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?
Purgatory Part 3
A thin mist hovered over the grass and the air was chill when Kitty opened her bedroom window. The sun was a hazy, orange ball against the backdrop of the surrounding trees and it struggled to dispel the last of the night’s lingering darkness. She could have stayed in bed for another hour, but her sleep had been restless of late and it was easier to get up and not lie about tossing and turning. The house was silent and other than the first calling of a songbird there was nothing to disturb her morning prayers. Kneeling down beside the bed she made the sign of the cross and laced the worn rosary beads between her fingers. She asked the usual things of God, protection for her family and those she loved and peace for those lying beneath the earth. Her last plea was one she had repeated over and over for the past three months, but she knew it would not be answered; not now, if the screams echoing across the fields were anything to go by.
Running to the window, she looked across the garden and the wraith-like figure staggering through the mist. The Mister would hear her for sure and then there would be hell to pay. She tip-toed down the stairs in her bare feet, cringing at each creak of the old boards. The cold, stone flags on the kitchen floor burned her warm flesh, but she ignored the discomfort in her need to get outside. The grass was wet with morning dew and sharp stones nipped at her feet, but she took no notice as she ran across to where Ruth had fallen.
“What happened?” Kitty tried to pull her up, but she refused to move.
Ruth’s sobs echoed in the still air and Kitty cast a furtive glance back at the house, praying the Mister wouldn’t hear.
“Stop,” Kitty shook the weeping girl. “Your brother will hear you and you know what will happen then.”
There was no need to ask again what was troubling the girl. It was as Kitty had suspected since the beginning.
“He’s left me,” Ruth beat her hands against her face.
“Stop that,” Kitty pulled her hands away and held them before she did herself harm.
Ruth’s cries had woken Joan and she came running across the grass, her expression a mixture of confusion and fear.
“What in the name of god is wrong with her?” She looked from Kitty to the weeping girl.
“The gypsies have gone,” Kitty hugged Ruth closer as she struggled to break free.
They half carried, half dragged Ruth towards the yawning mouth of the barn. The hay-filled building would be more soundproof and help to muffle her cries. They laid her down in a pile of hay and stood looking at one another, unsure of what to do.
“He said he would take me with him,” Ruth sobbed. “I was to meet him at dawn, but he had already left.”
“I knew this would happen,” Kitty whispered to Joan. “There was something not right about that man.”
She knelt down beside Ruth and took her hand.
“It’s going to be all right,” Kitty said.
“No, it’s never going to be all right again,” Ruth took a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and wiped her nose. “I loved him, I really loved him and he said he loved me.”
“Aye, they all say that,” Joan shook her head at the girl’s ignorance.
“I thought he meant it,” Ruth’s voice was hoarse from crying. “We were supposed to get married. I ran down the road trying to find him, but there was no sign of the caravans.”
For a while the two women sat beside her and offered what little comfort they could until Joan said.
“I’ll have to go back inside. The Mister will be up soon and expecting his breakfast.”
Kitty walked with her to the door of the barn.
“What am I going to do with her?” She looked back to where Ruth lay.
“Keep her here until he’s gone. I’ll come back once the coast is clear and we can get her to her room. At least the Mister doesn’t know about this and that’s one thing we can be thankful for.”
“He may find out,” Kitty’s eyes were wide with fear. “She’s been sick these last few mornings.”
“No,” Joan brought a hand to her mouth to still her cry. “You don’t think…?” She left the sentence unfinished.
“I do,” Kitty felt her own eyes fill up with tears.
From inside the barn Ruth sobbed and cried out.
“I don’t want to live any more. I want to die.”
“She should be careful what she wishes for,” Joan said. “When the Mister finds out there’s going to be murder.”
Ruth’s pregnancy became impossible to disguise and by her sixth month her brother was beginning to notice that something was wrong. He teased her about growing fat, but his eyes strayed from the few morsels of food on her plate to her ashen face. Joan and Kitty stood outside the dining room door and listened as he roared with rage. “How could she bring such shame on the family?” He bellowed.
Ruth sobbed and begged him to forgive her, but he would not be placated.
“You’ll name the culprit,” John said. “And by god he’ll marry you.”
The women edged closer to the door and tried to hear Ruth’s reply, but it was obvious from what happened next that she told him the truth. There was the sound of furniture being overthrown and the door crashed open.
“I suppose you knew about this?”
He didn’t wait to hear the women’s answer, but rushed by them and out in to the yard. He returned in seconds holding a bamboo cane.
“Please, Mister,” Kitty tried to catch his arm as he passed, but he shook her aside.
He went in to the dining room where Ruth still sat in shocked silence and slammed the door. Her screams mingled with the swishing of the cane as it fell again and again until the women could bear it no longer.
“Stop,” Kitty screamed, and grabbed on to the arm welding the cane.
He was so strong he lifted her off the floor, but she held on.
“You’ll kill her and the child,” Joan said, as she helped the injured girl to her feet.
“Good, I hope she dies,” John was crying with temper. “Her and her bastard.”
He was so overcome with rage and disgust that he made no attempt to stop the women as they led his sister from the room. They took her upstairs and pulled off the torn clothes to get a better view of the damage. Ruth’s back, legs and arms were criss-crossed with the marks of the cane. In many place the skin had split and was bleeding. Joan went to the kitchen to fetch the things she needed to tend to the injuries.
“What’s going to become of me?” Ruth looked up at Kitty.
“I don’t know pet,” Kitty reached out and brushed a lock of Ruth’s sweat-soaked hair from off her forehead. “We’ll have to wait until your brother calms down.”
“Look,” Ruth lifted the blanket that the women had covered her with. “He even hit the baby.”
An angry-looking welt was raised high on Ruth’s swollen belly.
“The baby will be all right,” Kitty assured her, but she was wrong in that assumption.
John did relent in the end. After much pleading from Kitty and Joan he decided that his sister could remain in the house, but she was never to step foot outside the property again. When the child was born it was to be sent away for adoption. Ruth had no other choice than to agree to these conditions at a time when there was no outside help for women in her position. From the moment John learned about his sister’s pregnancy, he never spoke another word to her unless absolutely necessary and this would remain so up until the day he died over forty years later. From then it became a house of whispers and long, dead silences. It was worse after the birth of Eve, Ruth’s daughter. Kitty and Joan looked down at the newborn and crossed themselves with fear. It was obvious from the child’s face that something serious was wrong. They went to the Mister and begged him to get a doctor, but he refused. Still, the child lived.
“Such a strange-looking baby,” Ruth stared down at her sleeping child. “Don’t you think she looks like a fairy?”
“If you say so,” Kitty did not want to voice her opinion.
The child would remain with her mother as John realised no one would want to adopted, what he considered, a monster. He spoke to Ruth just the once on the day after Eve’s birth.
“Your baby is cursed,” he told the distressed girl. “You will be reminded every day of your sin, when you look in to her face.”
As the time passed the child’s disabilities became more obvious. She was unable to sit up unaided until she was a year old. It was later still when she took her first tentative steps on legs not designed for walking. Ruth saw none of the child’s flaws and greeted each action as any new mother would, but soon even she had to admit that there was something very wrong with her daughter. Eve’s eyes were mere slits and a large forehead dominated her little face. Her mouth was twisted so her teeth grew crooked. She dribbled when she tried to form words that never made any sense. Despite her suffering Eve was a pleasant child who thrived on the love and support of her mother and the other women. She knew nothing but love as she played around the house and the small section of garden that John made available to her. There were never any callers at the farm now as John had erected No Trespassing notices. He had also sold all of his stock, so there was no need to take on any more seasonal staff. He planted crops where the sheep had once grazed and other than the few farm hands tied to the cottages on the estate; there was no one to witness what he called his shame. Eve had no idea who he was, and other than running from him whenever he appeared, she stayed out of his way. Something primeval warned that he was a bad man. Sadly, this was true. His sister’s shame had changed him and he was bitter and spiteful. The anger he felt came to a head one particularly bad winter when the trees hung heavy with snow and the crying of the bitter north wind heralded many to their graves. Eve’s coughing echoed through the house until he was forced to shout at his sister to “keep that bastard quiet.”
Ruth sat in bed holding the child and listening to the wheezing that accompanied each gasping breath. Kitty and Joan gave what little money they had and sent for a doctor who diagnosed pneumonia. The child would need medicine and certain foods if she was to recover. Despite the cold, John had forbidden the women to light the fire in his sister’s room so the air was freezing, the bedclothes damp to the touch. This was just one of the many tortures he liked to inflict on Ruth and her child. Worried to distraction, Ruth went to him one evening as he sat beside the blazing kitchen fire. She explained her need for money and begged him to help her. Without replying John stood and went in to the room he used as an office. He returned carrying an old shoe box and sat back down beside the fire. Ruth felt her heart swell with relief when he removed the lid to expose its contents. Layer upon layer of banknotes lay inside.
“I don’t need much,” Kitty and Joan heard her say. “A few pounds will make all the difference. Just enough to buy the medicine that Eve needs.”
“Let me show you exactly what I think of you and your bastard,” John said.
Ruth watched in open-mouthed horror as he picked handfuls of the notes out of the box and threw them on the fire. The green of the pound notes, the red of the ten shilling notes were scattered in to the fire where eager fingers of flame reached out for them. She ran sobbing from the room unable to watch such an evil act, sure that because of it her daughter would die. John did not get his wish and Eve, despite his worst efforts, recovered. She lived in to her fifteenth year and during that time the women never left her side. They surrounded her with love and guarded her like feral dogs. It was because of this care that she lived as long as she did. It was obvious from her disabilities that she was not meant to reach adulthood and her passing was a gentle one. She went to sleep with the feel of her mother’s kiss on her cheek, but she never awoke. Ruth was by now in her thirties and all signs of the beauty she once was had flown. The death of her daughter aged her still as she mourned her loss for the rest of her life. Kitty and Joan paid for the small plot in the graveyard and other than Ruth; they were the only ones there to mourn a child that few knew existed.
Decades passed, seasons came and went, but everything stayed the same within the house. Joan became too old to continue with her work and went to live with her sister in the next county. The loss of her going was hard on Ruth and Kitty and they moved like silent ghosts between the kitchen and the bedrooms, the centre of their world. What money they had came from the few geese and turkeys the Mister allowed Kitty to breed in one of the outbuildings. Any leftover milk was churned to make butter that she sold when she went to market each Saturday. John no longer cared where his sister went so Ruth had free rein within the yard, but she went no further. She was terrified of the neighbours prying eyes and pitying looks.
John became ill. It started off as a cold and then, like his poor, neglected niece it turned in to something much worse.
“It’s the consumption, I’m afraid,” the doctor informed the women.
Everyone knew about the disease called Tuberculosis and the way it ravaged the sufferer’s body.
“It’s bad,” the doctor continued. “I can’t see him lasting for much longer. The only thing you can do is keep him warm and try to get him to drink plenty of fluids.”
Kitty felt her blood turn cold when she saw the way Ruth’s eyes hardened at the news.
“We’ll see to him,” she assured the doctor.
That night the women, both by now in their early sixties, sat by the fire and listened to the barking coughing overhead.
“I’ll take him up a cup of tea,” Kitty eased her way out of the chair.
“Stay there,” Ruth waved her back in to her seat. “Remember what he did when I asked him for help?”
Over the next few days Kitty tried to smuggle the odd pitcher of water in to the sick man’s room, but more often than not Ruth stopped her.
“I’ll see to him,” she told the frightened woman.
John’s bed was awash with blood. It stained his pillows and sheets and had caked on to his slivery whiskers where it lay like fire on snow.
“Will you get me a drink for god’s sake,” he rasped up at his sister.
“You want some water?” she held out the pitcher.
“Yes, please, I’m dying of thirst,” his lined tongue licked parched lips in anticipation.
“Here’s your water,” Ruth tipped the pitcher and allowed the water to cascade on to the floor.
Her brother looked up at her in confusion.
“Remember the night I came to you asking for money for my child,” her body shook with anger. “Remember what you did with the money?”
She didn’t wait for a reply, but hobbled away as fast as her aching bones would allow. By morning he was dead.
As his only surviving relative Ruth inherited the estate. Those who still worked on the farm were paid off and given the deeds to the cottages they lived in. There were sufficient funds to keep Ruth and her faithful Kitty in comfort till the end of their days and at first they enjoyed the freedom this gave them. The luxuries they had so long been denied were ordered and the wine cellar restocked. The first few months after John’s death were not the happiest that Ruth had ever known, because she would never be truly happy again, but there was a sense of peace. Until the anniversary of his death. It was winter and a fire burned brightly in Ruth’s room. Outside an angry wind screamed around the house and the first patters of snow rapped on the window pane. She was sleepy after a good dinner and a few glasses of port, when the gentle rapping on her door roused her.
“I think there’s someone downstairs,” Kitty poked her head in.
Living in such an isolated area, the terror of intruders was never far from their mind. Slipping on her dressing gown, Ruth reached for the loaded shotgun she kept under her bed.
“Stay behind me,” she whispered, as they made their way down the creaking stairs.
The hallway was dark and freezing, much colder than seemed possible. Their breaths rose in white plumes before them as they inched their way towards the light that was coming from under the kitchen door.
“Did you leave a light on?” Ruth whispered.
“No, and the fire was low, so there must be someone in there,” Kitty’s said.
Placing herself in the centre of the closed door, Ruth raised the rifle.
“Open it now,” she whispered.
Kitty pushed hard on the wood until it swung open and bounced against the wall behind it. The sound of the crash hung in the air, but did nothing to distract the intruder.
“Sweet Mother of God,” Kitty brought a trembling hand to her heart.
Ruth lowered the gun and staggered against the wall, where she stayed leaning for support. Neither woman could believe what they were witnessing. The fire was blazing as it had in the past and seated before it was the ghost of John Nesbit. His face was as young as it had been on the dreadful night and his actions unchanged as he threw handfuls of banknotes in to the leaping flames. Once again the green and red fluttered in some unholy draught before being shrivelled to ash. Seemingly pleased with his work he turned to where the old women stood and his smile was a leer of pure evil.
How long the vision lasted Kitty doesn’t remember, but it faded within seconds she imagines. I shivered and tried not to look out at the darkening sky. The pattering of rain on the window seemed amplified in the quiet of the kitchen.
“How’s that for a story?” Tom asked.
I shook my head, too overcome to speak. Kitty sipped at her whiskey before wiping a tear from her eye.
“Not done with tormenting her in life, he wouldn’t leave her alone in death,” she sighed. “Every year after that, on the anniversary of his death he comes back to haunt her. Well, not any more,” she looked again at the empty chair beside the long-dead fire.
“Why didn’t she leave?” I asked.
“She was as stubborn as he was, and it was only the one night.”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying. Only the one night!
“I used to lock myself in my room, but Ruth, she went down and faced him every time,” Kitty said.
“It’s terrible,” I said. “And in a way they were both cruel.”
“Oh, I make no excuse for Ruth, but tell me something,” Kitty leaned closer to me. “What would you be capable of if someone harmed your child?”
I knew she was right. None of us knows what we are capable of in such circumstances, but still, I like to think I’d feel some compassion.
“It’s stopped raining,” Tom looked towards the sky and small ray of sunlight trying to part the dark clouds. “We better be off. Do you want to come with us, Kitty?”
“No, I have a few things to sort out here and Timmy Rush is coming to collect me and take me to the station.”
I shook her small hand, the flesh paper thin so I felt the bones beneath.
“I hope you’ll be happy,” I said.
“I will, child,” she assured me. “Ruth left me well provided for and the sale of the land will make sure I never want for nothing.”
“What are you going to do with all the furniture?”
There were some fine antique bits and pieces lying around and it seemed a shame to let them rot.
“I’m sending the bigger pieces to auction,” Kitty said. “You’re welcome to take something as a keepsake if you like.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I didn’t know Ruth well enough for that.”
“You’ll see to that?” Kitty nodded at the chair in the corner.
“I will indeed,” Tom assured her.
With that we left her and walked out in to the welcoming coolness of the evening breeze. The world had that fresh washed feel that it does after the rain and it was glad to be free of the cloying confines of the kitchen.
“It’s a strange old place,” Tom said, sensing my unease.
We stopped for a moment and looked back at the house. I could have been taken by its beauty, had I not known its history. It is beginning to show signs of neglect and nettles grow along the walls. Once we walked out through the gate I was aware of the silent fields surrounding us and imagined the past ghosts of grazing sheep.
“I remember I saw Ruth once,” I linked my arm through Tom’s. “She was in the shop in the village. Tell me about her?”
“No one knew her really well other than Kitty,” he said. “She seemed old before her time. I can’t say I spoke to her more than a handful of times and only then to pass the time of day. She had a nice face. It showed little of her suffering, but she had a resigned look. I imagined her as kind, I don’t know why. She appeared to be one of those women who wouldn’t dream of putting anyone to trouble on her behalf, do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I remember her as tiny and sort of bent,” I said. “She was dressed all in black when I saw her.”
“That was the way she always dressed,” Tom said. “She never stopped mourning the death of her daughter. In later years her shoulders were slumped under the weight of her grief. It was a sad, little life.”
“What does Kitty want you to do with the chair?” I asked.
“She wants me to burn it,” he smiled. “She’s afraid that if it goes to auction it will be haunted.”
“Don’t you think that’s possible?”
“No, he’s done with tormenting her now. Well, in life that is. None of us know what happens in the next world.”
Our voices startled the birds as we walked beneath the archway of trees. They rustled the leaves and squawked their annoyance at our intrusion. The canopy provided by the trees, that I once thought pleasing now seemed to be closing in on us. The darting shapes of the birds overhead provoked anxiety rather than pleasure, and I was glad when we reached the end of the lane and heard the normal, everyday sound of traffic.
Copyright©2012 Gemma Mawdsley
- Purgatory Part 2 (gemmamawdsley.wordpress.com)
I was asked today why people are so interested in the paranormal and why ghosts are said to haunt places where terrible acts of violence have occurred. It’s a question I get asked often and after listening to one of our big radio stations it’s easy to understand why people want to believe in something beyond our mortal world. The host was speaking to people who had been attacked for no reason other than the attacker or attackers was out for blood. In most cases the attacker got off with a slap on the wrist or the victim was too traumatised to pursue the case through the courts. Is it any wonder, when the arm of the law is so short, that we want to believe in some sort of justice, even if it does comes from beyond the grave?
Body and Soul, a story of Possession.
I wondered, as I drove along the narrow, twisting roads on my way to visit my old friend Tom, why the belief in the paranormal is so readily accepted in the countryside. Is it the absence of streetlights that allowed the mind to wander, or the tranquil way of life, uninterrupted by the chaos of city living? In the silence of the bogs and deserted roads one is lulled into a meditative state and is it at such times that the wind whistling across the quiet fields carries within its cries the voices from another world? Whatever the reason the people live happily side by side with all sorts of supernatural beings, be they ghost, spirit, Banshee or Leprechaun.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached Toms cottage and the light was already beginning to dim. It was a stark contrast to the brilliant sunshine I’d left behind at home and I saw from the thin curl of smoke from the chimney that it was colder here. This was evident the moment I stepped out of the car and so I leaned in and pulled my coat from the passenger seat. Tom must have heard me drive up, because as I was fixing my collar the cottage door opened and Jip, his old Jack Russell dog bounded out to greet me with a series of barks and yelps.
“How are you old fellow?” I patted his head and noticed how patchy his coat was. Like his owner he’s showing his age. Rummaging in my bag, I found the pack of dog biscuits and fed him what would be the first of many.
“That’s cupboard love,” Tom joked, as he watched Jip slobbering over me. “How are you girl?”
The arms that hugged me were surprisingly strong and the wool of his jumper felt coarse against my cheek. It smelt familiar of Old Spice aftershave, wood smoke and the earthy scent of the turf he used to power the range.
“I’m fine, Tom, never better,” I assured him.
He always takes a moment to study my face, as though checking to see if I’m telling the truth.
“Aye, well you look all right,” he was satisfied with what he saw. “Come inside and get warm.”
Jip followed at our heels. Every time I enter the small cottage I am overwhelmed by the scent of yesteryear. If I close my eyes I’m a child again and the worries of the world far beyond me. Everyone should have a place like this, somewhere they can become enveloped by an old horse-hair stuffed armchair and bask in the warmth radiating from an old range cooker.
Leaving no time for chit chat, Tom sat down opposite me and said.
“I was talking to the lads in the pub the other night about which story I would tell you about next and I had all but forgotten the one I have for you until old Tim Rodgers reminded me. Do you know the old Pettigrew’s place?”
“The old house at the top of Casey’s lane?” I asked.
“That’s the one,” he said. “It’s so far off the beaten track I all, but forgot about it until Tim reminded me. There’s a terrifying story attached to it, the house I mean and it’s said to be haunted.”
In all honesty there’s not one abandoned building that’s not haunted according to Tom. I smiled at the thought and he grew annoyed with me.
“I’m telling you now and you needn’t believe me if you don’t want to, but I heard the tale from my father and he wasn’t one for making things up.”
“I believe you,” I held up my hands in mock surrender.
“Good,” he mumbled. “But even if you don’t now, you will before the night is over.”
At this, I felt the first prickle of fear on the back of my neck. Jip jumped up on my lap and I begged Tom to let him be, when he roared at the dog to get down. I was glad of the warmth of his little body and the steady rise and fall of his breathing as he drifted to sleep, was comforting as Tom began his tale.
“It was in 1938 that the last of the Pettigrew’s died. Trevor was his name and he was in his ninetieth year when he passed away. I was ten-years-old at the time and my father acted as a sort of handyman for him as old age and rheumatism kept the old man indoors for most of the year. My father would do the odd bit of shopping for him and my mother went up now and then to wave a duster around. There was no payment involved,” Tom said. “It was just being neighbourly to someone in need. My father was with him when he breathe his last and I still remember the night when Pettigrew died and the look on my father’s face when he came home after making sure the old man didn’t die alone. I was too young to understand at the time and imagined my father’s ashen face for that of tiredness, but what I do know is there was something in his eyes that I’ve never seen before and I know only too well its meaning now. He was haunted,” Tom stopped, and shook his head at the memory. “Haunted by what he’d heard that night. It was many years later when he told me the full story that I realised the horror he must have endured as the old man clutched his hand with bony fingers and begged him for help, but I’m getting beyond myself,” Tom said. “I’ll tell you the story from the beginning and then we’ll be off.”
