19th May, 1989:
“This was a good move, wasn’t it?” Jane Peters, had her head to one side drying her blonde hair on a white cotton towel, standing in the doorway of their en suite. The kimono style satin-polyester dressing gown, with electric neon patterning draped around her, had been a present from Richard. High mid-1980s fashion he’d got from a contact at Harrods when they still lived in London, and he was the hot shot with all the connections.
“Yeah, the best,” confirmed Richard.
“And you don’t miss it?”
“What? London?” said Richard. There was more than one question there but as an award-winning journalist he knew how to frame a problem and took the initiative. “Nah, not at all. The Advertiser is great, and we’ve had more time for us, eh?” As she walked by the bed he pulled her on to his lap. She met his kiss. His hand immediately slipped inside her dressing gown, finding her hip and began to move unceremoniously towards her breasts. She stopped his hand but kissed him more deeply before breaking off.
“Not now,” she whispered, “Rob might come in. Besides we’ve no time.” She didn’t want to bruise his pride. “Later,” she breathed into his ear before lightly nipping his lobe and hopping off his lap. She slipped off the dressing gown and allowed his eyes to take her in while she dressed. She wanted him to be thinking about her all day and how he wanted her and not that he’d been rejected. That could risk raising the other side of the question Richard was avoiding.
They’d been back up in Nottinghamshire, in Richard’s home town of Southwell for nine months now. Rob had settled into the town’s secondary school. Jane had a part-time job at the doctors’ surgery as a medical secretary, and Richard had taken over as Editor in Chief of the big local paper based in the next town over, Newark. It was the fresh start they’d all needed, a change to seal their reconciliation and the move away from all their problems. That was the theory anyway.
“You mentioned you had an idea of doing something with Rob next week?” Jane asked slipping on her blouse.
Richard tied his laces on the edge of the bed. “I’ve an idea for a story. It could become something else too. It’s the local ghost story about a witch. I thought Rob might like to tag along and help me do some research, do a bit of ghost hunting.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea. What if he gets nightmares?”
“Sweetheart, he’s eleven. Besides it’s more of a local fairy tale. We all grew up singing the song and playing the playground game.”
Jane looked at him with puzzlement.
“Witchopper,” added Richard, as if this would clarify matters but Jane wasn’t an Old Southwellian. She hadn’t grown up with the story of the witch that drowned and buried lost children.
“It’s a local thing. Child’s play. You’ll see.” He pulled on his sports jacket and kissed her again. “Later?” he asked.
She went up on tip toes to bring her mouth close to his ear, so that he could feel the kiss of her breath. “Later,” she breathed and bit his earlobe again.
27th May, 1989:
“It’s all just a load of superstitious nonsense,” Richard told his son. “Remember, behind the prejudice is a real human story. That’s the angle we’re taking. Journalism is all about angles, well angles and getting the bloody stories finished on time.” It was a Saturday morning and Rob and his dad drove in the blue Ford Sierra to the Witch’s Brew public house.
Back in the 1800s the Witch’s Brew, now a pub and hotel, had been a foundling house, where the unwanted new-borns and children “washed up on the tide of progress in the new industrial age were discarded,” was the dramatic note Richard had scribbled in his notebook. Rob was just happy to be on a case with his dad. Every child and adult from the town knew a version of the story, but having grown up in London Rob didn’t. Richard had filled him over the past week at bedtime, telling Rob the story and other research he’d been doing.
Mary Hooper ran the foundling house. She was a spinster with no children of her own. One night, midnight in most of the stories, she was discovered burying a child somewhere on the edge of town. She had been seen making regular visits out of town at night to one of the old spinneys associated with the pagan Green Man. Magistrates raided the foundling house and discovered more dead children, several babies also. The town’s doctor noted that the children appeared to have been dehydrated and possibly died of thirst, but ultimately, he couldn’t explain it. A rumour of witchcraft spread quickly and hysteria erupted in the town. A mob descended on the small gaol housing Mary Hooper. A man named Giles Brennan, the town’s blacksmith, is said to have demanded she be turned over. Mary was given up to the mob who subjected her to a long ordeal, dragging her through the streets behind a horse, beating her, spitting on her, stripping her naked, thrashing her in the town square. Reading between the lines in the primary sources, Richard felt something else, something possibly sexual also happen. Old sources take prudishness and euphemism to the extreme. Finally, they strung her up by the neck on the lamppost outside the foundling house.
The story didn’t end there. A few years after her death, the new warden at the foundling house reported seeing Mary. More children died in mysterious circumstances and then so did the warden. Mary Hooper was blamed again, come back from beyond the grave to wreak her revenge, so the locals said. Eventually the foundling house was closed. Other sightings were reported over the years, always associated with a mysterious death. And so the ghost story developed of Mary Hooper, which became the ‘Witch Hooper’ story, then ‘Witch Hopper’ and then just simply the ‘Witchopper’. If you saw her then you would soon be dead.
Parents told their children stories: if they weren’t good the Wichopper would get them. A playground game grew up in which the children sang a nursery rhyme about Mary Hooper:
If you see the Witchopper
Then you’ll come a cropper
Never mind how hard you try
If you look in her cold black eyes
When it’s time to go to bed
You’ll be sure to wake up dead
For more than a hundred years, children sang it while they played the game. One child, the Witchopper, sings the song with their back to their friends as the group try to creep up and touch the Witchopper on the back, but if the Witchopper turns around while you are moving then you are dead. Much screaming is involved.
Rob’s dad had a different spin on it all and wanted to write about the real story of Mary Hooper. He had a hunch and some evidence she was a scapegoat for the guilt of the town’s people over the mass of unwanted, illegitimate children in their midst. Southwell became one of the first English towns to build a workhouse to manage the problem of poverty in the new industrialised age, only a few years after Mary Hooper’s unfortunate demise. Richard thought the children actually died of cholera or dysentery, or at least something that caused severe dehydration – he was waiting for a MD friend to get back to him about likely diseases. And Mary, already a widow and recluse, was caring for the children as best she could, shut away from polite society. In her love for the children, she cleaned up their dead bodies so much so that the magistrates and doctor with their arcane methods found no evidence of disease. She was even trying to give them a burial the town never would. So Rob and his dad were off to the Witch’s Brew to take some up-to-date photographs and get a feel for the place.
“You afraid?” Richard asked his son, looking down at Rob. Rob shook his head. “Good. It’s just a fairy story, son. We’re here for the real story. Me and you, we’ll get to the truth. Okay, let’s go.”
They got out of the car and crossed the road to the Witch’s Brew. The landlord knew Richard Peters, editor in chief, and was happy to have him in his pub. Richard had promised him a nice bit on the ghost story in the paper in exchange for a nosy around the old place.
The newspaper’s heavy SLR camera commandeered and slung around his neck, Rob was photographer for the day. Richard scribbled notes with a nub of a pencil on a lined pad, intermittently directing Rob. “Take a shot of that, son. That’s the old fireplace where some of the stories say she boiled up bones. Just focus a little more. There, perfect! Most likely it was just a peasant broth made with the animal bones no one wanted. Of course, in the stories it’s always the children’s bones, but the magistrates’ and the doctor’s diaries never mention it.”
“This is the cellar where the dastardly deed was done. We keep the barrels down here now,” said the landlord, trying his best to spook the boy. He was a portly man with thinning hair, which he combed across his wide forehead from left to right. “The girls hate coming down here to change the barrels. I have to say even I get a chill now and again, like something evil is looking at me from behind.” He was a man used to spinning yarns across the bar.
“That’s it, Rob. A shot from the doorway. Yeah, this is where some of the bodies were found, but it was also the old wash room. She probably used the large fireplace to heat the water for the tub,” explained Richard, scribbling as he did. It was cold down there, stale and mouldy.
“There’s been a few sightings of her up here,” the landlord told them at the top of the stairs up to the first floor. “Her bedroom was the second one down. Tourists love that one. They never sleep though. I can always tell in the morning over breakfast. And if you look out there, that’s where the lamppost was, right level with the window. You would have been able to see her hanging there,” the landlord revelled in the gruesomeness of it.
“No fair trial for Mary,” said Richard.
“She got off lightly, if you ask me,” said the landlord.
Rob’s dad didn’t ask him, but neither did he judge him. The landlord’s opinion was just another fact of the case, a modern day prejudice not so different from the past. He was more interested in how the prejudice persisted.
“You don’t think she was a good woman then, that maybe the children died of some unknown disease and in the ignorance of the day they blamed a woman with little social standing, no family ties, an outsider taking care of foundlings the town’s own people disowned?” Richard levelled the litany of questions at the landlord. Okay, maybe he did judge him but no more than anyone else. He was a journalist: it was his job to judge people and dress it up as facts.
The landlord shuffled uncomfortably. People never like their prejudices pointed out, even if they are about some silly old ghost story. Although that was kind of the point: they are never really silly old ghost stories. Richard was driving at the deeper social and psychological reasons behind them.
A solidity came over the landlord, not of the body more of the mind, a kind of firmness of belief that a man in his own mind reconciles himself to for good reason. “That’s an interesting idea Mr Peters, one for a more educated man than myself.” He knew the power of self-deprecation. “But in my line of work, as in yours, I’ve seen a lot. We make a study of people you and me. It’s the way of our professions, is it not?” Richard agreed. There was an edge in that upstairs corridor, Rob felt it. He was in the middle of something he couldn’t quite grasp and his ignorance unsettled him. He’d felt a similar ‘betweeness’ with his parents when they were still in London, as if something was not quite right but the adults wouldn’t speak its name. “There are,” the landlord went on, “I’m quite sure, people who are pure evil, bad to the bone. You can dress it up in psycho-babble or bleed on about how their daddies used to hit them and their mothers didn’t love them but the end result is the same: evil things are done by evil people.”
Ignoring the tubby man’s monologue, Richard asked, “Her bedroom was down here, you said?”
“That’s right. Could I leave you to it? I’ve got some things to get on with before lunchtime,” the landlord had had enough and left them too it.
Rob took a photograph of the corridor and another of the lamppost through the window. The old floor boards and walls undulated organically. ‘It’s cold up here,’ thought Rob, although he could feel the hot radiator under the landing window on the back of his legs.
“Shall we check out where she slept?” Richard said to his son. The floor boards creaked under foot and they both stopped, looked at each other and broke into grins. “Boo! She’s coming to get us,” Richard said, giving Rob a push on the shoulder. They creaked halfway down the corridor to a door with a Formica handle, old and splattered with white gloss paint. Richard tried the handle, twisting it in his grip, his knuckles whitening but nothing happened. He tried it again. “Stuck,” he told Rob, putting his shoulder against it. “Always happens with these ol…” The door suddenly flew in; Rob jumped at the bang. His dad disappeared and his heart leapt, the camera slipping from his hands in the confusion.
Richard sat on his backside, hair over his face, guffawing. Rob, in the doorway, caught the camera swinging around his neck and took a quick shot of his old man.
“You cheeky sod,” said Richard getting up.
They checked out the room, took a few more shots. Richard scribbled something. “Think that’s us finished,” the editor told his son. They shut the door behind them. The timing was perfect, coinciding with an almighty clatter that rang through the whole building, vibrating up through their feet. They jumped again, looking back down the corridor to the hanging lamppost, holding their breath. Nothing. Of course, there was nothing, except for the expletives of the landlord down in the bar, shouting at himself or whatever had fallen.
The creaking floor boards from behind them caught their attention. They turned expecting to see a guest coming out of their room to check on all the fuss. There was no guest.
The figure was almost around the corner when both their eyes saw her, the worn, drab skirt, billowing out with petticoats, a pulled-in waist, long sleeved arms with hands clasped in front of her, and hair, black, black hair billowing like her skirt, falling around her pale face, and one black, black eye fixed theirs in a side-ways stare for the tick of a second hand. And then she was gone.
Tune in tomorrow for Witchopper – Part III
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.
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Check out Daniel Soule‘s previously published fiction below: