The Christmas Horror Final

Part III

Spirit Council“Still smiling bravely I closed her door behind me and, as I crossed the landing a bright light came from another room, whose door was left slightly open. The light fell like a golden path across my way and, as I approached the light’s source, the door opened wider and my sister Lucy came out. She had bee waiting for me and came out in a white cashmere robe, over which her loosened dark hair hung heavily, like tangles of silk. “Rose,” she whispered, “Mary and I cannot bear the idea of you sleeping in that place, all alone. That isolated bedroom, and the very room the old housekeeper used to talk about! Mary has already given up her room to come to sleep in mine. We would also like for you to stay with us, for tonight at least still we should so wish you to stop with us to-night at least. We could make up a bed on the sofa for me or you–“ I stopped Lucy’s speech with a kiss of thanks.

“I declined Lucy’s offer and did not allow her to finish her plea to me. I was angry, full of self-pride, and I would have done anything but accept a proposal that was made in the belief that my nerves had been shaken by all the ghostly tales that had been told. I wondered if they really thought that I was a weak, superstitious little girl, unable to spend a night in a strange bedroom. Again I kissed Lucy and bade her good-night, before proceeding on my way with a laugh, just to show that I was not frightened. Yet, as I looked back along the dark corridor and could see Lucy’s door was still open and she was peering after me. For a moment I wanted to return to her, but a sense of shame at such cowardice forced me to go on, and I waved her good night.

“Turning the corner, I peeped back over my shoulder and saw the door close, extinguishing the light and bringing back the darkness. Just at that very moment I thought I heard a heavy sigh, and I looked sharply around to see where the noise was coming from. But, there was no one there, and there no door was open. Yet, I did hear with great clarity a sigh, which was breathed not far from where I stood. It was a clear sigh, and not to be confused with the groan of tree branches as the wind outside tossed them to and. I was afraid, and my nervous system was kicking in as my imagination began to play strange tricks on me.

“Ahead of me lay the picture-gallery and I had never passed this part of the house without light before. There was a gloomy array of tall portraits whose eyes seemed to follow my every movement. The lozenge-paned or painted windows rattled as the wind blew fiercely past them. In the darkness many of the portraits looked stern and very different from their daylight expression. In other portraits a furtive, flickering smile seemed to mock me as my torch light illuminated them. Not surprisingly, I felt ill at ease under their stony gaze, though I knew that they were not real people. To ease my passage I smiled and hummed a song to myself. I would even laugh to myself at some of those pictures as I confronted them, and slowly, nervously continued on my way in silence.

“Shaking off my earlier fears, I blushed at my weakness, and continued to look for my room, very happy that I was the only one to witness my trembling. As I entered my room I thought I heard something move in the much neglected ‘glory-hole’, which was the only neighbouring room to mine. But I was determined not to let my nerves send me into a panic again and I closed my eyes and ears to slight noise. After all, between the rats and the wind, an old manor-house on a stormy night needs no ghosts or other spirits to disturb it. So, I entered the bedroom, and rang for a maid. But, as I did so, I looked around my room, and a terrible, inexplicable repugnance to my new surroundings overcame me, despite of my best efforts.

“This was not a simple chill that made my body shiver, and could be easily shaken off. There was an intense feeling of dislike, accompanied by a deep sense of apprehension; the sort of instinct that allows us to regard certain places and people are not entirely beneficial to us. Some of you will undoubtedly consider such things as being irrational, but it is by instinct that we often can distinguish friends from enemies. It is often said, ‘Show me a man whom children and dogs shrink from, and I will show you a bad man, who speaks lies, and has murder in his heart.’ So, we should never despise the gift of instinct that causes the horse to tremble when the lion crouches in the thicket. As I looked around me in this strange bedroom I felt the presence of danger, and yet I could not explain why I should feel this way. It was a nice room, with drawn green damask curtains, a warm fire burning bright in the hearth, and small table lamps that provided light. The pretty little white bed, also, looked peaceful and inviting, promising me a peaceful night’s sleep.

“My maid arrived in the room and immediately began to assist in my preparations for bed. She was a friendly face on a night when I just did not want to be on my own, and I shamelessly encouraged her to gossip. In fact we gossiped so much that it took Maura, the maid, a half an hour longer than usual to get through her duties. Then, when all was done that had to be done, Maura asked me if there was anything more that I required from her. She gave a little yawn as she spoke, and I felt sorry for having kept her so long. “There’s nothing more,” I told her and she left me, closing the door gently behind her.

“With the closing of the bedroom door I was left all alone once again, and I quickly began to feel very uneasy. Everything that was in the room that I had previously liked, I now took a terrible dislike. In fact, I was sorely tempted to put on a dressing-gown and run, half-dressed, through the corridors to my sisters’ room, and tell them that I had a change of mind and wanted to take up their kind offer to sleep in their room. But thinking that they must be asleep by this time, I decided it would not be very kind to awaken them again. Instead, I said my prayers with a little more earnestness than was usual and with a heavy heart I put out the lamp. I was just about to lay my head on my pillow, when I suddenly had the idea that I should lock bedroom door with the key. The flames from the burning fire were enough to guide me in the darkness and I quickly managed to reach the door. There was indeed a lock, but it would not allow me to turn the key in it, no matter how hard I tried. It was evident that there was, at one time, a bolt on the door, but it was now broken and completely worthless to me. Contenting myself that there was nothing more that I could do I returned to my bed, where I lay awake for a good while, watching the red glow of the burning coals in the grate.

“Everything was quiet now, and I was feeling a lot more composed within my mind. Talking to Maura had done me a lot of good and had helped divert my thoughts. I was just about to drop off to sleep, when I was suddenly disturbed, twice. The first occasion was caused by an owl, which was hooting from its hiding place within the ivy outside my window. It was a sound that I had heard many times but, this time, it much more harsh and melancholy. The second disturbance was a long and mournful howl created by the family’s large hound that had been chained-up in the yard. It was a long-drawn out howl, and sounded almost as if it was heralding a death in the family. I knew, of course, that this was nonsense, but I could not help feeling that those mournful tones were sad, and expressed the dog’s terror of something evil that it could sense nearby. But, my body was tired and I soon fell asleep in that small, comfortable bed.

“I cannot tell how long I slept, but I awoke at once with an abrupt start which took me from a state of utter unconsciousness to the full use of my senses in a matter of seconds. The coals in the fire were still burning in the grate, but the light it radiated was very low, and more than half the room was now in deep shadow. Instantly I felt that there was someone, or something, in the room with me, but, in the low light nothing unusual could be seen. Nevertheless, I could sense that there was a danger present, and it was that sense of peril that had aroused me from my sleep. I experienced that chill and shock of alarm, knowing that there was an intruder in that room who was invisible to me. My ears were attuned  to hear the slightest sound that might give away the intruder’s position, but I could only hear the faint sounds of the fire, and the loud, irregular beatings of my own heart.

“Perhaps it was intuition that told me that I was not alone in that room. I waited, and my heart pounded quicker, and its pulsations grew as my fear deepened. It was this time that I heard a faint, distinct sound of a chain rattling, and I tried to lift my head from the pillow. Although the light was very dim I saw the curtains shake, and I caught a glimpse of something darker beyond them. I tried to cry out, but I could not utter a single word. The chain rattled again, but much louder and clearer this time. In the dim darkness, I caught a glimpse of something, but no matter how hard I tried I could not penetrate the shadows at the other end of the room, where the noise appeared to be generated.  My mind was now suddenly filled with all sorts of questions. Was it a robber? Could it be a supernatural visitor? Or was I the victim of some sort of an unpleasant practical joke? My anxiety levels continued to rise, restraining me and preventing me from speaking.

