Walking Backwards for Christmas: As at Ravenshaw Ford

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 1, Solihull,  August 1960,  “As at Ravenshaw Ford”

[Note: The featured picture is a picture of Reg/Reggie’s maternal grandfather, aka “Gramfer,” aka “Fen,” as he appeared in the penultimate version of the cover. With tears in our eyes, we decided he was cluttering the picture and – wings or no wings – he had to go. This is his first appearance since.] One of our favorite places to go was Ravenshaw Ford, along the Blythe.

Ravenshaw FordIt was said the place was haunted, that in 1648 a young girl named Bethany had been convicted of witchcraft, publicly flogged at St. Alphege’s Church, dragged to Ravenshaw Ford and drowned, and that her ghost continued to haunt the Ford but would sometimes appear in town as a lady in white if we were in danger of flood.

Sometimes we’d hear the shadow of a sound as we neared the Ford, just a hint of music in the distance, but that was all. We’d go at least once a month and look for any trace of Bethany or indicia of something, anything, spooky but we found nothing.

Well, maybe one thing.

Though the rest of Ravenshaw Ford was a picture of tranquility—nearly contemplative—our reflections in the river were incessantly distorted looking, almost demonic.

“It’s she who fears us, Reggie,” Gramfer would remind me, “as she fears anyone from the town. Who can blame her after what she’s gone through? Now Ravenshaw Ford’s her home. She has made it a place of happiness and peace, yet even here we intrude on her. She appears to warn us when flood is likely; let’s be content with that. She’ll be here whenever we need her, though heaven knows we don’t deserve it.”

Once in a while, especially in late summer or early autumn, we’d overstay and have to go home by twilight, or even by the light of a full moon over the early stages of nightfall.

Gramfer would guide us home to the sound of crickets and the smell of wood smoke. Gramfer would never let him tell me tales of the fair folk, goblins or trolls as we went home, but he was free enough with them thereafter as we took supper by the fireside, away from the dinner table.

Sometimes at night we’d eschew the lounge’s comfy chairs and old valve cabinet radio—all of it new when Stanley Baldwin began his final term as Prime Minister, in the closing years of the reign of George V—for hard chairs and the wooden table at its centre, to play a round of Ludo with whoever was there. But rather than the prosaic Ludo, Gramfer and I vastly preferred to get everyone into a round of Starluk, where the players scored points by telling the fortunes of other players. When we played I felt as if I were within Merlin’s lair, or in the wagon of a gypsy caravan.

But best of all was when Gramfer would take out that guitar and start to play.

His voice was nothing spectacular, but it was strong and carried a tune well enough, his playing serviceable. He’d be tired by end of day. I doubt he ever sang or played for more than 45 minutes, but to me it always felt as if I’d been in a special, magic place for hours. Perhaps in a secret room in some enchanted castle, where anything could happen.

Now that voice was silenced forever.

I looked down at the casket, a plain pine box (as he’d asked for), but thick, well-varnished. On the lid they’d fastened a small, brass plaque, I supposed in the event—heaven forbid!—they’d ever need to exhume the casket and determine who was inside.

It read:
Bartholomew “Fen” Borland
(1885-1960)

There was a numbness throughout my limbs, my tongue and my throat. For a second, I thought that I heard Gramfer’s voice on the breeze, a shadow of a sound, much like the music we sometimes “heard” at Ravenshaw Ford. Then the shadow faded away.

Gramfer had wandered off alone on his final walk. He’d not be coming back.

© 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.