I was lying in bed last night reading when I noticed a movement our of the corner of my eye. It was a spider scuttling across the floor, but not your average spider, oh no. This was the King Kong of spiders, a huge, black, hairy hunchbacked thing. It stopped next to the waste paper bin and just stayed there. I don’t know it it was daring me to move or it had a death wish. If so, it got its wish as I introduced it to my shoe. It’s remains where then flushed down the toilet on its way to spider hell, because that’s where all spiders go. A place when juicy flies buzz over head, but they can never catch then and every hour they get a blast in the face from a bug spray. The thing that kept me awake was wondering if he had come alone or was there a relative or friend close by?
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
Tainted Ground Part 1
The teeth of the big earthmover tore through the earth. It shook its great jaws, knocking aside the headstones and shattering into splinters the names of the dead. A crowd gathered to watch as the three-hundred-year-old graveyard was being pulled asunder in the name of progress. It was many years since anyone was last buried there, but there were those among the watchers who were old enough to recall family graves. Bill took his handkerchief from the pocket of his threadbare jacket and wiped his eyes.
“There’s a sharp wind blowing today,” he said to the woman standing beside him.
She nodded, aware of his distress at the desecration. From somewhere behind him, there came a cry of horror and he looked back into the graveyard. The machine reared its head and he saw the reason for the cry. The bones glared white against the dark earth, as the beast turned and spewed its load into a waiting dumper truck. Some of the workmen were sifting through the wreckage and picking up the bits of headstones. These were thrown into another truck and would not accompany the disturbed dead on their travels to a new location.
The demolition had begun at dawn, and while most of the people from the surrounding district had come and gone during the day, Bill never moved, not even to eat. The cold March wind sent his grey, unruly hair flying and his hands were chilled, causing the arthritis in his old bones to flair, but he stood his ground. At times, he perched on the small wall opposite the graveyard and gnawed on the sugary sweets that he is so fond of. Some of the workmen cast furtive glances his way and he nodded at each of them. He knew they found his constant presence disturbing and thought him a bit of a nut, but he was there for a reason. As the light began to fade, they started on the tombs. The sound of the wrecking ball on the ancient stones was frightening, and he jumped at the sound of each contact. The elaborate carved pieces joined those of the lesser headstone on the separate truck. It was after seven that evening when the men finally knocked off for the night. They would begin demolishing the ruined church the following morning, one of the men told him, and if the weather held, they would be finished by the end of the day. Bill waited until a stout padlock was placed on the gates, before making his way home. He would be back at dawn, and nothing bar death would keep him away.
Let me tell you a little about Bill. He is what most would class as, a wise man. I know the notion seems outdated, but people like him do exist, though we choose to ignore them. In Ireland there are many remote places that still cling to superstition and strange customs, and I found myself in one such place on Sunday last. No one knows for sure how old Bill is. Some of the neighbours I spoke to said he must be in his nineties. One woman swore he was born the same year as her great-grandmother, which to my reckoning would make his over a hundred. He is shy about revealing his true age and when I asked, he laughed and said.
“I’m a few months older than my teeth.”
Whatever age he is, he’s in the best of health. The arthritis gives him a bit of trouble, but he’s otherwise sound. His cottage is an old one and quite picturesque, considering he does all the repairs himself, right down to the straw thatch on the roof. It still has the huge, open fire and when I ducked my head to look up the chimney, I could see the sky, through the curls of peat smoke. He has been promising to tell me the story about the old graveyard for over twenty years. At times he’s given me little hints about what happened after the place was dug up, and I finally tied him down to telling me. As I sat opposite him on that rainy Sunday, I noticed how the light was fading in his eyes, and I felt my stomach go into spasm, when I realised why he’d decided to tell me now. He knows his time on earth is drawing to a close, and he wants me to record all that he has learned over the years. He likes me, because I look like my late grandmother, and it’s rumoured he was in love with her, so this is why I’m being taken into his confidence. He knows I will write and publish his stories, but he doesn’t mind, as long as I change the names.
“Will anyone read them, do you think?” He asked.
“They will read them,” I promised. “People from all over the world will know about you.”
“That’s good,” he stared into the leaping flames. “And maybe, they’ll learn something.”
