Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Pre-Christmas Humbug

This post is something to get out of the way; a release of sanctimonious steam about the materialistic values of Christmas. I always feel like Scrooge the few weeks before Christmas but then as soon as Christmas Eve comes around then I start feeling like a giddy little girl again. However, this is something I've written in my 'Bah, humbug' mood!

The Winters’ Winter.

“I love Christmas, I do!” exclaimed Mary-Jude Winters. “Y’can always tell when it’s time to start thinking proper about it.”
            “Oh, aye?” said her mother, Susan, mid-way through hanging up some decorations. “How’s that?”
            “Music channels start playing all the Pop Factor Christmas singles,” Mary-Jude replied absentmindedly. She was flicking through all the e-cards her mam’s friends had sent on the computer; cards on which Santa was slim, fit, and tanned (a chubby Santa was advocating obesity), even though children were brought up knowing he didn’t exist. Mary-Jude had always known it had been her parents to buy the expensive gifts lavished upon them.
            Children were not expected to buy presents for their family until they reached the age where they were able to produce offspring of their own. The Season of Goodwill was to demonstrate how much parents loved their children, which meant buying anything their little darlings wanted: from sweets to puppies, from mobile phones to a personalised seat in the local McTucky Queen. There were even programmes aimed at ensuring that the children were not being denied the entitlement of consumerist joy; the most popular were You’ve Been Shamed and World’s Stingiest Parents. Both made it clear that spending a limited amount on little Satsuma Mack, managing to buy only a laptop, a digital camera, and a guinea-pig, was robbing her of her youthful happiness and could have serious affects in her later life. With shows like this, the pressure was on to give children the best childhood ever.
            Unfortunately, depending on how many children a couple kept, the necessity for spending a certain amount of money came attached with some inevitable consequences.
            “It’s a shame we had to sell Timmy-Tom,” sighed Mary-Jude. Timmy-Tom was her youngest brother, and she was fond of him despite his tantrums, nose-picking, and tyrannical racist outbursts. At only twelve years old this was only natural.
            Susan’s eyes watered a trifle.
            “Now, Mary-Jude,” she gently admonished. “You know how it is. It was either sell Timmy-Tom to the local celebrity power couple or we wouldn’t have been able to afford your obligatory Sweet Seventeen car with gold-leaf alloys. It’s been a bad year, you know that!” Susan started to sniffle slightly.
            “I know, I know; I’m not blaming you, Mam!” Mary-Jude was quick to jump in.
            “We haven’t been able to host the annual Gin and Fox Party,” continued Susan, voice rising in pitch and volume, “and I was reduced to wearing last season’s Stelia Blanks to the twins’ parents’ evening last month!” She covered her face with her hands, a string of real pearls laced through her fingers and leading up to the mantelpiece where the rest of them where half-hung. A suppressed squeak slipped between the white polished globes.
Mary-Jude suddenly felt a little ashamed of herself and crossed the room to comfort her mother, but since the word ‘sorry’ had become more or less obsolete, she did not know what to say.
“I just thought, y’know, in the Olden Days, Christmas was family time.”
“It is,” said Susan, a little tartly. “Timmy-Tom’ll have time with a new family.”
“Oh, yeah...I didn’t think of that!” smiled Mary-Jude. “That’s OK then.”

