n. A series of words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric. [After (Lady) Mondegreen, a misinterpretation of the line "(hae laid) him on the green," from the song The Bonny Earl of Moray.]
The Story Begins
It is messy and smelly today in the Diamond District. The stains on 47th Street change color as the humidity rises. I need to get away. I'm overdressed for the heat, in a trench coat I found on the train to Albany. If it weren't for the very good condition of my blood-red brogues, the Hasidic diamond merchant I'm currently haggling with wouldn't even have begun the process of exchanging a blood-stained West African war diamond for the literally blood-flecked American dollars I have clutched in my fist, deep within the expansive pockets of my contraband outerwear.
No Deal is Struck
The negotiations are failing. I look down at a gum-smeared spot on the sidewalk six inches to the right of the diamond merchant's plain black shoe. The diamond merchant looks up to my right, at the tops of the heads of couples learning to waltz in the Arthur Murray Studios across the street. Shakes his head. Our eyes meet again for a moment. I am confused and saddened by this failure to exchange one thing for another. But we are men of the world and the moment passes quickly. I walk away, toward Park Avenue. The diamond merchant returns to the chintzy cavern of his store, shaking his head at the goy with the shabby coat and nice shoes.
Actually, I'm a Thief
My outward mien of confusion and dismay over the failed deal was in fact a slick bit of mummery intended to distract the diamond merchant from my substitution of the real diamond for a fake. This kind of thing is my business - or at least one division in the larger corporation of me. Other branches include: graft, safecracking, numbers, private investigation, and a little light plumbing, should things get desperate. The diamond swap was a spontaneous act; I don't really need the money (I have plenty at the moment, thanks to a recent venture in Westchester). Maybe it was the clamor of the open-air haggle - the old-fashioned feeling of pure commerce spilling out onto the street, men barking, their shirtsleeves rolled up - that drew me along the block. I've had trouble sleeping lately, and the adrenaline of live-action "theft over a thousand" always helps.
Leaving On a Jet Plane (for God knows where)
As I said, I need a break. I've never really had a grownup holiday. I've never really had a childhood holiday. I'm not a scary criminal, per se. I'm actually not bad looking. I've been told I have a soft, non-threatening face: my cheekbones aren't too high; my eyes are weak in just the right way. I've made a life of not being noticed. But even if people have lied to me and called me handsome, I don't feel that way now, stuck in a taxi on the Van Wyck on the way to JFK, headed for God knows where; I think anyone telling the truth would call me "haggard." I haven't slept in two days. And unlike most people, for whom "I haven't slept in two days" means "On the two nights previous to this, I have slept intermittently and poorly," I'm on hour 55 of wakefulness and am starting to feel spidery.
To Fly, Perchance To Sleep
My last happy memory of deep sleep was a flight to Vancouver. I cannot recall why I was going to the rainy west coast of Canada, nor indeed, can I recall what it was I did there. I do, however, remember the amniotic hum of the plane's engines working with the double Scotch and the fuzzy inflight blanket to coax me into a deep natal slumber. I remember how clear the world seemed upon waking, the smile of the aging Quebecoise stewardess with the slight dark fuzz on her upper lip. And so, in a misguided attempt to pull back from the edge of wakeful insanity, I, Jim Cheever, nice guy and professional criminal, have taken a cab to JFK so I can catch a plane and get a little sleep.
Where Whiskey Grows On Trees and the English
Gets Stuck On Your Skirt
Cruising at 36,000 feet, 136 miles due east of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, headed at a speed of 763 miles to Glasgow International Airport, I fall asleep. I am woken shortly thereafter, somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, by the braying of a pantsuited shrew demanding a refill of her "chard." The remaining two hours of the flight are similarly fraught with impediments to repose, and I soon find myself braying along with the shrew for refills of Scotch and soda. At one point our eyes meet and we raise glasses in an awkward half salute to people everywhere getting drunk on planes. Maybe she's not so bad.
Where Are the Goddamn Leprechauns?
"To a pub please, somewhere in the city center." Glasgow, unaccustomed to the preponderance of sun it has received in the last week, appears unduly perky from the window of the cab, driving along the A761. Perhaps because of the sunshine or the two hours of actual sleep, I allow myself a little optimism. What the hell, people fall asleep all the time, right? Preparing myself for the lovely, disorienting experience of entering a dark, smoky American bar on a sunny afternoon, I am surprised to discover that the "Highlander" has a brightly lit, perfectly cheery interior. More like a family restaurant than a saloon.
My Greek Chorus, Scotsmen As It Would Turn Out
Ted Culp, Lewis MacLeod, and Duff Keogh are sitting at the bar when I push open the door, the gentle medicinal effect of the inflight scotch and sodas beginning to subside. The three Scotsmen, accustomed to finishing each other's sentences, share a conspiratorial glance as I - the American - take a stool on the short arm of the bar's L. I order a gin and tonic. The first sip is a gentle hand around my heart, helping it to beat.
You'd Better Mind Your Ps and Qs
When You're At 6s and 7s
I finger the diamond in my pocket. I'm not sure what to do next. The plane's destination was secondary to its role as purveyor of sleep, but now I'm in a strange city in a strange country. I've had three more gins and I'm trying to eavesdrop on a conversation among brogue-thick locals I can barely understand. Ted: "I [unintelligible] -ting Lady Mondegreen; [unintelligible] would've killed her?" Lewis: "Ach, [unintelligible] kill anybody - it was greed. [unintelligible] bastards [unintelligible] rich as Croesus." Duff: "But [unintelligible] never actually found what they were looking for. [unintelligible] right." The three take turns sneaking looks my way, as it has become obvious I'm trying to follow they're conversation.
Glimpsing the Shimmering Possibility of a
Bona Fide Holiday Diversion
"They never actually found what they were looking for." These words, spoken by Duff Keogh, escape the dark thicket of Scots I've been trying to enter for the last 30 minutes, throwing behind them a dim light illuminating the sentences that have gone before. Without thinking, I find myself asking the locals the question they've been expecting: "Well, so what was it they were looking for?"
The Point At Which the Story Truly Begins
The search for buried treasure is kind of an embarrassing thing to bring up. For example, if you're sitting next to an attractive woman at a bar and she inclines her head downward in your direction, and then up for a brief moment to meet your eyes, and then back left in search of the bartender, it is neither grotesque nor narcissistic to assume a conversation is imminent. If however, you have very recently made a sleep-deprived, gin-sodden decision to dedicate the next fortnight of your botched life to a wild search for buried treasure, you might find yourself seeking to avoid conversation with said beautiful woman. And this is how I managed to screw up my last earthly chance of sex with an attractive woman.
The Lady Mondegreen and Her Lover, the Earl of Moray
Upon examining the morning-after whiskey-glyphs on my tattered cocktail napkin, I'm able to ascertain the following details of the tale of a rich aristocrat, his mysterious courtesan of pauperish-though-noble background, and the circumstances that lead to their grisly deaths: Earl of Moray, landed gentry, local to the shire of Kilpartick from time immemorial; family rich from off-sea drilling rights sold in the 1950s, parlayed into the shrewd acquisition of valuable antiquities; seat of the family manse in the formerly rural village of Bells Hill, which now barely exceeds the limits of Glasgow's most far-flung suburbs; widowed in 1957; fell in love with the Lady Mondegreen (alleged third cousin to the Duke of Moncrief) who arrived in Kilpartick bearing a letter of introduction from said Duke. After three years of companionship, the Earl began to rescind assorted village rights originally the n'oblesse oblige of the Morays. The townspeople, possessed of a near-genetically coded loyalty to the Morays, tried to put the best light on these baffling abrogations; upon the cancellation of water rights to the Creek of Sighs, however, sentiment in the village became very negative. Things get ugly.