Bill returned to the graveyard the following day and took his place on the wall. The old, ruined church was still standing, but not for long. As the arm of the wrecking ball drew back to begin its assault, Bill looked away. The truck containing the headstones was full, and it wasn’t long before he saw the driver climbing into the cab. Two of the workmen held the old graveyard gates open to allow it to leave, and Bill watched it progress until it reached the crossroads and turned onto the main road. He knew where it was headed and by crossing the fields, he could catch up with it in no time. It moved slowly under the weight of its dreadful load, and Bill was at its destination point well before it.
“I’d know from the beginning,” he said. “What was going to happen, and I was powerless to stop it. You remember Brian Thomas; he had the building company that went belly up a few years back?”
I knew the man he was talking about. He was known for his shoddy work and only an outsider would even think of hiring him.
“I tried talking to him about it, but he wouldn’t listen. Called me an old crank, if you don’t mind,” Bill looked at me in amazement. “It would have saved those poor people a lot of time and money if he had only listened. The woman of the house had a nervous breakdown after what she witnessed there, you know?”
He was rambling now and I had no idea who he was talking about, but I didn’t want to interrupt. He must have realised what he was doing, as he stopped short.
“Sorry, girl, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself,” he smiled. “Where was I?”
“In the field, waiting for the truck,” I said.
There was a huge hole in the centre of the field, with mounds of earth piled up on either side. The warning signal, as the truck backed over the grass, became a death knell to Bill as he watched the hydraulic arm edge the bed of the truck upwards. The rumbling and grating of the headstones and bits of tombs sounded like thunder, as they fell into the waiting, black chasm.
“I waited until the truck drove away,” Bill said. “Once it was out of sight, I went over to the hole and looked down at the stones. I saw names on some of the broken bits, the odd date, and a headless angel, probably from one of the finer graves, but it would need more than her divine intervention to stop what was about to happen. I took a small holy water bottle from my pocket and shook it around the hole. I threw my old rosary’s bead it for good measure, but I knew, even as I carried out the small blessing, that it was not enough.”
He shook his head, sadly and went back to staring into the flames. I had no idea where the story was going, but I waited in the silence until he was ready to proceed.
“Two days later, the hole was filled in,” he said. “When I went back the ground was smooth over with concrete and there was no sign of what lay beneath the earth, waiting.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What were they doing?”
“That cur, Thomas, had used the headstones for the foundations of a house he was building.”
“No,” I was aghast at the idea.
“Oh, it’s not the first time something like this has happened,” he said. “And is it any wonder there are so many disturbed places in this country? The dead should be left alone. They have had their time on this earth, and deserve to be remembered. Taking their markers like that was pure sacrilege, and they wouldn’t put up with it. No, from the minute those stones hit the earth, it was tainted ground and there’d be no rest for anyone living above it.”
He got up to switch on the light, as the evening was drawing in. He heaped more sods of turf on the fire, and I was glad of the heat. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the story that made me shiver.
“What happened after the house was built?” I asked.
“A lovely couple bought it. They had two little girls and had come away from the city in search of a better life. A better life,” he gave a sad laugh. “They bought themselves a nightmare.”
A knock at the door of the cottage made me jump.
“That will be Sean now,” Bill eased his aching bones out of the chair. “It was he bought the house in the first place. I told him you would be here and he agreed to see you. I thought it better you hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
I watched Bill walk out into the small hallway and heard the opening of the door and his words of greeting. I picked up my glass and went to the sink. The water in the cottage comes from a well in the garden, and it’s always cold and clean-tasting. I was glad of its touch on my dry throat, because I knew once Bill’s visitor appeared, I would have to share in his nightmare.
Sean O Rourke looks ever day his fifty nine years and the wrinkles around his eyes are not caused by laughter. It is obvious he has suffered, and even if I didn’t know his story, I would have suspected as much. The first few moments after the introduction were awkward, but once Bill placed a glass of whiskey in his hand, Sean settled down. After a few sips he relaxed and the tension in his shoulders eased.
“I take it that Bill has told you about the house?” He looked at me.
“Yes, he had just finished the story when you knocked,” I said.
“You know its over twenty-three years and I still can’t shake the feeling of unease,” he took a big gulp from his glass. “I’m constantly on edge, looking over my shoulder, you know?”
I nodded; there was little I could say at this point.
“It’s the house down by the crossroads,” he said, explaining exactly where it was.
I knew the place well, but had assumed that its unlived in state was due to the usual Cain and Abel dispute, that occurs so often in this part of the country, as brother fights with brother over some parcel of land. I never took the time to ask about the house, as it is quite modern compared to the others surrounding it, and one doesn’t think of ghosts haunting new buildings. I have come to realise that this is not the case, and it is not only at night that things go bump. This is Sean’s story. I hope I can convey some of the terror of what he felt, not to frighten you, but so you can imagine the effect it had on his life.