“To the house?”
“We’ve two stops to make first, so the house will be our last call,” he settled back in his chair.
Great, I thought, looking towards the window and the way the shadows crept across the floor as the light faded. If he didn’t hurry up it would be dark before he was finished. Outside the wind had picked up and its rumbling in the chimney was the only sound within the room as Tom began.
Milly Pettigrew hated her stepmother. Stepmother! The title was a joke since Lily was only six years older than her. Her own mother had died giving birth and for years her father had doted on his only child until Lily came into the picture. She was the niece of one of their neighbours and it was on one of her visits that she was introduced to Milly’s father. Things were decided rather quickly in those days and within three months of this first meeting; Lily was ensconced as mistress of their home. It wasn’t that she was unkind to her new stepdaughter, not at all. She went out of her way to make friends with the sixteen-year-old, but to no avail. Milly’s nose was firmly put out of joint by Lily’s arrival and the fact that she was a beauty did little to help her cause. Fair and rosy cheeked, her looks were the opposite too Milly’s and while she never considered herself a beauty, Milly knew she faded into the background the minute her stepmother entered a room. Having decided at the beginning to hate Lily, her father’s pleas for her to give her new mother a chance fell on deaf ears and for the next two years the house vibrated with the suppressed tension between the two women. This was to change in the year1848 when Lily gave birth to a son, Trevor. From the moment Milly laid eyes on the baby she was smitten. Having decided long ago that she was not the marrying kind, she saw her new stepbrother as a way of easing her longing for a child of her own. When the trauma of giving birth proved Lily’s undoing. Milly felt none of her father’s grief as he returned to the status of widower. As the boy grew he knew nothing of the loss of his mother, as Milly’s care and attention made up for any neglect he might have known. Once the boy was weaned and the wet nurse sent on her way, Milly took total control of his care; refusing her father’s offer to hire a nanny and later on a tutor. Every waking moment of the boy’s life was spent in her presence. His bedroom was next door to hers, so should he waken in the night, Milly’s face was the first thing he saw. Many spoke of her dedication to the boy, but to their father, there was something not quite right. He tried to encourage his daughter to mix socially, even going so far as to invite eligible young men to the house, but it was useless. Milly showed no interest in any of them and during their short visits it was obvious to her father that her ears strained to pick up any sound from the nursery overhead. When Trevor was six-years-old, his father decided he must be sent away to school. It pained him to send the boy away, but he wanted more than anything that his son should be free of his stepsister’s influence. Milly went quite mad when this was suggested.
“Trevor is not well enough to be away from home,” the servants heard her say. “He favours his mother in that way and he had never very strong; you know that father.”
Her father would not be swayed and sent orders that the boy’s trunks were to be packed at once for the journey.
“It’s still not known what happened that night,” Tom said. “But her father was found dead at the bottom of the stairs next morning. Rumour had it that Milly had pushed him, but there was no solid evidence to prove this and the boy remained at home.”
It was no surprise when the will was read to hear that her father had left the bulk of his money to his only son, to be kept in trust until his 25th year. Milly received a large sum of money and tenancy for life in her family home. The money made her a target for those in search of a wife with a large dowry and the whispers about her father’s strange death did nothing to repulse those eager or desperate enough to make the match. Like many before them, they were driven away and left in no doubt that any further efforts on their behalf to win her hand were be spurned.
“I would like to say the boy thrived as the years passed,” Tom said. “But that was not the case. He was a delicate child and I remember even in his later years, his face was unlined and ashen, as though carved from marble. He was very thin, riddled with some wasting disease, my mother always said, but I don’t believe that was the cause. It’s true he favoured his mother in looks and his hair was a white as his complexion, but there the similarities ended. There were no roses in his cheeks and his eyes had a lacklustre look that frightened me.”
Milly’s obsession with her younger stepbrother showed no sign of weakening over the years and even though it was normal for a young man to try and break the ties with home, she refused to release him. Every time he made a bid for freedom, she found a way to stop him. His health was the barrier that kept him prisoner and it was said that she used all sorts of potions to keep him weak and in need of her nursing. She didn’t have it all her own way though and during one dreadful winter when the influenza was raging; she had to take to her bed for over a month. Without her meddling, Trevor rallied and was seen out and about with the few friends he had. It was during this time he met the love of his life. Mildred Wilson was the daughter of a local farmer and though beneath Trevor in breeding, the couple fell in love. Mildred’s parents were delighted when he proposed and despite his delicate appearance, they thought him a great catch for their daughter. It is left to our imagination how Milly felt when she heard the news, but she put on a great show of inviting the Wilson family to her home to celebrate the engagement. The dinner that night was the talk of the district for years to come, as she had delicacies delivered from all over the country, along with crates of the finest wines and champagne. The dining room was ablaze with hundreds of candles and the scent of rare flowers perfumed the air as they took their place at the table that night. Milly was looking her most charming in a new dress and coloured jewels hung from her bouffant hair. Outwardly, she gave the appearance of someone delighted with their lot, but her stomach churned each time she caught the eye of Trevor’s fiancée and the smile she gave her held little warmth. After the meal was over, she urged the two young lovers to take a walk in the gardens, with the excuse that she would like to get to know her soon to be in-laws a little better.
“This is most pleasant,” she smiled, leading the couple into the sitting room. “We can speak freely now that the young people are out of the way.”
“Indeed,” Mrs Wilson said, a little confused by her meaning.
After the champagne glasses were refilled and the butler left the room, Milly put her plan into action.
“I was quite relieved when I heard that Mildred had agreed to marry my brother,” she smiled. “I must admit, I thought I’d never get him off my hands.”
“Really?” Mrs Wilson asked. “Why was that?”
“Surely you know about his health problems?” Milly acted surprised.
“I imagined him a little delicate I must admit,” Mrs Wilson said. “But thought nothing more of it.”
Milly sighed, and showed all the sorrow of one who has to break bad news.
“He’s not just a little delicate,” she brought her handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed at imaginary tears. “My brother is very ill. He had the consumption you know?”
“We were not aware of that,” Mr Wilson spoke for the first time.
“Yes, we made a great show of visiting the continent two years ago, but the truth is that my darling boy was in a hospital that deals with such cases. I know I can trust you to tell no one about this, and as we are soon to be related by marriage I know you will keep our secret.”
The Wilson’s knew about the brother and sister’s trip abroad, as did everyone living in the locality, but they had never imagined the dark secret behind it. Milly hid her smile as she watched them digest the lie.
“He is quite recovered now though?” Mrs Wilson said.
“Oh yes, quite recovered,” Milly gushed. “And with a little luck, he might stay that way.”
“You mean it can recur?”
“Unfortunately that is the case. Trevor’s consumption is inherited you see? His mother was very young when she died of it and the doctors have said it is passed down. We must hope that any children the dear pair have will not be afflicted in that way.”
“Yes, indeed,” Mrs Wilson muttered, as she eyed the door, hoping to hear her daughter return so they could make their excuses to leave.
