The elements were against me as I set off on Monday morning, and instead of the sunshine I’d hoped for, the sky was grey and overcast.The first drops of rain splattered the windscreen, as I pulled out of the driveway and I was glad I’d bought a coat and umbrella.
The first sixty miles were the usual seemingly unending stretch of bleak motorway and it wasn’t until I pulled off the main road and was heading into the countryside, that I finally relaxed. The winding, narrow roads here haven’t changed in decades and the few farmers who braved the rain, raised a hand in greeting as I passed. I let down the window a little to breath in the smells and sounds of my childhood, wet grass, and turf smoke, the bellow of cattle and the bleating of sheep. I was back where I belonged and ancient voices welcomed me home.
The clouds lifted as I drove up the hill to the graveyard and the first rays of sun pierced the gloom. The world smelt fresh and renewed, when I got out of the car, and I stopped for a moment to admire the view. From my vantage point, I saw three different counties spread out before me. The grass is still green, despite the bad summer this year, and the fields lay like the folds of a tumbling quilt.
There was no time to waste, as the weather could break again at any time, so I scooped the flowers and paper bag off the passenger seat of the car and walked to the gates. It’s been years since I last entered this place, and I imagined the gates would seem smaller now, but no. They are about ten foot high and still as heavy as I remember. I pushed against the peeling bars and they groaned open enough to let me pass through. Flecks of paint stained my hand and I rubbed them down my coat to clear them away. A winding pathway, with graves on either side, leads the way to the church, which stands dark and forbidding against the sky. I looked from left to right in search of Old Tom, but he was nowhere to be seen.
I told you he is now in his eighties and still working in the same job he’s had since a boy. He has always been known as Old Tom, even when he was in his forties, and as I wandered over to my family plot, I couldn’t help smiling as the memories of the past came racing back. In a farming community where boys were prized, Tom never minded that I was a girl, and it was he who took me blackberry picking and taught me the names of flowers and herbs. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t seen him in over six months, and as I lay the flowers down on the damp earth, I made a silent promise that I wouldn’t leave it so long next time.
“So you got my messages,” the voice startled me.
I looked up to find Tom coming towards me. The blade of the shovel he carried was caked in fresh mud.
“Who died?” I asked.
He named a local farmer.
“He was eighty-seven just last week,” Tom said. “It’s no age when you think of it.”
I dug my nails into the palms of my hands to stop myself from laughing. Tom is nearing that age and still considers himself a boy.
“Did you bring me something?” He noticed the paper bag.
“Chocolate,” I passed it over.
He has a sweet tooth and tooth is the operative word, as he has just the one. An eye tooth that I imagine he uses for piercing bottle caps. He peered in at the assortment of chocolate bars and satisfied, he stuffed the bag into his jacket pocket.
“Mick said you have a story for me?” I said.
“Ha,” his laugh resounded in the still air. “I knew that would bring you running. You could never resist a ghost story, and I bet you can’t wait to find out what I’ve been guarding here.”
“What do you mean guarding?” His words made me shiver, and I buried my hands deeper into my coat pockets.
“The unholy trinity, I call them,” he smiled at his own brilliance. “Come on and I’ll show you.” He started to walk towards the church.
“Is there some tombs inside?” I asked, as I followed him.
“No, it’s round the back,” his boots made crunching sounds on the gravel.
“I didn’t think there was anything round there,” I said.
“Most people don’t know about it, except the old, and they know well enough to stay away.”
The dark butterflies that start up when I’m near something paranormal took flight, and I brought a hand to my stomach to quell them.
“You see this?” he waved the shovel at a hedge. “That’s the boundary, that’s keeps them back. This part of the graveyard is shunned and must be forever divided from the rest. ”
The earth on the shovel smelled raw and blood-sweet as it wafted under my nose, and I felt the first stirring of uneasy, as I knew this man was speaking what he believed to be the truth, and he was not one for weaving some daft ghost story.
“The hedge was planted over two hundred years ago and the holy relics buried along its length keep the evil caged,” he stopped and looked at me. “Do you believe in evil?” Not waiting for an answer, he continued. “Of course you do, I can see it in your eyes. Aye, well I’ll tell you something. The very ground here is saturated with evil.”
