It was Matthew Carson’s sister that finally managed to get him back north of the border. He’d always had a soft spot for her, so much so that, whilst he gave enough oblique references to his desire to never set eyes upon his parents, home, or indeed the whole of Fife ever again, he never said a bad word about her.
Matthew was one of those aggressively atheistic sorts that can only really come from a staunch religious upbringing. He seemed to take anyone having the slightest religious aspect as being not just distasteful but unwholesome to the point where he found it borderline offensive.
We took almost as much joy in taunting him on the subject as we did our friends in the Christian union. Indeed, one of our favourite bar games, when all other banter failed, was to play devil’s advocate with Matthew and some of our religious friends, playing them off against each other until they were each arguing against a brick wall and we could simply sit back and watch their faces darken. Truth be told it was two years into our relationship that I finally realised he had more than the one sibling. The rest it transpired were all brothers and, like the rest of his family, subscribed to that rather antiquated religion.
It was midway through Michelmas term in our final year when we heard news of his sister’s death. We were gathered on the sofa watching some dreadful film from the bargain bin when his phone went. It was a short conversation, his half consisting of vague affirmations culminating in
“I’ll see what I can do.”
He told us his sister had died, but refused to elaborate further. We tried our best to express sympathy and cheer him up, but he seemed very agitated. When I asked him how he planned to get to the funeral he muttered noncommittally before making his excuses and shutting himself in his room for the rest of the day.
I knew him well enough by then to realise he had no intention of attending his sister’s funeral. I suppose it made sense, from his perspective, the only people who could be appeased by his presence were the rest of his family and, with his sister gone, they had lost what little sway they may have had over him. Still, it seemed rather hard-hearted even by his standards to not even carry out a token attendance.
A few days later I was in the common room, checking both of our pigeon holes; on the off chance that someone hadn’t been given the address of our shared house. Mine was empty, but Matthew’s contained a jiffy bag.
When I got back I knocked on Matthew’s door and passed him the padded envelope. Inside, we quickly discovered, were a formal invitation to his sister’s funeral, which was promptly sent bin-wards, and a more formal looking brown envelope. I excused myself and was halfway down the stairs when I heard the sound of tearing paper.
It was a fortnight later, when we had our visitor. I had been on the sofa eating a late breakfast when I answered the door to a slightly tubby blonde man in his late forties. He asked after Matthew and I told him he was out at lectures but, if he wanted to come in and wait, he shouldn’t be any more than half an hour or so.
I offered him tea and he accepted although, as fortune would have it, the kettle chose that morning to break, either that or the electricity company had finally enacted their threat to disconnect our supply. So instead I used an ingenious combination of water from the hot tap, thick bottomed mugs, and tentative use of the gas hob to produce a pair of passable mugs of a tea-like substance.
The man had a Scottish accent, although his only luggage was a plastic carrier bag which contained a plain grey box that he had placed upon the coffee table.
“Have you brought him a present?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and said he had, in a manner of speaking. I handed him the tea and we got to chatting. It turned out he was an old friend of Matthew’s family, a priest in fact. This piece of information dislodged something in my memory; Matthew had, once, given me vague hints as to the precise nature of his exile from Fife. As I recall, it revolved around his sister and some complicated business involving the local priest, although the much accursed preacher of that story bore no resemblance to the affable man I found myself sharing the living room with. I suppose it may have been him because he did mention Matthew’s family, albeit in rather general terms. We touched only briefly upon the matter of his sister and all he offered on the matter was a half smile and the words
“The poor girl; she always said they were a gift.”
It was then or in any case very shortly thereafter that Matthew returned. The priest brow-beat him about his refusal to attend the funeral, and informed him that the box on the coffee table was for him. They exchanged a few stiff pleasantries and the priest was on his way.
“Well, what is it?” I asked when we were alone. He shrugged his shoulders and pulled the box towards him. Before opening it he told me in stark terms that his sister had, for some years, been ill and, from what he had gathered, had been rather the worse in her late days. I nodded and made vague gestures asking if he wanted to be alone. He shrugged them off, merely stating that I shouldn’t expect the contents of the box to necessarily make much sense, and started to open it. Whoever sealed it had been quite thorough, to the extent that I had to fetch the kitchen scissors in order to get it open. Inside was a pair of ladies boots in purple suede leather with folded over cuffs. I wasn’t much impressed, the overall impression being more of a hoof than anything else; this was little helped by the heavy scuffing around the toes and heels.
“Well, what do you make of that?” I said. Matthew was, at this point struggling to hold back laughter.
“The thing is,” he said, “I can’t entirely put it past her to have done this as a joke.”
“Hold on, look,” I said, “there’s a note in here too.” I glanced it over and read aloud
“To Matthew: Hoc donum a mei donum.” I looked at him for explanation and he just shrugged his shoulders and started laughing again.
Matthew had been out at his last lecture of the term so we headed to the bar for a few celebratory drinks at ‘surviving’ another term. As I still had several hours’ worth of contact time the next day I left somewhat earlier than him, getting back to the house well before midnight.
