Gibbous House

By Ewan Lawrie

Nicholas Nickleby meets Psycho in a gothic, 19th-century noir

Sunday, 22 March 2015


Writers - am I a writer? Hmm... People who try to write have favourites, things they have written that they like much more than others; even others that have been accepted and published. Sometimes there's something that they write that, despite everything, really represents them and what they think they are.

The following is my favourite story of the moment. One that I must have written a good six months ago, but still feel a fondness for it that is probably out of all proportion to its quality or style.

Here it is


[Image was an open chest full of gold coins. Don't know if it was a dead man's chest]


He winced, but turned towards the shrill voice anyway.

Flint looked out at him from between the bars.

It had been Jimbo, Jimmy, Jimbob, even James – certainly anything but Jim – until the section had found out about the middle name. After that it was always Jim.

'You won't tell anyone, will you?' Jim knew, as every woman does, that they were the six most ineffective words in English.

The parrot had been a leaving present from the mob. At first he'd thought it better than a crystal decanter or some god-awful plaque. Then it had cost a lot of money to get Flint to Spain. He could have moved to the Tortugas or Cuba with less fuss.

Jim looked over at the bookcase. Not many books there. The one his dad had given him, of course. First Edition. Not mint, but so rare as not to matter, he'd found out later. He'd almost sold it once. Just after his father had died, matter of fact. It stood beside a couple of paperbacks, a King James Bible and a book club Complete Shakespeare, the kind with pages so thin they might be onion-skin. Three volumes with pages unglued from the spine and dirty with prints from be-spittled fingers. A book for shelf display and not for reading. Well, that was tough, even a successful first novel wouldn't pay for a decent edition. Besides, no writer was without vanity, so there it was on the shelf.

He didn't have the trope-ical blank page in front of him, neither was it entirely covered in doodles. There were crossings-out, half-kus, “para”- graphs – in the sense of quasi-written things. What there wasn't, was anything resembling good writing, ideas or hope. His eye caught the empty Ducados packet lined up with the edge of the desk. Perhaps he'd walk down the track to the pueblito, buy a pack at the venta and smoke half of the cigarettes outside with a brandy and coffee next to his notebook.

Yeah. That sounded like an idea. He almost wrote it down, but stood to get his leather jacket off the peg by the door. The cracking at the elbow would soon be a tear. Didn't even fit, really. He was turning into his dad, someone who couldn't bear to throw anything out. It would be the velcro shoes and Alzheimer's next. He laughed. He should be so lucky, to live that long.

Trope-ical. That was part of the problem. A near-pun; nearly funny, nearly famous, nearly writing. He thought he might skip the coffee.


Tesoro didn't look so pristine close up. Like all the white villages it was somehow scruffier when you actually got there. It was biggish for a pueblito, since it had a church and a bar. Venta Dolores was a one room place that served hard rolls for breakfast and spoon-food at all other times of day. And booze. The owner spoke two – no three – words of English: 'Hello' and 'Fuck Off', which he used interchangeably with Jim and the retirees Vernon and George. They'd been told by an agente de inmobilario that Tesoro was the Gay Capital of inland Andalucia. Pedro was the only person from the village who spoke to them, apart from Jim himself.

'Una cerveza y un brandy, por favor.'

'Cognac?' Pedro's eyebrows lifted.

'¡Que no!'

Jim fed the vending machine 4 euro coins and got a packet of Ducados in return. The beer and brandy both arrived in chipped glasses.

'Thanks,' Jim said.

'Fuck off,' Pedro laughed and wiped the table down with a dirty cloth.

Jim took the notebook out of his pocket. A cheap thing, from one of the Chinese bazaars in a bigger town further down the hillside. It stayed in his jacket. The only writing was on the inside cover. The once blue-black ink was the colour of methylated spirits. His name and a year, 2004, written above Finca Hispaniola, Tesoro, 28730, Malaga, Spain. If he ever lost it, someone could post it back. He couldn't decide if the empty pages made it less likely to be returned.

The sky was the colour of – well – the posh name for that flower that grows in the corn. Hurtsickle, that was it. Don't put that in your story for submission, sonny. Just put blue. Everyone knew that. Jim reckoned that pretty soon everyone would be writing in exactly the same style – and in the present tense. Still and all, looking at that sky, blue just didn't do it justice.

Suddenly the beer was gone and the brandy quickly followed it. Pedro said hello when he brought two replacements. Jim got out his pen. It was part of the ritual, having the pen on the table, not touching the condensation rings, or the notebook. It was an old-fashioned Platignum, with the squeezy-bulb to fill it. The pen was dry. It hadn't been used between 1976 and the turn of the century, but it had worked well for a couple of years. It hadn't written anything since 2004. After the book was published. It was a minor success. Not bad for something written as a bet. Then that damned poet had – not exactly stolen – used the idea. He'd done it better too. And then last month, he'd written a sequel. Jim knew he'd never write anything now.

He lit a cigarette. He didn't actually smoke them, not really. Two puffs and then he'd let the cigarette burn down to a long, drooping bar of ash. It was the smell of the burning tobacco. People didn't understand that.


A Guardia Civil vehicle turned up. A todo-terreno. 4-wheel drive for the caminos rurales. Something interesting, Jim thought. Maybe. Both Guardia straightened their baseball caps after getting out of the car. They left both doors open, unconcerned that one lane of the road was blocked by their vehicle. Both men were about 40, quite tall, but then they most certainly weren't local and they might well have been from Madrid or Maçanet de Cabrenys, wherever that was. Jim nodded and their eyes slid across him before they walked into the bar.

They weren't inside long.