An Elucidation of Napkin Scrawls
And so it went, according to Duff et al: the village turned sour on the Earl. At first it was merely the malice of hormones and dares, as teenage boys goaded each other into small acts of vandalism: urinating on the front steps; writing words like "tosser" and "bugger" on the stone facing of the south wall of Dunkiely, the Moray family manor; ripping up acacia bushes on the path to the Acadian cupola; getting drunk in said cupola on bottles of cider fermented under their beds over months and then throwing it all up on the floor of the neo-Classical observatory in the north wing. It wasn't until Lord Moray acquired two large, dull-witted German Shepherds that things got worse. In fact, it was the introduction of these banally vicious creatures, named Canteloupe and Pomegranate, that put an end to any hope of reconciliation between the formerly beloved Earl (whom older townspeople still recalled as the bright and promising youth they called "Little Kevin") and his unofficial constituents, the loyal but surly Kilpartickites, who grumbled things like: "So the Earl needs wee pups to protect him from us, does he? No doubt it's that English courtesan who's put him up to it." Their thoroughly local brand of disgruntlement was aimed directly at the mysterious Lady Mondegreen.
A Note On the Femme Fatale
The Lady Mondegreen was a decade younger than the Earl, who was 49 when his first wife died. Like much of the English aristocracy she was improbably slim and translucent, with hollow eyes the size of beer mats, the color of pale ale. She spoke with a slight lisp, and despite the reputation thrust upon her in the months leading up to her grisly death, had been kind and generous in her dealings with villagers. The Lady Mondegreen had been fond of the spinet, so the Earl had sent over to Paris for the piano-like instrument. In the installation of the item he'd employed Duff's older brother Jock, who now, in his dotage, could still recall the rich timbre of her voice as she thanked him with such honesty and assiduousness (not Jock's words) that he became convinced she could not be of noble birth. But whether she'd been cruel or kind didn't matter now - she was most definitely dead.
Black Mackey and the Caper
As Duff tells it, the introduction of the dogs did not go unnoticed among the local criminal element. Such a precautionary measure could only be seen as a move to protect valuables, the acquisition of which was the moral responsibility of the aforementioned element, regardless of its size or aptitude. In this case, however - more's the pity for the murdered gentry, so foully slain in their warm feather beds - a certain Mackey Lynch, late of the Ribbon Boys gang of East Glasgow (and everyone knows the unsavory types live on the east sides of big cities) was on the lam in Dunbartonshire just as Pomegranate and Cantaloupe we're settling in. Mackey, who occasionally wore an eye patch for no reason, brought his crew in from the city with promises of an easy target, as the local constabulary - the kind but delusional Captain Coogan and his only slightly less moronic deputy MacLeod -were happily distracted by a few extra pints down the pub and a rousing game of darts.
The Crime Itself
Mackey's approach to crime was touched with genius, or perhaps idiocy: he was convinced that if you acted fully and consistently outside the bounds of larcenous commonsense, you could befuddle the law and confuse victims in equal measures. And so, at 6:30pm, as the Earl of Moray and the Lady Mondegreen sat down for a bowl of turtle soup with tripe and mint chutney, and as accomplices Winston Spragg and Charlie Doiley sat down to a pint with Coogan and MacLeod, there burst into the Moray dining room three men in ballgowns in a frenzy of ululation and aggression, the lead transvestite making garbled demands for "the goods." But before any business could be transacted, one of Mackey's wingmen, Hillary Creek, who that very morning had discovered his wife, also named Hillary, in bed with the vicar, projected his until-then repressed fury onto the unmarried couple in front of him, and, as he would later tell police, gave the Earl "a wee tap on the heed" for failing to respond to Mackey's polite request for information. The wee tap would prove fatal. The wee tap would prove catalytic. With that small act of violence, the men in ball gowns smelled blood. The Lady Mondegreen stood little hope of surviving the next five minutes, and did not. The police found the dining room in a state of great disarray, the bodies of the gentry in unpleasant states of disheveled rictus, turtle soup everywhere. The next morning, Ian Barron, the milkman, his voice cracking in extremis, could be heard shouting down the valley, until he was forcibly stopped by deputy MacLeod: "They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen!"