“Then the chain clanked nearer to my bed as I began to notice a dusky, shapeless mass appear between the curtains on the opposite side to where I was lying. I could hear no sound but that of the curtains rustling and the clash of the iron chains. Suddenly, the dying flames of the fire leaped up, and the door to the room was firmly closed. It was then that I saw something resembling human form that now threw itself heavily upon the bed, and lay there, huge and dark, in the red gleam that now died away after arousing so much fear and returned the room to darkness. There was now no light in the room, though the red cinders remaining in the hearth glowed like the eyes of wild beasts. The chain did not rattle again, but I still tried to scream wildly for help. My mouth was so parched, my tongue refused to co-operate and I could not utter a cry.  Even if I could have called out I could not be sure that anyone would have heard me from my lonely room, which was so far from another living being. The storm that howled outside would have easily drowned out my pleas, even if help had been nearer to hand. To call out aloud would have been both useless and perilous, especially if the intruder was a robber and my calls had angered him to violence. Whatever it was that lay by my side could not be seen and I began to pray aloud as my mind filled with images from the weird and fascinating stories of my childhood. The spirits of wicked men that were forced to revisit the scenes of their earthly crimes, of demons that skulked about in certain accursed spots, of ghouls and vampires that wandered among the graves, which they broke into and gather for their ghostly banquets. Thoughts of such creatures caused me to shudder and I could feel it stirring beside me, moaning hoarsely. Again I heard the clinking of chains close to me, and I pulled myself away from it in my fear and loathing. I did not know what the presence was, but I was certain that it was something malignant, and a harbinger of evil.

“Although I was very much afraid, I knew that I dared not speak. I wanted to be silent, because I was still convinced that, whatever this presence was, it had not yet discovered that I was in the room with it. And then I remembered all the events of the night, Lady Hurst’s ill-omened half-warnings, and particularly my sister’s remark that this was the room the old housekeeper used to warn us to avoid. Then I recalled the long-forgotten repute that this disused room had gained, the many grievous sins it had witnessed, the blood that had been spilled, the poison administered by unnatural hate and greed, and the stories that condemned it as haunted. It was ‘The Green Room’, and how the servants avoided it, how it was rarely mentioned, and then only in whispers, when we were children. The entire household regarded it as a mysterious place that was totally unfit for mortal habitation. I wondered if this presence was the creature which haunted the room, and what type of creature was it?

“The chain faintly rattled again and the hair on my head bristled at the sound, as my eyes strained in their sockets, and the cold sweat of terror dripped from my brow. My heart did not beat so freely, occasionally appearing to stop, and sometimes its pulses were hurried, which caused my breaths to be short and extremely difficult. Although my body shivered, as if it was cold, I was still much too fearful to move. But, the mysterious presence moved, moaned, and its chains clanked dismally, while the bed creaked and shook. This presence, therefore, was not a spectre, but something very solid and real that its presence increased my terror a thousand times. At that moment I felt that I was in the grasp of something both evil and dangerous, in the presence of which I was now sick with fear. In desperation I slipped silently from the bed, grabbed a nearby dressing-gown, which I wrapped around me, and tried to inch my way to the door on my hands and knees.

“I was very excited at the possibility of escaping this unknown being, but I had scarcely moved a foot before the moaning began again. In a moment it changed into a threatening growl that sounded as if it had come from the depths of some dark a wolf’s throat, and a hand appeared as if from nowhere and clutched at my sleeve. I became frozen to the spot. That muttering growl changed again to a moan and, although there was no further clanking of the chain, the ghostly hand still held a tight grip of my sleeve. I was afraid to move even an inch because I was now certain that this being was aware of my presence. My brain was spinning as the blood pounded through my heart, and my knees lost all of their strength, while my body shook like that of a deer caught in the stare of a wolf pack. In my numbing terror it appeared to me that I was losing all of my senses at once.

“Once my senses returned I found myself sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering with cold, and barefooted. There wasn’t a sound, but I could still feel my sleeve still being gripped by a strong, unearthly being. The silence seemed to last a long time, though it may have only been a matter of minutes, and it was eventually by a devilish laugh that almost caused the marrow in my bones to freeze. Then I heard what appeared to be the gnashing of teeth, and then a wailing moan, which was followed by silence once again. My fear was such that I could not feel time passing, or hear the hours chime on the clock. All the while hideous visions passed before my eyes, which continued to gaze into that pitch blackness where the invisible being lay.

“In my feverish fear I pictured the being in every abhorrent form imaginable to me. I saw it as a skeleton with hollow eye sockets and grinning, fleshless jaws. Next, I envisaged a vampire, with its ashen coloured face and a mouth dripping with blood. I longed for daylight, and yet I knew that when the morning light came I would have to meet the beast face-to-face. There were tales that said ghosts and devils faded away as morning broke, but I was sure that this creature was too terrible a thing that dawn’s light would have no effect upon it. It was my destiny, I was certain of it, to see this creature, and a great chill once again seized my body. My teeth began to chatter, and every part of my body shivered as a cold, damp sweat burst upon my brow. In response I grabbed at a shawl, which lay upon a nearby chair, and I wrapped it around me. My movement, of course, caused that demoniacal moan to return and the chain to clank again, causing all hopes to dissipate. Time flew by quickly, and I sat there rigid and silent. I may have even slept for a time. I remember the cold grey light of another winter’s morning on my face, and it gradually stole around the small, dark room from between the heavy curtains that hung at the window.

“Shuddering with great fear I turned to see what horror had plagued my night. In the grey light of that winter dawn I saw that the being was not a ghost, a dream, or hallucination brought on by fear. There it lay on the bed, with its grim head on the pillow. I could not tell if it was a man, or a corpse that had arisen from its grave to await the demon that brought it to life. It was a gaunt, gigantic form, wasted to a skeleton, half-dressed, covered with dirt and clotted blood, its huge limbs flung upon the bed, and its shaggy hair streaming over the pillows like a lion’s mane.

“This creature’s wild, hideous face was turned toward me. Its features were human, covered in a horrible mask of mud and half-dried blood, while the expression it bore was a brutish and savagely fierce one, its white teeth visible between parted lips in a malignant grin. The creature’s tangled hair and beard were crumpled together, and there were scars disfiguring the brow. Around the creature’s waist was a ring of iron, to which was attached a heavy but broken chain that was undoubtedly the chain that I had heard clanking. I noticed that part of the chain was wrapped in straw to prevent it rubbing against the creature. There were marks of the chains on the creature’s wrists, and the bony arm that protruded through one tattered sleeve was scarred and bruised. His feet were bare, and cut by stones and briers, with one foot wrapped in a kind of rag bandage. The lean hands, one of which held my sleeve, were armed with talons like those of an eagle. In that moment I knew that I was at the mercy of a madman. It would, perhaps, have been better if this had been a ghost that merely scares people, rather than a beast that tears a quivering body limb from limb. I was now sure that this was a pitiless brute which had no heart that could be softened, and whose intentions no plea could change. My terror was complete as I looked upon those blood covered fingers and wolfish jaws that, along with its face, were smeared with blackening blood!

