It will soon be that magical time of year again, Halloween. The shops are filled with costumes, giant spider webs and broomsticks, though they have to vie with the early addition of Christmas goodies. Still, we welcome any reason to celebrate as the dark night come ever closer. The air has changed too. It now smells of wood smoke and at night, the first hint of frost makes its clean and fresh. The weathermen predict the onset of winter this weekend and the crying of its wind always brings to mind ghostly tales. Don’t worry about that tiny glimpse you catch from the corner of your eye. It’s nothing more than the scurrying of nocturnal creatures or the way the shadows fall. Or is it?
I was lying in bed last night reading when I noticed a movement our of the corner of my eye. It was a spider scuttling across the floor, but not your average spider, oh no. This was the King Kong of spiders, a huge, black, hairy hunchbacked thing. It stopped next to the waste paper bin and just stayed there. I don’t know it it was daring me to move or it had a death wish. If so, it got its wish as I introduced it to my shoe. It’s remains where then flushed down the toilet on its way to spider hell, because that’s where all spiders go. A place when juicy flies buzz over head, but they can never catch then and every hour they get a blast in the face from a bug spray. The thing that kept me awake was wondering if he had come alone or was there a relative or friend close by?
Graveyard Secrets Part Two
Tom’s cottage is snug, though the air is thick from the turf he uses to keep the old range going. I sat at the table and watched as he took plates of cold meats and cheeses out of the fridge. He had prepared these ahead of time, and I was glad I hadn’t refused his offer of lunch. I was touched and honoured to find he had bought packets of gluten free biscuits for me, and he offered me juice instead of tea. Once he had finished setting the table, he sat opposite and started to talk, as he forked slices of meat onto my plate.
“It all started over two hundred years ago,” he said. “I told you the wall behind that place was part of the manor house? At that time the church was for their private use and part of the estate.”
I nodded; I knew what he was talking about, and found it strange that he couldn’t bear to give the small plot a name. It was not the graveyard to him and never will be. Between mouthfuls, he explained the history of those buried there, and this is how the story goes.
In 1882 the first Lord Fitzwalter died and left behind two sons, Ralph and William. Ralph being the eldest inherited his father’s estate, which was a wealthy one and made him one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. Those who worked on the land belonging to the estate, must have felt the first stirring of fear on hearing of the death of the old Lord, as Ralph was known as a womaniser and his taste for the ale houses and gambling dens was the talk of the district. I have since found photographs of the portraits of both brothers and in looks they were the complete opposite. Ralph was fair and well built, while his brother was dark with more delicate features. William did not only differ to his brother in looks, but he was more reserved and secretive. The reason for this will become clear later on.
The old Lord was barely cold in the grave, when the influx of mothers, anxious to make a good match for their daughters, began. Ralph had no interest in any of the women he was introduced to, but his brother fell for the charms of a Miss Emily, who he later married. If her mother felt disappointed at her daughter’s choice of husband, she kept it to herself. William was, after all, rich in his own right and first in line to his brother’s estate. Emily was pretty and her presence in the house must have made Ralph realise what he was missing, because soon after William’s marriage, he announced that he too was taking the same step. Isabella, his future wife was of Spanish descent. While her exotic looks and fiery temperament was off putting to some men, it was these attracted Ralph to her, and in a time when maidens were demure, she was a welcome change from the norm. She on the other hand, thought her future husband a bore, and her eyes were drawn to the more familiar, dark looks of his brother. Nevertheless, not one to turn down the change of marrying into royalty, she went ahead with the engagement. From the moment she entered the manor as Lady Fitzwilliam, there was trouble. Jealous of her sister-in-law and the bond between her and her husband, she contrived to cause as much trouble as she could between the couple. They ignored her as best they could and stayed out of her way, by making the west wing of the house their own little kingdom.
Ralph soon tired of his new wife. Her endless tantrums and demands sent him running for the sanctuary of the ale houses and gambling dens. Word reached her that his marriage had not stopped his roving eye, and she went mad with rage. She didn’t want him, but neither did she want anyone else to have him. As the months passed, it became clear to those around her, that she was not quite right in the head. Emily’s announcement of an impending birth was the final straw, as Isabella’s stomach remained flat, despite her husband’s drunken fumbling. When baby Stephen was born, Isabella saw her hopes of holding on to her title fade. If she did not produce an heir, then William would inherit, should anything happen to her husband. Her demands on Ralph grew more urgent and led to bitter quarrels between them. She berated him for his inability to provide her with a child and he, in turn, grew bitter at her words. Their clashes were the talk of the district and both showed the signs of battle, as the fights became physical. When Stephen took his first steps, the sight of his little form toddling along the great hall, made her grind her teeth in frustration, while praising his efforts to his doting mother. How dare Emily have what she so desired. Perhaps, those who spoke of her madness were right; because it was then she started to hatch her plan. She had inherited from her mother a mixture of potions. These were intended to be used to enhance the complexion, but some held deadly poisons and Isabella knew which ones to choose.