The Cacophony of a Repentant Village
Liberated from their earthly vessels, the Earl and the Lady could now be received back into the good auspices of the grumbling but ultimately loyal village of Kilpartick, which of course subconsciously realized that it was partly responsible for the likes of Mackey Lynch. As time passed, most assumed the criminals had absconded with the Earl's treasures, to be scattered to the four corners of Britain, artifacts surreptitiously sold at weekend antique fairs and poorly lit jewelers. And while this was the case with most of the items, there remained a small bag of precious gems, which, according to Duncan Strapp, who'd heard it from Jamesy Finch, a cellmate of one of the Ribbon Boys, was later hidden on the deserted premises by one of the thieves: diamonds, rubies, pearls - enough for the rest of an honest man's life. The only impediment to looking for this hidden treasure, at least as far as the villagers were concerned, was the obvious fact the estate was haunted by the Earl and the Lady, who, stuck in a tortuous purgatory, could never find again the love that was due them in heaven. Which is bound to make a soul peevish.
Wait. Is This a Ghost Story?
"No," says Duff, "not exactly. No one in the village of Kilpartick has ever actually seen any evidence of the supernatural The grounds stay in mysteriously good shape, as does the façade of the place - which hasn't been entered in some 40 years - but I suspect those who felt sheepish about their slanderous chatter have something to do with that. The idea of ghosts is really just a projection of collective guilt; negative wish fulfillment to assuage troubled consciences. And to answer the question on your lips, no one has yet recovered the bag of jewels." I was actually about to ask where the WC was, but it's always nice to find a little mystery left in the world. A few moments later, perched atop a pearl-grey English toilet, reading a soccer magazine, things came together. And now we can dispense with the pub and the teased yarning of old Scotsmen and get on with it. And yes, this is, in fact, a ghost story.
If the Hills Had Eyes, They'd Be a Nice Shade of Hazel-Green
Feeling nicely evened out by the gins (I operate on the "If You Can Count Them" system, as in no more drinks in one sitting than you can count on one hand, which is about seventeen if you have a pen) I avail myself of the commuter train for the hour-long journey to Kilpartick. Heading due east to be exact, the hum and judder of the aging train initiates the maternal lulling stages of my sleep pattern. But as the train approaches the Bells Hill station, I am roused from my incipient stupor by an ominous wave of human noise, somewhere between ecstatic and wrathful. As the platform comes in view I behold the heart-sinking sight of hundreds of shorn soccer fans milling and jostling, drinking beer from tall cans and waving green and white striped scarves over their heads like the guts of slain enemies. It makes me nervous.
A Note On My Relationship with Football Hooligans
Once, walking innocently down Third Avenue one fine April morning, a nice clump of fifties in my left pocket, I noticed a crowd on the sidewalk in front of an Irish pub. Normally I would've crossed the street when confronted with such a situation, but as my final destination was a mere three doors beyond the mob, I realized I had to press on. As I tried to make my way through the beer-sodden manifestation of pale flesh and stubble, I met with a large Englishman possessed of a deeply mottled face of crimson and cream. When I went to move left the Englishman moved to his right; I tried to move right and the Englishman moved to his left, grinning like an eight-year old, revealing a mouth not quite full of nicotine-stained teeth. On the third attempt to circumnavigate, the gentleman threw up down the front of my silky red shirt, splashing my newly purchased wingtips with evidence of twelve to sixteen beers, a bag of prawn-flavored potato chips, a steak-and-kidney pie and what looked like a packet of birthday candles. And so I was not pleased to encounter football hooligans on their home turf.
Reverse Psychology and the End of the Line
The train doors open and the green-and-white crowds spill in. I clutch my bag closer and try to avoid eye contact. I have three more stops before my destination, where I'll have a 10-minute walk to Kilpartick, followed by another hour-long walk to the Moray Estate. The car fills with noise, an unintelligible drunken brogue of violent jubilation dripping with Tenant's Scotch Ale - I ready myself for the ad hominem provocations. Squeezed together in a seating space of four, two seats facing two, my new seatmates each sport a shaved head and a soccer jersey; I would appear to be the odd man out. I prepare myself to hear things like: "Have you noticed, Billy, the dismal quality of tourists lately? They just seem to show up and think they can go wherever they want; especially the stupid fucking Yanks and their fucking imbecilic [here would be a specific detail about my personage]." "Yeah, they need to be taught a lesson, especially the wee poofs in their [specific detail] who come into our train cars and act like kings." Dialogues like this are meant to goad the victim into making the first engagement, be it one of appeasement or aggression, a step that, in the mind of the hooligan, will justify the violence to follow. I am tense with anticipation.