“In that moment the mystery of the slain sheep had been solved. The manner in which they had been mangled and torn apart, the print of a naked foot, and the broken chain link found near the slaughtered animals were now fully explained. This creature had escaped from some institution, where his wild rages had been bound up. How had this grisly creature broken its chains? It must have been a mighty rage that gave him the strength to escape those prison bars, most likely he was encouraged by the scars whippings he had received from his guardians. Now this creature was loose, free to play the tortured brute his captors had made him. Was I already caught in his clutches, to be his next victim? I felt overcome by a terrible sickness and was struck dumb by the total fear in which I was encased. All I could do was to wait until the moment when he should open his eyes and be aware of my presence.

“Something told me that the creature was not yet aware of my presence. He had used the room as a lair in which he could hide and, after killing and gorging himself on the sheep, he wearily flung himself down on the bed to sleep. He had not expected to find any other person in that room and had, therefore, no reason to suspect that he was not alone. Even when he grasped my sleeve it was, most likely, an action carried out in his sleep, just his unconscious moans and laughter.

“Time was passing and I was sure that the entire house would be awake soon. Someone would be sent to awaken me and would awaken the creature. Then I heard a light footstep outside the door, which was followed by a quiet knock. There was a pause and the knock was repeated, only more loudly on this occasion. In that moment I saw the creature stretch his limbs, uttering a moaning cry, and he slowly opened his eyes. And as his eyes opened they met mine. There was another knock, and I worried that the door would open, the grim creature would be seen, and bring about a catastrophe.

“There was wonder and surprise in those wild, bloodshot eyes as I saw him stare at me half vacantly. In an instant I could see a murderous demon begin to peep from those hideous eyes, while its lips to part in a sneer, and its wolf-like teeth bared themselves. My fear, however, now gave me a new and desperate composure that I had not felt before. I stared at the glare of those terrible eyes, remaining steady, undaunted, and motionless. Those dreadful eyes began to sink, as if from shame, as he moaned and his shaggy head drooped between his gaunt, squalid hands.

“Seizing my chance I jumped to my feet and, with one spring, reached the door, which I tore open and, with a shriek, rushed through. As I caught the girl by the arm I screamed at her to run for her life, and rushed through the corridor, and down the stairs. Maura’s screams filled the house as she fled at my side. Then I heard a long-drawn, raging cry, the roar of a wild animal robbed of its prey, and I knew what was behind me. I never turned my head to check, preferring to run as fast as I could. It seemed to be only seconds before I was in the hall, and all around me there was a rush of many feet. There was a cacophony of many voices, brutal yells, swearing, heavy blows, and I suddenly fell to the ground crying out, “Help me!”

“I awoke from a delirious trance and there were kind faces all around my bed, and I saw the loving looks from all who were there, but I fainted once again. I did not recover for a long time afterward, and was nursed tenderly through this period. When I awoke, the pitying looks of those who cared for me made my body tremble. Although I asked for a mirror on many occasions it was denied me, but I prevailed. A mirror was finally brought, and I saw that all of my youth was gone from me in one fell swoop. The glass showed a livid and haggard face, blanched and bloodless, with ashen lips, wrinkled brow, and dim eyes. There was nothing of my former self reflected back to me. My rich dark hair was now as white as snow, and in one night it was as if I had aged fifty years. My nerves, too, never recovered after that dire shock, and my life was blighted to the extent that my lover abandoned me.

“I am old now and very much alone. My sisters wanted me to live with them, but I chose not to sadden their happy homes with my ghostly face and dead eyes. Roger, meanwhile, married another and he has been dead for many years now. As for me, my sadness is almost over and I am near the end of my life. I have not been bitter or hard, but I cannot bear to see many people, and I am probably best alone. The wealth left to me by Lady Hurst is doing whatever good that it can do. After all is said and done, what need do I have of wealth, being the shattered wreck of a woman that was left by that one night of horror!

The Christmas Horror II

Part II

XMAS 3The room that I was now given was a dim little triangular room in the west wing of the house. It could only be reached by crossing the ‘picture-gallery’, or by climbing a little flight of stairs which led directly upward from the low-browed arch of a door that opened into the garden area. There was one more room on the same landing, but it was used mainly to house broken furniture, old toys, and bits of timber that had accumulate over the years. As for the room in which I was to sleep for the next few nights there were tapestries on the wall, with old, faded green velvet curtains, , fresh clothes on the bed, which had been hurriedly made, and quite oddly a new carpet. The furniture in the room was half old and half new, and on the dressing-table stood a very old oval mirror, in a frame of black ebony. It is many years ago now, but my memory of that night is so good that I will never forget one detail of it.

“Every Christmas several local girls were hired to act as maids for the guests that had been invited to our home. That short winter’s day had drawn to a close and the maids busied themselves with the large number of guests, who were very much looking forward to a Christmas feast and party. A large variety of traditional yuletide foods was served to them and, after dinner, a large number of guests gathered together in the huge drawing-room, in which a great wood-fire blazed in the ornate marble hearth. Among the crowd were, of course, the old, hard-riding, hard-drinking men of the fox-hunting clique, mumbling to each other over their port in the dining-room, and father was obliged to remain with them. The ladies and all the younger gentlemen, in the meantime, were all together in the drawing-room. Some of these had been invited to spend the night at our house, while others would have to make their own way home in the early hours, navigating narrow, dark and lonely country roads.

“Roger was at the gathering, of course, and he sat by my side. It was well known by everyone that we were engaged and were only waiting until the spring came so we could marry. My sisters were not very far away, and they seemed to have found handsome men whose hearts were very responsive to them. I could see the eyes of those men sparkle and soften as they met these young, attractive women. They were full of the joys of youth, innocent and very loving young ladies to whom the young gentlemen wanted to converse.

“The drawing room was large and lofty, with an arched roof that had somewhat sombre character, caused by the polished black oak features. On the walls hung ornate mirrors and many beautiful paintings, and the room was filled with tasteful furniture, a marble chimney-piece, and a large, colourful carpet. Many lights were burning, but in a forlorn hope of brightening the dark walls and roof. But, the black oak just appeared to ingest the rays of light like the mouth of a huge cave. A searchlight might have had serious difficulty in giving that room a cheerful glow of a modern drawing room. The gloomy richness of the panels, however, matched well with the ruddy gleam from the enormous wood-fire in which, crackling and glowing, lay the mighty Yule log.

“There was a blood-red lustre from the fire, reflected off the walls and roof. I was with a large group of the young people gathered around the antique hearth in a wide circle. The light from the fire, candles, and bulbs fell upon each of our faces though not on all equally, for some preferred to stay in the shadow of another. I remember still how tall, manly and handsome Roger looked that night. He was at least a head taller than any other person in the drawing room, and full of high spirits and fun. I must admit that I too was in the highest of spirits, and the rest the rest of our company joined in our joyous mood. All, that is, except for one.

“Lady Hurst was dressed in grey silk and was wearing a quaint head-dress. She was sitting in a big, comfortable armchair, facing the fire, very quiet, with her hands and her sharp chin propped on a sort of ivory-handled stick that she used because she was lame. All the while the old woman was peering at me with half-closed eyes. She was a small, old, and had very delicate features. The grey silk dress, her spotless lace, old-fashioned jewellery, and her overall neatness in appearance, were well suited to the intelligent face, with its thin lips, and eyes of a piercing black that were undimmed by age. But, in spite of my high spirited mood, those eyes made me feel uncomfortable as they appeared to follow my every movement around the room. Still, I tried hard to be both merry and happy, even to the point where my own sisters began to wonder what come over me. my ever-ready mirth, which was almost wild in its excess. Nevertheless, Lady Hurst’s eyes did make a disagreeable impression upon me and others quickly began to notice her scrutinising, but they put it down to her eccentricity.

