The Major attempted to raise himself. His rear was deeply involved in the concave seat of a well-worn horsehair armchair – one which his own buttocks had played a significant role in shaping over a period of several years, especially during such dark and huddled winters as this one. He had a technique for raising himself: it was in the arms, and it relied strongly upon the rotundity of his figure, built like a Christmas pudding as he had become in so many years since active service. First, he put his weight forward until such point as he could pivot onto one elbow. Upon achieving this precarious state, he was able to persuade his other arm into the position of a crutch cantilevered upon the chair arm, and this crutch would allow him within several attempts to rock to his feet, and all would be well so long as he didn’t roll too far forward, embarrassing himself face first onto the hearth rug.
“Young ones don’t care to stoke a fire then, I take it,” he grumbled at the group of three scruffy beer drinkers and the solitary man in a long coat with a lemon and port. None answered, though all looked up.
The wood fire was indeed fairing poorly, just out of reach of a well-dried stack of logs that could have put the whole timber-framed inn up in flames within the striking of midnight. The Major threw first one, then two, then another log upon the grumbling embers, and sparks flew dangerously around.
“It’s cold,” he explained, though no explanation was asked.
One of the beer drinkers snorted and another coughed in light acknowledgement. The solitary man flapped his long coat appreciatively, and raised his glass unnecessarily. Candles around the room flickered.
This seemed to be enough conviviality to cue a conversation. “You’ve not been here afore then?” asked the Major of the stranger, knowing the answer full well.
“I have not sir,” answered the stranger loud enough to draw all three drinkers into the fray too, one of whom either grunted or snorted again – it was impossible to tell which.
“Ahh,” said the Major, apparently unsure where to take the developing banter from there.
“That’s a fine coat,” said McKee, the leader of the beer drinkers, and concluded, “You’re up from city are you so.”
The stranger was flattered, again raising his lemon and port with inappropriate intimacy. “I am sir,” he said to make the matter absolutely clear.
“What’s ‘is line o’ work?” asked Johnstone of McKee, the smallest, most wiry, most twitchy and most nervous of the pack.
McKee looked at Johnstone witheringly.
“Snowing out, then?” asked the Major, apparently indifferent or ignorant of the new direction to the conversation.
“It is,” explained the stranger, and followed this up with detail: “We’d be hard put to travel further on a night such as this one, I dare say.”
“Politician?” asked McKee lightly.
The stranger chuckled and wagged a finger appreciatively in the negative. He continued on the subject of weather. “I could swear the clouds were only a few feet above our heads when we struck out on the Oxford Road. You could have touched them from the top deck of a London omnibus. Not seen a thing like it since I was a small boy. And I have never in all my years heard of such a thing as a snow thunderstorm, but indeed the rumble of thunder and the hiss of thick snowfall accompanied me for each and every mile of my journey. Most entirely. A world of whirling grey shadows and white light only. I was cold enough, but I fully expect my horse will take more than this night to recover.”
His audience were not sure how to react to this excessively sociable outburst, but they were now less ashamed of staring goggle-eyed at the curious visitor.
“And in answer to your question,” he continued after a dramatic pause, “I am an actor. And also: a poet.”
“Well,” said the Major, fluffing his chest to assure the group that he was still most likely the number one male. “You have a room here I suppose. As do I.” And he concluded: “Excellent, excellent.”
“Snowed in and a good night for a friendly drink together then,” said McKee, raising his empty glass.
“Yes,” said the Major, dimly understanding that he was being asked to provide beer.
“You do not have rooms?” he asked the hopeful drinkers. A negative would perhaps mean he did not need to furnish them with drinks.
“Ah yes we do!” said McKee victoriously. “A room and three berth for tonight and on our way tomorrer. No matter what the sky chucks down at us.”
This was a clever victory. McKee had shown incontrovertibly they were now a united group, with the shared privileges this implied, whilst also reminding everyone that his sub-group was the most fearless element therein.
“We’d appreciate a beer, sir, that’s sure as shit,” said Ramsbottom, a bigger thuggish chap who had not spoken before. McKee winced at the crudity of this final step in his argument, but at least all cards were now on the table. He made a show of his best and most benevolent smile.
