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My sister and I were born in an English Castle. The Castle was a wreck. Cromwell saw to that in the seventeenth century. He blew the place apart with cannon balls. But he left one of the corner towers fairly intact. It was built back up as a house; part old part new. That was where we lived. The stone walls of our tower were several feet thick and full of hidden corridors that went from window to window and everywhere else as well. Sad to say, but in our house, secret passages made hide and seek pointless; once in there, you could never be found!
There were five stories in our tower. Each floor held one wide stone room. The rooms connected via a treacherous, winding, open stone staircase that ran all the way from the bottom, right up to the bathroom housed on the top floor. Why put a bathroom all the way up at the top of the house? My dad said it was because of the Puritan-Catholic influence back in the day. He died when we were quite young. He said that Puritans and Catholics thought that men should have to struggle and that life should never be easy. I think it was a way for him to accept the death of my twin. My twin brother also died when my sister and I were very young.
The church played an unintentional but important part of life in the tower. Especially so when my sister and I wended our way down the staircase and down, down, down to a room that we assumed was originally either a dungeon or a “holding pen” for the criminal elements of the day. The Castle had its own “Bottleneck Dungeon” by the edge of the river under the high tide water mark. But, by virtue of the fact that no-one ever came out of it once they were thrown in, we imagined that scheduling and availability could have been a problem. This led us to the assumption that the law givers of that time needed a “holding pen”! Well, that and the fact that the green tinged walls had nasty looking iron rings on them!
There were no windows in this room but there were three doors. The first door led up the stone staircase to our house. All the doors were constructed from oak beams; they all had that sort of a creak to them that leads one to think of the sound of old ships, lost in a windless fog, unseen and somehow threatening reassuring. The other two doors were on opposite sides of the room, about twenty feet away from each other. These doors led to what was called a “Priest-hole”.
The priest-hole was a tunnel that went from the church in the middle of the town to the front wall of the castle. It wound its way from the church, under the Keep, into another tower and out onto the battlements. It was called a “Priest Hole” because, in the hay day of the Castle, the local vicars and priests had the dubious duty of giving out a quick blessing to all of the warriors who were hanging out on the battlements where the sharp things were flying. As you can imagine, it made good sense for them to have a quick way in and out of there in case the whole thing came crashing down; which of course it did in the case of the Roundheads! The vicars and priests would run through the tunnel under the town from the church, dodging all of those outrageous slings and arrows and such, and then magically appear on the parapet. They would hand out their blessings and then dash back down into the tunnel once more! This sort of behavior became critical during siege periods when repeated unctions were called for. This sort of behavior left both my sister and I with a life-long suspicion of all non secular people.
As we ran wild in this fantasy world of secrets, unctions, hidey holes and living dead history, the local tourist group began to run tours around the Castle. One of these tours included a trip down the priest-hole tunnel. The guides would ferry the tourists from the battlements into the passage and down they would go. They would trudge down into the walls of a tower where King John ate the wrong kind of shellfish, along the winding passage under the Keep and across to the door of our secret dungeon room; to our medieval “holding pen”. The tours always started at ten in the morning. We would peer out of the watery glass windows of the bathroom with our eyes on the parapet. When we saw the deck grate lifting on the battlement, we would run down the stairs, and into our secret room. We would slip inside and sit silently in the dark by our door, waiting for the creak of the door on the other side of the room.
You might imagine that as children we would have leapt at any opportunity to frighten ourselves with ghost stories. But that was not the case. We grew up with ghosts. The ghosts rattled the windows at night, howled through the loose edges of the glass and quite often coldly and boldly walked through us in the window wall corridors. We knew all about ghosts. The only time I can remember that we ever really talked about it was after my sister became deathly ill with some childhood disease. I cannot remember what the disease was, only that she had a dangerously high temperature and that the powders that came in the little white packets from the doctor weren’t helping. She told me afterwards that one night in her dreams a thin pale man came and stood next to her, put his hand on her head and the next day she was feeling better. Ghosts, like those secret passages, were just a part of what we considered a normal life.
The iron handle on the door in the cellar would turn and the guide would lead the tourists into the room. He would stand them in the middle of the darkened room and begin his speech about dead kings and invented murderous vicars; tall tales of gruesome and perhaps quite likely imagined events in the history of the castle and this room. We would peek out of the shadows and watch both the assembled, invited guests and the other one. The other one was a small boy. His face, beneath a stack of long, bedraggled hair, was always smiling. The smile was not malevolent; it was determined. It was as if he was dedicated to eternally looking for fun.
That fun would begin when he walked through the tourists. My sister and I knew the feeling well; a slight chill and a feeling of sudden insecurity. It was as if you were shifted into another world, a bigger, wider, vast, vast world that had no horizon, no boundaries. It was as you suddenly realized that this world wasn’t the be all and end all of everything. And then the feeling would be gone; gone in the blink of an eye; the promise and the fear, all gone as if it never happened. The tourists rarely spoke to each other when that happened. They looked around, they looked startled, they looked surprised, but they rarely spoke. We smiled at each other and tried to suppress our giggles. The object, the “fun” the boy sought, was not to frighten but to unsettle.
Occasionally, very occasionally, one of the visitors would almost notice him. We could tell by the way that they stared directly at him; like those spooky cats that fix a disconcerting stare into the dark corner of a room. The boy would then fade into the stonework, to reappear somewhere else. The tour guide would finish his speech and the visitors would tip toe out through the door that led to the church. It was ever a tip toe out of this room because the guests were always left unsure, insecure, questioning. The tour guide seemed to assume that his speech was the cause of this change in demeanor; we could see him basking in a belief in his own rhetorical ability. I think my sister and I found his behavior the most entertaining part of the show!