“That disagreeable impression lasted only a few moments I was more pleasantly distracted. My aunt now began to take part in the conversation that was happening and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend. The old lady was a good teller of stories, and one tale would, naturally, lead to another.

“Everyone in the room was called upon to contribute to the entertainment, and each story contained some form of demonology and witchcraft. It was, after all, Christmas and the season for such tales to be told. The old drawing room, with its dusky walls was the perfect place to relate stories like these. The huge logs were crackling in the hearth and burned with a warm glow. The blood-red glare of the ‘Yule log’ reflected on the faces of storyteller and listeners alike, on paintings and the holly wreaths wrapped about their frames. It is no wonder, in the shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels that the ghost and goblin stories took on a life of their own. As the tales unfolded the blood of the more timid grew chill and curdled. They felt their flesh creep while their hearts beat irregularly. The young ladies peeped fearfully over their shoulders and huddled close together like frightened sheep, believing that some impish and malignant face was cackling at them from the dark corners of the old room.

“By degrees my high spirits began to die out, and I started those childish tremors that I long thought I had left behind. I listened intently to each story as it was told, but I never asked myself if I believed in the authenticity of such dismal tales. A fear grew on me, like a child left alone in the nursery and menaced by variously shaped dark shadows. I am sure that most of ladies that were present in the room, both young and middle-aged, were affected in a variety of ways by the wild and fantastic characters in these tales.  Those fears and tremors would die out with the first light of a new day, when the bright sun would shine again on the frost covered grass and tree branches and was reflected by the rich red berries and glossy green spiked holly leaves. This form of entertainment soon ended, however, as my father and the older men returned into our midst. No one was courageous enough to relate such tales when these hard-headed, unimaginative men, returned, because they scorned such idle legends and superstitions.

“The previous quiet that had prevailed now disappeared, to make way for quite a bit of stir and bustle. There was tea, coffee, and other refreshments being served as some played piano and others sang. Roger and I sang a duet together. He had a very fine voice and good musical skills that carried me through the song. Surprisingly my singing was praised for its power and pathos. At the same time, I heard one lady say to another that I was by far the cleverest of my father’s daughters, as well as being the prettiest. Such compliments, however, did not make me vain since there was absolutely no competition between myself and my sisters. Roger whispered some soft, loving words in my ear as he put on his coat and got into the taxi to bring him home. It was now time for shawls, coats and other apparel to be called for as various vehicles rolled up to the porch of the house, and the guests gradually began to make their way home. At last there was no one left in the house but those who were staying the night there. Then I noticed my father, with a look of great annoyance evident on his face.

“”I have just been told a very strange story,” I heard him say, “One of the tenant farmers has just informed me that we have lost four of best ewes that we have been rearing on his land. It was that new flock that arrived at the end of October and the poor man says that they have been killed in a very strange way, with their carcasses having been torn to pieces and horribly mangled.”

“There was a collective sound of shock in the room when this news was revealed. Some of the younger men suggested that the culprit could very well have been a vicious dog. “It would seem so,” said father, “it would appear to be the work of a very vicious dog, and yet there is no dog fitting that description in this area. There are only sheepdogs and sporting dogs, all of which are well secured in yards. But, the sheep have been gnawed and bitten, because they show the marks of teeth distinctly. Some creature has done this thing, and torn those bodies apart like a wolf would. The mystery is that very little, or no, flesh has been taken from any of the bodies and that the attack was apparently made just to suck the blood from the sheep.”

“Heavens above!” was one excited cry when this news was revealed. Then one of the men recalled having heard that dogs could become addicted to sheep- killing and even wipe out an entire flock. “They say that the sight that is left to us is one of complete wantonness, scarcely waiting even a moment to taste a single morsel of flesh.”

“My father shook his head. “I also have heard of such cases,” he said, “but in this case I think that this might be the work of some unknown enemy. The teeth of a dog have been busy, of that there is no doubt, but these poor sheep have been mutilated in a very unusual manner that was as strange as it was horrible. The hearts of the animals have been torn out, and left several feet away from the carcasses, half- gnawed. The men, moreover, insist that they discovered the print of a naked human foot in the soft mud of the ditch. Near to it, this was found.” And he held up what appeared to be a broken link of a rusted iron chain.

“These revelations brought more exclamations of wonder and alarm, as well as many more suggestions, none of which appeared to have a bearing on the case. Then, when my father went on to say that two lambs of the same valuable breed had been killed in the same manner three days previously, there were further loud exclamations. All the while Lady Hurst had listened very calmly, but joined in none of our exclamations. Finally, she spoke to my father, “Try to remember if you have you any enemies among your neighbours?”

“My father gave her a puzzled look and frowned heavily at her. “Not one that I know of,” he replied, confident that he was a popular and kind man.

“Then, you are indeed a lucky man,” said the old woman, with one of her grim smiles.

“The hour was now very late, one-by-one we went off to our rooms to rest. Unfortunately, I was the family who was selected to escort old Lady Hurst to her room, the room I had vacated for her to use. It was not a task that I was fond of, because I did not like her much, godmother or not. My aunts, however, insisted that I should ingratiate myself with a woman who had as much money as she had, in case she might leave to a favourite such as might become. The old lady hobbled up the broad oaken stairs using both my arm her ivory crutch as props. When we reached the door to the room I opened it and led her into the brightly furnished room, which had a warm fire, glowing in the hearth. “This is a very nice room, dear,” she said as she looked around her new surroundings, “I should thank you, since I have been told that you have given it up to me.”

“All I could do was to smile at her compliment. “But, My dear,  I sure you’ll be sorry for your generosity to me, when you consider the strange bedchamber that you have been given, especially after all those ghost stories that were told. Yes?” the old lady added. I simply shrugged this off, telling her that I didn’t believe in such things.

“Where have they put you, child?” she asked, “in some little mouse-hole in the turrets, or in a glory hole somewhere else to sleep among the discarded things of the house. You need not try to be so brave, for I can hear your heart pounding with fear at this moment. I don’t think should be alone tonight.”

“Calling up every ounce of my pride, I tried to laugh off her doubts about my courage. Deep inside my own mind, however, I realised there was quite a lot of truth in what she had said. “Is there anything more that I can get for you, Lady Hurst?” I asked her, while trying to trying to pretend to yawn in the hope that she would see that I was already very sleepy.

“There was to be no such luck for me, because the old woman’s eyes stared directly at me. “You know my dear, I rather like you,” she said, “I also liked your mother well enough before she treated me so shamefully about the christening dinner. Now, dear, I know you are frightened and fearful, and if some bird should even flutter at your window to-night, it just might drive you into hysterics. There is a lovely little sofa-bed over there which can be quickly made up for you, and you can sleep there snugly, under the old witch’s protection. Rest assured no creature will harm you, and no one will be any bit the wiser, or mock you for being afraid.” It was my chance to accept her kind offer, and if I had only known what would happen I might have said “Yes”. Unfortunately, none of us can see into the future with any sense of certainty.XMAS 3

 

The Christmas Horror I

Part I

XMAS 1I would like to relate here a tale of horror that occurred over one hundred years ago to a family, for whom members of my family worked. Those directly affected by the events of that Christmas season openly spoke about them to my distant relations, who recorded them and their story is related here as a warning to us all.

“I was only nineteen years of age when an incident occurred that, unfortunately, has thrown a dark shadow across my life since that time. My days and my years have dragged by since that time, and I have been worn out by it all. In the years before the incident I was a young and happy teenager, and much loved by my parents. I was once very much complimented on possessing a fine complexion and very attractive features. Now, when I look at myself in a mirror, my eyes are filled with the reflection of an old, haggard woman, with ashen coloured lips and a face that has the look of death about it.

“Despite what you might think, I am not complaining or lamenting the fact that I have grown old. But, it was not simply the passing of years that has brought me to such a sorrowful condition, a wreck of my former self. If it had been this alone, in fact, I could have accepted the result more cheerfully, in the knowledge that we all must grow older. In my case, however, it was not the natural progress of passing years that actually robbed me of my bloom of youth, of the hopes and joys of my life, and causing the heartbreak that would leave me doomed to suffer a lonely old age. Although I try hard to be patient with my lot, the concerns and worries of life are like a heavy weight, bearing me down. My heart is completely shattered, empty of any emotion, and so weary of life that I now long for the peace of a death that comes so slowly to those who pray for it.

“Your appetite has probably been whetted now to discover what terrible event has brought me to this condition. The time has come for me, then, to try and relate that terrible event in my life, exactly as it happened. Even though the event which blighted my life occurred many years ago, I cannot forget even the smallest detail of that time.  That incident in my life has been placed into my brain and my heart as if seared there by the heat of a red-hot branding iron. Every millisecond of that time I can see in the wrinkles that cover my brow, and in the whiteness of my dying hair. In my youth that same hair was a glossy brown once, and it shone brightly with the life that was in it and within me.  But my hair did not gradually change from brown to grey, or from grey to white in any natural manner. It was not at all like the hair of my friends whose later years are comforted by the love of their children and grandchildren. You must wonder if I envy them and, in many ways, I do. But, I admit this only as a means to point out to you the difficulty that I have in telling my story is due entirely to the fact that I remember the event too well. Even as I begin to write these things down, however, my hand begins to trembles, and my head begins to swim with faintness. There is a great sense of true horror that takes a grip of my being, pulling me back into a long-remembered terror. Despite all of these things I have been persuaded to grit my teeth and complete this record of that horror, which I have been through.

“At the time when my story begins, I was the young heiress to my family’s substantial fortune. My father was a wise and clever businessman, who had used his talents to gather a large amount of wealth about him. But, although he never showed any disappointment to us, there was very little doubt that he did not have a son to inherit what he had built. Instead, my parents had given life to three daughters, of whom I was the youngest, and we would each share equally in the wealth that our father would pass on to us.

“Being a youthful nineteen years old girl, I spent no time at all on my future inheritance because all my needs were so well taken care of. I was healthy at that time, young and in love, all of which made me feel quite indifferent toward other things. Of course, we three sisters knew that we were heiresses, but I do not think Lucy and Minnie were made any happier or prouder because of that fact. We all had everything that we needed, and life was good.

“Roger, who was the love of my life, did not take an interest in me only because of the money that I would inherit. This was sorely proven to me when, after the terrible event that overcame me, he abandoned me. It is, perhaps, the one thing that I can be truly thankful for, even in my lonely old age. He didn’t stay with me for the money unlike so many ‘gold-digging’ men would have. Now, in lonely old age, I can be happy in the knowledge that I was loved, and that in itself has prevented me from going mad through all the many weary days and nights.

“The house in which we lived was an old Tudor-style mansion, and my father was the type of person who would not tolerate any change in the structure. Like an old castle, the house had numerous turrets, battlements and gable walls remained. The old fashioned windows with their quaint lozenge-shaped panes of glass set in lead were as they had been three hundred years previously.

“Attached to the house there was a large area of deep, thick coniferous woodland, bordered by a slow flowing stream. All this land stretching from the house was owned almost entirely by my father, and was inhabited by good-hearted and hard-working tenant farmers. These countryfolk were steeped in ancient ideas and traditions, and it was within this superstitious atmosphere that we were reared as children. We constantly heard tales of horror, fables and legends of dark deeds done in olden times. We were fascinated by such stories, and we marvelled at the descriptions of creatures and spirits that were said to inhabit our world.

“Our mother had died when we were young, leaving our father a widower with three girls to care for. He was kind and loving to us in his own way, but he was very much absorbed in the day to day affairs of his business enterprises. I effect, there was no person who could control the flow and content of the traditions and superstitions that we were exposed to, and like sponges our innocent soaked them all up. But, all children eventually grow up and there came a time when ghostly tales gave way to dances, dresses and potential life partners. It was at a large ball held by a neighbouring judge that I first met Roger, who was destined to be the love of my young life. As I have said, I am sure that he loved me with every beat of his heart and, even in the times of my grief and anger, I have never doubted this fact. We also blessed by the fact that his father and mine approved of our growing attachment. Today, I can look back upon those happy days as being something of a beautiful dream that I have experienced. But, change was to come to me, and bright and happy days of youth came to an end as blight and sorrow took a grip of my life.

“Christmas was always a joyful and a hospitable time in our home, and among the neighbours that surrounded us. In our house we played all the traditional games and maintained all the old family customs and frolics that were so much a part of celebrating this great feast. The manor, as usual, was filled to capacity with a variety of guests, for whom there was just about enough sleeping accommodation. There were several narrow, dark rooms available in the turrets of the house. We were once told that they had provided, at one time, good shelter to many noble gentlemen in days gone by. But, to us they were nothing more than mere pigeon coops. This Christmas, however, they were to be allotted to those visitors who were bachelors, after having been empty for over a hundred years.

“Every spare room in the house and its wings of the hall were occupied that night, and those who had brought servants were lodged at the gate-house and the farm. But, the unexpected arrival of an elderly relative immediately caused an awful commotion and the drawing up of new accommodation plans. Months before Christmas, this elderly relative had been invited to the celebrations, but she had never announced her intention to accept the invitation. When she arrived, therefore, may aunts, who were the chief organisers, panicked and went about the house wringing their hands and wondering what they could do.

“Lady Hurst was a woman of some note and some consequence within our family. She was a distant cousin of ours, but had been very cold toward us for quite a number of years, because of some affront or slight that she alleged was shown to her on the last occasion that she visited our home. At seventy years old, Lady Hurst somewhat infirm, quite rich, and very testy. Her last visit to us was at the time of my christening and I was given the honour of having her as my godmother. Although, in the last number of years you would never have thought that she held such a position in my life and, as a result, I did not expect any kind of an inheritance from her if and when she passed away

“My Aunt Margaret had begun to panic when she saw Lady Hurst arrive unexpectedly.  “We have no room! No room!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t this just our luck? The turret rooms are certainly not suitable, but where can we put her. She is Rose’s godmother, and she’s as rich as Croesus. After all these years of staying away from here, she comes back today and not a room available to her. What can we do?”

“My aunts could not surrender their rooms for the comfort of Lady Hurst, because they had already given them over to some of the invited married guests, who had already arrived. They could not approach my father and ask him to give up his room to the old woman. My father was, I can assure you the most hospitable of men, but he suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis to the extent that he was virtually incapable of walking normally. My aunts would not dared ask him to move rooms for they knew the man would have rather have lain on broken glass than sleep in a bed other than his own. Finally, it was I who settled the problem by giving up my room, though I was not exactly happy at having to do so. In fact, I surprised myself by feeling so selfish and especially when a trifling sacrifice on my part would make an old and infirm lady comfortable.

