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?
Ghost Story (The Wailing Wood,Part Two.)
Milly stood at the small window of her cottage and watched the children at play. She smiled at their antics as they chased one another round the yard. Francis, her eldest at just eight was pretending to be a monster and his lumbering gait had his sisters Jane aged six and Maura four, screaming with excitement and terror. Milly shook her head in awe of their innocence and wishing she could remember such a time. Her husband Pat was due in soon for his dinner and there was work to be done. Selecting a few potatoes from a stack in the corner of the room, she put them on to boil. Tonight their meal would be a fine one, as Father Thomas, the priest she cleaned for, had chicken for his dinner. The old man had very little appetite and insisted she take what remained of the bird home with her. She imagined the children’s faces when they saw the feast and felt a rush of happiness. Even though they were both working, times were hard and the summer of 1845 was proving to be worse of all. Blight had hit the potatoes and over half the crop was rotting in the ground.
Still, Milly wasn’t so sure, but she tried not to think about it. They had money put by with the intention of one day owning their own cottage and a small parcel of land. They would have had enough saved by now to buy the home of their dreams, if only Pat would stay away from the pub. The clatter of feet on the path outside the door heralded the arrival of her family. The children, as always hung on to their father’s every word, as he told them stories about his day up at the big house. Pat worked in the stables at the manor house, and the children lived in awe of the many tales he spun about the place, some real, but most imagined. He came up behind Milly as she strained the water off the potatoes and kissed the back of her head.
“How was your day?” He asked, as he plunged his hands into the basin of water laid out for him.
“Very good,” she motioned at the children to follow their father’s lead.
While they were busy washing their hands, she took the chicken from the cupboard and placed it in the centre of the table. Her family’s exclamations of delight were exactly as she expected.
“Well, thank god for Father Thomas and his bad appetite,” Pat said, as he pulled the bird towards him.
“Pat, stop that now,” Milly laughed.
The children watched wide-eyed as he carved the bird with expert ease, as though they were used to having a whole chicken every day.
“Will you have a leg?” Pat asked her.
“No, give one to Francis,” she smiled at her son’s delight. “He loves a leg.”
“Thanks Ma,” he whispered, as he stared down at the prize on his plate.
As they ate, her husband regaled them with tales from the big house. Milly picked at her food, lost in thought, but smiling in all the right places, when he made a joke. Her mind was troubled of late, but she was too frightened to confront him about the stories she’d heard from the gossips in the village. There was a new kitchen maid up at the manor; they said Pat was paying a bit too much attention too. She had heard many such tales over her ten year marriage and always dismissed them as idle gossip, though at times, she had known there was some substance to them. Her family meant more to her than her life, and if ignoring her husband’s odd flirtation meant keeping them together, then so be it. This latest dalliance was more worrying than any of the others and she had a bad feeling about the whole thing. There were many who said that Milly was one of the most beautiful women in the district and one of the most hardworking, but this in itself was not enough for her husband. While she never doubted his love for the children, she wasn’t so sure when it came to her.
“Ma, did you hear what Da said?” Jane roused her out of her musings.
“Sorry pet, I was miles away,” Milly said.
Jane then went on to recount the story her father had just old. Milly smiled at the way she looked adoringly at her father as she spoke. Of all the children Jane was the one who loved him the most. To her he was a hero, her father who could do anything and was afraid of nothing.
“Can we go out to the wood after dinner, Ma?” Francis asked.
“Just for an hour,” Milly said.
The children had a few wild rabbits they’d managed to capture in a makeshift cage and they spend most of their spare time tending to them.
“I love it in the wood,” Jane said, as they got up from the table. “I wish we could stay in there forever.”
Outside a cloud crossed the setting sun and the room was thrown into shadow. Milly shivered, as a cold hand clutched at her heart and she knew that there was something bad about to happen.
