Setember 2016 CTWG Story

This is the first draft of the last chapter of the novella I thought might one day spring out of my very first story for the Group. I wrote it at the beginning of the month and I’m not sure I like it now as I’m thinking of wrenching the whole longer story around – been mulling the story over. But here goes…..

A Funeral

It was a grey autumn day with violent blustery rain showers, matching Marion’s mood. People said funerals were supposed to be a celebration and, yes, she wanted to celebrate Mike’s life – or, selfishly, those bits of it she’d spent with him – but she felt overwhelming sadness and loss at his departure. Out in the churchyard she listened to the mournful toll of the bells and tried not to shed a tear.

She had arrived at the Church in Leckhampton in good time but hung back, put off by the funeral directors with their cards at the door, reluctant to give her name or to appear too publicly. She lurked in the background noticing the back door through the church tower was open. Then when the undertakers arrived with the coffin and family, she darted through the tower door, apologising to a churchwarden.

“Sorry, I’m a bit late. Please excuse me, I don’t want to disrupt the funeral procession.”

The churchwarden nodded courteously and showed her to a seat at the back and procured her an Order of Service.

As the procession passed, the Vicar intoning the customary prayers, Marion held back the tears and looked at Ginnie, who she’d never seen in the flesh before, and the two boys, standing strong with their wives. And there was Dave, ever loyal but looking older, with his wife following dutifully in the procession. But most of all she gazed at the coffin and thought of Mike, now decomposing flesh and bone, but once vigorous and, at the same time, gentle and considerate. She thought of how, less than six months ago they’d been making love – passionate yet utterly tender – and now he was suddenly gone. He’d been so attentive to her needs, whether as a young student or later on as an older man.

Mike’s brother Jim gave an address praising his brother’s dedication to the medical profession and his work in retirement as an adviser to GP practices around the Midlands as well as increasing “devotion” – as Jim put it rather sarcastically, Marion thought – to art. She detected a hint of Ginnie in the voice as she had never come to understand Mike’s love of drawing and painting – although Ginnie would probably never know that quite a bit of Mike’s activities had not involved architecture or art. But that said, Mike had really become quite an accomplished water colourist, as some of her own clients would readily testify.

At the end of the service, as the family filed out behind the coffin, Marion had her first real look at Ginnie’s face in the flesh – as opposed to the odd photograph Mike had shown her – and saw her face, undoubtedly pretty once, but seemingly grown harsh she thought and her dark hair flecked with grey. It fitted with what Mike had said about her.

Outside in the churchyard, the family and congregation gathered around the grave for the committal though Marion hung back observing from a distance. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the vicar intoning the words of commendation and handfuls of earth being thrown in by the family, Marion felt a surge of emotion at the realisation Mike was now gone for ever, and tears welled up and her shoulders shook with sheer desolation and loneliness. She stood rooted until the mourners turned away when she too turned to go but not before she happened to catch the attention of Dave who recognized her. He whispered to Ginny who hesitated for a minute as if paralysed by shock. Then Marion felt the full burning gaze of someone searching for an answer to questions perhaps lurking in the back of their mind but now suddenly thrust to the foreground. Ginnie started to move towards her, but Marion turned swiftly and fled.

It was later, back at home, the mourners departed, that Ginnie remembered the pictures the family had unearthed in the past week. There in the old family album was a yellowing picture of Mike with his friends, including Dave, at Medical School and next to Mike was Marion the nurse she knew to have been his old girlfriend; and then, from eighteen months ago, the press cutting from the Shropshire Chronicle of Mike with two of his watercolours and his upmarket client, easily recognisable as the mysterious woman in the churchyard. And as she pondered numbly, she finally began to understand.

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Colmore’s entry for August – The Girl in the Lake

THE GIRL IN THE LAKE

“Good afternoon,” the footman, resplendent in his uniform, opened the door of the taxi whilst another attendant opened the boot to retrieve the luggage. “Welcome to Croatia and the Zelesny Gora Palace.”