Join me next week, as the tale unfolds, but don’t read it at night. It is at this time, when the curtain of night descends, that our senses are at their most potent, and we are more open to the creeping terrors of those things that lurk within the darkness.
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
Graveyard Secrets Part One
The elements were against me as I set off on Monday morning, and instead of the sunshine I’d hoped for, the sky was grey and overcast. The first drops of rain splattered the windscreen, as I pulled out of the driveway and I was glad I’d bought a coat and umbrella. The first sixty miles were the usual seemingly unending stretch of bleak motorway and it wasn’t until I pulled off the main road and was heading into the countryside, that I finally relaxed. The winding, narrow roads here haven’t changed in decades and the few farmers who braved the rain, raised a hand in greeting as I passed. I let down the window a little to breath in the smells and sounds of my childhood, wet grass, and turf smoke, the bellow of cattle and the bleating of sheep. I was back where I belonged and ancient voices welcomed me home.
The clouds lifted as I drove up the hill to the graveyard and the first rays of sun pierced the gloom. The world smelt fresh and renewed, when I got out of the car, and I stopped for a moment to admire the view. From my vantage point, I saw three different counties spread out before me. The grass is still green, despite the bad summer this year, and the fields lay like the folds of a tumbling quilt. There was no time to waste, as the weather could break again at any time, so I scooped the flowers and paper bag off the passenger seat of the car and walked to the gates. It’s been years since I last entered this place, and I imagined the gates would seem smaller now, but no. They are about ten foot high and still as heavy as I remember. I pushed against the peeling bars and they groaned open enough to let me pass through. Flecks of paint stained my hand and I rubbed them down my coat to clear them away. A winding pathway, with graves on either side, leads the way to the church, which stands dark and forbidding against the sky. I looked from left to right in search of Old Tom, but he was nowhere to be seen. I told you he is now in his eighties and still working in the same job he’s had since a boy. He has always been known as Old Tom, even when he was in his forties, and as I wandered over to my family plot, I couldn’t help smiling as the memories of the past came racing back. In a farming community where boys were prized, Tom never minded that I was a girl, and it was he who took me blackberry picking and taught me the names of flowers and herbs. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t seen him in over six months, and as I lay the flowers down on the damp earth, I made a silent promise that I wouldn’t leave it so long next time.
“So you got my messages,” the voice startled me.
I looked up to find Tom coming towards me. The blade of the shovel he carried was caked in fresh mud.
“Who died?” I asked.
He named a local farmer.
“He was eighty-seven just last week,” Tom said. “It’s no age when you think of it.”
I dug my nails into the palms of my hands to stop myself from laughing. Tom is nearing that age and still considers himself a boy.
“Did you bring me something?” He noticed the paper bag.
“Chocolate,” I passed it over.
He has a sweet tooth and tooth is the operative word, as he has just the one. An eye tooth that I imagine he uses for piercing bottle caps. He peered in at the assortment of chocolate bars and satisfied, he stuffed the bag into his jacket pocket.
“Mick said you have a story for me?” I said.
“Ha,” his laugh resounded in the still air. “I knew that would bring you running. You could never resist a ghost story, and I bet you can’t wait to find out what I’ve been guarding here.”
“What do you mean guarding?” His words made me shiver, and I buried my hands deeper into my coat pockets.
“The unholy trinity, I call them,” he smiled at his own brilliance. “Come on and I’ll show you.” He started to walk towards the church.
“Is there some tombs inside?” I asked, as I followed him.
“No, it’s round the back,” his boots made crunching sounds on the gravel.
“I didn’t think there was anything round there,” I said.
“Most people don’t know about it, except the old, and they know well enough to stay away.”
The dark butterflies that start up when I’m near something paranormal took flight, and I brought a hand to my stomach to quell them.
“You see this?” he waved the shovel at a hedge. “That’s the boundary, that’s keeps them back. This part of the graveyard is shunned and must be forever divided from the rest. ”
The earth on the shovel smelled raw and blood-sweet as it wafted under my nose, and I felt the first stirring of uneasy, as I knew this man was speaking what he believed to be the truth, and he was not one for weaving some daft ghost story.
“The hedge was planted over two hundred years ago and the holy relics buried along its length keep the evil caged,” he stopped and looked at me. “Do you believe in evil?” Not waiting for an answer, he continued. “Of course you do, I can see it in your eyes. Aye, well I’ll tell you something. The very ground here is saturated with evil.”
We stood beneath the inky shadows of the giant oaks that dot the graveyard, each caught up in our own thoughts. It’s impossible to see anything on the other side as the hedge rises to about seven feet and has reached out to cover the small gate. I didn’t see the opening at first, and it was until Tom moved the branches aside, that the rusty gate came into view.
“The wall at the opposite end formed part of the old manor house and his Lordship left the land to the church. This part of the graveyard is fine, but that,” he nodded into the distance. “Is tainted ground.”
“I swear to god, Tom,” I said. “If I find out that you’re making this up to frighten me, they’ll be trouble.”
“Indeed I’m not,” his eyes grew serious and for a moment I was afraid I had offended him. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No, I’m sorry,” I felt guilty as I looked at him.
The fire and energy I remember from my childhood still burns within his eyes, though his skin is wrinkled and brown from decades of working out in the open.
“I can’t believe this place has been there all this time and I didn’t know about it,” I offered as an apology.
“Your great grandmother knew all about it, and she could tell stories that would make the hair stand up on you head,” he said. “That’s where you get it from, the storytelling lark.”
I looked up at the sky and the dark clouds that gathered. It’s hard to believe that September has just begun and there is already a bitter sting in the air, promising that this winter will be a hard one.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
He rubbed at the grey stubble on his chin, before deciding.
“We’ll go in for a few minutes,” he walked to the gate.
Large patches of stinging nettles block the path and Tom pushed these aside with the shovel to let me pass.
“Why don’t you cut them,” I asked, as he let them fall back into place.
“They serve their purpose in discouraging the curious,” he closed the gate behind us.
This part of the graveyard is tiny compared to the rest. There’s no path to speak of, just a small rise in the earth that we had to climb up on. In the centre there’s a small tree, not strong like the oaks, it stands gaunt and lifeless as though the energy has been drained from it. A small tomb stands beneath its shade and I counted nine headstones clustered round it. These tilt in all directions as though weary from centuries of standing erect.
“You know the strange thing about this part of the graveyard,” Tom said. “Is there’s never been any sign of vermin here. Not a rat hole in sight,” he pushed back the long grass with the blade of the shovel to show the land was unmarked by their burrowing. “That’s the first thing I noticed about this place when my father brought me here as a boy, and I knew there was something odd without being told.”
“It seems colder here than outside,” I said.
“It is colder,” he agreed. “Even on the warmest day there’s a chill in the air. I used to bring Jip to work with me, but it became too much trouble.”
He spoke about the little Jack Russell dog that usually follows him everywhere. I’d noticed his absence, but didn’t ask, as I assumed he had died.
“You should see the carry on of him, the minute he gets near the hedge,” Tom continued. “He starts to whine, then howl and you can see his hackles rise. I get nervous of him at these times, as he bares his teeth and his eyes go wild with a sort of rage and primitive fear. I leave him at home these days, it’s easier that way and his old heart is failing. I wouldn’t want them to claim any more, especially poor, old Jip” He nodded at the tomb and its scattering of graves.
“Have you seen or heard anything?” I asked.
“I sometimes hear it as the night closes in. A gentle sobbing that shoots daggers into this old heart,” he brought a hand to his chest. “Before you ask, I’ve never looked to see what it is and I never will. You can call it cowardice if you want, but I’ll tell you something,” he paused and looked around the small plot of land. “Whatever it is that makes that sound is not of this world.”
“Do you know its history?” I asked.
“Of course I do,” he waved me towards the gate. “We’ll go back to the house for a spot of lunch and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Once we stepped out of that cursed place the air seemed cleaner. I had to wait while Tom cleaned the earth from his shovel and put it away. I tried to concentrate on the water bubbling from the hose pipe, but it was difficult to ignore the hedge behind us, and the feeling of being watched was unnerving.
That’s it for this week, dear reader. Next week you will learn the dark history behind the graveyard and we’ll explore the church that stands between the world of the dead and dare I say it, undead? Sleep tight.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley
The Most Cardinal Sin Part Two
Old Ma Cusack’s story continued and I waited with bated breath to hear the outcome. On the night Johnny and Theresa where supposed to flee, the nuns once again, locked her in her room. She begged the girl who was helping her, to get the key and let her out, but it was well past the hour of the planned meeting when she finally heard the key turn in the lock. Whispering her thanks and wearing the only clothes she possessed, the white habit, Theresa crept as quietly as her bulk would allow, down the stairs and out through the back door of the convent.
Johnny paced the grass in the graveyard as the night deepened. He dare not go to the convent and could only wait and pray that his love would keep the appointment. He heard footsteps on the gravelled pathway beside the church, and crouched down in the steps, as he waited for them to come closer. He knew by the heavy thread that there was more than one person, and he was sure they had been found out. The first blow to the back of his head stunned him. The footsteps were a decoy, and he didn’t hear his assassin approach. He looked up at the dark, cowled figure standing over him and raised his hands to shield his face.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he whispered, but there was to be no mercy, and the club fell again and again until he was no more.
The door to the tomb was open, as the nuns had obtained the key and spent that afternoon oiling the rusted lock. It was that Johnny’s body was dumped among the rotting bits of coffins and the bones of the dead. No one knows for certain whom his murdered was, and it was never spoken about again. Words spread that he had run away after stealing from the convent, and since he was an orphan, there was no one to question his disappearance, other than Theresa. When she reached the tomb that night, the foul deed was done, but having no knowledge of this; she sat down on the steps and waited. The night grew colder and she watched as the lamps in the convent windows went out one by one. The sisters were getting ready for bed. Sick with worry, she decided to walk the mile or so to the cottage where Johnny lived with the gardener. The graveyard gate screeched open and she was about to step outside, when a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. No one outside the convent knew about her pregnancy and the nuns wanted it kept that way.
“I don’t believe you,” Theresa shook her head in horror. “He would never leave me.”
The blow to her face made her nose bleed and she was dragged back pleading with the nun to let her go. Once again she was locked in her room and fed a diet of bread and water. The young girl who was sympatric to her plight came to visit her and Theresa begged her to check for a note from Johnny. This she did, but returned each day empty-handed. Theresa became despondent as the days passed and there was no word. She cried, she screamed and begged her jailors to let her go, but they were deaf to her pleas and she received even more beatings for her actions. It was obvious from the way they treated her, that the nuns didn’t care if her baby lived, but she would not give in. She would wait until the baby was born and run away with it. The open road could not treat her as cruelly as the nuns, and at least her child would have a chance of surviving. The meagre rations she was fed left her weak and run down. Months passed without a kind word from anyone and by the time it came to giving birth, she was like a walking skeleton. The labour was long and hard, with only the nun who worked with the livestock to help her. A doctor was needed, the nuns knew this, but no one could learn of their shame, and Theresa held her daughter for only a moment, before the blood gushing from her body closed her eyes forever.
Her death remained a secret, though it was whispered about by the girls in the school, that she was locked away in one of the towers as she had gone mad. Her body was buried late at night under one of the flowerbeds she had so lovingly planted with Johnny. The nuns told no one about her death and it was easy to conceal, as her aunt cared nothing for her niece. Two years later, they passed another young woman off as Theresa, when the solicitor called on the day of her eighteenth birthday, and the nuns got their blood money. The story of her ghost being seen started soon afterwards, and there have been countless eyewitnesses to the white wraith, who moves between the convent and the graveyard, in her endless search for the lost lover and baby.
“Would you like to see inside the convent?” Ma Cusack asked when she finished telling the story.
“Would it be possible?” I was excited by her offer.
She stood and walked to a dresser. Opening one of the drawers she withdrew a tissue -wrapped bundle. She opened the parcel to reveal a beautiful white cloth edged with lace.
“I make these for the altar in the church,” she said, passing me the cloth. My old fingers find it harder these days to make the lace, but I’ll keep at it until the end. The nuns pay me well for it and I’m due to drop this off, so we can go tomorrow if you like?”
“Won’t they be suspicious of me?” I asked.
“Ah, no, I’ll say you’re a niece, they won’t ask too many questions,” she smiled at her daring.
As I drove back to the hotel that night, I had to pass the convent and the graveyard. I must admit I kept my eyes on the road and didn’t dare look out into the darkness beside me, sure I would see the fleeting shape of something white drifting between the headstones.
Tuesday morning was bright and the sun was shining when I collected Ma Cusack from her little cottage, she insisted I call her Ma, as everyone does, she says. I had been wondering all night how so much was known about Theresa and asked her.
“Remember the young girl I told you about, who helped Theresa?” She asked, and
without waiting for a reply, she continued.
“Shortly after she left the convent, she wrote a book about it, but the church had it stopped. They could do things like that back then, but word leaked out. It was that, and the rumours that were spread about by those who worked at the convent. In a place as small this, everyone knows your business.”
“Why wasn’t anything done to the nuns?” I asked. “Surely, they could have been made to pay for their crime?”
“The church had terrible power back then and the convent was the biggest employer hereabouts, so who was going to tell on them? They call them the good old days, but they were never that,” she brushed an imaginary hair from her face. “They were wicked, hard times, and those poor innocents paid with their lives.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we walked up to the door of the convent. Ma Cusack pulled on the rope and the jangle of the bell sounded like thunder in the silence. Overhead gulls swooped and screeched and the wind from the sea ruffled our hair and tugged at our clothes as we waited. From inside, we heard the clatter of hurrying feet and the grill on the door was thrown back.
“Hello, Sister Bridget,” Ma Cusack said. “I’m here with the altar cloth and I have a visitor. My niece has come to stay for a few days and I’ve brought her with me, she’s mad to see the convent, as she loves old building.”
The grill was closed again and we listened as a number of bolts were thrown back. Rather than the scowling figure I had come to expect, Sister Bridget beamed at me and shook my hand.
“We don’t often get visitors,” she ushered us inside. “Feel free to have a look round while I take your aunt to the reverend mother. The other sisters are out in the gardens. There are only ten of us left now, so you can wander around the lower floor as you please.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Once the nun and Ma Cusack disappeared down one of the corridors, I was able to take a good look around me. The hall was dark and smelled of furniture polish and candle wax. Portraits of past nuns dotted the walls. Some stared down at me, their gaze stern and disapproving; others observed me with furtive smiles and their eyes followed me along the corridors. Each step I took echoed, as I made my way to a door marked refectory. Peeping inside, I saw it was the dining hall. Tables ran the lengths of the room and at one time it must have seated over a hundred. The few table mats set out for the nuns, looked lost in the vastness of the wooden surfaces. This room, like the hallway, was deep in shadow, as the morning sun found it difficult to creep through the high arched windows. The next room was a library, the shelves lined with books. I traced my finger along the spines to read the titles. Some were in Latin, the binding creased and worn from eager hands. I found the back door Jane spoke of. It was at the end of one of the corridors and I walked to the spot where I imagined Theresa stood on that fateful night.
Poor little girl,” I whispered. “I am so sorry for what they did to you.”
Was it my imagination or did I hear a soft sob behind me? Probably imagination, as every sound echoes in this place, and it could have been nothing more than the sighing of the wind. I opened the door and stepped outside. I had pictured it differently in my mind. There is an open quadrangle that runs round the building with a patch of lawn in the centre. The cloisters are framed with large, arched windows beautifully carved into the stone and the ground is paved with uneven slabs worn smooth by the centuries of passing feet. It seemed a peaceful place on such a morning, and anyone who didn’t know its dark history, would be fooled into thinking it had always been that way. Ma Cusack came to get me and hurried me away, refusing Sister Bridget’s offer of tea. I thanked the nun as I was all, but pushed out the main door by the old woman.
“I didn’t want her asking too many questions,” she explained, as we walked back to the car.
Once again I drove out of sight and we went into the graveyard. I followed Ma over to one of the tombs and we stood staring down at steps and the rotting old door.
“I wish I’d brought flowers,” I said. “It would be nice to show someone remembers.”
“Pick some,” Ma waved her hand around the field.
There were wild flowers in abundance, so I did as she suggested and we lay them at the door of the tomb. I tried not to think about the young man who’d be left there to rot and thought instead of the two lovers and the happiness they had once felt.
“When is she seen?” I asked my companion.
“Usually at dusk,” the old woman replied. “Poor child, hers is a terrible tale. Johnny is rarely seen, but when he is, his ghost is a frightening one; blood cakes his ashen face, as he wanders around the graveyard calling her name.”
Twilight seems the favourite time for ghosts. In those few minutes, as day surrenders to night, they are allowed to roam. It’s understandable when you think of it, as the sun sets and shadows deepen. They belong to that place, the land of shadows, caught between darkness and light, in a world of endless dusk. We must pity them, and then let them be. Nothing could be worse than their timeless wandering and we can only pray that our own fate never mirrors theirs.
Until next week, my friends, when I will once again take you into that world beyond our own, the place where darkness lurks and shadows are born.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley