I don’t know why it is that I have accumulated such a collection of ─ well, I suppose you might say ghost stories, though I tend to think of them in less definite terms myself. The fact is that I have never seen a ghost with my two eyes, and in fact I long ago gave up any hope of doing so. I must not be one of those gifted with the sight, as it were. However that may be, though, I seem to be a magnet for stories of the weird and the macabre, as if they seek me out─ and in the strangest of places.
The most recent addition to my collection was found in just such a casual way as all the others. I had been on holiday in France, when I was suddenly called back because of an illness─a very severe one─in the family. It happened that the nearest airport from which I could get a flight home was Lyon, so I made my reservation and got myself there as soon as I possibly could.
Unfortunately it was high summer and the traditional season for the French air traffic controllers to hold the government─and the passengers─to ransom, and I of course, landed unlucky. My flight was delayed for a period “not yet determined”. Lyon, it seemed, was not to receive even the quota of flights that it merited pro rata, with all resources being diverted to Paris─after the French custom of course.
The airline staff were very helpful, and offered us either an overnight stay in a nearby hotel, or a blanket and sandwiches in the departure lounge, in which case we would be placed on the first available flight out, connecting to our destinations outside French airspace.
Due to the nature of my relative’s illness, I opted for the latter course, being keen to lose no time to get back to Scotland and the bosom of my family. I may have been a wayward scion of my house, but the relative in question was (and fortunately still is) very dear to me. So I accepted the shake-down together with a small number of others, mainly businessmen, who also had urgent need to travel.
Most of us settled down quickly, it being quite late by that time, after 11 o’clock at night, but a few night-owls like me sat together and chatted, filling ourselves up with coffee and sandwiches, and I have to admit a few liveners to chase away the gloom. Amongst our number was one, a very odd looking man, tall, with greying hair, well covered─ quite unexceptional you might think, except that he constantly looked around himself rather nervously, and was wearing a cravat. A cravat is an unusual piece of attire these days, especially when not accompanied by sports jacket and slacks; and the wearer had the habit of fretting with it regularly, as if he was not used to wearing one. It could have been an unseasonable throat infection which was the cause of this, but my profession alerts me to these details, and I noted them, thinking that a tale thereby must hang, if only it could be prised out.
Fairly soon the group had shrunk to four or five of us lounging around on a few rather hard sofas which we had arranged into a square. There was myself, the odd cravat wearer, a young man from Bristol, and a middle aged couple from Glasgow, the female part of which was snuggled tight into the shoulder of her partner under a coat, and who took little part in the proceedings except to smile and nod from time to time and sip from a large mug of coffee which she had liberally laced with brandy. Wise girl, I thought.
One by one we outlined our reasons for being there; I told of my worries, to muted clucks of sympathy, the young man from Bristol explained that he had been sent on a business trip by a new employer and was needed back urgently, the couple from Glasgow were to attend a big family wedding on the weekend and did not want to be late for the party.
“So what about you, then,” I asked of the cravat wearer, whose name, prosaically enough, was Jim Willis. He seemed friendly, and it was clear that he preferred company to being alone, so I thought the boldness of my approach was reasonable. I could hardly have foreseen his reaction. Involuntarily he clutched at his throat and then looked quickly around. “Oh, it’s all right,” I quickly interposed, seeing his discomfiture, “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.” Which of course I had, really.
However Jim just stared into the distance for a moment and then dropped his head into his hands, his shoulders heaving with a deep shuddering sigh that ran through the whole of his body. The rest of us looked at each other uncomfortably, and for a moment I felt very embarrassed, but then Jim looked up. “No,” he said, as if answering a question, “You’re quite right. I should tell you my tale─even though not one of you here will believe it.”
Again the rest of us shot glances at each other, but this time of quickening interest. Inwardly I felt vindicated─my hunch had been correct, here was a tale at last.
Jim began slowly, uncertainly. “I bought a house in Burgundy last year, you see.” He paused, and gathered himself. “Yes,” he went on, this time in a firmer voice. “I bought a house in Burgundy last year, and now I’m going to sell it─if I can. I’ve always loved France, and that area in particular. I’m an architect by profession, and tinkering with old houses is my hobby too. My wife and I had decided to spend our summers there, and to retire to rural France─quite a common thing to do these days, you know. Anyway, we spent ages looking for a place, over several years of visits, and had a lot of fun doing so; but everything we saw was either too small, too big, too run down, too modern. We had an image in our mind’s eye of what we wanted, and we just could not find it. Indeed, by last summer it had got to the point where we were ready to give up on Burgundy and look further south when we found it.
“We had been in the office of an estate agent─a fat old rogue who had once been a lawyer. This particular agent had shown us quite a few properties, but he seemed to have a very distinct idea of what it was that we wanted, and that idea was not the same as ours. Anyway, we were sitting opposite him at his desk as he was hurriedly going through particulars with a frown on his face when he passed over one which caught my eye─a very traditional Burgundy house with a little watchtower─what they call an echaugette here. I immediately exclaimed and asked him why he had not shown us that one.