Mother and daughter were just putting the finishing touches to the decorations when Joseph Winters stomped through the hallway with Lila-May-Kelly and Johnny-Rob-Dave, who were shepherding the token orphan each family had to support for one day of the year. Most families preferred to host them on Christmas Eve Eve – this way, the orphan wouldn’t spoil the actual Christmas celebrations but the Council would see that they were doing their bit for impoverished children, which was essential if one did not want to be heavily frowned upon or, worse, subjected to tutting. After all, it was the Season of Goodwill, and what more could a poor child want than a hot dinner, the honour of glimpsing a prosperous and bountiful world, and seeing that there is indeed hope?
            Joseph gave Susan a peck on the cheek and patted Mary-Jude on the head.
            “Very pretty,” he declared, nodding in approval.
            “How was the town?” Mary-Jude asked, eyes wide with anticipation. She hadn’t been allowed to go to town because her hat had gone missing and her bright ginger hair might have distracted the construction specialists putting up the lights, or sent epileptics into fits.
            “Oh, it were alright, lass,” Joseph answered, sinking into the peacock-feathered sofa. “Much of a muchness but much more. Twins’ll tell ye.”
            Joseph turned his head towards his wife who was glancing meaningfully at the suspiciously healthy boy in the corner.
            “Oh, ah!” Joseph scratched his head. “This is... He’s, er...” He called for the boy to stand where he could see him. “What’s your name again, lad?”
            “Lennon, sir,” the boy replied quietly, politely.
            “Ah, like the airport!” interjected Susan.
            “Singer, miss.”
            There was a slight pause.
            “Well, lovely to have you, Lennon.” Susan gave the usual greeting of Goodwill and charity and how pleased she was he’d get the chance to spend some quality time with a quality family, then made him promise not to walk around the house with his shoes on or touch anything apart from the plastic cutlery and a blanket that would be disposed of later. Lennon returned to the corner.  
            While the twins and Mary-Jude were chatting to each other on their MyPods from different corners of the room, Joseph and Susan spoke about the goings-on in town.
            “Bumped into Old Michael,” Joseph began.
            “How is Old Michael?”
            “Much of a muchness but much less. Think he’s been at the vegetables again.”
            “No! Oh, his poor wife! How can she keep putting up with his bad habits?”
            Joseph shrugged.
            “You put up with mine.”
            “Yes, but you’ve never...” She paused, making sure the children were engrossed in chat. “...done Greens!” she mouthed. “Plus, the Council pays for couples to stay married. We need the extra £500 a month.”
            Joseph grunted his assent.
            “Saw Sharon and Bill as well, at the Orphan Collection Point. Surprised they’re takin’ part.”
            “I suppose at least they’re making some attempt at normality,” Susan conceded. “It’s just not right, the little amount of decorations they put up. Last year, all they had was ten metres of tinsel, paperchains, ribbons, a wreath, plastic baubles, and a moving, laughing Father Christmas. Odd people. I hope you didn’t spend long talking to them!”
            Joseph shook his head and snorted.
            “Ha! As if! They were banging on about wanting a tree. A tree!” He started to chuckle, as if this were the most ludicrous idea in the world.
            “All these antiquated practices – heathens!” Susan frowned and tutted.
            Lennon, during this conversation, had stood quite still and listened with carefully / life-savingly concealed disgust. It was not unheard of, despite the veneer of piety, for families to beat orphans senseless if they spoke out of place. He cleared his throat, stepped forward, and humbly begged permission to speak.
            “With respect, miss, sir, but those traditions were around for decades; it’s only in recent...”
            “Oh, no, no, no,” interrupted Joseph. “That’s a myth, lad, like unicorns, school dinners, and Jeremy Clarkson. What sort of history classes have you been having?”
            Mary-Jude became mildly interested.
            “Did they really use to have trees, Dad?”
            “Nay, lass, that’s a myth, like I said.”
            Now the twins started clamouring for old tales.
            “Go on, Dad, tell us!” cried Lila-May-Kelly.
            “Even if it is only a story,” Johnny-Rob-Dave added.
            Lennon flickered his eyelids and inhaled slowly, the only signs of his irritation as he watched Joseph Winters shrug and scratch his neck.
            “People say that many years ago, at Christmas time, they used to eat turkey, and only turkey with a little cranberry sauce.” He decided not to mention the Greens – who knew what sort of behaviour that might encourage in the children?
            Gasps of horror arose from the children.
            “Is that all they could afford?” asked Johnny-Rob-Dave.
            Joseph nodded solemnly. “So they say.”
            “But what about the trees?” insisted Lila-May-Kelly. “Did they really have them in the house?”
            “Oh, no, lass! Trees indoors is a preposterous idea. You wouldn’t have room, for one thing. Where would you put the pets?”
            The new practice was a way of physically being able to look upon the love for your family: instead of the absurd centre-piece of a tree, which means nothing to anybody, where the family gathered to open all their gifts, chocolates, money, and assortment of upmarket crackers with gift vouchers nestled inside was a towering ensemble of stuffed pets. The more pets you had owned the more you loved your children because animals gave hours of entertainment and felicity to kids. In the middle of the Winters’ sitting-room there was a stuffed menagerie: a tortoise, three cats, two dogs, a couple of rabbits, some small tropical fish, and – the most recent addition – Ice-Angel, Mary-Jude’s beloved white pony that had died six months ago choking on a pork pie.
All glimmered and sparkled with lights, and tinsel weaved between ears and tails, fur brushed to perfection, The tortoise shell crowned the animal pyramid with silver-plated glory, the reptilian neck stretched out in the noblest of poses for a Christmas finale, and the unblinking black raisin eye fixed on Lennon seemed to say: ‘Yeah, I know.’

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Onslaught of Young Middle Age

If children and teenagers are doing things earlier and earlier these days then I suppose it is only logical that twenty-somethings are growing up that little bit quicker.

It struck me yesterday that I am far more interested in the pursuits of someone thrice my age than doing the things a woman of my age 'should' be doing. I'd like to think that it isn't because I've suddenly dried up, become dull, and turned into a miserly Scrooge but that it is a reflection of the remote countryside in which I live. What I'm saying, I suppose, is that someone my age should be socialising heavily, relying on a liquid diet, laughing raucously in a pub at lewd jokes, wearing a ridiculously short dress (because, let's face it, these legs won't last forever), and trying to rack up a number of admirers that Casanova would give his seal of approval to. This portrayal might not  be everybody's cup of tea, and I know not every twenty-whatever-year-old thinks this is the perfect way to spend this particular decade. I'm not sure I do myself.

However, my life is so far removed from this image - my life is so far removed from any decent place to go out in anyway - I fear my street cred has plummeted from a coolness that might just about allow me to wear a bobble-hat and get away with it to a coolness more appropriate to a beer left to warm in the sun:

At home, I listen to Radio 4 and chuckle heartily at the Dickensian spoofs they've been broadcasting; in the car I like Classical FM. I drink port and my 'gintolerance' level has decreased. My idea of a good Christmas present this year is a slate cheeseboard and several pairs of socks because the other ones all have holes. The freezing weather is a subject about which I constantly grumble and wearing heels has become my idea of Chinese water torture. Crosswords are preferable to Jagerbombs. Flower-arranging is now a valid form of day-to-day art and The English Home magazine is my source of all crystal-related knowledge (it all depends on the percentage of lead-oxide. Fascinating stuff.).

And so when faced with a flock of young twenty-year-olds, my cheeks turn ashen, and the cold sweats kick in - I am up Dragon Alley without a well-equipped saint. The only Labrinth I know well is the film from the 80s. Fling me to a pack of sexagenarians, however, and you'll find me at ease talking The Shadows, Robert Redford, and how children's parties really ought to end with party-bags full of jelly sweets and not arguments over who tore little Maisy's FCUK mohair jumper.

Good grief, I need help. Especially if I'm making exclamations such as 'Good grief'.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Roast Dinners: A How To

Step 1: Offer to make roast dinner. Have offer declined and go sit by the fire with the Economist.

Step 2: Feel slightly lazy and guilty so peel and chop carrots and prepare cauliflower. Return to reading.

Step 3: Forget about vegetables but suddenly remember about gin and tonics. Make gin and tonics. Return to reading.

Step 4: Be told, at the point when pork and roast potatoes are ready, that one is responsible for other vegetables and to get a move on. Feel quite irate as this was not part of the deal.

Step 5: Stomp to kitchen, boil water in kettle, pour into pan with carrots. Splash boiling water onto hand.

Step 6: Remain outwardly calm. Inside head, scream loudly and swear furiously. 

