Isolation story: (17) Monsters

Clancy the traveller (see story 12) visits a poet in an obscure provincial outpost. The one who is most isolated in this story is an animal, a kind of carnivorous horse, which has been shut away in solitary confinement all its life.

This story was first published in Interzone in 2003 and was collected in the Turing Test.


‘This is Dirk Johns, our leading novelist,’ said the poet’s mother, ‘and this is Lucille, who makes wonderful little landscapes out of clay…’

‘Oh, just decorative,’ protested the novelist’s tiny, bird-like wife, ‘purely decorative and nothing more.’

‘And this is Angelica Meadows, the painter.  You perhaps caught her recent exhibition in the Metropolis, Mr Clancy?  I believe it received very good notices.’

‘I believe I did hear something…’ I lied, shaking hands with a very attractive young woman with lively, merry eyes.  ‘I’m afraid I spend so little time in the Metropolis these days.’

‘And this,’ went on the poet’s mother, ‘is the composer, Ulrika Bennett.  We expect great things of her.’

No, I thought, looking into Ulrika Bennett’s cavernous eyes, great music will never come from you.  You are too intense.  You lack the necessary playfulness.

And then there was Ulrika’s husband, ‘the ceramicist’, and then an angry little dramatist, and then a man who uncannily resembled a tortoise, complete with wrinkled neck, bald head and tiny pursed little mouth.  

Well,’ I said, ‘I’m honoured.’

The tortoise was, it seemed, was ‘our foremost conductor and the director of our national conservatory.’

‘The honour is ours, Mr Clancy’ he said. ‘We have all read your extraordinary books, even out here.’

* * *

‘William!’ called the poet’s mother, ‘let us lead the way to dinner!’

The poet turned from a conversation with the painter Angelica.  He had wonderfully innocent blue eyes, which had the odd quality that, while they seemed terribly naked and vulnerable, they were simultaneously completely opaque. 

‘Yes, of course, mother’

He pushed her wheelchair through into the panelled dining room and the guests took their seats.  I was given the head of the table.  William sat at the opposite end, his mother by his side.  Servants brought in the soup.

‘William and I are trying hard,’ announced the poet’s mother to the whole company, ‘to persuade Mr Clancy that there is more to our little colony than cattle ranches.’

‘Indeed,’ I said soothingly, ‘there is clearly also a thriving cultural life which I would very much like to hear more about.’

Well, they needed no second bidding.  Remarkable things were being achieved under the circumstances, I was told, for the arts were struggling by with an appalling lack of support.  Apart from the poet’s mother, Lady Henry, who was of course wonderful, there was not a single serious patron of the fine arts to be found in the whole of Flain.  Everyone present did their heroic best, of course, but not one of them had achieved the recognition that their talents deserved…

And so on.  I had heard it many times before, in many more provincial outposts than I cared to remember.   I made my usual sympathetic noises.

It was as the dessert was being served that I became aware of the poet’s blue eyes upon me.

‘Tell me honestly, Mr Clancy,’ he asked – and at once his mother was listening intently, as if she feared he would need rescuing from himself –  ‘Had you heard of even one of us here in this room, before you knew you were coming to Flain?’

I hadn’t, honestly, and from what little I had seen of their outmoded and derivative efforts, it was not surprising. (Let us face it, even in the Metropolis, for every hundred who fancy themselves as artists, there is only one who has anything interesting to say.  It is just that in the Metropolis, even one per cent is still a good many gifted and interesting people.)

But before I could frame a suitably tactful reply, William’s mother had intervened.

‘Really, William, how rude!’

‘Rude?’ His face was innocence itself. ‘Was that rude?  I do apologise.  Then let me ask you another question instead, Mr Clancy.  What in particular were you hoping to see on your visit here?   Please don’t feel you have to mention our artistic efforts.’

‘Well I’m interested in every aspect of course,’ I replied.  ‘But I don’t deny that I’d like to learn more about the fire horses.’

There was a noticeable drop of temperature in the room and everyone’s eyes turned to Lady Henry, watching for her reaction.

‘Fire horses,’ sighed the novelist, Johns. ‘Of course.  The first thing every Metropolitan wants to see.  Yet surely you must have them in zoos there?’

 I shrugged.

