Old Tom: a ghost story

by Barendina Smedley

When I was a little child, not more than four winters old, my mother used to sit up with Parson Poynter, when he was dying, in his chamber upstairs at the parsonage. Sometimes, she would take me with her. This was in the year before the old king died. I mean King James.

My father didn’t like it. He knew what everyone said about Parson Poynter and, more to the point, what everyone was likely to say about a young woman — for my mother was still young then, better-looking than some, and sharp-witted, too — who sat alone with Parson Poynter, in his chamber, even though he was almost dead by then, or at any rate so feeble and diminished in his powers as to be past much mischief. But in any event, my mother, who in many matters would defer to my father, would simply take up her things, grab me by the hand and set off up the hill toward the parsonage, as if my father had said nothing at all.

Be quiet, said my mother. We were in the kitchen. It was a long, low room. Two massive oak beams ran the length of it. On one of the long walls there was a huge brick hearth, surrounded with pots and cooking irons and so forth, with a bread oven in the wall to the right it. The kitchen smelled of smoke, meat, fat, spices, ale, cats and warm bodies. Be quiet. Just sit down and don’t bother Gartreud and for heaven’s sake don’t bother anyone else, either. Just sit down and be quiet.

There was a bench along one of the short walls, near enough to the fire to be very warm, so I sat there. Don’t you worry, little one, said Gartreud, once my mother had gone up the kitchen stairs. Gartreud was round, slightly bent with age, hardened with cooking and life, but very kind. From somewhere at the dark end of the room she would find me a sweet biscuit of some sort, that she would bake in the oven when they were making the bread. Gartreud was from Bremen, across the German Ocean. Her biscuits were strange, but delicious too. I sat next to a cat and ate the biscuit, looking at the fire as it leapt about, picking out as it did so the brickwork of the hearth.

My parents’ cottage did not have a hearth like that. We had a fire on a stone in the centre of the cottage, and a hole in the thatch overhead to let the smoke out. Nor, in truth, were we the only ones in our village who lived like that either, hard though it may be for you to believe.

The parsonage house felt solid around me, in a way that my parents’ cottage, which had been built by my father and two uncles just a few years previous out of lathe and a bit of old timber they begged from the Heydons, did not. The parsonage was made of flint, was two stories tall, had tiles on the roof and glass in most of the windows. It was more than a century old already. A low wall separated it from the low road that ran up from Wiveton, Holt, Norwich, the landward world, down to the quay that let onto the world of the sea, so that the house seemed perched on the boundary between those two worlds, uncommitted to one or the other, set just slightly back from the traffic, always a little bit apart.

People said that Parson Poynter had to find his cook in Bremen because no one who lived nearer than Bremen would consider working for him, let alone living in his parsonage. But of course that was unfair, as people were often unfair to Parson Poynter. My mother, after all, had lived in the adjoining parish all her twenty-two years, and she was still willing to sit with the parson upstairs while he lay dying. And Gartreud, for her part, was glad to live in Norfolk, for reasons she was unwilling to explain to me. Perhaps she, too, had a complicated story, but had been able to leave it behind her on the other side of the German Ocean.

It was mid-autumn, well after harvest but before the tithes were finally accounted, and the wind was blowing. On that hill where the parsonage sat, the wind was always blowing. Often it came out of the southwest, full of rain and softness, which was good for the land even when the fields were standing fallow. But now and then it came from the northeast instead. As the kitchen was at the northeast end of the parsonage, on those nights the wind would strike the flint walls like some sort of violent attack, seeking to tear its way in through closed shutters or any door that hadn’t been bolted properly. And those were the nights, I had learned, when Old Tom came to sit with us in the kitchen.

Like Parson Poynter, like some of the others who ended up at the parsonage, Old Tom was someone the village didn’t want, someone they’d rather have driven off somewhere else.

Old Tom had been in the Irish Wars, back in the last years of the late Queen’s reign, more than twenty years before. I think he had been born in our village. A few of the older folk said that when he had left for the wars, he had been a fine-looking fellow, tall, all wild ginger hair and swagger. I wasn’t frightened of him, because I’d known him since I was a baby — I’d always known him — but when strangers saw him they would often cry out, or cover their faces, or simply run away. This was because, having come back from the wars all those years ago, he was missing part of one leg, part of one arm from the elbow downward, all of his nose and another part of his upper lip. What there was left of him was woefully scarred, too. He walked with a crutch, making a tapping sound as he went.