“My momentary selfishness annoyed me somewhat, because I was young, healthy and strong. The weather was not cold for the time of the year and, even though it was Christmas, there was no snow on the ground and the dark moist clouds overhead did not appear to be ready to unload any. But, I did do the generous thing and surrendered my room to Lady Hurst. My sisters laughed, and made fun of me for trying to wake his impression on my godmother.

“”Maybe she’s a fairy godmother, Rose,” said Mary, “and you know she felt slightly insulted at the time of your christening, and she had left the house swearing that one day she would have her revenge. Now, here she is! She is coming back to see you and I hope she brings some golden gifts with her.”

“In all honesty I thought little of Lady Hurst, or even her golden gifts. In fact, I cared very little for the fortune gathered by this elderly woman, which my aunts talked about all the time. But, since that time, I have wondered if I had shown some obstinacy and refused to give up my room to Lady Hurst, would my life have been much different. If I had not surrendered the room then Lucy or Mary would have had to offer and then suffered the horror that I met. My heart is still torn when I asked myself, “Would it have been better if the horror did fall on someone else rather than me?”

The Hurling Stick

This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.

Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.

The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.

Hurling 2Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.

There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.

Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’  but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”

“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.

Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”

To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but  we will allow you to use it.”

Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal! I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”

“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.

“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”

“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.

“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”

“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”

“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.

For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.

When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.

The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had               because of the victory.

The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would  just tell me what you would like to have for yourself  as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”

“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”

“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”

The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”

“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.

“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There  was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.

Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”

“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick  that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”

“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of  his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”

By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”

“Anything!” they answered.

“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.

They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.

Hugh John

Hugh John McClean was a perfect example of a rural Irish man; he was a good neighbour, a hard worker, and a man always on the look-out for an easier way to make his living. All of his life he had lived in a small country cottage, which was eventually left to him in his late father’s will. He had died quite unexpectedly when Hugh John was just a young man of eighteen years. In his father’s will, however, it had been stipulated that Hugh John’s mother would be ‘given her day’ in the cottage. In short this clause meant that the mother would be guaranteed to be able to live in the cottage for the remainder of her days. This was something, of course, which Hugh John was very happy to allow his mother to live in the cottage for the rest of her life, because he had no other person who would wash and iron his clothes, cook him hearty meals, or make his bed in the manner in which he had become used to.

Pub Sing SongIt had been Hugh John’s father who had gained for him his first job in ‘Deeney’s Bacon Factory’, which stood about two miles from the family cottage and to which he could cycle his bike, both evening and morning, in just over fifteen minutes. Unlike his father, Hugh John was not exactly ‘the brightest knife in the drawer’ and he was, therefore, not suitable for many of the tasks available within the factory. His first job was simply to count the pigs that farmers had brought to the factory for slaughter. On those days when there were no pigs arriving Hugh John was given the task of keeping the yards and buildings clean, and for packing produce in preparation for delivery. Mick Deeney, the factory owner, took a particular liking to Hugh John, ignoring his lack of ability and often praising his work ethic. There was none who could deny that Hugh John worked hard from Monday to a Friday and socialised well at the weekends. On the occasional Thursday evening he would, however, gather with several local friends and fellow workmates to play a few hands of cards.

To the rear of ‘Wee Jimmy’ McGinn’s house there was a ramshackle hut that had been constructed from various bits of spare wood, packing cases, corrugated iron and many other recycled materials, all of which had been painted a deep red colour. The local men who had come together to build this ramshackle, but solidly constructed, hut decided that they would call it “The Pigeon Club” though it never covered one pigeon in all of its existence. It was supposed to be a private, members only social club although only one of its members kept a pigeon coop. The main purpose of this building was a social meeting place for the local men, where they could enjoy a game of cards and a few pints of beer. They had no license to sell alcohol but you could bring in whatever you wanted to drink on the premises quite legally. Each Friday one of the committee members would buy a hundred or more cans of various beers and a few bottles of whisky, brandy, rum and vodka. The members would then ‘ donate’ a certain amount of money each time they wanted a drink and by ‘donating’ avoided the illegal selling of alcohol.

The nearest public bar for this area of the country was four miles away and no one wanted to risk drinking and driving. Some would have called it a “Shebeen” (Illegal Drinking Den), while others referred to it as a members only club and its membership continued to grow. The local women would have avoided “The Pigeon Club” because it was seen to be mainly for the men of the district, who enjoyed the various gambling games that were played there. It was even decided to buy a television for the club so that they could watch the horse racing on television, betting on the races by telephone call from “Wee Jimmy’s” house. There were occasions, however, when the wagers placed could be quite high and the losses significant, especially on those nights when “the drink was in and the wit was out,” as people say.

One particular night Hugh John reduced his alcohol intake, drinking considerably less whisky and beer than some of the other members. It was one of those rare occasions when he came home from the club reasonably sober and with a considerable amount of winnings from playing cards. The very next day, Hugh John went into the factory and began negotiating with a colleague for the purchase of a small Honda motorbike. Several men within the factory advised Hugh John that he should avoid buying the motorbike, but he was not to be deterred and spent all his winnings on the purchase. He was determined that he would have a mode of transport much better than a bicycle to get him to and from his daily work.

The Honda motorcycle was black in colour and its chrome handles shone brightly in the afternoon sunshine as he rode it home at twenty miles-per-hour with the red crash helmet on his head that had been thrown into the deal for free. When he reached home Hugh John’s old mother was very surprised to see him on a motorcycle and marched up to him, telling him, “In the name of the good Christ Hugh John, what the hell are you doing on one of those modern contraptions.

Ah, Ma! Sure I’ll be alright once I get used to driving it,” he told her proudly and proceeded to park the vehicle at the side of the cottage.

On the first Saturday that he had the motorcycle Hugh John rode it into town, parking outside the “Bookies’ Shop”, where he always placed his bets for the week-end and had some craic with friends. Unfortunately, friends with much more experience of motorbikes chose this time to inform Hugh John’s Honda motorcycle was actually a Honda moped. When they pointed this out to Hugh John he felt a great disappointment, but this became anger when he told them the price he had paid and they laughed. In their experience they felt that the moped was worth far less than the amount of money that he had paid. Several of his friends came outside to examine the purchase and he was told that the engine on the moped was not sounding very healthy and would need to be looked at. Upset and angry, Hugh John rode home that evening and immediately rolled the cycle into the kitchen of the cottage and fetched his toolbox.

Holy Jaysus!” said his mother when she saw him bring the cycle into the kitchen, “What are you doing now Hugh?

One of the boys in town said that the engine was running a bit rough and needed looking at,” he told her. “I’m just going to fix it.

Sure what do you know about these modern machines, son?” she asked. “And the kitchen is not the place to do that dirty work.

It can’t be that hard. Sure there’s not a great difference between a motorcycle and a bicycle, mother. There’s only a small motor and sure that can’t make much of a mess.

Opening his toolbox Hugh John selected a set of spanners and began to strip the moped down to its most basic parts. This was the easy bit of the exercise and it did not take him long to complete it. But, as he looked at the many parts of his moped spread over the kitchen floor Hugh John became totally confused about what to do next. Putting everything back in place and in order was not going to be easy. Hugh John had never thought there would be so many individual parts to such a small engine and he wondered if he could return the engine to its original condition. In the beginning he was convinced that if he took the engine apart in a certain sequence then, by reversing that same sequence, he could easily reassemble the engine. Hugh John, however, did not have the talent for clear and organised thinking, falling quite easily into difficulty through ‘Murphy’s Law’.  This unwritten law is familiar to all Irishmen and is quite simple to follow, stating “If something can go wrong it will!” Try as he might, Hugh John could not recollect the sequence in which he had dismantled the engine. He simply could not recall which piece went into, beside, through, or on top of another piece.

Quite a few hours later, lunchtime the very next day in fact, the moped began to resemble the machine it was prior to Hugh John’s efforts at repair with screwdriver and spanner. Unfortunately when Hugh John tried to turn the engine over there was no kick whatsoever from the moped.

What’s wrong with that damned thing now?” his mother asked him.

I don’t know Ma,” replied Hugh. “I’ve done everything that I can.”

Then, what is all that stuff on the floor over there?” she asked him.

That’s what is left over, after I had put it all back together,” he told her. “There was no room for that stuff.

Well, just you take that load of scrap, and that bike, down to young Geordie’s and get him to fix it. At least he knows something about those modern contraptions.

More money!” sighed Hugh John.

You broke it, now you fix it,” his mother told him.

Right, Ma!” he snapped like a child in a tantrum.

A day or two later Hugh John gathered the bike and the box of leftovers and wheeled them down the narrow country road to Geordies’ house and workshop. Geordie was a well known mechanic in the area who was fully employed in repairs of cars and motorcycles. It was said that what Geordie didn’t know about cars and motorcycles wasn’t worth knowing. For this reason Hugh John left the moped and all the spare engine parts with the man, asking only that Geordie didn’t “stick the arm in up to the elbow” when it came to price.

It took Geordie a few days to strip the moped down again and to put it back together in the right way, ensuring everything ran smoothly. While he was at it he increased the power output from the small engine, making it reach speeds that it had never reached previously, and delivered it back to Hugh John. When he started the moped Hugh John was not expecting the speed at which this small machine could travel, which frightened the life out of him. “In the name of Christ, Geordie, are you trying to kill me altogether!” he complained. “I almost crapped myself going down that road!

The very next morning Hugh John rode the moped very slowly to work and offered it for sale and little Des Connolly jumped up and offered him his price immediately. “That is just the thing for me and Bernie to get about on,” he said. Bernie was his wife and, while Des was small and thin, Bernie was almost six feet tall and eighteen stone in weight. Hugh John did not choose to tell Des that the moped was incapable of carrying both of them at the same time. In fact he was concerned that the moped might not even carry Bernie alone. But, he shook hands with the man and the deal was sealed. A few days later he watched Des riding the motorcycle along the road with Bernie on the back, and the front wheel at forty-five degree angle in the air. Although Des did not confirm it, there was a rumour that the entire rear of the moped collapsed under the strain, coming home from church one Sunday morning and Hugh John never saw it again.

After the moped incident Hugh John, as is the case with most young men of his age, began to take a healthy interest in the female sex. Encouraged by his friends Hugh John began to attend the various dances that were held in the local “Calypso Ballroom”, but he did not actually dance very often. He would often be found near the soft drinks bar admiring the young ladies on the dance-floor, displaying themselves in their best dresses. Unfortunately for the young man he could never have been considered to be among the best dressed males in the area, and he would never have been considered a “Gene Kelly” on the dance-floor. The man had two left feet and the only foxtrot that he knew was the one a fox did after a farmer shot at him. At one time he spent a considerable sum in buying himself a “Teddy Boy” outfit with drainpipe trousers, long jacket and blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Rather than improve his reputation among the ladies he became known to them as “The Calypso Kid.”

Fortunately for the “Kid” not all the female attendees at the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ thought he was a fool. One night he was persuaded to ask a young lady to dance, while his friend asked her companion to dance with him. That was to be his first introduction to Winnie Lavery, who was a big girl in more ways than one.

Winnie had the build of a Russian weightlifter and the voice to match. Many people suggested that Hugh John only continued to date her because he was afraid to say that he didn’t want to see her again. When he danced with Winnie it appeared that Hugh John simply floated across the dance-floor, but it was more likely due to the fact that Winnie held him so tight the man’s feet never touched the floor. For a considerable length of time, Winnie had been seeking a man who just might make a good husband for her, and Hugh John McClean fitted the bill perfectly. He was a quiet sort of man whom, she felt she could dominate. He was a good worker, well-mannered and, best of all in her book, not too bright. Winnie had now set her sights on marrying this man and becoming Mrs. McClean and assuming control of his house irrespective of the fact that Hugh John’s mother, Mary, still lived there. Not surprisingly, with a woman so determined, within six months of their first meeting in the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ Hugh John had been persuaded to believe that he had met the woman of his dreams and, as she expected, he proposed to Winnie. She ensured that the engagement was a short one and they were eventually married in the local church and honeymooned in Dublin for a few days.

On the return of the happy couple Hugh John had little choice but to settle down into married life, while Winnie immediately gave up the job and began to make the house her own, much to the Mary’s resentment. Instead of involving the elderly woman in any of the changes she was making, Winnie began changing the furniture and fittings to a style of her own liking. By ignoring the feelings of the elderly woman, Winnie had stoked up years of animosity between the two women in Hugh John’s life and the years that followed could not have been worse for Hugh John. The happy life that he had thought he was getting when he married, suddenly became a nightmare.

The constant battle of wills between Mary and her daughter-in-law gradually wore the older woman down, causing the old lady’s health to deteriorate. When Mary eventually passed away some months later there were many of her neighbours and friends who were deeply saddened by the passing of such a generous, kind-hearted lady. Hugh John was particularly upset by his mother’s death and he never quite forgave Winnie for all the grief she had caused the old woman. From that day they continued to live as husband and wife in public, while they lived like strangers in private. Although Winnie quickly discovered that she no longer had the influence over husband that she once had, Hugh John did not prevent her from continuing to furnish the home. Perhaps it was this growing distance between them that the couple never experienced the joy of having a family of their own. Over the years that followed Hugh John spent gradually began spending less and less time at home. He preferred to spend much of his leisure time in the company of friends in “The Pigeon Club”, or in the public houses of the nearest town.

“McKeever’s” was noted in the town for quality of its draught Guinness stout and became the favourite drinking place of Hugh John, where he would spend two or three nights every week, drinking with friends and workmates. The bar was also noted for being the oldest public house in the town and attracted all types of people to it. There were, for example, quiet, easy-going types who enjoyed the occasional drink among good company. But, as is often the case, the bar also attracted the more boorish type of person who could not enjoy a few drinks without causing or encouraging trouble. One such visitor to the bar was a well-built young man called Jimmy Duggan, known to all in “McKeever’s” as ‘Mean Jimmy’ because he was the greatest bully in the town. Jimmy was so filled with well toned muscles that he always appeared to be ready to burst out of his clothes. Hugh John was a quiet peace loving man who had never given Jimmy any reason to confront him. But, one particular evening, something about Hugh John’s appearance changed everything. It was a typical Saturday evening in the bar when Hugh John walked in wearing his best suit and a brand new pair of brown leather brogues.

Where are you going?” asked the barman.

I’m going to Wilson’s wake,” Hugh John told him.

Jaysus, I heard the man was dead. When is the funeral?

Tomorrow, after twelve o’clock Mass,” replied Hugh John as he took a drink from his pint of Guinness.

Those are nice shoes, Hugh John,” commented Jimmy Duggan, interrupting the conversation between Hugh John and the barman. “I wouldn’t mind those shoes myself.

Thanks,” said Hugh John. “I bought them in the sale at Clarkes.

Good for you,” replied Jimmy in a quiet, but more threateningly. “You’ll be able to get yourself another pair easy enough, then.

Hugh John laughed, “And why would I want to buy another pair?

Because, Hugh John, I want those shoes you have on your feet,” Jimmy told him coldly. There was no sign that he meant it jokingly.

These?” laughed Hugh John. “Are you joking?

Jimmy Duggan drew closer to Hugh John and told him, “I never joke. Now take the shoes off.

And what am I supposed to do?” asked Hugh John.

Have you never been in your sock-soles? Now, just take them off before I rip them from your feet!

Not one person in the bar saw where that punch came from. They only heard the loud crack as the fist connected with chin and, as they turned to see what had happened, they saw Jimmy Duggan’s body rise into the air. Hugh John had hit Duggan so hard that he was lifted off his feet and seemed to float, airborne, for several yards before he finally crashed to the floor. Jimmy Duggan lay unconscious on the floor of McKeever’s bar and from that moment Hugh John’s reputation in the town was made. He became a man with the courage of a tiger and the strength of a bull elephant, making him a man that nobody wanted to upset or trifle with.

Hugh John’s new reputation as a ‘hard man’ with great courage could have taken a very serious knock if news had been spread, about his fear of mice. Even Winnie, for such a large woman, could not her paralysing fear of these small creatures and she did everything she could to ensure none would ever enter their home. But, there is no such a thing as complete security in anything, and there is always “Murphy’s Law” that applies to most things in life – “If something can go wrong, then it will.” One morning as Winnie cooked the breakfast she noticed a mouse, scampering across the kitchen floor and immediately squealed, in her terror, “Mouse!

That terrible squeal of anguish that echoed through the house caused Hugh John to run immediately to the aid of his terrified wife. But, when he heard the word ‘mouse’ he suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Just you hold on here, Winnie!” he called to his wife. “I will be back in a few minutes!!”

Hugh John left the house and ran the entire distance to Billy Robb’s shop and garage, which was about a quarter of a mile distant. Breathlessly he asked Billy, “Have you any mouse-traps?

I have,” answered Billy, “How many do you want?

How many have you got?

Surprised by Hugh John’s question Billy pulled out a box from under the counter and, after a moment, he told Hugh John, “A dozen.

I’ll take them all!

Jesus, Hugh John, you must have a plague of the wee devils!” said Billy.

No, thank God, just the one,” explained Hugh John as he reached into his pocket for his wallet.

Twelve traps for one mouse?” exclaimed Billy. “Do you call it Houdini?

Aye, very funny. Just give them here,” said Hugh John.

Still laughing heartily, Billy handed the box of traps to Hugh John and took the man’s money. With a box of traps in his hands, Hugh John returned home and found Winnie just where he had left her, standing on the kitchen table shaking in fear. One by one Hugh John laid out the traps across the kitchen floor and just as he set the last trap one suddenly snapped as it was released. The spring in the trap had been tripped and the trap snapped on to the fragile neck of the little creature, killing it. A dead mouse, however, did not suddenly cure Hugh John’s fear of the creature and, despite Winnie’s continued for him to remove the little corpse, he would not go anywhere near it. Instead, he went outside and retrieved a long-handled shovel with which he scooped up both the mouse and the trap. Keeping his catch in the shovel she guided it through the back door of the cottage and disposed of it in the bin. With the terrifying creature gone, Winnie came down from the table still shaking and the domestic life of the cottage continued much as it had previously.

Just after his fortieth wedding anniversary Hugh John woke one morning to find that Winnie had passed away, while sleeping beside him in the bed during the night. Although Winnie and Hugh were no longer a loving couple, it was still a shock to him and he was a little sad that she was now gone. It may not have been a marriage filled with romance and good times, and Hugh John may have found it difficult to be in her presence for any length of time, or truly communicate, but he did retain a certain affection for her and he missed her when she went from his life. Hugh John was now left all alone in that small cottage, retired from work and with plenty of time on his hands. But, housekeeping and cooking were talents that Hugh John did not possess and the house began to quickly fall into a very untidy condition. Winnie’s sister, Bernie, was the first to pick up the courage to tell him that he needed to do something about taking care of himself and the house.

You need somebody to do the cleaning and cooking for you, Hugh John,” she told him.

Can you not do it?

Certainly not,” Bernie told him bluntly. “I have my own home, husband and children to take care of. Why don’t you advertise for help in the local paper?

Sure I wouldn’t know what to say, or pay,” he told her. “You do it for me, Bernie.

After giving the matter some consideration Bernie placed the following advert in the local paper – “Young, single woman required as live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman. All interested parties please apply to 4 Damson Terrace.

When the newspaper came out, the following Thursday, the news of Hugh John’s search for a housekeeper  became widespread throughout the entire area. The idea of such a search caused considerable humour among the neighbours and several jokes did the rounds of the various public houses, many suggesting that Hugh John was searching for a new wife rather than a new housekeeper. There were quite a few of Hugh John’s neighbours who thought the old man should be thinking about his ‘plot’ rather than a young housekeeper, whose very presence might cause over excitement in a man who had been so deprived of female company for such a considerable time. One local, young man with a mischievous mind thought he could get some fun out of the situation if he was to dress up in female clothing and present himself for interview. He decided to put his plan into action on the Saturday morning, and encouraged several local people to observe the practical joke at first hand by secreting themselves at various observation points.

Tommy was the young man’s name and he convinced his sister, Mary, to assist him with his female disguise. She began by dressing him in a brassiere around his chest, filling the cups with tissue paper and couple of pairs of socks. Over a pair of football shorts, Tommy wore a brightly flowered skirt that stretched almost to his ankles. He borrowed a large woollen jumper and on his feet he squeezed a pair of black, patent-leather high heels. Once her brother was dressed , Mary sat him down in a chair beside her dressing table and began to apply make-up to his face. She applied foundation before applying eyelash and eye-brow make-up, and finally red lipstick. To add authenticity to this great plan of deceiving old Hugh John, Mary finally placed a wig of long, shiny, flowing black hair upon her brothers head. So complete was the disguise that, when Tommy left the house, it was virtually impossible to tell that he was a man and not a female. Those who witnessed the transformation were certain that Hugh John would not recognise the deception which was going to played upon him.

Tommy walked down the terrace of houses until he came to the entrance into Hugh John’s cottage and stopped. In his best female manner he opened the ornamental mental gate and walked up the path to the front door, which he knocked loudly. None of those watching the scene could be observed, but they could see all that was happening. Tommy was standing on the doorstep when the cottage’s front door opened and Hugh John came out of the house leaning on a walking stick. “Hello,” he greeted what he thought was a young woman standing before him.

“Hello, Mr. McClean,” Tommy greeted the old man. “I have come to apply for the housekeeper’s position.

Come on ahead in,” Hugh John invited the visitor cordially and Tommy went into the cottage. When the door closed behind Tommy, those who had been watching the action began to giggle and snicker at the thought of Hugh John being so easily fooled. But the laughter was quickly silenced when a loud scream of terror echoed from the house and all the neighbours waited to see what had happened. There was another loud scream and the sound of raised voices that seemed to originate from the rear of the cottage. Several of the neighbours now rushed to better positions that would allow them to see exactly what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was almost unbelievable. They saw Tommy, dressed as a young girl, running as fast as his feet would carry him across the field that stretched uphill from the rear of the cottages. Holding his dress up with his hands and having no shoes on his feet, Tommy was making good progress and putting good distance between himself and his pursuer. Behind him, Hugh John was limping after Tommy with his walking stick in hand and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Come back wee darling. Let me show you just what I want you to do!”

But, Tommy was not answering.