The winter was hard and the loss of the potato crop meant everyone was scrabbling about trying to find what food they could. Milly’s saving meant she could buy what little food they needed, and Father Thomas was as generous as ever with his leftovers. Pat now came home each night with tales about poachers being caught in the grounds of the manor and Milly listened in horror as he named neighbours who were being transported to Australia for stealing a rabbit. She had no idea at the time that those who were being sent away would one day count themselves among the lucky ones. Christmas came and went with the usual excitement for the children, but for Milly it was a time of great sadness, as she felt her husband moving further and further away from her. He still lay beside her at night, but as far away from her as their small bed would allow. As she listened to his thundering snores, she wondered how long it would be before she was lying there alone. Shelia, the kitchen maid from the manor, had a hold over her husband that seemed unbreakable. Each night, when the children were in bed, Milly waited for him to tell her he was leaving, but week after agonising week passed and he kept silent.
Milly loved Father Thomas’s house and its fine big rooms. The parochial house was huge compared to her cottage with eight rooms to house just one man. Her cottage was on the edge of the bog and always felt damp no matter what time of year it was. Her cloth flew over the shiny mahogany table in the dining room and she wondered what it would be like to sit there and eat some of the food she prepared each day for the priest. The clatter of the carriage arriving at the front gate brought her back to reality and she walked to the window and looked out. Father Thomas had just started on his usual rounds to visit the sick and dying, but he was back already. Frowning, she walked down the hall and opened the front door.
“Have you heard?” He brushed by her and went into the library.
“Heard what, Father?”
She had no idea what could have upset the old man so, and she followed him into the room. His hand shook as he poured brandy into two glasses and held one out to her. She took it and gazed down at the amber liquid in wonder.
“Sit down, woman,” the priest ordered.
Milly sank down into the chair beside the desk and watched as the priest drained his glass. As he reached for the decanter to refill, he noticed her drink was untouched.
“Take a sip,” he nodded at the glass. “You’re going to need it.”
The brandy burned her throat and it took all of Milly’s self control to stop herself from coughing.
“The crops have failed for the second year,” the old priest words hung in the air like a death knell.
“No?” Milly didn’t feel the glass slip from her hand.
It bounced onto the heavy woollen rug and rolled onto the timber floor with a clatter.
“Sorry, Father,” she stood up to clean the spilt drink.
“No, leave it,” the priest said. “You go home to your family, I’ll see to that.”
Milly couldn’t remember afterward if she thanked the man for his kindness. All she could recall was grabbing her shawl and running for home. There were many like her doing the same thing and the fields and roads were spotted with figures running as though their life depended on it. For the first time she noticed the sickly sweet smell in the air and she knew the crop they all depended on was rotting in the ground.
Pat was already at home when she got there and sitting round the table with the children. Instead of the usual laughter, there was a heavy silence and she nodded at her husband to show she’d heard the terrible news. The girls were too young to understand the severity of the loss, but Francis understood and put an arm round her shoulder when she sat down beside him.
“The family are talking about leaving for England,” Pat said.
His employers, expecting the worst, were abandoning the sinking ship.
“What about your job?” Milly asked. “They’ll still need someone to take care of the horses.”
“They’re talking of taking the animals with them,” Pat ran a hand through his dark hair. “It might not come to that, but we have to be ready when it does.”
What they imagined came to pass some months later. As the supplies of potatoes dwindled, the gentry took fright and abandoned their homes. A few of the staff remained at the manor, but there was no need for Pat and the other men, who worked the grounds. The price of food rose until it was out of reach of the common people and the amount of beggars wandering the roads in search of work increased daily. Disease spread as those dying of starvation feel victim to a worse fate, typhus. Milly kept the children inside the cottage and lived in fear of them catching the disease. Pat spent more time in the pub, coming home with tales too horrible to relate to the children.
“How much money have we left?” He asked Milly one day.
She took her meagre saving from its hiding place behind a loose brick in the wall and shook it free from the old sock she’d stored it in. The coins rolled across the scarred wood of the table. Pat grabbed them and counted each one, before placing them in a pile. When he was finished he sat back, shook his head and sighed.
“There’s not enough.”
“Not enough for what?” Milly asked.
“Our fare to America,” he said. “There’s only enough for one of us to go and the children.”