Mike and Celia got out into the clear blue light. Slipping on their sunglasses they observed the hotel standing resplendent by the edge of the shimmering blue Lake Zelesny Gora, slightly on the edge of the small town of the same name. The surrounding farmland lay somnolent in the summer heat. The footman opened a sun umbrella to escort them the short distance to the front door of the hotel, opened by yet another attendant who bowed politely as the couple passed through followed by their luggage.

“Mr and Mrs. Hatton, a warm welcome from the Palace Hotel. Well, we have for you a room in the old part of the Palace with a view over the lake,” the deputy manager announced. “Very comfortable with more character than the modern wing. We hope you enjoy your stay.”

Continue reading Colmore’s entry for August – The Girl in the Lake

I’ve been waiting for you

It was an early afternoon in October when Jim Brooke stopped at Edgehill on his way homefrom a meeting in Stratford-upon-Avon. The autumn sun was still quite warm and bright but giving a strange yellowish tint to the surroundings. He gazed over the fields stretching away towards Kineton taking in the scene. Jim had been here twice before. The first time had been a family visit when he was young with his parents and his sister. His father, who had an interest in military history, had explained how the battle had unfolded and the small part played by two family forebears. The second occasion had been a school visit with his sixth-form History class. He recalled he’d explained to his students how two of his ancestors, step-brothers Cecil and Francis, had fought against each other on opposite sides at Edgehill with Cecil being killed.

“Brothers fighting on opposite sides?” one of his pupils had sounded puzzled.

“Why yes, it was quite common,” Jim had replied. “My father’s ancestor, Digby Brooke, was the MP for Abingdon and a Royalist; he had two sons. Cecil was the eldest but it appeared his mother had died when he was about three. Digby then remarried and he and his second wife had Francis. I don’t know the reason but the family seems to have fallen out and Cecil seemingly took against his father and the rest of the family because he joined the Parliamentarians whilst Francis was loyal to the family and was a Royalist like the rest of them. We still have very old portraits of the three of them, though Cecil’s is of him alone; Digby, Francis and his mother were painted together.”

Jim advanced in a northerly direction across the field down towards Kineton and towards the area where the main battle had been fought, not sure what he was looking for, but impelled by the memories of the earlier visits when he had felt drawn by some mysterious attraction towards a particular corner of the battlefield. After about a mile or so, by the spot in question, he began to feel tired and sat down under a tree for a brief rest and started to drift off to sleep. Very soon, he was accompanied by ghostly images of Civil War soldiers seeming to rise up from their resting places in the ground, battling around him, their bloodthirsty cries punctuated by the screams of vicious injury and the moans of the dying. One particular scene stuck in hi mind, that of  a Roundhead fighting off two Royalists only to look round to be run through by a third Cavalier soldier who collapsed to his knees staring up at and seemingly beseeching his attacker. This unpleasant reverie was interrupted by a chill blast of air – wind it was not and from where Jim didn’t know – at which the ghostly figures faded back into the ground except for the one on his knees dying who seemed to observe Jim with an evil stare before it too faded.

“Hello, who’s there?” Jim started glancing around. “Is there anyone there?”

But now nothing. The agricultural landscape lay empty and still before him with no breeze or sign of any human being. Jim put the chill down to the fact the sun was beginning to go down losing some of its heat. Feeling a little shaken, he got up, dusted himself down and made his way back to the car. Throughout the return walk, he sensed some kind of presence shadowing him very closely, almost on his shoulder, but although it was still light he could not see anything or, for that matter anybody else, in the fields despite frequent nervous glances over his shoulder and desperate pirouettes to try and find the source of his malaise.

