I never would have believed this tale had it not happened to Julian. His story is so strange, so unbelievable, yet I feel compelled to tell you all about my best friend. I feel everyone should know – has a right to know, so that just maybe this will in some way help us all to understand things which maybe we were not meant to understand.
Let me tell you first about Julian. He was born into a ‘well to do’ English family in Sussex. His parents being on the mature side of middle age, he may have been an unexpected child, but by no means unwanted. On the contrary, Julian was a blessing to his parents in their later life, especially after so many fruitless years of trying when their hope had almost been extinguished. Born into the middle class surroundings of East Grinstead to God-fearing parents, nothing was spared in making their new arrival comfortable in his newly decorated nursery, and attention was lavished upon this child, their ‘gift from God’.
I don’t know much more about Julian’s earlier life until he started at secondary school, which is where I first met this quiet, but intense boy. He had excelled at reading, spending enormous amounts of time in the School library, and it was not long before he exhausted the School’s limited supply of books and moved on to visiting the Public Library on a regular basis. He had fed on knowledge, consuming one book after another. Unlike the other students of his age, Julian preferred reading rather than watching television, finding more power and mystique in the written word.
He had great talent with the paintbrush too and produced outstanding landscapes in oils, which he preferred over watercolours. Slowly, with each expert application, the surrounding countryside became trapped in a moment of time with every blade of grass, every leaf on the trees springing into still life with each brushstroke. On a visit to Hastings, Julian had created a wonderful seascape on canvas, the only one he ever did. The blue sea had rolled in over a warm beach dotted with exotic palms. The sun centrally placed, half-visible as it sank into the sea. It was nothing like how I remember the weather or location that day as we arrived excitedly at the seaside in Julian’s father’s car, but it obviously come out of an inspired mind. He had given me this picture later, and it still hangs in my summer room, illuminating the conservatory with its grotesquely sized sun. I enjoy the way it fills the room with its vibrant energy, surpassing even the bright colours of the hanging baskets. I can relax, basking in the warmth of two suns, as if being somewhere else, in some other time.
Despite being an excellent scholar, Julian also excelled at sport. He was a good all-rounder and had been made Captain in the school cricket team. This fact alone had spared Julian the torment of merciless teasing afforded other boys who had pursued hobbies in music and art. Julian would sit for hours playing on his viola in his parent’s garden, hidden in a small recess between a huge lilac bush and flowering jasmine. His music was so beautiful, you had to stop and listen to how each note seemed to hold on to the next, artistically flowing into the other to form a melody. His music was both cheerful and soulful at the same time, and he never ceased to amaze friends and relatives who were ushered out silently by Julian’s mother, Pamela, into the garden. She would then ruin the moment by asking him to perform her favourite piece, but he would decline politely and quietly pack the viola away saying he felt tired. His music was private, and he had always preferred it that way.
So, it was that we became friends when we were 14 years of age. This was mainly since we lived across the road from his parent’s house. My father had worked as an Underwriter in one of the syndicates at Lloyds, and he had informed my mother that Julian’s father at that time was ‘something in the City’ (a euphemism given to those who usually owned half of it). Friendship with Julian therefore, had been actively encouraged by my mother as she said he came from the ‘right sort of family’ and it would do for me to have such social circles. To me, it was simply the fact that he was someone I could walk the mile and a half to school with. Julian and I preferred to walk, although on rainy days his Mother always insisted on driving him (and me) in the family car.
Our friendship was to change my life completely. I always considered Julian to be older and wiser than me, although in fact I am a calendar month older than he is. His thirst for knowledge overflowed into me, and I spent countless hours absorbing the scraps and leftovers of useful information that had poured out of him during our friendship. Through his art I witnessed the painting of beautiful landscapes and had come to appreciate the beauty of a sunset through the magic of his brush.
But it was his music that truly captivated my soul. I was the only person he would ever play to. Julian taught me the wonderful structure of music and explained to me how the notes were the building blocks of any tune.
