by Derek MacMillan
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
A voice was whispering in my ear. It was a sweet girl’s voice but it was a voice full of bitterness. I looked around me sharply. There was nobody there. I ran straight home to mum. She calmed me down and told me over and over that it was all a trick of the imagination. “It is just the sort of thing that can happen when you walk through gloomy woods alone,” she said. I was reassured but then I had a strange thought. My name is not Robert. So why did my imagination choose it?
I forgot all about it but from then on I avoided the woods, especially at nightfall.
At thirteen, I was older and, I thought, wiser. I had put childish superstitions behind me. I wasn’t afraid of no ghost! I was using the woods as a short-cut. “Robert, how could you?” It was the same voice and it was so full of anger.
Thirteen or not, it gave me the willies. I didn’t talk to mum, I was too grown up for that. I told my mates though.
“That was the ghost of Whitebeam Woods you heard.”
Frank was very old, fourteen and smoking already. He knew everything. So it was nice for me to hear that he believed in my ghost.
We went back to the woods together, smoking and laughing. We got to the spot where I had heard the ghost but she wouldn’t talk to the pair of us it seemed.
“Blow this for a lark,” said Frank.
As we turned to go we both heard the sudden splash of a heavy object being dumped into the pond. It is deep water in Whitebeam pond and filthy as hell. There was nothing to see, not even ripples.
We got torches and after dark I told mum I was going round to Frank’s. I don’t know what he told his folks. The woods looked different in the dark and branches seemed to be clawing at us as we passed. One slapped me across the face and Frank thought this was hilarious until the same thing happened to him and I stifled a laugh.
We stood by the gloomy pond. We were smoking French cigarettes (Frank’s) and chatting but after a while the conversation died out. Then the torchlight started to fade and we decided to leave it.
“Well nothing is going to ruddy happen.” said Frank.
I nearly didn’t hear him because I caught a whisper, “You cannot escape Robert. Come back but come back alone.”
Well I was damned if I was going to take orders from a ghost. I wasn’t going to return.
We had to do “local history” at school and it was really boring. No battles have been fought in Durrington and Kings and Cardinals gave the place a miss. Frank joked that Anne Bolyn had been here once but thought it such a dump she effed off again sharpish. He got the cane for that remark. Those were the days.
I did hear something to make me prick up my ears though. Witches!
There was no evidence that Whitebeam pond had ever been used for drowning witches but there were stories, legends even.
One was about a girl called Rosemary. Of all things she was the vicar’s daughter. She was accused of witchcraft. The magistrate had her taken to Whitebeam pond and tested.
“What was the test, Miss?”
I was thinking about being burnt for witchcraft because she couldn’t recite the 12 times table or something.
“Well David, she was thrown into the pond. If she drowned...”
“She was a witch?”
“No. If she drowned she was innocent. If she didn’t drown she was a witch so they hanged her.”
“They hung her?”
“No, David, hanged. She was hanged by the neck until she was dead.”
What really made me sit up and take notice was the name of the man in the story who had accused her. Would it surprise you if I told you it was Robert? They had no surnames in those days so he was just known as Robert the tailor. My surname is Taylor.
I felt all funny but I managed to cover it up at the time. I thought it was all over until I had a dream.
I was in a place I have never been. I knew what it was from TV though. It was a church. It was only lit by candlelight and the daylight filtered through the stained glass. All that history had gone to my head because it was long long ago. It was in the days before soap obviously because all the people around me stank to high heaven. It was absolutely disgusting. The clothes were filthy, their hands and faces were filthy and I expect I was stinky too.
None of that mattered. From where I was sitting I could see my . She was beautiful. I would say drop-dead gorgeous but you can’t say that about a ghost can you? I followed her with my eyes. Then the Church service was over. I had not understood a word of it but I wasn’t really paying attention. I followed her.
I called her “my Rosie” but she was way above me in the village and there was no way my love could be requited. I was fine with that, I told myself, because nobody else from the village could have her either. She must have seen me following because she turned and smiled.
“Hello, Robert.” She said. There was nothing but kindness and loveliness in her voice.
In the way of dreams I was taken without surprise to another day. I was an apprentice tailor, my dad was Jack the tailor. I was in the workshop when I saw my Rosie pass by our window. Well I thought to get another smile out of her at least if I followed her. Dad was out and the work could wait.
She didn’t see me but I saw her. I saw her talking and smiling to that ne’er-do-well Joe. I backed off and watched them kissing. She was no Rosie of mine from that day.
I couldn’t fight Joe, I knew that. So I had a cunning plan. I took my time, I made a little doll, a poppet. I stuck pins in it and let it get close to the fire so it would scorch.
I showed it to my dad, telling him I saw Rosie dropping it. He showed it to the magistrate and the rest is local history.
The dream went on. It brought me right up to date. I was asking my mum where the church was. I didn’t like to tell her I wanted to pray for the soul of Robert the tailor. She would have called for the doctor to have me put away.
I set off for the church but I found myself in Whitebeam woods. I walked away from the pond but somehow I kept coming back to it. As I looked into the filthy water, I heard a faint whisper. “Glad you could come, Robert.”
I felt an almighty shove and looked up to see the filthy water closing over my head.
And then I felt licking. The dog was waking me up to tell me she was ready for her walk.
“Come on, Rosie.” I said.
Rosie and I have never been to Whitebeam Woods from that day to this.
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