A Somerset Folk Tale by Kieron Jones
The village hall nestled on the brow of the main road connecting the village to the nearby town and further aflield to the city. It was a post war construction resurrected on the site of the old village hall, a very nice timber framed building on all accounts that had sadly fallen into disrepair, not bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe as Lucien once imagined. No, that was far too exciting for such a nondescript, muddy patch of fallow land. Too expensive to renovate, the lovely old barn was thriftily replaced with a totalitarian, grey, concrete square box with metal framed windows. Over the years its dull successor had given birth to, what was now, a ten car, one coach car park.
Most of the village lay in the dip of a valley with a little brook that bubbled through, unless heavy clouds from the hills decided otherwise. It was nice, “Pleasant enough”. What you would expect from an ex-mining community that now cut another notch on the ever expanding commuter belt. A pick and mix of Victorian cottages, 1960s and 70s council housing, 1980s detached and semi-detached multi-bed houses, bungalows with garages and driveways, contemporary creations with rock gardens and mock period features, even one or two architect designed houses and an old manor dating back to the sixteenth century.
The Anglo-Saxon church stood proudly at the top of the village. The steeple could be seen for miles around. To Lucien’s eyes it was nothing more than a lacklustre exclamation mark for the bored souls that mooched beneath its gaze. He continued to mope up the road to the village hall for his cousin’s eighteenth birthday party, his grumpiness conflicting with the brightness of his fluorescent pink ski-jacket: the height of fashion for the summer of 1986.
When weird stuff happened Lucien always shared it with his gran. She had lived in the village all her life and knew every nook and cranny. He watched her stare out of the dining room window and into the past, to her childhood, a reality that in her old age was more present than the modern world that only confused her. She was old enough now to forget where she put her slippers, however, this was one of those rare moments when Lucien knew she had complete clarity of thought. Funny how old folk could forget your name yet remember with ease random, obscure facts like what brand of custard was their favourite when they were little, noticed Lucien.
“It was 50 or so years ago now, when I was the same age as you more or less, before Hitler started that horrible war,” Gran grimaced then continued scared she might lose her train of thought.
“I remember well the entrance to Harris Farm. It was the first gate on the right down the lane to the next village. It was easy to miss, slightly hidden on the corner by thick rose bushes, especially if your horse and cart swerved hastily around the corner carried away by the natural slope of the land. The Lord of the Manor took great pleasure in making all and sundry jump into the bushes as he skidded round that bend honking loudly from his posh automobile.
“The farm house sat on top of Blossom Hill overlooking the valley bookended by conifer trees. It was a great farm and had been for donkey’s years. The whole village enjoyed the fruits of its labour, the finest wheat, barley and corn, succulent fruit and vegetables,. It was famous for its strong scrumpy cider. I believe that was the main reason a lot of folk were happy to turn a blind eye to the dark side of Harris Farm.”
When it came to memory lane, Gran was a skilled story teller. Lucien loved to hear her tales of old and he was already hooked, hanging on to her every word.
“Brought up in the village, the only daughter to the greengrocer, Mrs Harris, the farmer’s wife, had started life bright as a button. She was always the prettiest of the bunch. Farmer Harris was no oil painting to be sure, but there were far uglier knuckle heads knocking about. He had the reputation of being a loner, working day and night on his father’s farm. A proper ‘Nobby No Mates’ on all accounts.
“The early success of their relationship was a mystery and the saucy topic of many a coffee morning down the village hall. ‘You know what they say about men with big hands?’, ‘Have you seen the size of his boots?’ So on and so forth the cackle would grow as pictures of cucumbers and marrows and other naughty shaped vegetables were brought to mind.
“The mutterings over coffee and biscuits swiftly became more hushed and sinister after they got married and the bruising began. On a Sunday Mrs Harris would do her best to cover up the marks on her face. “Too much make-up again,” was often the remark whispered behind gloved hands in the pews. Nosey lookouts clearing phoney frogs from their throats signaled the arrival of poor Mrs Harris wherever she went. Theatrical coughs would domino across the village hall bringing a halt to the day-to-day chitter-chatter of knit and purl trickery and cake making hocus-pocus. Fake smiles and false words would bounce off the walls to divert attention from the winces as the elephant in the room tried to hide the punches from the previous night, week or month.
“Against all odds, Mrs Harris gave birth to a lovely baby girl. The little angel quickly grew up to become the local stunner. Even more beautiful than her mother was in her youth with her lovely long, blond hair. The village nicknamed her “Blondie”. She turned heads wherever she went and all the men lusted after her from an early age. She went to the village school, church on a Sunday and, when old enough, the monthly dances at the village hall. She was a diamond in the rough that’s for sure. Little wonder her mother and father didn’t let her out of their sight. Gossip was rife that Farmer Harris was laying into her too. Leaving church on windy days, bruises were often revealed on shins and lower arms.”
Gran raised her eyebrows and quickly looked left and right as if the gossip was as fresh as the flowers blooming outside in the garden.
“Some nasty folk rumoured he was “doing” her with more than just his fists too.”
The disco was in full swing.
The village hall was decked out in all the grotty, party paraphernalia pulled out from under the stage a few hours earlier. It looked rubbish. It was rubbish. Better off chucking it all in the bin, thought Lucien, as he frowned around the dance floor. Another eighteenth birthday ploughing the normal course of sneaky, underage drinking and guys in their late twenties trying to “get it on” with girls who only wanted to be “mates” with Lucien.
“So unfair,” muttered Lucien to himself, who was kitted out in his best party gear yet again to no avail. Lucien’s brothers were also there enjoying the boozy soft drinks. They tried to get Lucien to loosen up, dance it off, down refulgent bombs of disgusting liquor, at least indulge in the deep fried, microwave-reheated buffet. Brief solace was excavated from the depths of an ancient Tupperware container overflowing with ready salted nuts, however, Lucien had to come to the inevitable conclusion that this was, like every other night, not his night. He wasn’t in the mood. He was in a mood. He had hidden it relatively well but now his mask was quickly getting pulled off with every “You OK?”, “You all right?” and “What’s wrong with you?”.
The village was full of complex relatives. Second cousin’s children, auntie’s brother’s nephews, great-gran’s niece’s daughter’s kids, some had brothers older than uncles. They were all inside grooving away. Funny, thought Lucien, how hard it was to move away. New people have come, but hardly anyone has left. Easier to stay, concluded Lucien, happy he was one of the few who had managed to find a way out. His second year at University was only a week away. The summer had been a total drag.
The final nail in the coffin came when Lucien, pressurised by brothers and friends, took to the dance floor. Everyone was hopping about in unison, arms linked, heads bopping to the beat. Was he really one of them? He connected with his brothers and gave one last push to be with the in-crowd but nothing could shift the fog from his mind. It was half past eleven and the DJ was due to finish at midnight.
Time to leave.
A patchy, cloudy sky blocked out the moon but allowed the occasional twinkle from a star to shine through. Lucien put both hands in his pockets and started for home.
He heard a whistle.
It was a simple melody. Five notes, four beats, a pause, then repeated. In fact the order of the notes was reversed so the tune ended up on the note it began with. The sound felt good humoured, light and cheerful. It wasn’t a tune he thought he knew, but then again, maybe it did ring a bell. Was it a jingle off the radio?
Lucien looked back to the village hall expecting to see the whistler crossing the road. A row of council houses banked on the left and he presumed the whistle came from a fellow, frustrated reveller jumping ship early too. Lucien listened to the whistle again, once, twice, three times, the sound not coming from behind him now but all around. He started to feel alone and a little strange. Probably a woodland bird calling out to its mate, Lucien reassured himself as he hurried down the road to the bottom of the valley and the crossroads. Turn left and he was home, turn right and he would find himself strolling down the pretty, winding lane to the next village. During the day it was a paradise for dog walking, Sunday strolling and summer time blackberry picking. Nighttime was a different story. When walking home in the dark, Lucien always got spooked when the doom of the lane loomed behind him.
There were lots of ghost stories about that narrow stretch of highway. Everybody knew the one about the witch that lived in a little cottage on the second corner opposite the turnstile, which, on snowy days, was the quickest route to the best sledging for miles around. All that remained were two mossy limestone walls, one metre high, to remind passersby of an ancient abode, set alight many years ago and burnt to a cinder with an old lady strapped to a chair inside. “The screams can still be heard on the first day of winter,” the story would often finish in whispered tones. Lucien’s little brother got particularly excited by the one about burning crucifixes, taller than the church steeple, materialising across hillsides during the final full moon of the year.
Anyone who wanted to be anyone in the village needed a good ghost story for after dinner entertainment. It was part of the village DNA to poke fun at the spiritual world. The youth of the village liked nothing more than the thrill of crowding into a cold, damp garage for an ouija board mash up with the undead. Lucien was the only one who never took part, terrified he would trigger supernatural fireworks, phantasmic explosions to screech and howl as throbbing shadows condemned him to hell. “No, that’s a load of crap!” was Lucien’s rehearsed, cool, off-the-cuff riposte when anyone bothered to invite him to such a gathering.
