Incomers: a ghost story
by Barendina Smedley
Of course, when an ‘incomer’ arrives from London and moves into the big, old, rambling, tumbledown house sitting deep in its grounds on the landward edge of a Norfolk coastal village, the first thing that local people do is to make sure that she’s fully informed about all her neighbours — in particular, the resident ghosts.
‘Oh yes, Peggy’s round here all the time,’ said the lugubrious handyman who used to look after the house back before we made our offer for it, when the developer was seeking planning permission to turn it into a boutique hotel. ‘Often I’m in the kitchen here’ — to be fair, at the time it was one of the two dry rooms in the house — ‘and I see her looking in at me from across the way’. He gestured vaguely in the direction of an acrid-smelling room across the corridor, all peeling lurid wallpaper and abandoned plastic garden chairs, that used to be the old servants’ parlour. ‘Trouble is, ma’am’ — and here I could see where the conversation was going — ‘Peggy’s been lyin’ in the churchyard twenty-odd years now. But I know it were her, because I see’d her as good as I see you now.’
Perhaps I ought to have shivered, but instead I smiled politely, and turned the conversation back to the return of some keys, because even by then I had learned all there was to know — or so I thought — about the tales that local people tell just to frighten the incomers.
And then there was the local girl who did some cleaning for us, right at the beginning. Rosemary, known as Roz, had lived in the house back when the previous owner, the Major, was still in residence, complete with his ragtag retinue of old army pals, louche hangers-on and the odd petty criminal out on remand. Her family had worked up at the house for decades, perhaps centuries. She took her turn at talking me through the ghosts.
‘When I’m in the back corridor upstairs, there’s a lady up there, just like there always was. I see her out of the corner of my eye, you know? I don’t think she means me harm or nothing, but she’s sad. I don’t know why. You haven’t seen her? And then downstairs, just by the old scullery, there’s a man, and he’s angry. He’s the one I don’t like. He gives me a fright sometimes, he does. You haven’t seen him?’
Roz often spilled things, and dropped things, and got bored easily, especially when the builders weren’t about. She sometimes helped herself to our rosé wine. My teenage son, who is rather censorious about such things, theorised that she smoked a fair amount of weed.
I confessed to her that I hadn’t seen the angry man.
Roz looked at me with a sort of bland, half-amused pity. ‘Well, it’s ’cause you ain’t local, I guess. You can’t see things like we do, we that’s local.’
And it had to be said, local and even semi-local people did see rather a lot of things, at least if one believed the stories. There were the asbestos removal men, all the way up from Bury St Edmunds, who had a bad experience when one of them was tapped insistently on the shoulder, before realising that his colleague was on the other side of the room, about five yards away. The asbestos men refused to do any more work unless our site supervisor stood there with them, keeping the ghosts at bay. And there was the decorator who once took such a fright, working here alone one winter afternoon as dark was dropping over the beech-wood and the rooks were screaming above the swaying trees, that he left — by which I mean, left the tin of decorator’s emulsion open, the wet brush beside it, his mug of sweet tea half-finished — and never came back.
There was also our friend Toby, a Norfolk man, well-respected QC and amateur military historian on the side, who insisted on making the long drive back to his own house, even quite late at night, rather than staying in one of our many spare bedrooms, but would never quite explain why, at least not in so many words. He did once ask me, though, whether I minded staying alone in the house. I had to admit, almost apologetically, that I didn’t mind it at all — and what’s more, I never had, even back when we had no electricity, half the doors were jammed closed with the damp, and the nearest neighbour was more a quarter of a mile away.
‘Oh,’ he said. Then, reflectively, ‘I think I would, you know’. And he left it at that.
One story I liked, and that came with better-than-average provenance, involved Praemonstratensian canons — or sometimes, ‘monks in cowls’ — carrying something into our big barn at dusk. Not only had the former owner, the Major, seen these monks, but so too had his considerably more sane and sober mother, who had owned the house before him. She had lived there for many years with her husband, an air commodore in the RAF who did something important in Coastal Command during the Second World War, and who had written a very good book about it all afterward. Those ghosts, anyway, I would have been glad to see, because unlike silly local scare-stories, the actual medieval history of our house interested me enormously. But as often as I looked out of the kitchen window at nightfall, or wandered down to the paddock to check on the ponies as the owls were starting to call, I never saw a single monk, cowled or otherwise. It was rather a disappointment.
