swallow, but they managed. Mairi started to tell him about the journeys on the train when she’d first gone to college. A young couple came in and took the table by the door. Instead of going to serve them, Vera appeared from the kitchen, strode straight past everyone to the door, and disappeared through the link into the next carriage.

“Vera!” the other steward sounded annoyed, interrupting his task, but she had left. Cal chewed on the tough croissant and thought. He remembered waking in the night, and he remembered the odd man’s warning, if that’s what it was.

Had Vera really been there last night? Why did he keep thinking that all these random, odd things were linked to the stone that sat now so heavily in his pocket.

Yes. He understands but doesn’t know why.

“Goodness knows what she thinks she is doing, just walking out during breakfast,” the steward muttered to himself as he passed, shaking his head. He doesn’t like her either, Cal thought. He washed the last bit of the pastry down with his over sweet chocolate and tried to concentrate on what his mother was saying. After a while, Vera returned bustling into the carriage affecting a look of great business.

“Vera,” the steward saw her, and headed after her. Cal heard him lecturing her in a low voice. Cal couldn’t actually see them, as they were at an angle behind him and he didn’t feel he could turn round and stare, but he gradually began to get the uncomfortable feeling that Vera was not really listening to her colleague, but looking past or through him at Cal. The hair on the back of his head began to rise and his scalp prickled. Warnings.

No. No. No. Normal people on a normal train, he thought to himself trying to will himself to relax.

Other people came into the restaurant car, filling up the tables.

“Let’s go back to the compartment Mum,” Cal said suddenly. Mairi looked surprised.

“Sure, Cal, if you want. Have you had enough to eat? Silly question,” she went on, “I’ve got some biscuits in my case which might just see us through.”

“Leaving us already?” asked the steward without really expecting an answer. He kept on with his work as they slid by him and out of the carriage.

“Hang on a moment, Cal; I’ve left my bag by the table. You go on ahead.”

Once more he swayed down the corridor. He looked out the window in the passageway. It would be nice to stand and watch the grand open spaces speeding by, but he was sure that sooner or later Vera would appear to bother him again. He turned to open the door into the sleeper. It folded itself open on its runners almost before his hand made contact with it. Funny. Surely Mairi had latched it more firmly than that when they’d gone for breakfast?

Cautiously, he went in. It was just as they left it, he thought at first glance, but then he knew without any doubt that his first thought had been wrong. It was in the little details. His bag of clothes was open slightly wider, his sponge bag not quite at the same angle. Someone had been in and had gone through his things – not Mairi’s, just his.

Instinct made him check on the stone in his pocket, even though he knew that it had been with him the whole time. Whoever had conducted the search had tried to return things to their proper places, but they had been in a hurry and had been careless. More worrying was the thought that that the person who had been in, rifling through his stuff did not care whether he could tell. Perhaps they even wanted him to know – a different kind of warning, a threat hanging before him.

“Speak to him,” the old woman’s sharp eyes flash from her weathered face, “they are closing in. Warn him.”
The Woodman returns her look wearily, “I do what I can Cailliach and no more, but I will try. There is not long now anyway.” Clouds gather around him once more.

It must have been Vera. She had been watching him from the first moment he had come aboard. She’d tried to get in during the night. He suddenly, urgently did not want to be on his own. He thrust the sleeper’s door open to go and find her. What he saw froze him to the spot.

The train raced on through woodlands glowing in the sunshine. A broad river ran on its stony bed between the railway and the trees. And there, as clear as day, was a man on entirely the wrong side of the window. He had long white hair pulled behind his head. Black eyes stared straight at Cal out of a face as lined with tattooed patterns as by age itself. He stood still and straight, impossibly he stayed level with the train for all its speed. The eyes were hypnotic, to be plunged into never to return. They were telling him something, something that Cal had to understand, that would explain it all. The figure was beckoning him. Cal began to step forward.

Simultaneously, the doors at either end of the carriage opened. Mairi came from the restaurant car and at the opposite end of the corridor a little girl preceded her mother enthusiastically. In the time it took to look from one to the other, the vision disappeared.

The last two hours of the journey seemed eternal – but normal. A boy and his mother eating biscuits, and waiting for a journey to end. Finally they arrived: “You wait here with our things Cal and I’ll go and get our case out of the luggage hold” Mairi, said and made off to the next carriage. Cal sat and waited, trying to manage his new anxiety. He cupped the stone in his hands. It grew warmer. The compartment door opened again, but it was not his mother.

“Inverness!” she announced and her voice grew large with surprise and discovery, “my, what is that pretty thing you’re holding?” Vera loomed over him, nightmare made flesh.

“Nothing, just a bit of flint,” Cal gasped out and clenched his fist over the stone desperately.

“Oh do let me see it,” her laugh was giggling and innocent, at odds with the way she filled the confined space. Cal took another nervous gulp and tightened his hold on the burning stone. The more firmly he held on, the more he felt as if a force was sapping his strength away from him. Everything stopped around him.

What would have happened if the other steward had not chosen to arrive at that moment, he could not guess. As the air was being sucked out of his lungs a voice broke the awful silence. The commonplace sound of the train returned.

“Vera. Vera!”

Like a balloon deflating, it was now an ordinary woman standing in front of him.

“Gone, she is gone,” they smile one to the other.

“Ahhh, there you are. People want their cases and you’ve got the keys, Vera. Hello young fellow-mi-lad,” he now smiled benignly at Cal before continuing to address Vera more sternly, “so get your self down there and open the store.”

Cal could not fail to notice the anger crossing Vera’s features before she turned abruptly and left. The other steward remained.

