I’m used to a wild goose-chase. You could say it’s my academic speciality. But on that cold September night, plodding through the shreds of wind-blown sea mist in Aberdeen, I felt even more out on a limb than usual.
I had come up from my flat in London on the trail of the Aberdeen horse-boy, a popular mystery of the Internet age. He’s to be found on Google Street View: a nonchalant figure standing on an ordinary suburban street in Aberdeen. He looks young, with an incipient paunch under his purple shirt. From the collar of this shirt emerges a horse’s head.
Of course everyone assumes it’s some prankster in a rubber mask. But I have a more open mind. As a one time Lecturer in Classical Studies I have tangled with centaurs and sphinxes, mermaids and minotaurs during my whole academic career. Not only that, but at the private university in Africa where I worked, I had a world of animist religion on my doorstep. One big question came to dominate my life: why does practically every human culture throw up so many stories of human-animal hybrids?
My answer is simple and obvious: it’s because these hybrids actually exist, and in Aberdeen I was to find my proof.
Online satellite images revealed that Aberdeen contained innumerable places where the horse-people might lurk unseen. There were sparsely populated areas of woodland and farmland on its outskirts, and densely packed buildings in the centre. I started to think about the conspiracy of silence that must exist. What were the places and activities that would bind humans and horse-people in a web of secrecy? Eventually I had a flash of inspiration. Keying in my search words to Google turned up the very thing I had hoped for. I packed my bag and caught a northbound train that same day.
London had been warm and muggy, and as I followed the map I’d printed from Google from my hotel on foot, I was sadly aware that I wasn’t dressed for a September night in Aberdeen. Furthermore, as I progressed away from the centre, I found myself penetrating into a very bleak part of town.
At last, turning a corner where a lamp-post leaned at a crazy angle, I saw my goal ahead of me. The Horse’s Head. I had imagined a swinging pub sign with a painting of a horse, but the name was simply painted in faded black lettering above the doorway. On either side of this, set into harled grey walls, were small frosted windows protected by wire mesh grilles. A shaven-headed, rather portly gentleman in a football shirt lounged in the entrance, smoking. When I made to go in, he seemed surprised, and moved aside ponderously, like a liner leaving its moorings.
Inside, The Horse’s Head was surprisingly small. There was a handful of people in there, all standing at the bar and all male. Without exception they turned to look me up and down as I walked in. I had the impression that conversations had been suspended. With a pleasant nod of acknowledgement to the company, I leaned on a vacant part of the counter and ordered a campari and soda. For some reason this sparked off a ripple of amusement, and the bartender, an old fellow with prominent ears, shook his head.
“We’ve nae got that,” he said.
“Oh – I’ll have a gin and tonic then, please,” I replied.
I paid my money, received my drink (no ice cube or lemon twist), and remained at my place by the bar. I hoped I might strike up a conversation with one of my neighbours.
Then the door swung open, and the fat man in the football shirt walked in. He came straight up to the bar right beside me, and stood very close. I wondered if I might have taken his customary spot, and edged a little to my left. Unfortunately that caused me to jog the arm of a gentleman who was just raising a pint glass to his lips, and a little of his beer sloshed onto the floor.
“I do beg your pardon!” I said immediately, with a breezy laugh. “It’s a little tight for space in here, isn’t it!”
The man’s only response was a silent stare lasting for several seconds, and the laugh died on my lips.
The bartender was still hovering nearby. I decided to ask a leading question, innocent enough on the surface, but perhaps one that would lead me somewhere.
“Why is this pub called ‘The Horse’s Head’?” I said.
The bartender shared a look with the fat man, who took it upon himself to reply.
“It’s on account of a wee incident that occurred here,” the fat man said, turning his blubbery wall of a face towards me. I nodded and smiled, encouraging more. The whole bar was listening to our exchange.
“There was a disagreement, ye ken, between a couple of the regulars.”
He paused to take a draught of his beer. His big throat wobbled as he swallowed, like a python I once saw in Africa swallowing a rat.
“It was about a horse,” he went on, wiping his lips.
At that moment I was jostled roughly at my other side, and turned to see the man whose beer I had spilled earlier. He bared a row of broken yellowing teeth at me.
“Sorry pal! Bit tight in here, like ye said.”
“That’s quite all right,” I replied, and returned my attention to the speaker.
“One of these fellers owned this horse, and he said it could run a mile in two minutes flat, and the other one said it couldnae.”
Already we were onto interesting ground!
“Was it a normal horse?” I asked, innocently.
“It wis a race horse likes. It wisnae’ just a nag on a farm. Anyway, what happened was, they had it all set up for a day, and they’d bet a lot of money on it. ’An the bet was, that the horse couldnae run a mile in two minutes on this particul’r day.”
He paused again to take another gulp of his beer. The whole pub was spellbound.
