Body and Soul
I wondered, as I drove along the narrow, twisting roads on my way to visit my old friend Tom, why the belief in the paranormal is so readily accepted in the countryside. Is it the absence of streetlights that allowed the mind to wander, or the tranquil way of life, uninterrupted by the chaos of city living? In the silence of the bogs and deserted roads one is lulled into a meditative state and is it at such times that the wind whistling across the quiet fields carries within its cries the voices from another world? Whatever the reason the people live happily side by side with all sorts of supernatural beings, be they ghost, spirit, Banshee or Leprechaun.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached Toms cottage and the light was already beginning to dim. It was a stark contrast to the brilliant sunshine I’d left behind at home and I saw from the thin curl of smoke from the chimney that it was colder here. This was evident the moment I stepped out of the car and so I leaned in and pulled my coat from the passenger seat. Tom must have heard me drive up, because as I was fixing my collar the cottage door opened and Jip, his old Jack Russell dog bounded out to greet me with a series of barks and yelps.
“How are you old fellow?” I patted his head and noticed how patchy his coat was. Like his owner he’s showing his age. Rummaging in my bag, I found the pack of dog biscuits and fed him what would be the first of many.
“That’s cupboard love,” Tom joked, as he watched Jip slobbering over me. “How are you girl?”
The arms that hugged me were surprisingly strong and the wool of his jumper felt coarse against my cheek. It smelt familiar of Old Spice aftershave, wood smoke and the earthy scent of the turf he used to power the range.
“I’m fine, Tom, never better,” I assured him.
He always takes a moment to study my face, as though checking to see if I’m telling the truth.
Jip followed at our heels. Every time I enter the small cottage I am overwhelmed by the scent of yesteryear. If I close my eyes I’m a child again and the worries of the world far beyond me. Everyone should have a place like this, somewhere they can become enveloped by an old horse-hair stuffed armchair and bask in the warmth radiating from an old range cooker.
Leaving no time for chit chat, Tom sat down opposite me and said.
“I was talking to the lads in the pub the other night about which story I would tell you about next and I had all but forgotten the one I have for you until old Tim Rodgers reminded me. Do you know the old Pettigrew’s place?”
“The old house at the top of Casey’s lane?” I asked.
“That’s the one,” he said. “It’s so far off the beaten track I all, but forgot about it until Tim reminded me. There’s a terrifying story attached to it, the house I mean and it’s said to be haunted.”
In all honesty there’s not one abandoned building that’s not haunted according to Tom. I smiled at the thought and he grew annoyed with me.
“I’m telling you now and you needn’t believe me if you don’t want to, but I heard the tale from my father and he wasn’t one for making things up.”
“I believe you,” I held up my hands in mock surrender.
At this, I felt the first prickle of fear on the back of my neck. Jip jumped up on my lap and I begged Tom to let him be, when he roared at the dog to get down. I was glad of the warmth of his little body and the steady rise and fall of his breathing as he drifted to sleep, was comforting as Tom began his tale.
“It was in 1938 that the last of the Pettigrew’s died. Trevor was his name and he was in his ninetieth year when he passed away. I was ten-years-old at the time and my father acted as a sort of handyman for him as old age and rheumatism kept the old man indoors for most of the year. My father would do the odd bit of shopping for him and my mother went up now and then to wave a duster around. There was no payment involved,” Tom said. “It was just being neighbourly to someone in need. My father was with him when he breathe his last and I still remember the night when Pettigrew died and the look on my father’s face when he came home after making sure the old man didn’t die alone. I was too young to understand at the time and imagined my father’s ashen face for that of tiredness, but what I do know is there was something in his eyes that I’ve never seen before and I know only too well its meaning now. He was haunted,” Tom stopped, and shook his head at the memory. “Haunted by what he’d heard that night. It was many years later when he told me the full story that I realised the horror he must have endured as the old man clutched his hand with bony fingers and begged him for help, but I’m getting beyond myself,” Tom said. “I’ll tell you the story from the beginning and then we’ll be off.”