Unlike many at that time, the Wilson’s were not willing to sell their daughter to the highest bidder and the engagement was called off the very next day. Mildred refused to give Trevor a reason for her change of heart and did as her parents urged and said nothing about his illness. Though she loved Trevor with all her heart, she didn’t relish the idea of early widowhood and raising sickly children. Her decision broke Trevor’s heart and though Milly tried her best to console him, he knew deep down, she had something to do with his pain. He threw himself into tending to the business of the estate and spent as much time as possible away from the house. Milly showed no sign of suffering at his rejection and still gushed over him at every opportunity.
“Why didn’t he just leave?” I asked Tom. “He was rich enough and could have gone wherever he pleased.”
“He was a broken man after Mildred called off the engagement,” Tom said. “I think he hadn’t the heart to leave. Now I’m getting to the crux of the story and I’ll tell you what happened the night he died.”
The ticking of the old mantle clock sounded louder and the evening shadows crept closer still as I waited for Tom to finish his story.
That’s all for this week dear reader. I’ll be posting the second part of Body and Soul next Friday. Have a good week and when you turn off the lights tonight, as you settle down to sleep, take no notice of the dark corners of your room. They are, what they appear to be, just empty pockets of darkness or are they? Sleep tight.
Copyright © 2012 Gemma Mawdsley
Now available in print at the link below.
It’s been a busy, but productive week. My new novel Whispers went on sale at Amazon on Wednesday in ebooks and jumped millions of places overnight. The paperback edition will be available in about two weeks time. A big thank you to all my faithful readers and I look forward to reading your reviews on this. I will have a new ghost story for you on Friday next the 6 Th and the title above is a hint to its content. I’ll keep you guessing until then. Have a great week.
The room was icy cold, as cold as the body lying in the open coffin. Jeffery Power glanced at the prone figure before walking over to the window. The rain had stopped hours before, but there was no let up in the weather as the first flakes of snow stuck to the glass. Jeffery’s hands were numb, the skin on his fingers split and sore, but he smiled despite the pain. In fact, he rather enjoyed it, peeling back the dead skin and shuddering when he drew blood. Few things gave him much pleasure these days and his body was too frail for the pursuits of his youth. Still, I’m doing better than you; he sneered and walked over to the coffin. His grand-aunt Milly’s body resembled that of some ancient mummy. She had never been robust in life, but death had reduced her to a mere husk, as though her very essence had been sucked from her and she might, at any moment, dissolve into dust. Her cheeks were sunken in, as were her eye sockets, the only thing about her that resembled anything human, was the slight, secret smile on her thin lips.
“You think you’ve escaped me, don’t you old girl,” Jeffrey’s voice echoed in the stillness of the empty house. “But I’ll find a way. I’ll follow you into the grave and continue with our little game.”
He walked back to the window, his footsteps hallow on the bare floorboards. He had never depended on another human being before, but he had to admit he would miss the old bat. She had supplied him with endless years of fun and the games they played kept him amused, but that was now in the past and he would need someone else to help him pass the hours; someone stronger than his aunt, someone who did not scare as easily as she had. Milly stayed with him because she had no where else to go. A dried up old spinster, Jeffery called her and he was right. She was plain and stick-thin, one leg shrunken from the effects of polio and not a penny to her name, other than the old age pension, she had remained under his roof believing it was better the devil you know, but there were none worse than Jeffery Power. Had she the courage, she would have left years before, but instead she remained to endure his cruelty until in her ninety-second year death had released her.
Jeffery rubbed the grime from the inside of the glass and peered out into the gloom. His new secretary was due to arrive at any moment and he expected to see the headlights of Ross’s old car appearing in the distance. Frank O Connor, his solicitor, had told him everything he needed to know about the man and Jeffery licked his lips at the memory of his words.
“He’s suffered a lot over the past two years,” O Connor said. “His nerves are not the best. He’s taking medication and he’s otherwise sound, so I think he might suit you.”
“Indeed he will, Mr Wallace” Jeffery spoke aloud. “I think he will suit me very well. What do you think old girl?”
He didn’t bother to turn to look at the corpse.
A noise from behind made him spin round. The room was wreath in deepening shadows that crept along the walls and took shelter in the dark corners. He felt his pulse quicken, as he walked over to the wall and turned on the overhead light. The bulbs in the chandelier were too weak to dispel the gloom, but they lit the centre of the room and threw the coffin into stark relief. He prowled around the walls, his eyes darting along the floor, ears straining, waiting for the sound to come again. He stopped and stood frozen, but the only sounds came from the crying of the wind and the humming of his blood in his ears. Perhaps, I made a mistake after all, he thought. Father Bob, the local priest, had fallen and broken his leg. It needed a small operation to repair the bone and he wouldn’t be back for three days. It seemed pointless to send for someone to replace him as the church only opened on Sunday’s now that the congregation had dwindled down to a handful.
“Send you’re aunt’s body to Burke’s Funeral Home,” the old priest suggested, before the ambulance carried him off. “I’ll be back in no time and I can perform the burial then. Your aunt was a good, god-fearing woman and I’d like to do this one last thing for her.”
Burke’s Funeral Home indeed, Jeffery huffed. Did the old man have any idea what those places charged just to have a body lying in state? No, he would keep the old bat at home, but only after choosing the cheapest coffin and the most basic of the undertaker’s services.
The taxi’s headlight lit the room as it drove into the courtyard. Jeffrey, forgetting his uneasiness, hurried down the hallway to the front door. Mike Wallace stepped out of the car and stared open-mouthed at the house. Frank mentioned it was a manor, but this was much more impressing than he had imagined. The main, three story house was vast with numerous small building flanking either side of the courtyard. A fountain, dried up now, but nonetheless awe inspiring stood at the centre, but the overall impression was one of faded grandeur. Flurries of snow blew against his face, but the cold was beyond him as he walked up the steps to the front door.
“Mike Wallace, I take it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Mike held out his hand, but his greeting was rebuffed.
“I’m Jeffrey Price,” his new boss stepped back to allow him to enter. “I’ll show you to your room and we can get down to business as soon as you’re settled in.”
The hallway was a vast cavern, the walls lined with mahogany wainscoting that flowed down to a wooden floor pitted with the imprint of passing feet. Mike’s mouth felt dry, but this was an effect of the pills he took and his tongue felt like sandpaper when he licked his parched lips. If his welcome at the manor was not all he had expected nothing could have prepared him for the sight that met him when they passed the door of one of rooms on the ground floor. Mike stopped his eyes wide as he gazed at the scene before him. His employer, sensing he was no longer following, stopped and walked back to where he stood.
“That’s old aunt Milly,” the voice made the hairs on Mike’s neck stand. “She’ll be with us for another few days, I fear. The parish priest was careless enough to injure his leg and we must wait for him to return before we can plant the old dear. Until then we are forced to live with the smell of coffin varnish and the musky scent of death.”
Mike turned to look at the man in horror. He thought back to Frank’s words about the man standing before him being evil. Was it possible, he wondered? There was a glint of something not quite right in his employer’s ashen face, a sort of gloating at his discomfort. As though sensing this, Jeffrey smiled.
“Not a very hospitable welcome I know, but I am in mourning and not quite myself.”
“Of course,” Mike tried to control the chattering of his teeth. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Jeffrey held out his hand. “Shall we proceed?”
If it were not for the stout banister, Mike doubted he would have managed the climb up the once ornate staircase. The upper hallway was a dark and forbidding as the one below and the dim bulbs lining the walls did little to light the way.