And then, finally, there was another story, which always seemed too improbable and abstract to take seriously, even at the level of tales concocted to frighten the incomers. This story held that at some point in relatively recent history, someone — or perhaps more than one person, it varied — had been buried about about grounds of our house. Well, the grounds ran to something like a dozen acres, some of them put to lawns or borders but many of them wooded, and certainly we had never noticed this alleged mass grave. Also, why bury someone here? There was a perfectly good churchyard just down our drive and through the main gates. This was a close-knit village, let’s remember, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and what’s more, had a view about it. So the chances that anyone could be buried in the grounds of a much-frequented house seemed pretty slim. In short, I never worried much about that one. Between renovating the house, and sorting out the various barns, and dealing with the usual dramas regarding neighbours and planning issues, I had enough to worry about without any of that.
A couple of years after we moved in, for instance, our local developer bought an ordinary but inoffensive house adjoining our land, ‘did it up’, and sold it for a rather surprising amount of money. This led to a rash of other people attempting to do something similar — either tarting up existing houses, demolishing bungalows and replacing them with ‘spectacular modern residences’, or indeed creating ‘dream homes’ in the back of what used to be their own modest cottage gardens. Recently, the developer had bought another house in our lane, which he was converting, apparently, into some sort of grisly McMansion, complete with all sorts of mildly pretentious features. Occasionally this sort of thing annoyed me, but there was such a lot of it going on that I mostly just got used to it.
The trespassers were another headache. We have, unfortunately, a footpath running through our land, up our lane and all the way along much of the north border of it, behind the barns, then cutting right through the beech wood and exiting our main gates. Of course none of us minded when local people walked their children to and from school along the path, or or when old couples strolled slowly, arm-in-arm, among the falling leaves. It was fun to encounter our friends there. But now and then, less engaging people — some of them local — would let their dogs run onto our land, just because they could, or indeed wander off the path accidentally-on-purpose, just being nosy about a big house that was set well back from the road. Quite early on, we installed good CCTV, which made me feel a bit more secure, especially when I was up at the house alone, or with my teenage son, as was sometimes the case. But still, it was always an unnerving thing to go down to the meadow, and see strangers wandering about in it, acting as if they owned the place and we did not, even if they did no particular harm.
* * *
That all explains why, when I was washing up in the kitchen one early autumn evening a couple of years ago — it was too dark for a walk down to the meadow, and there was what locals call a ‘sea fret’ coming in from the north — and happened to see a few people moving through the courtyard, I thought very little of it. They were moving quickly, if silently. By the time I took off my apron and washing-up gloves and went out to remonstrate with them, or at least explain to them where the path ran, they would surely have passed by into the beech wood, so why bother? And so I didn’t. Nor did I think to check the CCTV, because I was there alone that night and to be perfectly honest, only my son really understands how to operate ‘playback’ on the CCTV. No, I finished the washing up, and read a book, and went to sleep. By the next morning I’d largely forgotten the whole thing.
A few days later, however, I ran into the nice old man who lives in a cottage in our lane, right alongside the meadow. He’s 83 years old, a widower, old-fashioned in his manners, and often comes up to give carrots to the ponies we keep in the paddock. He’s lived in the village more or less all his life. He dislikes change. He’s a bit lonely sometimes. As usual, we enjoyed sharing our plangent and heartfelt grievances about all the building work that was going on around his little bungalow.
‘You-know-who up in Wallbrook Way is putting in a swimming pool’, he told me. ‘That’s why they keep taking the JCB up and down the lane. Makes it right muddy, it does, what with this wet weather now. Churns everything up, don’t it?’
I made a wry face. ‘Someday we’re going to start charging people for the damage they do to that lane,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean people like you — you don’t even run a car, do you? — but all these heavy vehicles really do take their toll on the surface, and getting the holes patched isn’t cheap’. I named the developer. ‘It isn’t as if he hasn’t got the money.’
The old man nodded, relishing the bleakness of the situation. ‘And another thing,’ he began, with the joyful pessimism of a Norfolk person about to impart some really bad news. ‘You want to watch those chaps what keep going through your meadow. The ponies don’t like ’em much.’
‘Oh, I seen ’em a few times now, I have. Young chaps. Young. I don’t know if they’re out after your hares, or the pigeons, or just messin’ about. But they’re in camouflage, or something like that. A few evenings, now, just recent. In the evenings or first thing in the morning. I hope I ain’t out of place in sayin’, ma’am.’
‘No, I’m glad to know about them. Thank you. I’ll keep an eye out.’ But of course our grounds, even now, are fairly large, and there were other things on my mind, and it’s hard to keep an eye on everything.
Then one morning, quite early, just as it was getting light, I remembered that I hadn’t checked our letter-box the day before. The letter-box is down by the main gates, through the beech wood. There is a path that runs from the main house to the main gates, and also — as mentioned above — another path that runs from the lane, behind the barns and down to the main gate, so that the two paths gradually draw closer to each other before they meet, just in front of the gates to which the letter-box is affixed. Because I was expecting something in the post that hadn’t arrived yet — I think it was some vine-eyes, or a Bakelite switch, or perhaps a book about early medieval Norfolk and its links with the North Sea world — I put on my jacket, went out the courtyard door and set off through the beech wood. The air smelled of wood-smoke from someone’s fire the night before. There was quite a bit of mist about. Other than the tentative stirring of the rooks, it was all very quiet.
As I drew closer to the gates, however, and could see them clearly before me, I had the distinct sense of something moving amid the trees to the north, not far away, more or less where the other path ran. I stopped in my tracks. It wasn’t, though, one of our usual deer, because when they crash through the undergrowth they are anything but soundless. Nor was it a pheasant. Was it a fox? But there was more than one thing moving, and still not a sound. After a pause, I continued walking down the path towards the gates, the autumn leaves suddenly very loud underfoot, my pulse suddenly weirdly loud in my own ears.
As I got to the letter-box and reached in my jacket pocket, I allowed myself one long glimpse down the path that led back behind the barns and down to the lane. And for just a moment, I could see — far away now, and admittedly not very distinct in the mist — several figures moving, flowing almost, from the beech trees around the corner of the walled garden and down towards the lane, out of my sight.
Unfortunately, that path isn’t covered by the CCTV, and my son wasn’t around, and although at one point I started to mention the whole thing to my husband in an email — he was posted overseas at the time — somehow I couldn’t capture precisely the right sort of whimsical, ‘aren’t village things ridiculous and funny’ sort of tone. But for a few days, at least, I avoided going out along the drive when the light was poor, and found excuses to wash up early.
* * *
A week or so later, my son was back with me, on his half-term holiday. Being 15, he of course spent most of the time in the old servants’ parlour, which is where we keep our solitary television, playing video games online and engaging in related banter with his school friends, now all back home in London, the south of France, Istanbul and places even further afield.
The servants’ parlour, I should add, had improved a lot since my conversation with the lugubrious handyman. The damp wallpaper was long gone, replaced with a sunny ochre distemper and some pretty inter-war pictures. It is also, for what it’s worth, the one room in the ground floor from which it is possible to look down towards the meadow, through a narrow brick passage and an open gate. But my son, being a 15 year old boy, rarely looked out the window, or indeed at the pretty 1930s pictures, as he was playing the aforementioned games on his PS4.
The games, such as they were, generally involved running through lovingly-rendered landscapes or intricately derelict houses, chucking grenades at people, bludgeoning or shooting them. Most of them games seemed to have a Second World War context. They bored me, if only because I persist in thinking that shooting people dead the moment one sees them is a rather limiting mode of social interaction. But then I accept that I’m not really their target market.
Anyway, on that afternoon, I was in the kitchen writing something at the long elm table, and as the two rooms face towards each other across the back corridor it was easy, although I could not see my son, to hear what he was saying to his friends.
