About This Story…
This short story is a tribute to Robert Burns’ narrative poem Tam O’Shanter, much loved by Scots and sometimes recited at Burns Suppers (by speakers with a phenomenal memory). For those who don’t know the poem, here’s my amended version of the Wiki entry on it.
Tam O’Shanter describes how Tam, a farmer who often gets drunk with his friends on market days, rides home late on his horse Meg while a storm is brewing. On the way he sees Alloway’s haunted church lit up, with witches and warlocks dancing and the devil playing the bagpipes. Tam stops, still drunk, and sits his horse, just on the edge of the light, watching in amazement. Seeing one particularly winsome witch, Nannie, dancing the reel in a short shift, Tam loses his wits and shouts out, ‘Weel done, cutty-sark!’ (cutty-sark = short shift). The lights go out, the music and dancing stops and the ‘hellish legion’ sallies out after Tam, with Nannie in the lead. He’s done for, surely? Tam spurs Meg towards the River Doon, as witches cannot cross a running stream. But the witches are gaining on them. They catch up with Tam and Meg, just as the mare reaches the Brig o’ Doon. Nannie tries to grab them, but all she gets is the mare’s tail.
Twenty-First Century Meg
by Joanna Maitland (and with apologies to Robert Burns and Tam O’Shanter)
Have you ever wondered why there are no stone-age ghosts?
I’ll tell you why. Recycling.
You thought recycling was a twentieth-century invention, didn’t you? Well, you’re wrong. We ghosts have been at it for centuries, especially here in Scotland. We keep replacing out-of-date, boring ghosts, with more modern ones. Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, instead of an unknown iron-age princess. That sort of thing. It’s a fundamental marketing tool. Our Unique Selling Point is that our apparitions are always relevant to the modern-day humans who see them. How else would we ensure the right impact?
Yes, I admit we didn’t always talk about USPs and marketing tools. But then The Corporation survives because we keep up-to-date. We have to move with the times — even though our time is measured in æons. The trouble with you humans is that you’re transient, here-today-gone-tomorrow sort of beings. If you stuck around a bit longer, you’d learn to appreciate the finer things of life.
Keeping up with the times has its downsides, unfortunately. You see, the Board of Directors has been under pressure from His Nibs Down Below. Apparently the Corporation’s productivity has been dropping: not keeping up with the increase in the human population. The Board told us they were not happy with the HPS figures. (That’s Hauntings Per Skull, in case you’re wondering.) We were not reaching a large enough audience; too many humans had stopped believing we existed at all. The HPS rate had to be ramped up. The message from on-low was that we had to “stop the rot, turn the tide, push back the ravening hordes of unbelievers and save the world for The Corporation. This would mean changes. Flexible working. Multi-skilling.”
Multi-skilling? For ghosts?
You would think that, after all these æons, the Board would have learned not to be taken in by passed-over gurus who peddle management-speak in order to avoid doing any serious work. But they’re into all the management fads: visions, mission statements, organisational re-engineering, matrix management, you name it. Most sane members of The Corporation think it’s all a load of hot air — which is something we don’t go in for much, up here in Scotland.
I must say I quite liked the idea of a vision, though. We could have red devil eyes, tortured screams, clanking chains, screeching owls: the sort of thing you get in late night films with scary music in the background. We’d have to leave out the music, of course. Someone might smell a rat. (We do still do rats. There’s a whole department for them.)
But to our tale.
It all started with that first round of cuts. Up until then, we ghosts had been left pretty much to ourselves. We haunted wherever we were supposed to haunt, of course, but if there wasn’t anyone around to see — which there often wasn’t, especially in out-of-the-way ruined castles like mine — it was accepted that ghosts could take a wee holiday. I used to go scuba diving, myself. In Loch Ness. It’s nice and deep there and there’s no chance of running into anyone else. The water’s too cold for anything to survive. It’s private, too. Nobody has ever spotted me, apart from that dratted man Columba, and his eyesight was such rubbish that he couldn’t tell what he was seeing. Started all sorts of weird rumours, I’m told. Still, it was centuries ago. I’m sure no one still believes in the ramblings of a saint in need of a pair of specs. Monsters, I ask you!
Where was I? Oh aye, the cuts. Well, we were not happy. For us ghosts, there were to be NO holidays except in years ending with three zeros, and we were to provide extra cover in popular venues if ours was closed to humans. One of my colleagues protested about such breaches of tradition and got his head bitten off for his pains. (I must say his new look doesn’t suit his image at all.) What’s more, reinforcements were to be drafted in from the Witchcraft Division which has been delayered to the point where there’s barely a covenful left.
Effectively, the two Divisions were to be merged to create a single multipurpose Spells & Hauntings Executive (SHE). They said SHE was carefully planned but, as far as I could see, SHE was just thrown together using the first things that came to hand. There was supposed to be cross-training — multi-skilling was the buzzword, as I told you — to ensure each side learnt the skills of the other, but I didn’t see any headless witches, and nobody showed me how to light a cauldron without a match. All I got out of the new organisation was a badge labelled SHE which glowed in the presence of humans, provided the battery wasn’t too low, and a witch partner called Twinkle. (No, I am not kidding. NOW do you understand why the Witchcraft Division was being wound up?)
I went back to my ruin with Twinkle in tow. I had no idea what to do with her. She was a bit too comely, really, for a witch. Curved in all the right places and wore that short shift all the time so everyone could see the goods on display. No, looking at her wouldn’t frighten anyone. I suggested we cut off her head and put it under her arm, in traditional fashion, but she objected rather violently — in fact, for three days I was just a wart on the back of the castle toad — so I gave up that idea. She didn’t have anything better to suggest, so we decided to wait until a victim appeared and play it by ear.