“To the house?”
“We’ve two stops to make first, so the house will be our last call,” he settled back in his chair.
Great, I thought, looking towards the window and the way the shadows crept across the floor as the light faded. If he didn’t hurry up it would be dark before he was finished. Outside the wind had picked up and its rumbling in the chimney was the only sound within the room as Tom began.
Milly Pettigrew hated her stepmother. Stepmother! The title was a joke since Lily was only six years older than her. Her own mother had died giving birth and for years her father had doted on his only child until Lily came into the picture. She was the niece of one of their neighbours and it was on one of her visits that she was introduced to Milly’s father. Things were decided rather quickly in those days and within three months of this first meeting; Lily was ensconced as mistress of their home. It wasn’t that she was unkind to her new stepdaughter, not at all. She went out of her way to make friends with the sixteen-year-old, but to no avail. Milly’s nose was firmly put out of joint by Lily’s arrival and the fact that she was a beauty did little to help her cause. Fair and rosy cheeked, her looks were the opposite too Milly’s and while she never considered herself a beauty, Milly knew she faded into the background the minute her stepmother entered a room. Having decided at the beginning to hate Lily, her father’s pleas for her to give her new mother a chance fell on deaf ears and for the next two years the house vibrated with the suppressed tension between the two women. This was to change in the year1848 when Lily gave birth to a son, Trevor. From the moment Milly laid eyes on the baby she was smitten. Having decided long ago that she was not the marrying kind, she saw her new stepbrother as a way of easing her longing for a child of her own. When the trauma of giving birth proved Lily’s undoing. Milly felt none of her father’s grief as he returned to the status of widower. As the boy grew he knew nothing of the loss of his mother, as Milly’s care and attention made up for any neglect he might have known.
Once the boy was weaned and the wet nurse sent on her way, Milly took total control of his care; refusing her father’s offer to hire a nanny and later on a tutor. Every waking moment of the boy’s life was spent in her presence. His bedroom was next door to hers, so should he waken in the night, Milly’s face was the first thing he saw. Many spoke of her dedication to the boy, but to their father, there was something not quite right. He tried to encourage his daughter to mix socially, even going so far as to invite eligible young men to the house, but it was useless. Milly showed no interest in any of them and during their short visits it was obvious to her father that her ears strained to pick up any sound from the nursery overhead. When Trevor was six-years-old, his father decided he must be sent away to school. It pained him to send the boy away, but he wanted more than anything that his son should be free of his stepsister’s influence. Milly went quite mad when this was suggested.
“Trevor is not well enough to be away from home,” the servants heard her say. “He favours his mother in that way and he had never very strong; you know that father.”
Her father would not be swayed and sent orders that the boy’s trunks were to be packed at once for the journey.
“It’s still not known what happened that night,” Tom said. “But her father was found dead at the bottom of the stairs next morning. Rumour had it that Milly had pushed him, but there was no solid evidence to prove this and the boy remained at home.”
It was no surprise when the will was read to hear that her father had left the bulk of his money to his only son, to be kept in trust until his 25th year. Milly received a large sum of money and tenancy for life in her family home. The money made her a target for those in search of a wife with a large dowry and the whispers about her father’s strange death did nothing to repulse those eager or desperate enough to make the match. Like many before them, they were driven away and left in no doubt that any further efforts on their behalf to win her hand were be spurned.
“I would like to say the boy thrived as the years passed,” Tom said. “But that was not the case. He was a delicate child and I remember even in his later years, his face was unlined and ashen, as though carved from marble. He was very thin, riddled with some wasting disease, my mother always said, but I don’t believe that was the cause. It’s true he favoured his mother in looks and his hair was a white as his complexion, but there the similarities ended. There were no roses in his cheeks and his eyes had a lacklustre look that frightened me.”