“You go,” Milly’s mind was made up in an instant. “You can find work once you get there and send for me.”
“No, I want you to go and take the children,” he said. “I heard there’s work going up north. I can go there once you’re safely away, and I’ll follow you out there once I’ve saved the fare.”
Milly opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to stop her.
“It’s no use arguing, my mind is made up,” he said. “I’ll be able to work all the quicker without having to worry about all of you.”
Milly’s eyes filled with tears and she hated herself for ever doubting that he loved her.
“When will we go?” She asked.
“First thing tomorrow,” he said. “There’s a ship sailing in two days time and it’ll take us at least a day to walk to the port. Pack everything you need up tonight. I’ll tell the children myself, if you don’t mind?”
Milly called the children in from the bedroom, where they had been playing. She left them alone with their father while he broke the news. Their excited squeals meant they took it well, and she knew her husband’s skill as a storyteller, was making it sound very exciting. There was little to pack and in the end all she had to take with them to the New World was two small bundles of clothes.
The worry of his family’s departure didn’t affect Pat’s sleep, but Milly lay beside him wishing the dawn would never come. How long would it be before she saw her husband again, she wondered and would the forced separation mean the end of her marriage? How would they survive in another country without a man to protect them? Her head swam with a thousand other thoughts as the hours ticked slowly by.
She used the last of the food to make the breakfast the next morning. They would need it to give them strength for the journey ahead. It was agreed that Pat would take the children into the wood to let the rabbits go free, while Milly went to say her goodbyes to Father Thomas. It was cold that morning, but the sun was bright and the sky was clear of any rain clouds. Milly parted with her family by the wood and stopped just once to wave to them before they disappeared among the trees. Father Thomas was sad to see her go, but he assured her she was doing the right thing. She told him about Pat staying behind until he saved the fare, and her worries about surviving once they reached America. The old priest listened to her fears and blessed her, asking god to give her strength. As he walked her to the front door, he pressed some money into her hand.
“I won’t see you go alone,” he smiled.
Milly looked down at the coins and her heart leapt. Too overcome to speak, she looked up at the priest with eyes filled with tears.
“You take that man of yours along with you,” the priest’s eyes mirrored hers. “I’ve little need for the money, and I wouldn’t like to think of you starting out alone in a strange country.”
Milly ran all the way back home. She wanted to shout, to scream her happiness to the world. There was no one there when she reached the cottage and she started out for the wood. They had probably lost track of time, she thought, and Pat was as bad as the children for playing with the rabbits. As she came closer to the wood, she saw the figure of her husband stagger out from the trees.
“Francis is hurt,” he called.
Milly ran past him and into the small group of trees. She hadn’t time to notice the sheen of sweat on her husband’s face or the hard look in his eyes. The children were all sitting together beneath one of the trees, and she thought for a moment they were playing a trick on her, until she saw the dark stains on the front of their clothes. The sting of her husband’s knife on her throat felt cold and she pulled away from its touch. She tried to speak, to ask him why, but the blood gushing from the wound made her gasp, as she stumbled deeper into the wood. Weak from loss of blood, she fell and was aware of her husband’s dark shadow overhead. He stood watching as she bled out and there was no emotion in his face. Before her eyes were dimmed forever, Milly saw him wipe the bloody blade of his knife on a leaf.
Before he left to join his mistress at the port, Pat gathered the bundles of clothes Milly packed and took them back to the wood. He threw them in among the trees and left them to rot with the bodies of his family.
“So that’s the story,” Bill said, as he threw another sod of turf on the fire.
“Then why is it called the Wailing Wood?” I asked.
“Because she’s still seen from time to time, Milly that is,” he said. “Wandering around the wood and wailing for the loss of her children.”
“How were they found?”
“That’s the interesting bit,” Bill said. “It seems that Pat caught the typhus while on board ship and begged the captain to record his dying confession. Months later the letter reached Father Thomas and he went in search of Milly and her children. He found their skeletons huddled so close together that it was difficult to tell where one body started and the other one ended. He recorded in the parish records the condition of the bodies, the matted hair and the bundles of rotten clothes. The graveyards were filled to capacity by this time and he thought it wiser to bury them where they lay. So with the help of some able-bodied men, they dug the grave and placed the unfortunates inside. One thing that always struck me as sad,” Bill paused. “Is that when they moved the larger skeleton, they found the coins that the priest had given Milly to pay her husband’s fare.”