No, don’t ask.
Business was very slack. The Muckle Bogle — that’s “Chief Ghost” for any sassenachs out there — came round on one of his regular visitations and threatened us with all sorts of dire consequences if we didn’t drum up some new customers. It’s all very well for him. He only does the threats. And the consequences, which he really enjoys. He doesn’t have to dream up the new ideas.
Marketing really isn’t my thing, but Twinkle suggested that what we needed was a brainstorming session with all our colleagues from the local haunts. I didn’t know what a brainstorming session was, though it sounded quite inventive. I said I thought it was a charming idea.
It would take a wee while to organise. The Corporation may be up for all the new management fads, but ask them to shell out to invest in working conditions at the coalface and nothing happens. Internet to us is something to do with humans catching fish. I knew I would have to float round half the country to call them together.
But then I had a brainwave. I knew how to make it work. “I’ll tell them it’s a ceilidh. They’ll come for that. I’ll get Big Mick to bring his pipes.”
Twinkle wasn’t too taken with that idea. She doesn’t speak the Gaelic and she’s not all that keen on pipe music, either. She said we wouldn’t have time for dancing. She’d had trouble with that before, apparently. She wanted to concentrate on the marketing problem.
I ignored her. Well, what does a witch know about haunting? I invited them all to the ceilidh without mentioning anything as virtuous as work. I reckoned we could storm brains the following day when we were all recovering.
When the great night arrived, the first to appear was Big Mick himself, with his pipes under his arm. “You must be Nannie.” He made to shake hands with Twinkle.
Twinkle fixed him with the best death stare I’ve seen since Medusa. “I don’t answer to that any more,” she spat, and her venom would have pierced flesh if there had been any around. “Call me ‘Twinkle’.” She stared at him for what seemed a full minute. Then the skin at the top of her cheeks began to tighten and crease, slowly pulling her upper lip off her pointed white teeth. There seemed to be too many of them.
He grinned back as if nothing unusual had happened, though I noticed that he never actually looked into her eyes. Medusa had something there.
None of the other ghosts called her “Nannie”. Word must have got around, I suppose, though nobody would tell me what all the fuss was about. As a good host, I just did my best to keep Twinkle well away from Big Mick. Luckily, she mellowed a bit once she’d had a few drams. She even began tapping her foot in time to his music.
Everyone else was having a great time. There’s nothing like a few eightsome reels to get things going. Eventually even Twinkle joined in. Her pas de Ba’ was all over the place, but by that time none of us was in a fit state to notice.
To be honest, we weren’t noticing much at all. None of us saw the red sports car arrive. It must have rolled down the slope with its engine off or someone would surely have heard it. It had no lights either. I reckon the driver was drunk and looking for a nice safe spot to sleep it off. But there’s no way of knowing, not now.
The party was at its height. Everyone was dancing except Big Mick. He was perched in one of the ruined windows of my castle, blowing away for all he was worth. The dancers were yelling in time to the music. The noise was deafening.
The driver was bound to wonder what was going on, I suppose. He switched on his car lights right in the middle of the grand round. Big Mick stopped with a sort of strangled whistle. All the ghosts shivered as the light passed through them.
It didn’t pass through Twinkle, of course. She’s made of sterner stuff. She turned round to face the car, and the headlights caught the sweat streaming down her head and neck. Her hair was hanging like strings. I thought she was anything but comely now — though since her sark was hitched up to her backside, others might have thought differently.
I don’t know what the driver was thinking when she bared her teeth and started towards him. But by the time Twinkle had covered ten yards and raised her spell-throwing arm, he had gunned the motor and disappeared over the brow of the hill. Twinkle’s snarl was a joy to the ear as she started up the hill after him. All the ghosts were cheering her on.
Except Big Mick.
He watched from his vantage point for a moment. Then he took the chanter out of the hole he used for a mouth and said, “She’ll no’ catch that laddie. Yon’s a Porsche.” Then he started playing one of those laments that seems to go on forever, without getting to the tune.
Nobody said anything for ages. We were probably all thinking about the penalties for failure if the Muckle Bogle found out what had happened. Twinkle would need another new name by the time he’d finished with her.
Big Mick stopped playing again. “Here she comes.” He pointed with his chanter to the far edge of the hill. “She’s got something; but it’s no’ a body.”
Twinkle was carrying a yellow board in one hand and a large piece of red metal in the other. It looked like a cross between a wing and a double-headed hammer. She was spitting curses in all directions. She didn’t look worried yet, just livid.
Give it time, I thought. She’ll learn.
“Did you fail again then, Nannie, my dear?” Big Mick’s Gaelic lilt had become very pronounced.
Twinkle made a good show of ignoring him. She spoke to me instead. “He made it across the burn bridge before I could get a good grip. This is all I got.” She held up her trophies. The yellow board proved to be a car number plate. It said MEG 2 on it.
Twinkle continued to rant. “Something ought to be done about that running water rule. Why can’t the Board outlaw it? It ruins everything in a place like Scotland. Burns everywhere you look. Why am I no’ allowed to cross them? It’s no’ fair.”
Big Mick had floated down from his window. “No’ fair? Just so, lassie,” he said, ever so softly, taking the red relic from her and running his hand down its long sharp edge. “But then again, humans are a wee thing better prepared for witches than they were the last time you had a go at Meg. Didn’t you know? Almost all their fast cars have one of these. They call it a spoiler.”