But nothing happens. Amidst all those skinheads, all those heavy cudgel boots and beer-steeped amygdalas, not a word, not a sidelong glance is aimed at the slightly fey American tourist in the nice-but-rumpled light grey suit who clutches his bag tightly to his chest. Though on the face of it I am relieved, there is a small part of me irritated by the failure to complete the scene. Though worried about my physical well-being, I had prepared myself in earnest for the worst to happen, and in so doing, had actually become curious about what exactly the "worst" could mean. And so I find myself trying to make eye contact with these tough, unpleasant men. I walk up and down the car, refusing to pull my arms in, making a nuisance of myself. Nothing. Maybe they can sense my imminent death. Just as I am working up my courage to take an unasked for swig from my neighbor's can of beer - propped nervously between us on the floor - the train's automated conductor announces our arrival in Kilpartick. Now is no time for a brawl with hooligans; I am on the hunt for the Moray fortune.
Just Another Scottish Village
I am the only one on the platform as the train pulls away, a car full of neutered hooligans receding into the distance, violence incipient on their nic-stained knuckles, gathering in the furrows of their prognathic brows. My strides down the long sloping approach to the valley town feel lighter than normal as the smell of the heather (or what I imagine to be such) and the roseate sunset lift my mood as high as it's been in six months. As I approach Kilpartick proper, the few shops along the road seem to be closed or closing; a pock-faced sack of a man, slowly pulling a grate across a storefront window, looks me up and down as I pass, responding with puckered silence to my tentative salutation. I had fully intended to walk right past the local pub and straight to my destination, but just as I'm about to move along the high street and out to the other side of the town, the doors of the St. Dymphna swing open, and all of her native charms - benignly muffled chatter, soothing umber luminescence, the talismanic clink of bar glasses, the catalytic mix of cigarette smoke and broiling meat pie, strains of an unnameable but deeply sentimental melody - float out into the darkening summer evening, drawing me to her. One drink should be fine.
Six Pints Later, Our Man Takes to the Pitch-Dark Road
Warmed to the very pit of my sadness, I say goodbye to those whose names I've not learned (a few facts among many I've been unable to acquire over the course of my restorative imbibulations; others include the exact directions to the Moray Estate, the location of a place to stay that very evening, and, perhaps most importantly, why I'm doing this). The lights on the high street are few, and those there are wink off one by one as the hoary Scottish stars make their appearance in the night sky. I venture out into the countryside, the only sound that of my wingtips brushing the road. Maybe I can get some sleep at the old Moray place. I'm not afraid of ghosts or of dying or of anything really. What's an abandoned mansion out on a dark Scots moor? Just another cliché in a ghost story, I think, as I make a foolish wish on the newly risen moon, off to my left on the rugged horizon.
A Detour Among Detours
Though not entirely legible in the light of the half-moon, I'm able to gain a certain orientation from the map scrawled by Duff back in the Highlander. For a brief moment, the image shimmers into what looks like a line drawing of my ex-wife, but on squinting, I am able to ascertain that a left turn (westward) will be my next significant maneuver, after a mile of walking and a dip in the road as it goes past the old mill. Suddenly, out of the corner of my left eye, I notice what I think is a slight movement. (I once read that Ted Williams had 20/11 eyesight and that Bob Cousy had preternatural peripheral vision; I am convinced that I myself have the latter, that I can "see backwards." It has helped me immeasurably on jobs and saved my life in the prison yard.) There it is again. I keep walking, my eyes adjusted to the light; I am not interested in an ambush, or any kind of confrontation - I allow myself to be convinced it is simply a trick of the light or a barn cat. Maybe it is.
Not Exactly a Dip, Not Exactly Being Followed
I have been walking for more than a mile when I see an old building ahead on my right. There's no discernible declivity in the road, and I am not sure what an 'old mill' looks like, but hell, I'm being followed by shadows, the booze is wearing off, the temperature is dropping, my feet hurt and I'm ready to get started pawing through dusty rooms. As I pass the old mill, a cloud moves in front of the moon and darkness descends over the scene: the absence of light throws everything into flat, black nothing, the moors disappear - I am not enjoying myself. Five more minutes and I arrive at a forgotten dirt road heading off to the west.
