As the founder of The Reader Berlin, it isn’t often I get to share my writing. Sometimes, I feel bad that after all the butchering I do with my editor’s pen, I don’t offer participants a chance to return the ‘favour’. So it seemed only fair that I contributed something over the course of our Fort Gorgast festival. This little piece is actually adapted from a novel I wrote that never saw the light of day and I confess it felt absolutely wonderful to let it slip out of its dark drawer and float loose amongst you.
YOUR HEART’S DESIRE
Welcome to Fort Gorgast and the first of our terrifying tales. It is wonderful that you could all join us. This is the first event at which we have all got together, albeit it in a cold and shadowy tunnel, and while it might be a touch hippy-ish of me, I would like you to do something you may be familiar with from yoga class. I would like you each to set an intention, that is, to make a little wish. Eyes closed everyone. Out goes the torch…wishes done…? And we’re ready.
As one of the organisers of this weekend’s festivities, I had planned to write my own scary story but I am afraid things got a little busy, so this one is from a decaying book I found in a pile in a decrepit second hand bookshop in Berlin. You are, no doubt, familiar with the kind.
This story begins with a group of friends sitting around playing cards late into an autumn night in an ancestral home in one of the English shires, shortly before the beginning of the First World War – a much more pleasant era for the young wealthy gentleman than that which was to follow, a time of ease, and international friendship. They are immensely fond of gambling, the friends, having been drawn together by this shared and insatiable passion during their studies at one of the famous British universities despite their differing nationalities – for while their host is English, the second young man is the wastrel son of a French general, the third a Russian mathematician and the last a studious Prussian aristocratic.
On this particular night the four friends grow bored of cards and dice and wagers and fall to drinking and restless conversation. Several ventures are proposed but none appeal, none have the right amount of daring or risk that the company habitually looks for, until at last the Prussian, a scholar of the Dark Ages, suggests they attempt a summoning, the like of which he has been reading about in certain antique texts originating in the Rhinish lands.
A number of items are fetched and set out upon the card table. The four take up places at the table and link hands while the scholar sets about muttering in interminable Latin. The initial excitement passes, boredom descends. Eventually one of the three who has been sitting in silence asks whatever it is the scholar is reciting. The Prussian replies that he found it amongst a selection of papers inherited from a collector interested in such things, and that it was written by a Bavarian Viscount who was later burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in the 1600s – only for another voice in the room to spring up and say that the paper in question is fourteenth century and that the gentleman was from Heidelberg.
This information, since it is not offered by any of the company sitting at the table, comes as a surprise. The four friends turn as one to find a demon sitting upon the wing of a nearby armchair, observing them with great interest. In appearance the demon resembles a sober, respectable little gentleman with neatly trimmed whiskers and bright yellow eyes like buttons.
The friends not wanting to seem overly impressionable get over their shock. The demon offers each their heart’s desire, but rather than making the traditional demand of their souls as payment, he proposes that since the fellows are so fond of gambling that they enter into a wager. The gentleman shall enjoy their rewards for the length of their natural lives and no resulting penalty will be incurred just so long as one small matter is adhered to: that from this night forth the four must never meet again or they shall face a terrible reckoning the nature of which when revealed causes much trembling and sharp intakes of breath.
Still, they cannot resist making the deal with the smart, little demon. Because they are like us. Like them, we want what we want: recklessly, regardless of consequence, our hands ever outstretched as we balance on the precipice. No, we are not careful enough about the things we wish for. I do hope you’ve all been careful.
So to continue, by mutual agreement each of the fellows returns to his homeland. Their destinies take them in different directions. The Great War comes and is followed by revolution and unrest, a change in the order of things. But somehow each man prospers. As the years pass the night takes on the semblance of a dream, of youthful folly, and yet in ways so innocuous and natural seeming, each man’s wish is fulfilled.
And then comes the second war and the fellows are called upon to do their duty, but there are millions of soldiers and battle rages across the globe. If a certain evening and a certain agreement ever enters any of the men’s minds it is easy enough for them to reassure themselves. After all, they are on different sides and even if two of the four were to meet by chance they could immediately separate, thus preventing at a stroke the happening that will bring about the terrible, terrible forfeit.
Until, near the very end of six long years of war, in the chaos of those last days as the Russians march on Berlin and the POW camps split at the seams, somewhere near the Polish border on a wild and stormy night, after many hours of vicious engagement there is a lull in the fighting.
One of our gentlemen, the Prussian scholar, finds himself lost and alone and in desperation he casts off his uniform. It is pitch black and pouring with rain. He does not know in which direction his own lines lie. So he creeps about in the dark, listening out for voices, through forests and along lanes until he stumbles upon the ruins of a gigantic fort, much damaged by recent bombardment. Still, it seems abandoned and carefully avoiding the spikes in the moat and the enormous man-eating carp, under cover of darkness he takes shelter in one of the vast dark rooms within – a room very much like this one…
As the long night progresses he hears other join him, English speakers it seems, which makes him glad of his education long ago in the land of dreaming spires and currant buns. At last the scholar takes out his pipe. Having no lighter or matches he asks amongst the company for a light, offering to share what tobacco he has. And then, in the darkness, as each man gives his reply a terrible suspicion enters the minds of those present.
A light is held out by a trembling hand; the group observe one another’s faces and each feels the touch of terror upon his heart. The light fails, they are left once more in darkness and it is then they realise it is not only the panicked breathing of four men than can be heard, that there is another amongst them, a silent other whose breath is hot and reeks of sulphur.
The next day when the bodies are discovered by the villagers, they claim it is the work of the Russians, a barbaric atrocity by an uncivilised people. But word spreads, strange rumours are whispered, after all, as barbaric and wild as the enemy may be, bayonets and knives, may be able to hack a man to pieces, but they don’t leave claw marks, or teeth marks either, for that matter.
Amongst the carnage a scrap of paper is found floating. In Latin it reads: hoc loco, cum diligentia cuncta vis, meaning in this place, be careful what you wish for!
AND HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND.