Friday December 30th – Drowned Hogg Day? (1)

Island produced a terrorist organisation (7)

A distant church bell sounds and I see from my watch that it is midnight. A snatch of Metallica’s ‘For whom the bell tolls’ comes unbidden to my mind’s ear. It is the day I have feared for so long. It is Drowned Hogg Day.

A confession: the rest of the night’s events are a little bit of a blur. An evening of sustained alcoholic consumption is not something I am used to these days and I have had little practice in being drunk. By the time I have forced down the last of the Madeira, sozzled is most certainly what I am and I may even have thrown up at a convenient spot outside the White House – the pub, that is, not the Clintons’ second home.

As we lurch into Whitehouse Rd, I have a dim recollection of the conversation turning to Vlad the Impaler. I tell Ozzie it’s all right for him; he hasn’t actually lost his job as a result of the college Development Director’s Machiavellian ministrations, whereas I have. Ozzie reminds me that we are actually going right past his house. There it is, on the corner of Hodges Court. It being after midnight, we contemplate ringing his doorbell and running away – that’s how drunk we are. But Ozzie has a better idea:

“What about some graffiti? I’ve been doing a bit of home improvement over the festive season and I’ve got some spray-paint left over.”

“A few choice swear words on Vlad’s front door, you mean?”

“No, something a little more artistic. This is Oxford, after all.”

“How about some Shelley? My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, Vlad the Impaler, and despair?”

“Ozzie who?” My partner in crime looks at me blankly. The drink has evidently gone to his head too.

“Ozymandias – you know, Shelley’s famous sonnet.”

“We don’t want to get done for plagiarism, do we?”

“But Shelley’s been dead for almost two hundred years!” I point out.

“Not Shelley. We might be sued by the guy who did the graffiti on that Hernes Rd development a year or two back. He spray-painted half Shelley’s sonnet on forty yards of boarding. It was brilliant – they even had guided tours going there just to see the graffiti…”

It is possible I have dreamt this whole conversation up. The plan is quite ludicrous but Ozzie soon scurries off to fetch the paint while my job is to stay put and make sure Vlad’s house doesn’t do a runner before Ozzie gets back. So there I am, loitering with intent, when a light goes on in an upstairs room. The curtains are not drawn and I see Vlad himself, in his dressing gown, walking about.

I should do a runner myself but I stand transfixed, possibly even impaled to the pavement, as Vlad comes over to the window, gazes out and sees me standing underneath the lamp-post. Time stands still as he opens the sash window.

“Alex! Kakogo chyorta! What on earth are you doing there?”

I search for an answer to this very reasonable question but find none.

“You’re shivering!” he observes. “Look, you’d better come inside and warm up.”

“No … no …” I start, but Vlad is already on his way down the stairs to open the front door. The only sensible thing to do is to leg it but I am now the owner of two vast (if not quite trunkless) legs of stone. I remain transfixed by his icy gaze for some seconds.

At some point I regain the power of perambulation and follow Vlad into his lair like a lost puppy. The only thing in my mind is that I must avoid throwing up again. That seems a tall order so I settle for the easier target of not chundering all over his sleeping wife, assuming he has one. I feel my stomach churn in the warmer air. Vlad is mumbling away about something but I am unable to catch what he says as I follow him up the stairs. He turns to me on the landing.

“You’re absolutely plastered, I can see. If it’s about the job …”

It is all about the job, of course it is. And somehow I am down on my knees, pulling pathetically at his dressing gown, begging, whimpering, mewling. Just give me another chance. Please!

Vlad tries to brush me away and somehow I end up pulling at the sash which is holding his dressing-gown together. The gown gapes open and it is apparent that he is wearing nothing underneath. I am inches away from … no, this must all be some terrible nightmare. Surely Ozzie will arrive and save me. As Vlad struggles to recover his modesty, I cling beseechingly to his knees.

