The Foggy Foggy Night
Apart from the soft “Tap, tap, tap” of my walking stick on the quarry flag pavement, the night was eerily silent. Cut off from the world of sound by its profound silence, and from the world of sight by the wet dense fog that choked my throat, I had little idea how far I had walked or how much time had passed since I had left the yellow lights of the Bore and Pigskin, after warming myself through my heavy coat with the warm glow of the open coal fire. It seemed that as the lights faded behind me, the fog swirled in wrapping me in isolation so intense that the fear was tangible against the inside of my ribs.
When the fog assumed impenetrable Gothic proportions I paused to mull over whether to try to find my way back to the cheerful hostelry, or to make a brave effort to pick my way home from memory using the old man’s walking stick as my eyes. I pulled up my collar and set off with short shuffling steps, feeling the path ahead.
Several times kerb edges surprised me, causing me to stumble, but although I almost plunged headlong onto a cobbled street, I managed to stay from falling. I knew that had I fallen, I could have lain unassisted in the deserted street, and even risked being run over by a foolhardy motorist with little regard for anyone’s safety, including his own, who might risk bumping along in the hope that he could find his way to wherever it was he deemed it necessary for him to be.
More care was, I decided, essential if I was to complete my expedition with any degree of safety. Consequently, after shuddering off the dread thought of bleeding to death after being struck by a careless, possibly inebriated, motorist, my steps became shorter, my tappings more regular, and I began to trust my senses less and less.
The isolation from sound and sight was heightened as the cold bit into my flesh, numbing my face, hands, and feet. “Not much further,” I told myself, knowing that I was a good two miles from home when I had first ventured, and having no way to mark the passing of familiar landmarks or street signs with which to gauge my progress. I tried to whistle up my courage, but my throat, mouth, and lips were dry from mounting anxiety, and no sound would come. Silence prevailed.
I stared dead ahead hoping to catch a glimpse of something familiar should I encounter a thin patch of the encircling gloom. But the curling tongues of soot-laden mist seemed to thicken, and my gaze became like that of a man mesmerised at the mercy of another’s will. The imaginings began to form shapes in the darkness. Small shapes seemed like common objects, except they would not have been outdoors. It was not long before the shapes assumed immense proportions, looming over me like houses on the move threatening to crush me.
I stopped, screwed up my eyes, and told myself to take hold of my mind and not to yield to the madness of imagined images that I perceived as superlatively real. I stood alone in the night of darkness that beggared all darkness I had before encountered and took stock of my situation. I began to tremble as the hopelessness of my situation suggested itself to me and amplified itself as the silence became deafening as if it were screaming, and the darkness deepened, even as I knew that it could not get darker than it had already grown.
I despaired. I realised that I did not even know in which direction I was facing. I scraped my stick along the pavement and felt a kerb to my left, and then reaching out to the right it struck some iron railings guarding the well of a cellar door. Holding the railing would have kept me straight, but it was common for some householders to let their gates swing back, leaving a dangerous trap for the unwary, and I could not risk falling down a flight of stone steps and being dead before I reached the bottom.
Although fear had replaced my initial apprehension, that fear now gave way to terror as the possibility that I could walk past my house and end up at the end of the paved road where the country lanes began by the old wooden river bridge. On such a night I feared drowning in the cold with none to help, and no one to hear my screams as I floundered in the stream before succumbing to the cold and gulping in lungs full of turgid water. This night there were so many ways a man alone might die a violent death and not be missed.
When the full range of my situation finally entered my mind, I cried out to a deaf world for help. My screams seemed to die before they had gone more than a few inches from my throat. Now I knew that not only cold sight, sound, and feeling enter my mind and body, but they could not escape it either.
I experienced an aloneness that seemed determined to turn my mind from its normal analytical calmness into an alien mind that misinterpreted every thought that raced through it as I clamoured for escape. The handle of the walking stick gripped for grim death in my right hand felt like jelly. I could not trust anything that the tip seemed to feel, because it had become unreliable, and turned from being my helper and saviour, as I had earlier considered it to be, into an enemy, a serpent, a betrayer. Yet, it was the only thing in the world that I could hold on to. There was nothing else.
Cautiously and timorously I thought I would go a little further. Surely I would know when I got to my customary surroundings – or would I. I didn’t know, and I could not focus my mind to settle to reason and provide even simple answers to my appalling dilemma that would help me to persevere with a spark of assurance. My tears froze to my face as I vacillated between lying down and sleeping, perhaps to death, and trudging onward into nothingness. I leaned forward to feel with the writhing serpent where I could in safety place my timid feet; afraid of open cellar gates, open coal chutes, high kerbs, and God forbid! the river’s slippery bank.
But, the reptile made no sound as I attempted to touch it to the ground. I tightened every muscle in my body as an awful and terrible dread seized me by the throat. Again, I tapped at the ground, but it was not there. I was stood on the edge of a precipice, and my life was in immediate danger. A thousand questions came. Was the edge on which I stood a crumbling verge ready to give way and plunge me to my death hundreds of feet below in a dark pit? Would I die before I hit the bottom, or would I bounce off first one wall and then another as I hurtled to a bloody and painful death in the darkness? Would I ever be found, or would I lie so deep below the surface of the earth that discovery would be impossible? What could I do? How could I escape?
I must go back. Whereas some time ago, perhaps an hour, I was determined to continue, now I had no choice. I must return the way I came or perish in seconds. Slowly, I turned without moving my feet from the spots on which I had paused. Too swift a movement might cause the cliff’s edge to break away and launch me to presaged doom. It took me, I estimated, fifteen minutes before I could complete the manoeuvre. Time was unimportant, but safety was. When I thought I was faced about, I felt again for the ground to retrace my steps to the inn and asylum.
Yet, again, the ground was gone! As frantically as I dared, I tried to find solid foundation on which to set my feet. There was none. My heart seemed as if it would burst! The earth was breaking up all around me and there was none to help!
Desperately I felt to my left side, the to my right side, then behind me and in front of me again, repeating these actions until I was exhausted from the effort to find solid ground across which to escape from the pinnacle on which I had been abandoned by cruel fate and a brass-bound heaven, for none heard my orisons, and as I shrieked the most unearthly sounds I have ever heard, the echoes of them came back to mock me and I knew that I must stand motionless until morning when the fog might lift and men go about their lawful occasions would detect me and recognising my plight would render assistance to rescue me and carry me to a haven of safety.
Until then, I must remain motionless and awake, and not move to the right or to the left even as the horrid shapes flew towards me with talons open and their great maws wide in hideous, mocking taunts. I knew they were trying to make me move and commit myself to the demise they had planned for me, and I even knew why they hated me. As I was wise enough to apprehend their motives, so was I also wise enough not to let them prevail. I let out a brief laugh to let them know that I knew what they were doing and why, but they drew themselves down so close to my head when I did so that I resolved not to taunt them again with my derision, lest they, by my default, should succeed in their wretched plan.
I would wait them out, and when the night was gone and the fog dispersed their power would evaporate with them and I would be the victor, and they the vanquished. I closed my eyes so as not to see them, but their powers let some through to torment me, so I screwed them tighter, and pulled my hat down by its brim to cover my eyes, and held my arms around my shaking body, my right hand still gripping the accursed rod. I WOULD save my life! They would NOT take me!
They found him next morning stood in the middle of the High Street. He was quite mad. Locked in a self-embrace, trembling like an aspen, his eyes closed so tight that his lids were bloodless, his hat pulled low on his face, he held in the frozen fingers of his right hand a stout walking cane from which the lower twelve inches had broken off.
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