“You’re in here,” Jeffrey opened the door to one of the rooms and walked inside.
Mike followed and saw the room was much like he’d seen of the house so far, neglected and in need of a loving touch. He dumped his holdall on the bed and its impact on the blankets dislodged a layer of dust that floating into the air and caused Jeffrey to wave his hand in front of his face.
“Old aunt Milly was never one for housekeeping,” he smiled. “But it’s clean and I’m sure you will soon settle in. Come downstairs when you’re ready. I’ll be in the library; it’s the room opposite the one housing the coffin.”
There was a door in the wall leading to an adjoining room.
“Where is your room?” Mike asked.
“I’m at the opposite end of the house,” Jeffrey said. “Through there is old aunt Milly’s room. We didn’t like to live in one another’s pockets, so we stayed as far apart as possible. By the way, I would prefer we keep our working relationship on a formal level. You will address me as Mr Price and I will do you the same courtesy”
Mike was still staring at the wall dividing him from the dead woman’s room, when his door closed and he was left alone in the silence. His host was kind enough to have placed a water jug and glass on a table beside the bed and Mike’s hand shook as he poured the water. His throat was so dry he almost choked as he tried to swallow the two tranquilisers and he gagged as he gulped more of the cold liquid. I can do this, he thought; it’s only for a week. He had always had a terrible fear of the dead. Even as a little boy he would run and hide if he saw a hearse coming and now here he was in the middle of nowhere, in a strange house with a corpse.
Jeffrey managed to contain his laughter until he reached the library. Throwing himself down on the couch, he buried his face in a cushion as his body shook and tears rolled down his face. He had hoped that his new secretary would be easy to manipulate, but this was much more than he’d hoped for. The man was a bag of nerves; one could almost feel the thin strings holding his last shred of sanity to a failing mind. How long would he last? It was a challenge to imagine, but not very long, that was for sure.
Jeffrey had composed himself by the time Mike tentative knock sounded on the door.
“Have you settled in all right?” Jeffrey asked.
“Yes, I’m ready to begin when you are,” Mike was unaware of his glazed expression as the pills did their work, but it was not lost on Jeffrey.
“I have been remiss,” Jeffrey said. “In my sadness I have forgotten my manners,” he walked to the door and beckoned Mike to follow. “You’ll no doubt want to pay your respects?”
Mike felt sick as he followed his employer into the room opposite. Jeffrey stopped when he reached the coffin and waited. Mike stayed as far back as he could and averted his eyes.
“Come closer man,” Jeffrey’s voice boomed.
Mike edged neared, but kept his eyes on the floor.
“Can you see the family resemblance?” Jeffrey taunted.
Mike’s eyes were filled with tears of dread as he looked at the body in the coffin. Despite his terror and the corpse’s fearful features, there was something terrible sad about the still figure, something that touched his soul and allowed the tears to run unaided.
“Come, come now old chap,” Jeffrey smiled. “There’s no need for such sentiment. Old Milly wouldn’t like it and we don’t want to upset her.”
Was he mad, Mike wondered; why would he worry about upsetting the dead woman?
“She loved this old house you see?” Jeffrey noticed his frown. “Vowed she would never leave it,” he leaned over the coffin and brushed a stray, grey hair from the old lady’s forehead. “I swear, I’ve heard her footsteps, but it was probably my mind playing tricks. Come, we have work to do.”
The next few hours flew as Mike kept his mind on the multitude of papers and bills that need filing and placed in order. His employer had placed a small desk opposite his own and Mike was aware of his constant presence. No matter how hard he tried to concentrate his mind kept drifting back to opposite room and the cold, still form of the old lady. She resembled her nephew in many ways, Mike thought. They were both petite, almost bird-like in both height and stature. This may have been becoming in a woman, but it gave Jeffrey a rather effeminate look and this perhaps, went a long way to explaining his strange character. It was close tomidnightwhen Jeffrey finally decided they were done for the day. He had left the room only once during those long hours and that was to return with a tray baring a meagre repast that was to serve as their dinner. A small tray of ham, its edges curling from age or exposure, Mike didn’t like to think of either and some bread, its crust showing the first sign of mould. Mike pleaded an upset stomach and settled for the weak brew Jeffrey called tea. His stomach revolted as he watched his employer wolf down the stale food as though it was prepared by the finest chef and he was glad when he was able to retreat to the sanctuary of his room. He lay on top of the dusty covers and considered his options. The bus to the nearest town ran once a day and the main road was miles away from the manor. He could call for the taxi, but he’s seen no sign of a phone in the house. His finances meant he could no longer afford a mobile phone, but his employer must have one; how else could he communicate with the outside world? Tiny fingers tapped against the window rousing him from his thoughts. He walked over, pushed aside the heavy, brocade curtains and stared out into the snow-covered courtyard. Beyond the house and the white, carpeted fields, there was nothing other than black, endless night. The wind howled and threw small flurries of snow against the glass. Unlike the city, there was nothing to break its onslaught and he imagined it tearing across the barren landscape like of giant beast; pushing aside the pointed rocks and ripping the withered trees from their roots. Allowing the curtains to fall back into place, he went back to the bed. His sleeping pills sat waited and he decided to take two rather than his usual one, but not before making sure his room became a bastion of safety. He had locked the door leading to the hallway, but there was none in the lock to the adjoining room. It might be on the other side, he thought, but did he dare enter the room of the recently dead? If the key was there it would be easy enough to tell, so he knelt down and placed his eye against the keyhole. For a moment he froze his mouth open in a silent scream at the eye staring back at him. Scrambling across the worn carpet on his hands and knees, he reached up for the bottles of pills on the bedside table hoping to find sanctuary in their promise of oblivion. When he woke some hours later he was lying on the bed.
Jeffrey stifled a giggle as he donned his aunt’s wig. This was more fun than he ever imagined. The top button of her ankle-length dress was open and he buttoned this in a false display of modesty. His feet were too big for her shoes, but he doubted his intended victim would notice. Creeping out into the hallway, he tip-toed to Mike’s door and tapped on it.
“Who is it?” The terror was evident in Mike’s voice.
The tapping came again, more insistent this time. Mike slid off the bed and his legs felt like jelly as he stumbled to the door. The dim lights in the hallway were on and lit upon the figure of the woman descending the stairs. It was the same figure he’d seen lying in the coffin. He became a child again as he ran for the refuge of his bed and scurried under it. Curling into a ball, he was unaware of the warmth of the urine staining his pants or the sound of his own sobbing.
“What a lot of fuss about nothing,” the voice was kind. “Come out from there young man.”
Mike peeped through is fingers at the legs just visible below the blankets. They seemed real enough and there was certainly nothing threatening in her words.
“I know this is all very frightening,” she continued,” But if you come out, I can explain it all to you. Come on now, like a good boy.”
Mike stretched and crawled from beneath the bed. The old lady was sitting in one of the chairs beside the dead fire. She looked a little in feature like the woman in the coffin, but there the resemblance ended, as this old lady was pink-cheeked and bright eyed.
“You have no idea how often I’ve prayed for someone to come and help me,” she gestured to the chair opposite hers.
Mike sat and waited wide-eyed for her to continue.
“He’s an evil man, my nephew,” she said. “It’s he who tried to frighten you just now and it’s a game he’s played many times in the past.”
“I thought he had only one aunt?” Mike managed to find his voice.
