The Man On The Rocks (new fiction)

They say that when it comes to romance it’s only when you’re not looking for it that you’ll properly find it, and that’s kind of how it was with me and Dave. I wasn’t looking for a skinny, brooding man sitting on top of an ancient rock formation and a skinny, brooding man sitting on top of an ancient rock formation was what I found. I heard his voice before I saw him, his long legs dangling off the shelf of granite above me. My immediate thought was that it was a very hot voice. By that, I don’t mean that it was sexy, although I wouldn’t have described it as unsexy, either. I mean it was a voice with a lot of heat in it. A damp, grudging sort of heat that reminded me of a saucepan fresh off the hob that’s been tossed under a cold tap.

“Do you see those four fields over there, down towards the foot of the valley?” said the voice, as I spun around, locating its owner on the pinnacle of the tor. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re in the exact shape of four playing cards. Aces, if we are being specific, and I think we should be.”

“Oh really?” I replied, now realising it was me the question had been aimed at. “How interesting.”

“Many people don’t believe it, of course. But who is to say what the truth is, when it happened so long ago, and nobody from that time is still around. Almost nobody, anyway.”

He looked, I suppose, not all that different to what you’d expect, had you known of his reputation, but not in an overdone way. Leather trenchcoat. Knee length paratrooper boots. Hair as black as the acid soil beneath us. Strong nose, I thought, as he leapt off his perch, effortlessly employing the three vertiginous levels of granite as a staircase and concluding with an impressive heel spin as he arrived beside me.

“Dave,” he said, offering a hand.

“Louise,” I replied, feeling the long slender fingers, a hint of meticulously filed nail, and thinking “Ok not a builder by profession, then.”

With hindsight, it strikes me I was in a particularly receptive mood that day. My phone was in a drawer back at home and I’d been walking the mournful foothills and river valleys of Dartmoor with no specific aim other than to sniff the cooling breeze passing over the expanding rot of autumn, hop over a few stepping stones and live goallessly in the present for a change. I was tired of the internet, tired, particularly, of conversations with strangers of the opposite sex on the internet. Too many marginally exciting expeditions to the ‘talking stage’ petering out from false intimacy into nothing. Too many attention deficient players looking for nothing but digital validation. Too many ghosts. I’d begun to doubt, at times, that real humans were behind any of it. And I was not blameless, either: I had petered out, too, even vanished, on occasion. It had all conspired to make me more forgiving than ever of almost all kinds of tangible three dimensional interaction, more hungry for anything that wasn’t a photocopy of a meaningful conversation. So when Dave invited me for a drink at the inn in the village at the bottom of the valley so he could tell me the full story of the playing cards, I could not offer myself grounds to decline.

It had been a local scoundrel who’d dropped the cards, he told me: a man called Jan who’d sold his soul to Satan then been plucked by his new horned master from the midst of a gambling session in the very pub we were now in, then whisked off into the clouds. As the Devil rode through the sky, one of his spectral horses clipped the building with its hoof, knocking away a portion of the wainscoting. Meanwhile lightning ignited the horizon and a ball of fire passed through the church congregation. The flaming missile weaved around the pulpit, just missing Mr George Lyde, the vicar, but burning his wife’s petticoat clean off and killing two worshippers, glueing the hair of one to a pillar in such a stubborn fashion that the granite was not fully free of its final traces until half a century later. Dave was a born storyteller, able to make it all sound like it happened yesterday, even though he was talking about a morning in 1638. When he offered me another drink, I told him to make it a double, although I needn’t have bothered, since I was squiffy on his charisma alone. 

“Who is Dewey?” I asked, as we walked to my car, three drinks later.

“Hmm?” said Dave.

“Dewey. That’s what the pub landlord called you.”

“Oh, yes. John and I go way back so he still calls me that. It’s a shortening of my birth name, which is Dewer. I stopped using it because it makes me sound like I come from Ohio, and I refuse to support the Americanisation of British regional culture. Dave is just something that evolved. I’m happier with it.”

When the feelings between two people are right, it’s amazing how quickly everything can progress. One day you don’t know each other exist then three days later one of you is wearing the other’s Spice Girls t-shirt, your limbs entangled amidst the bedclothes as you watch a documentary about the Manson Family and it’s as if you have known each other since time immemorial. I think real love is when you don’t see someone as a project, forgive them their flaws, and that is how I immediately felt towards Dave. When he shyly unfolded his long tail from the inner pocket of his trench coat where he’d been storing it, I wasn’t horrified; it was just another part of him that I found naturally beautiful, like all the other parts. On our second morning together, when I found him drinking some paint thinner he’d found in my garden shed, I was non-judgemental. For his part, he never became exasperated with me about my imperfect hearing, overlarge handwriting and picky eating, as previous boyfriends had.