“So the morning of the day of the run, the man who owns the horse wakes up in bed. ’An he feels as if there’s something wrong, ’an he sees that the whole bed is soaked in blood. Then he moves the sheets, ’an there’s the head of his horse, cut clean aff and put in the bed with him!”
You could hear a pin drop.
“An’ d’ye ken what the name o’ the fellow what done this to him wis?”
I shook my head. This grisly tale had shocked me.
“His name was Don McCorleone!”
At this, the whole pub erupted in laughter. The barman laughed so hard that his ears looked as if they would flap away from his head, like a pair of released birds. I stood dumbfounded. I realised of course that the joke was on me, but I had no idea what the joke was. Someone slapped me on the back. The fat man grinned like a bloated shark.
I nodded and made a smile.
“Very interesting,” I said.
Although I felt foolish – no-one likes to be the butt of a joke, especially one that they don’t get – at least the atmosphere in the pub was now noticeably more relaxed. The fellow with the broken teeth began telling some tale to me and the fat man, which had something to do with people called ‘The Pole-is’ (Polish immigrants perhaps?) who were after him for something that he said he’d never done.
Beneath their rough exterior, I started to feel that these men had the proverbial hearts of gold. I thought I’d loosen their tongues further with a drink at my expense, and reached into my back pocket for my wallet.
It wasn’t there. I tried my other pockets. Nothing.
“My wallet…” I said, slapping my pockets and looking at the floor.
“Ye lost something, pal?” said the broken-toothed man.
“I’ve lost my wallet…” I said.
The fat man put on a long face, his chin receding completely into the layers of fat at his throat.
“That’s terrible,” he said.
“I was going to buy you a drink…” I muttered.
“Oh, aye! I sometimes lose my wallet at times like that,” he laughed.
“No – it’s really gone. I’m sure I had it when I came in.”
The fat man’s eyes narrowed.
“What are you sayin?”
I looked at the floor again. I noticed the wooden boards were covered in old dark stains, and thought again about the horse’s severed head.
The fat man was pursuing his line of thought.
“Are you saying we’re thieves in here?”
He had raised his voice a notch, and the rest of the pub fell silent now.
I looked at him, standing my ground.
“No. I’m just saying that I had my wallet when I came in here, and I don’t have it now.”
“That’s no a very friendly way to treat us now, is it? To come in here and say we’ve stolen your wallet.”
“But I didn’t…”
The fat man suddenly put his hand under my arm. It was like being grabbed by a bear.
“Come on, you’re on your way!”
I was spun around to face the door. In a blur, I was marched to it, it was kicked open, and I was ejected into the street like a cork from a champagne bottle.
I staggered, completely off balance, and fell to the ground. The back of my head hit the pavement with a nasty blow that sent my senses spinning. I heard the pub door slam shut. From beyond it, echoing, came a sound like horses whinnying.
My eyes were filled with flashing stars after the blow. I picked myself up and staggered along the street hardly knowing what I was doing. I had some notion of retracing my steps to my hotel, but in my confusion I must have taken completely the wrong direction.
Some time later, without knowing how on earth I’d got there, I found myself weaving unsteadily along a narrow country lane. Thick hedges crowded me on either side. A full moon had come out, which gave me enough light to see. I stopped at a field gate set into the hedge to try and orientate myself.
I was on a bit of a hill, and the moonlit field before me fell away to a line of trees below, beyond which were more fields of luminous grey. Further off, magical and distant, the lights of the city twinkled.
Unbidden – I think I was a little delirious – the words of a sentimental old song I’d come across in my research came to my lips.
“The northern lights of old Aberdeen,
Mean home sweet home to me,
The northern lights of Aberdeen,
Are what I long to see.”
I think I must have warbled out this song aloud, although I thought the words were only in my head. A rustle in the hedge behind me alerted me to something that I had disturbed. I turned around.
Emerging through the hedge into the lane, shaking leaves from its head, was a horse with a man’s body. He was a chestnut bay, with black rims to his ears and fine pale hairs around his brow. He wore jeans and a dark bomber jacket. His large brown eyes considered me, with something like pity I thought. Then he cast up his head as if shrugging off flies, whinnied, and cantered away. A metallic clip-clopping sound on the lane revealed that his feet were shod.
The whole episode lasted only seconds, and such was its effect on me, taken on top of my existing confusion and trauma, that I fainted clean away.
When I came to, the moon had vanished and a wan grey light was growing in the sky. It was early morning, and bitterly cold. Dew had settled on my prone body, and I felt shaky and feverish. I made my way slowly back to the city and regained my hotel. By the time I was home again that night my frailty was obvious. I was suffering from the after-effects of my concussion and from nervous exhaustion, and had caught a nasty cold to boot.
During my convalescence, I have decided not to renew my pursuit of the horse-boy. After all, I have proved to my own satisfaction that he exists, and my quest was always a personal one. I have no desire to bring these secretive creatures out into the public gaze. No, let them live and thrive in the seclusion of their haunts, sheltered by the conspiratorial silence of their human protectors.