‘Of course, but then we have everything in the Metropolis, everything remotely interesting that has ever existed anywhere.  I travel to see things in context.  And Fire horses are Flain to the outside world, the thing which makes Flain unique. It was wonderful when I first disembarked here to see boys with their young fire horses playing in the streets.’

 ‘How I wish the brutes had been wiped out by the first colonists,’ said the poet’s mother.  ‘Your curiosity is perfectly understandable, Mr Clancy, but this country will not progress until we are known for something other than one particularly ugly and ferocious animal.’

‘Yes,’ I said, soothingly, ‘I do see that it must be irritating when one’s homeland always conjures up the same one thing in the minds of outsiders.’

‘It is irritating to think that our country is known only for its monsters,’ said Lady Henry, ‘but unfortunately it is more than just irritating.  How will we ever develop anything approaching a mature and serious cultural life as long as the educated and uneducated alike spend all their free time yelling their heads off in horse-races and horse-fights, and a man’s worth is measured in equestrian skill?  I do not blame you for your curiosity, Mr Clancy, but how we long for visitors who come with something other than fire horses in mind.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said several of them, but the poet smiled and said nothing.

‘Well, I’ll have to see what I can do about that,’ I said.

But of course in reality I knew that my Metropolitan readers would not be any more interested than I was in the arch theatricals at the Flain Opera or the third-rate canvasses in the National Gallery of Flain, straining querulously for profundity and importance.  ‘The Arts’ are an urban thing, after all, and no one does urban things better than the Metropolis itself.

‘I hardly like to mention it,’ I said in a humble voice, which I hoped would be disarming, ‘but the other thing for which Flain is famous is of course the game of sky-ball.’

The poet’s mother gave a snort of distaste.

‘Ritualised thuggery!’ she exclaimed.  ‘And so tedious.  I can’t abide the game myself.  I honestly think I would rather watch paint drying on a wall.  I really do.  At least it would be restful.’

But Angelica the painter took a different view.

‘Oh I love sky-ball!’ she declared.  ‘There’s a big game tomorrow – the Horsemen and the Rockets.  William and I should take you there, Mr Clancy.  You’ll have a wonderful time!’ 

William smiled.

‘Good idea, Angie.  I’d be very glad to take you, Mr Clancy, if you’d like to go.’

‘But Mr Clancy is to visit the Academy tomorrow,’ protested his mother.  ‘Professor Hark himself has agreed to show him round.  We really cannot…’

‘I do so appreciate the trouble you’ve gone to,’ I purred, ‘but if it is at all possible to put Professor Hark off, I would very much like to see the Horsemen and the Rockets.’

For, even back in the Metropolis, I had heard of the Horsemen and the Rockets.

‘Well, of course,’ said Lady Henry, ‘if you want to go to the game we must take you. You know best what you need to see.  I will talk to Professor Hark. No, a sky-ball game will be… an experience for me.’

‘But good lord, Lady Henry’ I protested, ‘there’s no need for you to come if you don’t want.  I’m sure William and Miss Meadows and I can…’

Polite murmurs of support came from the distinguished guests, but Lady Henry was resolved:

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Clancy, of course I will come. We must sample every aspect of life, must we not?  Not just those we find congenial.’  She summoned up a brave smile.  ‘No, I am sure it will be great fun.’

* * *

So we set off in the Henrys’ car the next morning, Lady Henry riding up in front next to the elderly chauffeur  (the seat had been removed to accommodate her wheelchair) while William and myself reclined on red leather in the back.  We picked up Angelica on the way and she squeezed in between us, warm and alive and smelling of freshly mowed grass. 

‘I do hope you don’t support the Rockets, Lady Henry,’ she exclaimed, ‘because I must warn you I’m an absolutely rabid fan of the Horsemen!’

 Lady Henry gave a breathless, incredulous laugh.

‘I can assure you I really have no idea about “supporting” anyone, Angela, but I’m absolutely determined to have fun!’ cried the poet’s mother bravely.

She grew braver and braver by the minute.  In fact, as the stadium itself came into view and we began to pass the supporters converging on the ground, Lady Henry’s braveness became so intense that I feared it might blow out the windows of the car.