He got in the car and started home to Northampton, all the while glancing in his rear view mirror as inexplicably he felt some sort of brooding presence along with him in the vehicle, a feeling that got worse as the day ended and night settled over the countryside. Back home he hurried in and shut the front to be greeted by a message from his wife to say she had gone out to a WI meeting and that there was some supper in the fridge. Jim turned the heating on as he felt cold and drew the curtains, not so much against the dark as against some nagging feeling that he was being closely watched in the house but from where he was not sure.

Unusually for him he ate supper on a tray in front of the television, needing comfort in the deathly quiet of the house. Even the normal gurgling of the central heating seemed to be unusually stilled although Jim had turned it up in order to combat the chill that had settled. Having finished his meal, he put the tray on the table in front of him and, feeling too weary to read the newspaper, tried to pay attention to the television. Although it provided some distraction he was now beginning to feel that he definitely was not alone and whatever the presence was it was decidedly inside the house with him. In an increasing state of anxiety, he began to hunt ever more feverishly around the house, looking under cushions, in cupboards, under the beds, in drawers. Eventually, feeling totally worn, he collapsed on the sofa and after a minute or so started to drift off into a trance like state.

As Jim lay there he felt himself back at the battle at Edgehill and the vision of the soldier he had seen at the end of his earlier dream reappeared, but this time more clearly. Jim gazed at it recognising a Parliamentarian uniform. Removing its helmet the figure advanced until it was staring over him and Jim began to feel an icy cold and a sense a revolting stench. He shivered with fear and revulsion at the stench.

“Why, sire,” the figure enquired, “you feel cold eh? Perhaps you feel the coldness of the grave around you and the smell of death. May I invite you to share it after you have felt the physical pain of my wounds and the mental pain of my life.”

Straightening up, the figure revealed a deep wound just below his heart, the blood still seemingly oozing through the shredded clothing.

“See the sword wound inflicted on me by my very own brother; killed by my own brother. Consigned to a cold unmarked grave alone with my bitter memories….”

“Why, you’re Cecil Brooke aren’t you? I recognise you now from the family portraits my parents still have.” I mouthed in horror. “You mean, you were killed by Francis? Was that what I saw in my dream on the battlefield?”

“Aye,” the figure spat out, “killed by my step-brother with no shred of mercy or compassion and defamed and abused as he killed me, his eyes gloating. And before that cast out by my family. You know the brief story I think as you are a historian, I believe, and you teach the young about the War against the tyrant Charles Stewart. But you know nothing of the suffering inflicted on me in the Brooke family. You talk glibly of portraits. The one of me is just of me as well you know. ‘Tis the portrait of that coward Francis that is the family portrait – Francis with Sir Digby and that whore of a second wife.”

“But hold on, why call her a whore” I struggled, “why did you take against your step-mother? What did she do?”

“You think you are descended from Sir Digby through Francis. Well, sad to say you’re all bastards as my father was no father to Francis but only ask – if you could now – Lawson, the family coachman. You might hear a different story. So, James Brooke, you and your ancestors and any heirs of yours be no Brookes at all. Bastards all. Descendants of a mere coachman. But still Lawson, though he was driven out of the family home, fought at Cropredy Bridge for the cursed King and got his just desserts – run through by a fellow comrade and now he rots with Satan along with my father and his descendants.”

“You had no heirs?” Jim asked to try and quell his nerves, beginning to struggle free of the trance he was in, not knowing if this was imaginary for for deadly real.

“I had an heir – a daughter – of a lovely gal, in London but she died of the pox along with her mother when she were but three years old,” he answered, his apparent mask slipping and his rage turning briefly to sadness.

“But why, I hear you ask in your deepest thoughts – yes, I read them now – did I fight for Essex and Parliament? Well, when I suspected my step-mother’s infamy, my father drove me out of the family home without the slightest share of what might have been justly mine so as to stop any breath of scandal,” Cecil paused. “So Francis took the family honours and I could see it in his eyes when he gored me.”