“It takes a great architect to transform a pile of bricks into a magnificent edifice”, he used to say, “So it takes a good composer to create the same effect with music”. He was always very critical of his own work, never satisfied, even when those around him praised his achievements. He would depart and return much later with minute, but important tweaks which transformed the original ‘good’ piece into something rather unique and excellent.
In fact, it is to him that I owe my livelihood as a musician today. I became interested in his compositions and yearned to be able to do the same, and it was Julian who placed my initially clumsy fingers on my first guitar and encouraged me well beyond my own perceived limitations. Today I am considered talented within my own right, but I know this talent, although truly mine, would have remained hidden had not Julian tapped into it. He picked it out of the very centre of my being the way you might painstakingly prise out a winkle when at the seaside, only to generously donate it to your younger less able sibling, as a gift.
I have never once entertained any thought of jealousy in Julian’s abilities; rather I revelled in the sharing of his success and hung on to his words as you would an older brother (although strangely I nearly always fought with mine). The only negative vibes I ever had when in the company of Julian was my inability to feel good about my own achievements. My greatest musical piece always seemed lacking when I played it to him, although he always enthused and praised me. I felt musically humbled in his presence, but it had never been intentional, and more likely it was due to a lack of confidence in my own abilities than in his.
Julian: Sussex, England
2nd September 2003
I will always remember that particularly cold, grey autumn morning when time seemed to be passing deliberately slowly. I was bored, and not even working on my latest composition succeeded in cheering me up. I was making absolutely no progress. The clock in the study went into slow motion; the hands appeared to be frozen in time. In fact, I felt time starting to run backwards, and all my hard work to date was beginning to unravel the more I tinkered with it. Subconsciously I panicked myself into thinking I had a form of writer’s block and I remember thinking that I was too young to be cut down so early in my prime.
Deciding that I had best distract my attention, I picked up the previous day’s newspaper and attempted to re-read the headlines and even the advertisements. I then noticed a melody in my head, which constantly intruded, into my thoughts. The notes rambled lazily in my mind, starting in the middle and not quite finishing before starting again. It was annoying to say the least, and I recognised the piece to be an earlier composition of Julian’s, my favourite in fact, but it was now becoming an unwelcome distraction.
The telephone startled me as I half-heartedly worked on the score. I had an inexplicable feeling that something was not right, and somehow this telephone call would be party to it. Picking up the receiver, a familiar voice blurted out urgently:
“Michael? It’s Pamela!”
“Mrs Winfield?” I answered, taken aback.
“Michael, is Julian with you?”
Julian’s mother Pamela was not the worrying type, yet the urgency in her voice was unmistakable. In my current mindset, I felt uneasy too, the reason for which escaped me at the time.
“No, he isn’t here, Mrs Winfield”
“Michael, I know it’s silly, but Julian didn’t come home last night. He has never done so before without telling me.”
Julian had converted the upstairs rooms of his mother’s house into a studio apartment. Pamela told me that she had not become concerned when he initially failed to appear for breakfast, but when it had reached 11 am; she had gone to wake him, only to find he had not slept there that night.
What had been strange was that Pamela seemed to think I had been out socialising with Julian the previous night, an untruth that apparently originated from Julian. In fact, he had telephoned me to say he may not be able to see me for a couple of days. I was tempted at the time to ask why, but he didn’t volunteer the information and I did not labour the point as I wanted to continue working on my music rather than getting involved in a protracted conversation.
Whatever the reason for his strange behaviour, I felt compelled for some reason, maybe out of some loyalty to Julian, not to inform Pamela of our conversation, but instead offered to telephone a few acquaintances to see if I could locate him. This entire episode now seemed out of character and I wished I had asked him where he had been going. In reality, I had no idea who Julian was likely to confide in, so I resigned myself to waiting for him to contact me at some stage whereupon I would ask him to telephone home had he not already done so.
This was not to be. At 2pm, Pamela appeared in person having driven over by car. She apparently decided she would wait no longer and had started seeking out Julian’s whereabouts herself. In certain circles, Mrs Winfield was known for having a rather overpowering personality, one that surpassed that of even the late Mr Winfield, and it was not considered wise to be an obstacle in her way. When Pamela started a crusade, she generally bulldozed her way through to the end.