One day, while Ralph and William were at a horse fair in the town, she set her plan in motion by poisoning Emily and Stephen’s food. She copied their symptoms, even making herself vomit in the presence of the attending doctors, but while Isabella recovered, her two victims grew frailer. Stephen was too little to fight the poison and he died three days later. While his mother lay on her death bed, his little coffin was laid in the tomb beside the grandfather he had never known. Emily lingered for eight more days, with Isabella as her devoted nurse. No hint of suspicion fell on her, as the servants put the sickness down to some bad meat, and Isabella’s recovery, to her more robust, foreign genes. It was while Emily lay in the throes of the poison, that Ralph, returning one night from the ale house, fell from his horse and was killed. Such was Isabella’s jealousy that she demanded her husband be buried outside the walls of the manor and not beside his father and nephew.
“I want to keep him close to me,” was her tearful explanation.
William, stunned by the blow of his double loss, agreed with her request and the tomb was hastily erected. Ralph was dead four days when Emily finally succumbed and it is her grave that lies closest to the tomb.
“It’s her sobbing I hear,” Tom paused. “Isabella’s cruelty means that Emily is forever separated from her baby and she can’t rest.”
“I wonder why William didn’t insist on her being buried in the family tomb.” I said.
“The poor man was out of his mind with grief, the story goes and he let Isabella see to all the arrangements.” Tom shook his head and sighed. “Was there ever a more evil woman?”
While the death of his wife and child was a devastating blow to William, loss had the opposite effect on Isabella, who blossomed. It was said she had never looked more beautiful and she put it to good use. As the months passed, she used all her charms to woo her heartbroken brother-in-law, and as the pain of his loss lifted, he fell for her sly endearments and fake acts of kindness. The attraction she once felt for William had waned, but her need to keep hold of her title had not. They were married a year after the death of Emily. Isabella viewed her new husband in the same why she had her last. She cared nothing for him, but neither could anyone else. She saw to the hiring of all the household staff, and it was said that the manor housed some of the ugliest women in the country. William for all his frail looks, proved to be more virile than his brother and Isabella gave birth to six children, none who survived past its first year. It was whispered that she poisoned the babies, because she couldn’t bear to share her husband’s love with another human being.
William began to think he was cursed and returned to what had once interested him, but what Emily with her sweet nature and goodness had driven from his head, the study of the dark arts. His study became home to every unholy thing he could buy and since his fortune was large, there were many strange and terrible things lining the walls. While Isabella did nothing to discourage him, she became enraged at the time he was spending locked up with his books and the arguments began. They both died in their early thirties, some say at her hand, others from some evil he let into the house.
“If you ask me,” Tom said. “They tormented themselves to death. William would have been all right if he hadn’t taken up with Isabella, but as it turned out, she made him as wicked as herself.”
“So they’re your unholy trinity,” I said. “Ralph, William and Isabella?”
“Aye, that they are,” he brushed crumbs from the front of his jumper. “Emily is like the six little innocents buried around her, free of sin.”
“But you still think it’s she who cries?”
“I do, she can’t rest, I’m sure of it,” he turned and looked at the clock. “The mourners are due here at three.”
It was coming up to two-o-clock when we left the cottage and went back to the graveyard. The rain held off, though it was still cloudy and overcast.
“Do you really think they are haunting the place?” I asked.
“Isabella’s spirit is more malignant than ever,” Tom said. “You can feel it in the air. I imagine they’re still fighting now, beneath the earth. I used to think when I was young, that it was all a fairy tale, but I know better now. I don’t think of them as ghosts or spirits. They have a sort of semi-life, dead, but too tormented to sleep.”
When we reached the church door, Tom took an ancient key from his pocket and turned the lock.
“I have to turn on the heating and light the candles,” he stood back to let me pass.