A sinking, panicky feeling froze Lucien to the spot. This usually happened when he realised he had left something important behind, normally his keys, wallet, umbrella, sometimes all three. Did he even bring an umbrella to the party? It was as if God had muted the night as a white image, blurry, half as long as a car and as tall as Lucien, arrived at the crossroads. It paused for a moment, then moved swiftly across the road, not towards Lucien but up to the top of the village. Not a sound to be heard, only the simple, little whistle echoing inside Lucien’s mind.
Lucien had already felt the presence of the spirit world too often to simply dismiss what he felt, what he saw, as nothing. Moments of constriction during the witching hour when he would find himself frozen, unable to bat an eyelid, neither wheeze, whimper nor wail, as the electric, fuzzy atmosphere imprisoned him to the top bunk. At breakfast his brothers would laugh when told over yoke dunked soldiers that something, some being, had been hovering over them during the night. They always passed it off as an overactive imagination.
Lucien believed the awakenings were no false creation but an opening up of the senses, a gateway to the supernatural, a return ticket to the spirit world.
Gran liked to drink tea properly. It made her feel posh. She slowly lifted the bone china cup to her lips and took a sip.
“Lovely brew, my darling, now, where was I? It had been a quick start to the winter and snow already lay thick on the ground. Neither Blondie nor her mother had been seen for almost half a year. My mother and the rest of the congregation, were rightly concerned and put pressure on the vicar to pay Harris farm a visit to find out what was going on. He didn’t want to go but the weight of the parishioners was so great that on the Monday before Christmas, he pulled on his wellies and set off down the lane.
“Farmer Harris wasn’t home so he enjoyed a cup of tea and mince pie with Mrs Harris and Blondie. If truth be told, he was too scared to wait for Farmer Harris. ‘There’s only evil on that farm,’ was the opinion he shared with his closest and dearest. The vicar’s visit did change something though, because the following Sunday evening Farmer Harris and his family arrived at church for the Christmas carol service, all suited and booted in their finest clothes.”
Gran took another gulp of tea and wiped her mouth with a scrap of tissue that was hiding up her sleeve.
“For many years a suspicious, grumpy old git, who took huge amounts of pleasure in quizzing everyone about the contents of their parcels, ran the post office at the top of the village. He was that kind of bitter man that did his level best to make everyone he met more miserable than him. ‘Good riddance’ was the common feeling when he finally left. The sliver lining to that grisly cloud came in the form of a lovely family from down south. They moved in over the summer, took over the reins of the post office and were gratefully received by all and sundry. They had three boys who were all handsome in their own ways although it was the middle one in particular who had something special about him, not just striking looks and body to die for, but a certain magical charm. He was the apple of his parents eyes having won a place at the new university in the city and the family were more than happy to move up to be closer to him. ‘A fresh start for everyone,’ they told us. He quickly became the star of the village. Often his parents were badgered by his admirers about when he would be helping out behind the counter. I sometimes pretended to post letters, just to catch a glimpse of the strapping lad.”
Lucien couldn’t help but blush when he heard his gran talk about anything sexual. He was sure she enjoyed making him squirm.
“Post Office Boy, as he became known, had a beautiful singing voice too. He was invited to join the village choir and was picked to sing the tenor solo at the Christmas carol service. Not a dry eye in the church there was. Of course that’s the night he met Blondie, fresh out of hiding, she stunned the nave in her prettiest frock. It was clearly meant to be. A match made in heaven. Everyone thought it. I certainly did. Farmer and Mrs Harris weren’t blind nor deaf. I could see that they heard the comments. They must have seen the brightness. When Blondie and Post Office boy were within eyesight of each other they sparkled. Love at first sight, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
The winter freeze was finally over. Daffodils were popping out all over the place. Walking must have been tough for Mrs Harris as she climbed the hill to the top of the village. She tried her best to hide the limp on her left side. She used to hate the pitying looks she received, boil with rage at the incessant mumbling behind her back. “How dare they?” she told herself; “As if they are better than me?” Mrs Harris was now immune to all of that. Now she had something better to focus her energy on.
She paused at the post office to catch her breath. It was a lovely fresh spring day with white clouds tumbling across the pale blue sky. She checked behind her then walked quickly up to the door. Next to the door rested Post Office Boy’s red bicycle. It had a wicker basket attached to the handlebar because, when he could, he would cycle around delivering and picking up post for the elderly folk. As she pretended to read the little handwritten sign on the post office door detailing the hours of business, she took from her pocket a small letter that had been folded in four and, with just a brief sideward glance, took aim and let it fly.
Mrs Harris skipped away delighted. Her limp now a distant memory. She had always been good at sport as a lass and the skill had not deserted her. Playing goal attack, she was the school netball team top scorer five years on the trot. This time, however, she scored the sweetest of baskets and for the first time, she was very happy no-one had seen her do it
Pupils dilated, Post Office Boy’s eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness allowing him to navigate with ease the bumps and cracks that peppered the way back home. The wicker basket rattled as he peddled along. Two bends to go, then right at the crossroads, up the hill to the top of the village and home. It was definitely the most exciting moment of his life. Beautiful Blondie, he had never felt so happy and alive. He felt brave, like a soldier or an undercover spy receiving secret coded messages or, better still, a gallant knight in shining armour saving a damsel in distress. He started to giggle at the images running through his mind and then found himself whistling in time to the rhythm of his basket. The tune seemed to come from nowhere. Not a carol or hymn. Was it from the heavens? From the stars? A funny little tune, five notes, four beats then repeated. Pure somehow.
Blondie looked out of her window. She heard the funny whistle echo back down the valley and found herself blushing and giggling too. The rumble of her father’s fancy new mechanical tractor spluttering to life quickly turned her face from red to white. As dawn cracked on the horizon her mother touched her on the shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. “This is what hope feels like, my dear.” They both gazed at the sunrise, colour slowly coming back to Blondie’s cheeks at the prospect of a new day and a new beginning.
Gran smiled from ear to ear and chuckled to herself.
“It was very funny when we all realised we knew the whistle. Some heard it because the nights were too hot and stuffy to keep their bedroom windows closed. Some heard it as they fumbled their way to the outside loo for their midnight release. Some heard it because the pub had had another lock-in and they were dragging their scrumpy pickled tummies back home. Some heard it because they were engaged in nighttime naughtiness themselves. Nonetheless that simple, happy, little whistle echoed around the valley for the whole of that wonderful summer. It became quite contagious. Even the vicar was overheard whistling the cheeky tune one bright Sunday morning as he slipped into his cassock in the privacy of the vestry.”
Harvest was nearly over with summer’s surrender to autumn visible in the moonlit trees.
The red bike with wicker basket arrived at the crossroads, paused for a moment, then moved swiftly across the carriageway to begin its ascent to the top of the village. The peddling seemed quicker than normal and the whistle, that had now become a sweet and sentimental in-joke for the little village with the brook that bubbled through, was strangely absent.
As Post Office boy propped his bike up against the wall he felt someone was behind him, watching him. He wasn’t easily spooked, even so the feeling compelled him to check behind left and right, then left and right again. He took a moment to catch his breath and look up at the patchy sky. No moonshine anymore, just the occasional twinkling of a star breaking though the dark blanket of clouds. Not a sound to be heard, it was as if God had muted the night.
The house was dark, lights off, nobody home.
Lucien’s parents were clearly not back yet from their fancy party. His heart pumped and both ears thumped as he approached the front door. He began to freak out. Imagination overdrive. He had done this to himself many times before. His routine to stay in the land of the living was simple: breathe. Stay calm. No need to press the panic button.
Lucien turned the key and….
Post Office Boy pushed open the door. His parents were away on a jolly to the seaside. He pictured them relaxing on deckchairs, father tucking into jellied eels while mother forked a bag of hot salted chips. In that moment he wished he was there with them.
The house hummed back at him.
Lucien listened to the distant cry from the fridge-freezer slaving away in the utility room.
He could just about make out the beginning of the stairs at the end of the hallway. The door to the living room on the left was open to reveal a silhouette of the worn-out, tea and soggy biscuit stained sofa bed that faced the TV. A prime location well fought over by feisty brothers desperate to watch Australian soap operas while dunking digestives, ginger nuts and custard creams into hot mugs of sugar heavy brownness.
Someone, something, was behind Lucien.
The atmosphere was charged. Electric. Was he caught in some kind of half dream? No, this felt very different to his bedtime ordeals. He wasn’t trapped or frozen and he felt no constriction. He could move his arms, legs, head, even wiggle his fingers.
Maybe his brothers were not so full of scrumpy from the party?
Maybe they had followed him home trying to give him the willies?
Post Office Boy smiled and slowly extracted the key from the lock. He was not afraid to confront his familiar jokers. He put his right hand on the door and…
Lucien spun around swiftly on his left foot.
He stared into the night.
Everything was still. Very still.
There was no-one there. No sign of his drunk brothers.
Was this relief he felt?
Post Office Boy squinted into the gloom.
Lucien’s eyes surveyed the darkness while his shoulders relaxed. He exhaled through puffed cheeks. He wasn’t a child, “Grow up,” he told himself. A small smile creased his lips with a little shake of the head, followed by a funny, effeminate giggle that took him by surprise.
Post Office Boy was once again emabarrassed by the little, nervous giggle that so many found endearing.
It sparkled again. What was it? Something shiney, metallic.
Five notes. Four beats. Repeated.
His whistle but not from his lips.
Post Office Boy took one step forward and…
Lucien was perfectly framed by the doorway.
Five notes. Four beats. Repeated.
The whistle again.
One inch from his face.
The breath was boozy: warm, sweet and sickly. The whistle forced the air around Lucien to become thick, tangible, spongy in sensation. A crescendo of pressure more emphatic than anything encountered previously froze Lucien in time and space. His throat tightened as he gagged for a droplet of moisture in the humidity that stifled him.
Was he going to burst?
Lucien slammed the door shut and sprinted upstairs.
An untied balloon set free.
Gran was wide eyed and excited.
“I’ll never forget that sound: the crack from Farmer Harris’s shotgun. It echoed through the valley. I can hear it now. It stirred everyone in the village, it did.
“Post Office Boy’s body was found with Farmer Harris’s shotgun by his side. His brothers discovered him in the early hours when they returned home from the village hall. I and most of the village had been there celebrating an eighteenth birthday, just like you last night Lucien.”
Lucien felt his whole body shiver. He didn’t know what to say or think. He struggled to take in what it was his gran was telling him.
“Funny thing is we all saw Post Office Boy leave early in a mood. We all thought he left early to see Blondie, definitely something was wrong.
“Mrs Harris and Blondie gave witness that Farmer Harris was at home with them all night. Farmer Harris told the police he lost his shotgun while shooting foxes a few days before and the police jumped to the conclusion that Post Office Boy must have found it. Farmer Harris said he often saw the ‘strange lad’ moping about near the farm. He told the police that Post Office Boy was harassing his daughter, stalking her and that he shot himself because of a broken heart. There was even a letter from him to Blondie saying he would rather die than be without her. So that was that. Case closed. Suicide. Not one living soul in the village believed it.”
Gran paused for a lump in her throat. She swallowed hard, Lucien could see that the anger was still very real for her.
“His family, supported by the vicar and all of us in the pews, accused Farmer Harris of murder. There was no evidence to back up our story though. No motive we could prove. It’s tragic that the only proof we had, if you could call it that, of Blondie and Post Office Boy’s secret romance and expected elope was that simple, little whistle that we all knew and loved. We would be laughed out of court, so they told us."
Gran sighed deeply and closed her eyes. Was the memory falling from her grasp? Her mind often became a slippery soap of bygone days, then, as if someone had flicked her on-off switch, she was up and running again as good as new.
“The vicar granted a Christian burial for the poor lad despite the legal verdict. The funeral was awful. Mrs Harris and Blondie were at the church though. I saw them. Looked like ghosts they did as they stood at the back. Next day the vicar went to the farm to see how they were. The house was empty, completely stripped of any sign of life. Farmer Harris, his wife and daughter simply disappeared like breath into the wind. There were those in the village that claimed Blondie was with child. Nasty gossip was that the baby was Farmer Harris’s, but we dreamed and prayed it was Post Office Boy’s baby she carried. Nobody ever found out where they went. Then war broke out and that shook everything up.”
A teardrop dangled from gran’s cheek. She wiped it away with the scrap of tissue released from her clenched fist and looked deep into Lucien’s eyes.
“You weren’t the first and you won’t be the last to feel them, my darling. These things leave a mark, you see? Like a pebble dropped in a lake, the ripples travel far. Last night walking home from the party you saw the truth. You saw the whistler. You were the whistler.”
Lucien didn’t feel scared anymore. He understood. Gran held his hand.
“They almost got away, but they will never leave this valley. They are in the trees, in the wind. They are a part of this land. They are a part of all of us.”
Gran closed her eyes.
“Such a happy whistle, my darling, so happy yet so sad, so sad.”
Lucien allowed his eyes to close and the whistle to fill his mind.