“He has, the dreadful boy,” she said.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m Millicent of course, though he calls me Milly to annoy.”
“But you’re supposed to be dead.”
“I am dead, young man,” her smile was kind, as she held up a hand to stay his flight. “Now there’s no use rushing for those pills. They’ve done their work”
“I don’t understand,” Mike felt the tears threatening again and he swore his heart had stopped beating.
“Look,” she nodded at the bed.
He turned and looked over at the bed. The empty pill bottles told their own story as his eyes scanned the prone figure on the bed.
“I killed myself?” He tore his gaze away from the flames.
“Yes, I’m afraid life proved too hard for you,” she said.
Mike stared down at his hands. He ran his fingers over his face and the skin felt cold and hard.
“It was my prayers that called you back,” Millicent said. “With your help I can destroy the evil in this house.”
“What will become of me afterwards?” Mike asked.
“I hope you will choose to stay here with me, but if not, you are free to move on. There is none of the restriction we once knew, but this was a happy house once and it can be again.”
Footsteps sounded on the wooden floor below and the listeners heard each footfall as they started to ascend the stairs. They both stood as the sound drew closer.
He meant to frighten you to death,” Millicent said. “He tortured me in that way for decades. This time his plan will not work.”
Mike nodded and offered her his arm. She smiled and linked one small arm in his as they turned towards the door.
Outside in the hallway, Jeffrey did a little dance. His excitement had reached a fever pitch and he was sure he would wet himself. There wasn’t a sound from inside the room and he imagined Mike’s terror as he waited for what was to come next. Jeffrey rattled the doorknob, before slowly starting to turn it. This was going to be the best fun ever; he could feel it in his bones.
It’s been a very busy few months and I haven’t had much time to write my blog, but fear not. I will be posting Part One of my latest ghost story, on Thursday morning 22nd. I hope you enjoy reading it and may I take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas and let’s hope 2012 is kinder to all.
Though I have heard thousands of ghost stories over the years, very few have involved witches and I was intrigued when Bill told me his next tale was about the murder of a witch. Sarah was not in fact a witch, but it suited her accuser to condemn her as such. I met Bill early on Wednesday afternoon and although it was only a little after 3, the light was already beginning to fade. The landscape is dull and tired now, the fields in hibernation, awaiting the spring. The only colour among the greys and browns was from the holly bushes, which are laden down under the weight of scarlet berries. This is a sure sign that the winter is going to be a hard one, Bill said and he is usually right.
“There won’t be a single berry left once the frost sets in,” he said. “The birds will pick the bushes clean. I’ll cut some for you when the time is right.”
I smiled at this small, thoughtful act, but my heart ached. For the first time, Bill has chosen to link his arm through mine as we walk, and I am aware of how fragile he has become over the past few months. As though sensing my thoughts, he said.
“We won’t feel Christmas; what are you buying me?”
“What would you like?” I asked.
“I was thinking of getting myself a young one,” I sensed his smile. “What do you think?”
“I think you’d be dead in a week.”
His laughter echoed in the stillness and caused a few crows to take flight. The sound of their confusion shattered the silence as they wheeled and dipped among the skeleton trees. As we skirted the edge of the bog, I saw the dark outline of the Wailing Wood in the distance and the cry of the curlew added to the overall sense of bleakness. We were on our way to Witch’s Hallow. Though I spent most of my childhood holidays in this place, it amazed me how ignorant I am about the stories and the places associated with them. Bill had told me a little about the place we were about to visit, but as usual he would keep the best part of the story for later, when we were back inside his little cottage and safely out of harm’s way. We walked along narrow laneways, the centres churned into waves of earth by the passing of many tractors and across fields until we reached our destination. In reality the hallow is more of a dip in the land. In a sense it would remind one of the bed of a dried up stream with towering banks on either side and overshadowed by trees. It must look lovely in the summertime, when everything is in bloom, but harsh November has stripped it of its beauty and it is now as barren as the rest of the land.
“It’s just up ahead,” Bill breath came in gasps.
I stopped walking and turned to look at him.
“I’ll rest when we get there,” his grip on my arm spurred me on.
It was impossible to see anything other than the high rise of banks and even though I had no idea what I would see when we finally got there, I did expect something.
“This is it,” Bill let go of my arm and perched on a large rock.
“What?” I looked around me in confusion.
“Sarah’s cottage,” he waved towards a small mound in the earth. “This is where it all happened over two hundred years ago.”
“There’s nothing here,” I walked around the edge of the mound.
“It’s there if you would only look,” he got up and pulled aside some of the brambles. “Look there, you can just make out the shape of her cottage.”
There were some old bricks jutting out from the earth, but otherwise nothing to mark that there had ever been a dwelling there.
“She was only nineteen when she was murdered,” Bill let the brambles settle back in place. “They say her screams could be heard for miles.”
I felt the familiar sense of dread, because I knew what was coming next, as I asked.
“Is it her ghost that’s supposed to haunt this place?”
“Aye, young Sarah’s and her cat.”
“A ghost cat? I’ve never heard of such a thing,” I said. “I’ve heard hundreds of stories about black dogs, but never a cat.”
“There are a lot of things you’ve never heard about,” Bill gestured at me to come away. “We’ll go home out of the cold and I’ll tell you about Sarah. We’ll let her rest for now,” he made the sign of the cross on his forehead and I copied his actions.
“She’s not buried here, is she?” I asked Bill.
“She is indeed,” he took hold of my arm. “She’s under that mound along with her little cat.”
I look over my shoulder a few times as we left the hallow, more aware than usual of the lonesome stillness that covers the countryside at that time of day. Shadows leapt from their hiding places and cast dark shapes in our path. Soft scurrying in the undergrowth became the footsteps of some demonic creatures that might leap out on us at any time.
“It’s probably a fox,” Bill sensed my fright. “We’ve nothing to fear from Sarah, she was innocent and not one to cause harm.”
I tried to concentrate on Bill’s breathing as we walked along in the descending darkness and must admit how relieved I was when the light from his cottage came into view.
Sarah gathered her skirts around her, as she climbed up the bank in search of herbs. The summer was at an end and she needed to gather as much as possible before first frost. The cold stripped the plants of their healing properties, but once dried above the fire in her cottage, they would retain their goodness. The last summer had been hot and dry. The heat brought the flies that fed on the food and spread disease in their wake. Sarah lost both her parents two years before and knew well the cost of careless handling of food. Her neighbours thought her outlook strange and there were many who whispered behind her back about her strange practises, but they lost no time in coming to ask for help, when the fever hit. Unlike many of his time, Sarah’s father owned the cottage they lived in and this passed to her on his death. The little vegetable garden beside the cottage provided most of the food she needed and Molly, the goat, supplied her with milk and cheese. The few pennies she earned from her medicines went towards buying cloth to make her dresses. It was a lonely life for a young woman and was it not for the company of Sooty, her cat; Sarah would have felt quite alone in the world. Sooty knew her every mood and shared in all Sarah’s highs and lows. She was her mistress’s constant companion and accompanied her on her foraging in the woods and streams.
“Scat,” Sarah fanned her skirts at the cat, which was rolling around on a bed of valerian. “I don’t want to have to pick that free of your hair.”
Sarah knelt and began to pull the herb free from the earth. The valerian was used to calm those in need and was a godsend when it came to easing some of the pain of childbirth.
“Come on Sooty,” Sarah said, scooping up her basket. “We need some vervain.”
