Every year, beginning on Christmas Eve, I like to tell a ghost story. This year is no exception.
The windscreen wipers were losing the battle.
Rain was lashing so hard that the glass was opaque. At intervals it would clear to reveal an apocalyptic scene lit by overhead street lighting. The spray was like a creature; the wind gave it form, and it loomed over the road in great monstrous swathes.
And then the vision would be obscured as the storm overwhelmed the little car once again, and Ursula was driving blind at 50 miles per hour, peering helplessly at the middle of nowhere, casting around for a plan.
She could not go on like this. Even on a busy road like the A30, hurtling through Cornwall, the surface water was beginning to cause the car wheels to lose their hold. And though there were few motorists around at this time of night, a chance gust could drive her off the road and onto the moors. And that desolation simply did not bear thinking about.
She cursed herself. The BBC had been full of weather warnings; but her anxiety to reach Truro safely ahead of the job interview had been overpowering. She had packed her case with infinite care, hung her suit from the hook in the back of the car, and set off from her Hampshire house straight after work.
Now she would have to pull off. Find a Bed and Breakfast somewhere. Call the hotel in Truro and cancel. Still: £50 was £50, whatever time of night. They must be used to helpless outlanders knocking on their doors when the weather on the top of Bodmin Moor became too much.
She slowed as much as she dared. The mottled screen responded in kind: you could see for a second each time the windscreen wipers did their rounds. It was enough to spot, in the distance, a large well-marked road sign, indicating that about half a mile away was a turning off the highway, to a place with a suitably end of the world label: a village called Bleak.
Ursula could not help the corners of her mouth turning upwards. The grim irony appealed to her. Ha. She was about to plunge into a labyrinthine, high-hedged maze in a search for a house at Bleak.
Her heart hammered rather, as she slowed, changing her pace to match a road which seemed only just wide enough for a car. And the rain would not cease its pummeling. Only now, rather than the wide expanse and municipal road furniture of a comforting A-road, the headlights, in the moments of clarity, picked out great tall hedge-walls to the sides with sodden ferns and undergrowth reaching wetly out towards Ursula’s car.
Now to find some rough hand-painted sign indicating hospitality.
The Cornish roads were full of these: rustic daubings which told of cream teas or honey or eggs for sale, or a bed for the night.
After what seemed an age, it loomed on the right hand side. The long stone-built wall of a farmhouse and a sign to advertise its wares: TREBLEAK FARM BED AND BREAKFAST £40 A NIGHT
The sign was not rough or hand painted. It was faded, sure enough, but it had been created by a sign painter, and Ursula noted, with her artist’s eye, the font. Unusual. It had an Elizabethan look to it. 1580-ish, though the sign itself could only be a decade or two old. In the midst of all this chaos, the systematic part of her resolved to take a picture tomorrow morning in the light. Ursula loved fonts. They were part of her trade, but she adored them because lettering ran deep in her soul.
The farmyard was wide but rutted, and Ursula thought for an instant the car would lose its grip. The wheels spun periodically as she struggled to dock her car safely in the most sheltered part of the yard.
For a moment, she sat in the driving seat, greeting the roaring silence of a Cornish storm. It was truly desolate: tar-black, and the rain bullied the side of the little Peugeot, slapping it with all the fury of the moor winds.
It would not be pleasant stepping out.
Events took their own course, as it happened. The yellow light of an electric bulb flooded from an open door in the farm, and a figure seemed to be searching for something. And then they found it: a sturdy umbrella. No, two.
The dark figure advanced towards the car and proffered the second umbrella. Ursula, surrounded by the dark and the strange, opted to wind down the window. She had watched Psycho. It could translate well to the Cornish Moors.
But the figure was a woman. 60’s, possibly, and a kindly voice with the Cornish burr strong in it.
“Not a good night to be out! Come in, I have a room ready. You can take your bags upstairs and get dry.”
And suddenly the door was open and Ursula was being ushered through the horizontal driving rain towards a welcoming door and a warm bed for the night.
She was filled with the desire to cry. She felt as though she had been fighting for her life.
But she remembered herself, and turned to smile a little mistily at her hostess.
The woman had a sharp, intelligent face, and a ready smile. And the ancient systems of hospitality meant there was no need to explain. Ursula wanted a bed for the night, that was plain enough.
“I’m Ruth Dee, how do you do: now, let’s get you upstairs. There’s plenty of hot water, so you might like to draw a bath. Can I get you something to eat or drink? It’s a wild old night out there.”
