Alec has read at Story Shop 2014, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You find the story he read on Sat 23rd August 2014 below.
Alec Beattie writes short stories, poetry, and novels. He is currently working on his third novel, Three Moon Summer. Alec runs and co-hosts Blind Poetics, a spoken word event, and has read and performed throughout Scotland, including StAnza and one-man Fringe show. He moved to Edinburgh in 2014 after a career in nursing.
An interview with Alec in the run-up to Story Shop
Alec Beattie talks about his upcoming performance, about converting a poem to a short story, about the background to his short story Pandatari and about the difference between writing for a reading audience and writing for a spoken word audience.
The Short Story he read on the day
a short story by Alec Beattie
The first time I saw a ghost on Pandataria it was sitting on a small stool outside the shack that lies a little from the beach. It was a woman. She was wearing robes that fluttered even though there wasn’t a breeze, and her hair was black like ink, piled on top of her head. She looked up at me as I passed on my way from the beach and I saw in her eyes such a sadness I’d ever seen before. She looked away and sighed noiselessly then got up and walked towards the forest. I should have followed her, to see where she was going, but I was worried that she had been inside the shack and might have taken something not belonging to her. I watched her for a moment then peered inside the shack. Everything was where it should be, as usual. I stood looking at the stool, getting ready to move it back into its place if I should have to, but she hadn’t moved it at all.
It was some time afterwards – I can’t be sure how much time had passed – when I saw more ghosts. This time I was on the beach. I’d been sitting, or maybe standing, looking out to sea for something, when I saw a group of them coming across the sand towards me. They were men this time, not at all like the woman. One of them was naked but the others were clothed in what I suppose were loincloths. Every one of them was dirty and unshaven, and all were emaciated to such an extent that their faces looked like skulls with wild, searching eyes in the sockets. And when they came closer I saw that they had sores and wounds around their ankles and wrists. I was about to ask them if I could help them in any way but they staggered right past me and headed off towards the stream that runs down the beach and into the sea. I knew they were ghosts because they hadn’t left any footprints in the sand.
And it was right about that time that I began to forget things. For example, I went to the shack to get something but when I got there I’d forgotten what I was there for. I stood outside the shack, angry with myself for forgetting but then I thought I’d console myself by making sure the stool hadn’t been moved. I had a quick peek inside the shack to check things were as they should be but then realised that I couldn’t remember what the thing on the table was. Of course I knew it was there and should be there, but I couldn’t remember what it was called. I glared at it, trying to force its name into my head when I decided that I would describe it instead so that it became the thing you put things into your mouth with.
I turned to go back to the beach and looked into the features of another ghost. He had been standing right behind me so when I turned I met him face to face. He had a thick, black moustache underneath his long nose. He opened his mouth to say something and then suddenly flew backwards, landing a few feet away from the shack. I looked at him, taking in his old-fashioned soldier’s uniform, waiting to see if he would move from his spread-eagled position on the ground. He had a large musket in his right hand which he’d managed to keep hold of. After a few seconds he stood up, shouldered his musket and began to march off, towards the forest where the woman had gone. He’d only gone a handful of yards when he fell onto his back again. I got bored watching him repeat this over and over again before he’d even reached the edge of the forest so I went back to the shack to make sure everything was as it should be. As usual it was, but I left with an unsettled feeling in my bones.
I resumed my daily routine which consisted of going to the beach where I would observe the sea. To be honest I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but the compulsion to scan the horizon or investigate the small inlet was overwhelming. I’d never found anything of importance, but, as I reminded myself, I wasn’t certain of what I was looking for. Of course, sometimes this led to feelings of frustration that forced me from my position on the beach towards the reliable permanency the shack offered. Every time I went and looked inside the shack everything, as usual, was in its place. Then one day I realised I’d come to regard the thing you lie down on in the same way as the thing you use to put things into your mouth. I tried to put this forgetfulness from my mind. I didn’t want it to undermine the sense of security and durability the shack and its contents gave me. I began to understand that if the forgetfulness grew it probably would.
One day I sat on the beach with the image of the shack in my mind with the things whose names I had forgotten flying out of the window one after the other. The thing you used to put things into your mouth with and the thing you lie down on had departed from the shack, together with a few others. I knew the time would come soon when I would have forgotten the names of everything in the shack, few as they were, and the name of the shack itself. I decided I was going to leave Pandataria.
Anyway, I reasoned with myself, I had grown annoyed with the things in the sky, with their screeching and scavenging, and the number of ghosts had grown greatly. I looked up then down the beach and saw maybe a hundred or so of them in every state imaginable, meandering about or standing, like me, looking out to sea, or looking at the undisturbed stand, their downturned faces full of misery. And, for all the time I thought I’d spent there, nothing ever happened, except for the appearance of all the ghosts but they didn’t do anything either. Nothing ever changed, for that matter. Not a solitary stone or piece of beached seaweed had moved. I stared at a small stone for as long as I could and decided that its inertia was something sinister, and that I should prepare to leave as soon as I could.
Then it occurred to me that I didn’t know where I was. I knew it was a place called Pandataria but I had no idea if I was on an island or at the edge of a huge continent. A continent would be better as all I would need to do would be to walk further inland until I found somewhere I liked. An island would mean I would have to find or make a boat. I decided that first thing the following morning I would set out to walk the shoreline as far as I could to see if Pandataria was an island. I might be fortunate enough to find a boat. But the morning never came. The sun in the sky, like everything else, remained fixed. There was no nightfall on Pandataria.
I stood on the beach looking out to sea, every now and again checking to see if the sun had moved. The strange thing was, apart from it being completely stationary, it never hurt my eyes to look at it. In any case I decided to climb the path that led from the cliffs to the highest point, so I could see if I was on an island. I was halfway up the path, pushing my way through what looked like the ghosts of a dozen nuns, when I realised that if I knew the path led to the highest point, then surely I must know if this was an island. Of course, I told myself, you would have forgotten. I carried on but suddenly stopped. I didn’t want to find out if it was an island or not, and I’d been away from the beach for ages. What if I had missed exactly what I’d been looking for? I pushed by the nuns and hurried back to the beach. It didn’t look as though I’d missed anything but I looked out to sea, fretting, anyway.
I stood there for some time before deciding to go to the shack. The stool sat outside on the small porch, but inside I couldn’t remember what anything was called anymore. I looked from thing to thing and was almost overcome with a longing to touch something, but I knew I shouldn’t. Maybe, I thought, if I held something its name would come to me. I tried to pick up the thing you put things in your mouth with but my hand wouldn’t grasp it; instead it hovered just above it as if it was physically repelling my hand. I closed my eyes with the wish that when I opened them I would remember. I opened my eyes. Everything was where it should be, as usual, but I couldn’t remember any of their names. As I left the shack I turned to look at the small thing you sit on. It hadn’t moved either.
I trudged back to the beach. A ghost sat where I usually stood, with the ghost of a small dog. I asked them to move but they ignored me. I was about to explain why I had to be there when I suddenly couldn’t remember why. I tried to think but I couldn’t. I looked up at the yellow thing in the sky and then at the thing where all the things were kept. I looked at the ghost dog. It pinned back its ears then licked its lips. I took my cue and walked away.
I found myself walking towards the forest. It was different from the beach. There wasn’t as much light as I was used to and the further I walked the dimmer the light became. There were quite a few ghosts there too, and they seemed to be walking in the same direction I was. I didn’t want to let them think I was following them or anything so I stopped for a while to let them move away.
I closed my eyes. Then I heard something, a voice. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard a voice; I don’t think I’d ever heard any of the ghosts talking. The voice was saying something – the same thing – over and over. When I opened my eyes I was looking into a bright light that hurt, but when I became more used to it I saw an angel. She was dressed all in white and she smiled at me. Then, when my eyes had adjusted more to the light I saw others too, one of who was speaking to me, saying my name. My name is Dad.
The man who spoke to me said his name was Michael, but I didn’t know anyone called Michael. Then he confused me by saying that he was also called son. I smiled. Of course, I thought, the yellow thing in the sky; it’s called sun. It occurred to me to ask them if they knew the name of the thing you use to put things in your mouth with but I felt too tired. Instead I looked at the angel and the man called Michael or son or whatever, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore so I closed them.
When I opened my eyes again I was back on the beach, on Pandataria. I didn’t bother looking for anything at sea anymore, and I wasn’t concerned with the place where the things are kept. Instead, I wandered back towards the forest.
(c) Alec Beattie, 2014
Other places to find his stories
Alec Beattie’s stories and poems have been published by New Voices Press, Appletree, Duality, Read This Press, and Red Squirrel, and he has written for the BBC and Channel 4. His most recent story, 15 minutes, is in the Federation of Writers (Scotland) latest anthology.