“Why did he have to kill them?” I asked. “He could have just run away and left them live.”
“Who knows what went on in his mind,” Bill said. “From what I gathered Pat was a selfish man who put his own needs above those of others, but there must have been a madness there that he’d kept hidden.”
“When did the haunting start?”
“A long time ago,” Bill said. “Even as children we lived in fear of the wood and there are countless stories associated with it, but do you know the strangest thing of all?”
I shook my head.
“Remember I said Milly had staggered away after the dreadful blow fell?” Not waiting for an answer, Bill continued. “She was a good way through the wood when she died. Pat even drew a map to show the old priest how to find her, but she was with her children when they came to bury them. How do you suppose that happened?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “And I’ve heard enough for tonight, so I’m going home.”
“It’ll soon be Halloween,” Bill said. “I bet you’re looking forward to it.”Bill walked me to the car. The moon was full and made the yard seem bright as day.
I didn’t answer as I got into the car and let the window down.
“I’ll see you next week,” I said.
“I might see you before then,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll look out for you at Halloween. Be sure and wave as you ride your broomstick across the moon.”
His laughter followed me all the way out of the yard and up the lane to the road. He really does think he’s the funniest man alive.
I tried not to think about Milly and her children as I drove down the dark roads, but it was impossible. I couldn’t help, but hope that the children’s deaths were quick and that Jane, who adored her father, didn’t see the look on his face as he drew the knife across her throat. As I passed the bog I saw the outline of the wood in the distance. It was nothing more than a shadow darker than the night. It’s sad to think of the young woman who was so terribly betrayed by the man she loved. It’s sadder still to think she still haunts the place, mourning her loss until the end of time. When I first saw the wood it seemed impenetrable, as though the trees and bushes had gathered together to protect the grave. Even the fallen branches lie as a barrier, perhaps to warn those who would dare attempt to disturb this lonely place, that she has suffered enough and must be left in peace. I know I will forever see the wood in a different light and should I ever hear a cry echoing across the bog on a winter’s night, I’ll put it down to the cry of a vixen, as I couldn’t bear to think of it otherwise, could you?
Have a very happy Halloween.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
Tainted Ground Part 2
Life was good for Sean and his family back in 1988. His skill as an architect was being recognised, and he had commissions to last him for the next three years. If he had any business worries at the time, he can no longer recall them, but his private life took a battering four years before, when his wife Lorna, suffered postnatal depression after the birth of their second daughter, Alison. Her recovery was slower than her doctors expected, and it was only now, after Alison’s fourth birthday, that she started to rally. They agreed that a change would be of benefit, and as they both dreamed of moving to the country, this seemed as good a time as ever. They viewed many houses before deciding on the newly built dormer, which was to become the stuff of nightmares.
“I remember the first time we viewed the house,” Sean said. “Lorna shivered, and remarked on how cold it was, but I put that down to the months it had stood vacant or her nerves. I feel guilty when I think back to how many times I blamed her nerves over the next few months, and how angry I became at her at times.”
They moved in two months later, and the first few weeks were taken up with decorating and landscaping. The only thing odd about the place was the actions of Lady, their Golden Labrador. She refused to go into the house, and they were forced to buy her a kennel. As this is a farming community, she could not be allowed to roam around, so they had to chain her up all the time. Sean put it down to the new surroundings, and told the children that she would come round in time.
“I’m not sure if we were too exhausted at night to notice what was going on,” Sean said. “I only know that those first few weeks were among the happiest we had known in years.”
