Body and Soul, a Story of Possession
Before Tom could continue with his story, a sudden gust of wind roared in the chimney. The sound made me jump and caused Jip to look up and eye me warily.
“It’s turning into a bad night.”
Tom’s voice made me more aware of the deepening shadows and their inky-black shapes on the stone floor.
“Perhaps it would be better if you told me the rest of the story as we walk?” I suggested.
Tom looked towards the small window of the cottage and realised for the first time, that twilight had come creeping unbeknownst to him.
“You’re right girl, we should make a move.”
Jip jumped off my lap the moment his master stood.
“All right,” Tom bent and patted his head. “You can come with us. That is, if madam here, doesn’t mind having you in the car.”
It was a relief to know I was driving and wouldn’t have to trek over the darkening fields.
“Why would I mind?” I said, pulling on my coat and loath to leave the warmth of the room.
Outside the force of the wind made me catch my breath. As Tom opened the back door of the car to let the dog jump in, I had a moment to look around me. There’s something disquieting about the countryside in bad weather. Under bright sunlight, the fields can look beautiful, but in the late evening, as the night reaches out with searching fingers, it can make the fine hairs on the back of one’s neck rise. It didn’t help that the sky had turned an eerie grey and the noise of the wind sounded like drum rolls as it moved unchallenged by any man-made barriers.
I was glad when the car heater warmed up and followed Tom directions up the laneway and out onto the main road.
“You know where Casey’s Lane is?” He asked when we had driven a mile or so.
“I’m not sure,” my eyes searched for a break in the trees lining the road. “Its years since I was last there.”
“It’s coming up on the right,” Tom said.
My nerves were sorely tried as the car bounced from one pothole to another on the rutted track. Grass grew along its centre and it was obvious from the way the bushes ran riot on either side, that it was many years since anyone disturbed their growth. Their thorns still bare of fruit scratched at the car’s paintwork and each screech was like nails on a chalkboard. The headlights caught the scuttling of small creatures that had made their homes within the thickets and their darting forms were an indication of the upset our intrusion was causing. A five-barred gate blocked the end of the lane and I was glad we didn’t have to drive any further. Here too the bushes ran riot with ivy and brambles snaking their way along each bar.
“The house is over there,” Tom nodded into the distance.
Using the steering wheel to hoist myself up in my seat, I could just make up the shape of the chimneys among the trees.
“I think we’ll stay in the warmth while I finish my story,” Tom said. “We can take a look at the place after that.”
I opened the window a crack, to stop the car steaming up, then thought better of it as the wind screamed in. It was spooky enough without having to listen to its cries. I watched the small dark shapes circling the trees as the birds made ready for the night and I was glad of the hum of the car heater as Tom recommenced his tale.
“It was a terrible way to live,” he began. “Decades passed with Trevor barely speaking a kind word to his stepsister. He refused to forgive her for whatever part she played in ending his engagement and they continued to live like cold little shadows roaming around the huge old house.”
It must have been like a living death from what Tom says of it; Trevor ignoring his stepsister, only speaking when absolutely necessary and spending as much time alone as possible. Milly, on the other hand, was unaffected by his behaviour and chatted gaily about the neighbourhood gossip and when her many questions went unanswered, she shrugged and moved on to the next subject. She basked in the knowledge that she had her stepbrother all to herself and should anyone remark on his coldness towards her, she put it down to his artistic tendencies and swore he had the mind of a genius, who needed the quiet in order to think.
There is no doubt to my mind, that she was insane and even before Tom told me the rest of the story. I made my mind up on the subject. Over the years, as the servants drifted away, some to other positions and who could blame them; unnerving as it was living in a house of whispers and long, drawn-out silences, others succumbed to death, until finally there was no one left; no one to witness Milly’s hold on her stepbrother. She still saw to his every need, right down to running his bath or cutting his hair. Trevor, whose nerves can never have been strong, let her wait on him but showed no sign of appreciating her work. In fact, her touch on his skin and her neediness became revolting and her endless attentions began to frighten him. He fitted stout locks to his bedroom door, so her face was no longer the first thing he saw each morning.
Milly thought his actions those of a young man in need of privacy, but Trevor was in his sixtieth year at this stage. As the madness within her grew so did Trevor’s fear of his stepsister and he could be heard shouting at her to leave him alone. His form was a familiar one as he tramped the roads and fields in search of some peace away from her endless probing of his mind.
Milly lived into her ninety-fourth year and Trevor was seventy-eight when she breathed her last. In the last five years of her life, Milly had set in motion the final part of her plan. She had a fine mausoleum built in the orchard behind the house and engraved above the door were both their names.
“Not even death will part us,” she informed her terrified brother. “You’ll be laid to rest beside me when the time comes.”
I interrupted Tom in his storytelling.
“You mean they’re buried over there?” I nodded towards the house in the distance.
“Hold your whist,” Tom wagged a finger at me. “I’m just coming to that.”
Milly’s passing brought no relief to her stepbrother. Knowing she was so close by was a terrible thing and the curtains at the back of the house were kept closed from the day of her burial, to block out the view of the orchard and its hideous monument to her madness. When electricity first came to this remote area, Trevor didn’t bother having it installed, content to rely on the old oil lamps for light. It made me shudder to think of him roaming from room to room and the way the shadows must have darted in the dim light of the lamps. As Tom said at the beginning of his story, his mother and father took care of Trevor as he grew feeble with old age and we come now to the climax of the story.
“My father told me this over a few pints some years before he died, God rest his soul,” Tom said. “I’ve never forgotten his words, but I try not to think too much about them.”
Tom’s father sat by Trevor’s deathbed and listened to the old man’s last gasping breaths. In the hour before he died, Trevor clutched at his hand and begged him for one last act of kindness.
“In the top drawer,” he pointed a trembling, bony finger at a piece of furniture opposite his bed. “You’ll find a small sack, bring it to me.”
Tom’s father did as he asked and placed the sack on the bed. The old man shook the contents onto the bedcovers and Tom’s father watched in wonder as bundles of money fell out. Trevor searched among the bundles until his fingers found what he was looking for.
“I’ve made a will,” he handed the document to Tom’s father. “I’ve left everything I own to you, though it’s not much,” he told the amazed man. “All that’s left is the house and what you see here, but on one condition. There are over seven thousand pounds here and it’ll take little enough to bury me, the rest you can keep. I have, but one request of you and it’s this. I want to be buried at Knocksera, not outside with her. I had no peace from her in life and she’ll not let me rest in death if I’m laid by her.”
At first Tom’s father thought the old man’s words the rambling of one near death, but as Trevor continued, he realised that was not the case and listened with a growing terror.
“Promise me you’ll carry out my wishes,” Trevor begged. “It’s all written down in the will so there’s no one can stop you. I want a Mortsafe placed over my grave; I’ll feel safer knowing it’s there.”
“I’ll do as you ask,” Tom’s father promised.
It was the least he could do for the dying man, but he wondered even as he spoke, where he could buy the steel cage Trevor wanted placed over the grave.
“Milly was a bad woman,” Trevor said. “She wanted to own me body and soul while she lived and she’ll not take kindly when she realises her plans have been scuppered,” his smile was a manic leer. “But I’ve beaten her in the end and she’ll not have her way with me in death.”
“So there you have it,” Tom said. “My father did as Trevor asked and bought a grave for him in Knocksera. It was shortly after that the haunting began. My father couldn’t sell or rent the house as no one wanted to live with a mausoleum in their back garden and so he sold off the furniture and the house has remained vacant since then.”
“So, in fact, you own it?” I asked.
“I suppose I do, but no one around here knows that. My father did all his dealing through a solicitor and kept the fact to himself. You know what people are like, especially around here. They would have been a great deal of talk if they knew he had inherited everything, so he kept quiet about it. I’ve no interest in the place and prefer to leave it like that. Come on, we’ll have a look around.”
Jip ran ahead of us as we climbed the gate. The lock was rusted solid, so we had no other choice. The grass reached our knees as we walked towards the house and above our heads, the cawing of the crows was amplified in the wind.
“It must have been beautiful in its heyday,” I said, as we stopped to look at the building.
Despite the ivy, which covers most of the front of the house and has even crept across the windows and the front door, it was easy to imagine how it had once looked. It’s a two storied house with huge windows that would have flooded the rooms with light. The roof, despite its age, it still intact and it’s the sort of house I would love to restore. I said as much to Tom.
“You’re welcome to it,” he said. “Just say the word and I’ll have it put in your name, as long as you don’t mind the ghost.”
“It’s through here,” Tom held back the overgrown bushes and allowed me to pass.
Even though it knew about its existence, the first sight of the mausoleum caused me to shy back. It’s a cold, granite building, very much like those old tombs one sees in graveyards. Neither of us spoke as we approached the building and our footsteps echoed in the stillness as we flattened the long grass. To say the mausoleum is an eyesore would be an understatement. Surrounded by apple trees, their branches overgrown with clinging vines that threatened the budding, green crab apples; it stands like a dark stain on the land. The names above the door have been corroded by the weather, though the M in Milly’s name is still legible. I shivered, imagining her lying inside the cold bricks, but there is nothing left of her now, just dust and perhaps, some bits of bones.
“We’ll be going now,” Tom said, and called to Jip, who was sniffing around among the trees; no doubt picking up the scent of rabbits and other wild creatures.
I was glad to be leaving that place and could understand why Trevor kept the curtains closed for all those years.
What do they say about the haunting?” I asked, as we made our way around the side of the house.
“In the beginning, there were stories about the ghost of a woman being seen and unearthly screams coming from inside the house. Old Casey, we passed the ruins of his cottage at the end of the lane, said it was Milly raging at being keep from her stepbrother. It was a long time ago and such things fade with time. It’s like all such stories told by the old folk who like to frighten young children, but still,” he eyed the front of the house.
“Yes, still,” I followed his gaze.
In the short time we’d been there, the crows had settled in their nest and the wind died down for a moment, throwing the scene into deadly silence. Jip walked up to his master and nuzzled his nose into Tom’s large hand.
“Time to go, old boy,” Tom patted his head and before we could turn away a noise stopped us dead.
It sounded like a small explosion.
“That came from inside the house,” I looked at Tom.
“Probably something fell over,” he said. “Cats and other wildlife get inside these old houses.”
“I thought your father sold all the furniture?”
“That’s what he said,” Tom’s face looked greyer than the clouds overhead.
Jip growled, the sound came from deep inside his throat and his tail was tucked under his legs. Something primeval warned him this was not a good place to be.
Without a word we began to walk away, our pace quicker now and it was a relief when we all but vaulted the barred gate and were back out in the lane. I looked back towards the house, expecting to see a wraith-like shape shimmering in the rising moon, but there was nothing.
“I was going to show you Trevor’s grave,” Tom said. “If you’re still feeling up to it?”
“Why not,” my answer sounded braver than I felt.
Knocksera is over three miles from the Pettigrew’s former home. It’s reached by a winding, narrow road and like Casey’s Lane; this too is overgrown and neglected.
“Is the graveyard still in use?” I asked Tom, but already knew the answer.
“No, Trevor was one of the last to be buried in it,” he said. “There’s not much to see now and the church fell into ruin fifty years ago.”
There’s a small parking lot at the top of the hill that offers sweeping views over the landscape. The wind was worse at that height and even poor Jip had to fight to keep his footing as we pushed open the old iron gates. All that is left to show where the church once stood is a porch, its brick crumbling and covered in lichen.
“Over here,” Tom had to shout over the noise of the wind.
By the time I reached him he was kneeling by a grave.
“This is where he lies,” he said.
The bars of the Mortsafe are rusted brown and I prayed they had done their job in keeping him safe. Picking up a twig, he scraped away decades of dirt and bits of leaves from the inscription.
“There’s no one to remember him now,” Tom said.
“You do, and so will my readers when I write about him.”
“That’s true,” he crossed himself. “You have a way of doing that girl; bringing the dead to life.”
“Oh stop,” I felt goose pimples rise on my skin.
I waited while Tom said a few prayers for the dead. The crying of the wind in such surrounding was nerve-racking and the old elms bent inmost in two by its onslaught. I thought about taking shelter in the old church porch, but decided against it. It wouldn’t take much to knock it down and tonight the wind was very strong. Jip seemed quite at home in his surrounding and the fact that he was so made me feel a little better.
“Tom, can we go now?” I called.
He nodded and blessed himself before standing. Only when we reached the car did I begin to feel safe.
“Since we’ve come this far, you might as well take me for a pint,” Tom said, as I guided the car back down the hill.
“What about Jip,” I asked. “Will he be allowed into the pub?”
“Of course he will,” Tom scoffed. “It isn’t one of your fancy city pubs you know?”
I was glad of this return to reality, but the sound we heard at the old house still echoed in my head.
“What was it all about,” I asked Tom. “You know the whole thing with Milly and Trevor?”
“Possession,” he said. “I saw it once and it’s not something I’d like to see again. There was a young lad I went to school with who married a beautiful-looking girl. We used to talk about how much he adored her, but as the years passed this changed. She wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone without his say so. Living in the country, it was easy enough for him to watch over her and what few friends she had soon took the hint and stayed away as he made them feel unwelcome. I saw her fade away before my eyes, but his love, if you can call it that never faded. They didn’t have any children, which was just as well. I doubt he would have shared her with even his own offspring’s.”
“That’s terrible,” I whispered.
“Aye, she didn’t last too long and died when she was thirty-six. He wouldn’t let the undertakers near her and insisted on laying her out himself. The local women were horrified when he refused to let them help, but the sickness that held him was too strong. It’s a terrible thing possession and not only in the demonic sense, but the need for one human being to have total control over another.”
“Yes,” was all I could say?
The lights from the pub were a welcoming beacon in the darkness as I parked the car across the road from it. Tom stood leaning against side when I climbed out.
“Of course,” he said. “You’d know all about possession.”
“I would?” I asked.
“Isn’t it your hold over me that keeps me from the grave?”
“In your dreams, old man,” I made a swipe at him as he scooted past me.
His laughter was louder than the voices in the wind.