“Have you far to go after this?”

“No,” Cal was surprised to find he still had a voice, “to Cantray, my Granda’s meeting us.” his voice came out small and hesitant.

“Cantray is it? I mind Cantray well – I grew up Geddes way myself. Still live there. Who might your Granda be, then, as I surely know him?”

For a second Cal paused, scrutinising the man for any malign sign, but he found nothing. There was none of the desperate inquisition that he’d found so unnerving in the man on the beach.

“George MacPhee, he’s got the farm at the top of Cantray Brae.”

“Whisht, it’s a small enough world all right,” he patted Cal’s arm affectionately, “why I know your Granda’s house as well as I know my own. His brother and I used to run around up to no good when we were bairns. Your Granda you say? So who are you?”

“Mairi’s my Mum.”

“Mairi!” the steward looked very surprised and then looked more closely at Cal until he felt uncomfortable, even though the man still seemed kindly enough, “so you’re Mairi’s boy,” and there was some unspoken speculation in his voice. “Well I’d never have recognised your mother. Haven’t seen her since she was a girl, well well. I’m David, by the way, David MacLean,” and he held out his hand in greeting.

At that moment Mairi returned with their case “I thought there was something familiar about you,” she said, hearing his introduction, “but I couldn’t put my finger on it! How’s your uncle?”

“Aye, well, he’s no so nimble as he was but he’s much the same,” and the two chatted amiably as he helped them get their stuff onto the platform. Cal followed them still numb and shaken, but glad to be excluded by this adult talk. Vera did not come near them again.

“Here we go now; I’d recognise that hat in a blizzard. George MacPhee,” the steward hailed in a loud voice, cutting over a tannoy announcement.

“Well I’m blessed; it’s the young MacLean himself! What are you doing with my daughter and this young ragamuffin?” the old man shot a look over the two of them.

Cal watched, apart. He took in his grandfather’s massive rangy form; his weathered cheeks shot with tiny veins; and the huge slab-like hands slapping the steward on the shoulder. Finally his eyes came to rest on the battered tweed hat his grandfather always wore and, according to Mairi, had always worn.

“We saw your hat coming, Dad,” she said and laughed. The old farmer snorted, “hmm, your mother’s on at me to by a new one but this will do me fine for the rest of my days. Now, let’s have a look at you,” his beady eye held his daughter’s gaze without comment and then he turned his look on Cal, “not much to you yet is there lad?” but there was a distant kindness in the voice despite the dismissive words.

They took their leave of David MacLean, and the three of them walked away from the station. They did not see Vera frozen like a statue on the concourse watching their departure while passengers flowed by.

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Comments by other Members

joolsk at 14:20 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
I've started to look forward to the next chapters of your book.

Some specifics: Vera being described as 'blowsy' doesn't match with her face being 'white and ghostly' further on in the story.

'In the morning, the only real disappointment with the sleeper was that he couldn’t see out' reads as if a sleeper can't see out.

I took the Caledonian sleeper train from Euston to Inverness a week ago (and returned this morning) so your description of Cal's surroundings resonate truthfully to me.

Hope this helps.


Anglisutuel at 14:23 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
Yeah i wrote it after a trip up to a funeral in Inverness...

Luisa at 14:31 on 18 July 2005  Report this post

I'm afraid I have not had time to go back and read the previous chapters so I am coming into this at chapter 3. I found that this really drew me in, though, and it didn't matter too much that I didn't know the background - the chapter was gripping in its own right. I thought it was wonderfully written, and Cal's feelings and point of view came across very clearly - I particularly like the section with the conversation with David MacLean, and the comment that Cal is glad to be excluded from the 'adult talk'. It's such a common situation for any child, and I thought you captured the feel of it really well.

Sorry to not have any more helpful comments than this, but I thought my opinion might be useful to you anyway. This isn't the kind of children's book I've ever been drawn to read (or write) so I'm impressed that you drew me in so quickly.

I must go back and read your other chapters some time.


Anglisutuel at 15:15 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
That's very sweet of you - I'm really surprised and rather flattered that it could draw someone in without the background. Honestly, surely someone out there must ahve something horrid to say, I'm worried by how nice everyone is.

Luisa at 15:56 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
OK, I'm thinking hard here... I don't want you to think I'm not trying to think of something horrible to say! Well, this isn't horrible exactly, but Cal seems like a very serious boy, a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Of course, I don't know what's gone before, and perhaps he has good reason to be like this. But I suppose what I'm getting at is: is this the sort of personality you intended him to have? Could you perhaps be portraying Cal as a bit older than his years? (Again, I'm not sure how old he is.) I hope this makes sense. I'm wondering if he needs more of the child-like perceptions. I think that's why I liked that part about his exclusion from the adult talk so much - it gave Cal a childish voice. I think I wouldn't have minded more of that, although I'm not quite sure where exactly.

Bear in mind that I'm trying hard to think of a criticism here! Please feel free to tell me that I'm totally wrong!


Anglisutuel at 16:07 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
Well he does have the weight of the world on his shoulders a bit - he's rather freaked out by what's happened in the preceding chapters!

Luisa at 16:15 on 18 July 2005  Report this post
OK, I thought it might be something like that!

Please ignore my comments then - that's the trouble when you only know part of the story.

I'll make sure I read the previous chapters before I comment anymore. I'm sure none of your readers will start at chapter 3! :)



Nik Perring at 12:44 on 20 July 2005  Report this post
Great stuff again Adrian. Sorry to take so long getting to this. Don't think there's anything I can really say to critisize this without being stupidly picky. It's just really good.

Looking forward to the next bit.


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