‘Man, that was dead. Ali, behind you! No, stay where you are! No, you idiot, stay! What are you doing?’ Because he played with his headphones on, I was spared the volleys of synthetic suppressing fire, or whatever was going on.
And on it went in that vein. But then after a while there was a little pause, which is why I’m mentioning any of this.
‘Okay, that was freaky,’ said my son to his far-distant friends. ‘How did you do that?’
‘Stop messing about. Khan, was that you? Sod off! Stop it! How did you do that?’
There was something odd about my son’s voice. I got up and wandered into the servants’ parlour. My son had put down his controls and was standing up, looking out the window towards the gate and the meadow.
‘What is it? Everything okay?’
Suddenly my son became elaborately casual, sat down again, and picked the controls back up. ‘Yeah, why do you ask?’ he said, with the detached obliviousness of a 15-year old interrupted playing Call of Warfare, or whatever the game was.
‘You just sounded odd, that’s all.’ I looked at the screen, to change the subject, slightly abashed at having been caught, in effect, not only eavesdropping but also, considerably worse in my eyes, at being an anxious mum. ‘What are you doing, anyway?’
My son’s eyes were fixed on the screen. ‘There are some Fallschirmjäger in this building and we are supposed to clear them out,’ he said flatly, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. And as he spoke, someone appeared on screen — I suppose it must have been a Fallschirmjäger, whatever that was — and flung a grenade at my son’s character, which duly detonated, filling the screen with a spray of simulated blood. I left him to it.
But as I walked back into the kitchen and settled myself again at the long elm table, I could distinctly hear him say ‘bloody hell, man! Khan, was that you? That isn’t funny, man! How did you do that?’ And then another pause. ‘It was like a reflection, on the window. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Like he was outside the window, looking in. Yeah. Don’t do that again, Khan. You’re freaking me out.’
And then they went back to the game, and ‘he’s behind you — look out!’ and the normal banter.
But when I came into the room a bit later to get it ready for dinner, I saw that my son had closed the big eighteenth-century shutters and put the iron bar across them. ‘The sun was reflecting off the screen’ he said, answering the question I hadn’t even asked.
* * *
I went out to the meadow to check on the ponies. It was still light out, although the sky to the northwest was starting to redden and glow, back behind the pines, and the shadows were very long. I looked away to the north. This was the time of year when the pink-footed geese fly down from Iceland, Greenland, Spitzbergen, to the Norfolk marshes where they spend the winter. Their throaty, raucous cries are always a harbinger of the turn of the season. They hadn’t turned up yet, though. They were late that year.
Predictably, as I stood by the edge of the paddock, I heard the gate creak and knew that someone was coming into the meadow. It took me a moment to summon up the force of will to turn round and look. When I did, it was only the old man who lived in the lane, with a few carrots tucked under his arm for the ponies.
Just to make conversation, I mentioned that the building works had been quiet today for once — or was that just me?
‘No ma’am, I thought the same. It was quiet all day. But some’s saying that they hit a snag or somethin’. A problem. With excavating the swimmin’ pool and that.’
‘What sort of problem?’
‘I don’t know. But there’s bound to be all sorts under ground there, ain’t there?’ He paused a moment. ‘You know that in the Major’s time, and in his parents’ time, that was all your land up there? I mean, the Major’s land, his parents’ land? All the way up to the New Road?’
I did indeed know this. The Major, having inherited a large, rambling house that was vastly expensive to run without having inherited alongside it either much personal wealth or indeed a discernible work ethic, had sold off a lot of land, until what was once a full 40 acres was reduced to a mere dozen, as his parents’ house rotted, burned and generally collapsed all around him.
I nodded reflectively. ‘Yes. It was mostly kitchen gardens, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes ma’am. That an’ an orchard too, and glass-houses. Anyhow, I reckon they must have hit some of the old brown asbestos off the glass-houses, what they used for lagging the pipes back then. That’s nasty stuff. Or even some ordnance left from the war, maybe.’
This may sound far-fetched, but in fact, located as we were along the north Norfolk coast, unexploded ordnance was just a part of everyday life. Our part of the coast had been mined against German attack, used for weapons training and testing, and of course hit by Luftwaffe bombers ‘dumping’ their loads on the way back across the North Sea. The local paper was filled with stories of people who dug up strange bits of metal and used them as doorstops for decades, or as ornaments next to an open hearth, without realising that these trusty conversation-starters were in fact live, if very rusted and hence particularly unstable, munitions.
‘Surely he’ll need to get the Army bomb squad in if he’s found anything like that?’
The old man laughed and shook his head cynically. ‘Him?’ He named the developer. ‘No, you know what he’s like. He’ll get his mate to bundle it up and cart it off, and it’ll end up in the Wash tomorrow evening.’
I reflected, ruefully, that this was probably true, and commented that if I heard any loud bangs in the night I’d know where they were coming from. As it was, I left the old man feeding the ponies their carrots, talking softly to them, as the evening shadows lengthened into the beginnings of another misty, wood-smoke-wreathed evening.
‘You’ve been a bit skittery recently, haven’t you, you fine old lads? Not your right selves. You don’t like them odd folk in your paddock, do you?’
* * *
My first thought, as I walked down the back corridor the afternoon of the following day, was that it was both very unlike my son, and also very annoying, for him to leave the courtyard door open.
We own several cats, you see, and they aren’t allowed out. My son is usually a lot more careful than that. But on the other hand, that door has an eighteenth-century handle, and sometimes it feels like it’s closing properly when actually it isn’t. Anyway, I walked down the corridor towards the door in order to shut it. My son was out cycling with a friend and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. There were no builders about, because the building work was very nearly finished. After a run of misty, slightly damp days, this was, at long last, a bright, crisp afternoon, with a brilliant blue sky to set off the gold, bronze and copper of the remaining beech leaves.
When I reached the door, I looked out into the courtyard. Why? As I say, our cats aren’t allowed out. So perhaps I was checking to make sure that none of them had escaped. Or maybe I just wanted to look at the sunlight, all but blinding after the dark of the windowless, long back corridor. Or maybe there was another reason.
What I saw, though, was something very different.
Even now, it is hard to describe it properly.
In front of me there stood, maybe two or three yards away from the threshold, a man. He was tall and slim — maybe more of a youth than a grown man. He was wearing a sort of camouflage smock, but it was almost black with mud, or earth. There was a dull glint of metal here and there. He was fair-haired and pale-skinned, but again, his hair and skin were caked with dark earth. He opened his mouth to speak. But as I looked, it suddenly occurred to me that he didn’t really have a mouth, or indeed eyes, and that his arms and legs both ended not in hands and feet, but rather in something dark and attenuated, like a tangle of roots, all smeared with that same black earth — roots reaching down for sustenance, hungry and desperate. And then while I looked at him, I further noticed that I could somehow see through him, could make him fade in and out of my vision, like a heat-mirage, or that way in which, going from a bright place to a dark one, one can still see the outlines of that bright place for a little time afterwards.
He opened his mouth that wasn’t there, he stared right at me with his empty sockets, he reached out with the hands that were like tangled, hungry, yearning roots. But then I tried not to see him, consciously so, and just in that moment he was gone.
I was left holding the edge of the door frame, gazing out into an empty courtyard. I was entirely alone. Out near the wood, I heard a blackbird singing happily to itself. There were sounds of an ambulance passing along the New Road. I could even hear children’s voices wafting over from the direction of the local school.
The oddest thing, though, was that even as I stood there, I realised that while what I ought to have felt was horror — and, self-consciously, I was very much aware that I had just become like my Norfolk neighbours, in that I had seen an actual ghost! — that wasn’t, in truth, what I felt at all.
When he had looked at me, reached out to me, what I had felt wasn’t horror, or even fear, so much as a wave of the most appalling, unappeasable, unbearable sadness. It was as if all the bad things in the world, the bad things that we ignore most of the time, were suddenly present, just for a second, right in the forefront of my thoughts, all weighing down on me, standing there alone in the doorway. It was a sadness violent enough to make me feel giddy, faint, actually physically sick too.
* * *
My son had come back from a very pleasant cycling outing with his friend. They were in the kitchen, drinking coca cola and eating chocolate biscuits, leaving crumbs everywhere. I, meanwhile, was in an armchair by the Aga, recovering from my ‘weird headache’.
‘Hey, have you been metal detecting again?’ asked my son.
It is true that I do, sometimes, go over our meadow in particular with a metal-detector, just for fun, although I’ve never discovered anything more exciting than a bit of old chain, a very rusted horse-shoe and a lot of pull-rings from old soft-drink cans. But I hadn’t been out for weeks — I’d been too busy, and it had mostly been too wet. Yet there on the table next to the sink, set very neatly on a little cushion of kitchen-roll, as I generally do with my better archaeological ‘finds’, was a small metal thing, caked with dirt. I had no memory at all of putting it there, or indeed of ever seeing it before.
‘No, let me see,’ said my son’s friend, picking the small object up and scratching a little of the earth away from it. ‘Fucking hell! Oh, sorry. I forgot you don’t swear like mum does. But honestly, look. It’s got a swastika on it and everything!’
I came over to look. All three of us stared at the thing. It was, indeed, a badge of some sort, although twisted out of shape, partly broken and very muddy. It was a sort of wreath surrounding a bird that was swooping downward, carrying a swastika in its talons.
‘Ugh,’ I said.
‘It’s sort of cool, though, in an ‘ugh’ kind of way,’ said my son’s friend, handing it back to me.
‘Better than more of those endless 1980s ring-pulls at least,’ said my son, still eating a biscuit.
And with that, they both immediately forgot about the little object, having realised that they could get in game or two on the PS4 before the friend had to cycle back home for his tea — or so I assumed, anyway, until passing the room a bit later, I saw that my son had closed and barred the shutters once again.
* * *
I hate ringing people up, but in the end, I rang Toby, our Norfolk friend who, when not doing his actual day job as a high-flying QC, dabbles in a little bit of local military history.
‘Hiya. Everything okay? What’s up?’
I told him, trying to keep my tone as neutral and natural as I could, that I needed to pick his brains about a Second World War-type history question.
‘Pick away. Fire away. What’s the problem?’
‘It’s a strange one. Look, do you know anything about any German troops ending up round here during the war? I mean, here in this village?’
He thought for a moment. ‘No, not really. There were a few downed aircraft in the area’ — he named two nearby villages — ‘but nothing where you are. At least, not as far as I know.’
‘And there’s no way that, well, paratroops, or commandos, or something like that, could have ended up here?’
‘Have you been watching The Eagle Has Landed again?’
‘Serious question, Toby.’
He paused again, this time for rather longer. ‘Look. This isn’t a very good answer, I know. But the more I’ve looked into this stuff, the more I realise not just how little we know, but how little we’ll probably ever know. There’s the official story of the war — but then, going back and looking at documents, even just chatting with some old bloke down at the pub, sure, there are plenty of things that just don’t fit. And ultimately, all we can do is look at the balance of probabilities, and decide who we trust and who we don’t trust, and hope for the best.
‘Or to put it another way, you’re right there on the coast, there was a lot of odd stuff going on in that part of the world — experimental tech of all sorts, for a start — and all those smugglers’ creeks, and the marsh, and, let’s face it, a lot of those north Norfolk folk who don’t really open up around strangers — foreigners, incomers, whatever you want to call them. So I suppose what I’m saying is that if someone tells you that they saw something, or they heard something — well, it’s just another bit of evidence to balance against everything else you know. Sorry, I’m not really helping, am I?’
‘No, you’re definitely helping. Am I allowed another question?’
‘If — if somehow, by whatever means, German troops ended up here, just two or three maybe, what would have happened to them?’
‘In theory, they’d have been arrested, questioned, and then sent for a long holiday in a prisoner-of-war camp somewhere.’
‘Well, in practice, it wasn’t unknown for downed airmen, for instance, to get roughed up a bit. Or, in fact, killed. And, to be fair, it’s not hard to see how it happened. Don’t forget that in Sheringham, for instance’ — that’s a nearby town — ‘fourteen people were killed by enemy action. One was an old lady in her 70s. Another was a baby. And everyone knew someone on active service. So feelings were running high, as the saying goes.’
‘It wasn’t supposed to happen, but sometimes it did — just like it did when Allied airmen came down around Hamburg or places like that. And then, sometimes, it got covered up, because it wasn’t really in anyone’s interest to make a fuss about it.’
‘That makes sense.’
‘Hey, why this sudden interest in proper history?’ Toby found my love of medieval history inexplicable, just as I’d previously found his obsession with the Second World War — more like current affairs than real history — absolutely baffling.
I found myself lying before I even realised what I was doing. ‘Oh, I was just tying to understand some garbled thing I was told by an old chap here recently. You know that thing Norfolk people can do, where they are sort of ostentatiously mysterious on purpose? Well, it was that. Just trying to get some background. And you’ve helped, so thanks for that.’
* * *
I hoped to see the old man who lived in the lane that evening, but in the way of these things, although I waited by the paddock for more than an hour, watching the light fail around me, noticing how anxious and unsettled my placid old ponies seemed to be, he never turned up. And the next day, I had to be somewhere else until long into the evening. But eventually, two days after my conversation with Toby, I found myself there at the edge of the paddock, watching the little old man from the lane approach me from the five-bar gate, carrots in hand.
‘So, they’ve started excavating again, have they? I am pretty sure I heard heavy vehicles down here again this morning.’
‘That’s right, ma’am,’ said the old man. ‘They started up at 8 am. Top marks to ’em for punctuality.’
We smiled at his witticism.
I was stalling for time, trying to think of a way to bring the conversation round to what I really wanted to discuss, so I asked him, to give myself a moment, whether he’d heard what caused the delay in the work.
His smile deepened, and thin, aged voice fell to a conspiratorial mock-whisper.
‘Bones?’ I was genuinely surprised. ‘Whose bones? And why were there bones there, anyway?’
He shook his head. ‘You know —’ and here he made reference to the developer. ‘You know what he’s like. He ain’t going to ask them questions, then, is he?’
I shook my head in return. ‘You’re right, of course. He’s hardly the type to get the council archaeologists involved, I guess. You remember that story from last summer, don’t you, about that poor chap who went to excavate a fishing lake, but ended up discovering a huge early medieval graveyard, and had to pay for the archaeologists to deal with the whole thing? He spent tens of thousands of pounds, all out of his own pocket. Mind you, I’d have liked to have learned more about those bones. What if there was a churchyard there before our church was built, in early Saxon times? Wouldn’t that have been amazing?’
‘Oh, I don’t think the bones was that old, ma’am. Anyway, they was carted away with the spoil the other morning.’
I was thinking about something. ‘I suppose, when you come to think of it, those bones were on what was once our property — I mean, the Major’s property, his parents’ property?’
‘Oh yes, ma’am. There was a sort of muck heap beyond the glass-houses.’
I could see that the old man was thinking, putting things together. And then it was as if I could literally see his face closing somehow, a shade coming down.
This was my chance, insofar as I still had any chance. ‘You’ve lived here all your life, haven’t you? Here in this village?’
‘Yes ma’am. My parents had a cottage down by the Quay, just a little place. It’s a holiday house now — it was in a magazine the other day! Very smart, now, that old place is. My mum wouldn’t have recognised it, they done so much to it. Then when I was married we had cottage in a loke off the High Street, near where Roz’s mum and her old man used to live, before things gone wrong for ’em. It was only after my missus got ill that we bought the place in your lane. It’s the nicest of all — brand new, when we had it — very clean, very up-to-date …’
I pre-empted his attempt to describe all the merits of his up-to-date bungalow. ‘I know you’re 83 years old, because you told me. So, you were born in 1935. You must remember the war pretty well, yes?’
Oh, the shade was there across his face all right, and he was pulling it down tighter with every passing moment. ‘It was so long ago, ma’am. Those was bad times. Best forgotten, really, whatever young folk say.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. But I was just wondering, idly — did you ever hear anything about German troops, air-crew maybe, finding their way here? Or anything like that?’
‘No ma’am, I ain’t never heard nothing like that. Nothin’ at all. This was a well-guarded place, what with the airfields all around, and the mines in the marsh, and the Air Commodore living up at your house! No ma’am, there wouldn’t have been no Jerries that could get up here. They wouldn’t have had the bloody nerve — and if they did, they wouldn’t have liked the welcome they’d have got, I can tell you that!’
His reedy old voice was suddenly raised to such a pitch that the oldest, most docile of the ponies, who had been eating some grass I’d held out, not only whinnied and rolled his eyes, but suddenly reared up, so that we both jumped back, surprised, a little shocked.
The old man’s voice was level again. ‘Them ponies ain’t their selves this autumn,’ he said. ‘They’re nervy, like.’ And so the conversation turned to the ponies, and their age, and their feed, and why no one had seen the pink-footed geese yet. And meanwhile, around us, it had grown so dark that I had to walk very slowly, almost feeling my way through the wood-smoke and damp leaf-scented air, as I made my way back to the main house.
* * *
As it happened, a few years after we arrived in the village, once the work on the house was nearly complete and the builders almost gone, I was given the responsibility of setting up for 8am Holy Communion in the parish church. In a way, it was the first real token I had of acceptance into the deeper currents of village life. But at another level, it also made practical sense. For one thing, I’ve always been a early riser. But then the church was also directly across from our main gates, so I didn’t have to go very far either.
Also, as I learned later, not everyone on the parish roll relished the task of walking through a vast pitch-dark churchyard, up towards a pitch-dark ancient church, and then spending the better part of an hour alone there, setting out the vestments, dressing the altar, counting out the communion wafers into their little silver dish, with only the old stonework, its shadows and secrets by way of early-morning company.
I, though, was not at all afraid of ghosts. On the contrary, if there were ghosts present, I felt a warm sense of community regarding them.
Indeed, on those early mornings when I was there in the church alone, I was often conscious of a not-entirely-Christian sense of pride at having this magnificent, powerful, numinous space all to myself — shared, of course, with the shades of everyone who had worshipped there before — all those christenings, marriages, shrivings and burials. These were the neighbours who never made me feel awkward.
For it has to be said that now and then, in our village, I have been made aware that others simply see me as that pitiable thing, an incomer — a little less than entirely human, or at least not to be taken seriously in the way that Norfolk folk are taken seriously. It’s obvious in the closed looks, the veiled allusions, the faint air of conspiracy that sometimes hangs over the most innocent things. And yet there in the church, running my hands over our village’s most sacred fabrics and vessels, preparing for a ritual that had taken place there for more than a thousand years, I was simply another soul, one among many, the little differences ironed out by the grand obliviousness of eternity. The ghosts, it seems, were long past judging me. It was a comforting feeling.
Anyway, on that particular October morning, just as a tiny bit of light was starting to break in the east, it was easy enough to walk up the path towards the dark flint bulk of the church, up to the porch — but then instead of turning and unlocking the door, to walk beyond it, a little further along, to the area just to the liturgical east where the oldest gravestones stand. There, the grass is allowed to grow tall, augmented in summer with stray wildflowers, bees and butterflies. No one is buried there anymore. It is a quiet place. And for as long as anyone can remember, it has been regarded as holy, too.
I took the little folded square of kitchen-roll out of my jacket pocket, unfolded it, and extracted the mud-caked badge. Then I half-knelt in the slightly-damp grass, and with my fingers, scratched the start of a little hole into the ground. It had been a wet autumn, so the earth was soft and uncomplaining. I took the badge and pushed it, thin edge downwards, into the soil.
It went in remarkably easily.
When it did so, I was stuck once again, although only for a second, perhaps even less, by that same extraordinary wave of sadness. And then, just like that, it was gone.
As I rose, wiping my hands on my trousers and turning my thoughts to opening up the church for Holy Communion, I could hear, some way in the distance, the distinctive sound of a flock of pink-footed geese, arriving from the north — from Iceland, Greenland, far-distant Spitzbergen — to spend the winter on our Norfolk marshes, gorging themselves on the fallow fields and the marsh grasses, as they have done for centuries, perhaps much longer, before there were even humans here to catch their sorrowful cry.