Once the general upheaval of the house move was over, and the children settled into their new school, Lorna was left with more time on her hands than was good for her. Unlike the town, she could not just pop to the shops or jump on a bus. In the country she became a prisoner, and once Sean’s car disappeared each morning and she waved the girls off on the school bus, the day stretched out before her. The cleaning took a little of her time and daytime TV bored her. Sean wanted to purchase a second car, but she was against the idea. Since her illness, she no longer felt she could cope with driving, even if the roads round there were deserted most of the time. Sean finds it hard to recall exactly how it first started. He remembers Lorna complaining of scratching in the walls and doors opening and closing by themselves, but he put the scratching down to the field mice that could be seen scampering through the grass outside, and the doors nothing more than the wind. Then small objects started to disappear, and there were constant battles between his wife and daughters over this. They began to suspect Shelly, their eldest child, who at the age of eight, had protested against leaving the town and all her friends. At first, the noises in the night and the sound of doors slamming were blamed on her, and they saw it her way of payback.
“Then one night, there was this terrible crash from the kitchen,” Sean said. “It sounded like an explosion. I got up, angry at having been disturbed, and ready to give Shelly a piece of my mind. I looked in to her bedroom to find her pretending to sleep, but when I shook her, it was obvious that she had been sleeping. Of course, my first thought after that was burglars, so I went back into my room and took a golf club from the closet. Lorna was awake by then, and despite my warning for her to stay in bed; she followed me down to the kitchen. I’ll never forget the scene when I switched on the light,” he paused and took another gulp of the whiskey. “Every cupboard and drawer was open, and the contents scattered on the floor. The fridge door hung on one hinge, and it had suffered the same fate as the cupboards, but that wasn’t the worst,” he gave a nervous laugh. “I know its sounds comical now, but if you’d been there to witness it, it was terrifying. The cutlery drawer in the Welsh dresser was open, and we watched as an assortment of knives, forks and spoons, started to walk up and down the length of the wood. You know the way a child might stand them on the handle and pretend to make them walk? Well, that’s what the cutlery was doing, and it continued for about a minute before collapsing in a heap. Lorna was hysterical by this time, and her sobbing roused me out of my trance. The pills she had managed without for months came back into use, but it took me some time to console her. I still thought there was a rational explanation, if not rational, something like a poltergeist. I’d read about such things being associated with children, and poor Shelly was once again believed to be the culprit. Lorna refused to stay in the house the next day, so I dropped her at a friend’s on my way to work. The only thing I could think of doing was calling our new parish priest, and he agreed to come and bless the house. Whatever it was that haunted us, took offence and we didn’t have a minute’s peace after that.”
Other than pictures falling off the walls, and the children complaining that theirs beds were shaking at night, there was nothing more disturbing, until the next sickening act.
“We were invited to a wedding,” Sean said. “It was one of my clients, and we had no choice, but to go. Lorna wasn’t up to it, so I explained this to the clients, and agreed that we would go for the meal and come home after that. Since we would be gone for hours, and it was a miserable, wet day, I dragged Lady inside and locked her in the utility room. I thought I was doing the right thing. A least she’d be dry, and there was enough food and water to keep her going until we got back. I can still hear her howls echoing down the hallway, as I closed the front door. We arrived back about six hours later. We had left the hall light on, but to our dismay, every light in the house was on. I had that feeling; you know the one you get in the pit of your stomach?” He asked.
Bill and I nodded; we both knew the feeling well.
“I knew something was wrong the minute I opened the front door,” Sean continued. “I made Lorna and the girls stay in the car, while I checked the rooms, and I’m thankful to God that I did. The smell hit me as I walked towards the kitchen. It’s hard to describe, but it was a combination of that raw, butcher shop smell mixed with something more foul. I called out to Lady as I approached the utility room, and I’m not ashamed to say that my hand shook as I pressed down on the handle. My stomach turned at the overwhelming stench rushed out at me, and grabbing a towel I put it over my nose before going inside. Lady lay in a heap behind the door, and I had to push her lifeless body back so I could get inside. The wood on the back of the door was splintered from where she had used her nails trying to escape, and the fur on her paws was caked black from the blood. It was her eyes I will never forget, they were open wide, and I wouldn’t have believed an animal could show such fear. I called the local vet, because I wanted the children to think Lady was sick. The shock of her death would affect them badly, and I was too weary to deal with it at that time. I also wanted to know what happened to her. He was at a loss to know what she’d died from, but he bundled her body up and took it away to examine it further. The girls were upset, but I said the vet was taking care of her, and they could see her next day. I know it was wrong of me, but I needed time to get my story straight. I even lied to my wife, so she wouldn’t be worried, and the episode with the lights was forgotten as everyone was more concerned about the dog. It was hard to tell my family the next morning that the vet rang to say Lady was dead. What I didn’t tell Lorna was that the vet found nothing to explain her death, and said with a nervous laugh, that you would swear from the look in the dog’s eyes that she had died of fright. Things got much worse after that.”
