Author: © Peagum Coleman
Publication Date: March 2018
Victoria Snow’s Flat,
Wednesday 22nd August
The Old Man awoke, instantly aware that something was about to happen. He sniffed the air and recognised a familiar scent. He stood up and walked across the room into the hallway, taking up a position facing the front door. Once there he paused, waiting.
A moment later there was the sound of a key in the lock, the door opened and Vicky walked into her home. Seeing the Old Man she felt a rush of elation. This was the one who had, somehow, saved her mother’s life. In the hours since their last meeting her life had been a whirlwind. She rushed forward, threw her arms around the waiting figure and hugged him. ‘I have no idea what you did but thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
The Old Man was clearly taken aback by Vicky’s display of gratitude and gently unpeeled her arms from around his neck. ‘I am pleased that your mother has recovered,’ the Old Man said with an almost embarrassed air.
‘Recovered doesn’t even begin to describe things. Yesterday she was struggling for breath and now I’ve just left her planning her next holiday!’ In truth, the hardest part of the morning had been persuading her mother to remain in the hospital ward. The old woman felt so full of energy that she didn’t want to waste a single moment of this new lease of life that she had been so unexpectedly granted.
However, the hospital staff, led by a stunned Head of Oncology, were equally adamant that she should stay. They pointed out that the improvement might be temporary, that further tests would be needed, that the hospital was the best place for her over the next few days. None of them had seen anything quite so dramatic before and they were all desperate to find out what had caused this miraculous recovery.
Once her mother had agreed to stay, James Courtney took Vicky to one side. He had realised that Vicky’s visitor had played some important part in the morning’s drama and so he wanted to know more about him. Vicky had told him all that she knew but was conscious of how little that was.
Courtney was clear what the next step should be. If at all possible, she was to get him back to the hospital. If that proved impossible then she was to stay with him for as long as she needed to discover what he had done to cause such a change in her mother’s condition. Now, with the Old Man in front of her, she began her questioning. ‘So … God, I don’t even know your name.’
The Old Man shrugged. ‘I have been called by many names, each one less important than the one before. Call me what you wish. Or, indeed, nothing at all.’
‘Well, whatever your name is, what did you do to my mother?’
The Old Man let out a deep sigh, turned and walked back into the lounge. ‘This is the hardest part of every Return. Questions. Always so many questions. And every answer just begets more questions, in a never-ending stream. Why can you never accept that things just happen? This curiosity, this constant search for explanations, it will be the death of you.’
The noise had woken Nathan and Carl who now sat up as Vicky and the Old Man entered the room. They saw a determined Vicky, who was not going to be halted in her quest.
‘No. Not again. I remember that you were able to deflect any explanations in the police station with this ‘Man of Mystery’ routine.’ She gently placed her hands on his shoulders and guided him towards an armchair. He reluctantly allowed himself to be pushed down into the seat.
‘What’s happened? How is your Mum?’ Nathan’s voice sounded almost incidental in the background.
‘Better than she has been for years. I have just spent the last four hours with her and she is rushing around like a thing possessed. Something happened at her bedside in the hospital ward, something that this man did, and I want to know what it was and I want to know it now.’
The Old Man placed his head in his hands and let out a large sigh. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Simple. What did you do to her?’
‘Yes, it is simple. But it is also difficult. And I know that you will ignore the simple and choose the difficult. Well, to answer your question, I have some small knowledge of plants, built up over many Returns. I know what many of them do, and how that can be used in combination. So I know that knapwort, mixed with the flux of the aldbune leaf, makes a juice that destroys the gnawing plague. I also know that the knapwort root is too tough to use without chewing it to a pulp before you make the mixture, and that smearing the lips is the swiftest way for the treatment to work. Will you accept my answer or must you continue?’
‘What are knapwort and aldbune? What is it about them that causes the cure? Why the lips?’ Vicky’s torrent of questions stopped only for her to draw breath but before she could continue the Old Man spoke again.
‘You see! For each answer, another question. It has no end. It just goes on forever. Why can you not just accept the ‘what’? Why do you have to know the ‘how’ and the ‘why’? It is always the same. Can you all never learn that there is a time to stop asking questions and start seeking other routes to knowledge?’ The Old Man shook his head sadly.
Seeing that he was becoming irritated, Vicky decided to change tack. ‘How can I learn these things without asking questions?’ She smiled at her question and its inherent contradiction.
The Old Man smiled back. He walked across the room to the window and looked down to the street below. The evening traffic was starting to build up, with its attendant noise and smells. Taking all this in with a single glance, he turned back to face the group. ‘It might have been good to pass on some of this wisdom to you. As a Physic I’m sure that you would make much use of it, although little of it for Nature’s benefit. But this Return is not to be a long one. The world is fouled beyond measure and I have no desire to await the cleansing.’ He turned back towards the window and fell into silent reflection.
Nathan was the next to speak. ‘You keep talking about ‘Returns’. What do you mean?’
‘Ah, my errant Kingsman. I will be sad not to journey with you. I see in you a trustworthy companion. So, in recompense for taking you away from your old path, I shall answer your question.’ He paused for a second before pressing on. ‘You must understand that my life has been one long series of Rests and Returns. At each Return I can, as I choose, remain for some small while or, if the world has turned against Nature, take my Rest once more.’ He gestured out of the window again. ‘In all my time I have never seen the world so set against Nature’s path and so, this time, my Return will be short and so my next Rest awaits.’
‘I’m sorry but I still don’t understand. How will you take this ‘Rest’?’
‘Through my knowledge of plants. Tell me, do you know how a bear can sleep through the winter’s cold?’
Nathan had no idea. ‘I think it just falls asleep.’
‘Yet it falls asleep each night. Why does it not also sleep through the summer?’ Again, Nathan shrugged. He looked for support from Carl or Vicky but none was forthcoming.
The Old Man continued, ‘Many years since, I watched bears in their preparation for winter. They ate many things, some flesh, some plants. I tried each of these in turn. The trials took many years but, in the end, I found the right one. It was a small plant, almost too tiny to see. It had yellow flowers and a tiny black seed, little more than a speck of dust. It grows just as the first snow of the winter falls. I found that it was this plant that makes the bears sleep through the winter. I began to mix the different parts with other plants. I found that the flowers, dusted with frommel petals, can delay sleep for many days. Yet if you mix the seeds with the juice of the kabline leaf and the stem of the younson then its potency increases manyfold. This potion can make a person sleep for years and years. I use the seeds of this plant to give me my Rest.`
‘What is the plant called?’ asked Vicky, hoping that the Old Man would not clam up again.
‘Staria. The plant is named staria.’
‘I remember seeing bears in Canada on one of my overseas postings.’ It was Carl’s turn to enter the conversation. ‘Amazing things they were. Massive. Powerful. Where did you see them?’
‘I saw them in the land of the Picts. I walked in those realms in the days of my youth.’
Carl looked puzzled. ‘Where’s that? I’ve never heard of it.’
The Old Man looked confused as if surprised that anyone should ask such a simple question.
Nathan stepped in. ‘It’s an old name for Scotland. But that can’t be right. There haven’t been bears in Scotland for centuries. They were all wiped out long ago.’
The Old Man looked around the small group, now all looking at him waiting for his answer. He hesitated, unwilling to say the words. He always tried to keep this explanation back because he knew what would follow. The waiting only seemed to increase the tension. ‘I make no error. The bears were in the land you now call Scotland and it was a very long time ago.’
He looked at each of the faces. Each had the look he had come to expect. Not being able to accept the truth of his explanation yet unable to express their doubts, their politeness stopping them from directly questioning the sanity of their new acquaintance. He took a deep breath and pressed on. ‘What King reigns?’
Vicky was the first to speak. ‘Oh no, you’re not changing the subject now. How can you have seen bears in Scotland centuries ago?’
The Old Man felt the familiar feeling of disbelief, of not comprehending. He had been through this routine so many times before. As they all stared at him he pondered how his explanation would be taken this time. Acceptance? Probably not. Rejection? Hopefully not. Understanding? Definitely not.
He continued, ‘Staria causes a sleep of not hours or days but of years, of lifetimes. The sum of all my Rests is beyond your measure. I have known a lifetime of lifetimes. I have walked this land from the very beginning and I have learned many things. I have told very few of my history and have met fewer still that believed it.’ He surveyed the three faces before him, all open- mouthed with amazement.
Nathan was the first to respond. ‘So you are some form of time-traveller, sleeping through great swathes of years before waking, spending some time on what you call a `Return’ before using the staria to go back to sleep again? Is that your claim? You expect us to believe that?’
‘I claim nothing. I have simply spoken the truth. I am a traveller but time is nothing more than the road upon which I wander. Time holds all of us in its grip. For me, the grip is merely a little looser.’
It was Vicky’s turn to speak. ‘How long have you been having these feelings?’
Her words, spoken with a manner of professional sympathy, betrayed a direction that the Old Man sensed instantly. Angrily, he replied. ‘So you think me mad? Well, this is not the first time I have been so accused. So riddle me this, Physic. How can a wandering madman strike the gnawing plague from your dying mother when the best your own shaman can do is to watch her perish?’ He turned to Nathan, ‘How can I walk out of a King’s palace with one of his own captains holding open the door?’ Finally, to Carl, ‘How can I take away the madness of the poppy with a single squeeze of your ear?’ He could see his audience start to reconsider and the first beginnings of doubt take hold. He knew that, as so many had before, they would start with disbelief, before moving to confusion, as the evidence of their eyes began to contradict the logic of their minds. In time, he knew that they would have believed him as this evidence became overwhelming.
‘So why have you returned now? What causes you to wake up?’ asked Vicky.
‘Usually, I sleep until the potency of the staria falls to naught. Unless, that is, something happens to disturb my slumber. I try to find peaceful places that are unlikely to be disrupted, such as amongst the roots of the ancient yew tree in the churchyard at the village of Woodburn. Long had I rested there, until I was woken by that angry young lord who fell upon me.’
Nathan recalled how he had thrown the gang leader against the old wall of the church yard. The stones must have become loosened by his impact, causing the Old Man to fall out.
‘So how long are you going to stay this time?’ said Vicky. She was anxious for him to be around long enough for her to learn about his medical skills. A second later she realised that she was being drawn into his delusions.
‘As I said, this Return will not be a long one. I can sense terrible things are about to happen. I must find a sanctuary and then take my Rest before Nature strikes.’
He began to prepare the staria mixture. Reaching to his waist, the Old Man opened the neck of the hide pouch tied to his belt. Pushing his hand inside he withdrew a tightly clenched fist which he opened carefully to reveal a mixture of dried seeds, roots and petals. He moved a finger of his other hand around the palm, seeking one particular type. Clearly unsuccessful, he placed the contents on the coffee table before plunging into the pouch a second time. Again, he opened his palm and moved the variety of seeds and roots around but still failed to find the ones that he sought. Adding this second handful to the first, he turned his attention to his pouch. He carefully examined the animal skin, especially the closely stitched edges and seams. After a moment he gave out an irritated sigh. He held out the bag towards the others and they saw, in a corner where two seams met, a small hole.
‘This gap is too small to allow larger seeds to fall out but not the smallest. Staria has the smallest seeds of all and so all my stock has been lost. Yet this is but a small problem. I must collect more, and it will take a little time. It is an unfortunate distraction but I shall find some before long.’
As he spoke, in such a matter-of- fact way, the implications of his claims began to spread into the minds of his audience.
Nathan was struck silent by the Old Man’s story. It was simply incredible – beyond all possibility of belief. All his considerable intelligence demanded that he should challenge the strange figure in front of him, analysing the absurdity of his fairy tale before intellectually tearing it to shreds. Yet looking at the Old Man he was taken by the manner in which he had told his strange story, almost reluctantly, and with an air that almost invited rejection. Even this early in his police career Nathan had met liars, many of them great liars. This Old Man was either the best liar he had ever seen, or – but no. The alternative just was not credible, so obviously beyond all chance of acceptance. Yet at the back of his mind, in the small part most sheltered from logic, questions still raged. It wasn’t just this talk of plants but his strange clothes, his constant state of surprise at common, everyday things, his manner of speech.
Then Nathan remembered something else. From the moment that the Old Man had woken up in the cell Nathan had a strange feeling of familiarity. He was sure that he had heard the Old Man’s voice before. The Bristol accent, the tone, the inflexion, Nathan could not pin it down. But something in that voice was calling to him, giving a feeling of apprehension that he just could not explain. Perhaps discovering the answer to that riddle alone was enough reason to play along with the Old Man’s delusions, even if it was just for the time being.
Carl was also struggling with the Old Man’s story. To him it all just sounded like total crap. All this talk of plants and sleeping for years was so bogus that he was tempted to just walk away and leave the Old Man to his fantasy. Then he remembered his own recent hallucinations, how vivid they had been, and how terrifying. Yet he had been clear of them for several hours, the longest period since his return from Afghanistan. There had been none of the desperate cravings that had wrecked his recent months. Was this really all down to the Old Man’s actions in the cell? As the thought crossed his mind he began to sense the feelings that he knew, in time, would grow into an insatiable demand for the accursed powder. Perhaps the Old Man had not cured him but only found another way to fulfil the demand, albeit temporarily. For Carl, going back was not an option. He decided that he must stay with the Old Man in the hope that the respite given him was not an isolated event but the first stage towards something more permanent.
And yet there was more than that. Carl also sensed a strong affinity with the Old Man. Perhaps it was just another of his plant tricks but deep-down Carl doubted it. He actually felt a strong kinship between them, built in some unfathomable way over a long period of time. He knew that this kinship meant that his role was to protect the Old Man from harm even at the cost of his own life. He didn’t know why, but he also knew that this was not the first time he had been given this task.
Vicky was also stunned by the revelations made by the Old Man. She was struggling to balance the total absurdity of his time-travelling claims with the spectacular improvement in her mother’s condition. All her scientific instincts wanted her to settle the matter immediately but she could see that this was not the time for confrontation. She would try to help him with his delusions later. Right now the best approach was to establish some form of rapport, perhaps offer him some support for his actions. Maybe then she would stand a chance of learning from him. `So you need to find this plant? I think I can help you there.’ She walked into one of the bedrooms that she used as a study and returned carrying a laptop computer.
The Old Man was perplexed when he saw it, even more so when she opened the lid and the screen lit up. As she began to type onto the keyboard, the Old Man moved around the back of the machine, trying to see where the pictures were coming from.
After a moment Vicky continued, ‘Right, this is a gardening website that my mother is always using. It has a plant-finder section.’ She typed in the plant name and waited while the internet found the distant database. ‘No. It doesn’t recognise that name. Perhaps we can find it by its description. So, you said that it is small with a yellow flower and that it flowers in late autumn.’ She entered the details. A moment later several pictures of different flowers that might match the description were displayed. ‘Which one is it?’
The Old Man was fascinated by the laptop and the pictures now displayed on the screen. He carefully examined each of the pictures in turn before pointing to one of them. ‘That has the likeness of staria.’
Vicky moved the cursor to the picture and clicked the button on her wireless mouse. Within a second a larger image of the plant appeared together with some text. She quickly read through the text, seeking locations where the plant could be found. However, what she discovered made her look up at Nathan and Carl, who had also seen the section of the text that had made her pause. She looked directly at the Old Man, not sure how he would receive this news. ‘I’m sorry, but according to this, staria is now extinct.’
An Enigmatic Chase Thriller.
Can this weird old man, with his absurd claims and his plant fixation, really offer any answers?
Why are four strangers prepared to follow him on a long trek in search of a plant called Staria?
How did he save a dying woman with just a simple flower?
What’s so odd about his DNA?
Why is a huge company spending millions trying to catch him?
Why is he so convinced that nature is about to purge the world with a bird flu pandemic?
Is he really able to produce a cure?
What if he can’t?
What if he won’t?