The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia

Jane Herbert smiled nervously as she looked around the Circle.  “I don’t have anything to read to you,” she said.  “But I have an idea I want to pitch.”  None of the other group members really knew much about Jane.  She was an ever-present, always pleasant company but certainly no open book.  It always appeared that whatever small revelation she was prepared to make had been well thought-through beforehand.  She played her life like a poker hand.  The others knew that she wrote horror stories, she had described herself on one occasion as ‘Stephen King in a frock’, but other than the little insights she chose to impart in and around the bar, little was known about her or her writing.  “The tale starts with the discovery of a dismembered cat in field near a farm.  Nothing unusual in that; must happen all the time – foxes, stray dogs, drunken youths…  Nobody pays much attention, even when other mutilated small creatures start appearing – rats, rabbits, one or two more cats – nobody really bothers, until that is, the first of the brutally dismembered larger animals appears and it gradually becomes clear that nothing is safe any longer: dogs, foxes, badgers, deer are found – all horribly killed and half-eaten by who knows what?…”

“My God!” whispered Frankie.  “That’s like no Tale of the Riverbank I’ve ever seen.”  Jane Smiled, she was happy with the reaction.

“The killings become more regular; more brutal with each passing day,” she continued.  “The local people begin to discuss the possibility of some slavering mythical beast.  The national tabloids catch wind of the story and they descend on the village: farm animals are locked away at nights, watched over by reporters, farmhands and CCTV cameras, all hoping to uncover the truth of the Beast of Westhall, but the killings stop as suddenly as they began, interest wanes and the farms slowly return to the mores of normal rural existence.  It is widely believed that it has all been some kind of morbid publicity stunt, or even, perhaps, some kind of arcane sacrificial ritual.  Over time, as things return to normal, only one reporter remains, an atypically thorough journalistic investigator, determined to uncover the truth.  It is he who finds the first human victim, stripped of flesh and clothing,  and huddled under a hawthorn hedge surrounded by nothing more than a bloodied muddy lake, fringed by ungulate footprints and wisps of wool fluttering in the breeze where it has snagged on the barbed wire fence…”

“What’s an ungulate?” asked Phil after a pause that was just long enough to make him feel that he was the only one who didn’t know.
“I think it’s an animal with a cloven foot, isn’t it?” said Frankie.  Jane smiled at him once again.
Phil turned to Frankie and mouthed the words, “Teacher’s Pet.”  They both grinned.
“So, is that what’s doing the killing then?” Phil persevered, aware that he may still have been the only one of them in the dark.  “Something or other with a clover foot?”
“Cloven,” corrected Deidre, who was never one to turn up such a chance.
“Well,” answered a thoughtful Jane.  “It’s likely, isn’t it?  Although it’s even more likely that the ungulates, whatever they may be, could just have been curious bystanders.  They are, after all, herbivores.”
“What about pigs?  Are they ungulates?  My grandad had a pig during the war – it ate anything.”
“But did it kill anything?”
“I’m not sure, could have done.  I’ve never trusted pigs since they sent Boxer off to the knacker’s yard.”
“What about the wool on the barbed wire?” asked Penny.  “…Unless that’s a red herring.”
“Do herring have wool?” asked Phil, ashamed of himself almost immediately as Penny flushed instantly crimson.
“Well, they are weird, aren’t they, sheep?” chipped in Louise.  “Evil little eyes.”
“They don’t kill though, do they,” said Terry.  “At least, not in real life.”
“They have plenty of motive to start killing humans, I’d say,” countered Vanessa.  “I agree with Louise, evil little eyes.  Although Penny’s right,” she cast a glance at Phil, “the wool could just be a red herring.”
“Why do we count sheep do you think?” asked Frankie.  “When we want to go to sleep, I mean.  Why sheep?  Why not rabbits, or kittens, or koalas, they’re far more restful…  Maybe sloths would be even better.  Counting sloths – how peaceful can you get?”
“They are sinister, aren’t they, sheep?  Lambs are cute, like baby hyena, but by the time they’re adult and they’ve seen most of their contemporaries carted off to the abattoir, they definitely give the impression of an animal with a grudge.”
“Killer sheep – or maybe just one killer.  Be a nightmare to identify in the middle of a flock wouldn’t it?” said Phil.  “Mind you, knowing what sheep are like, they’d all want a go.  They’re notoriously…” his voice trailed away, “…sheep-like aren’t they?”
“What about deer?” asked Billy, keen to join in the conversation.  “They can be big and aggressive.”
“Didn’t Jane say that some of the victims had been deer?”
“Wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Billy muttered darkly.
“Bloody hell,” said Frankie.  “Psycho Rudolph!  This could be more disturbing than The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“Nothing could be that scary.”  Penny looked genuinely alarmed at the prospect.
“Imagine,” grinned Billy, “you’re just drifting off to sleep, peacefully counting sheep, when one of them leaps out and starts to chew your face off!”
“I really…”  Penny turned very pale indeed.  “Why do we count sheep do you think?”
“I think it’s because they come in flocks,” suggested Deidre.
“Starlings come in flocks,” said Terry.  “And pigeons.”
“Much too difficult to tie down,” said Vanessa.  “It would keep you awake, the possibility that you’d missed one.”
“You’d have to count so quickly,” added Penny.  “I think it would keep you awake.”
“Unlike a demented sheep?”  Billy chided, winking at the grinning Terry.
“I think we’d all agree,” said Vanessa, “that consideration of the demented in any species is probably inadvisable in the moments before sleep.  Nobody should have to try and sleep in the company of the psychotically unhinged.  Do you have a partner Mr Hunt?”
“I…”  Billy’s mouth lolled open like a dying carp.  He looked towards Terry for support.  He got none.
“Good,” said Vanessa, unaware of Deidre’s appreciative stare.  “So, Jane, what are they, these killer ungulates: sheep, pigs, deer or just plain old red herrings?”
“Well, there’s my problem, I’m really not sure,” she frowned slightly.  “I haven’t really got it straight in my head yet, and I’m afraid to say that it’s keeping me awake at night…”

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter’ is here.




There are times when I cannot turn my brain off. In the middle of the night it churns and chugs relentlessly on, like a football commentator when nothing is happening on the pitch: the incessant narrative being infinitely more tedious than the inaction it describes. When I am trying to sleep and my brain finds itself at a loose end, it generously furnishes me with a full colour replay of the day just gone, with all the bad bits on repeat. It reminds me of a thousand things I didn’t do or didn’t say, and provides me with a thousand rejoinders it couldn’t quite conjure up when they were needed. My brain could do with some sort of mute switch; it would seriously benefit from a sleep mode, or at the very least a pause button. When I close my eyes, somebody has left the lights on. It’s like attempting to read James Joyce’s Ulysses – I know that something or other is going on, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is.

Tell me, what kind of brain goes into overdrive when the rest of the body is crying out for sleep? I have tried very hard to analyse what it is that keeps me awake at night: is it an imprudent chunk of extra-mature Cheddar perhaps, an ill-judged scary movie or a super-strong after-dinner coffee? To find oneself pondering the root cause of this inopportune wakefulness is inescapable. Should I have had that midnight snack? Should I have had that last little whisky? From tomorrow I shall drink nothing but water. From tomorrow I shall eat nothing but horsehair and mung beans.

The darkness of night provides the ideal environment in which to review the day just gone and to preview the one to come. To ponder cause and effect: am I worrying because I am awake, or am I awake because I am worrying? I do not know what wakes me in the middle of the night, but whatever it is, I know that having been woken, what keeps me awake is anxiety; either over something that has happened in the preceding twenty four hours, or over what might yet happen before my next fruitless search for slumber. If I could just reconcile myself to my own inactions, I would, without doubt, sleep much more soundly.

