This Land of the Strange by Math Bird

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Jernegan knew they’d come. He’d left enough clues for them to find him. Besides, Swain wanted him dead, so it was only a matter of time. Yet the moment he stepped off the bus and sniffed the air, such thoughts left, abandoning him to the smell of the soil, the pines, and the faint tang of the sea.

Jernegan took in the hills, the sky, and the faraway mountains, knowing this was the land that never changed, the place where he longed to be.

Thirty summers he’d waited, and with the passing of each season he had convinced himself it was special, magical even, the gradual reshaping of his memories telling him a better story.

With his suitcase under his arm, Jernegan followed the B-road into town. The evening light ebbed and the sun, a tired red eye, slunk behind the watchful trees. The meadows glowed. The distant estuary flickered like a dying fire.

“If only Connie was alive,” he whispered.

When Jernegan reached town, the sun had surrendered to the darkness, its last pale lick of light settling across the hills. He was a boy when he last walked these streets. The narrow pavements looked unaltered; their kerbstones jutting out like rows of crooked teeth. It was as though the town were laughing at him, mocking his return.

Jernegan walked beneath the streetlights, his shadow, like the boy he once was, striding ahead of him.

All those years ago the town provided everything, a mini-metropolis, supplying groceries, hardware, electronics, men’s and women’s clothing. Now, only a few shops remained: newsagents, card shops and empty cafes. The old stonewall outside the bank had disappeared. Jernegan loitered there as a boy, squatting on the railings, smoking his stolen cigarettes.

Even Woolworths was gone. The building gutted, refurbished, transformed into a Gastro pub. As a teenager, every Saturday morning, Jernegan would buy a record from there, listening to it on his mother’s Hi-Fi, playing it over and over, until he’d memorized every word.

“The heart finds a special place for the old songs,” Connie had once told him.

Jernegan breathed deeply, the knot in his stomach tightening.

Jernegan continued along the pavement, following it through town, then up Station Hill to the houses along its banks. The house where he was born was now a guesthouse, its fascias and cladding painted yellow, its pebble-dashed walls coloured like curdled cream. The rusty gate creaked open. Jernegan marched down the path and rang the doorbell. Light spilled onto the step, illuminating the face of the man standing in the doorway. The old man reminded him of Swain, with his slicked back hair, trimmed white beard, potbelly, and rounded shoulders. It lasted only a second, though, the kindness of the old man’s smile quickly breaking the illusion.

“I’d like a room, please,” Jernegan said.

The old man nodded. “You’ve come to the right place then. Come in,” he said, and Jernegan followed him into the hall.

The place had a classic feel about it. A B&B of old, like something from the 1930s. The reception area was a makeshift wooden booth adjacent to the kitchen door. The old man stepped inside it and sat on a swivel chair. He switched on the lamp, half of his face covered by shadow.

“What’s the name?” he asked, taking hold of his pen.


“One R or two?”


The old man smiled. “You’re in luck. You’ve a choice of four rooms; we’ve almost an empty house.”

Jernegan stepped aside, allowing the man to pass.

The old man led him upstairs, stopping when he reached the landing. “The rooms at the back are the quietest,” he said. “They look out across the valley. It’s one hell of a view, especially when it isn’t raining.”

Jernegan nodded to the door on his left. “How about this one?”

“Good choice,” the old man said. “And seeing as we’re so quiet, I’ll only charge you the single rate.”

Jernegan nodded, said good night, and then stepped into the room.

It had been his parents’ room. But now, years later, only the view of the valley was recognizable. Jernegan’s brother had sold the place years ago. God knows how many strangers had slept there since.

Jernegan took off his jacket and placed it on the chair. Then he rolled up his sleeves, grabbed his suitcase and dumped it on the bed. He flipped back the lid and stared into it. He’d bought the walking gear years ago. For a holiday destined to never be. A tour of his beloved Wales, something he and Connie had always talked about. He had a rucksack, a waterproof jacket, trousers and boots. He even had a thermal hat and scarf.

Jernegan hung up his clothes. Then he took out his knife and cut through the suitcase lining.

The money was packed tight, twenty rubber-banded stacks of £5000, each one sealed in a plastic bag.

Jernegan put the money into his rucksack. Then he undressed, pausing for a moment before switching off the light.

With his gun by his side, Jernegan lay on the bed. He closed his eyes, listening in the darkness.

Nighttime in the valley, the wind relentless and cold, the tide murmuring beyond the trees, just like the whisper of Connie’s voice, gentle, but forever calling.

Jernegan remembered how she used to tease him.

“Old Welshman of the hills,” she used to say, “always pining for his land of the strange.”

But lately, thinking of Connie always reminded him of Swain. Jernegan first met Swain in London, in ’82, introduced by an associate, a low-life by the name of Grubb.

Grubb had vouched that Jernegan was an excellent driver, said he was handy, too. Swain had remained silent, ignoring Grubb, his shark eyes fixed on Jernegan.

“Journeyman?” he said.


“What are you, Irish?”

“Welsh,” Jernegan said.

“You got a clean licence?”

Jernegan nodded.

“Come to the White Swan tonight. Cole and Franklin here will take care of you.”

Jernegan was hired as Mrs. Swain’s driver. Swain ordered him to keep an eye on her. Run her errands. Drive her around town. She soon warmed to him, owing to his politeness, and how he never asked her any questions.

Connie Swain was blessed with a conventional beauty, a tall blonde, both sassy and discreet, her elegance never faltering. She was quick too, unashamedly smarter than all of them.

“Do you like to read, Mr. Jernegan?” she once asked him.

“I flick through the papers on a Sunday,” he said, “catch up with the news and the boxing.”

“What about books, novels and the like?”

“I’ve never really seen the point, Mrs. Swain.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’ve enough problems of my own, without thinking about someone else’s.”

Connie had laughed at that, the words tickling her for days, and causing her to sit up front. From that moment on theirs became a story of two lovers. A tale they told in secret, for more than twenty years.

The next morning, as Jernegan walked down the stairs, the old man greeted him in the hallway. “You’re a heavy sleeper,” he said.

Jernegan smiled. “What makes you say that?”

“You slept through all the noise last night.”

“What noise?”

The old man laughed. “Exactly, your friends from down south, ringing to see whether you’d arrived yet, then turning up one o’clock this morning.”

“How many?”


“Mr. Swain?”

“Nope,” the old man said, “Mr. Cole and Mr. Franklin. They’re having breakfast, waiting for you to join them.”

The moment Jernegan stepped into the dining room, Franklin burst into laughter. “Jesus, Jernegan, what the hell do you look like. What you dressed like that for? You look like a fucking rambler.”

Jernegan ignored him and sat at the table by the window. He watched the birds darting through the trees. Then he gazed at the black outline of the power station, and the sunlight bristling across the shore. When he looked away from the window, he caught Franklin staring at him — chewing with his mouth wide open.

Mad Franklin, he looked like a giant sitting in his chair, his shovel-like hands clenching his tiny knife and fork. Cole, too, was equally misplaced. Both men wore black tailored suits, yet they made an odd pairing. Franklin was tall and pale, whilst Cole was short, his face choppy and always flushed.

Franklin swallowed his food, then belched into his fist. “I wasn’t expecting this town to be such a shithole, especially the way you used to go on about it. People here don’t even sound Welsh; we could be anywhere in England.”

Jernegan glanced towards the window. “We’re on the border. England’s just across the river.”

“There’s some fine scenery, though,” added Cole, trying to mediate as always.

Franklin leaned back into his chair. “It’s all right, I suppose. But where are all the fucking sheep, the forests, the mountains?”

“Close,” Jernegan said.

“How close?”

Jernegan shrugged, “Ten . . . fifteen miles west.”

Franklin reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Jernegan said.

Franklin took a drag, the smoke curling through his fingers.

Jernegan scraped back his chair, eying both men as he stood. “You ignorant prick. You’ve no respect for anyone.”

Franklin grinned. “Did you actually see me lightening it? Relax for Christ’s sake. It’s an E-Cig, nothing but vapour.”

“Very clever,” Jernegan said. “I bet those young boyfriends of yours must be very impressed.”

Franklin sprang out of his chair, almost toppling the thing over. “Cleverer than you though, hey? At least I don’t go taking things that don’t belong to me.”

Jernegan stepped forward, stopping in his tracks as the old man shuffled through the doorway.

The old man started clearing the plates. “It seems you’re the only one who enjoys my food, Mr. Cole. These two have barely touched a scrap.”

Cole slapped his hands onto his gut. “That’s their loss. I enjoyed every bite.”

“Can I get you anything else?” the old man asked.

Cole shook his head. “No thanks, I couldn’t eat another thing. Besides, the three of us need to crack on. We’ve lots of unfinished business.”

While Franklin and Cole were upstairs, Jernegan took a bus timetable from reception, and then sneaked out through the back. He thumbed a lift into town, surprised by how easy it all was. He got dropped off at the bus stop and waited quietly by the road. He planned to get the A14 out of town, get off near the moors and start hiking. Where he was headed to was undecided; his only hope was that they’d follow.

Jernegan kept watching the road. Ten minutes passed. The wrong bus arrived, then another, each wasted second making him more anxious. When the A14 finally turned up, Cole’s green BMW trailed behind it. Jernegan hurried onto the bus, paid his fare, and sat in the back row. As the bus pulled away, Jernegan caught a glimpse of Franklin’s eyes. A cold dark stare that he’d tolerated far too long.

“That Franklin scares me,” Connie had once confessed. “Oh, he’s polite enough, but there’s something about him.”

Jernegan had laughed it off at the time, telling her not to give it a second thought. He’d been lying of course. He was all too aware of Franklin’s dark deeds. They infected his dreams like a poison.

The bus jerked to a stop, waking Jernegan from his daydream. He stared through the window, taking in the vast stretch of moorland and the big grey sky above.

“This is the stop for the moors,” the driver shouted, “you asked me to tell you.”

Jernegan glanced through the back window, watching the green BMW behind them. He grabbed his rucksack and hurried down the aisle.

“Any more stops further down,” he said. “This isn’t where I wanna go.”

The driver mumbled something, then pulled back onto the road. Jernegan remained standing, his attention flitting between the moors and the line of traffic behind them.

“Why doesn’t that bloody BMW overtake?” the driver said. “I keep slowing down for him.”

The bus gained speed. A white van, appearing from nowhere, took advantage of the gap. The bus and the van managed to beat the lights, leaving the traffic behind them.

As the gap widened, Jernegan saw his chance.

“Drop me off here,” he said, pointing to a remote bus stop.

The driver sighed, then pulled into a layby.

The moment the doors opened, Jernegan leapt off the bus. He ran across the road and climbed over the fence. He started following the sheep trail, meandering through the bracken, towards the wooded valley along the moorland fringes. The hill grew steeper, forcing him to climb. Jernegan could feel every sharp intake of breath and the heather prickling across his skin. A cold wind moaned through the sodden grass. Then, like the sudden crack of thunder, he heard gunshots.

Jernegan clambered up the hill, never daring to look back, moving, breathing, faster and faster.

When he reached the valley, Jernegan stopped to catch his breath, the crisp air rolling across his tongue. A Red Kite watched him from above, its wings outstretched, hovering on the breeze.

Franklin and Cole wouldn’t be far behind, providing they hadn’t got lost.

Jernegan marched towards the trees, then stepped into the woods. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet smell of pine. He kept walking, following the trail, his feet squelching in the mud. Occasionally, he gazed up at the sky, at the huge grey clouds drifting over him. He hoped the rain would lead them here, running for shelter, like two lambs to the slaughter.

The trail took him deeper into the woods, leading him to a small clearing. He scrambled down the bank, stopping when he reached the rock.

The crag, which stood just over fifty feet, had plenty of edges and pockets, making it easy for Jernegan to climb.

When he reached the top, Jernegan looked across the trees. He could see for miles and, even when he turned to face the bushes behind him, he’d a clear view of the surrounding fields.

Jernegan sighed. “Let them come,” he whispered.

Jernegan sat on the grass, leaning against his rucksack. Behind his closed eyelids, he saw Connie’s smile. She was standing with her back to the car, bathing her face in light. It was to be their last time together, the weekend before her accident. It had been an odd day from the start. The weather was so changeable — rain, hail, sunshine, putting Connie in a pensive mood.

“What do you think he’ll do,” she said, “if he ever finds out about us?”

She would ask this from time to time. Yet that day she’d seemed more anxious.

“Swain hasn’t got a clue,” Jernegan said. “So stop worrying.”

“He’s been more attentive lately,” she said, “snooping around my room, asking lots of questions.”

Jernegan put his arm around her then. He started talking about his beloved Wales, desperate to change the subject. He talked about the tour they’d planned. How they’d do everything different, even travel by train, or bus.

This seemed to cheer Connie up. “Public Transport,” she said. “Isn’t that a little down market?”

Jernigan smiled. “I’m sick of driving you around, besides we’ll get to take in the beautiful view.”

“If it’s so beautiful, why did you leave?”

“Because nothing happens there, and that’s why we’re going back.”

Jernegan was cleaning Swain’s car when he learned of Connie’s death. Franklin broke the news, the big man appearing to gloat. “The stupid bitch got run over this morning,” he said, “died from a broken neck.”

At first, Jernegan just looked at him, his heart pounding inside his throat. “That’s so sad,” he said, clenching his fists, trying to stop his hands from shaking.

“I suppose,” Franklin said. Then he winked. “But she had it coming, if you know what I mean. Mr. Swain asked me personally.”

“Why?” Jernegan asked.

Franklin grinned. “You know how jealous that old man gets. He found a load of stuff written inside her books, some shitty poems or something, seems she was fucking around.”

Jernegan didn’t attend Connie’s funeral. He was frightened by what he might do, kill someone, or sob his heart out. Instead, he drove to Swain’s apartment, left the car in the driveway, and let himself in with his key. After clearing Swain’s safe, Jernegan wandered into Connie’s room. It felt as though she was still there: that sweet linger of her scent and the slight indent on her pillow. Jernegan browsed through Connie’s books, taking out the one he’d bought her. He laid it opened on the bed, taking a deep breath before reading its inscription.

“All my love, Jernegan,” he whispered, “p.s. come with me to the land of the strange.”

Jernegan sighed, rubbed the tears from his eyes, then gazed across the fields. Two black shapes trudged down the hill. One was tall and slim, the other short and broad. They reminded him of a cartoon. It might even have been comical if he hadn’t known their intentions.

Jernegan rested on his haunches, watching until his pursuers vanished into the woods. He could hear Franklin’s voice, faint at first, but growing louder.

Jernegan crept into the bushes, and slipped out the gun from his rucksack. The light was fading, but he guessed it would be at least two hours before dark. All he needed were two clear shots, and he’d be back in town by nightfall. He could hear them breathing now, loud and fast, as though both men were gasping for air. Then he caught a glimpse of them on the bank.

Cole showed himself first, his hair disheveled, his big red face drenched in sweat. Then Franklin appeared, in his size twelve shoes, lumbering through the mud.

Cole slumped against a tree, placing a hand on his chest. “Give me five minutes,” he said. “I need to catch my breath.”

Franklin shook his head. “This is fucking ridiculous. Why did we follow him here? We should have driven around for a bit, waited for him to come out.”

Franklin cupped his hands around his mouth. “Jernegan,” he shouted. “Jernegan, just give us the money for God’s sake. We’ll tell Swain you got away, that we couldn’t find you.”

Then he stared up at the rock and, for a moment, Jernegan was certain that he’d seen him. But the big man turned round, shaking his head at the trees.

Jernegan sighted down the barrel, aiming the gun at Franklin’s head. He squeezed the trigger, the gunshot echoing through the woods. Franklin and Cole dived onto the ground, covering their heads with their hands. Jernegan fired another shot, then another, his hands trembling. The magazine held fifteen rounds; surely he was bound to hit something? He caught glimpses of them through the trees, crawling across the mud. He kept firing, aiming at the slightest sound. Then he stopped, breathing harder now, desperate to get his bearings.

Jernegan could hear his own heartbeat, thumping against the silence.

“Stop shooting for fuck sake,” Cole shouted. “Just let us get out of these woods.”

“Sure,” Jernegan said, “and what will you tell Swain?”

“Just like Franklin said, that we couldn’t find you.”

“I can’t do that,” Jernegan said.

“Why not for Christ’s sake?”

“Like you said this morning, Cole, we’ve got unfinished business.”

“That was just a figure of speech,” Cole said. “This is between you and Swain.”

Jernigan sighed. “So why didn’t he come himself?”

“Who knows?” Cole said. “We’re just the errand boys. You know that; it’s nothing personal.”

“Is that right?” Jernegan said. “Then ask Franklin about Connie’s accident.”

Franklin and Cole remained silent. Then Jernegan saw something, shuffling down the bank. He fired a shot into the air, noticing how the sky had darkened. Then, as though he were a giant rising from the earth, Franklin stood up. He raised his hands above his head. “Take it easy now,” he said.

“Stay still,” Jernegan shouted. “Stay still or I’ll shoot.”

Franklin froze. “You’re no killer, Jernegan. It’s easy firing at those trees. But you would have shot me by now. Only a frightened man gives you warning.”

Jernegan squeezed the trigger. But the gun jammed, causing Franklin to run towards him.

“Cole,” Franklin shouted, “you climb up from the left, and for fuck’s sake hurry up.”

“It’s a bit steep for me,” Cole shouted. “You know what I’m like with heights.”

Franklin sighed. “Then don’t look down for Christ’s sake.”

As the two men began to climb, Jernegan pulled frantically on the trigger. “Piece of shit,” he cursed, his temper worsening as the trapped shell refused to budge. Then he became conscious of Cole’s voice, like a child, crying out for help.

“Franklin,” Cole kept saying. “Franklin, you need to help me.”

Franklin kept climbing, only looking back when Cole’s voice grew more desperate. The big man sighed. “What’s wrong now?”

“I’ve leaned too far out,” Cole said. “The rock here is too flat; there’s nothing to hold onto.”

Jernegan peered over the edge. He caught a glimpse of Cole’s face, thinking how he’d never seen a man look so frightened.

Cole’s eyes were shut tight. “Please,” he said, “someone, help me.”

“Just hold on with one hand,” Franklin said. “Then try to turn round and pull yourself back to the edge.”

“I can’t,” Cole said, “please, you need to help me.”

Franklin sighed. “We don’t have time for this shit. If you can’t climb then jump.”

For a moment, Cole remained still. His body held between the sky and the land. Then, suddenly, he let go, his body falling backwards.

Cole’s scream echoed through the woods, the haunting cry of his life’s last protest. Then there was silence. His body lay face down, his blood trickling onto the grass.

Jernegan shoved the gun into his pocket and threw on his rucksack. He scrambled over the fence, running as fast as he could. He kept moving, gun shots barking behind him. His lungs felt ready to burst. There was a stitch in his side; his legs were on the brink of collapse. Only the thought of Connie kept him going, the whisper of her voice, like a primordial need for survival, driving and urging him forward.

When he reached the brow of the hill, Jernegan saw the lake, glinting in the half-light. So far, the land had protected him. And he wondered if the darkness, too, might also prove to be his saviour. He could hear Franklin getting closer, each short pant for breath hounding him like a dog. But Jernigan was not overcome with fear, but by a feeling of belonging and a sudden connection with the land. He remembered it so clearly now — years ago, when he’d played in these hills as a boy. Even back then he’d felt part of it, invisible almost, drifting like the wind through the trees.

Something roared into his ears, followed by a sharp pain tearing across his shoulder. The bullet flung him to the ground and he tumbled halfway down the hill.

Jernegan lay in the heather, the stones cutting into his back. He tried to stand, but the harder he tried the more his body felt weighted.

The wind blew fiercer now, each sudden gust raging against the darkness.

Jernegan cried out, but no one was there to answer.

Somehow, Jernegan managed to move his right arm. By pressing his palm into the soil he slowly pushed himself up. He staggered forward, the taste of metal lingering inside his mouth.

When Jernegan reached the bottom of the valley, the wind carried the call of his name. The voice sounded familiar, threatening, and triumphant.

Jernegan turned round, seeing Franklin’s silhouette standing at the brow of the hill. The big man pointed his gun at him, pausing as though expecting Jernegan to flee.

Instead, Jernegan shrugged off his rucksack, took a few steps forward, and slumped against a rock. Then he looked towards the horizon, watching the faint outline of Franklin’s shape zigzagging down the hill.

Darkness masked Franklin’s face and a bloodless moon cast his shadow.

Jernegan stood up, tried to say something, but struggled to get his words out. He watched as Franklin picked up his pace. The big man trampled through the heather, as fast as the land allowed.

“Finally seen sense at last,” Franklin said, “accepting what’s coming to you. Just like your stupid whore.”

Jernegan remained silent. He started walking towards the path, slowly, waiting for that final bullet to send him hurtling into the grass. But all he heard was something scraping across the soil. Then a brief clattering of stones and what sounded like a short, sharp cry for help.

When Jernegan turned round, he saw Franklin lying on his back. For a moment, he thought it was a trap. But there was no need for games. Franklin had caught him, the open land providing him with a clear shot.

The big man lay in the heather. Prickly thorns twisted around his arms and legs, as though he were vermin ensnared by the land.

“I slipped,” Franklin said. “Fell arse over tit. Can you fucking believe it?”

Jernegan stepped forward, watching as Franklin tried to sit up.

“You need to help me,” Franklin said. “My legs feel dead. I’ve got this pain shooting right down my back.”

Jernegan shrugged. “What do you expect me to do?”

“Find someone, at least call for an ambulance.”

Jernegan forced a laugh, falling silent as he noticed the blood on his shoulder. “Two minutes ago you were trying to kill me.”

“Business,” Franklin said. “Besides, I was only trying to wound you. Swain said to fetch you back.”

“Is that right?” Jernegan said. “What about Connie, then? What was that, personal?”

“I was just following orders,” Franklin said. “It was just a job. I . . . I didn’t know she was with you.”

Jernegan rested on his haunches, then started searching Franklin’s pockets for his gun.

The big man looked up at him, his eyes shining.

“Please, Jernegan, I’m begging you. You don’t need to do this.”

Jernegan breathed deeply and then gazed across the lake. The moon shone bright, reflecting across the water. With the clouds broken, the sky looked different, silvery almost, streaks of dark and pale blue, blending as they caught the light. Jernegan looked up at the clouds and at the faces he saw within them. What would Connie think of all this, he wondered. But she was gone. He knew that, their time together almost dreamlike. Yet the sky was real, as was the cold, the dark, and the night’s silence. Jernegan closed his eyes, the day’s events returning to him in flashes. In his mind’s eye, Jernegan saw the town, the moors, and the trees. Cole’s body sprawled across the rocks. The strangeness of it all disturbed him. Yet, at the same time, he felt part of something, cared for, almost as though he were blessed. Jernegan opened his eyes. He knew the land had protected him and now it wanted something back.

He pointed the gun at Franklin. “This is for Connie,” he whispered.

Franklin tried to stand. But the harder he pushed the more his body refused to budge. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” he said, his eyes glistening, sweat trickling down his face and neck.

Jernegan squeezed the trigger. “You don’t have any choice,” he said. “The land has already decided.”

Math Bird lives in Wales, UK, with his wife and their incorrigible dog, Snowie. His stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and have been broadcast on BBC national radio. More recent stories are available at Shotgun Honey and Plots with Guns.

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