‘What a good idea this was, Mr Clancy!  What fun!  The colours are very striking don’t you think in this light, Angelica?  Red, blue. Almost luminous.  One thinks of those rather jolly little things that you paint on glass.’ 

‘Which are the Horsemen and which are the Rockets?’ I asked.

‘The Horsemen wear red,’ William began, ‘because their emblem is a…’

‘Here, Buttle,’ interrupted Lady Henry, ‘pull over here and let me speak to this man.’

A steward was directing the crowds to the various gates and Lady Henry waylaid him:

‘I say, could you arrange some balcony seats for us please…  I will need someone to carry me up the stairs… And our hamper too…  No, no reservations….  I do hope you are not going to have to be bureaucratic about this, as I am a personal friend of the mayor… and this is Mr Clancy from the Metropolis, the distinguished writer… Thankyou so much… Here is something for your trouble… You are doing a stalwart job I can see.’ 

I glanced at William.  I could see he was angry and embarrassed, though Angelica seemed just to be amused.

‘There,’ said Lady Henry with satisfaction.  ‘Drive on Buttle, thankyou.  Now if you drop us off just here I believe these are the young men now who are going to help us up the stairs.’ 

* * *

With one steward unpacking our substantial picnic hamper for us, another sent off to find her a blanket and a third dispatched to search for aspirin (for she said she had a migraine coming on), Lady Henry settled into her seat and surveyed the scene.

‘Of course, I have absolutely no idea of the rules, William.  Just tell me what on earth these young men are going to be trying to do.’

‘To begin with the Rockets will be trying to get to the top, mother,’ said William, ‘and the Horsemen will be trying to get to the bottom.  After each goal they reverse the direction of play.  The main thing is…’

At this point the game itself began, to a great bellow from the crowd.

‘The main thing is, mother…’ William began again patiently.

But the old lady made an exasperated gesture.

‘Oh, this is all much too complicated for me.  I’m just going to concentrate on the spectacle of the thing I think.  The spectacle.  And it is all rather jolly I have to admit.  Rather your sort of thing Angelica isn’t it?  Red and blue painted on glass.  The sort of cheerful, uncomplicated thing that you do so well.’

Then a huge roar of emotion rose around us like a tidal wave, preventing further conversation.  A goal had been narrowly averted.  Angelica leapt to her feet.

‘Come on you reds!’ she bellowed like a bull.

William, watched her with a small, pained, wistful smile which I could not properly read, but did not join in.  Lady Henry winced and looked away.

‘I quite liked your last show Angelica,’ she said, as soon the painter sat down in the next lull, ‘but if you will forgive me for being frank, I am starting to feel that you need to stretch yourself artistically a little more if your work is not in the end to become a bit repetitive and predictable.’

‘Let’s just watch the game, shall we, Mother?’ said William.

* * *

Six massive pylons were arranged in a hexagon around the arena and between them were stretched at high tension a series of horizontal nets, one above another every two metres, ascending to fifty metres up.  Each net was punctured by a number of round openings through which the players could drop, jump or climb, but these openings were staggered so that a player could not drop down more than one layer at a time. 

All the same, if no one stopped them, the specialist players called ‘rollers’ could move from top to bottom with incredible speed, dropping through one hole, rolling sideways into the next, swinging beneath a net to the one after, dropping and rolling again…the ball all the while clutched under one arm, and the crowd roaring its delight or dismay.   ‘Bouncers’, who specialised in upward dashes, used the nets as trampolines to move with almost the same breath-taking velocity as the rollers, even though they had to work against gravity instead of with it. 

But of course neither bouncers nor rollers got a clear run.  While these high-speed vertical dashes were taking place through the nets, other players were swarming up or down to positions ahead of the opposing team’s rollers or bouncers in order to block them off.  Pitched battles took place at the various levels, with players bouncing from the nets under their feet to launch ferocious tackles, or swinging from the nets over their heads to deliver flying kicks.   It was like football, but in three dimensions and without constraints.  Eight players were taken off injured during the match.

‘Do you play sky-ball at all, William?’ I asked in the car on the way back.

William was about to answer when his mother broke in.

‘I always insisted that he should be excused from the game,’ she said, turning her head towards us with difficulty. ‘William never showed the slightest inclination towards it, and it seemed to me absurd that a sensitive child should be put through it.’