Milly’s obsession with her younger stepbrother showed no sign of weakening over the years and even though it was normal for a young man to try and break the ties with home, she refused to release him. Every time he made a bid for freedom, she found a way to stop him. His health was the barrier that kept him prisoner and it was said that she used all sorts of potions to keep him weak and in need of her nursing. She didn’t have it all her own way though and during one dreadful winter when the influenza was raging; she had to take to her bed for over a month. Without her meddling, Trevor rallied and was seen out and about with the few friends he had. It was during this time he met the love of his life. Mildred Wilson was the daughter of a local farmer and though beneath Trevor in breeding, the couple fell in love. Mildred’s parents were delighted when he proposed and despite his delicate appearance, they thought him a great catch for their daughter. It is left to our imagination how Milly felt when she heard the news, but she put on a great show of inviting the Wilson family to her home to celebrate the engagement. The dinner that night was the talk of the district for years to come, as she had delicacies delivered from all over the country, along with crates of the finest wines and champagne. The dining room was ablaze with hundreds of candles and the scent of rare flowers perfumed the air as they took their place at the table that night. Milly was looking her most charming in a new dress and coloured jewels hung from her bouffant hair. Outwardly, she gave the appearance of someone delighted with their lot, but her stomach churned each time she caught the eye of Trevor’s fiancée and the smile she gave her held little warmth. After the meal was over, she urged the two young lovers to take a walk in the gardens, with the excuse that she would like to get to know her soon to be in-laws a little better.
“Indeed,” Mrs Wilson said, a little confused by her meaning.
After the champagne glasses were refilled and the butler left the room, Milly put her plan into action.
“I was quite relieved when I heard that Mildred had agreed to marry my brother,” she smiled. “I must admit, I thought I’d never get him off my hands.”
“Really?” Mrs Wilson asked. “Why was that?”
“Surely you know about his health problems?” Milly acted surprised.
“I imagined him a little delicate I must admit,” Mrs Wilson said. “But thought nothing more of it.”
Milly sighed, and showed all the sorrow of one who has to break bad news.
“He’s not just a little delicate,” she brought her handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed at imaginary tears. “My brother is very ill. He had the consumption you know?”
“We were not aware of that,” Mr Wilson spoke for the first time.
“Yes, we made a great show of visiting the continent two years ago, but the truth is that my darling boy was in a hospital that deals with such cases. I know I can trust you to tell no one about this, and as we are soon to be related by marriage I know you will keep our secret.”
The Wilson’s knew about the brother and sister’s trip abroad, as did everyone living in the locality, but they had never imagined the dark secret behind it. Milly hid her smile as she watched them digest the lie.
“He is quite recovered now though?” Mrs Wilson said.
“Oh yes, quite recovered,” Milly gushed. “And with a little luck, he might stay that way.”
“You mean it can recur?”
“Unfortunately that is the case. Trevor’s consumption is inherited you see? His mother was very young when she died of it and the doctors have said it is passed down. We must hope that any children the dear pair have will not be afflicted in that way.”
“Yes, indeed,” Mrs Wilson muttered, as she eyed the door, hoping to hear her daughter return so they could make their excuses to leave.
Unlike many at that time, the Wilson’s were not willing to sell their daughter to the highest bidder and the engagement was called off the very next day. Mildred refused to give Trevor a reason for her change of heart and did as her parents urged and said nothing about his illness. Though she loved Trevor with all her heart, she didn’t relish the idea of early widowhood and raising sickly children. Her decision broke Trevor’s heart and though Milly tried her best to console him, he knew deep down, she had something to do with his pain. He threw himself into tending to the business of the estate and spent as much time as possible away from the house. Milly showed no sign of suffering at his rejection and still gushed over him at every opportunity.
“He was a broken man after Mildred called off the engagement,” Tom said. “I think he hadn’t the heart to leave. Now I’m getting to the crux of the story and I’ll tell you what happened the night he died.”
That’s all for this week dear reader. I’ll be posting the second part of Body and Soul next Friday. Have a good week and when you turn off the lights tonight, as you settle down to sleep, take no notice of the dark corners of your room. They are, what they appear to be, just empty pockets of darkness or are they? Sleep tight.
Copyright © 2012 Gemma Mawdsley