We stood beneath the inky shadows of the giant oaks that dot the graveyard, each caught up in our own thoughts. It’s impossible to see anything on the other side as the hedge rises to about seven feet and has reached out to cover the small gate. I didn’t see the opening at first, and it was until Tom moved the branches aside, that the rusty gate came into view.
“The wall at the opposite end formed part of the old manor house and his Lordship left the land to the church. This part of the graveyard is fine, but that,” he nodded into the distance. “Is tainted ground.”
“I swear to god, Tom,” I said. “If I find out that you’re making this up to frighten me, they’ll be trouble.”
“Indeed I’m not,” his eyes grew serious and for a moment I was afraid I had offended him. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No, I’m sorry,” I felt guilty as I looked at him.
The fire and energy I remember from my childhood still burns within his eyes, though his skin is wrinkled and brown from decades of working out in the open.
“I can’t believe this place has been there all this time and I didn’t know about it,” I offered as an apology.
“Your great grandmother knew all about it, and she could tell stories that would make the hair stand up on you head,” he said. “That’s where you get it from, the storytelling lark.”
I looked up at the sky and the dark clouds that gathered. It’s hard to believe that September has just begun and there is already a bitter sting in the air, promising that this winter will be a hard one.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
He rubbed at the grey stubble on his chin, before deciding.
“We’ll go in for a few minutes,” he walked to the gate.
Large patches of stinging nettles block the path and Tom pushed these aside with the shovel to let me pass.
“Why don’t you cut them,” I asked, as he let them fall back into place.
“They serve their purpose in discouraging the curious,” he closed the gate behind us.
This part of the graveyard is tiny compared to the rest. There’s no path to speak of, just a small rise in the earth that we had to climb up on. In the centre there’s a small tree, not strong like the oaks, it stands gaunt and lifeless as though the energy has been drained from it. A small tomb stands beneath its shade and I counted nine headstones clustered round it. These tilt in all directions as though weary from centuries of standing erect.
“You know the strange thing about this part of the graveyard,” Tom said. “Is there’s never been any sign of vermin here. Not a rat hole in sight,” he pushed back the long grass with the blade of the shovel to show the land was unmarked by their burrowing. “That’s the first thing I noticed about this place when my father brought me here as a boy, and I knew there was something odd without being told.”
“It seems colder here than outside,” I said.
“It is colder,” he agreed. “Even on the warmest day there’s a chill in the air. I used to bring Jip to work with me, but it became too much trouble.”
He spoke about the little Jack Russell dog that usually follows him everywhere. I’d noticed his absence, but didn’t ask, as I assumed he had died.
“You should see the carry on of him, the minute he gets near the hedge,” Tom continued. “He starts to whine, then howl and you can see his hackles rise. I get nervous of him at these times, as he bares his teeth and his eyes go wild with a sort of rage and primitive fear. I leave him at home these days, it’s easier that way and his old heart is failing. I wouldn’t want them to claim any more, especially poor, old Jip” He nodded at the tomb and its scattering of graves.
“Have you seen or heard anything?” I asked.
“I sometimes hear it as the night closes in. A gentle sobbing that shoots daggers into this old heart,” he brought a hand to his chest. “Before you ask, I’ve never looked to see what it is and I never will. You can call it cowardice if you want, but I’ll tell you something,” he paused and looked around the small plot of land. “Whatever it is that makes that sound is not of this world.”
“Do you know its history?” I asked.
“Of course I do,” he waved me towards the gate. “We’ll go back to the house for a spot of lunch and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Once we stepped out of that cursed place the air seemed cleaner. I had to wait while Tom cleaned the earth from his shovel and put it away. I tried to concentrate on the water bubbling from the hose pipe, but it was difficult to ignore the hedge behind us, and the feeling of being watched was unnerving.
That’s it for this week, dear reader. Next week you will learn the dark history behind the graveyard and we’ll explore the church that stands between the world of the dead and dare I say it, undead? Sleep tight.