‘Oh but my brothers loved it,’ exclaimed Angelica.  ‘Michael must have broken every bone in his body at one time or another, but it never put him off.  He couldn’t wait to get back into the game.’ 

We turned into the drive of Angelica’s home.  In front of her family’s large and comfortable farmhouse, William got out of the car to let her out and say goodbye.  A short exchange took place between them which I couldn’t hear.  I wasn’t sure if they were arranging an assignation or conducting a muted row.

‘Do you know, William,’ said Lady Henry, when he had rejoined us and we were heading back down the drive, ‘I’m beginning to have second thoughts about Angelica. I am not sure she is quite one of us, if you know what I mean.   I can’t help feeling that Angelica the artist is really a very secondary part of her nature and that underneath is a pretty average country girl of the huntin’ and shootin’ variety. Don’t you agree?’

But the poet declined to answer.

‘There are some fire horses for you, Clancy,’ he merely said, as we passed a paddock with a couple of yearling beasts in it, feeding at a manger in the far corner.

‘I gather boys in Flain are given baby fire horses to grow up with?’ I said.

‘It’s traditional, yes,’ William said.

‘And were you given one?’

We had left the estate of Angelica’s family and were back on the empty open road.  William looked out of the window at the wide fields. 

‘Yes.  My Uncle John gave me one when I was six.’

‘Did you learn to ride?  I’ve seen boys in the street with their small fire horses and they seem quite dangerous.’

‘No, I never learned.  And yes, they are dangerous.  In fact Uncle John himself died in a riding accident only few years after he gave me the horse.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be, Mr Clancy,’ said William’s mother, once again straining to turn round and look at me.  ‘Don’t be sorry at all.  My brother was a foolish and immature young man who liked to show off with fire horses and fast cars because he wanted to impress a certain kind of silly young woman.  The accident was entirely his own fault.’

I glanced at William.  But he still looking out of the window and I couldn’t see his face.

‘What would have been tragic, though,’ went on Lady Henry, ‘would be if I had allowed my brother to persuade William to ride – and William had had an accident.  After all William is now Flain’s foremost poet and it was obvious even at that age that he was quite exceptionally gifted. Imagine if all that had been thrown away because some stupid animal had flung him off its back and broke his neck?’

Some minutes later William, with an obvious effort, turned towards me.

‘Ah here we are.  Almost home.  Do you know I think I must have nodded off a while there, I do apologise.  A whisky Clancy perhaps, before we change for dinner?’

* * *

Two days before my departure from Flain, Lady Henry received some bad news about her northern estates.  It had come to light somehow that her steward up there had been embezzling funds over many years.  Lady Henry was in a state of distraction that night, torn between competing desires. For whatever reason, she seemed to hate the idea of leaving William and myself to our own devices, but she also found it intolerable not being at the helm to manage the crisis in the north.  In the end it was the latter anxiety that won out.  The following morning, after a great flurry of preparation that had every servant in the house running around like agitated ants, she set off in the car with Buttle.

William and I took our coffee out onto the stone terrace which overlooked the park and watched the car winding along the drive, out through the gate and on into the world beyond.  It was a bright, fresh, softly gilded morning, on the cusp between summer and autumn.

William sighed contentedly.

‘Peace!’ he exclaimed.

 I smiled.

‘Mother has arranged for us to visit that sculptor’s workshop this morning,’ he then said.  ‘Do I take it you actually want to go?’

 I laughed.  ‘To be quite honest, no.  Not in the slightest.’

 ‘Well, thank God for that.  I think I will scream if we have to traipse round many more of Mother’s artistic hangers-on.’

We poured more coffee and settled back comfortably in our chairs.  A family of deer had emerged from the woods to the left to feed on the wide lawns along the drive and we watched them for some minutes in companionable silence.      Then he suddenly turned the full blueness of his gaze upon me.

‘Have you read many of my poems, Clancy?’

‘Yes, all of them,’ I told him quite truthfully.  ‘All your published ones at least.’

I do my research.  When I decided to accept the invitation from William’s mother to visit them, I had hunted down and looked through all six of Williams slim little collections, full of veiled agonised coded allusions to his mother’s catastrophic accident while pregnant with William, his father’s shotgun suicide a week before his birth.  (Why do we feel the need to wear our wounds as badges?)