Most of the time, Old Tom lived either in Thursford wood, or out on one of the heaths, where there was no one to recoil from him or to tell him he wasn’t quite right. But sometimes, because Gartreud was kind and because the Parson could be assumed to embrace anyone whom the villagers hated or feared, Old Tom turned up at the parsonage, scratching at the kitchen door. He wanted no food, or drink either — just the chance to sit by a fire on a cold night, perchance with a sleeping cat on one side of him and a little child on the other. Mostly he didn’t say much. When he did, it was hard to understand him, as something was wrong with his jaw. Also, he was universally held to be addled in his wits, as the Irish Wars had robbed him not only of his health and looks and livelihood, but also of his reason.

Your mother was good to come to the parson tonight, said Gartreud. She was making up a drink for Parson Poynter, some sort of spiced sack. He doesn’t sleep so much now. I loved sleeping — snuggled up between the familiar warmth of my parents on a rough wool mattress, rolled out nightly onto the earth floor — and always slept heavily, so I asked Gartreud why the parson didn’t sleep. Because he’s listening out for death, she said. He’s a man waiting for a visitor to arrive, listening to everything, everyone who passes on the low road, everyone who waits at the door. But when your mother sits with him, he talks instead. And when a man talks, he can’t listen. And for the parson, now, it is better to talk.

Parson Poynter had always been kind to my mother. My mother’s mother died of the great fever when my mother was only a baby, and my mother’s father had gone away to sea and never come back, or suffered some similar if inchoate mishap, so the parish lodged the unwanted baby with an ancient woman, very poor, who lived in a loke behind a ship-chandler’s tumble-down cottage, and who got her livelihood by doing such little decent honest errands for the parish officers as she could. But Parson Poynter, even then scornful of his parish officers and their earnest projects for the reformation of the poor, used to stop and speak with my mother as he rode by, and more often than not would give her a penny, or sometimes a pretty shiny trinket, and indeed once or twice a really valuable piece of jewellery, so that the ancient woman, when she went to sell it in Holt, could live off it for months afterwards, and loved the little girl all the more for it.

And then, when she was old enough to manage for herself, my mother came to help at the parsonage. Of course everyone in the village raised their eyebrows at this, and expected the worst, and indeed were looking forward to tut-tutting about the worst, enjoying the sheer scandal of it, when it happened. But then after a few years my mother got wed to my father, right there in the church, with Parson Poynter joining the two young people in marriage and writing the correct words down in the register. So the villagers were all vastly disappointed.

He won’t talk to no one but your mother said Gartreud, stirring the sack, having poured a little honey into it, and then given me the spoon to lick, as Old Tom looked on, silent and uncritical. Mr Heydon came to see him this morning, she added, but the parson only told me to send him away again. Mr Heydon! Sent on his way like an errand-boy. And when I think of how those two used to sit up until the sky was brightening again in the east, drinking and discoursing on things in their books and having such arguments, almost at each other’s throats those two gentlemen, then such loud laughter! But now the parson won’t talk to no one but your mother, and he made me put his a good half his books away, and his writing things, too. No, it won’t be long now, will it?

What will you do, Gartreud, when the parson dies? I had known Gartreud so long that I wasn’t frightened to ask her this, even though I knew my mother, had she been there, would have been angry at me for asking questions. Will you go back to Bremen?

Heavens no little one, said Gartreud. I’m too old, now, and although Bremen is a fine place, full of tall buildings and vast riches and folk clad in silks and satins, there are those who say that it will be at war soon, and I am too old for war, far too old for another war.

Old Tom said something, but he had to say it two or three times before we understood. You can no more outrun war than the parson can outrun death, he said. It comes for you when it’s ready for you, whatever country you bide in, and you can’t send it away neither. And as he said this, spittle ran down what was left of his chin, which he wiped away with his good hand.

Gartreud got up from the hearth, poured the drink into the elaborately-worked silver pot with a horn handle, and set off up the stairs. By the time she reached the parson’s bedroom, at the other end of the house, the drink would have cooled enough that she could pour it into the parson’s glass.

I thought of Gartreud, walking through the enfilade of dark rooms, slightly hunched with all her years, carefully holding the cup before her as she went. I thought of my mother, having pulled up a form next to the parson’s great bed, letting the parson say all that he wanted to say, as if in a hurry to finish before his visitor arrived — strange, sundry words, about my lord the Earl of Northumberland, perhaps, whose chaplain the parson was, and also a great alchemist, still locked up in the Tower of London for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, or possibly about Kit Marlin, a whimsical and suspect person with whom the parson had briefly shared rooms at Cambridge, long since condemned as an atheist and sodomite, and indeed dead as well, although there were still those, not always the most reliable sort, who paid actors to perform his plays.

When I was in Ireland, said Old Tom, no one had to wait on death. My captain was a fine man. I had fought with him in the Low Countries, and followed him to Ireland, so much did I love him. But he and his men, all of us, were ambushed by rebels. So many were slain. So many.

I thought of Gartreud, handing the richly-engraved glass to my mother, and my mother handing it on to Parson Poynter, propped up on cushions in the great bed, steadying it for him with her small fine hands, and how the Parson would drink a little, his long thin fingers overlapping her smaller ones, and then cough like the rattling of bones on judgement day, like the dead rising from their graves.

There was one young lad, a Norfolk lad. He looked as if he were only asleep. But when we went to turn him over, the back of his head was missing. The rebels had got their hands on muskets. Before then, they had only had sticks, pruning hooks, maybe a few pikes.

I thought of Parson Poynter, his long thin face, his beaky nose, his cynical look. Was he wearing his brocade robe, because my mother was there, or only the rough wool one? To your very good health, he said before he drank. And my mother would laugh, and so would Gartreud, not because it was funny, but because they were already thinking how they would miss the parson when he was cold and dead, and when they were all a long way from the parsonage.

My captain was lying on the ground. I had followed him from the Low Countries. I didn’t have to follow him to Ireland. But I did. His jaw had been shot away. For a while he tried to give orders, to rally what was left of his men, but when he opened his mouth, instead of words, great clots of blood came out. And then he died. I held him in my arms.

Gartreud’s cat, the ginger one, having been asleep next to Old Tom, suddenly got up, stretched lazily in the half-dark, and then jumped down off the bench, and went to eat the few scraps Gartreud had put down for him earlier. I could hear footsteps above. Gartreud was coming back, through the enfilade of dark rooms.

I held him. He had lost an arm, a foot, although we only noticed after he was dead. But we gathered up the parts.

I could hear the gentle sound of the cat chewing, and a miscellaneous black kitten emerging from the shadows to see what was happening and getting hissed at, and then the gentle sound of the big ginger cat coming back to sit on the bench again. Gartreud was at the top of the stairs that led down to the kitchen, balancing the cup against her hip so that she could open the door.

We went back to Newry, but it took five days, because we couldn’t go by the roads. And my captain’s body, the parts we had wrapped in cloth, it started to become foul. So whenever we got to a stream, I’d unwrap the parts and wash them in the water. It took us five days to get to Newry. We couldn’t go by the roads.

Gartreud was coming down the stairs, but very slowly, both because she was old and also because she was holding the silver vessel with the horn handle in her hands.

He is buried at Newry, my captain. I got my wounds, these wounds, just as we were coming up to the town. The rebels had got hold of muskets. I wanted to die. I had followed him from the Low Countries. But in the end I didn’t even see him buried.

Old Tom, you monster, frightening Cressy’s baby with your nonsense, the minute my back is turned. Gartreud’s voice was kind, though. It was the same soft voice she’d used when she was speaking with the parson a few moments before, as if she’d forgot to change it for her kitchen voice. Will you not have the last of the sack, Tom? There’s a little left in the pot.

But Tom only shook his head, and turned his face away from Gartreud’s enquiring look. He never ate or drank, at least when any of us were around to see him. So instead Gartreud gave the sack to me, in fired earth cup. It was very sweet and, once I had got used to the way it made my throat burn, also very pleasant. It made the fire seem warmer and the wind blowing outside seem more remote, indeed entirely irrelevant.