A lifetime in combat had taught the Major what to do in most every situation, including this one. Win decisively, or lose decisively, but never never falter. “Landlord,” he called, without even looking at the bar, “Five beers, if you please. This round on my room.”
The stranger considered his delicate glass of lemon and port, opened his mouth and closed it again. He took a moment. Then said: “Very kind sir. All favours to be duly returned I am quite certain.”
McKee banked this statement for later use, as it clearly indicated a second free beer.
The landlord, a mostly absent man, still had a sharp ear for a quick sale and the legs and arms to match when it suited him. He rapidly appeared from who knows where and placed a series of foaming jugs on the bar top. Thereafter, he vanished again, his interest in the group exhausted. McKee and Ramsbottom got up to distribute the drinks – thoughtfully choosing the fullest glasses for themselves, as this was the very least they could do.
The Major remained standing by the fire as they drank, looking like a Christmas feast trussed in a tight waistcoat. The flames brewed up and began to crackle. The Major was thereby at a marvellous occasion to address the room.
The opportunity was almost missed by taking too long to swallow an over-large gulp of ale, but on recovering, and with foam in his moustache, he said, “You have heard of the Great Tew Ghost, I assume.”
Johnstone looked immediately nervous and spilled some beer from his mouth back into his glass. McKee frowned at him. Johnstone wiped his mouth and said, “I ‘ave. That’s the one that takes a baby in the night and they never finds the bodies. I ‘eard you can ‘ear dead babies crying if you put your ear in the river down at… down at…”. He faltered.
“No,” said the Major, “That is the Baby-eating Ghoul of Little Horsham, an altogether different affair.”
Ramsbottom spoke next, breaking his statement into easily managed bite-size chunks. “Is it the ghost… of the innkeeper’s wife… what had her head… scythed off… for nagging? I got told ‘bout that when I was a boy, and I never forget it, though I did forget most other stories,” he explained.
“No,” said the Major, “That will be the Quiet Woman Of Broddesbury, though I dare say there may be other quiet women in other places too.”
The ale was of curious strength, and may possibly have been mixed with the dregs of some stronger drinks by the waste-saving landlord. There was certainly a grape-y flavour in there which the stranger found not disagreeable.
As the ale warmed him, he put the conversation kindly back on its track. “I do not think I have heard of the Great Tew Ghost, sir. And this,” he indicated around them, “is Great Tew, is it not?”
“It is sir,” said the Major, and warmed himself up to begin.
However he was immediately interrupted. McKee felt an unexpected urge to make a joke. “Just a quick one,” he said, “I’ve got one for you: I would have told you about the neighbouring ghost over yonder,” and he paused theatrically before adding, “though I expect that means little t’you!”
The joke went over some heads and under others. It struck not a single one as funny as intended. Johnstone laughed at this instead of the joke, and McKee booted him under the table.
“If a man buys you a drink, you should at least listen to his story!” barked the Major, and there were no further interruptions for as long as the group could collectively manage.
The Major stared meaningfully into the fire.
“It is said the Great Tew Ghost was once a mendicant monk who passed through this area and became reluctant to move on. A tall man: a tall man in a dark brown cowl. Kept to himself. Often seen on hillsides, sometimes seen in dales – but a sight to strike Deadly Fear,” (he emphasised these two words strongly) “in a gentleman should he set eyes upon him at close range. This is for reasons I shall come to forthwith, I am certain.”
He quaffed. His story pleased him enormously.
“They say the monk died under poor circumstances at the hands of a band of local ne’er do wells. They say he overheard an atrocious and gory plot to murder a local farmer by drowning him in the effluence of his own animals…”
“What’s effluence?” Johnstone asked McKee.
“Yer,” added Ramsbottom, also intrigued.
The Major gave McKee a stern look for the interruption, for he had briefly been as much on a roll as a man with high blood pressure, gout and several drinks can be on a roll.
“I said nothing,” protested McKee, and drank.
The Major was unimpressed. The stranger did not like the tension, and wished to dispel it. He wiped his mouth after a long glug of mixed beverage and explained, “Effluence is any substance as may flow from any vessel. And such, in this case, a cow or a pig may be a vessel. Or perhaps a horse, or chickens, depending on what is farmed.”
There was a delay. And then:
“Shit?” clarified Ramsbottom.
“Sir, clean your mouth, for I do not wish to clean my ears!” said the Major. The saying was obscure and possibly invented upon the moment, but its meaning was transparent enough.
“Shit and piss,” McKee agreed.
The Major turned a shade darker around the forehead and at the sides of his neck.
Again the stranger intervened, for if anyone were neutral it would have to be him. “The point is clear, and we are all intrigued to hear what follows,” he begged.
McKee agreed cleverly. “We are so. That and another drink would see us all even more so, do you not think sir?” The question was addressed to the stranger, as was the raised empty glass.
The stranger frowned. But he wanted a drink himself, and it had been established that purchasing separately was not an option.
“I think you are right. Is the barman still at his bar, do you think?”
“Five ales, billed to your room,” said the barman who had appeared with mysterious zeal. He began to serve.
Again, McKee and a crony took and distributed the murkily delicious drinks, according to their judgment of size and recipient. The publican vanished meanwhile.
The Major plumped himself to speak, but realised his joints preferred him to sit for the second half. “Hmm,” he said, “Would you men bring my chair closer to the fire for me?”
This took several moments of arrangement and experimentation, and ended with an oily old horsehair-stuffed armchair dangerously close to an open fire for the rest of the evening.
“Splendid,” said the Major to himself, noting the additional warmth. “Now, where was I?”
After a couple of quizzical looks and a refreshing draught each, the stranger said, “…Effluence”.
Johnstone added humorously, “Piss and shit.”
And thereby the Major remembered exactly where he stood, as did his forehead and the sides of his neck. He fixed Johnstone with his most authoritarian look. “You may laugh, sir, but I have dignity, and that is not a matter for foolishness.”
Johnstone seemed instantly affronted by this, and began to fumble purposefully in his trousers. McKee calmed him with a shake of the head and a hand upon his leg. Johnstone’s eyes flickered twitchily but he did stop fumbling. And took a breath.
McKee said to the Major: “I wouldn’t say that to a twitchy man with a pistol in his britches.”
It became the Major’s turn to look perturbed. All in all, though, since there was a chance that Johnstone did indeed have a firearm, and now that McKee had calmed him, it was certainly best to move on without further acknowledgement.
McKee was fine with this. His ale tasted very distinctly of brandy. Everyone was becoming less sharp, and that seemed a good thing for a dark snowy night.
The Major still had the ears of the room. None spoke. He rolled the word “effluence” around his mouth for a final time, and then began again.
“The monk overheard a most devilish plot indeed, but he was unable to warn the proposed victim. All he could do was visit the poor farmer in the local drinking house and point most ominously direct at him. Imagine: a cowled monk pointing a single bony finger.” The Major held his own finger up, but it didn’t have a powerful effect and he was unsure at whom he should point it.
He continued: “But the monk’s meaning was sadly misunderstood.”
The stranger looked politely engaged, but McKee and his associates did not hide their bemusement.
“Eh?” said one.
“What?” said another.
“I’d’a just told ‘im,” concluded the third.
This impertinence did not sit well with the Major. “Because the vow of silence!” he blustered, adding, “For goodness sake, pay attention, men.”
McKee, cool as icewater, said, “You did not say that afore. There was no vow of silence mentioned, and therefore no reason to be offended when we raise question of it.”
“You’re a bunch of ne’er do wells,” said the Major darkly, “and I’ll not have it.”
“Sirs, calmly!” cautioned the stranger, feeling giddy and on the verge of a hiccup, “There’s not things of a need for, like this. Especially during the telling of such a…” (he gave himself a moment to select the right words) “masterful and well-crafted thing as this masterful story.” Life in the city had taught the stranger: when in doubt, flatter a way out. This rule stuck with him even though his vocabulary couldn’t quite bear it out on this particular occasion.
“Bloody well I’ll say so there isn’t!” said the Major. “And I was just getting to the good bit, but you’ve thrown me off.”
No-one spoke and everyone drank. Hops, malt, spices, vinegary wine, pig fat, a tart sniff of brandy and one’s own breath – all the flavours were there if one searched for them.
“We would all love to thing about how this ends,” continued the stranger doubtfully after a moment. He was possibly slurring a little but he meant well.
The Major had become thoughtful. He nodded.
“Well,” he said, “‘How it ends’ is perhaps not the right turn of phrase.” He adjusted his belt, which was pinching him. A noise rumbled from the seat of the armchair and produced an odour.
“As I’ve said, the monk, the cowled monk, the tall dark cowled monk, is now reckoned to be a ghost and still abroad hereabouts. And that local drinking place that I most certainly did mention… is reckoned to be…” (with a flourish) “… this very place, this public house.”
The Major’s audience did not feel the story had fulfilled the promise with which it began. In fact, it had ended almost exactly at the point where it had begun.
“Hang abouts,” said Ramsbottom, “What about the farmer?”
“The farmer?” queried the Major.
“He does sound a much more likely ghost,” McKee explained, “murdered most horrendously, covered in piss and shit and all.”
The Major looked fit to burst. “They didn’t bloody murder the farmer, did they, they murdered the monk instead!” he said with spittle flecking his moustache.
Nobody said a word. Only the stranger drank, but just a sip, and that by accident.
“Well that wasn’t at all clear,” said Johnstone, disappointed.
“Sure not,” said Ramsbottom, sounding quite upset.
McKee laughed generously. “That was a fine pleasure, a fine one indeed,” and he concluded warmly, “Now who’s for a drink?”
“I’ll… thing these ones,” managed the stranger vaguely, whose head was lolling in an interesting way.
By extraordinary coincidence the landlord appeared that very moment at the bar. “Five more ales, gentlemen? and then I’ll a-bed myself, thanking you, so you’ll place empties on the bar and extinguish lights when you leave to save my back bending over for ‘em.”
McKee raised himself and moved to the bar swiftly, pre-empting the barman who said to him, “These on you fellows’ room, then?” and McKee replied, smooth as silk, “No, this kind stranger will stand for this round, won’t you sir?” and the stranger wobbled his head affirmatively, and the fee was thereby applied to the stranger’s room a second time round and the drinks were duly distributed.
The fire flickered comfortingly and the night became deeper than ever before. The amiable smell of woodsmoke and scorched horsehair drifted around the interior. Outside, snow continued to fall, six inches on the lintels, a foot or two more in the hollows and sloped against lonely walls and tree trunks.
The group sat in silence for a round of ticks from a distant clock.
The Major supped his beer. It tasted of port and stout, as well as spittle and perhaps cabbage.
“I shall turn a bed,” he said, seeing no more value in the evening, and he exercised his trick to get upright.
The stranger could see the sense in this, but was equally convinced that his second wind might come. Plus he had a full-ish drink in front of him.
“Right, sir,” agreed McKee. “We’ll share out your drink, don’t worry about that.” And he added generously, “Wonderful storytelling anyhow, we do ‘ppreciate it. And we’ll watch out for a farmer drowned in piss and shit that’s a sure thing.”
Johnstone and Ramsbottom joined McKee in raising their glasses jovially as the Major flapped at them like farts and exited the room through the doorway past the bar.
Several further minutes were enjoyed in silence while the building creaked from the Major’s tread on the stairs and retirement to his usual room off the passage above.
After a while, McKee spoke. “Actor, you said?”
The stranger smiled an affirmation, but didn’t speak.
“How’s about we have a little game?”
The stranger said exploratively, “Some… thing…?”
McKee said, while the stranger nodded along passably well, “I saw when you arrived, you had a big trunk hauled up to your room, did you not? That’ll be acting materials, by good chance? And if it is, I’ll bet you the Major’s beer you’ll have a cloak of some sort in there, am I right?”
Remarkably, McKee was absolutely right on all fronts, almost as if he’d checked the contents of the stranger’s room himself earlier that evening while the stranger was defrosting himself with meat and vegetables. McKee’s precision excited the stranger, and did not arouse his suspicion, due to his amiably compromised state. Indeed the stranger felt that this might be one of those plans that was meant to be, whatever it might actually turn out to involve.
“Well,” McKee continued, “All those points being in order, how’s about we give old Fartington up there a fright of his life, eh? How’s that for a fun and friendly finale on our evening?”
Johnstone slapped the table approvingly and Ramsbottom chuckled, but then said, “‘Ow’s that then?” uncomprehendingly.
With supporting gesticulation, McKee explained carefully, “Our friend here dresses as a monk as the Great Tew ghost, then stands at the foot o’ the old fella’s bed pointing at him with his ghosty fingers and scaring the gas from his undergarments upon his waking!” It was clear that his own idea delighted him enormously.
Johnstone said, “What if ‘e stays asleep”, as simultaneously Ramsbottom said, “I thought the ghost was a farmer.”
McKee sighed loudly through his nose. “The ghost’s a monk, and he’ll rattle the bedposts if he don’t wake up.”
The stranger’s second wind had come. “I thing I could do that,” he supposed.
“There man! You could indeed. So let’s all be about it! Off to your room, on with the robes, then back here, show us what you’ve got.”
The stranger seemed hesitant at the prospect of action.
“Go on,” McKee encouraged, “We’ll save your drink for you.”
The stranger was a great believer in second winds, as well as plans that involved costumes and himself as the centrepiece. First he found he could stand. Then he found he could wind a route across the room, using chair backs and supporting pillars and bar tops to ensure his stability. By the time he reached the door he had found his confidence too. “I shall be back,” he said with some flourish, and then exited.
McKee sniggered at his two friends. “Well that’s the second of a pair of clodheaps if ever I had a drink with, eh fellas.”
He swaggered over to the stranger’s table and brought back the stranger’s beer. “More’n three quarters full,” he said, “Big gulp each and I’ll put it back for him, he’ll never know.” This they did, and McKee returned it.
“Nice fella,” said Ramsbottom musingly.
“Actor,” said Johnstone sneeringly, meaning the word as a diminutive.
“He might have money though if you check his cloth,” said McKee wisely. “We’ve ‘ad a drink out of him – a couple – we might ‘ave his purse by morning if we like it.”
Johnstone’s eyes lit up. “We might?”
“We might. Let’s give the old militaryman a fright first, just for japes, then let’s get the actor so drunk as he either gives us the rest of his money willingly or we can take it while he’s snoring on his sweaty pillow. Is that our plan?”
It was. All were set on it with nods and grins about.
“If snow were less cold on your feet and your fingers, this would be my most favourite time o’ the year,” McKee said, changing the subject and gazing at the flame-flickered glass in the half-white window.
Ramsbottom made an agreeable grunting sound, as he too was romantic at heart. Time passed, and McKee placed a new log on the diminishing fire.
Without drama, or even noticeable noise, a figure entered the room near to the bar: a tall figure in a brown cloak with a cowl hiding his head. It was not noticed at first, but then: “Excellent!” said McKee, drawing it to the group’s attention, “That really is.” And he marvelled at the figure, for it was better than any of them could have imagined.
“Boys,” he prompted them, “Do you not think?”
“Well, me,” said Ramsbottom enthusiastically.
Johnstone just blew out his lips, he was so affected.
“So you had the very cloak for it,” asked McKee, although he knew this beforehand, and it was now even more than obvious.
The monk slowly and slightly bowed its head, a wonderfully characterful gesture.
McKee realised what was happening. “Ah, the vow of silence! You’ve not forgotten. You truly are an actor so, and I’m a man impressed I am.”
The monk stayed still.
McKee said, “Wonderful,” and looked at his beer.
He then said, “I’d say sit down with us in your robes and have a beer, but to be straight you’re starting to scare me” (this was meant as a joke, though Ramsbottom felt it might be true) “and anyways, there’s work for you up them stairs!”
The monk turned slowly away from the group to face the open door from whence he had come. But instead of leaving, he raised one arm from resting and pointed it ominously towards the exit.
“I don’t like that, that’s true frightening,” said Johnstone under his breath to McKee.
McKee clapped and laughed and said, “Excellent excellent excellent!”
Ramsbottom grinned like a nervous child.
Nothing else happened. A smile died on the face of each member of the group, though each mouth held onto its upturned shape, uncertainly and for too long.
The monk only pointed.
Then, another monk entered the room through the same doorway.
This one was also wearing brown robes, though shabbier. Its head was also hidden by a cowl, though its cowl was baggier.
The two monks considered each other. For a terribly long instant – an instant that seemed to suck the entire room into the depths of the bleak black woodlands outside – the whole space and everyone inside it froze dead stock still.
One monk was already pointed at the other.
In response, the other raised its arm slowly to point back. Neither of the two monks’ arms were fully stayed and both could be seen to vibrate slightly.
Otherwise: stillness, uncertainty, and now fear that built in the throats and stomachs of the three seated drinkers, their confidence reduced to internal effluence.
McKee felt an obligation to do something, and simultaneously felt regret that the onus was de facto upon him. He tried to speak but found he could not.
The second monk was smaller, and looked hunched. Its robes were tatty with age and stained with unclear liquids. The clothing did not fit the figure inside the costume, if figure there was. Inside the cowl was dark, as seen by the group who could not take their eyes from what they saw. Candlelight flickered around the room making everything seen uncertain and shadowy.
No limbs or faces or signs of humanity could be seen on either figure. No foot, no hand, no eye, no hair. Only coarse cloth shapes and shadows wrapped around something lightless and secret – best not seen – as a skeleton holds up skin.
McKee tried to swallow, tried to find the hole in his throat. His mouth opened a quarter. He wanted to say the stranger’s name, but he did not have it. In all the turmoil inside him, he felt pity for the stranger rising up – a very delicate sadness. This could not end well. They were all in the same room as a ghost, but only the stranger had a ghost pointing right at him. What had the Major said? The monk had tried to warn a person of death and had died himself.
McKee’s mouth closed. He had to do something. No further preparation was possible. His friends were with him. They needed him to do something. They expected it surely. He could feel one of them moving at his side though he could not take his eyes from the scene across the room. This was the moment. He placed both hands on the table at which he sat and used their leverage to stand up.
A shot blasted the room as a great flash of gunpowder lit it up. McKee was standing, but so was Johnstone at his side holding a smoking pistol pointed at the monks. The strangest thing. The shabby monk was thrown backwards by a bullet, and as he flew, the first monk fell into a heap of empty clothes on the floor and then the clothes seemed to fall too, in on themselves, and were somehow no longer there any more.
After the bang every ear was ringing. And through the ringing a new sound was heard: a pathetic scraping of cloth on flagstones and gasping and choking. The stranger had been shot and was dying in his shabby outfit of monk’s robes on the floor by the door.
The whole ageing building seemed to be creaking and cringeing and waking up to disaster. A set of footsteps clattered around.
McKee ran to the stranger to help him die less badly. At the moment he reached him the Major shot him through the head, braced for good aim as he was on the lower step of the stairs, wearing a nightcap and a one-piece undergarment that had once been fine quality Indian cotton. McKee fell back instantly dead and made a bloody mess on the spot where the first monk had dis-apparated.
Johnstone dropped his single shot pistol and ran into Ramsbottom at the precise moment that Ramsbottom stood up. Their heads banged hard, they saw stars, and the Major found it easy to take charge.
There was little to be taken charge of. By the morning the bodies were gone and so was the landlord, having packed his bags as fast as he used to serve drinks. No payment was asked for beers or even rooms, but then neither was a forwarding address left for the brewer to settle his outstanding debts. Johnstone left before Ramsbottom was even awake, having concluded there was no story to tell here unless culpability for murder or probable insanity were worth placing on record. When he did awake, Ramsbottom drifted away and fell into the company of two more like-minded fellows, but not until he had spent a year sleeping in barns, church pews and hedges.
The Major – slowest to leave – simply returned to his lodgings not three miles distant, and waited the same number of years for the inn to be restored and reopened under different management. But even then no-one told ghost stories in that place again, and no-one ever commented on the tenacious stain on the flagstones beside the bar.
Richard Neville relishes doing the wrong thing, especially when it scares him. He has run communication companies, spoken on the BBC and at TED, made short films in Mumbai slums, Brazilian favelas, Chinese villages and Indonesian jungles. Now he spends time in a shed. Writing. The wrong thing.
He lives in London, and would be grateful for whatever help and advice he is offered.
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