The Angry Corrie 22: Mar-Apr 1995

Mister Mephisto and the Midges

Gordon Smith

The year was old but the moon was new, and as yet only the edge of its bright silver coin was to be seen glinting over the frost-white glen. Suddenly pocketed by a passing cloud, its gleam disappeared, leaving me to rely on the cone of my headtorch to see my way to the crest of the boulder field. I halted at the top, exhaling twin jets of steam from my nostrils and inhaling membrane-lacerating needles of icy air. I lifted my left arm to the level of my nose, and with my right hand angled the beam at my watch: 23:45, it announced, the colon winking slyly at me, as if in collusion at some disreputable behaviour. Which in a way was true: I had not intended to buy such a watch, since it had been manufactured by a company which had laid off its entire Scottish workforce; but I had got it cheap, off the back of a lorry, like. I pressed the side and it flashed the date, 31 12, and just at that I slipped on the glazed path and landed on my arse. As the light dusting of snow melted through to my underpants, I heaved a visible cloud of sighs to the heavens.

I lay back in the snow and felt the hard earth beneath. There were fifteen minutes to midnight: quarter of an hour until I'm due to meet with one man I haven't seen in over fifteen years, and one I haven't spoken to in ten. I picked myself up and walked on down into the Lost Valley, not bothering to wipe the mud and snow from my jacket: I didn't reckon there would be much call for Goretex where I was going, there being very few rainy days in Hell.

1979. Despite the coming and going of punk, Leo Sayer's Greatest Hits was top of the album charts, and we were still wearing flares. Such was our dedication to the bell bottom that we even had our mammies unstitch the seams of our jeans and insert vee-shaped pieces of cloth into the leg in order to create trouser cuffs the width of our waistbands. These being the days before designer outdoor gear, we even flapped about in flares on the hill: a potential hazard on a windy day, when a sudden gust could result in you unwillingly learning to parapente. But the biggest problem with them was the fact that, as you walked through any form of grass or heather, you disturbed a squillion slumbering midges which flew straightway up your trouser leg to bite your bollocks. One summer evening that year in the Lost Valley, the beasties were doing precisely that to two beflared and bearded students.

- Oh man, I complained to Frodo as I shed the load of my bright orange frame rucksack, These bastarding midges are really doing my box in.

Frodo (not his given name, you will be unsurprised to learn) ducked a cloud of midges which was worrying at his perm, and decided to roll a smoke while I put up the tent. He lay back and balanced the Golden Virginia tin on his chest, almost obscuring the motif of copulating pigs above the legend Makin' Bacon. Frodo had a collection of such shirts, bought mail order from an advert in the NME, including Nice One Squirrel (a variation on the above) and I Am a Virgin - This is a Very Old T-Shirt. Even in the 70's, a decade which was a Bermuda Triangle to good taste, these were considered pretty uncool; and as for the rampant sex that they boasted, that was mere wishful thinking. Indeed, the closest either of us was getting at that moment to a physical relationship was the act of lying on our sides blowing smoke up each other's trouser legs.

- It's no use, man, I exhaled. The carbon monoxide only seems to annoy them, and they bite even harder. I produced from my rucksack a bottle of King's Head sherry, ninety-nine pence from Willie Low's, and offered Frodo a consolatory slug.

It was then we saw him, Mister Mephisto, squatting on top of a big boulder, silhouetted in the dying sunlight.

He was of average height and build, and wore a well-trimmed beard and moustache whose blackness contrasted starkly with the pallor of his face. His head was covered by a wide-brimmed hat, which had corks hanging from it in the Australian style. How long he had been watching us from that perch I don't know, but in a matter of seconds he had leapt off, and was approaching us. As he came nearer, I could see his headgear shimmer: it was only when he was within a few feet of us that it became apparent the hat and corks were in fact a formation of millions of midges.

Frodo surreptitiously nudged the sherry behind a stone, fearing that the visitor would expect to be allotted a share. Too late, however: while we stared in awe at the dark stranger's ability to withstand the attentions of so many midges, he took the opportunity to seize the bottle and inspect it.

- King's Head sherry, he read disdainfully, then pronounced: This is poor stuff for hillmen to be drinking.

Taken aback at such impudence, I was just about to suggest that he stick his opinion up his arse when he disarmed me by inquiring if I wouldn't prefer some Talisker.

- Naturally, I said.

I don't know where exactly he produced it from, but it seemed to appear from amidst the swarm of midges that had now amazingly assumed the shape of brown-paper carry-out bag. He took a seat beside us, and poured us each a measure the size of Loch Harport: it was the most magnificent dram I had ever tasted.

However, I picked up the bottle and noticed that the label read Talifker, which at first I assumed to be a deliberate archaism dreamed up by some advertising agency. He then conjured up a bottle of Laphroaig (which strangely enough was spelt Lafroaig) and one of Lagavulin, or Lagafulin. I now suspected these were bootleg bottles of far eastern origin, Japanese hooch designed to look like the genuine article. I put this charge to him.

- Certainly not! he replied indignantly, does it taste like it's fake? I had to agree that it did not. He then calmed down and explained to us that the three misplaced letters were an alphabetico-numerological clue to his identity which it was traditional to give in the circumstances.

We didn't have a scooby what he was talking about: but the midges briefly settled on his head in the shape of horns.

- Please allow me to introduce myself, he said, offering his business card. Mister Mephisto, Chief Sales Executive, BLZ-Bub Promotions, it announced .

- Bee Ell Zed Bub, I read. What does that mean, then?

- Bee Ell Zee Bub, he corrected, then apologised: Creeping Americanisms are annoying, I know, but the transatlantic market is so important to us. But to business. Have another drink and let's talk souls. Now, as you can see from my card, I represent Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. I'm here in respect of his manifestation as Master of Midges, and I'm empowered to offer you a leasing deal which would involve certain powers over these little beggars. He indicated the swarm, which had wandered away from him, but which now returned, in the shape of a Labrador, at his whistled command.

- Far out, exclaimed Frodo,examining the roll-up still smouldering between his fingers. It's one of these Faust-type situations. But why us, man?

- You and your friend here invited me, he replied.

- No we didn't, I objected.

- I don't do cold calls, he told us huffily, and the midge cloud formed itself into what we would now recognise as a laptop computer. He tapped a few of its keys and we watched as the machine coughed up a printout.

- Here we are, he said. Your very words (he nodded to me) were Christ Almighty I would give anything if just for once these midges would leave me alone - I have of course tidied up the syntax and deleted some of the less tasteful language - and your friend nodded his agreement to this statement.

- Come off it, I complained. That's just a manner of speaking. And anyway, if you're going to get all legalistic, I could argue that you're hardly Christ Almighty.

- Don't let's split hairs. If you had the toothache you wouldn't refuse treatment just because your usual dentist was on holiday, would you? And it just goes to show that BLZ-Bub is more consumer- responsive than its rival organisation. Now, to business. I can offer you an exclusive midge command-and-control package: equipped with one simple easy-to-remember magic word, you can keep midges far away from you. Just watch.

He said The Magic Word, and the winged cloud immediately dispersed. He then brought them back with a second command.

- And there's more, he smiled. With a simple upgrade syllable you can command them to attack other hill-users. Lo.

He said the first Word, added a grunt, and the midges shot off over the boulder field out of view. After a few seconds we heard a terrible scream from the other side of Gearr Aonach.

- All very clever, I said. But how do we know that the power will work for us?

- I'll tell you what, said he. You can have the powers on twenty-four hour approval. If you like them, we can arrange a fifteen year lease, subject to status. The usual terms will apply at the end of the lease. I'll even leave you a swarm of these little beggars to practise on. Enjoy!

Then off he went, or I think it was then: neither of us could recollect the events in minute detail the next morning, try as we might. We awoke to feel the sunlight cleaving the tent door and slicing into our eyeballs. Had it all been a dream, or a drunken stupor? There was the swarm of midges, though, curled in the shape of a sleeping cat, just where he had left it. Then I remembered The Magic Word, and out of curiosity, uttered it. The midges awoke and immediately dispersed.

- It works! I exclaimed.

- Chrissake, said Frodo. Don't do that.

- Don't worry, I said. We've got it on appro for a day. Tomorrow we give it back and tell him no thanks. We get a midge-free day of climbing out of it.

And so we did. We had a pleasant day on Bidean, then descended to the tent to await the return of the salesman. But he didn't come back that night at all.

- This is a trick, I told Frodo. He's staying away in the hope that we'll use the powers after the twenty-four hours are up. That way we'll have accepted the contract and he'll be able to claim our souls: remember what he said about the usual terms. We have to be very careful never, ever to use The Word again, not even under the most ferocious midge attack: for if we do, we're hell-bound, man.

Fifteen years is a long time. That first year, '79, wasn't so bad because the winter was soon upon both us and the midges; but the summer of '80 was long, damp and warm, prime conditions for the beasties. Dear reader, imagine yourself in our position: tormented each time we ventured out on the hill by a horde of bloodsuckers, but tormented even more by the fact that we had within our grasp the power to rid ourselves of them; and not only that, the power to actually direct them to pester other hillwalkers to the extent of driving them off the hill, leaving it for our sole enjoyment. But we knew that to indulge ourselves would mean an eternity of torture in the fiery pit, so we forbore to use The Word. And when we weren't being literally eaten by midges, we were metaphorically consumed by suspicion: for on the rare occasion of a day when the midges were slow to appear, one of us would suspect that the other had cracked, and had uttered That Word in secret behind a rock somewhere. Thus, paradoxically, we began to almost welcome the arrival of the flying hordes as a sort of proof that one of us had not condemned the other to damnation. The next year, 1981, was a summer of riots, and the civil disobedience on the streets only served to remind us of our power to command obeisance on the hill; 1982 was the summer of the Falklands War, and we were tempted to do our patriotic bit by dispatching a task force of midges to the South Atlantic in support of Our Boys. 1983's summer saw the protests at Greenham against the arrival of Cruise missiles, in reality a crude and ineffectual weapon when compared to the deadly masses at our disposal. Nevertheless we stood firm, kept our fingers off the mephistophilean button, and turned the other cheek to the Evil Empire.

Then came 1984. By the summer of the Miners' Strike, we were going to the hills together on fewer and fewer occasions: Frodo (who had now reverted to his given name, Fred, considering it more suited to the dignity of a twenty-five year old systems analyst) was working for an oil company in Aberdeen, and I had a job in Silicon Glen. However, we arranged to meet up for a weekend in Skye, and one Friday after work we drove in his company Sierra up to the Kyle. The flying pickets were out in their millions that night, buzzing and biting and warning us not to cross; but heedlessly over the Stygian depths we sailed, having first paid our coins to Calmac the ferryman. We camped by the Sligachan, and I could hear Fred curse the midges loudly well into the early hours; strangely, they didn't seem to be bothering with me. Astonishingly for summer in the West of Scotland, we were awakened the next morning by a deep purple dawn, out of which the Cuillin emerged as volcanic islands against a blue Aegean sky. We decided to waste none of the morning sunshine and, as soon as we had made up the sandwiches, we set off towards Sgurr nan Gillean, chatting merrily about work, cars, women. We had perhaps gained a few pounds over the years, and lost a bit of hair, and replaced the flares with Oor Wullie salopettes, but it was really quite like old times. - This is the life, I said. It's been so long since we've had a day like this. It's almost perfect.

Fred gave me a funny look.

- Hard to believe that we could get this sort of weather on Skye, I continued

Fred bowed his head and seemed to stare at his toe caps.

- Sunny, warm, not a cloud in the sky, no midges... Then it struck me. You bastard, I spat at him. You've done it, haven't you? You've said The Word. You couldn't stand a few sodding midge bites, and now you've gone and sent us to hell. You selfish, weak-willed bastard! He knew I wanted to kill him, and he took off across the peat bogs as if the devil were after him. I pursued him and made a dive at his fleeing legs.

- It wisnae me, he howled as he jumped to avoid the rugby tackle. Honest, it wisnae. Anyway, they didn't seem to be bothering you, so how do I know you didn't do it first?

He threw the allegation behind him like a golden apple to Atalanta, but I didn't stop to pick it up: because I knew he had done it, and he knew I knew he had done it; and suddenly the day, the hills, and the sunshine could hold no pleasure for me anymore. Now the Cuillin might as well have been coal bings, and the savour of life had turned to ashes in my mouth.

And I had not seen Frodo, or Fred, since that day on Skye. We had made our separate ways back home, and had not spoken to one another since. The following ten years found me on the hill less and less: for the mountains only reminded me of my eternal damnation, and even seeing the inevitable Buachaille on The Scotsman Pictorial Calendar was enough to fill me with nausea. So the years passed and I restricted my physical exercise to climbing onto bar stools; and sometimes with a drink in me I would consider the peculiar moral position I found myself in. Already damned, there was no reason why I should not indulge myself in every form of wickedness, for I need have no fear of further judgement: but for some reason I never really did, perhaps because I kept alive a small hope that there might be some escape. But this straw blew away on the winds of Christmas Eve 1994, when I received a card with the message: SATAN'S COMING. Right away I knew it wasn't a misprint, and that the Hogmanay party it was inviting me to would very likely last forever.

And Fred or Frodo was holding an identical invitation when, still wiping the slush and mud from my jacket, I saw him just before midnight high in the Lost Valley that cheerless Hogmanay. As I approached the big boulder where he was waiting it began to snow quite heavily.

- Long time no see, he muttered as a snowflake settled on the tip of his nose.

- Not long enough, you fat turd, I hissed

- Gentlemen, gentlemen, said the bearded figure who had appeared out of the spindrift. 'Tis the season to be jolly. Let us have no unpleasantness.

- So it's you, is it? I erupted. And never mind giving me no unbastardingpleasantness. What could be more fucking disagreeable than having to give up your soul to eternal damnation because your so- called pal couldn't put up with a few fucking midge bites? Tell me that, then, you cloven-hoofed bastard.

- Compose yourself please, Mister Mephisto scolded. You seem to forget that it was you who asked for my help in the first place. And, may I say, I think you're being rather harsh on your buddy. Anyway, to business. Your lease period has come to an end, and it is time to settle up.

To my surprise, he then produced a bottle of Talifker and stuck it into my jacket pocket.

- What's this?

- Just a small token of our thanks for your business. Perhaps we can do business again sometime.

-What do you mean again? You've got our souls, haven't you? Stop playing with us and let's just get on with it, I huffed.

- Yes, I have your souls; and now I'm giving them back. With thanks.

- But I don't understand, said Fredo. The deal was that we got power over the midges for fifteen years and you get our souls at the end of it.

- No no no, laughed Mephisto. You've misunderstood the terms of the contract. You got the power for that one day back in seventy-nine, and we got your souls for fifteen years. We were leasing a commodity from you, rather than the other way round.

- But what about the time this bastard used The Word to get rid of the midges on Skye, then?

- Aha, he smiled. Yes, I remember it well. A delicious coincidence, I'm afraid. Of course, it made your lives an even greater hell, as if fifteen years of mistrust, jealousy, hatred, fear and self-disgust wasn't bad enough. So, he said, clasping his hands together: Thank you very much for use of your souls. Enjoy your complimentary whisky, and please do not hesitate to contact me again if you ever need anything; perhaps I could interest you in some exclusive National Lottery advice?

We declined his offer and left, turning briefly to see his farewell wave disappear in the swirling flakes. Then we continued on our way back to the road, leaving fresh prints in the first snow of the new year.

It was some time before the silence was broken, but at last Fred spoke. He looked at his watch, then asked me if I still had the bottle of Talifker that Mister Mephisto had given us.

- Yes, I answered. Why?

- It's well after the bells, he said. And I tell you what: after that little experience, I'd give anything for a drink...

- Well, let's hope the Kingshouse is still open, then, I said: and fearful of whatever spirits lay within it, I hurled the unopened bottle as far as I could into the snowblown blackness of the night.

TAC 22 Index