This church, like many of its kind, no longer has a congregation large enough to warrant a full time priest, so one comes for mass on a Sunday and for funerals. The porch smelt of damp. One of the panes of glass in the inside door has a crack that runs in a vertical line from top to bottom, destroying the features of whatever saint it’s meant to portray. The echoes one expects in such a place seem louder and there is something unholy in their sighing and stretching. I’m sure it’s Tom’s story that makes me feel this way. I stopped short when I saw the coffin in the centre aisle.
“I hadn’t realised he was here,” I said, as I followed Tom up on to the altar.
“Where else would he be?” He looked back at the coffin. “They brought him here last night.”
While Tom went into the back of the church to turn on the heat, I slipped into one of the pews to offer a prayer for the dead. These benches are the most basic you can imagine, and the wooden plank that runs at the back of each one is bare with no cushion to buffer the delicate skin of those who kneel. The silence settled all round me, as I waited to Tom to come back and my thoughts were of Emily and her endless sobbing.
“Are you going to wait for the funeral,” Tom came back out onto the altar.
“No, I’m going home,” I got out of my seat.
He walked me outside and down the path to my car.
“I was thinking about Emily,” I said.
“Aye, she’s a sad case,” Tom agreed.
“No, what I was thinking was that after all this time, all that’s left of her are a few bones.”
“That’s all there would be, if that.”
“What if someone dug them up and moved them into the tomb beside her baby,” I suggested, ignoring the look of horror on his face, I continued. “It would be easy to prise the lid off the old tomb, all you’d have to do is put a crowbar in between the crack and push. Come on, I’ll show you.”
My flight back up the path was stopped by a hand on the back of my coat.
“You get in your car and go home,” he spun me round. “And stop all that talk of sacrilege.”
“It’s not sacrilege if it ends Emily’s sorrow, is it,” I said. “Imagine if I was parted like that from my children.”
“Dear god, woman, you’re not going to start crying are you,” he shuffled from foot to foot.
“No, I’m just saying,” I bit my lip.
“Well, don’t just say,” he held open the car door. “Be off with you now and stop filling my head with your nonsense.”
I got in and let the window down.
“Will you think about it?” I asked.
“I will not, indeed,” he leaned down and kissed my forehead.
His bristles felt like the pricking of a thousand needles.
“Go on,” he commanded. “And don’t leave it so long next time.”
I knew he was sad to see me go, as he was half-way back up the path by the time I turned the car round in the small parking lot. Hidden by the wall, I got out and crept up to the gates of the graveyard. Tom had retrieved his shovel and was standing at the door of the church as though undecided. There was still half an hour before the mourners were due, and even longer before he would need to put the shovel to use. You know how it is when happiness just bubbles up inside you, making you feel so warm you want to hug yourself? Well, that’s how I felt when I got back into the car.
You see, I know what a kind heart my old friend has, and I think by now, you do too. Am I wrong to believe that on overcast, Monday afternoon, in a world beyond our own, that a young mother, after a wait of over two hundred years, lay beside her child and with a sigh of contentment, took him in her arms and finally closed her eyes? I don’t think so.
Sometimes, even ghost stories have happy endings. More next week, dear reader.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
The Most Cardinal Sin Part Two
Old Ma Cusack’s story continued and I waited with bated breath to hear the outcome. On the night Johnny and Theresa where supposed to flee, the nuns once again, locked her in her room. She begged the girl who was helping her, to get the key and let her out, but it was well past the hour of the planned meeting when she finally heard the key turn in the lock. Whispering her thanks and wearing the only clothes she possessed, the white habit, Theresa crept as quietly as her bulk would allow, down the stairs and out through the back door of the convent.
Johnny paced the grass in the graveyard as the night deepened. He dare not go to the convent and could only wait and pray that his love would keep the appointment. He heard footsteps on the gravelled pathway beside the church, and crouched down in the steps, as he waited for them to come closer. He knew by the heavy thread that there was more than one person, and he was sure they had been found out. The first blow to the back of his head stunned him. The footsteps were a decoy, and he didn’t hear his assassin approach. He looked up at the dark, cowled figure standing over him and raised his hands to shield his face.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he whispered, but there was to be no mercy, and the club fell again and again until he was no more.