‘And, tell me quite honestly,’ William probed.  ‘What did you think of them?’

 I hesitated.

‘You write very well,’ I said.  ‘And you also have things to say.  I suppose what I sometimes felt, though, was that there was a big difference between what you really wanted to say and what you actually were able to express in those verses.  I had the feeling of something – contained… something contained at an intolerably high pressure, but which you were only able to squeeze out through a tiny little hole.’

 William laughed.  ‘Constipated!  That’s the word you’re looking for.’

On the contrary, it was precisely the word I was trying to avoid!

I laughed with him.   ‘Well no, not exactly, but…’

‘Constipated!’ His laugh didn’t seem bitter.  It appeared that he was genuinely entertained.  ‘That is really very good, Clancy.   Constipated is exactly right.’

 Then, quite suddenly, he stood up.

‘Do you fancy a short walk, Clancy?  There’s something I’d very much like to show you.’

* * *

The place he took me to was on the outer edges of their park.  The woods here had been neglected and were clogged up by creepers and by dead trees left to lie and rot where they had fallen.   Here, in a damp little valley full of stinging nettles, stood a very large brick outbuilding which could have been a warehouse or a mill.  There were big double doors at one end, bolted and padlocked, but William led me to an iron staircase like a fire escape to one side of the building.   At a height equivalent to the second storey of a normal house, this staircase led through a small door into the dark interior.   Cautioning me to be silent, William unlocked it.

It was too dark inside to see anything at first, but I gathered from the acoustics that the inside of the building was a single space.   We seemed to be standing on a gallery that ran round the sides of it.  William motioned to me to squat down beside him, so only our heads were above the balustrade. 

Almost as soon as we entered I heard the animal snorting and snuffling and tearing at its food.  Now, as my eyes adapted, I made it out down there on the far side of the great bare stable.  It must have been nearly the height of an elephant, with shoulders and haunches bulging with muscle. It was pulling with its teeth at the leg and haunches of an ox that had been hacked from a carcass and dumped into its manager.

‘He hasn’t noticed us yet,’ whispered William.  ‘He wasn’t looking in our direction when we came in.’

‘I take it this is the same horse that your uncle gave you?’ I asked him, also in a whisper.

William nodded.

‘But you never rode him?’


‘And will you ever ride him?’

William gave a little incredulous snort.  The sound made the fire horse lift its head and sniff suspiciously at the air, but after a second or two it returned again to its meat.

‘No of course not,’ he said, ‘even if I knew how to ride a fire horse, which I don’t, I couldn’t ride this thing now.   No one can ride an adult fire horse unless it was broken in as a foal.’

‘Yes, I see.’

‘I’ll tell you something, Clancy.  If you or I were to go down and approach him, he would tear us limb from limb.  I’m not exaggerating.’

I nodded. 

‘So why do you keep him?’

It seemed that I had spoken too loudly.  The beast lifted its head again and sniffed, but this time it didn’t turn back to its food.  Growling, it scanned the gallery.  Then it let loose an appalling scream of rage.

I have never heard such a sound.  Really and truly in all my life and all my travels, I have never heard a living thing shriek like that dreadful fire horse in its echoing prison.

And now it came thundering across the stable.  Right beneath us, glaring up at us, it reared up on its hind legs to try and reach us, screaming again and again and again so that I thought my eardrums would burst. The whole building shook with the beating of the animal’s hooves on the wall.  And then, just as with my hands over my ears I shouted to William that I wanted to leave, the brute suddenly emitted a bolt of lightning from its mouth that momentarily illuminated that entire cavernous space with the brilliance of daylight. 

William’s face was radiant, but I had had enough.  I made my own way back to the door and back into daylight.  Those decaying woods outside had seemed sour and gloomy before, but compared to the dark stable of the fire horse they now seemed almost cheerful.  I went down the steps and, making myself comfortable on a fallen tree, took out my notebook and began to record some thoughts while I waited for the poet to finish whatever it was he felt he needed to do in there.  I was surprised and pleased to find my imagination flowing freely.  The imprisoned fire horse, it seemed, had provided the catalyst, the injection of venom, that sooner or later I always needed to bring each book of mine to life.  Inwardly laughing, I poured out idea after idea while the muffled screams of the tormented monster kept on and on –- and from time to time another flash of lightening momentarily illuminated the cracks in the door at the top of the stairs.