Most of the people in the village were, it must be said, rather looking forward to the moment when Parson Poynter died. Over the thirty-four years that he had been our parson, the flames of their resentment had burned down to embers, but the embers still glowed, and were capable of bursting back into life at the most surprising moments.

And it wasn’t just that Sir Nathaniel, the local puritan gentleman, hated Parson Poynter, or that Mr Calthorpe, the rival local puritan gentleman, also hated Parson Poynter, for a completely different and unrelated set of excellent reasons. No, the roots of the hatred were as deep as they were tangled, vigorous and persistent.

Even now, when the Parson hadn’t been well for years and Mr Aldington the curate always took the services for him, rarely did more than a month or two go by without someone — a boy out to impress a girl, perhaps, or some older man, well-refreshed following a session at one of the quayside ale-houses — slipping up to the gates of the parsonage in the night, and pinning to them some badly-written but occasionally quite perceptive piece of doggerel, pointing out the parson’s defects, rehearsing ancient crimes and misdemeanours, and suggesting what he could do with his Sunday sermons in particular. But Gartreud, who could not read but knew a libel when she saw one, would simply tear down the slips of paper and use them to feed the kitchen fire — or sometimes Mr Aldington would get to the libel first, read it, laugh mirthlessly to himself, and go back to day-dreaming about a recusant widow who lived in the next village, to whom he once gave a basket of cherries, back in happier times.

It is easy to misunderstand why the village hated Parson Poynter so. No, it wasn’t because he had lived apart for years from his perfectly respectable wife, or that he had raped a local girl, or that he had not only got a different local girl pregnant but also arranged for her to lie down behind the hedges with a local boy so that the parentage of the resulting baby would remain always in doubt. In truth, had the villagers liked Parson Poynter, it would have been easy enough to have disbelieved, overlooked or excused any of these things. Even in those days, not everyone in the village thought that a parson needed a wife in the first place; it was well-known that the girl who was ‘raped’ had afterwards taken a penny from the Parson, which showed how little she really minded; and as for the girl who got pregnant, everyone in the village knew her sort, and only really pitied the youth who’d lain behind the hedges with her, because he, at least, had deserved a better sort of wife than that.

No, the reason the villagers hated Parson Poynter was simply this: that Parson Poynter was, and always had been, entirely indifferent to the villagers, their status and social niceties or indeed the state of their eternal souls. He was no more anxious to court and cosset the ‘better sort’ than he was to catechise or reform the local paupers, reprobates and outcasts. His sermons were delivered with more than a touch of the stage about them — he had loved acting when he was at Cambridge — but somehow the audience he was addressing never seemed to be there in the church. His whole career in the village gave the sense of being some sort of private joke, deeply amusing to Parson Poynter, but lost on everyone else. No, when he took notice of anyone, it was likely to be someone like my mother, or Gartreud — he enjoyed speaking with her in whatever language it is that they use in Bremen — or indeed Old Tom, to whom he showed an uncharacteristic deference on the rare occasions when they met.

The wind was screaming, and for a moment we all thought we heard voices carried upon it, being rushed towards us, being pushed in through the windows and the cracks around the doors. Gartreud rose. It’s late to be out on the low road tonight, she said. It’s late to be going away from the village.

Tom continued to stare into the fire. They had got their hands on muskets, he said. I didn’t even see him buried, after all that.

Oh, shut up with your madness, Tom! You’ll frighten the little one, you will, said Garteud.

All the same, she was the one who sounded frightened, twisting her apron in her thick hands as the voices waxed and waned on the shrieking wind. Oh, I wish Mr Aldington were here, she said, even though we all knew that Mr Aldington would have been very little use whatsoever, with his gentle smile and deep sighs. We listened for the voices. There was a crashing sound, as if timber were giving way under blows, and then laughter. The ginger cat bolted out of the room, knocking something over, followed closely behind by the miscellaneous black kitten.