Aeons pass as Vlad wrenches himself clear of my embrace and I regain my feet. What is that in your coat pocket, Vlad asks? I glance down. It is the empty Madeira bottle – somehow, I have failed to discard it. I take it out and wave it in the air. Perhaps the bottle is too opaque for Vlad to be sure that it is empty and perhaps he thinks I am likely to get drunker still. For whatever reason, he tells me to give him the bottle. For equally obscure reasons, I demur. How else to explain a situation in which we are both struggling for possession of an empty wine bottle? But that is what we proceed to do.

And that is when disaster strikes. My memory of what follows is relatively clear.

Somehow I manage to wrench the bottle from his grasp. Not expecting to win the battle quite so easily, my arm frees itself and the bottle swings upwards and across, before catching Vlad around his jaw. The bottle smashes on impact and I drop what is left of it. But the impact has caused Vlad to lose his balance and/or consciousness. I stand helpless as he falls heavily down the stairs and onto the stone flooring below. I wait for him to pick himself up and come at me again, but there is no sign of further movement.

Because the scuffle has been so half-hearted and my brain so addled, it takes me a moment to comprehend the significance of this scene. Vlad is pretending to be hurt to scare me. Still he does not move. My legs have returned to their Ozymandian state but eventually there is nothing for it but to follow Vlad downstairs. As I near the body, I see a hunk of glass protruding from his neck. Blood is oozing from that wound and a number of others. At that moment, for the first time, I glimpse the possibility that I have killed my old boss. It was a freakish accident but my mind is already racing with various dire scenarios. I am in deep, deep trouble.

Once again, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

December 30th was supposed to be my dying day. Has there been some celestial clerical error? Was this the death the chronicle foretold? Will I spend the rest of my life behind bars, wishing I was the one who died on a cold stone floor in Whitehouse Road? But there are no wailing sirens, no hysterical wives, only a cold and threatening silence. I am by the front door. I try to focus on Vlad but feel certain it is too late to help him. I must get out of this place. It is my only chance.

In my rush to escape, I completely overlook the fact that my fingerprints will be everywhere. The evidence will be overwhelming. Lynda La Plante’s services will scarcely be required. I have just the neck of the bottle in my own bloodied hand. To my astonishment, my legs now know how to run. But before I have reached the end of the front path, I see Ozzie crossing the road in front of me. He has a paint-pot and a brush in his hands.

“I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you!” I say or at least croak. Ozzie looks at me in astonishment. It is almost as if he has guessed the terrible truth. But I have no intention of waiting to find out. My instinct is to get home as quickly as possible, but I cannot go via the Abingdon Rd and round past the station. Even at this time of night, there is too great a risk of being seen by some driver or passer-by. So I turn right out of the house and head off quickly west instead. I half-expect Ozzie to follow me and haul me back but I dare not even look over my shoulder.

After a few seconds, I reach the crossroads with Marlborough Rd and briefly contemplate turning right again but I decide to stay on Whitehouse Rd – this is a familiar part of town, after all.  It is as if magnets are drawing me to Hogacre Common. I fork left past the Adventure Playground. Before I even reach the refurbished footbridge over the railway line, I hear the sound of wassailers in full swing. Apple trees in wassailing range are no doubt resolving to bear fruit in 2017. There are lights on in the old cricket pavilion but I see that most of the latter-day pagan revellers are now outside, watching Cry Havoc jigging to and fro, their handkerchiefs in the air, while a small band of folk musicians are playing a tune I happen to recognise, even in my inebriated state, as Old Tom of Oxford.

I have no time to wonder what my esteemed ancestor, Old Tom of Oxford, would have done at this point. No doubt he would have turned quickly round and made alternative plans, certainly after he discovered that the ground on the far side of the bridge was largely still under water. Perhaps if I blend in with the revellers, I may establish some kind of alibi for the evening? I splash along the track for a few yards until the Morris men (and women) are clearly in view.

