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

 

 

 

 

When a House is not a Home

It is no secret that property in UK is hard to come by, so when a Development Company announces a new private estate on our little corner of the sinking ship we feel compelled to take a look.   

One way to fill in that empty space on a Saturday?  Well, maybe. 

In moderate rain we queue obediently for our view of the ‘Show Home’.  The line is so long we do wonder if we have mistakenly joined the queue for the Tutankhamen exhibition, or maybe a football match no-one told us about.  And as it turns out Tutankhamen was not a bad analogy really:  if a sarcophagus can be maneuvered through a twenty-seven inch door the poor kid would have felt quite at home here.Image

 For the Show Home, something the construction company reluctantly admit you need if you haven’t built any actual houses yet, is a masterpiece of marketing science which is designed in every detail to give the prospective house owner an illusion of the opulence, of the modernity, even a little grandeur he will enjoy if only he can really buy furniture this small. 

We are inside, out of the rain.  We follow the soggy rift valley created by the tramping of a hundred feet through quality carpet.  To the left of the hallway (“excuse me – no, it’s OK – you go round that side and I’ll just put my arm under there…) is the Dining Room.  It is no accident it contains just a narrow table, six chairs, and no sideboard – there is no room for one.  Nevertheless it is perfectly accessible to dinner guests of waist size below 34 inches; and the table is the perfect size for a coffin.

To the right (“Sorry! Look I’ll just go back in and you come through?  You first.  Mind the table?”) is a sitting room or lounge:  a lounge looking spacious only because the suite with which it is furnished is minute.  A settee that looks in need of a square meal, two easy chairs modeled for that same 34 inch model guest.  Those with tape measures and keen eyes may descry the narrowness of the doors, the most observant may notice that this room (like all the rooms), is painted in very light colors with mirrors strategically placed to reflect light from tiny windows.   There are other touches of cunning; a Lilliputian standard lamp, a bookshelf for eight books (two more would intrude upon the headroom above the settee), a small flat-screen TV on the wall.

This a tale which repeats itself throughout our tour.  Two bedrooms each with four-foot double beds also contain full sets of fitted wardrobes, and though there is barely crawling room on either side of the beds these might be thought quite habitable if the designers had not started the roof early.  As it is, the further wall finishes (and the sloping roof starts) four feet from the floor.  The bed head is wedged into this reduced space so the only way to climb in would be to start at the foot of the bed and slide up.  Any couple wanting a little recreation in this bed would first be advised to buy helmets and be sure to remind themselves that whatever they did in the morning, they should sit up slowly.  When I comment upon the size of the beds a fellow viewer taps his nose knowingly.

“Could you get anything bigger up those stairs?”

We view the third bedroom, reassured in this case that such issues do not arise because this bedroom is too small for furniture.   Even the bunk bed the ‘house dressers’ have managed to fit in spreads across part of the doorway.  Does the door shut?  We decide not to try.

Bathrooms?  Yes, there were three.  An en-suite to the ‘master bedroom’ which we missed, frankly – it was presumably behind one of the doors we imagined to be wardrobes – a family bathroom, functional and all right for small families, and a downstairs bathroom.  Persons with larger waist dimensions might be advised to use the upstairs facilities, though, to avoid the humiliation of being stuck in an under-stairs cupboard.

We are directed to exit through a galley kitchen beneath the accusing stainless stare of an extremely dominant oven and its underling, a rather apologetic fridge.  Emerging into open air with that elation one feels when leaving Ryanair after a traumatic flight we find ourselves following a roped walkway to the Sales Area.

An indifferent sales girl puts down her mobile ‘phone for long enough to advise us of our choice’s high standards of insulation, superior build, and economical use of energy (hardly surprising when in so small a space the temperature would be significantly raised by lighting a match).   We are buying no mere house, she says mechanically:  no, we are moving up to our Dream Home.

How much is our Dream Home?   

Apparently we must look at options.  Do we want to consider Economy Pack One, Popular Pack Two, or Luxury Pack Three?

