Walking Backwards for Christmas: On the Trail of the Ghost

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall. Chapter 5, Part 4: Solihull,  Christmas Eve Day 1960 : On the Trail of the Ghost

Ghost[the featured picture is of St. Aphege’s church, Solihull, where Bethany was flogged before being drowned, and in whose churchyard Gramfer is buried]

Now it was my turn to momentarily be at a loss. I knew Stan found Ludo boring (a simplified, bargain basement version of Pachisi) and wasn’t sure that Starluk, with its tarot images, would be quite his thing either.

Then I saw it, jutting out of a box of stuff evacuated from Auntie Gene’s room, sitting on one of the comfy chairs in the lounge. I couldn’t believe that she’d left it here, but there it was—“Oscar: The Film Stars Rise to Fame,” with the oddest, goofiest version of an Oscar statuette known to humankind, a perfect metaphor for the game itself.

There were no words like “campy” in those days but we knew what the concept was, even if we’d not found a word for it just yet. I knew that’s exactly how Stan would find the game, rooted as it was in the kind of movie magazine drivel that no one but a star-struck secondary school girl (as Auntie Gene had been when she’d got it) would ever have believed. Sure enough, Stan’s face broke out in an ear-to-ear grin from the moment he laid eyes on it.

It was all he could do to stifle a laugh.

As the three adults left, we set the game up. He selected Tyrone Power as his alter ego, I selected Richard Widmark as mine, and we began to play. We were barely past the “waiting room” square, trying to “pass a screen test,” when I heard it or, more accurately, didn’t hear it. There was no sound of rain hitting the rooftop or pounding against the walls of the house.
My first reaction was to look out a front window to see if it was snowing. It wasn’t. The streets and walkways still glistened, but with no sign of splattering droplets on the ground, nor as much as a single snowflake. The air was utterly clear, not obscured by any form of precipitation. We were in the eye of this storm.

“Stan,” I called out. “Get y’coat an’ moine. We’m headen fer the river.”

Yes, havoc had been wreaked upon the dulcet tones of my Silhillian speech in the years since I’d started school. Blame Neville Tanner, a scholarship student who’d commuted all the way from Wolverhampton and who was the closest thing I’d had to an antecedent to Stan. At the end of last term, he’d been sent to Coventry—literally (to King Henry VIII School to be exact, once again on scholarship)—and taken out of my life by forces beyond his control.

But his impact on my speech remained as his legacy, much to my mother’s chagrin, although it had perhaps been “coarsened” a bit more since then by the Brummie tones of a few classmates.

“What for?” Stan asked, complying but in a hesitant, confused sort of way.

“Tell y’on th’ woy,” I replied as I took my coat from him and put it on. We bolted out the door without locking it, (in those days, in Solihull at least, you didn’t need to yet) and headed for the river. I told him the story of Bethany, that she haunted Ravenshaw Ford and how she’d appear as a lady in white to warn the town at times of flooding when the river became a threat.

“An’ if this flooden ain’ ’nuff t’ mek ‘er appear,” I added, “I dunno wot ’ood be.”

As we made our way toward the Ford, we passed St. Alphege’s church, where Bethany had been flogged.

We came upon a clearing where a house stood that must have been quite grand around the turn of the century, with a tower, atrium-like greenhouse garden and ornately carved wooden ornamentation over stately brick masonry. Now its interiors were dark, however, save for what may or may not have been amber flashes of light; its exterior was so badly run down it was hard to determine if anyone. At least anyone still living—called the place home.

“Is this the place Bethany haunts?” Stan asked.

“Nah, place’s much too noo,” I replied. “There’s said t’ be anover ghost eya—sum bloke ’oo topped ’imself or such loike.

Ain’ too friendly, they soy.

Bethany appeass at toimes in th’ hall weer she used t’ werk. Still standen, in loads be’ah shape ’an this place. She warns all ’oo live there. But she appeass ’round th’ town more often. Most often she appeass down by th’ Ford—they soy s’weer ’er spirit dwells now.”

“Then let’s get out uff here fast. I’ve got an uneasy feeling that someone inside that houze is watching us—right now.”

© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.