A Pause to Refresh
As visions of prattling stewardesses, haggling diamond merchants, brightly lit pubs, and football hooligans recede into the barren moor surrounding the dusty road to Moray, I feel, very briefly, a moment of clarity. The light of the half-moon hits a dead oak tree ahead to my left and its sharp shadow makes a hand pointing straight across the field at me. "Where does this sadness come from?" I hear myself ask aloud to the mist, to the stars, to the rocks and trees and dark moving things of the moor. There is no answer, and I shake myself free of the thought, of the very idea of the thought. It is too late for me to change course now, too late for such questions; so I walk on through the moor. It is not long before I see it, across a sweeping plain, surrounded by larch and rows of pine the abandoned mansion of the Earl of Moray.
Breaking and Entering, Oh the Nostalgia
In all likelihood there is a gap in the fence-line somewhere, and I could easily circumnavigate the property to find it and slink on through. But, having long ago vowed to always begin jobs through the front door, I am happy to spend the six and a half minutes it takes to open the front gate. The house, a hulking presence in the middle distance tarred in shadow at the end of the path, leans a bit to the right, an old drunk at the end of a long night.
Inside, A Moment of Uncertainty
I can't be sure if the noise I've just heard is real or in my head. Nor can I be sure if the faint glow coming from the upper floor is just the moonlight. It's colder inside the house than out and I draw my collar up under my chin. The noise was definitely not in my head. I approach the impressively wide staircase as quietly as possible. The third step is loose and protests with a loud whine. Whatever faint noise I've heard twice I now hear a third time: the hushed murmur of agitated human speech. No longer concerned with stealth, I move quickly up the stairs. At the top, I peer into the impenetrable darkness of what seems to be a long hallway. Silence. I wait for a moment, letting my eyes adjust, allowing my courage to find itself. I see the slightest flashing of light at the very end of the corridor. A question comes into my head as I step slowly down the hall, both hands reaching out and forward on the walls: "What, exactly, am I doing here?"
The Wrong Step At the Wrong Time
I follow the light, follow the sound. There is an aggressive scurrying, a febrile, scratching moment of activity as I step to the end of the corridor. Suddenly, awfully, figures, shadows breaking apart from the greater dark like ice from a glacier, crash across my foreshortened field of vision, the warmth of bodies aggressively in my presence, the smell, the physical evidence, like a gun just shot, a cigarette just snuffed out. "People," I think, after my heart returns to my chest cavity. There were people here, flesh and blood. As I examine the habitat of the people in question, I realize that, specifically, "junkies were here." It is at this point, contemporary to a very long exhalation, that I remember ghosts don't exist and that I am here to find long-hidden treasure. That was just before the end.
I continue along the floor, curious to see if these junkies had indulged in anything resembling amphetamines. It is with one bold step to the left that I manage to find the weakest timber in the entire 400-year-old house. And so I, Jim Cheever, American hustler, New Yorker, insomniac, fall two floors through the ceiling of the main hall and impale myself on the ceremonial spike of the family arms. It takes me 26 minutes to die, during which time I think things like "coffee ice cream" and "when do birds pee?" There is really nothing for it. I've always understood my proximity to death. For a moment though, as my blood pours down, gathering in the toe of my right shoe before it spills over into stains and commemorations, I realize it will be tough to finish that novel now.
And Now There's A Ghost
"And they say," says Duff, leaning back from the bar, turning his drink slowly in his left hand, "that now, in a spot where there'd never been ghosts nor riches, the spirit of the treasure hunter is cursed to wander the grounds of his final resting place." The bar is quiet.
"Poor damn Yank," says a man in an HP Sauce-stained t-shirt with the words Irn Bru across the chest, "come so far to die so stupidly. Do you ever feel guilty, Duff?"
"Naw, don't be ridiculous, I've told that silly Mondegreen story to a hundred tourists. It was just bad luck, that's all. Just bad luck."
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jonny Diamond. All rights reserved.