Sean went on to describe the endless nights, as Lorna lay asleep beside him. Her doctor had prescribed more pills for her anxiety, and still more to help her sleep. Sean didn’t have the luxury of oblivion, so he lay there listening to the footsteps overhead. Remember the house was a dormer and built so there was no attic, so unless the footsteps were on the roof, he couldn’t imagine where they were coming from. There were too many incidents to record here, but as the days passed, the disturbances increased. Then it started to affect the children. One night, exhaustion took over and he managed to drop off, only to be woken by the sounds of Shelly’s screams. Springing from the bed, he rushed out into the hall, to find the little girl running towards him.
“It’s after me, Daddy,” she ran into his arms.
“Who’s after you?” Sean brushed her sweat-soaked hair from off her face.
“The monster,” she sobbed, and buried her head against his shoulder.
“There’s no monster,” he patted her back. “You just had a bad dream.”
“”There is, look,” Shelly turned, and pointed down the hall.
Sean said he’d heard the expression about the hair standing up on your head, but he’s never experienced it until that night. Something was crouched at the end of the hall; a massive, black shadow that seemed to pulsate with hatred. As he watched, it blended back into the wall. He put Shelly in the bed beside her mother and went to get Alison. Once the child was safely in the bed with his wife, he decided to dress. His pyjama top was stuck to him, so he went to the ensuite and turned on the taps in the sink. He didn’t dare use the shower, as he was afraid to leave his family alone even for a few minutes. He didn’t even close the door, but started to splash water onto his face. He would dress and wait for the morning to come, he decided, though he had no idea what he would do after that. There was no point in calling the priest back in, and this was in the days before psychic investigators. To say he was at his wits end was not an exaggeration. Once dressed, he lay down on the bed beside his sleeping family and watched the curtains, praying for the first light of dawn to creep through them. Despite his terror, he fell asleep and woke to a searing pain.
“I felt a sting on my forehead,” he said. “Like a bad paper cut, and this woke me. I brought my hand up to feel the skin and found I was bleeding. I became aware of the same sensation on my stomach, and to my horror; my shirt was stained with blood. When it opened the buttons, there were deep scratches running across my skin, but the material on my shirt was untouched. I was shaking as I went back into the bathroom, and I had to bite my lip to stop myself from crying out, as I started to wipe the blood away. The more I wiped, the faster the blood flowed and I saw that the cuts were deep, deep enough to require stitching. I tied a towel around my waist and rubbed the blood from my forehead. The cut here wasn’t too bad, and as I rubbed at the skin, I felt the familiar feeling of dread that I’d felt in the hallway return. The mirror on the medicine cabinet above the sink seemed to mist over, and I couldn’t move as I watched it swirl and take shape. There were things, I couldn’t call them people, more like rotten, zombie-like horrors, and they were coming out of the wall behind me, Jesus,” he stopped, almost panting, as he relived that night. “They reached out to me; I felt their nails on my back and remember nothing after that, until I felt another sting on my arm. The paramedics were placing a line under the skin at the back of my hand. They thought I fell and hit the sink, but there was no sign of a head injury, other than the scratch on my forehead. Lorna and the girls came with me in the ambulance. I was feverish for three days after, and it was only when I recovered consciousness, that I realised how badly I was hurt. My back was torn into ribbons and the criss-cross of black stitches ran like railway lines across the skin. Lorna and the children stayed with friends, but the experience had touched all three in a terrible way, Shelly most of all. Lorna told me the child had witnessed the attack and was a nervous wreck.