“So, perhaps it is time for you, cursed descendant of Francis to come lie with me in the cold of the tomb. God knows, I’ve been willing you and your forebears back to Edgehill for the last three hundred and fifty years and finally you came and you have yet no offspring so the curse can stop with you and I can lie avenged in eternal peace.”

Jim was now struggling out of the trance, sensing the danger he was in and decided to fight back. The grey figure was still in front of him advancing menacingly drawing a sword but Jim dodged the first two ghostly cuts. In desperation, Jim seized the poker that hung with other tools in front of the fireplace and fought back feeling it odd that such a seemingly ghostly sword should ring so true against the poker. After a minute or so of dodging Cecil’s sword Jim saw an opportunity and struck at his opponent’s head felling him to the floor. Then seeing Cecil’s sword lying beside the prostrate body, he seized it and plunged it as deep as he could into Cecil’s chest sweating with the effort of piercing the leather jerkin.”

“Go to your grave Cecil Brooke with my apologies and sorrows. But do not ever return,” Jim hissed through gritted teeth.

And with a noiseless heart rending scream heard only to Jim, the figure of Cecil vanished along with the sword.

Jim fell asleep exhausted and awoke about an hour later being gently shaken by Mary his wife.

“Are you alright, darling? You look quite ill. And what’s the poker doing in your lap?”

“Not really.” Jim replied. “You won’t believe this…. but I’ve had a fight with a ghost. On the way home from the meeting, I stopped and visited the battle site at Edgehill and something followed me. Then it materialised here in front of me. The ghost of my ancestor Cecil Brooke…. The one who was killed at the battle.”

Jim then proceeded to tell the story in detail after which his wife said gently, “Well your father always thought there was something rather fascinating but evil about Edgehill and I understand your grandfather felt that too. I suppose that’s why your father only went there with a family group, never alone.”

“Anyway, looks like the Brookes are all bastards, then,” sighed Jim. “ But what worries me now is that I not only felt sheer relief when the ghost departed but I wonder if I felt some of emotion, the glee, the ghost said Francis seemed to show when he killed Cedric. Perhaps Francis must have known he was extinguishing the one life that could challenge his inheritance; even greedily grasping at it. Have I inherited any of that greed?”

“Don’t worry, it’s over,” Mary said. “We’re never likely to be as wealthy as Sir Digby or Francis and you don’t strike me as a greedy murderer…. fortunately.”

She kissed Jim on his forehead and whispered, “Let’s have a wee dram to settle down then go to bed and try and put it in the past. You look shattered. The curse, if that’s what it was, has I think gone now for good.”

 

NIGHT JOURNEY

“All ready?” Massoud, our maquis guide, enquired in his heavy accent. The Gauloise stuck to his upper lip as he spoke. His last cigarette for a while as he wouldn’t be able to smoke on the mountain on account of the glow of his cigarette. The four of us nodded – Mme Rocher, her daughter Emilie, Jim and I. As instructed, we’d dressed in dark but warm clothes, although I knew Massoud disapproved of my, by now, rather battered flying jacket fearing it would give us away even though I’d taken the RAF insignia off it.

“It will be cold in the mountains after dark, yet it is spring,” Mme Bonnifant, declared in her halting English. “Good luck. Please come back soon and help rid us of the Bosche. Look after Reggie,”  she whispered to me.

She and her son, Louis, had been Reggie’s and my “hostess” for the last week or two (I forget exactly how many days) since we arrived in Bagneres de Luchon concealed in the back of a Citroen TUB van behind a load of farm supplies and a couple of cages of chickens who had insisted on looking at us in a rather off-putting way. Since then we’d spent most of our time in Mme Bonnifant’s attic with the occasional walk in the village after dark, which allowed Reggie to stretch his knee. But Madame had been so hospitable to us and arranged a couple of visits from a neighbouring doctor to try and treat Reggie’s knee. He could no more resolve the issue than could the medecin in Cognac but, again, he’d tried.