I’d lived on Dartmoor for a decade by that point, but with Dave I felt I was discovering it anew, seeing it through the psychedelic eyes of a child. During our evening walks he would point out landmarks I’d walked past a hundred times and not even realised were there: an old tin mine where the ghosts of three incinerated pigs were known to sing haunting lullabies during times of heavy fog, a stone which had been split in two when the coffin of a highwayman had been rested on it by pallbearers transporting it to along the lychway to a distant churchyard, the still half-standing hovel of an antisocial medieval blacksmith rumoured to eat slugs. I realise now that this season – the time when the veil between worlds was thinning and the days were becoming a brief wedge of fearful light – was very much Dave’s Time, and because of how garrulous that made him I was finding out more about him too: the beardy, clitter-strewn woods where he used to kennel his large black dogs, the tors from which he’d thrown quoits in his battle with King Arthur. “I did that,” he’d say, pointing to a pile of cracked boulders near a lucid gabbling brook. “It used to be one big geological formation up at the top of the hill. What can I say? It was a long time ago. I was young and hotheaded.” Also, how cool is this: He even had his own rock, named after him. The Dewerstone, which towered above the River Plym. He did admit that beneath it, posing as a traveller, he’d once handed a farmer a burlap sack containing the farmer’s dead son, but none of us get past the age of 30 without making mistakes. Dave was always very sweet and courteous on our walks as a couple and never once forgot to tenderly brush his lips against mine when we passed through a kissing gate. 

We’d been together three months by now, and by this point I’d finally brought up the courage to ask him the big question.

“So are you actually The Devil?”

“It’s complex. People misapprehend things. The Devil is not just one person. I suppose the short answer is that I’m the regional manager for the south west.”

I was at this time living beside a small opinionated river, and after our walks Dave and I always hung out at my place. Dave said we were welcome to go back to his but that it didn’t make much sense because he didn’t have any chairs and had a thing for mood lighting which he knew not everyone was into. I couldn’t help noticing that the energy of the water outside the window tended to rise and fall in correlation with Dave’s. In the evening, you’d hear it crashing about, grinding against itself as Dave necked some nail polish remover or turps he’d found in a cupboard and threw himself around to the first Black Sabbath album, which he maintained, correctly, was their masterpiece. He was always so much fun on nights like these that as part of the bargain I accepted the mornings that often followed when the water drained away to a muddy trickle and I found him staring morosely at the screen of his smartphone.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him one morning, in early spring. I noticed he had an Instagram page open on his laptop. Some vacuous inspirational quote or other.

“It’s no use, Lou,” Dave replied. “I feel redundant. Look at all this.” He gestured at the screen. “People used to be scared of me. Now they’re too scared of what is inside of their own minds to bother, too busy creating their own fear and darkness via their screens. Also, look at this cow in this photo. It wasn’t so long ago that people would be dipping its foot in some bacon to protect it against my wrath; now they’re too busy taking selfies with it. I haven’t seen one couple pass their baby through the forked trunk of an ash tree to protect it from evil this year, not ONE. They’re all too busy panicking that their wedding photo didn’t get enough likes or freaking out because their cousin is a Facebook racist.”

“How about a nice cup of tea?” I asked. “I’m out of sugar but I do have some of that soluble weedkiller you like.”

“And then you look,” he continued, ignoring the question, “and all it is is spring spring spring. As if I haven’t seen enough primroses, they’re all here on social media too. ‘First sign of better weather’. We KNOW. Because we saw it on 43 other people’s pages too. Then there’s the river. You think that was impressive, last night, when it almost spilled over the bank and into your utility room? That’s because you didn’t know who I was, what I was, back in the day. Last night was pathetic. PATHETIC. One Samhain sundown in 1727 the Plym was reported to be in such violent spate that it rose over the Dewerstone itself, 689 feet above the water’s usual level. Nobody put that down to ‘science’ or ‘weather’. They knew it was me.”

I had not initially considered the age difference between Dave and me to be a sticking point but I suppose if you are still only in your early 30s and the person you are with is as old as the concept of religion there are going to be certain cultural reference points you don’t really gel on. I liked the music of Belle and Sebastian. Dave preferred the smell of dead crows. More problematic, however, was the fact that I couldn’t really understand the historical weight of Dave’s sadness: all the centuries of omnipotence his current impotence was mocked by. He had a history I couldn’t begin to match with my own; all I could do was strive to understand. And though I did my best, I had long since decided I was not in the business of mistaking being somebody’s partner for being their therapist.

We limped on for another month after that, but I think in my heart I already knew it was over. Dave took the news calmly, as if three quarters-expecting it. Nothing caught fire or exploded, although as he trudged down the lane away from my front door in his long jacket, there was a brief, violent hailstorm which set off my car alarm and prompted one of nextdoor’s alpacas to leak out an anxious warble. I felt at peace with my decision and also sure that it was the full Dave that I would remember, in time, not the shadow of him that I saw wasting time arguing with strangers online or sitting crying with Piers Morgan’s autobiography in one hand and a notebook in the other. The Dave who would excitably suggest we smoked a joint in the middle of a stone circle while listening to a Scandinavian acid folk album. The Dave I saw steal a gas cylinder from a farm, drink the contents then ask me to photograph him standing next to a small waterfall at an angle that made it look like he was having an extremely powerful wee.

Dave and I did meet up again once platonically after that. The walk we took was a nostalgic one for Dave, circling a church on the west of the moor which, to thwart the wishes of parishioners, he’d once moved from its original accessible position on lower ground to the wind-wrecked pinnacle of a vast escarpment overlooking Cornwall. He was on good form, although the parts of the walk where we passed through kissing gates led to some awkward silences, as we remembered what we’d been as a joint entity not so long ago. I heard that, shortly afterwards, Dave got in another relationship. A widow. Old money. Converted Methodist chapel on the north moor. I don’t know if was working out, though, because about three months later I got a 3am message from him, listing all the things he missed about our days together. He said he and his partner were considering a trial separation, which struck me as weird when, just the following day, he posted a photo of her showing off an engagement ring, captioned with the hashtag “#blessed”. I try not to judge, though. It’s important to remember at times like these that you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. 

This story was also broadcast yesterday on BBC Radio 4, with narration by Kirsty Cox. You can listen to it here.

My latest book is called Notebook. I recommend ordering from Blackwells, who are independent, and do not cost the earth, even if you need it posted to an address outside the UK.

My previous book is called Ring The Hill.

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10 thoughts on “The Man On The Rocks (new fiction)

  1. This was fiendishly good fun & brilliant narration. Local folk beware – *round up* your sons and daughters.
    A bedazzling 15-min escape from the s**tshow of our airbrushed lives.
    Any chance of a series? Whatever happened to all the (sorcerer) heroes?

  2. This is wonderful. So understated and full of hints and allusions! For some reason, my interest was really piqued by the singing ghost pigs…..

  3. A proper Smörgåsbord of allegorical treats in this. You’ll chuckle and have lots of food for thought.
    Love the idea of *opinionated* water and throwaway misdemeanours.
    Dave ain’t the devil, but this megabytes-per-second existence we convince ourselves is real and somehow superior …
    An hour of this would still not have been enough.

  4. Absolutely fantastic! I could hear Dave’s voice at once and could almost feel his warm presence beside me.

  5. Well worth a re-listen as this parable has it all – dissonant relationships, expunging the past, the various guises of evil and questionable dietary tastes. It makes you hoot and induces a fair amount of blood-boiling …

    Who really needs a jizzillion brands of kibble & have them drone-delivered 2 secs later? Our preoccupation with plenitude and speed is propelling us into a superficiality where life has no meaning but the girth of your hybrid or the core strength of your processor – nihilistic maybe, but true. Tread lightly on our past Messrs Gates, Cook et al [or any plutocrat for that matter], for you ride roughshod over our dreams.

    R4 should recommission “Thought for the Day” as “Folktale for the Day [from Dave]”.

  6. This was an amazing listen – just tuned into the BBC site.
    Superb job Tom! The narrators voice and you’re writing really brought this piece to life.

  7. Loved it x Dave sounds like he could have had a series of interesting encounters as a travelling musician…

  8. Bit late to the party here Tom but I really loved this story. Thanks for posting it; I will try to listen to the radio version. The devil, feeling unappreciated by modern society… I thought you nailed the narrator’s voice too.
    My favourite bit of writing: ‘days were becoming a brief wedge of fearful light’.
    Share another short story with us soon!

  9. Well, this was more than worth a monthly contribution! Liked her narration as well. Also, just found out about the new rules with regards to import duties etc. for the EU (starting July 1st), which are much better than the current ones when it comes to not-so-big purchases. Meaning I have an excellent excuse to buy Notebook.

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