In common with all my senses (and I count ‘common’ amongst them) the acuity of my hearing is fading with each passing year and yet, in the middle of the night, I can hear a spider farting in the next room. How does that happen? (And, here I go. I’m now trying to work out if spiders are anatomically capable of farting. My entomological knowledge being, at best, sketchy, I am not sufficiently informed to help myself with that one. I presume that as they eat, they fart. Mind you, I’m now thinking that spiders aren’t insects in the first place. They’re arachnids aren’t they? Different number of legs I think. If they’re not insects, then entomologists are not going to help me. Who on earth can I turn to on the spider fart conundrum? What do you call a spider expert? An arachnologist? Spellcheck certainly doesn’t think so. Lord knows! No chance of finding out the truth about the source of noise from the other room when I don’t even know what to look for in the Yellow Pages. If the Yellow Pages even exists anymore…)

Houses have an aural fingerprint: it is the accumulation of all the small, unnoticed sounds that fill your home. The hum of the fridge, the whirr of the freezer, the assembled tick of clocks and watches, the creaking of joists, the pilot light in the boiler; in isolation these sounds do not impinge upon your consciousness. They are always there, but you never hear them – until one of them goes missing. In the middle of the night you will have no idea of what is wrong, but you will know with a certainty that all is not right. All you can do is get out of bed, get hold of something heavy just in case it’s a burglar (or a massive farting spider) and have a prowl around the house. Even then, the likelihood is that unless you paddle through a pool of melted ice (shall we call it ‘water’?) illuminated by the little light of an unclosed freezer door and embellished with the scent of six drawers full of semi-thawed comestibles, you will not know what, exactly, has caused your anxiety.

There is a moment, I have no idea what triggers it, when you realise that all attempts to rediscover sleep are futile and the only sensible course of action is to get up and make a cup of tea. The skill is in turning on sufficient light to minimise the risk of taking the skin clean off your shin on the doorframe, but not enough to wake you further: to occupy your mind sufficiently to draw it away from its nocturnal turmoil without giving it too much else to fret about; to find a book to read that will neither over-exercise the synapses nor over-excite the neurons – anything by Tolkien usually works for me. Whatever your choice, such night-time perambulations are almost certain to create concerns of their own. We have a smoke alarm at the top of the stairs. It does not contribute at all to my wakefulness (quite the reverse) but it does have a little LED light that flashes from time to time. In the day it is barely discernible, yet in the dark of the night it illuminates the landing like a camera flash going off. Everything appears to freeze in its transient glare. And my brain starts to whirr… You see, I saw a film once, I have no idea what it was called, in fact, it might not have been a film, it might have been a TV programme, or a book, a comic strip, I might even have dreamt it… come on, it’s late, give me a break. Anyway, it – whatever it was – told the story of a man who was unaware that every time such a light flashed for him, his world really did freeze and various components of his existence were rearranged around him before the light flashed again and he carried on oblivious to anything having taken place. Who did it? I’m not sure. And why they did it I have not the faintest idea. But once the smoke alarm has flashed I can’t get it out of my mind.

…And my mind is my biggest problem. I have the kind of mind that can store an extraordinary amount of information – ‘useless shit’ I believe it is called – and yet forget somebody’s face ten seconds after they have left me. My brain is the bane of my life, but I wouldn’t want to be without it. Except, perhaps, in the early hours of the morning when it comes out to play. For years I kept a notebook and pen by my bedside and I would jot down all my night-time musings as they occurred, so that, suitably cleansed, my mind would allow me to drift back into sleep. The very act of putting thoughts down on paper did, at least, stop them whirring around in my head. Waking up to random periphrastic ramblings, however, seldom led me anywhere useful and often guided me instead to many hours of sleepless conjecture the following evening. Unfortunately, having been thwarted once, my brain is apt to find a different tack. Having got me awake, it begins to rope in other parts of the body with the aim of causing me all manner of nocturnal discomforts. Headache, earache, toothache, the kind of cramp that leads me to believe that I may have dislocated my entire leg, suffered a badly botched amateur amputation, or fallen to sleep in a closed-up deck chair…

I would take something to help me sleep, but the fear of possible side-effects would keep me awake. I do not watch the TV; I do not play video games; I don’t even check the football results after dark. If I’m awake in the early hours, my only ‘entertainment’ is Local Radio and a quiet hour spent pairing my socks. I will eventually fall back upon the counting of sheep and the conscious stripping of my consciousness. I wait, often in vain, for sleep to drip, drip, drip into the void I have thus created – and hope that all the splashing doesn’t keep me awake…