by Mark Rice
Mimicking the movements of my friend David, I clambered over a broken wooden fence next to the rusted grill of a sewage burn in Mossneuk. We waded through ankle-deep marshland for twenty minutes, after which the sogginess underfoot gave way to an expanse of knee-high yellowed grass. Beyond the treeline on the horizon, David told me, was a ruin: a secret. A long-forgotten place. He had discovered it while roaming with his golden retriever, Saxon, and had returned often to sit surrounded by ancient stone, far from the rest of the world and safe from modernity’s mundanity.
We passed beneath a row of evergreens where the scent of pine hung in the air. It was then that I saw the Hauntie for the first time, standing alone like a broken stone sentinel amid a field of extraordinary green. Next to the crumbling farmhouse were two standing stones, one of around six feet tall and the other half that size. As David explained that the stones marked the burial spots of the old farmer and his dog who had lived in the farmhouse, the hairs on my arms and neck pricked to attention. Goosepimples rose on my skin and, despite the biting cold, I felt my face flush. The farmhouse’s walls were jagged jigsaws. Its once-roof was crumbling dust beneath our boots. Weeds and wild grass grew as high as rotting remnants of a ragged door that had kept rain, wind and snow from the weather-whipped faces of a hard-working man-of-the-land and his dog. I was ten years old and David was thirteen. Fixing me with a hazel-eyed stare, he said, “If you sit inside these walls in silence you can hear his voice, his breathing, but only if your mind is open and you listen with your whole being.”
Then I heard the other’s voice. I wanted to run, but the awesome weight of fear pressed down on me, so frozen I sat - my heart hammering against petrified ribs - and waited. Windy whispers ricocheted off randomly fallen rock: ghosts visiting old haunts. Those were l o n g minutes. I contracted every muscle to keep the fear from sneaking in. Then, suddenly, a change began; I relaxed and opened myself, felt fear blow through my body and away, like black clouds clearing to leave a clear blue sky. Owning only a wide-eyed child’s stare, I turned echoes in the empty shack into friends.
David and I, wild free souls, sat without a care for hours; talking, listening, fuelled by the feelings of the ramshackle ruin. We imagined the old man’s hard life and spoke of his dreams, while wintry gusts gave clues to days long past. We became fast friends, the four of us: David; me; the dog ever loyal; and the grizzled farmer, the old king who reigned over the place we called the Hauntie.
That was more than two decades ago. One day men came with cold, unfeeling metal machines to bulldoze our Hauntie and build houses there. No one listened to the cries of the two wee boys who threw stones at the murdering machines and tried to bargain with the foreman as his slaves tore down our sanctuary; to our minds they were crude anti-alchemists sent from Hell to transmogrify the spiritual into the profane. On one frozen night, as a crescent-moon hid behind a thin veil of cloud, the night watchman phoned the police to report two kids who had trapped him inside his hut by wrapping it in barbed wire, after which the young delinquents had begun breaking his JCBs. An hour later two weighty policeman, exhausted after trudging through fields, called David and me ‘little bastards’ as we vaulted a fence and disappeared into the darkness. As I ran with the wind in my sails, I wondered, ‘Do bastards protect what they love?’
The landscape there is different now. Houses multiply like concrete bacteria. Neighbours congregate and talk about the trivial, unaware of what they replaced: our secret place; our dreams; our old friends. Sony-sponsored kids grow up there now, surrounded by concrete and chrome, with no clue that they live in a graveyard.
The real meaning of that place lives on only in the minds of two - once boys - now men, who sometimes hear a whisper on the wind, sparking smiles, hopes and memories. Each time it proves to be just the wind. That gentle voice will never be heard again. His strong old whispers are gone forever.