…..and I thought, dear reader, that I would bring you a dose of Scary Ramblings a little earlier this week. It is Christmas after all.
In keeping with the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, I thought I’d pen a little spiritual tale myself.
The tradition is said to stem from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, where Scrooge is visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve – Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – all seeking to get him to remember what was, to change what is and to influence what will be.
Is this the earliest that this tradition started? No-one has really managed to prove one way or the other, nor the reason why such stories are told. Are they told because Christmas is the time when people gather and tell each other tales? Are they told because it is the time of year when night is longer than day and the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest? Or are they told because, during the severely cold winters of Dickens’ childhood, the eerie silence and luminous glow cast by the snow, lent itself to tales of ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night?
It is said that MR James, the originator of the antiquarian ghost story, used to write his tales so that they could be told around the fire on Christmas Eve. In Henry James’ chilling novella, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, a narrator tells of a former Christmas Eve gathering, in an old house, where guests told each other ghost stories.
So, in keeping with the old ways, dear reader, I set before you a ghostly tale for you to read, By Candlelight, if you dare.
Wishing you all a Scary Christmas and a Fearful New Year.
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.
‘That’s ‘im, innit?’
‘That one what lost ‘is son, just ‘fore Christmas, donkies years ago.’
‘Nah, it ain’t, is it?’
‘Yer, never forget a face, me.’
I could hear them talking. That’s the trouble with small villages. Everyone knows everything about everyone. How? Because they talk at full volume like these two. The trouble is no-one knows the truth. No, that’s a lie, they do know the truth; they heard me tell it at my trial. Problem was, no-one believed me. They said I’d taken leave of my senses; had a psychotic break; and they locked me up.
That day was a day, just like this one – cold and crisp; clear and bright. Tom was so excited to be finally going up Wratner’s Peak.
‘Whoa, slow down there, young man,’ I said, grabbing him by the arm as he shot out of the car. ‘You’ve got a long climb ahead of you. Have you taken your inhaler?’
‘Yes, Dad,’ Tom said, rolling his eyes.
‘Okay, okay, just checking. Right, let’s go.’ I locked the car and hugged Tom to me as we walked towards the start of the trail.
The climb was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Not a cloud disturbed the sky when we first set out and I relaxed a little at having put my faith in the forecast. Tom marvelled at the hawks and buzzards that floated on the thermals, for what seemed like eons, before diving down and swooping back up, their prey clasped firmly in their claws. Few flowers bloomed due to the lateness of the year, but this just sought to add a touch of drama to the landscape.
About halfway up the mountain, I noticed the clouds had started circling. I remember thinking then, that they looked like snow clouds – big, silvery and grey. I pushed this thought from my mind.
Tom was so excited when he reached the top that he jumped up and down, whooping and punching the air with his fist, making me laugh out loud. He never thought he’d be able to do it, not with his asthma as bad as it was, but he did and I was so proud. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, the exertion of the climb triggered his asthma, so I thought it would be best if we sat tight for a while and took in the stunning scenery. It was only until the tightness in his chest eased and he could catch his breath normally again.
As we ate a late lunch, I looked to the sky once more. The clouds were almost upon us; the temperature had risen slightly and the light was starting to change to that eerie half light you get before the snow comes.
‘Come on, we need to start back down,’ I said, trying to keep my voice normal, even though inside I was churning.
‘Can’t we stay a bit longer?’ Tom pleaded, flashing me that smile that usually got him whatever he wanted.
‘Nope, come on, young man, let’s go. We might still have time for the cinema if we go now.’ That did it. He was on his feet in a flash.
We’d barely found the path back down before the snow started to fall, slowly at first; so slow in fact that we could watch the snowflakes as they floated passed us – big, beautiful and intricately constructed. Tom tried to catch them on his glove, to study them more closely, but they disappeared into the fabric, their story never to be repeated.
Soon, though, it was falling thick and fast, blurring the path; surrounding us; enclosing us in a cocoon, where light and sound barely filtered through. The silence was all encompassing. We stopped and I tied a rope to Tom’s belt and then onto mine, linking us together. I couldn’t bear to lose him.
I chided myself for not packing a tent and sleeping bags. My gut had told me I should, but I’d ignored it and placed my trust in the forecast. We were never going to get down this mountain tonight though; not in this weather; not without the path. I looked down at the ground in front of me. It all looked the same now; coated in a thick blanket of white. I didn’t know if we were still on the path. I didn’t know if we were going in the right direction. The terrain had flattened out a while ago, but we weren’t at the bottom, I knew that; we hadn’t been walking long enough.
‘I’m really cold, Dad, how much further?’ Tom said.
‘Clap your hands together and stamp your feet as you walk, it’s not much further.’ The lie rolled so easily off my tongue that I almost believed it.
I was sweating now; my heart pounding; a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. What the hell were we going to do? We couldn’t keep walking, but we couldn’t stop either, we’d get hypothermia.
‘What’s that?’ Tom said, pointing. I followed the line of his finger and could see an intermittent yellow glow through the veil of snow.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, dumbly.
‘It’s a light. It has to be. We should head towards it. It might be a house.’
I followed my son, the synapses in my brain snapping, trying to pinpoint our location. There were no houses on Wratner’s Peak; not inhabited ones, anyway. There was a dilapidated cottage about halfway down, but that hadn’t been lived in for over a hundred years. It didn’t even have a roof. Then the thought crossed my mind that it was probably another group of hikers, duped by the forecasters. I picked up my pace. They may have camping gear.
The silence enveloped us; the snow making barely a whisper as it fell. Snow had this effect. It was like it singled you out and cut you off from civilisation; placing you in your own little world, completely alone.
‘You okay, son?’
‘Yep, I just walked into the gate. I couldn’t see it.’
Gate? What gate? There shouldn’t be a gate here. I looked up and a soft orange glow shone from somewhere over my head, as if suspended in mid air. I felt a jolt at my waist and stumbled forward as Tom marched through the gate, the rope dragging me behind him.
‘Tom, wait!’ I called, the hairs on the back of my neck on full alert, my gut churning. My words, though, were absorbed by the snow. I quickened my pace and reached out to grab his shoulder, just as we were blinded by a rich golden light. I threw both my hands up to shield my eyes and squinted into the glare. As I angled my hands, I caught a glimpse of a wide open doorway and, beyond it, a kitchen with a roaring fire. Another jolt around my waist snapped me out of my brief daze.
‘Tom, no. You can’t…’
‘It’s quite all right, you know. I invited him in and you too. Now, come on out of the snow. You’ll put the fire out letting all this cold air in.’
I crossed the threshold and turned to meet our benefactor, as she slammed and bolted the door behind us.
‘Take your boots and outdoor clothes off, if you don’t mind. You can hang them by the door.’
‘We won’t intrude. We just need directions back down the mountain. We must have strayed further from the path than we thought. I don’t remember there being a house on this mountain,’ I said, a puddle of melting snow collecting at my feet.
‘Nonsense! There’s always been a house here. As to you going back out, I won’t hear of it. You’ll get even more lost in this weather. No, you’ll stay here the night.’
‘No, no, we couldn’t possibly…’
‘Where else do you plan to go? You’ll freeze to death out there.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, lamely, as I watched her almost glide over to the stove, like a ghost. I shivered and chided myself. It was just the long dress she wore, giving that illusion.
‘Hurry up, then. Dinner is ready.’
I turned around and took in the single room and the wooden table in the middle, laid for three.
‘Are you not waiting for the others?’ I said, indicating the table.
‘There are no others,’ she said and started ladling what looked like soup into the bowls on the table.
‘Quick, quick,’ she said and both Tom and I shed our outer clothing and sat down at the table. My stomach growled, which was strange, as we hadn’t long eaten.
‘Hep yourselves to bread and butter,’ she said, nodding towards a huge loaf of homemade bread. ‘And there’s plenty more broth if you want it.’
‘Where’s your husband?’ Tom piped up; causing me to almost choke on the hunk of bread I’d just stuffed into my mouth.
‘Tom!’ I said, crumbs scattering the table. ‘I’m so sorry.’ I felt the flush creep into my cheeks.
‘He’s dead, as is my boy. Two score years and ten. Lost on a night just like this.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said again.
‘It was a long time ago. Time heals, as they say.’
‘Why was the table set for three, then?’
‘Habit; comfort; hope. They never found my boy. Albert, that’s my husband, was found the next day, but not my boy. So, every year I set a place, just in case.’
‘That’s just weird,’ Tom said.
‘That’s enough. Now apologise to Mrs…’
‘No apology necessary, young man. My William was about your age when he disappeared,’ she said and patted Tom on the shoulder as she got up.
‘Let me,’ I said and pushed my chair away, as she started to clear the table.
‘Nonsense. You two sit by the fire and warm yourselves up. You must be near chilled to the bone after being out in the snow for so long.’
‘It’s only been snowing a couple of hours. It started just after lunch.’
‘That it did and it’s a quarter after nine now. So, you’ve been in it more than a couple of hours.’ I looked down at my watch and, sure enough, it was nine fifteen.
‘How the hell..?’
‘Language! I will not have talk like that in my house,’
‘I’m sorry, Mrs…’
‘Evelyn. Just call me Evelyn.’
Tom and I sat in silence for a while, listening to the noises as Evelyn cleared up. My mind was racing. How had so much time passed? We hadn’t been walking for that long. I looked over at Tom, who was sound asleep, completely unphased by the experience.
‘Do you have a blanket I could throw over Tom, by any chance?’
‘I have better. I have a bed. He can sleep in William’s bed tonight. You’ll have to make do with the chair by the fire, though, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s fine,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much for taking us in.’
‘Yes, well, maybe if someone had done the same for my boys then…’ She left the sentence unfinished, picked a candle up off the dresser, and indicated for me to follow her. I gathered Tom, as gently as I could, in my arms and followed Evelyn upstairs.
‘He’ll be safe in here,’ she said and put the candle on a small table next to the bed. I laid Tom on the bed and Evelyn pulled several blankets over him.
‘Off you go,’ she said. ‘I’ll see to him, now.’
I backed out of the room, ever so weary all of a sudden, and headed back downstairs. I dragged the wooden rocking chair as close to the fire as I dared and wrapped the blanket tightly around me. I stared into the flames; their dancing almost hypnotic as they lulled me to sleep.
I jolted awake with a sneeze and immediately regretted it, as every muscle in my body screamed. I shivered and tried to uncoil myself from the foetal position I was in. I could barely move. It was as if I was trying to unfold a Christmas tree after it had been stored in a box all year. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes, or the end of my nose for that matter. Christ that fire hadn’t lasted very long. The room felt as though it had never had a fire in it; not for a very long time.
My eyelids were stuck together and I had to use my senseless fingers to try and pry them apart, but it was too painful. I cupped my palms over my mouth and blew warmer air into them and then placed them over my frozen eyes. It took a while, but finally I felt my eyelashes relinquish their hold on my cheeks.
To this day, I wish I hadn’t.
Snow carpeted the floor of the once cosy kitchen; the fireplace was barren, an abandoned bird’s nest the only sign of former life. I spun around in the chair I was huddled in, to be greeted by the splintering of wood and a sensation of falling, as the chair finally gave way. As I landed in the snow, I stared up though the skeletal remains of the roof rafters and into the brilliant blue sky beyond.
‘Tom!’ I screamed at the top of my lungs, as I shot to my feet, my stiffness forgotten as adrenalin coursed though my body. I ran to the staircase, but there was nothing there – no staircase, no stairs, no second floor. I whirled around and ran towards the doorway, bare of a front door, and out into the garden.
‘Tom!’ I screamed again, but there was no sound; no movement; no nothing. He was gone.
I scoured the mountain that day, but he was nowhere to be found. He was gone; vanished. Some hikers found me – delirious; dehydrated and hypothermic. The police came to see me in hospital. I told them my story. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t even write it down. They did look for Tom. For weeks they searched, even long after the snow had gone, but they never found him.
One of the policewomen, tasked with keeping an eye on me while I was in hospital, must have felt sorry for me. She told me she believed me. She told me the ghost of Evelyn Wratner had taken Tom. She had me then, so I listened.
She told me the story of how Evelyn’s son had failed to come home one night, just before Christmas, and that Albert, her husband, had gone out to look for him, but he too had been lost in the snow. Albert’s body had been found the next day, buried in the snow, where he’d tried to carve a shelter. They had never found William.
She told me how Evelyn had never set foot outside the house from that day on, convinced that one day William would come home. She told me that every year, on the anniversary of his disappearance; Evelyn had burned a candle in the upstairs window, hoping it would guide him home.
She told me how the grief had driven Evelyn insane and, eventually, to take her own life. The house had never sold; the history had been too gruesome for most people. The locals, instead, had left the house to rot and had named the mountain after the Wratner’s; as a memorial.
She told me that local legend goes that, on a certain day just before Christmas, in the right conditions, for the right people, a candle still burns in that upstairs window, guiding them safely to her door.
She told me that, over the years, several children had gone missing, never to be found – all boys; all aged around nine or ten. The fathers had all reported a similar story.
‘Why have they never been connected?’ I said.
‘Because they are over twenty years apart and buried in the sea of unsolved cases in the bowels of the archives,’ she said.
‘But can’t you…’
‘I’ve tried, but they won’t listen to me.’
‘Give me the files. I’ll make them listen.’ She just smiled at me then, like a mother would smile at an impossible child.
Of course, they hadn’t listened, not then anyway, but now they are. Thanks to my doctors, they are ‘indulging me’, in the hope that a dose of reality will snap me out of my delusion. It’s not them that‘s waited this long, though, it’s me. I had to wait for everything to be right and today, everything was perfect.
‘Hello, Jim, it’s nice to see you again.’ I looked up and saw Dr Dickinson standing before me. I smiled at him, before turning my attention to his companion.
‘This is Tim.’
‘Hello, Tim,’ I said, smiling at the young boy, so like his father.
‘All set, then?’ Dr Dickinson said, hugging Tim to him. I nodded and stood, my police escort rising with me.
© Marie Anne Cope 2012