Many years have passed since those days. My sister and I now live thousands of miles apart. We are both getting up there as the years go by. Last week I received an email from her. She told me she thought the thin man had been to see her when she was sleeping. I replied that I had seen the boy from the dungeon. He was hanging around in my basement not so many days ago. Our ghosts are getting closer and I for one am looking forward to their company once more…
In a long one summer, at the row house home where I came to live, there was a small backyard. A chest high fence divided the yard from the neighbours’ next door. This was a simpler time, before the words” indoor bathroom” had been invented, let alone forgotten. The hardware stores sold as many gas mantles as electric light bulbs. Groceries were bought at the front gate, from a horse drawn, bell ringing cart.
Over the fence lived an old couple. Their names were Tom and Kath. Tom had spent his life working as a farm hand and a horse keeper. Kath toiled “in service” at the Manor where they worked. They lived in a series of “tied houses” until all the horses became old and they and the horses retired.
Neither could read, and any letters that arrived were always brought around to the home. It was a very serious matter, the reading of letters, and so due respect and preparation were accorded to those occasions. I was one of few who could read at that time, so I became the reader. Tom and Kath and I would go into the parlour, take our seats, and then I would read “the letter”. As a boy, protocol and respect demanded that I only address them as Mr. and Mrs. Pinchback. Tom put a stop to that. “If thy’s reading us letters then thee must be calling I “Tom”; and my miss’s is “Kath” to you, young man.”
Of the evening, Tom would come outside and fold his horse keeper arms across the fence. Out would come the pipe, the tar bag of tobacco, and the box of Lucifer’s. As a young and imaginative boy, I was enthralled by the cloud of smoke that would wreath up, around and under his cloth cap, shrouding his head in a mystical turban that gave him the aura of a genie, a Nubian King, a minion of Saladin’s masses; of which I knew all about from the penny comics I had read. When I saw the turban winding itself around his head I would dash outside, because when Tom came out to smoke his pipe, it was a signal for me to continue my education; to convene in a ritual.
You might conjure the idea that perhaps he resented my intrusion into his time outside alone; perhaps I was disrupting a quiet time when he would work out the mysteries of the day, when he could contemplate what would happen tomorrow, or dream about his old tired horses and reminisce of a life spent in a reclusive, seclusive, rural environment. But we both knew that Tom loved to talk and that I loved to listen.
We would talk of horses and pastures and the right time to plant things; we would talk of the right time to pull things up and the right time to put things down. Tom knew everything in the world that really mattered. He could look up at the sky and tell what the weather would do, how much it would rain; if the crops would be happy. He knew the spells of life and death. But the most important spell I ever learned from him was that sometimes it is not what you say that determines who you are, but rather the things that you do not say.
When the pipe was finished and it was time to say no more, Tom would take a look up at the sky, sniff at the air and say, “Well boy, I’m settin’ to go, I can smell my Kath’s gravy. She loves to cook me that gravy don’t ye know.”
At other times in the day, during that summer that I remembered as forever, I would see Kath hanging out the washing on the line in their backyard. I’d shout across to her and she would put down the basket, smooth back her hair, wipe her hands on her apron, and come and lean on the fence. We would talk of her life as a maid, and the Manor, but mainly we talked about Tom. “Me and Tom,” she would say “me and Tom has always had each other. I was cooking at the manor, same as my mother done, when he came to the back. Hungry he was, but as back from the war, we was all hungry. I made him some meat and we married in the Friary, on a summer as ‘n this one. He told me some things about the war, and as how he had seen French people and the likes. But I told him not. I says it was just him and me now and all that I was knowing was how to cook and clean. I says to him I‘d never bin so far than a mile or two in my life!”
We would talk like this for a while and then she would say “I’m settin’ to go pet! Tom‘ll be needin‘ his supper by and by, and I haven’t started the gravy yet. That man loves his gravy I’m tellin’ thee. I’m thinkin’ that’s why the man had me married!”
The summer moved across the sky. Kath and I talked of Tom. Tom and I talked of animals. We talked of horses and how they didn’t need a firm hand, just a bit of “‘tendin’” and “lookin’ for”. One day a small bird, a sparrow or a bluecap, flew into the fence. It landed at my feet. The bird lay still but its eyelids flicked across the brown blank eyes, and its beak opened and soundlessly shut. I picked it up and looked at Tom. “Give us it here,” he said.
He held it in his huge horse keeper hands and slowly wrapped his fingers around it. I asked him if it was dead. I asked if he was going to kill it. I was panicking, babbling, I didn’t want the bird to have to die.” Shhhhhhh!” Tom said, with an urgency I had never heard before.” No words, no words, else thee will frighten the poor thing to death.”
He gently closed his hands around the bird and held it in silence. We stood like that for several minutes. Minutes that felt like hours. He slowly relaxed the bird’s head from his fingers, holding his hands upright to the sky, and then released the rest of his grip. The bird was free. It sat on his hands for a second or two, cocking its head from one side to the other as if it were listening; then it flew away. The pipe was finished and Tom tilted his head to the sky, sniffed at the air, and forecast that Kath’s gravy was ready.
I returned to the home many, many years later. Tom had died and Kath had followed him shortly thereafter. Tom died from stomach cancer, but I don’t want to go there. Life was simpler then. As simple as the ways of two gentle people who taught me the most important spell I would ever learn in my life; that it is not what you say that determines who or what you are, but more so the things that you do not say.