At some ungodly hour I was woken by sounds from downstairs. A woman’s laughter mixed with a crashing that told me Matthew had, again, managed to persuade some similarly inebriated member of the opposite sex to accompany him home. Hoping that this time they would at least not try to steal part of my DVD collection, I rolled over and went back to sleep.
Whatever had done for the kettle seemed to have done the same to my alarm clock so it wasn’t that, or even the coming dawn that woke me, but rather the deep unsettling cold seeping into my limbs that announced that the boiler, too, had stopped working. Clad in dressing gown, pyjamas, socks, shoes, scarf hat and duvet I made my way downstairs to find a dishevelled Matthew sitting on the sofa pondering the boots on the table. I scooped enough debris off one of the chairs to sit and mock glowered at him.
“You look like you had a fun night,” I said, nodding around the bomb-site of a room. “So, where is she?”
He frowned and then, taking the growing silence as an indication all had not gone so well, changed the subject to our coffee table’s new centrepiece.
“So what are we going to do with them?”
“The shoes, oh, I was thinking about having them mounted, you know like a stag’s antlers, maybe hang them on the wall.”
“Yes, but then it’d look like you’ve had someone bricked into the wall to satisfy your twisted whims. Besides, I’m not sure they’re really in a fit state for public display.” To show him what I meant I picked one up and slipped my hand inside, fingers working their way into the toes to pull at a tiny loose flap of the leather. “See, you can hardly go making a show out of shoes with holes in them can you?”
As I pulled my hand out of the shoe something small and bright emerged with it and fell to the floor. Matthew reached down and picked up a silvery blue coin, a little smaller than a two pence piece and without the raised edge. Both sides had been worn down by many years of abuse, but the markings, some slightly confusing jumble of lines, were still just about visible.
“Looks like we’ve found your secret inheritance,” I said.
He looked at it curiously for a few seconds before slipping it into his pocket.
“Well,” he said at last, “I don’t think it’s quite enough for me to give up my studies just yet.”
The boiler resisted our efforts to get it working and eventually, balking at the expense, we decided that the house could not be left unheated through the deepest part of winter and called out a plumber. He spent five minutes clambering over our kitchen worktop only to declare the appliance fit for use and proceeded to emphasise his point by turning it on; much to my embarrassment.
That night I packed my old army rucksack for my trip home to see the family. Matthew never went anywhere for Christmas; I’d invited him to come and spend it with my family on more than one occasion but he made a point of paying as little attention to a ‘religious’ festival as possible. Packing, as always, took longer than I’d expected and it was into the small hours before I crawled into bed, although I could hear Matthew was still up and watching a film or something in his own room.
The weather that night was foul; wind rattling the old single-glaze windows and seeping in through every crack. And it was with little surprise that I awoke the next morning to find that the boiler had, again, decided to leave us shivering.
I gathered my last few things and bade farewell to a dishevelled and hung-over looking Matthew before making the long cold march to the train station.
I heard little from him in the few days before Christmas, which suited me well as family matters and my mother’s ever frantic preparations took much of my time. It was into the evening of Christmas Eve that my phone buzzed
“Bloody British rail,” it said, “caught the wrong bloody train!”
I responded that British rail hadn’t existed for more than a decade and asked him where on earth he was going at this time on Christmas Eve. My phone buzzed again as I was settling down to bed sometime around midnight.
“Long story… look, am a bit stuck, can you look up the timetable for Anstruther?”
I rolled out of bed, stumbled downstairs and after five minutes of googling realised that there was no such station. I texted Matthew:
“Piss off will you it’s late!”
My phone buzzed once more as I was falling asleep but, having had enough of Matt’s practical joke, I ignored it.
And that was the end of the matter, at least until Boxing Day when, in the middle of some dire film or other, my mother called me through to the kitchen telephone.
The woman at the other end introduced herself as a detective constable. She apologised for calling when she had, having only that morning been able to get hold of a member of university staff and, after much to-ing and fro-ing been passed my home number. I told her not to worry and asked how I could help. She asked if I knew anything about Matthew Carson and his movements over the last few days. I recounted the text conversation about the imaginary station and asked if he was missing. She said ‘not as such’ I pressed the matter and she told me that his body had been found in a field somewhere in Fife.
“It took us this long to track down your number because his phone wasn’t working, on account of the lightning.”
“Yes, I mean… I’m not supposed to go into details but—“
I pleaded with her, explaining that Matthew was (very probably) my best friend. After much sighing she relented and, in a whisper, told me:
“Near as we can figure it; he was in the field and got hit by lightning.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, there was a hole burned clean through his shoe, and on the inside, stuck to his foot, was a coin. Me and the lads figure it must have changed his conductivity or something, turned him into a lightning conductor.”
I thanked the DC for her time and told her to call me if there was anything else I could help with.
It was only after sitting down that I recalled that last buzz of my phone. I pulled it out and checked the message. It was a picture message, without any text; just a blurry dark image of a rural railway station. The camera was looking over the rails at a patch of woodland. It was hard to tell, but if you squinted right at the centre of the image, on the far side of the tracks, in between the silhouettes of the trees, there was a tiny cluster of pixels stood out a little lighter than their background, a short stubby streak of light that, if you looked hard enough and screwed up your eyes, looked like a figure, dressed in grey, arms outstretched.