“We will,” I answered and then, being British we went to shake hands, but she hugged us and wished us “Bon Voyage”. Then she kissed the Rochers, whispering quiet words of encouragement.

Turning to Massoud she said urgently, “Tell Jean-Pierre to take care…. Tell him I love him and ache for his return. And Louis is well but misses his father so.” Massoud nodded. As we filed out, I saw Mme Rocher turn away, shoulders shaking, a handkerchief at her eyes.

We started out moving quietly through the village with its drawn curtains, the lamps and occasional electric light glowing. Soon we reached the start of the path up the mountain.

The moon climbed higher in the sky illuminating clouds that drifted past on a gentle westerly wind and providing some – but fortunately not too much – illumination as we climbed steadily.

I spent the time thinking of the two month journey to get here from La Rochelle where my Wellington had been hit by flak during a raid on the dockyards. I thought of my crew. I know Reggie, the co-pilot, and Ross, the front gunner, bailed out with my navigator Jim and I but where they landed I don’t know. Jim and I had landed close together and were lucky the Resistance had picked us up fairly quickly. The others, well…. the plane had broken up in flames very quickly…… I tried not to think. But I worried about Jim. He’d been injured when flak hit the plane on the starboard side at the back of the cockpit and sustained shrapnel wounds to his thigh and knee. I and other volunteers had nursed him on our way south to the Spanish border.

We’d been taken to a farm near Surgeres where we’d slept in a barn, which considering it was March, hadn’t been too cold, and the farmer and his wife had looked after us very well. We’d stayed there a couple of days until the Resistance had organised a lift on a truck going to St Jean d’Angely and then via the route departementale to Cognac. We’d been hidden behind a load of farm supplies which was brilliant for me but was hell for Jim with his knee bent up. Doctor Bertrand in Bergerac, where we stopped on our journey, had managed to extract some, but not all, the shrapnel and he had only limited pain relief to offer. I and a maquisard had held Jim down through the worst when he screamed to the point where Dr. Bertrand had stuffed a cloth in Reggie’s mouth.

“Necessary for all of as I don’t want to attract attention from anyone else,” he explained with a kindly shrug. “Excusez, but our supplies are limited and local anaesthetic is not really good for this. We do our best. He needs proper attention from a surgeon rather than a humble local medecin like me. There are still bits of shrapnel around the knee. The constant travel is not good for him but I suppose needs must as it would be the worse for him – for both of you – if you were in a prisoner camp.”

Jim  hadn’t been fit to travel for a good few days after that and even then travelling scrunched up in the backs of lorries for hours on end didn’t help the wound. Fortunately we’d had  time to rest a bit  in Mme Bonnifant’s loft which was comfortable though a bit hot during the day when, of course, we had to lie low and be most careful.

Massoud had a lantern but preferred not to use it unless forced to for fear of being seen by a German patrol. At first the path was fairly easy but got steeper. Jim began to struggle, his knee having been injured by a piece of shrapnel when we bailed out. But Jim was a dour Scot and hated to complain.

After an hour or more, Jim began to struggle and I lent him my shoulder to lean on although it wasn’t easy as the path steepened and sometimes our boots slipped on loose rock. I heard Jim breathing hard as he hauled his injured leg up the mountainside so as to keep pace with the rest of us.

Then about two hours into our climb, Massoud made noiseless gestures urging us to get down and disperse quietly into the undergrowth on either side of the path. We heard voices ahead of us talking in German. I heard the crunch of their boots on the mountain rocks.

I nestled into the cold, damp undergrowth wishing it would just swallow me up. Then, I was grateful to my leather flying jacket and was glad I had insisted on keeping it for the last few months despite being told it could be a giveaway. I was vaguely warm lying on the cold earth amongst the ferns and other vegetation which I hoped wouldn’t become my grave, far from home and loved ones.

I thought about the journey to get here not far from the Spanish border and relative freedom and I prayed it would not end now. I wasn’t particularly religious but then I really felt in need of protection from somewhere, I knew not from where. And I thought about Jim lying over to my right, struggling to stay both dead still and silent with the pain in his knee. I also thought of Mme Rocher and her daughter. Her husband Henri had to flee to Spain before he was betrayed on account of his resistance work. Eighteen months they’d been apart, sustained by covert letters, and they were aching so much to see him.

I began to feel real fear as one of the Germans was now ten feet away, smoking, his face briefly illuminated as he dragged on the cigarette, sub-machine gun nestled in his arms. I lay still my heart pounding, willing myself into utter stone cold silence. I thought about taking Fritzi out. I felt for the knife in my pocket and I reckoned I could, but I knew there were some of his colleagues close-by, so not a good idea. Fritzi movesd away and gestured to his colleague to move on. After fifteen minutes or so Massoud silently appeared checking the lie of the land and then gathered us with silent gestures. As I took Jim’s weight on my shoulder again my thoughts softened as I thought that perhaps Fritzi and his colleagues didn’t want this war either, to be here anymore than I or the rest of us poor bastards did, but just had to put up with orders.

“You know, I could have killed that wee German bastard,” Jim hissed in my ear, “throttled the life out of him.”

“I know, Jim. I thought the same – I’ve got a knife in my pocket and I did think….and then weighed up there were two of them. But now I’m thinking perhaps he’s young, hates being here and wants to be home in Germany. Probably has a mother or a girlfriend worrying…. Just think Janet and your family will be worrying about what’s happened to you and whether you’re alive.”

“Aye, I know. You’re right.”

We tramped onwards and upwards. Jim was now limping badly and in pain and, despite his “stiff upper lip” couldn’t help but moan though he was a tough little fighter, I knew that having flown over twenty missions with him over France and Germany. I sensed the Rochers were struggling too but they battled on. I knew how desperate Madame and her daughter were to be reunited with Henri.

I eventually felt more optimistic as the path levelled out and nearing the border, the sun starts to rise and the first rays begin to warm us. Eventually we began to descend and there down the slope were the welcoming party with blankets and warming drinks and food. The Rochers rushed to meet Henri who was standing slightly apart and embraced with the grateful sobbing of Madame and her daughter echoing to the skies. Jim was wrapped in a blanket and taken, with a cheery wave to me, to lie down in the back of the waiting van. Massoud sat on the grass with a fellow Frenchman, who I took to be Jean-Pierre Bonnifant, and his Spanish colleagues drinking brandy and eating pastries, chatting away in the local dialect. I watched him and reflected on the courage of the maquisards who risked their lives for people like me nearly every day of the week.

I sipped my drink, feeling the brandy starting to warm me, munched on a pastry and looked back up to the brightening sky and the flank of the mountain, greening as the spring sunshine lit up the land and the flowers. I thought of home and now I started to think of Susie, my fiancee of all of three days when I left on the mission to La Rochelle, although I hoped she was still my fiancee as she might not know whether I was alive or dead after these last few months. If she still wanted me when I got home, I needed go with her and choose an engagement ring which we never had time to do before I left on the raid.

After a while, Massoud came over to me.

Excusez,” he said, “but we need to move down the valley as the Bosche sometimes come over the border to look for prisoners fleeing.”

I nodded and moved to the van, where Jim was half asleep in the back.

“We are going to take you to a village called Viella and then Spanish colleagues will take you and your colleague on to Lerida and then Barcelona. We should be able to get you on a ship to Gibraltar within a few weeks. Also, my colleagues might be able to get a surgeon to look at your friend’s knee.”

****************

I reflect on all this now as I’m in bed with Susie. She’s asleep lying on my chest. I have got a few weeks leave for the marriage and the honeymoon. Reggie and I, made it back via Gibraltar courtesy of the Royal Navy who also managed to sort out Reggie’s knee though he wasn’t passed fit to fly again. But he managed to make it to my wedding as an usher.