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.
‘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 before...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.