‘Chalklands’

A ghost story, of sorts, set in the Yorkshire Wolds. It was originally written as a peformance piece for Hallowe’en, and was published in the 2013 Fiction Desk anthology New Ghost Stories, which you can read more about (and buy) here
 

It’s nearly Guy Fawkes’ night. I’m told the weather is going to be clear this year, a nice night for a bonfire. But I shall stay home, all the same.

My father, who was a history teacher at the All Saints’ school, told me what they did to Guy Fawkes, after they caught him. They chopped him into pieces – they chopped him into four pieces, my father said, easy as slicing up a quiche. They chopped him up and left his insides lying in the dirt of the Old Palace Yard.

My father said that they then delivered the four pieces of Guy Fawkes to the four corners of the kingdom. I asked my father what happened to them when they got there. My father said that in Cornwall they put his left foot in a pasty. In Ireland they mixed up stout and potatoes and made a stew of his right hand. His left hand went to Scotland, where they sewed it up in a prize-winning haggis, and his right foot was skinned, fried and served up with chips and vinegar on the sea-front at Scarborough.

But it was Guy Fawkes’s insides that bothered me. They just left them there. There would have been rats, rooks, crows, all fighting over his insides – while they were still warm, I expect. Kites, too. They had red kites in London in those days.

They almost went extinct, red kites. We almost wiped them out – but now apparently we’re bringing them back. My brother, David, is very into all that sort of thing. A few years ago, he and his wildlife society helped with the re-introduction programme; they released twelve red kites into the wild at Holderness. David got an MBE for it.

I see them now, sometimes, when I’m out walking on the Wolds: indolent, elegant, winnowing their forked tail-feathers in the wind. I see them, and I think of Guy Fawkes’s guts.

I wish they had gone extinct. I wish we had wiped them out.

In any case, I like it up there, on the Wolds. Chalklands have a sort of gentleness to them. I feel that, even now, even after what happened. There are barrows up there, burial mounds, dozens of them – Garrowby; Rudston; Bal Hill; Maiden’s Grave – and I’ve always thought that it must be a nice place to be buried.

We argued over that, my father, David, and I, when Theresa died.

‘We can’t just burn her,’ I said. ‘That’s what you do with witches.’

‘It’s called cremation,’ David said. He was thirteen then. ‘It’s not burning. There’s flowers and you sing hymns and everything, and the Father still says a Mass. They wouldn’t do that for a witch, would they? And anyway there aren’t any witches, there isn’t even such a thing.’

‘There’s flowers on the Wolds,’ I muttered. It was true, there was, and there still is, whole meadows of them, if you know where to look: harebells, poppies, wild mignonette. And you can sing hymns there, if you want to (I do, sometimes).

My father was quiet, at first. He was a Catholic, of course, a Corkman’s son raised in south Liverpool, and had a Catholic’s qualms about the practice of cremation. But then, too, there was a Celtic pagan streak in him as wide as the River Lee.

I think my mother, my mad mother from the Yorkshire chalklands, brought that out in him – and, when Theresa died, he found himself thinking of my mother.

‘It’ll be a cremation,’ he said, at last, interrupting our bickering. ‘Father Gillen will say the Mass. You, Mary, will gather the flowers – from wherever you please. It’ll be beautiful, I promise you.’

I had to bite my lip to keep from crying. I looked at my father and thought I could see flames dancing in his dark eyes. I wondered if in those flames he saw my mother’s flame-red hair.

I don’t remember my mother. Theresa did. I asked her once, when the two of us were out walking in the hills above Wintringham, what she was like.

‘She was a crackpot,’ Theresa said. ‘She was always singing. Even when she was angry. Especially when she was angry. The angrier she was the louder she sang.’ Theresa kicked at a clump of dandelions. For a minute I thought she was going to cry. ‘She cooked horrible food. Liver and tripe and black pudding. And she dressed like a mad woman and never combed her hair. When she took me to school, everyone laughed at her.’

‘What did she do?’

‘She just laughed back.’

We walked for miles, that day. We walked east, into the sunrise. We walked so far that when I breathed in I thought I could smell salt and seaweed. I was ten, then; Theresa was fifteen.

I’m not ten any more, but Theresa will always be fifteen.

It was about three weeks after that day, that walk, that it happened. It wasn’t just me and Theresa – David was with us, too. It was October, half-term. We were going to walk to Bishop Wilton – we’d walk there, eat the sandwiches our father’d made for us, and walk back. It would have taken us all day.

But we never made it to Bishop Wilton. We never made it further than Greet’s Hill – we never made it further than the place there where a rough chalk cliff juts from the meadowland, and the off-white rocks tumble down a hundred feet to the valley floor.

Theresa walked in front as we climbed through the meadows. David, throwing a cricket-ball from hand to hand, walked behind her. I was the youngest, the smallest, and I walked at the back.

I remember David stopping, and pointing, upwards, and I think he laughed, and shouted something – but he was too far ahead for me to hear. He was pointing at a bird, a big bird overhead. It must have been a buzzard, or a raven, because this was thirty-five years ago, and there were no kites in the chalklands then – so it must have been a trick of the new-risen sun, but I thought I saw flame-red feathers flash as the bird yawed into the wind.

Three hours later our father found us sobbing by the side of the A-road. That is, he found me, and David. He had driven behind the wailing ambulance – and now, with us stumbling and weeping at his heels, he chased the ambulancemen across the chalklands, across the four miles to the foot of the Greet’s Hill cliff.

It took perhaps an hour. We were too late, we were all too late. We knew we would be, David and me. We knew nothing could be done. We’d seen Theresa fall – we’d peered, terrified, over the edge, and seen her body splayed motionless in a chalkstone ghyll.

Afterwards I tried to talk to my father.

‘We couldn’t stop her, dad. I shouted as loud as I could.’

‘I know, darling. Hush, now. I know. You’re tired. It’s not the time for talking. Hush now. We can talk later, and you can tell me – you can tell me all about it.’ He smiled, distractedly, and stroked the back of my neck. ‘Sleep now, my darling,’ he said.

When the lights were out, I slipped from beneath my blankets and crept over to David’s bed. David was facing away from me, pretending to sleep. I knelt beside his bed, placed a hand on his shoulder, and whispered in his ear: ‘Did you see her?’

I felt his body stiffen.

‘See who?’

You know who.’

‘I don’t, I don’t,’ he hissed, and clutched his pillow about his head. I went back to bed. I didn’t sleep.

It wasn’t till afterwards, after the funeral – after we’d committed her to the flames – after I’d stood in the sunlit churchyard and watched the smoke that was once my sister’s body drift and diffuse in the ice-blue sky – it wasn’t till then that I went again to my father, and told him what happened on the chalklands at Greet’s Hill – and it wasn’t until then that my father told me why.

We were in the kitchen. Just the two of us. My father had poured himself a glass of whiskey. He sat at the table in his black suit with the whiskey at his elbow and just stared at nothing.

When I started talking, it was as though he wasn’t listening – as though he couldn’t even hear me, even though I was right there, right at his side, with one hand clutching, while I spoke, at the rough serge of his jacket sleeve. But when I had finished, he nodded, and took a mouthful of whiskey, and without looking at me said quietly: ‘I knew, of course. I knew.’

Then he gathered me up with one arm around my waist and pulled me on to his lap. He kissed my hair.

‘You were a baby,’ he murmured. I could smell the whiskey and the mild, mediciny perfume of the oil he wore on his hair. ‘David was nearly two. You were both with me, in the study. I was reading.’ He paused, swallowed, and exhaled a long, tremulous breath. ‘Your mother was downstairs. Theresa was with her. They were doing something in the kitchen, I don’t know what.’ Again a pause. I could feel him shivering. ‘It was the fire,’ he said. ‘The fire in the living room. She always built it up too high, your mother did. It wasn’t safe, the logs piled up like that. But she liked a big fire in the fireplace. She used to make paper dollies out of newspaper – she took sheets of newspaper, from the Observer, and twisted them up into dollies. Then she’d set them in the fireplace, in among the kindling – and then she’d light them, to get the fire going. I can still picture her face, when she was making the dollies. She’d be so intent. And there’d be ink on her skin – from her fingers, from the newsprint.’ He kissed my hair. ‘She was beautiful, your mother,’ he said.

A log had rolled loose from the fireplace, he told me. It’d set the hearthrug going, and then the carpet. Then the curtains.

With his cheek pressed to my hair my father said: ‘I carried you out of the study window. When smoke started coming under the door, and I heard the noise from downstairs. I took you and David in my arms and I climbed out on to the roof of the porch. Then I said a prayer, and jumped. I laid you both on the grass and covered you with my coat. And I went back inside.

‘An old place like that, it doesn’t take much for a fire to get out of control. All that timber. I ran down the hallway. I saw Theresa. No – I saw Theresa’s hand, her arm, waving in the smoke. I grabbed her, I picked her up. I shouted your mother’s name. God, Mary, the heat – I couldn’t stand it. No-one could have stood it. No-one could have.

‘And Theresa in my arms was screaming, yelling – I ran, I ran out of the house. And d’you know what I wonder?’ Again he sighed and I could smell the whiskey on his breath. ‘I wonder if she was screaming because she was frightened, because of the fire – or if she was screaming because she wanted to stay with her mother.’

‘But she would have been burned!’

My father shrugged.

‘I know. But still. In a way I felt that all I was doing was taking the poor child away from her mother. And I know that’s stupid. For God’s sake, I was saving my child’s life!’ He shook his head. ‘But in a way I still feel that.’

I didn’t understand. I was only ten years old. But of course my father didn’t mean me to understand – he wasn’t talking to me, wasn’t talking to his daughter Mary. He was just talking.

Anyway, he was silent, then, for a while. He took another drink. I sat in his lap and listened to his breathing.

I had to ask. I didn’t want to know the answer but I had to ask.

I put my head against his chest and asked: ‘Did you see her? Did you see my mother?’

He rested his chin on the top of my head.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I saw her. At the end of the passageway. There was too much fire, too much smoke – I couldn’t get to her. She looked like she was waving. No – she looked like she was dancing.’

David, my brother, doesn’t remember the fire. I asked him once. He said he knew there’d been a fire – that our mother had died in it. But he didn’t remember it – and, he said, he certainly didn’t want to talk about it.

I expect David’ll go on like that for the rest of his life – not talking about it, not talking about anything except his bloody red kites and his bloody MBE…

But that’s not fair. I mean, I don’t talk about it either. I didn’t even talk to my father about it after that afternoon in the kitchen, even though he understood it all better than anyone. He understood why my mother came back. Why she took Theresa.

I suppose Theresa remembered it all. I suppose she loved our mother, even if she was a crackpot. Or whatever she was. That was why she ran to her, when she saw her – when we all saw her, on the cliff that day. That was why she ran to her, too fast, even though we screamed at her to stop, even when it wasn’t safe, and she stumbled, and fell –

That was why Theresa ran when saw our flame-haired mother waving, or dancing, on the cliff edge.

It’s easier to talk about it now that my father’s gone. He died last week – quietly, peacefully. We buried him in a churchyard on the chalklands; there was a Father there to say the Mass, and there were flowers. In the sky overhead a burnished red kite soared and shrieked.

I threw stones at it. David tried to stop me, and the Father did too, but I stood in the churchyard and threw stones at it, and called it a damned bloody vulture, until it banked lazily to the west, and flapped beyond the hilltops, and left the chalklands behind.         

 

   

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