Alexander’s hat: a cautionary tale

When Alexander was married to Laura, he had been untroubled by demons. Looking back now, he remembered those years as an altogether simpler and more innocent time. But really he knew that was an illusion, or at least an exaggeration, and one he could sustain only by blocking out certain memories – and in particular the memory of the night he had stumbled on something very much closer to the truth.

In those days, when the shift ended at a social hour and everyone packed up in a good mood, whether heading straight home or going for a pint, Alexander always went for a pint, and never just a pint. He enjoyed those pints, enjoyed the company of his police colleagues, even if he did not always let on. He enjoyed getting drunk, and did not think about going home, where he had no doubt his sulky, sullen dame would be nursing her wrath to keep it warm. Not that she shouted at him, or called him a skellum, or a blethering, blustering, drunken blellum. She merely reminded him that he always regretted overdoing it, which was perfectly true. It was the same if he was away from home on a case. He’d find some dive to drink in, roping in a colleague when he could or otherwise drinking alone. Laura told him she felt like an American TV cop’s wife, only she worried not that he would be shot, but instead found passed out in an alley. The only thing Alexander knew better than Laura was just how close he had come to that, but he felt he had a licence to ignore even the wisest counsel when it came from his own wife.

One winter’s evening, a case had taken him to Ayr (a town unsurpassed for honest men and bonnie lassies), and he found himself comfortably planted in a local hostelry with his friend Johnny Souter. The weather outside was foul, but that just made his situation all the cosier. Alexander and Johnny had worked together only briefly some years ago, but they had always enjoyed a drink together, and they grew closer with every pint and every one of Johnny’s increasingly outlandish stories. Alexander also discovered warm feelings towards a certain barmaid, who rewarded him with generous smiles amid the general bonhomie of the busy pub, where laughter and even songs drowned out the sound of the raging storm outside. Time flew, as if in a hurry to make Alexander late, but he was enjoying himself far too much to notice: he was feeling victorious, happy and glorious, never mind the rain over us.

Pleasure like that never lasts, of course. Like cut flowers, it fades and dies as surely as it blossoms. Like snow falling on a river, its colour melts to nothing. Like the northern lights, it flickers away before you can point to where it last moved. Like a rainbow, it is barely noticed before it is gone. Time and tide wait for no man, not even DCI Alexander. The unhappy hour came when he had to leave for the last train, pulling on his old woollen Rangers hat and taking to the night in weather the like of which he hoped never to see again. The wind blew like a bastard. The rain bounced hard off the pavement. And it was dark: thunder rumbled deep and long, but no lightning breached the darkness. Morgan was still a baby then, at home in bed, but even she would have seen that the Devil had business in hand that night.

Alexander had no desire to spend any longer than necessary outdoors on such a night, so when he saw an unlocked bicycle propped against a wall, he decided to requisition it, leaving a note to say its owner would find it at the station. Then he set off unsteadily. And in the wrong direction. After a few minutes, he did register that it seemed to be taking longer than expected to reach the station, but he put that down to the weather, or the whisky, and continued charging south, away from the station and indeed out of the town. In his confusion, he clung both to his trusty blue bonnet and to the conviction that he must persist on his now semi-rural path, resolve seeming wiser than prevarication. He warded off his fears of the bogieman by crooning a ditty or two, drowning out the spooky cries of owls or worse.

Now he recognised to the side of the road the scene of the crime he had come to investigate earlier that day, a detective being a detective even when defective. But Alexander rode on past where the travelling salesman had been found smothered in the snow, past the birches and the mighty boulder he had noticed before. What he did not know was that this had been the site of another incident some years before, when a drunken lad called Charlie had broken his neck. Or that a short distance through the gorse lay a cairn where shooters had once found a murdered child. Or indeed that nearby was a hawthorn looming over an old well, from which one Mrs Mungo had hanged herself.

He could hear the roar of the River Doon some distance ahead of him, though, swollen as it was by the storm. And now there was lightning, flashing across the sky as the thunder rolled. But he needed no illumination to see the ruins of Alloway Kirk looming through the trees, as the old church seemed almost in a blaze, light beams glancing through every gap. As he drew nearer, he heard what sounded like a wild party. ‘Just kids,’ he told himself reflexively, but he did not believe it for a second. Given the storm and the general menace of the night, even the coolest of sceptics could not have helped fearing something far less innocent than a drug-fuelled rave.

But Alexander was drunk, and the bolder for it. And, after all, in those days he did not believe in demons and the like, not really. Leaving the road to approach the church from cover, he struggled to get the bike through the undergrowth, but as he ventured closer and peered through a glassless window, what he saw and heard was uncanny to say the least. It was a dance, all right, but no ‘kids’ were in attendance. The sinister figures he saw before him could only be witches and warlocks. They whirled about the ruins, not to electronic dance music, but to old-fashioned hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels, which put life and mettle in their heels. But Alexander’s attention was drawn to an alcove to one side, where a huge, shaggy black dog sat playing the bagpipes. He recognised the beast instantly as Old Nick, the Devil himself in canine guise. It was not at all a suitable guise in which to play the pipes, of course, but it was just like the Devil to think that was funny. And the music he made, like the cry of the proverbial tortured cat, rang through the ruins to shake what remained of the roof.

Frozen to the spot, DCI Alexander took in the whole scene. There were coffins arrayed around the dancers, open to reveal the dead within, each of whom by some devilish magic held a up lamp in its cold, dead hands. By their light he could see on the church’s holy table what he assumed to be the bones of a long-dead murderer, since they were still in gibbet irons, next to another museum-worthy adult corpse, mouth agape like a hanged man. Then two dead babies, no bigger than a man’s hand. Historic or more recent, he could not say. In addition, he noticed five blood-rusted tomahawks and five gore-encrusted scimitars, adding an exotic air to proceedings. The other artefacts included a strip of cloth and a knife. Alexander could not have known that the former had been a garter used to strangle a baby, while the knife had been used to cut the throat of the murderer’s own father, whose grey hairs still clung to it. And there was more, unspeakable except as a solemn warning. In each corner of the ruined kirk lay three lawyers’ tongues turned inside out so you could see the lies inside, and three rotten clerics’ hearts. Alexander took it all in as a detective should, before his attention was drawn back to the devilish dance itself.

Satan played louder and faster by the minute, and the dancers flew about the ruins gleefully: reeling, setting, crossing and linking, fast and furious. Evidently it was hot work, because soon the increasingly sweaty dancers began to raise a stink, and the witches stripped off their rags to dance in their underwear. Alexander could not help wishing he’d been at least half right about this being a rave. The prospect of watching comely teenage girls cavort in snow-white pants was certainly more alluring than the spectacle of these old hags in greasy greys. Fortunately or otherwise, his loins remained in check as he watched these withered mares hurl themselves about the place.

Then the detective spotted an outlier. There was one winsome wench joining the coven just that evening. Her fame as a witch was ahead of her: rumours would haunt the Carrick shore for years to come of livestock meeting unnatural deaths, crops failing and boats sinking at sea thanks to her malignant influence. But tonight she bewitched only with her fine looks. Alexander fancied she resembled the barmaid he’d noticed earlier, but maybe he just found it convenient retrospectively to rationalise his lust that way. She had stripped to a sorely scanty slip, no doubt her best, selected for the occasion. Unknown to Alexander or anyone else in attendance, it had been a gift from the girl’s dear old granny, who would no doubt have shuddered to think she’d spent her modest riches on eye-catching garb for a dance of witches.

Tam_O'Shanter_and_the_Witches_-_John_Faed
Tam O’Shanter and the Witches, by John Faed, 1892

If words could describe how the girl pranced and frolicked, perhaps the reader would be as transfixed as was Alexander, as he watched this strong and supple youth display herself in all her physicality. He stood, bewitched indeed, consuming her with his very eyes. Even Satan was smitten, and fidgeted at the sight of her, rocking backwards and forwards and panting like the dog he was that night. She threw herself this way, and feinted another, till Alexander lost all reason and uttered – surely not that loud? – ‘Phwoar!’

In an instant, all was dark.

Alexander had scarcely planted his stolen bike back on the road when the hellish legion sallied forth as one from the ruins. Like wasps buzzing angrily from their byke to attack an intruder, like wild animals in pursuit of their prey, the witches went after Alexander, with many an eldritch screech and holler.

Alexander was sure he was toast. He did at last think of Laura, but only to grieve her impending widowhood. He pedalled as fast as his legs would take him towards the roar of the Doon, banking on the superstition that witches cannot cross running water. Superstition, ha! But before he could make the keystone of the old bridge, he felt the slightest touch from behind. The young witch had sped far ahead of the others to catch him, and leaping into the air, caught hold of his hat. A last desperate burst of energy brought Alexander over the keystone to safety, but his old Rangers bonnet was his toll.

Whoever reads this true crime tale
Must learn its lesson without fail.
When tempted to go on the pish,
Or lusting after some young dish,
Take time to reconsider that.
Remember Alexander’s hat.

But it was just a hat, after all. For a long time after that night, Alexander felt he had got away with something. Now, he was not so sure. Increasingly, he had begun to feel more like he had brought something with him. That same obstinate recklessness that had taken him to Alloway Kirk and almost left him there, a fresh trophy for the unholy table. He had got away with that. Survived unchastened. Saved from everything but himself.

He had avoided coming to this conclusion before now by telling himself the episode had never happened, or rather both believing it and not believing it. That in itself was a kind of recklessness, a refusal of intellectual commitment one way or the other, as if it did not matter. That episode at Alloway Kirk, and his response to it, had revealed a flaw in his own character. Oh, no doubt there were many more, many worse. But this reckless, careless strain was undeniable, revealing itself in his very reluctance to confront it. It was as if he did not care what happened to him in this life. Let alone eternity.

To be continued.

Read more about Alexander’s past in That Existential Leap: a crime story.