Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand 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 ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on. A double garage with a loft above, 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 Martin already considered cheap? Could he make a cheeky offer?
“Alright, my sweet. 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!”
As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road. She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted 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 window table with a settle while Martin ordered 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 bothy. 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, staring intently at Jacintha, now. Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features. Finding she was breathing too fast, she 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!”
‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?
“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?” The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged.
“I believe so.” Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; 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. It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks. 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.” Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look, “Not that Squire knowed.”
“Really, Abe?.” Martin gave 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 broke 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 didn’t 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 wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?” 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. Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness. “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 to keep all trace of irony from his voice. “She writes. And paints.” He added as an afterthought. “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 ‘em over. Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”
“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”
“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here. They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular 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 strip to the soil – leavin’ 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.
Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied. He pushed it across the table to Martin. “Thank ‘ee kindly?”
“Another?” Martin offered, not without reluctance.
“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”
While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them. As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures. Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful. Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.
Martin’s return was a little quicker this time. “ What happened to her?” He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”
“ 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.”
Abe nodded into his replenished beer. “Poor woman, ah!”
“Yes, it is an engaging tale.” Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, 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…”
“Oh, Meg’s still around.”
The silence was palpable. It was Jacintha’s turn to break it; “Sorry…did you say…?”
“I said Meg’s still around, Missus. Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time. Where you’re 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.
“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?”
“No-one rightly knows. 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. But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”
Jacintha was ashen. “No, please, you must. Go on.”
“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her. Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch. Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn. Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year 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. Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”
“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.
“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 offendin’ Meg. But there ‘tis.” Abe sighed. “There ‘tis.”
“Oh, Darling, this is awful!” Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.
“Yes, well. Yes.” He decided. “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!”
His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe. In this she failed. Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured. “Pity! Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?” He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger, “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 his two drinking companions scuttle 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 agreed, as he 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’? It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it. A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I? Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer? Two-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. Close it straight away! Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better. Of course, you can rely on me. I’ll look forward to it.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. 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.
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