Step 7: Attempt to open bottle of wine but leave half a cork in the bottleneck. Try to use corkscrew to get out half-cork. Fail. Think that a thin knife will be perfect. Stab blade into cork using unnecessary force making both cork and knife fall into bottle. Splash wine over cupboards and kettle. Take deep breaths.

Step 8: Recover and just about manage to set everything else out.

Step 9: Attack dinner with knife and fork reinforcements. Win battle.

Step 10: Sod the washing-up. And sod the knife in the bottle.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Grouchiness and Jewellery

I slept like proverbial merde last night. Not even dancing in a tube station with Nick Grimshaw (in my dream, obviously) lightened my mood this morning, particularly since getting up I have fallen down the stairs quite possibly breaking the bones of my middle and ring fingers; been shivering with cold because the gas fire has broken down; and to top it all I can't read The Times because my mum swiped it before I could get the crossword, leaving me with only the Saturday pullouts.

OK, so I haven't really broken my fingers. I can't have because I'm typing this blog. And I have put on my oriental-style dressing-gown as an extra layer. I might look ridiculous but my core temperature has risen to a smidgeon above zero. But I'm still grumpy because the special magazine Luxx is full of overpriced jewellery and bold titles exhorting me to 'BUY IT NOW, LOVE IT FOREVER'. No. Shan't. You can't make me, bold titles or not.

The problems I have with urges of spending such as this one is that I probably won't love it forever. In fact, I probably won't love it to begin with - it (whatever 'it' may be) is an inanimate object that will most likely break, get lost, or delight me for a limited time before I eventually grow bored and throw it out of the window of my Lamborghini (in my mind). Secondly, the price. There is a lovely little pearl necklace with a diamond seal clasp, price on application. Since when does one have to apply for jewellery? It's not a university process. Are they going to ask why a person wants a necklace? Isn't that obvious? We're certainly not going to coat it in Dulux paint and hide it in a cheesecake. Besides which, if there is no price, there can be no doubt whatever that the item in question will cost you your liver and possibly a lung, if you can spare it. Thirdly, I, personally, have grown weary of the bombardment from fashion magazines and similar adverts of that ilk. Shiny, sparkly things are all very lovely but only when one has a place to wear them. At the moment, my current prospects for social engagements are looking wafer thin, so thin they're more like vapour. If I came gliding (or indeed falling) down the stairs decked in Cleopatra glitz, I fear a comparison to Miss Havisham would swiftly be made and a straightjacket produced. You have no idea what we manage to keep in our garage.

Speaking of which, my dad has been asking whether we have any hyperdermic syringes to inject some questionable substance into the marzipan he's making. I'm terrified what this might mean for the Christmas cake.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Fall of the Bourgeoise Forest

On the way to the supermarket, driving past the Ginn House (spiffing local pub), a red squirrel scampered up the grassy bank and darted under one of the hedges. I swear it was going for the back door of the pub. It was probably intent on pilfering the nutty nibbles that often conveniently lie in strategically placed bowls along the drink-stained wooden bar, unless the woodland creatures have finally done the sensible thing and succumbed to alcohol.

With the devastating news that a great number of their arboreal shelters are under threat from disease due to bad luck (debatable) and human error (indisputable), our furry little friends have become so depressed that drink is the only answer: the only squirrels we'll now ever see are the ones, thin and morose, clutching a pint glass, propped up at bars and pubs nationwide, glumly reminiscing about the golden age of sylvan beauty, and the Darwinian way animals got on with it.

Comforting Squirrel would be Rabbit, who would have deferred to wise old Badger except that Badger has an ASBO because he is a rank carrier of tubercolosis and so he has to wait in the car park outside to avoid angry farmers disappointed by the decision to delay the cull. 'Anyway,' he thinks, packing his pipe with tobacco, 'can't smoke in there.' Deer keeps Badger company because he is disgusted by a set of antlers tastelessly on display above the bar. His wife has no such compunctions, however, and is on her third gin and tonic decrying the government for squeezing the bourgeoisie. Outside, Deer and Badger settle for a game of cards by the Bentley; loser has to moonwalk round the carpark whilst reciting irregular Latin verbs.