But one of the musicians is all too familiar – it is Stig Strum! So this is what he gets up to in his spare time when he is not imitating Keith Richard! There he is with his nyckelharpa while an accordionist and a fiddler pick out the tune. Stig is in motley garb with some kind of cap-and-bells arrangement on his head. As far as I can tell, he has not seen me.

But Stig is not the only figure I recognise. There’s Phil’s old adversary, Ben Haydon, the long-suffering manager of the Hogacre Project. He is dressed all in green and his arms are outstretched with apples hanging down in clusters. The Morris men jump to and fro, circling this jolly green giant, sticks clashing and handkerchiefs twirling. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Ben is facing directly towards me and it becomes clear that he has seen me in the distance.

But there is no reason why he should recognise me in this light. I turn away from the main path and jog away across the sodden turf, travelling clockwise around the perimeter of the eco-park. The ground is so marshy that icy water is washing over the tops of my shoes but I plough on regardless. The music is a little fainter now and I am fairly sure no one is following me – perhaps I have not been seen at all.

My plan, of course, is to cut across to Grandpont and join the Thames towpath as it makes its way north to Osney Island. But first I must traverse the Hogacre Stream by the little wooden crossing-point at the north end of the eco-park. Usually this would be a simple matter, even by moonlight, but when I reach the crossing, it’s clear that I face a major challenge. Thanks to the recent rains, the stream has risen above its normal banks and flooded the surrounding land. Much of the water has turned to ice. The crossing is just about visible under a few inches of ice on the surface of the stream.

There is no going back now. I tiptoe across the ice as delicately as I can. My right foot goes through the thin sheet but there is something firm beneath. Then my left foot goes through it and there is nothing below. Suddenly I am falling, falling, into the Hogacre Stream.

My forehead hits the edge of the bridge as I crash through the icy crust of the river. In that instant I know that I am going to drown and my frozen corpse will be found by tracker dogs first thing in the morning. I will be consigned to an unmarked grave with quicklime shovelled on top, the only fate I deserve. Please God, do not let it end this way.

And yet I do not die, not yet anyway. This is not the River Neva, after all, just a glorified drainage ditch, a bit like the one I found myself in when the Fiat crashed. I flail wildly for a few seconds and splutter on a few mouthfuls of muddy water but I am soon able to grab at the undergrowth that is half in, half out of the stream. I haul myself out on the Mercia side, sodden and shivering.

I feel the gash on my forehead with my finger-tips. There is a little blood but no great sign that I will bleed to death. I feel light-headed, not just drunk but delirious. I must get home before I pass out and die of hypothermia. There is sufficient moonlight to see the familiar route home. I follow the path by the railway and cut across into the Grandpont Nature Reserve where the ground is slightly higher above flood-levels. Soon I am able to follow the Thames Towpath back towards Osney Lock.

As I approach the little bridge that will take me onto Osney Island, I am alarmed to see that there is a light on in the lock-keeper’s cottage. Desperate to be seen by as few people as possible, I turn left before the lock and follow the little footpath through to Osney Mead. There will be no one on the industrial estate at this time of night. This way I can get home without passing a single residence. I am soon turning right at King’s Meadow. Past Electric Avenue, I turn right again onto the footpath that skirts the West Oxford Community School and leads to the little bridge linking Frog Island to the western world.

I am clammy with cold but adrenalin continues to course through my grateful veins. Astonishingly, there is no helicopter overhead strafing the fields with its searchlight and no siren is wailing. I stumble on the bridge’s icy surface but do not fall. My heart is laughing, screaming, pounding. I am at the gates of delirium but I know how it will end. I will be crossing the bridge when I see my father, an ineffable smile on his face, on the doorstep of our honeysuckled home…

But I am not Peyton Farquhar and this is no Owl Creek Bridge. Nor is my father there to offer his benediction. He is in the arms of a different bridge partner. I turn the key in the door and close it clumsily behind me. I am tearing my sodden and frozen clothes from my body as I negotiate the stairs in the darkness …

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