Gartreud’s hands were on my shoulders, half-lifting me, half-shoving me out the door that led from the kitchen into the buttery, and from there into the rooms beyond. I felt the heavy door bang closed behind me. Be quiet. Be quiet. Now don’t be frightened. You just go to your mother, now, little one. You know the way. Don’t be frightened.

Of course I had been in these rooms before, many times. My mother would go into the buttery to find something for Gartreud, or to fetch something out for the parson. The buttery was a small room, filled with things that had been tidied out of the way or things that were being kept for some future contingency that might or might not arrive. I knew it was where Gartreud kept her biscuits, as well as the spices and the honey and much else, and on another evening I might have paused to try to find them. But as it was, I pushed my way through the room, over the cool earth floor, navigating with my fingers and memory, until I found the door that led to the hall, which in any event was standing slightly open. Behind me I could hear Gartreud’s voice raised, and all sorts of movement.

The hall was an old room, almost impossibly large for a room in a house. Even on that cloudy night, a little light fell through from the two small windows, picking out the painted beams, the dark furniture, the arms that were hung up over the great hearth. Parson Poynter’s books lay in piles, here and there, where he had set them down and forgotten them. There was a table covered with a turkey carpet, scientific devices, abandoned cups, more books. I knew that in the room beyond, which was Parson Poynter’s study, the walls were hung with painted pictures such as no one in our village had ever seen before, and also the Great Map. The parson himself had once carried me in and let me look at the pictures and the map, when my mother was busy with something else. He had told me stories about some of the pictures. For a long time I thought they were stories from the Bible, until over the years that followed it became clear that they were not.

In the kitchen, someone was smashing something, and there was more shouting.

I found the stairs that led from the hall up towards the parson’s chamber, where he and my mother were sitting. These stairs were much broader than the ones that led up directly from the kitchen to the old solar, now an enfilade of smaller rooms. But as I made my way up the stairs, I met my mother, rushing down them. She looked frightened, but also excited and indeed strangely beautiful, as she often did when she had been with the parson. Oh Jack, what are you doing up here? Oh Jack, what is happening down there?

Gartreud told me to come, I said, and started to cry, because I thought my mother would be angry with me for not staying in the kitchen, but she only gave me a hurried kiss, directed me up to the top of the stairs, and told me to sit with the old parson while she attended to whatever was happening in the kitchen.

They are nothing if not predictable, said that low, teasing, rich, familiar voice from the depths of the great bed with all its complicated woollen hangings, once I had reached the parson’s chamber. For you see, Master Jack, that Jupiter is conjunct Mars, at a bad angle to some other stars with which I will not tax you, for your tender years, except to tell you that under such circumstances should men fear in particular demagogues, riots and the madness of crowds.

I was still crying a little because I thought that my mother would be angry.

Come here, said the voice from the bed. I see that I am in good hands now, with bold Sir Jack, by some way the bravest and best in this cankered and unquiet house, marshalled to protect me. And then I could see him, propped up on pillows, his face pale as paper, but still elegant, ironic and faintly melancholy. He was wearing his red brocade robe. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had seen, and reached out to touch his sleeve, which was as vivid and bright as fresh-flowing blood.

Your mother was telling me, Sir Jack, that you are a person of fine wit and discernment, already able to prick out your A, B, and often even letters beyond. But I believe it not, for your tender years.

This, of course, made me indignant, as it was meant to do, for in truth my mother, who had learned her letters from the Parson, had recently taught me the same, so that I could now read whole words, if they were simple and clearly set out, and with the boldness of a four-year old, I told the parson so. But he continued to express his doubts, and the more he did so, the more indignant I became, until I took up a book that was lying on a table by his bed, opened it all unbidden, and started to read from it, until my halting, faltering words were overtaken by his rich and generous laughter, the way a seabird hopping up the strand is overtaken, harmlessly, by the force of a sudden wave that only carries it a little further on in the way that it was hoping to go.

You know it not, Sir Jack — or perhaps you know it well, so wise you are beyond your little years — but those words were written by a man I once knew, Kit Marlin, and touch on the conjuring of devils, and when in years to come you sit at the feet of your masters in Cambridge, how will they reproach me, a foolish old devil indeed, for setting a mere babe to read such a dangerous thing, too hot it would seem for many a learned doctor! No, no more Dr Faustus for you, my brave poppet, or your mother will never let me hear the end of it. Nay, I was wrong, and I believe you. And now shall we talk on lighter things.

I wasn’t sure whether to cry or not, but the parson was laughing, and so I began to smile and then laugh, and it was thus that my mother found us when she came back into the parson’s chamber.

So, Cressida, mother of the bold and learned Sir Jack, what passes?

‘Tis Mr Calthorpe’s men, parson, come on some mischief about the tithe, or something like — they broke down the gate to the little yard, and got into the kitchen and would have gone for Gartreud, except that they saw Old Tom, and took against him as they do, and so he set off with all of them after him, for you know they like him not.

And here, I am afraid, I started to cry again, and the parson asked me why I was crying. In truth, I was crying because it was almost midnight, and because of drinking the sack that Gartreud had given me, and because of the dark rooms, but also because although he was ugly and strange, I liked Old Tom, both admiring his adventures and pitying his misfortunes, and wishing that he could have seen his captain buried, as that was the thing that seemed to weigh on him most. So I told the parson that I cried for Old Tom, for I didn’t wish Mr Calthorpe’s men to catch up with him and to do him harm.

Parson Poynter looked at my mother, and she looked back at him. It was as if they were speaking, although I heard no words pass between them. Then the parson spoke, sounding gentle, not arch or ironic. Master Jack, please have no fear for Old Tom, as you call him, for when the villagers, who like him not, say that he is not as they are, they for once in their lives speak something approaching a verity. For in truth, as you would say, Master Jack, Old Tom is not quite as we are, we who still linger, for a greater or lesser time, here among the living, waiting for our exits. No, Old Tom is something apart, to be welcomed in our rooms, perchance, and granted our forbearance and attention if not our food or drink — to halt with us a little while before he goes upon our way. Or to put it more simply, Sir Jack, as the hour is late and your years are few, I promise you that run and shout and riot how they like, Mr Calthorpe’s men will not catch up with Old Tom, nor will they overtake him, nor can they do him any harm at all.

I was not entirely convinced, and reminded the parson that one of Mr Calthorpe’s men was none other than Sam the smith’s son, whose successes in football matches against the nearby villages were the stuff of legend, and who could run as fast as Pheidippides.

I was rather proud of this last reference, although at the same time anxious that I had somehow got it wrong, but when I looked up the parson and my mother were engaged in another one of those wordless conversations, which lasted until the parson looked back at me again and said simply that no one alive on earth now could do Old Tom any harm, and that I was not to worry myself about it any further.

Parson Poynter smiled at me, his eyes weirdly icy even in that hot airless room, yet by no means unkind. And then he began to cough, with that cough that sounded like the rattling of bones, but also sounded a little like rather scornful, unearthly laughter. And then he settled back into the deep pillow, still as can be, as if he were listening for something, although all I could hear now was the wind, much softer there at the south end of the parsonage house than it was at the north where the kitchen sat.

When I left with my mother a little later, after she had promised the parson to ask Geert in the village to make the broken gate good again, and to send for Mr Calthorpe’s man so that Mr Adlington could remonstrate with him, and a few other things of that sort, the parson, by way of a farewell, laid his hand on my head in a kind of parody of a blessing, and then gave me the book I had been reading earlier so that I could take it away with me. Indeed, I still have it with me now.

That was the last time I saw Parson Poynter, because very soon afterwards he died. My mother stopped going up to the parsonage, which pleased my father immensely. Gartreud left for Grimsby where her cousin had a successful business involving pitch and tar, leaving behind whatever complications her life had accrued in our seaside village, and lived there long enough to see the start of the late Rebellion, if not to worry much about it. Mr Adlington departed for another living, this time in Hampsire, where he planted a cherry tree, and sighed when it bloomed and when it fruited, and thought about the widow.

And as for Old Tom, I never saw him again either, although there are some in the village who say he still lives up at Thursford wood, or perhaps amongst the furze and bracken up on Salthouse heath, and that on autumn nights when the wind is from the northeast, he can be heard in the low road in our village, not far from the parsonage, tapping his way along with his stick, trying to find his way back to what it is that he still seeks.