Friday, 23 November 2012

Under the Old Stone Wall

Image: Copyright Janet Cameron

I know I can’t blame Gary for the wall because we agreed this house is exactly what we want. But I hate the wall, really, really hate it. I’m convinced it’s hiding something nasty.

We moved in yesterday. This morning I’ve padded downstairs to make tea - and there it sits, my view from the kitchen window.  No point in gazing out, there’s just stonework, raggedy and crumbling with brown moss and lichen crawling all over it like a disease; a barrier between me and sanity. We can’t do anything about it because it doesn’t belong to the house. It runs just outside our boundary palings, about twenty metres of it.

Right now, while Gary’s at the plumbers collecting some new pipework, I fancy a walk somewhere without walls. Running my fingers through my platinum hairstyle with its vibrant burgundy streaks, I pull on my white trenchcoat and set off along the lane. Fresh air, crisp and dry. Lovely. Silent, not even a trill of birdsong. Yet there’s a flash of jay’s wings in the foliage, while pheasants dart across my path. And there’s a stillness about the landscape. A wild pig snuffles in the undergrowth. When a meadow opens up on the other side of the lane, I blink my eyes.  Maypole dancers!  I can’t believe it.  Entranced, I linger.

Nine little girls, leaping, skipping, some wearing mob-caps, the others beribboned boaters.  They wear smock dresses, collars fastened with bows; some are barefoot, others shod.  How lovely of the villagers to continue these English traditions, adopting authentic dress.  Except – and this is well weird - there’s no one watching and they make no noise; no laughter, no girlish chatter.

Spooky!  I don’t actually want to hang around here, which is daft because they’re probably just an anomaly, a strange little bunch of unusually quiet village children.  I press on, determined to stretch my legs.  Now I must be approaching the gravel quarry.   

Hesitating, I see a man ahead in a suit in a violent yellow and brown check and dark knee-length boots.  On his head is a cap, the tweedy variety adopted in past times by landowners for shooting and hunting. 

There’s something going on, a tiny woman in a long skirt and full-sleeved blouse, a flat maid’s cap pinning her hair.  She’s staring up at him, mouth stretched grotesquely across her lower face as though pleading.  Losing her balance, she topples backwards, teetering on the edge.  He jerks forward and I’m not sure whether he’s trying to rescue her or push her over.  She falls, her body curving in a perfect arc, hurtling into the pit.  

For an instant, I’m transfixed, disbelieving my eyes. Then I yelp, stumbling forwards. ‘!’ I’m retching and screaming and as I draw closer, the man sees me. Black eyebrows hood bullet eyes, his thick lower lip curls, his face crumples like a child’s. I gasp, needing to be sick. I daren’t look up because I don’t want the man to be there. I want him to be a figment of my imagination. 

I stumble, dropping to my knees, staring down at the body. That pathetic little body is real enough. She’s lying on her stomach and I could, if I reached down, touch the hair peeping out of her cap. I don’t remember anything after that.

Gary’s voice pierces my consciousness.
‘Stella, are you okay?  How did you manage to fall down the quarry steps?’
I blink.  For a moment I can’t remember then it all rushes back. I start to tremble. ‘I think I saw someone murdered.’
‘Where did you find me?’
‘Lying on the quarry steps.  What d’you mean? Who was murdered?’
I try to explain but his forehead puckers in disbelief and I fall silent.  ‘Poor darling,’ he says, stroking my brow. ‘You’re delirious. You’ve had a nasty shock.  Now just lie still and close your eyes.’

I lie still and close my eyes. I guess I sleep for ages because next thing I know Gary wakes me with breakfast of coffee, fruit and cereal. ‘I’ll stay home from work if you need me,’ he says, but I shake my head, tell him I’m fine. Besides, I have things to do. As soon as Gary leaves the house, I get dressed and go through the phone book. First I contact the vicar about the Parish records. ‘I’m afraid they were destroyed by fire in the thirties. Why do you want to know? Can I help?’ But I don’t want to earn a reputation as the local headcase so I tell him it’s not important enough to waste his time. He sounds relieved. I seem to remember some historical pamphlets in the village shop so I set off immediately. Soon I’m riffling through the magazines at the back of the shop. I spot a thin book on the shelf, a vicar’s mimeographed Victorian journal.  Promising. 

‘Nice to see you’re taking an interest in our local history,’ smiles the proprietor.