'Papeles!' The policeman's arm was outstretched hand palm upwards.

Jim's passport was up at the finca. He had his driving licence, but that was no use here. The old resident's card had your picture on it too and they used to accept those. La Residencia was a piece of paper now, no-one carried it. It was one of the things Jim hated about Spain. Uniformed men demanding to see papers; for British people it was the stuff of films about Nazis.

'Mi pasaporte esta en casa,' Jim said.

The policeman's eyebrows disappeared into the shade of his cap's peak.

'Then you will come with us, Señor,' his English was accented but otherwise perfect.

'But can't I present my papers at the Comisaría?'

He'd done it before and the GC were used to the British Guiris who didn't like carrying their passports around.

'I'm afraid not, not today.'

The other policeman spoke up, 'In car. Now.'

They let him get in the rear of the vehicle under his own steam. None of that hand on the top of the head to prevent him smashing it on the frame and claiming police brutality. What kind of nutter did that, anyway?'

They didn't say anything in the car. It was heading further down the hillside. The nearest Guardia comisario was in Catafálque. Jim supposed the two policemen lived in the cuartel, single or married. They didn't have flats or houses in the general community. The Guerra Civil was a long time ago, but people had long memories. Jim put his hands in his pockets, there was blood coming from his thumbnail, the English-speaking guy caught his eye in the mirror,

'You're not in la mierda, you'll be helping – what is it you say in England? With our enquiries.'

He gave a laugh, and Jim did not know what to make of that.


The todo-terreno pulled up gently in the Guardia compound, no screeching tyres and the driver left the horn alone. The other policeman opened the rear door as if Jim was a VIP arriving at a hotel.

Then he took Jim's elbow, but only like he was seeing his granny over a busy road.

Jim was escorted to an office in the back of the main building. The name on the door said Capitan Suarez under the title Comandante de Puesto.

'El Ingles, Jefe,' the policeman said as he shoved Jim into the room.

Capitan Suarez had his feet up on the desk. Flies buzzed around light shades, dying potted plants and the Captain's head.

'¿Habla español?

'Si, puedo defenderme.' Jim hoped he wouldn't have to defend himself.

The captain snapped a rubber band between his thumb and forefinger. Jim wondered if it was a coping technique for OCD.

'Entonces, seres su interprete,' Suarez pointed at the figure sitting in one of the other chairs in the room.

The man had a patchy beard and an eye-patch. None of his clothes seemed to fit him. The shirt was too tight and the trousers were gathered and bunched at the waist. He stood and Jim could see that one leg was prosthetic.

'What's he done?' Jim asked in Spanish.

'Nada serio. Pensamos que es un poco loco, se habra escapado de no se donde.'

'Mad? Where would he escape from here?'

'No se, tu eres el interprete, preguntalo!

'Well… ah… How can I help, Sir?'

'Don't ye know me, Jim?'

Capitan Suarez fired his rubber band at a rotund and sluggish fly, striking it amidships and killing it instantly.

The old man grasped at Jim's arm,

'Jim Lad, you've come at last. Tell this Hispanee, your old mate John is harmless as a fly in winter.'

Jim thought the simile a little unfortunate, and let out a laugh. The man might not have been crazy, but maybe Jim was.

'What's your name?'

The Capitan was reloading his thumb with another elastic band, brow furrowed with his gaze fixed at the fly circling the overhead light.

The old man's eyes widened until Jim could see white all around the iris,

'Jim, Jim, Jim, the name of your oldest friend. How could you forget, John Silver?'

The man was serious, not to say almost tearful.

Jim relayed the man's name to the Capitan.

'¿Y?' the word was punctuated by the snap of the rubber band and the death of another fly.

'What have you done?' Jim asked the man calling himself Silver.

'Done, Jim? Why, nothing! Nothing at all.'

'There must have been something, Old Man. Why were you picked up?'

'Going about my business! D'ye think they'll give me back the shovel?'

His eyes narrowed, 'They didn't get the map, Jim. Have no fear of that!'

Jim asked the policeman where the old man had been picked up.

'My sister-in-law's olive groves, between here and Remonte. She is madder than a wasp. He vandalised 6 trees, dug holes all over the place. We cleaned him up a little. You should have seen what he was wearing before.'

'How much damage did he do, really? He's an old man?'

The old man was looking from the policeman to Jim like a dog with two masters.

'No tanto… I will tell Inmaculada that he will pay for the trees…'

The Policeman shrugged, bored by the whole business, no doubt.

'Has he any money?' Jim jerked his head at the lunatic, not daring to look at him.

'Not on him. He had nothing but the shovel, in fact.'

Jim turned to the old cripple.

'Where do you live, Sir? Can I take you somewhere? To someone?

'Back to the ship? Not yet, Jim. We've treasure to find!'

Jim sighed and told the Capitan that he was correct, the man was a certifiable loon.

'We can let him go if the trees are paid for…'

'If the trees – no, I'm not… no!'

'It is the carcel and later the penitenciaria,' the Capitan shrugged, eyes already on another dipteran victim.

The old man grabbed Jim's arm again,

'Will ye pay the Revenue man? Ye'll have the treasure, Jim. Equal shares, according to Ship's Articles!'

The old man's eyes were as bright as a child's at his own birthday party.

He shrugged off the old man's hand,

'How much?'

'5 – no – 400 Euros,' another fly's mortal span ended in the twang of rubber.

Jim wondered if the discount was at the expense of the insect's life.

He paid. There was just enough money left to get a taxi for Jim Hawkins Stevenson and Long John Silver back to the Venta Dolores. Maybe there was enough for a bottle of rum too.

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