“She keeps saying that you took their names,” Lorna said. “Shelly says that over and over again. Daddy took the monsters names.”
There was silence for a moment, and Bill used this opportunity to heap more turf onto the fire.
“We never went back there,” Sean said. “Afterwards, when I was fully recovered, physically I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from it mentally, I started to ask questions about the house. The builder laughed at me and dismissed me as a nutcase. Then someone said I should talk to Bill here, and he told me the truth about the foundations.”
“I knew from the minute they dumped the headstones that it would be a place of deep unrest,” Bill said.
“Couldn’t you have sued the builder?” I asked.
“I thought about it,” Sean said. “But where was my proof? He closed one company after another, and there were no assets in his name. My solicitor checked all that out for me, and it would have taken years and money I couldn’t afford, to fight him in the courts, and I’d probably be laughed at in the end.”
“What happened with your family?” I asked.
“Lorna never recovered. Her nerves were already bad and that house was the final straw,” Sean said. “She’s been in hospital for over two months this time, and there’s no hope of a full recovery. Alison was very young, and she seems to have forgotten all about it, but poor Shelly…,” his voice trailed off.
“Shelly died two years ago,” Bill finished the sentence for him.
“She didn’t die two years ago,” Sean’s eyes blazed with anger, and when he turned to look at me, I saw the tears gathering. “She committed suicide” he said. “She took an overdose of pills.”
“I’m so sorry,” I reached out and touched his hand.
“I know, thank you,” he held on to my fingers as though they were a lifeline. “It was the house that killed her. She never recovered from the fright, and the things she saw there. You can’t imagine what her death did to her mother, to all of us.”
Bill refilled Sean’s glass, after persuading him to stay the night. Sean stood up as I was saying my goodbyes. He staggered a little, and it was obvious that the whiskey was taking effect.
“If anyone ever tells you that a ghost can’t hurt you,” he said, as he pulled his shirt free from his trousers. “Tell them about this,”
He pulled the shirt up under his chin and I saw the raised, white lines of the scars on his stomach. He turned so I could see his back, and I promise you, it was every bit as bad as he said it was.
Bill walked me to my car.
“That poor man,” I said.
“Now you know the story, do you believe it?” He asked.
“Of course, I do, why do you ask?”
“Because nobody else will,” he said, holding the car door open for me.
“You’ll be surprised how many will believe it,” I said, and after a moments thought, added. “I think I’ll go back by the bog road.”
“You do that,” He said.
After promising to come back in the week for another slice of horror, I drove out of the yard. The bog road is narrow and in bad condition, but it meant I didn’t have to pass that accursed house. I pushed up the rear view mirror so I didn’t have to look in it. I was nervous after listening to Sean’s story, and afraid of what I might see looking back at me. The three miles drive down the lonesome road seemed to take forever, and I didn’t look left or right, aware of the barren landscape and the ghost lights that are seen there. For the first time I was glad when the lights of the main road came into view, and I was done with the darkness for another while.
That’s it for another week, dear reader. Bill has supplied me with a wealth of ghost stories to keep you entertained well up until the witching season, Halloween. Sleep well.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
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
I know we had quite a trek getting here, but I think you’ll agree it was worth it. We couldn’t have picked a better night as the forces of nature are with us. The moon makes it bright as day and I know it’s very warm, but it will be colder inside. I’ll tell you the history of the house as we explore, but first, before we go in, I want you to look at that giant oak tree to you left. Legend has it that the first owner of the house, a Lord something or other, I couldn’t fine any record of his name. It is said he hung a young stable boy from that tree, because he blamed the boy when one of his stallions went lame. The caretaker swears that he’s seen a dark shape hanging from one of the branches and on windless nights such as this, if you listen closely, you can hear the rope moving backward and forwards. Let’s just stand for a moment and listen.
No, I can’t hear anything either. You must admit the house looks very imposing with the moon and trees providing a perfect backdrop. It was built in the 1600s, but it’s been added to over the centuries and that accounts for its miss mash of styles. The turret on the far end, has a story all its own, but we’ll some to that later. Let’s go.
I expected it to be cooler inside, but it’s like walking into a fridge. After the lush ripeness of the overgrown gardens, the smell of damp is overpowering. The rooms are completely empty, so there’s no need to worry about bumping into any furniture. I suspect what little there was has been burned by the tramps who took shelter here. Shine your flashlights around so you get the feel of the place. Dismal, isn’t it. No, I don’t think the sounds overhead are footsteps. It’s probably the house settling after the heat of the day. Old house do that, have you noticed? They sigh and settle. The first story concerns one of the maids and her room is on the third floor. The stairs curve slightly so stay behind one another as I lead the way. We can explore the first floor later, if you want, but I’m more interested in the places I’ve heard tales about.
See how the roof slants as we climb? I imagine the accommodation for the servants was very small. There are three doors on this floor. God, I hate the way the old rusty hinges creak, as though the door is protesting against our presence. The old iron bedsteads are still here and a little washstand, but have you noticed there’s no fireplace. It must have been freezing up here in the winter.
The story goes that a young maid got pregnant by the master of the house and when she told him about her condition, he ordered her to leave. Her family would refuse to have her home, if they knew of her condition, so with no one to turn to, she took poison. If she expected her death to be a quick one, she was sadly mistaken and it is said her screams echoed through the house for over an hour, before she finally succumbed to death. This is one of the haunting. Poor girl, she must have been desperate. Was that a sigh, did one of you sigh? No, God that sounded close. Let’s go down to the first floor. I have goose bumps on my arms and it’s not from the cold. Can anyone else feel that? It’s only since we reached the landing that I’ve started to feel uncomfortable. It’s like being staked by a predator. What’s wrong? The flashlights are going out. It’s OK, I have more batteries. This sometimes happens. The spirits drain the energy. Here pass these around. Everyone all right?
Now we’ll make our way to the turret room. This is accessed by a little winding staircase and has to most pitiful story of all. Oh, my God, that made me jump. A door banged somewhere in front of us. It feels like whoever is haunting here doesn’t want us to go up into the turret. Did you see that? A flash of white. Do you want to move on? Yes, lets, there’s no point in turning back now. No one panic once we reach the turret. There’s only room to move in single file and if a stampede starts someone is going to get hurt. Hang on a second, listen; is that shuffling from inside the door? A trapped bird, perhaps? My hand is trembling as I push against the rotten wood. This house had unnerved me and I don’t understand why. OK, everyone it and there’s nothing to see. The story here is one of the owners had a son who was born deformed. He was so ashamed of the boy, he locked him away in this room from the day he was born. It was only the kindness of the servants that kept the boy alive, bring him scraps of food. His own mother was told he had died and he stayed a prisoner. They say he was chained to the wall, in case he tried to wander. See that cruel-looking hook in the wall? This is here the chain was tied. He died at the age of seven and it’s said that on moonlit nights, his little face, lined with pain, can be seen peeping out of the window. Imagine his terror, the poor little mite. Locked away up here, all alone. What, what’s the matter? If felt like a small cold hand pressing into your? Shine the flashlight over into this corner. It sounded like a chain rattling.
“Little boy, are you here?”
Was that a sob? It sounded like one. Is it creeping you out? OK, we’ll go down and leave him in peace, for want of a better word.
“Goodbye, little boy.”
You heard that, right? It was clear as day, he said goodbye. Keep moving. I don’t know what’s come over me, I feel like crying. We’ll go down to the first floor now. Has it got darker or is my imagination? I have the same sensation of being stalked down here and the …The screams, have you every heard anything like them? Don’t cover your ears, move. Their coming from the attic. Listen, there’s someone moving about up there. The footsteps are moving across the ceiling, they’re coming closer, moving down the stairs and wouldn’t you know it, I once again alone. I’m not waiting here to see what coming towards me. The beam from the flashlight is fading and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing. I won’t be looking up at the turret window as we leave. I’m afraid of what I might see.