Back home, I pour over the journal of the Revd. Arthur Woodruff, 1898.  Weather, temperature, sermon texts, infiltrations of locusts, and then a February entry: ‘What can be done with young Thomas Elson?  Another young maid fresh from the employ of his father, Lord Elson, is with child.  Lizzie Geary told me she was taken advantage of after the Christmas festivities, when Elson’s son discovered her alone.  Her screams were drowned in the general noise.  I have instructed her to demand that Lord Elson takes his son to task and makes provision for her.’   
Finally, on 24  May: ‘Nobody has seen Lizzie for the past three weeks.  There have been strange discoveries at the pit near the Elson boundary, a maid’s cap and a comb.  I fear we may never see Lizzie again.’
I find no further reference to Lizzie or the fearsome Elson son. Stealing downstairs, I stand at the kitchen window, stare at the stone wall which stares back, inscrutable as ever.

Gary thinks I’m mad, but I insist. But he refuses to take a pickaxe to the wall. ‘Are you crazy, Stella? It’s very old. It’s probably a listed structure. Besides, it’ll take a month of Sundays.’
'You could, sort of, dig around at the footings. Then you don’t need to demolish the wall.’
Gary gives me his long-suffering ‘whatever next’ look and goes off to get a spade from the tool shed. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘if it makes you happy.’

I stand by the wall. Gary takes the spade to a section at the far end.
‘Not there, Gary! Over here. Right in the middle, opposite the window.’
Gary trudges to the middle of the wall, lifts up the spade and makes the first strike. I watch, my heart thumping in my chest. ‘Keep going, keep going. But don’t put the spade in too hard, you might do more harm than good.’
‘Okay, okay.’
‘There,’ I cry.  ‘Look, Gary, just there.’
Gary drops the spade and we both fall to our knees onto the uneven ground. Together, we gently push away some of the stones and in the rubble. I’m panting and Gary’s lips are a thin, tight line.
‘This is it. There’s something hard. A bone.’
‘Probably a dead sheep,’ says Gary.
But it isn’t a sheep. As we gently brush away the last of the earth, we expose the tiny female skeleton, bones disconnected and skewed. A tiny jawbone grimaces up at us. Gary mutters something unprintable. Then, wonderingly, ‘How did you know this was here?’
‘I don’t know how I knew. I just did. But it’s definitely her,’ I breathe.
‘I never believed in witches but I’m starting to wonder,’ grumbles Gary. ‘Stella, you’re starting to freak me out.
‘It’s Lizzie.’
‘Lizzie. I knew she’d be here. Just cover her up for now. I’m going to call the vicar.
I don’t go into too many details with the vicar, just explain we’d found some human remains on our property and wanted to give them a Christian burial under the flowering cherry. But I’d like it done this afternoon. The vicar sounds incredulous and says he’s busy, but after some persuasion, agrees and I thank heaven for the course in self-assertiveness I took at adult ed. last year.

I try to explain to Gary something I don’t actually understand myself, but it’s too much for him and he goes round the pub for a beer. Meanwhile, I work through Woodruff’s journal and find a July entry I’d missed. Could this be the last piece in the puzzle? Edward Elson was convicted of Lizzie’s murder and hanged.  A gibbering wreck of a man, he’d betrayed himself by raving about a strange incident that occurred when he pushed Lizzie to her death. Reverend Woodruff had copied out the murderer’s exact words in his pamphlet. For a thug, Edward Elson was pretty articulate.
‘A horrible apparition in gleaming white, unearthly yellow and red flames springing from its head, a wild expression.’  
All at once, everything was clear. 

Me in my mac and streaky hairdo?  Edward Elson was describing me! Bizarre thought! It takes me a while to absorb this stunning revelation and I need a few glasses of Gary’s best whiskey to calm me down.
We know history affects the present, but could the present actually alter the course of history? Certainly, my experience raises awkward questions about the nature of time. Perhaps Professor Stephen Hawkins could explain it, but I certainly couldn’t.  

I don’t mention my discovery about Edward Elson to either Gary or the vicar, sensing discretion would serve me better. So when the vicar arrives, we wrap the little skeleton in an embroidered tablecloth given to me by my mother. Gary digs the hole although he refuses to look at me throughout the ceremony. Then the vicar says a prayer and we all say ‘Amen’. After we have covered the body, I place a small vase of wild flowers on her grave, hoping that will be an end to it.
‘Now let’s forget about it and get on with our lives,’ says Gary after the vicar has gone. I couldn’t agree more.
But later that evening, I sense something sinister in the trees at the bottom of our garden.  I ‘m sure there’s a hunched shadow very close to Lizzie’s grave.
Then these little hooded eyes glinted back at me.

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