No, I won’t bore you.  Suffice it to say that to gain a fuel-efficient heating system, a fitted kitchen (including that formidable dominatrix of a cooker) and a security alarm we need Pack Three.  Economy Pack One, as far as we can ascertain, comprises a lorry and three pallet-loads of bricks.

Pack Three, then – is how much?

Apparently we have to consider options.  Do we want their specially-tailored Home Buyer Finance Scheme?  The Bank Endorsed Easy-Plan  fixed term…..

No; just the price.

One Hundred and Sixty Thousand.

When we have regained our feet we do go so far as to ask where our particular property would be.

A disinterested nod towards the wall, whereon a large white map is pinned.  “There.”

This map is very white – so white that barely a mark or a line exists.  There are outlines for plots, but they are neither  numbered nor identified.  There is a space where a street will run, and nothing else.  Already disillusioned we have not far to travel to reach this point.  

We are there to buy a house – a house which does not yet exist.  Not a brick has been laid.   Until we have been stitched up / exchanged contracts we are not entitled to know upon which plot our house will stand, or even when it will be completed.  We are being invited to pay one hundred and sixty thousand pounds for an unspecified patch of mud before the developers will even consider building a house upon it.  Would we like to see the end of the site where our house will be?  We thank the salesgirl, but the Livingstone spirit has been exhausted for today. 

Back at our home of twenty years now, the final decision over a glass of whiskey is easy.

We have a daytime television show in Britain called ‘Escape to the Country’ in which a hirsute presenter takes well-heeled couples on a tour of their chosen county in search of a home.

The demands and stipulations of these house-hunters follow a pattern:  a house with ‘features’, sanitation (what is the collective noun for bathrooms?) and a couple of acres upon which to raise alpaca, ostriches, horses, or goats.   They might also express a need to be near the coast, to have a mooring for their narrowboat, maybe some rocks to indulge their past-time of base jumping.  Almost invariably one of the partners will declare their intention to ‘work from home’ – usually in the area of holistic medicine or counselling.

Mostly their price range follows a pattern, too.  Upwards of half a million quid.  The show rarely patronizes buyers on a tighter budget, relying upon the glamor of those upmarket homes it chooses to parade before our bedazzled eyes:  how long will it be, we wonder, before we, too, can afford to live like this?

No, I’m not jealous.  Well, okay, maybe a little; enough to be forgiven the quiet snigger of a country boy born and raised who knows how deep are the cracks in the country idyll.  Tractors at dawn, that refreshing odor of silage, the respectful language of a neighbor who lets his cows graze among the ‘townie’s’ carefully nurtured hollyhocks; sins all of which pale into insignificance the first time they encounter a combine harvester head-on in a narrow country lane.     

But theirs is a different reality – as far apart from the rest of us as a colony on Mars.  Searching for our new home we travel in a world where TV cameras durst not go, even were they able to fit.  For most of us, purchasing a ‘Dream Home’ will mean a lifetime of debt and placing ourselves at the tender mercies of the great house-building corporations. Desperate as we are we will accept almost anything.  An advantage which has not escaped the big constructors, who predate upon our situation at every turn.

Some stats:

British average living space per family is the smallest in the western world.   The average new home, at 76 square metres and 4.8 rooms, is 80% smaller than its Danish equivalent.  In Holland the difference is 53%.  Comparisons with USA and Australia do not bear thinking about – 214 and 203 square metres respectively.     Crowding impacts on health, on relationships and on social activity at every level – the cost to the National Health Service of overcrowding is estimated at £1.8 billion.  And despite loud protestation to the contrary, the issue is not price or availability of land – estimates for the cost of increasing minimum house dimensions to a more reasonable model are really quite low – negligible in terms of profit.

Yet for mainly political reasons we allow very profitable property companies to dominate the market and exploit the use of land to extremes.  Driven by dire warnings of housing shortage we seem willing to accept wildly inflated prices for dolls houses – the slums of tomorrow – in spite of evidence which warns us to avoid.   The Great British Housing Crisis is not today:   it is of a day yet to come.