“Ursula. Ursula Chauncey. Thanks so much, yes: I’d love some tea and something to eat. I’ve been driving since five.”
It was a cliché, Ursula smiled quietly to herself. She sat there in front of a crackling fire, with a mug of steaming tea with a fleece rug around her shoulders, hugging her good fortune to herself. She had stumbled on a perfect place for the night. All was well. She could continue onto the interview tomorrow when the storm had blown over. There was plenty of time.
What does one expect from a bed-and-breakfast proprietor? A comfortable, housewifely domesticity? Ruth’s hospitality was faultless, but she had more the air of an absent-minded academic than a farmer. As she spoke, she was quick and clever. She entertained Ursula with tales of there and thereabouts, of the moor and the wild things which ran on it, and the sheep which grazed it (“They’ll be sodden tonight, but they’ve feet like tent-pegs!” )and the ghosts and murdererers and artists and writers who had lived on its back.
And when Ursula was at her ease, and the last vestiges of panic had left her, Ruth paused and looked at her enquiringly.
“And what brings you down here on this wild night?” she asked quietly.
“I’m off to a job interview,” she said.
Polite silence. Fill me, it said.
Ursula obliged. “The Courteney Library has a vacancy for an archivist. I’m off to see if I can get the job.”
Ruth’s silence had a quality about it. You don’t have to tell me anything, it said, but I’m a great listener. Fire away.
And Ursula found herself telling all to a strange confidante in the midst of a Cornish storm. The struggle to find any job after university; the part-time post at the museum in Reading which couldn’t, wouldn’t pay the bills. The longing for a place to belong, full time, for the smell of books and the enveloping comfort of academia.
She faltered, eventually, as all the clocks in the farmhouse chimed eleven. She met Ruth’s eyes . “I must be off to bed. I need to be ready for tomorrow,” she concluded. And smiled.
And then it was up the stairs, bowing low so as not to bump heads on the old wattle-and daub stair ceiling, to a fine feather bed clad in sheets of crisp Egyptian cotton. Ursula could not have chosen a better place to stay if she had tried. The bedroom was white plaster, except for one wall which was stripped to the original farmhouse stone. There was a bookcase crammed with volumes mainly concerned with local history. Heaven.
And on the side table there was a set of objects which was calculated to delight. An old candlestick –it must have been 1500s, Ursula estimated – and a prayer book of some sort, filled with a typeface she longed to study, though her eyelids were fighting to close.
And a large black flat polished stone of some sort. So polished, indeed, that it gave a reflection. It could, Ursula reflected idly as she drifted off to sleep, pass for a mirror. She must ask Ruth what stone it was.
And then: glorious oblivion.
The hubbub of voices woke her.
She experienced that puzzled dislocation which so often assails the occasional traveller. This was not her bed. Everything was different. The room smelt aged, and the air had a different quality. Her mind struggled to orient itself and the events of the night before clanged into place. She was in Ruth’s farmhouse, sleeping. And as she lay there, the clocks of the farmhouse gave just two chimes, all together, in a symphony of resonating silver.
Two o’ clock in the morning. Then who were those people?
Ursula thought it strange that Ruth should have people at this time in the morning. Maybe another group had come off the road in search of a place to stay.
And then, Ursula thought, no. The voices are in here.
It is an archaic term: to have one’s blood run cold. Silly, really; but it expresses well how Ursula froze; her hearing sharpened, her breathing paused, her muscles tightened. What were people doing in her room?
The voices were, now she though about it, odd in that though they were so close, she could not hear what they were saying. They seemed a little agitated; excitable, even, as though they had something of considerable urgency to communicate, an urgency which never dissipated.
Staying as still as she could, she inched her eyes above the bedclothes and scanned the room.
The storm had calmed, she now realized, and a great moon hung over the moor. It shone silver through the window affording a clear view of the room and its contents.
And it was empty. There was not a soul there; not a shadow. Just a hubbub of voices which Ursula’s ears were telling her came from right next to her bed.
What could she do? It could just be a trick of the sound in the house. Maybe there was a pipe leading from her room to the rest of the house which carried sound. There had to be some explanation. She would ask Ruth in the morning.
She lay there, listening to the disembodied voices, for hours. One cannot stay frozen forever. Eventually, her muscles lost some of their tension, and she drifted off into a fitful sleep, the murmuring voices an unsettling lullaby.
This three part ghost story will continue tomorrow and conclude on boxing day.