“Can you tell me exactly when you last saw him, Michael?”
The question was direct and aimed like a bolt between my eyes. I could see her searching my face, reading every nervous twitch and tick. It was useless to carry on this ‘loyalty of friendship’ nonsense, as I was not inclined to mislead Pamela any further. The furrows of worry in her brow made me regret my earlier deceit. I instead told her what little I knew.
After I explained Julian’s mysterious telephone call and attempted to recount his words to me as best as I could remember them, Pamela had, much to my surprise, appeared visibly relieved.
“If Julian said he needed to go somewhere, then I am sure he had good reason to do so” she said, “What I cannot understand is why he never informed me?”
I tried diplomatically to suggest that by telling me, he knew she would eventually get to hear of it. If he had tried to tell her directly, she would probably have never let him go without an explanation. Pamela, stared at me while she mulled this logic over, and then said quietly,
“You don’t think of me as such an old battle-axe, do you?”
She mercifully spared me the need for a reply by continuing,
“I would like to think that Julian would feel confident enough to approach me on anything he was concerned about, but possibly you are right.”
She conceded the point but gave me the stern Mrs Winfield stare. She then added,
“You have told me everything haven’t you, Michael?”
After I assured her that I knew no more, her face relaxed a little and she started to leave.
“If you hear anything Michael…”
She never finished the sentence, not having to as it was meant as a warning shot across the bows. She knew I would not disappoint her twice.
Julian: Sussex, England
3rd September 2003
I did not sleep well that night, but instead lay awake listening to some ghostly owl hooting somewhere. Its cry sounded rather scary and disturbing like some banshee. Subconsciously I awaited Julian’s phone call whilst I tried to understand what could have made him disappear in that way.
I tried to imagine what could possibly have happened to him and wondered where he was at that very moment. In attempting to understand his feelings and thoughts, I tried to remember all our meetings and conversations for the last two to three weeks. Something had worried him, I could tell from the tone of his voice, and not for the last time, I cursed my selfishness in wanting some solitude for my composition that prevented me from obtaining a suitable explanation for his actions. Something should explain his sudden disappearance, something out of the ordinary, something that had upset him… then it hit me!
“Last Tuesday week! It happened exactly last Tuesday!”
I suddenly realised I had shouted out aloud to myself in the dark, and feeling a little foolish, I switched on the bedside light and tried to recollect my thoughts.
I was at the studio rehearsing when I was called to the telephone. I remember it quite clearly as my producer had been rather irked by the interruption, but the caller had said it was urgent.
It had been Julian, and I remember he sounded rather agitated.
“Michael, could you come over when you finish up tonight?” Before I could answer he added a plea, “Please, I think something may be wrong with me.”
My producer Matthew made winding up motions in the foreground and pointed to his watch to indicate our allotted studio time was running out. The last recording had just not sounded right, and we were on the fifth attempt. Nerves were frayed all round.
“Julian, I can’t at the moment….things are not going right here, it will have to be tomorrow. Is that OK?”
Julian mumbled something about me doing my best and hung up almost as abruptly as he had called.
The next day had been almost as bad as the previous, and we agreed to postpone the recording until I made some changes, although I had no idea at this stage what they were to be. I had been so preoccupied with this that it was only much later in the day that I remembered Julian’s telephone call.
When I finally arrived at Julian’s mother’s house, he answered the door immediately. His eyes had an almost maniacal brightness, but he looked generally rather pale and drawn. Whatever was troubling him had apparently kept him up half the night, and it was starting to show. He hooked an arm over my shoulder as he ushered me in and I felt him trembling as he rested his hand on my arm. I feigned a cheerful voice in a feeble attempt to cheer him up, “What’s wrong with you, mate? Are you ill, or in love?”
Ignoring my remark, he instead led me across to a chair before making a move to get another glass. “He is in a right state!” I thought to myself noticing a half-empty bottle of scotch on the coffee table. Julian rarely, if ever, drank alone.
After having offered me my drink, Julian stood in front of me with his hands clenched behind his back. He then took a deep breath, as if he was about to confess to the Schoolmaster of not having done his homework, he began.
“Well… it’s just that I have been having dreams. Horrible ones really”
I was puzzled. “Everyone gets nightmares, its nothing to get worried about!”
Julian shook his head, dismissing my comment with a wave of his hand the instant I uttered it.
“These are different. I am sure it’s real, and that it really happened.”
His brow was covered in perspiration; he really appeared rattled by this. I leaned forward, “Dreams of what?” I asked.
Julian turned and paced to the other side of the room. He looked as though he was deciding whether to tell me. That he was possibly being foolish? The trouble was that by now, he had me hooked so I added:
“They say that telling someone else makes it better. You know, kind of trivialises it and makes it easier to analyse in the cold light of day.” I started to struggle for something else to say, so I ended with:
“Tell me about it.”
Julian’s voice took on a low steady rhythm as he tried to recount his dream. I listened intently, not interrupting. It was important, I told myself, that he gets it all off his chest.
“Can you imagine a large public square? There is a huge bonfire, and there are lots of people around, but there is a mood of fear. This is not a celebration; rather the people don’t seem to want to be there.”
Julian gulped his scotch before continuing.
“The language is foreign, Spanish or Portuguese sounding. Some people are just staring at the bonfire; others are huddled together talking quietly. I do not understand what they are saying. Then I turn to see what everyone is looking at and I see a man dressed in a brown soutane.”
“In a what?” I regretted the interruption as soon as I had blurted it out.
“A cassock, or in this case more like a monk’s type of habit. You know! A soutane!”
I didn’t know, but I indicated that he should continue with his story.
“This man looked like evil personified. He had an ugly leer on his face and his eyes appeared to be scanning the crowd looking for a reaction, trying to make eye contact, but no one would look at him directly. He seemed to command the crowd. Then he looked straight at ME. I am ashamed to say that I too looked away. He started to scream directly at me, I really felt as if I was the focal point of his abuse and I felt afraid. I did not understand what he said, but I know he did not mean well. Then I looked towards the fire.”
Julian’s eyes had flicked up to mine transfixing me with a steady gaze.
“Michael. It was horrible. They were burning a person! They were burning another human being on the fire!”
Before I could say anything, Julian had broken eye contact with me and turned to pace the room, continuing with his story.
“I started to scream. In my dream I mean. I felt that I knew who the man on the fire was. He was linked to me somehow. I could see the man writhing in the flames, but he made no sound. I was the one screaming!”
Julian had reached the end of the room and then spun around abruptly.
“This is important Michael, in my dream I knew this person. It is just that I cannot remember who he was now! I was asking the people to stop, to free the man. I was crying and then I ran forward to the fire and the ugly man reached into the fire and pulled out a burning brand and struck me here.”
Julian lifted his hand to the side of his head.
“I probably lost consciousness because I can’t remember anything else.”
I waited for more.
Julian just shrugged, “Then I woke up.” He sat down heavily in the chair.
“For Christ’s sake Julian! You dragged me over here to tell me that!” It had never been like Julian to make a mountain out of a molehill. I had expected much worse. I was more than a little annoyed as I had cancelled a dinner engagement with a particularly attractive lady to see Julian that night.
“So, what! It was an ordinary nightmare, nothing special. I’ve had even more horrible dreams, believe me. Just forget it! Bloody hell!”
Julian did not react at first, and then he stood up and came towards me.
“Wait, Michael! Look! Let me show you something.”
Julian bowed his head and pulled apart the black shiny hair on the side of his head. Through the parted hair, I could glimpse his scalp and could make out a dark patch, a birthmark. It was the size of a child’s palm and was pinkish-brown in colour.
“He hit me right here, Michael! Exactly here! I felt the unbearable heat on the side of my head; I could even smell my skin and hair burning!”
I looked down again at Julian’s birthmark. In a strange way, it did look a bit like a burn mark. This was silly I told myself. Julian was surely pulling my leg?
I straightened up and told Julian in no uncertain terms that I felt he was over reacting;
“So, what? You discover this birthmark when you are 23 years old and suddenly you wonder how it got there. It starts to bother you and you start to brood over it. Your subconscious mind takes over and you have some stupid dream!”
I was rather harsh, partly because I felt making light of his fears would help dismiss them, and partly because (and this was probably the real reason), I was still more than a little annoyed with this childish and unusual outburst. For Julian, it was totally out of character. I did not really know how to react, so I finished cruelly with:
“Forget about it! Just be thankful it’s not on your face.”
Julian looked at me strangely; I don’t think he had been listening to a word I said.
“Why should it be on my face? He didn’t strike me in the face, did he?”
I was dumbstruck, and not for the first time suspected Julian was somehow taking me for a fool. Was he really serious? I countered:
“Who? What are you talking about, for God’s sake!” my voice seemed to raise several octaves. Julian answered calmly; seemingly oblivious to the discomfort I was in and with a deadly serious undertone in his voice like a preacher verbally underlining the important part of his sermon for a slow and backward congregation he told me:
“Michael, the problem is, I did not find this birthmark until after my nightmares. I know it sounds crazy, but I couldn’t stop myself checking my head after my dream. If I had found nothing I would have laughed it off. I probably would never have told you, but I did find it! It does look a bit like a burn mark, does it not?”
Suddenly, I felt very sorry for Julian. He had apparently been rather unnerved by this whole episode, and I hadn’t helped him in the slightest. I believed his story to be nothing more than a delirium. Impulsively I had reached out and gripped his shoulders, gently shaking him, in symbolic gesture of solidarity.
“Julian, you scare me! You cannot seriously believe what you are saying, I’m sure. Look. Just relax. What you need is a good rest. Take some time off. Go abroad! Florida or the Bahamas are nice at this time of the year.”
I needed a more instant solution and added, “But for now, let’s go to the club and chill out! I would stay off the booze for a bit though if I was you”. I nodded in the direction of the empty whiskey tumblers.
We spent the rest of the evening socialising at the club with friends and he didn’t mention his dream again. Julian looked his normal self and even cracked a few jokes. Whatever had been weighing on his mind appeared to have vanished. By the end of the evening, having ignored my own warning on the liquor, the entire episode had slipped from my mind.
Trying to return to sleep now was impossible. The confounded bird had decided to rhythmically hoot somewhere outside my window. By re-running the conversation with Julian in my head I felt rather strange but was confident that he would attempt to contact me soon. I planned to see Pamela in the morning and tell her …what? She would think I was mad, or worse, that Julian was! Then again, I mused, maybe she may know about his nightmare already! Had this happened before I wondered? With these thoughts in my head, I made a mental note to tread carefully. Eventually I fell into a troubled sleep until morning.
It was the shrill of the telephone that woke me. I knew instinctively that it was Julian, which proved to be right on the button. Julian was brief and very insistent. He begged me to not ask any questions, and not to tell his mother anything other than to cover for his disappearance. He seemed to know that she would be enquiring about him. He also added that he would be back soon and promised to explain everything to me on his return. Then, as abruptly as he had called, he hung up. I checked the number and found the call had come from overseas but could not determine from where. At 7a.m. I telephoned Julian’s mother, and she immediately invited me over for breakfast.
I arrived at the Winfield residence and Pamela answered the door herself. She looked very bewildered and concerned, I was not the only person who lacked sleep it seemed. Putting on a brave face, I entered the house confidently.
“Good morning Mrs Winfield! Julian rang me last night!” I explained that it had been late and that I did not want to disturb her, although I immediately sensed she would have preferred it if I had.
“He’s alright, believe me. He said he was a little down and had decided on a whim to go to the South of France. Apparently, he intends to stay a while until his mood has lifted.” I hoped she would not see how transparent my tale was.
I intended to leave it at that, a little vague to give me room to manoeuvre, but in the true tradition of all white lies I nervously compounded my tale, painting myself into an increasingly tight corner.
“He is much better now and will probably be back in two to three days” I finished lamely.
To my surprise, Pamela started to cry. I had no idea whether it was out of relief, joy or sadness. With women I generally found it impossible to tell. I guessed it was the latter as she looked so depressed and miserable. Not knowing what else to do I asked if she wanted me to fetch a doctor. That made her smile through her tears, and she immediately composed herself.
“I am so sorry, Michael!” She wiped her eyes with a small lace handkerchief, “You are sweet. I’ll be fine!” Pamela turned briefly to look at herself in the mirror, and I busied myself by examining the oil painting mounted on the opposite wall.
“Thank you, Michael, for your help and support. You must stop this ‘Mrs Winfield’ nonsense. It’s Pamela. I’ll be fine when Julian is safely home again. As you know, I lost my husband last year. It was a great loss to me and the thought that Julian may not be safe….”, she left the sentence hanging, then concluded, “I can’t take another loss. Sorry, but I am babbling a bit!” Pamela used her hanky to blow her nose daintily, and then absent-mindedly tucked it into her sleeve just as my mother did. “I just want to see him back safely as soon as possible”.
At this moment, I could have killed Julian for what he was putting his mother through. It was now out of the question to mention my conversation with Julian on the previous night, concerning his nightmares and his birthmark.
Julian: Sussex, England
9th September 2003
Julian returned to England some four days later. Despite my intense questioning as to his previous whereabouts, he declined to answer other than, “Don’t worry about me! I’ll tell you later.” He said no more, but harboured a wry grin behind sparkly, yet penetrating eyes. He certainly had me intrigued.
On the other hand, Pamela appeared to be over the moon at her son’s safe return. Uncharacteristically, she chose not to question his strange behaviour. Maybe in some way she thought she was to blame for his mysterious disappearance and thought it best not to drive him away again with too many prying questions. Only one thing had been important to her: Julian had come back and now that he was home, she stopped worrying. In fact, she looked positively radiant, and no trace remained of her previous melancholy. Her worry seemingly put behind her, she busied herself about the house doing nothing.
Pamela still knew nothing of his nightmares and of the mysterious birthmark, as I had remained silent about these. Personally, I felt she must know of his birthmark having probably seen it since he was a baby, but had probably thought, as did I, that there was nothing significant in it. Certainly, she would have no idea of the torment it had put Julian through. However, I felt that I possessed a great secret and longed to talk to Julian to see if this indeed had been connected with his disappearance.
It was two days later before Julian arranged to meet me at a café near the train station. I arrived first and took advantage of the good weather by sitting outside. Ironically, I noted that it would probably have been preferable to sit inside at the non-smoking tables than be assaulted by the clouds of cigarette smoke outside. So much for fresh air! Julian arrived just as I was contemplating placing an order for a second coffee. He was not alone and introduced a pretty young woman to me whom I had not met before. I had pulled over a chair, a little surprised at the extra company, as Julian had made no mention of her when he telephoned earlier.
“Michael! This is Nicola. Nicola, Michael”, and to Nicola, “I told you about my best friend. Do you remember?”
“Of course. Hi Michael!” Nicola stretched out a slender hand in my direction smiling. I remember only that I was bemused by her presence and had not been sure how to react. I took her offered hand and she gently squeezed my fingers. Despite the introductions, I was still none the wiser as to who she was, and Nicola simply babbled on about ordering tapas with the drinks.
As far I knew, Julian’s girlfriend was called Roberta. She was a student at Manchester University. Apparently, she was studying linguistics and was due to graduate that year. Sometimes he and Roberta spent their holidays or the occasional weekend together. I had never met Roberta but had heard Julian talk with her on the phone. As she only had shared student digs in Manchester, it meant he did not get to see her as much as he would have liked. As far as I was aware they were still an item. I had even attempted to contact Roberta when Julian had gone missing, but I could not get anyone at the university to give out her number. Just how serious their relationship was nobody knew, and as always, Julian didn’t volunteer much information on the subject. It was therefore with some discomfort that I sat watching Nicola flick some imaginary crumbs off the table top with the laminated menu. Glancing up, she caught me staring at her and I was rewarded with a broad smile to which I am afraid I grimaced in return. I wondered where Nicola fitted into the scene.