Hedgehog and his family are in the kitchens scouring plates, after a pact with the landlord saved them from being written off as useless, rabies-riddled scroungers of society. Of course, the rest of the animals don't speak to them any more: they are outcasts and traitors, may their prickles soften in the soapy washing-up-liquid water.

At the end of it all, Squirrel is drunk and still crying into Rabbit's shoulder (or haunch), asking why the Animals of Farthing Wood haven't come to save them then promptly rushing outside only to vomit over Badger's slightly worn brogues. Badger sighs, exasperated. What a terrible waste of merlot.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Ghost Story as a Result of Reading M.R.James

A few weeks ago my dad recommended the Montague Rhodes James's ghost stories to me. Despite being absolutely terrified by some of them they inspired me to have a go at my own ghost story. Appropriately enough, it happens to be Hallowe'en....

The Rustle of a Leaf

Cutting through the most western portion of the north-west of England, almost verging on Scotland, in fact, winds a river of no real consequence to the area except in times of violent flooding. Naturally, then, the local inhabitants fall into a state of exceeding worry and fretting, mostly over livestock, bridges, and spots of local interest such as Wordsworth’s Cottage in Cockermouth. Yet, this is not a story of Wordsworth, Cockermouth, or flooding. It is, however, connected to the river with which above I have described: the River Derwent.
            Not so very long ago, as I recall it from the perspective of the late nineties, there was a remarkable incident concerning an old friend of mine who had been invited to stay a fortnight with an old school friend of his. This old school friend had recently purchased the old vicarage in the village of Great Clifton, a village situated a pleasant and not unduly strenuous amble from the river.
            There is one point I feel it is my duty to inform the reader of these notes, which is the following: that both gentlemen, as men belonging to the medical profession, were not of fanciful natures nor susceptible to tales of superstition or supernatural events; a point of considerable significance later in the story.
            Arrangements were made for Doctor Lowe, my partner, to vacate his side of the practice for the two weeks he would spend in the Lakes and to travel northwards in First class on the train. During his stay, he kept note of the tale which I shall now relate to you as faithfully as he related to me:

            “Well, Teasdale, the countryside there was extremely pleasing, despite the unfolding, glowering clouds upon the mountain peaks. Doctor Fetherham commands a fine prospect from the brow of a hill which overlooks farmland for grazing cattle and growing cereals. From the window of the upper corridor one can gaze upon majestic Skiddaw. The farmhouse lies towards the eastern side of the vicarage. The vicarage itself is an impressive piece of architecture: an imposing, stately structure of Victorian heritage. Slate mined from the local quarries tiles the rooftop and great blocks of stone dress the skeleton of the house. Well, all of that is quite nugatory information; the fact of the matter is I was beastly tired after my arduous journey, and after a light supper we both made our way to bed.
            Upon rising the next morning to a wonderfully crisp October day, Fetherham suggested we go fishing, since the river was abundantly stocked with trout. So the good doctor gathered together the rods, tackle, and bait, we packed an excellent picnic basket, and strode out across the slightly muddy fields with the revitalised exuberance of our old youth. Barring creaking joints and modest paunches, I believe we were as much as we ever were.
            We spoke at length of boyhood memories, and passed a quiet day at the bend in the river, out of which jutted a lump of rock. Bright sunshine glittered on the smoothly flowing surface, and the only noises that murmured in the background were a whispering breeze rustling the drying burst of leaves and the harsh accusing tones of a pair of rooks. It was a pitiful day for trout; we caught not one. We hooked a few sticklebacks but they were not worth the keeping.
            As the sun sank lower in the sphere we packed up our kit and the remains of our lunch, and we set off back up the hill, not quite as sprightly as our descent. To reach the vicarage from the riverbank we had to clamber up a rather steep track, shaded on both sides by a canopy of sombre-looking trees. No doubt, Teasdale, that you will think this preposterous, and yet I swear there was some deep malice lurking in the shadows. A sudden chill swept through me, but I hastened to tell myself it was merely the breeze becoming stronger.
            Needless to say, nothing out of the common way occurred, and by the hour of six post meridian Fetherham and I had bathed, rested, and were enjoying a glass of hot wine by the stove.
            After supper, we took to reading in Fetherham’s study, cosy and fire-lit, commenting from time to time on anything of peculiar interest. The wind had gathered in strength and was whistling around the chimneypots, skittering leaves over the driveway. It made one very glad to be indoors.
            The weather had vastly improved by the next morning, and Fetherham proposed we venture further along the riverbank. We wrapped our scarves around our necks, donned our hats, put on our gloves, and ensured we had our canes to navigate uncertain terrain. I took my field glasses on the off chance we should glimpse some falcon or, more likely, a kingfisher. We ambled down more leisurely to take in more of the landscape. The grass was quite high, reaching up beyond our ankles, dampening our boots, and in the opposite direction white mares flicked the sapphire sky with their wispy tails.
            At the crest of the hill, before descending to the river, there was a gate, very wide – the beginnings of rust were just forming in little patches like dry skin. From this viewpoint we could see the track sloping down to the bottom of the valley, the sweep of the river rushing over pebbles, the rocks spiking upwards, and – across the river – a farmhouse that appeared to be abandoned. I had not noticed it the day before (Fetherham and I had been occupied exchanging news) but a sadness pervaded the area, despite the shining sun. The shade cast a despairing gloom and sodden leaves carpeted the way down. About halfway down trickled a tinkling miniature waterfall, dribbling down dank roots and craggy stone. The whole vicinity felt awfully eerie.
            Once at the bottom of the hill, Fetherham and I noted the dark woods to the right of us, and immediately in front stood a platoon of silver birches. To the left swung the track alongside the river. Foxgloves, now drooping in the autumnal air, sprinkled the undergrowth, and from the bowels of the woods further along we could hear chuckling pheasants.
            It did not take very long to reach the end of the track, perhaps forty-five minutes. Fetherham informed me that once upon a time, a train line had run through this part of the country from Penrith to Workington. It had then been discontinued due to claims that nobody ever used it, but I believe that people nowadays would be appreciative of the service. At the end of the track, we perched on a fence and idly observed the sheep, pompous in their white woollen overcoat, bleating to each other, and echoing the building up of cumulous clouds above.
            A short while passed and the two of us decided to spend our afternoon dealing with correspondence; we turned back and came to a fork in the track where the right would take us directly above the river on an elongated grassy knoll. Because we had not been down this path, we chose this way. From the bank on the opposite side rose a startled heron, flapping its great wings, and as we turned to watch it fly over our heads, I noticed a slab of stone, flat and smooth, in the grass to the left. Again, a chilling breeze sprung up, as if from nowhere, causing me to tighten my scarf.
            ‘Fetherham, have you seen this?’ I enquired, pointing towards the stone with my walking cane. There was an inscription.
            Peering down into the grass, Fetherham replied he had not.
            ‘Shall we look closer?’ he suggested, and without waiting for an answer he moved forward, bent over, and read the engraving aloud to me:
In loving memory of Jonathan Blears
 You shall not be forgotten.
19_ - 19_
            Fetherham paused before speaking again.
            ‘He was only six years old, poor boy.’
            ‘Do you know what happened?’
            ‘No, I have no idea. Perhaps somebody in the village will still remember it.’
            I remember thinking that this was probably why the place was oppressed with melancholy. But there was more to come. The sun had hidden behind the now thick dark clouds which had scudded in on the whipping wind. Fearing rain – an old man’s darkest rheumatic nightmare – we hurried as swiftly as we were able up the hill, trees groaning and branches almost violently swaying. Drops of rain were beginning to patter down when we made the shelter of the front porch.
            For the rest of the afternoon we were confined to the vicarage by the atrocious weather that ensued. Gales hounded the turrets, hunting crevices through which to shriek; rain battered the windows as if hoping to shatter the panes; and a darkness descended with low cloud rolling down the mountainsides, casting the peaks into obscurity. The fields were slowly turning into marshes. If I hadn’t been a grown man I’m sure I would have been rather alarmed. Fortunately, we cheered ourselves with a roaring fire and a pot of tea, and listened to the humming of the laundry girl from the village who was employed to come up twice a week to do the washing – Fetherham never could do his own washing.
            It was when the girl, Sally, was pulling on her mackintosh that Fetherham remembered he wanted to probe the subject of Jonathan Blears, and so he called her into the study. She was fairly young, quite plain but with very kindly features, and was of a most affable nature. It was clear that she seemed unwilling to enter the study with her rubber boots on, and so Fetherham ushered her in gently by the crook of her arm persuading her to sit a while by the fire. He then returned to his usual seat by the desk, which commanded a good view of the driveway and road.
            ‘Sally, my girl,’ he began. Sally smiled nervously, plucking at the hem of her coat.
            ‘Mr Fetherham?’
            ‘Come, child, you’re not to be afraid of two old, crusty gentlemen,’ he soothed. ‘The good Doctor Lowe and I have chanced upon something today at the river, and – because I am unfamiliar with local tales – we are very curious to know what happened.’
            Sally shifted her linked ankles closer underneath her chair, now looking very nervous indeed, almost frightened. Her brown eyes darted from me to Fetherham and down to her lap where she was wringing her hands together. Well, Teasdale, I was terribly interested: it was as though she knew what we were about to tell her. And when we mentioned the gravestone and the little boy Jonathan Blears, her eyes watered and she began to cry softly as she rooted around in her pocket for a handkerchief.
            ‘Oh, Doctors,’ she sniffed, pressing her handkerchief to her heart, ‘I wouldn’t tell yous but for yous hadn’t heard it’s not a story gets much tellin’ round these parts.’
            ‘Why ever not, Sally?’ I interjected.
            ‘Because we don’t talk about him,’ she whispered. The upper half of her body was now leaning forward and she was speaking very quickly in hushed tones, which hindered my own comprehension for a few seconds.
            ‘Poor lahl Johnny Blears – I never knew ‘im, mind; ‘e was me mother’s generation. But even we know better’an to be a-wandering down the river in autumn times... See, it was around this time the lad disappeared, about twenty year ago. A group of ‘em from the village were knocking around in the woods, and Johnny was the babby ‘un. It’d been drizzly and mist come down all a sudden and ‘e got separated from the group. They didn’t miss ‘im till they all went ‘ome for tea, an’ their mams come out to tell ‘em off for causin’ worry. None of the lads knew where Johnny was. So all the fathers o’ the village come out with their lamps and dogs and walked down along the river, see if they could find ‘im. The fog was too thick and the dogs didn’t help. The body never was found, but folk are scared to go down there now because people say they seen ‘is ghost walking where they lost ‘im.’
Sally paused, looking quite terrified. She licked her lips and drew breath, even though she now spoke in tones so quiet that both Fetherham and I had to lean forward to catch the rest of her story.  
‘They say what ‘e wants is someone to find ‘is body so as it can be buried decent. But no one’s stuck around long enough to find that out. And...’she faltered here. ‘And when we was lahl, we ‘eard tales of rotted leaves and river mud cling to Johnny’s face and clothes; and that ‘e wants to play with the children but ‘e doesn’t let ‘em go...’ Sally shivered and closed her eyes, possibly childhood incidents and ghost stories flashing into her mind. ‘Well, the Blears family raised enough money to have a gravestone a year after ‘is disappearance. But not even they go down in the autumn for fear o’ seein’ ‘is ghost.’
Sally’s voice quietened into silence and she sat staring into the flames licking at the chunks of coal. I looked at Fetherham from the corner of my eye. He appeared to be pensive, his palms steepled together, as if in prayer.
‘Thank you, Sally,’ he said softly. ‘Would you like to be taken home?’ I assume he offered because the poor girl truly did look frightened and the thought of sending her out in that wild weather must have pricked his conscience, as indeed it did mine. She managed a weak smile but shook her head and told us that her brother would be waiting for her at the end of the drive. She levered herself out of the chair and crept across the carpeted floor, closing the door as she left.
‘What do you make of that, then?’ Fetherham put to me.
I heaved myself out of a red-cushioned wingback and stood over the grate leaning my elbow on the mantelpiece.
‘Well, no doubt the facts of the story are accurate enough,’ I replied, ‘but you don’t mean to say you believe the nonsense about a ghost, do you? Small town superstition and unbridled imagination.’
The wind and rain railed more heavily about the house, flinging leaves and twigs as ammunition at us. They did not die down until the small hours of the morning.
We slept in late that day, after a fitful and restless night. Fetherham was content to run some errands in town and dedicate the day to study, but I confess, Teasdale, I was troubled by the laundry girl’s story and simply couldn’t settle. I thought some exercise might do me good and asked Fetherham to borrow a pair of rubber boots.
‘I’ll come with you,’ he volunteered, searching out two pairs of wellington boots.
There was no hint of sunshine that day. It was a miserably dull day, drizzling that very fine drizzle that soaks one to the bone. Many of the leaves had fallen from the trees, ripped off by the previous night’s gales. They were now lying soggy, almost disintegrating already into the earth below. The trees looked naked in comparison with their crown of golden, red, and tawny foliage from just a few days ago.
It was difficult at times to make out a safe path through the rain, and the waterlogged sod sucked at our boots as though it were trying to trip us or take our footwear. We trudged along our customary path, veering away from the small unsettling gravestone, choosing instead to slog through the mud and puddles of the old train line. It was wearisome lifting one leg out of mud and then the other. We rested against the bark of an enormous felled tree trunk smelling of damp wood, moss, and rain. A heavy quiet pressed down on us – it was not silent, for the croaking caws of rooks echoed through the woods, and the waters of the now full river splashed uneasily. And the dull rustle of leaves, Teasdale! Oh, if there is one sound I shall never in my life hear without a shudder, it is the soft rustle of leaves! It seemed very far away, at first. We hardly noticed it for we believed it to be the drizzle against the remainder of the leaves on the skeletal trees. Then the sound came closer and louder, and I realised it couldn’t possibly be the wind because there was barely a whisper. I took Fetherham’s arm, doubt and fear gripping my heart.
‘Do you hear that?’ I hissed.
Fetherham nodded in reply, his face replicating the emotion I felt.
            The noise, it seemed, was accompanied by a thin mist. The source of the mist was a narrow opening from the left, where the river lay. As the rustling became louder the mist became thicker until visibility was down to twenty metres or so. Something moved in front of us. We were both suddenly terribly afraid, and I couldn’t help but think there may be more truth than I first believed in Sally’s tale.
            Then the heavy scent of mud and rotted leaves penetrated the thickening brume, tendrils of dank perfume wafting towards us. The silhouette was of diminutive size and it did not grow much bigger as it crept closer.
            I gasped as the creature neared and the mist permitted us to distinguish sodden leaves clinging darkly to what was indisputably a small boy. He reached out to us, water dripping from his thin, muddied frame, the damnable sound of susurrating leaves that will haunt my dreams until my dying breath.
            Fetherham and I yelped and ran, I fear, for our lives. Mud squelched and sucked and spattered under our feet. Behind us, an unearthly wail sounded through the shrouds of greyish mist, like the cry of a child being abandoned, desolate and alone.
            Puffing up the hill, we did not turn back, lest we see the poor devil give chase to us. You might think, Teasdale, that it was a trick of the light and poor conditions, but I tell you I’ve never been so heartily gladdened to be rid of a place. Fetherham and I fled to the house and barricaded ourselves into one of the bedrooms on the top floor, not sleeping a wink.”

            When I enquired from Doctor Lowe, upon his return to the surgery, whether his old friend Fetherham was still residing in Great Clifton, Lowe snorted derisively and informed me that the fellow had demanded to see the attorney connected to the estate and put the sale up directly the following week, and until that time he was quartered in one of the inns in town, far away from the river. And I know that Doctor Lowe has never again sojourned to that part of the country.