This plant helped eased the symptoms of fever and there was only one place it grew, near Oakwood Hall. Sarah picked her way carefully through the wood, stopping now and then to pick some of the wild mushrooms that grew in abundance in the shade of the trees. It was almost two years to the day since she’d lost her parents, but she tried not to think about it and concentrated instead on her gathering. The sharp turrets of the Hall came into view above the tree line, so she stopped behind one of the trees and scanned the area. If her need for the herb was not so great she wouldn’t have dared come to this place, but the loneliness she felt could not be wished on others and there was no doubt that many would suffer her fate, if she did not get the vervain.
The young woman and the black cat became streaks of light as they ran across the field bordering the Hall. The vervain grew outside the high walls of the Hall’s herb garden and the gardener allowed Sarah to pick as much of the plant as she needed. The pinky-blue flower of the vervain stood out among the other darker plants surrounding it and Sarah made directly for this. Snapping off as many stems as her small hands allowed, she looked around in search of movement, sure that at any moment he would appear; the person she feared most in the world.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
Ghost Story (The Wailing Wood)
There were still a couple of hours of daylight left when we set off for the wood. I was wrapped up against the chill in a heavy coat and gloves, but Bill wore only his threadbare jacket. I’ve bought him gloves and hats in the past, but he refuses to wear them. He says he’s used to the cold, though the state of his skin belies this, as his cheeks are red and threaded with veins and his hands dry and sore-looking.
“I can’t understand how it’s gotten so cold,” I shivered, as we stepped out from the warmth of his cottage.
“It’ll snow before long,” Bill looked up at the sky. “Mark my words; we’ll have snowfall before the month is out.”
“The seasons are changing,” he said. “The earth is rebelling against the misuse and don’t bother telling me that you recycle, it’ll take a lot more than that to heal the damage that’s been done.”
I hate it when Bill speaks like this, because I know he’s right and it frightens me more than any ghost.
“We’ll go by the bog,” he changed the subject. “It’s quicker that way.”
Bill had mentioned the Wailing Wood in passing and I’ve heard stories about it since I was a child. I’ve seen it in the distance, but never thought anything about it, until now. It’s a strange group of trees, more copse than wood and stranger still; it grows on the edge of the bog. Since I’ve started to record Bill’s stories, I’ve grown wiser and now wear a pants and flat shoes when I go out with him. The land we trek across is uneven and dangerous to those it catches unawares. We crossed a few fields, the earth bare, and the land shorn of its crops, in hibernation until the spring. The sun sank a little as we walked and its dying rays were blinding. The leafless branches of the trees offered no protection from its light, but the beauty of their skeleton forms would gladden the eye of any artist. As we moved closer to the bog, the land turned harsher and its neglect was obvious, as no crop would grow in the marshy earth and the farmer wasted no time in its upkeep. We climbed over barred gates, the bolts rusted into place. Bill pulled back the thorny bushes and it was hard to imagine these barren, brown branches would hang with heavy fruits once the winter had passed.
The bog spread out before us, and we stood panting from our last climb in order to get our breath back and admire the beauty. Purple moor grass vies with gold and brown heathers in a vast array of autumn colours. Other plants grow on the hummocks, the higher, drier parts of the bog, and Bill named each one as we passed.
“Stay beside me and don’t go wandering off,” he still thinks of me as a child who needs warning.
I know the bog well, but not in the way Bill does, and despite its beauty, it can be treacherous. In the numerous hallows, deep pools have formed, some of them bottomless, according to my guide, and the white bog cotton surrounding them masks their danger. Other than the small hummocks, the land is flat and there are no trees to welcome the nesting of birds. To the untrained eye, it seems a dead place, but it is, in fact, teeming with life and Bill calls out the names of every bird we come across. Imagine the thrill of a city dweller like me, to see the Red Grouse foraging among the heather, its gold and crimson coat making the other plants look faded. The bobbing Snipe hops from place to place and takes no notice of the human invasion. It looked up at us and decided we were no threat, before going about its daily business. In the distance the call of the curlew echoes over the bog, its notes haunting in the silent air. Bill says he’s seen Kestrels hunting here and I would love to see one swooping over the ground in search of prey, but my luck was out.
“Look,” Bill whispered.
A red streak ran across the mosses, the fox’s body so lithe, that his movements seemed fluid. I was so taken by all this wonder around me, I had lost track of our reason for being there, and it wasn’t until Bill nodded at the dark shape ahead, that I was jolted back to reality.
The Wailing Wood stood like a dark shadow against the sky and not even the setting sun could pierce its denseness. It is a small growth of trees that overlook bushes and wild undergrowth. Though many of the branches are bare, some leaves still remain and hang like sleeping, black bats. While the trees in the more fertile fields have been stripped bare by the wind, they nevertheless stand proud against the sky. Here, in this veritable, almost petrified forest, they droop limp and drained of life. I started to move closer, but Bill’s hand on my arm stopped me.
“Don’t try to go inside,” he said. “There are thorns big enough to tear through your skin.”
“What is it?” I wasn’t aware that I was whispering.
It’s difficult to explain the wood. It had a hallowed ground feeling, like walking into a church, or a place of the dead.
“I wanted you to see it for yourself,” Bill said. “Before I tell you the story behind it.”
“Can’t you tell me now?” My eyes scanned the undergrowth, looking for signs of life.
“It’s not a story that wants telling in the cold and dark,” Bill said. “I’ll tell you all about it when we get back to the cottage. I wanted you have a look at it first. The bones of a young mother and her children are buried in there,” Bill pointed a quivering finger into the darkness. “I want you to search them out and feel their despair, go on,” he nudged me with his shoulder, as though pushing me into the arms of those waiting trees.
The wood is dark and I saw in my minds eye the centre, the place housing the mass grave. The branches of the overhead trees have tangled together to form an arch, so the grave is always in shadow. Despite its solitude, no birds sing and the usual black shapes of crows’ nests are missing from the branches, but it’s the sadness of the place that makes me catch my breath. For the first time, I am aware of the sun sinking below the horizon and I am totally alone and lost within the tangle of trees and bushes. Everything is lost, I have no one left, all those I love are dead and I’m trapped in a maze of thorns. No, my mind screams for release from these terrible memories and it is the feel of Bill’s arm around my shoulders that pull me back and turn me towards home.
I don’t speak, because I can’t. My throat hurts from the tears I’m trying to hold back.
“I’m sorry, girl,” Bill’s breath is warm on my chilled cheek. “I forget sometimes how strong the power is in you.”
“That’s OK,” I managed to whisper. “I just got a bit carried away.”
I knew by his next sentence that Bill was trying to change the mood and it worked. He’s said the same thing to me a thousand times.
“You know, in the olden days you’d have been burned as a witch.”
“And I know who’d be wielding the first flaming torch,” I said.
“Best thing really,” I sensed his smile. “Put you out of your misery.”
“You’re just pure evil, aren’t you?” I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and saw his face crease up with laughter.
We better get you inside,” he said. “You’re pale as death. A drop of brandy will bring the colour back, and you’ll need it when you hear the story attached to the wood.”
“I can’t drink, I’m driving,” I reminded him.
“Phone home,” he suggested. “Tell them you’re staying the night here. Get yourself a bit of a reputation.”
We were still laughing, when we reached the cottage and saw the welcoming light of the fire inside.
That’s it for this week, dear reader. I can tell you that our laughter soon ceased, as Bill retold his tale. I now understand the sadness of the wood and next week, you will too. Oh, by the way, my reputation remains intact.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley