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Crooked Meg

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall.  Jacintha’s covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner, living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above it, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price he already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, dear.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder.

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”

Seeing her husband running like the cumbersome fool he was, Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered man in a waxed jacket who witnessed this humiliation from across the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reduced them to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a settle with a table by the window while Martin bought drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a cow shed.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, perhaps intent upon Jacintha, now.  This was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills, Martin considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Jacintha, finding she was breathing too fast, collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, and his jaw hardly moved when he talked and his lips were thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth.

“I think so.”   Martin was aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

“That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.  They’d make Meg laugh in that squeaky voice ‘o ‘ers, all them modern things we takes for granted now.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin accorded the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin decided to break it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He did not wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of draught.”

“I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said.

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there.”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Realising his seat had been taken, he pulled up a chair.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!”

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing, as he always did, to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Do tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took them over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that was Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelled unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too partic’lar how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they stripped to the soil – left nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.  Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to the wandering progress of Abe’s hand, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

“Sorry?”  Jacintha, alarmed, froze in her struggle against Abe’s advances.  Suddenly lacking the rustle and scuffle this had caused, the silence was palpable.  Abe’s hand took instant territorial advantage.

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’m going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered, renewing her resistance with increased fervour.

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?”

“Some said she was took to sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  That weren’t truth of it….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, local folks knows.  The Stokesley family came after ‘er. They did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  I reckon she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ask anyone here – they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year us ‘ave heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Now I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!”

“Well, you don’t ‘ave to believe all you hear – mind, didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

“Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha exclaimed.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  Martin decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!”

His wife attempted to rise from the table without more intimate contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face was inches from his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, we being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose neck was becoming dangerously red.  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.”

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.

Abe watched as his two drinking companions scuttled from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr. Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe sighed, then ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’, I think you’ve called it?   It’s been empty for a year now; I told you at the time no-one would pay two hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, have you thought any more about my offer?  One-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Yes.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content





On Autumn’s Fall and Winter’s Rising


Let’s have a little game….

The evenings are drawing in, the temperature outside is ever lower, and soon the snows will come; but not yet.

Not yet.

I am hoping when you read this you are at home and maybe it is dark outside. I am hoping a first November gale is blowing, that leaves, brown, red, amber, are flying by your window. Perhaps it will be cold enough to tip the grass with frost by morning, perhaps not.

Are you comfortable now? Are you warm?

See outside – the street lights, cheerfully blinking? Can you picture how dark it would be if there were no lights – if there was no street?

Let’s take them away, then.

Now your central heating – let’s take that, too! Instead, you’re huddled by an open fire, but wait – the fire is in a clay hearth marked out by a circle of stones. The wood you burn is green. It spits and crackles. Can you picture that? Can you feel it?

There are no windows anymore! No double glazed transparency, no glass at all, no view of the outside dark: that is lost. Your ceiling, lost; your roof, too. Instead there is a thatch of straw or reed so badly bound it leaks steadily if it rains. Birds and the small creatures of the night live there, insects may drop in your hair from time to time – but even worse is the hole at the highest point of that roof, where the smoke of your chimneyless fire escapes. It doesn’t work when the wind is high. A choking haze fills your room, soot clings to the bare stone walls. The rain runs down them – drip – drip – drip….around the fireYou must ration carefully: save your food. Your supplies are mean and flavorless. Dried meat, maybe some root vegetables, whatever you can gather from the forest edge in the short hours of daylight – there will be nothing else until spring.

So you’ve had enough? You want to get out of this? Go to your door, it is a few nailed planks at best, at worst an animal skin that flaps like a whip in the cold wind. Outside it is so dark you can see nothing; not the fingers on your hand, nor the arm that supports them. You can only hear.

Yes, the night is full of sound. The trees of the forest reach to within a dozen yards of your room, and the wind howls through them like some soul demented. It is so easy to hallucinate when you are starved of proper food. What do you think you see, out there in the blackness? Stealthy shadows, unearthly figures? Dare you walk outside? The woods are full of wolves and bears – dare you walk outside?

Beneath your floor your ancestors lie curled as they were in the womb, long dead: bad men swing from gibbets atop every hill, the predators of the woods are hungry, and you do not have the superiority over them you once assumed was your due. On a night like this they will come close, very close. If they sense your weakness – if you are ill or old, they will not wait to be invited in. And still the wind blows, and the storm cracks: and when lightning cleaves the sky it terrifies because it is a thing too great for your understanding. No-one has heard of electricity yet.

So easy to envisage in your frightened mind witches flying in that night: so possible to imagine the touch of ghosts upon your flesh, the cries of your dead in the agony that waits them at the gates. So pardonable you should cower before the forces of the cruel season and call for those very ghosts, or to a god – to save you.

The envelope of time which embraces this world of the past and our cozy modern homes need be scarcely larger than two millennia; a mere speck of gravel on evolution’s road. Small wonder, then, that we have not really shed the cloak of superstition that wraps a winter’s night, when Loki’s laughter whistles through the rafters, when the flash of Wayland’s sword splits the sky – when the thunder of Thor’s hammer is heard to crash and echo in the hills. Though our minds have accepted the sophistications of the years, our instincts have not. It is easy still to recall that naked terror of winter and the long nights – just walk outside, just linger in the darker pools between the streetlights, listen – and imagine.

Odin’s cart is creaking along the ridge of that hill, gathering the bodies from the gibbets. The wild riders, Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping towards you on that wind, the snuffling whisper behind those trees might just be dogs, or wolves, or bear…..

Sleep well!

Now and then some small stimulus – a word, a question, something seen in passing – will set up a train of thought which doesn’t go away.  Though you might try to ignore it, put it back into that great filing system of grey stuff you’ve got crammed in your dome, it will keep coming back.

I wrote this in response to a Twitter question ‘have you ever had a supernatural experience?”

‘No chills, no horrors, just a presence – in one case, a girl in Edwardian dress, maybe 11 or 12, standing in a doorway watching me’.
So yes, I have.  I’ve had three.
Now immediately you open this particular Pandora’s jar you get pigeonholed:  people who might otherwise have respected your intellectual integrity begin to smile at you indulgently and change the subject;  people you’ve never met before suddenly become fast friends and passionate fellow believers.
Let me say right from the start that I am neither passionate about the supernatural nor a fanatical believer.  I simply witnessed three things which had no logical explanation, and the only reason I am re-telling the stories is to expiate the profound impression they made upon me. 
The curious thing about these episodes is their intensity, their relentless detail.  Whenever I remember them, which is often, I see them again with the sharpness of the first experience.  Now I know that memory moves from recollection to recollection:  that when we recall something we actually recall our last recollection, not the thing itself – I know all that.  Which is why I might believe something else is at work here – some different form of imagery.
Our home at that time was called Cobblers Cottage and there was no reason to believe that a previous occupant had not served as cobbler to the small village community that surrounded the house. I was writing at my desk and it was late at night.  I was not tired but I was alone.  My family had gone to bed.  At some stage something – a movement, a sound, maybe – prompted me to look up, turn to my right and see the young girl who stood in the doorway.  A long dress, a plaid shawl, dark hair.  Not a very striking face, though I still recollect every detail of it now, and certainly not the face of one troubled or in pain.  She stood as if she was waiting for me to follow her from the room.
In our youth a rite of passage was the ‘night in the haunted house’.  Now we had one, a genuine old grange that stood on the site of what had once been a monastry, close to the town where we grew up.  In the company of four friends I stayed the night there on a hard floor in a sleeping bag.  It was abominably cold, but that had nothing to do with unearthly powers. 
Insomnia and the need to keep our circulation going led us to explore.  The place was being converted into flats so parts of it were already altered from the original.   We opened many doors: only one sticks in my memory.  Behind it, despite the darkness, I saw a room with a long refectory table down the centre and benches to either side.  The room was deserted, apart from one occupant:  an old man in grey monk’s habit sat at the head of the table, facing us as we looked in.  We all saw him.  (BTB, in later years I actually occupied one of those flats without any strange experiences).
Now that’s two of three, and this piece is already long enough to bore the pants off the most tolerant reader, so I’ll stop there.
Three episodes all with a common element.  They were brief images – things seen for no more than maybe five seconds – yet they have left me with an imprint of their presence I cannot erase.  They leave me unable to deny, cold atheist that I am, that there are things in heaven and earth, Horatio, undreamt in our philosophy (horrible paraphrasing – sorry!)
All comments welcome!