The door to the tomb was open, as the nuns had obtained the key and spent that afternoon oiling the rusted lock. It was that Johnny’s body was dumped among the rotting bits of coffins and the bones of the dead. No one knows for certain whom his murdered was, and it was never spoken about again. Words spread that he had run away after stealing from the convent, and since he was an orphan, there was no one to question his disappearance, other than Theresa. When she reached the tomb that night, the foul deed was done, but having no knowledge of this; she sat down on the steps and waited. The night grew colder and she watched as the lamps in the convent windows went out one by one. The sisters were getting ready for bed. Sick with worry, she decided to walk the mile or so to the cottage where Johnny lived with the gardener. The graveyard gate screeched open and she was about to step outside, when a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. No one outside the convent knew about her pregnancy and the nuns wanted it kept that way.
“I don’t believe you,” Theresa shook her head in horror. “He would never leave me.”
The blow to her face made her nose bleed and she was dragged back pleading with the nun to let her go. Once again she was locked in her room and fed a diet of bread and water. The young girl who was sympatric to her plight came to visit her and Theresa begged her to check for a note from Johnny. This she did, but returned each day empty-handed. Theresa became despondent as the days passed and there was no word. She cried, she screamed and begged her jailors to let her go, but they were deaf to her pleas and she received even more beatings for her actions. It was obvious from the way they treated her, that the nuns didn’t care if her baby lived, but she would not give in. She would wait until the baby was born and run away with it. The open road could not treat her as cruelly as the nuns, and at least her child would have a chance of surviving. The meagre rations she was fed left her weak and run down. Months passed without a kind word from anyone and by the time it came to giving birth, she was like a walking skeleton. The labour was long and hard, with only the nun who worked with the livestock to help her. A doctor was needed, the nuns knew this, but no one could learn of their shame, and Theresa held her daughter for only a moment, before the blood gushing from her body closed her eyes forever.
Her death remained a secret, though it was whispered about by the girls in the school, that she was locked away in one of the towers as she had gone mad. Her body was buried late at night under one of the flowerbeds she had so lovingly planted with Johnny. The nuns told no one about her death and it was easy to conceal, as her aunt cared nothing for her niece. Two years later, they passed another young woman off as Theresa, when the solicitor called on the day of her eighteenth birthday, and the nuns got their blood money. The story of her ghost being seen started soon afterwards, and there have been countless eyewitnesses to the white wraith, who moves between the convent and the graveyard, in her endless search for the lost lover and baby.
“Would you like to see inside the convent?” Ma Cusack asked when she finished telling the story.
“Would it be possible?” I was excited by her offer.
She stood and walked to a dresser. Opening one of the drawers she withdrew a tissue -wrapped bundle. She opened the parcel to reveal a beautiful white cloth edged with lace.
“I make these for the altar in the church,” she said, passing me the cloth. My old fingers find it harder these days to make the lace, but I’ll keep at it until the end. The nuns pay me well for it and I’m due to drop this off, so we can go tomorrow if you like?”
“Won’t they be suspicious of me?” I asked.
“Ah, no, I’ll say you’re a niece, they won’t ask too many questions,” she smiled at her daring.
As I drove back to the hotel that night, I had to pass the convent and the graveyard. I must admit I kept my eyes on the road and didn’t dare look out into the darkness beside me, sure I would see the fleeting shape of something white drifting between the headstones.
Tuesday morning was bright and the sun was shining when I collected Ma Cusack from her little cottage, she insisted I call her Ma, as everyone does, she says. I had been wondering all night how so much was known about Theresa and asked her.
“Remember the young girl I told you about, who helped Theresa?” She asked, and
without waiting for a reply, she continued.
“Shortly after she left the convent, she wrote a book about it, but the church had it stopped. They could do things like that back then, but word leaked out. It was that, and the rumours that were spread about by those who worked at the convent. In a place as small this, everyone knows your business.”
“Why wasn’t anything done to the nuns?” I asked. “Surely, they could have been made to pay for their crime?”
“The church had terrible power back then and the convent was the biggest employer hereabouts, so who was going to tell on them? They call them the good old days, but they were never that,” she brushed an imaginary hair from her face. “They were wicked, hard times, and those poor innocents paid with their lives.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we walked up to the door of the convent. Ma Cusack pulled on the rope and the jangle of the bell sounded like thunder in the silence. Overhead gulls swooped and screeched and the wind from the sea ruffled our hair and tugged at our clothes as we waited. From inside, we heard the clatter of hurrying feet and the grill on the door was thrown back.
“Hello, Sister Bridget,” Ma Cusack said. “I’m here with the altar cloth and I have a visitor. My niece has come to stay for a few days and I’ve brought her with me, she’s mad to see the convent, as she loves old building.”
The grill was closed again and we listened as a number of bolts were thrown back. Rather than the scowling figure I had come to expect, Sister Bridget beamed at me and shook my hand.
“We don’t often get visitors,” she ushered us inside. “Feel free to have a look round while I take your aunt to the reverend mother. The other sisters are out in the gardens. There are only ten of us left now, so you can wander around the lower floor as you please.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Once the nun and Ma Cusack disappeared down one of the corridors, I was able to take a good look around me. The hall was dark and smelled of furniture polish and candle wax. Portraits of past nuns dotted the walls. Some stared down at me, their gaze stern and disapproving; others observed me with furtive smiles and their eyes followed me along the corridors. Each step I took echoed, as I made my way to a door marked refectory. Peeping inside, I saw it was the dining hall. Tables ran the lengths of the room and at one time it must have seated over a hundred. The few table mats set out for the nuns, looked lost in the vastness of the wooden surfaces. This room, like the hallway, was deep in shadow, as the morning sun found it difficult to creep through the high arched windows. The next room was a library, the shelves lined with books. I traced my finger along the spines to read the titles. Some were in Latin, the binding creased and worn from eager hands. I found the back door Jane spoke of. It was at the end of one of the corridors and I walked to the spot where I imagined Theresa stood on that fateful night.
Poor little girl,” I whispered. “I am so sorry for what they did to you.”
Was it my imagination or did I hear a soft sob behind me? Probably imagination, as every sound echoes in this place, and it could have been nothing more than the sighing of the wind. I opened the door and stepped outside. I had pictured it differently in my mind. There is an open quadrangle that runs round the building with a patch of lawn in the centre. The cloisters are framed with large, arched windows beautifully carved into the stone and the ground is paved with uneven slabs worn smooth by the centuries of passing feet. It seemed a peaceful place on such a morning, and anyone who didn’t know its dark history, would be fooled into thinking it had always been that way. Ma Cusack came to get me and hurried me away, refusing Sister Bridget’s offer of tea. I thanked the nun as I was all, but pushed out the main door by the old woman.
“I didn’t want her asking too many questions,” she explained, as we walked back to the car.
Once again I drove out of sight and we went into the graveyard. I followed Ma over to one of the tombs and we stood staring down at steps and the rotting old door.
“I wish I’d brought flowers,” I said. “It would be nice to show someone remembers.”
“Pick some,” Ma waved her hand around the field.
There were wild flowers in abundance, so I did as she suggested and we lay them at the door of the tomb. I tried not to think about the young man who’d be left there to rot and thought instead of the two lovers and the happiness they had once felt.
“When is she seen?” I asked my companion.
“Usually at dusk,” the old woman replied. “Poor child, hers is a terrible tale. Johnny is rarely seen, but when he is, his ghost is a frightening one; blood cakes his ashen face, as he wanders around the graveyard calling her name.”
Twilight seems the favourite time for ghosts. In those few minutes, as day surrenders to night, they are allowed to roam. It’s understandable when you think of it, as the sun sets and shadows deepen. They belong to that place, the land of shadows, caught between darkness and light, in a world of endless dusk. We must pity them, and then let them be. Nothing could be worse than their timeless wandering and we can only pray that our own fate never mirrors theirs.
Until next week, my friends, when I will once again take you into that world beyond our own, the place where darkness lurks and shadows are born.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
In Ireland we are never sure of the sun come summer, but the one thing we can count on is the arrival of spiders, shriek. It’s bad enough writing horror, without having these monsters to contend with. During the warmer months its like living in the house of Dracula, as I have to do spider patrol every night, to make sure there’s nothing hiding in the corners of the bedrooms. Because that’s what they do, the ugly, hairy, humpbacked b*****ds. They sneak in during the day and crouch down in the corners and wait until you turn off the light and then its party time. I killed one the other night and I swear it was filled with ink. That’s another ceiling that needs repainting. I don’t want to hear anything from your bleeding hearts about them being God’s creatures and how you should trap them and take them outside. Get a grip, if you do this they just tell their friends how spider-friendly you are and even more turn up. If Noah was still around today, he’d be getting a punch in the face. I’ll leave you with two little rhymes for those of you, like me, hate spiders.
Little spider on the wall.
Have you got no friends at all?
Have you got no mum or dad?
Squishy squashy, that’s too bad.
Little spider on the wall.
You shouldn’t be there at all.
That wall had just been plastered.
Get off the wall, you dirty little…….spider.