After a few minutes William emerged.  His face was shining. 

‘I’ll tell you why I don’t get rid of him, Clancy,’ he declared, speaking rather too loudly, as if he was drunk.  ‘Because he is what I love best in the whole world!  The only thing I’ve ever loved, apart from my Uncle John.’

Behind him the fire horse screamed again and I wondered what William thought he meant by ‘love’ when he spoke of this animal which he had condemned to solitude and darkness and madness.

‘I feel I have fallen in your esteem,’ he said on the way back to the house.

There had been a long silence between us as we trudged back from the dank little valley of brambles and stinging nettles and out again into the formal, public parkland of William’s and his mother’s country seat.

‘You are repelled, I think,’ William persisted, ‘by the idea of my doting on a horse which I have never dared to ride.  Isn’t that so?’

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so he answered for me.

‘You are repelled and actually so am I.  I am disgusted and ashamed by the spectacle of my weakness.  And yet this is the only way I know of making myself feel alive.  Do you understand me?   You find my work a little constipated and bottled up, you say.  But if I didn’t go down to the fire horse, shamed and miserable as it makes me feel, I wouldn’t be able to write at all.’

I made myself offer a reassuring remark.

‘We all have to find our way of harnessing the power of our demons.’

It would have been kinder, and more honest, if I had acknowledged that the encounter with the firehorse had been a catalyst for me also and that for the first time in this visit, my book had begun to flow and come alive.   But I couldn’t bring myself to make such a close connection between my own experience and his.


* * *

That night William slipped out shortly after his mother returned, without goodbyes or explanations.

‘I suppose he showed you his blessed horse?’ said Lady Henry as she and I sat at supper.

‘He did.  An extraordinary experience I must say.’

‘And I suppose he told you that the horse and his Uncle John were the only things he had ever really loved?’

 My surprise must have shown.  She nodded.

‘It’s his standard line.   He’s used it to good effect with several impressionable young girls.  Silly boy.  Good lord, Mr Clancy, he doesn’t have to stay with me if he doesn’t want to!  We are wealthy people after all!  We have more than one house!  I have other people to push me around!’

She gave a bitter laugh.

‘I don’t know what kind of monster you think I am Mr Clancy, and I don’t suppose it really matters, but I will tell you this.  When William was six and his uncle tried to get him to ride, he clung to me so tightly and so desperately that it bruised me, and he begged and pleaded with me to promise that I’d never make him do it.  That night he actually wet his bed with fear.  Perhaps you think I was weak and I should have made him ride the horse?  But, with respect Mr Clancy, remember that you are not a parent yourself, and certainly not the sole parent of an only child.’

Her eyes filled with tears and she dabbed at them angrily with her napkin.

‘His father was a violent, arrogant drunk,’ she said.  ‘Far worse than my brother.   He was the very worst type of Flainian male.  He pushed me down the stairs you know.  That was how I ended up like this.  He pushed me in a fit of rage and broke my back.   It was a miracle that William survived, a complete miracle.  And then, when I refused to promise to keep secret the reason for my paralysis, my dear brave husband blew off his own head.  I wanted William to be different.  I wanted him to be gentle.  I didn’t want him to glory in strength and danger.’

She gave a small, self-deprecating shrug.

‘I do acknowledge that I lack a certain… lightness.’

‘Lady Henry, I am sure that…’

But the poet’s mother cut me off.

‘Now do try this wine, Mr Clancy,’ she cried brightly, so instantly transformed that I almost wondered whether I had dreamed what had gone before.  ‘It was absurdly expensive and I’ve been saving it for someone who was capable of appreciating it.’

* * *

In the early hours of the morning I heard William come crashing in through the front doors.

‘Come and get my boots off!’ he bellowed.  ‘One of you lazy bastards come down and take off my boots.’

And then I heard him outside the door of my room abusing some servant or other who was patiently helping him along the corridor.

‘Watch out, you clumsy oaf!  Can’t you at least look where you’re going?’

He still hadn’t emerged when I left in the morning for the Metropolis.

Copyright 2003, Chris Beckett

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