“The agent’s frown deepened. Oh no, that one was not for us. It was too far away, it was too big, it was this it was that. But I persisted, and so did my wife, who had reached over and pulled the file out of the bundle, to our man’s obvious displeasure, though of course he was much too polite to say anything.
Anyway, after some mumbling and grumbling, he said that he did have another property in that village on his books, one which might actually be right for us, so we could look at that and by the way have a look at this other that so interested us. So we drove up.
“You could not miss the house with the echaugette, of course; it was right in the middle of the village, overlooking the square, at the highest point, opposite the church. My wife and I looked at each other and we both knew at once that that was the one for us. But still we had to go and look at this other house that the agent proposed─another badly ‘renovated’ house full of the ugliest modern finishings completely out of keeping with the building, which was not that interesting anyway, and grossly overpriced to boot.
“So we retrieved the key to ‘our’ house from the café where it was normally kept and pried into its gloomy depths. What a revelation it was! Under the years of filth and grime and cobwebs was a real medieval French town house─yes it had been mucked about, but there was enough left to make it possible to restore it. And the price─even the price the fat old rogue was asking was cheap.
“To cut a long story short, the next day we made an offer and the week after that we signed the preliminary papers. The agent clearly thought that we were quite mad to settle on such a building, but his─I could only call it relief─at finding a buyer was clearly too much for him to risk the sale.”
Here Jim paused in his narrative, and sipped reflectively from his glass. When he took up the tale again, his voice had changed. “All last winter we had work done on the place─we had it cleaned out, all the rubbish─lorryloads of it─that the previous owner had accumulated, was loaded up and tipped. The upper apartment on the first floor, which was more-or-less liveable, we had cleaned and redecorated, and a new bathroom suite put into─ of all places─ the little watchtower. It amused my whim to have it there and it seemed a practical move─ there was already a convenience and a cold water supply, so it was not too great a task to plumb in the hot and fit a shower.
“During that time while these basic works were being done, I flew over when I could and checked on the progress. By early this summer it looked as if the place was ready, so my wife and I and our children drove over to spend a month happily pottering in our new project─or so we thought.”
Jim stopped again here, and the weight of some gravely troubling memory seemed to press down on his shoulders. At length he began his narrative again.
“Well, I was all gung-ho for some practical work. I wanted to tackle some rendering on the echaugette, which was badly needing help, and so on the first day I got out the ladder and my pointing hammer and wire brush and got on with the task of preparing the thing for a coat of lime render.” Jim looked up and laughed, the first time he had done so during his story. “You may not realise that an architect like me spends most of his time organising projects from an office, attending meetings and pampering clients. Actually working on buildings is a rare pleasure. Anyway, I had been chipping and brushing away in the sun, thoroughly enjoying myself and looking forward to the cheese and good local wine we had bought in for lunch, when I tapped a loose flake of the old render and a piece about a foot square fell right off.
“That was surprising enough─it had looked quite sound to me─but even more surprising was the fact that under the flake of mortar was a little window─about six-by four inches. Quite clearly someone had rendered over the window deliberately- and more to the point, someone─probably the same someone─had plastered up the aperture on the inside of the tower as well. Now the echaugette was not so well lit that it could do without the light, and the fact that someone had gone to the lengths that they had to obscure the tiny peephole should perhaps have made me think a moment, but I was so thrilled to find this delightful feature that I rushed to tell my wife, who was just as pleased. The rest of the day I spent clearing the plaster from both sides of the window, so that by the late afternoon and time for aperitifs the job was finished.
“I should explain that the house is on a crossroads, and it was built when the bandits in the area were not just retired lawyers but lawless thugs who preyed upon the villages. The echaugette served a real purpose, a defensive one, and it had, as was now revealed, three─rather than two─windows, all about the same size, large enough to fire a crossbow or a pistol through, but small enough to protect whoever was inside. From these three windows the two walls of the house could be covered in security, and in addition they each a gave a clear sight-line down one of the three roads that crossed at this junction.
“The window which I had discovered gave onto the square in front of the village, perfectly framing the village monument for the fallen of two World Wars, with the faded plaques reading “RF” and the list of names. It also gave a clear view of anyone who might knock at the front door.’
“I was thoroughly pleased with this day’s work, and the next day I patted myself on the back again for a job well done, and moved onto other tasks.”
Jim paused and the plump Glaswegian woman smiled at him. “Go on,” she said. “You’re just getting to the best bit, aren’t you?”
Jim laughed a nervous, mirthless laugh. “I’m sorry to go on about all these details, but it really is important─you see, I now know that that window was blocked up for a reason, and not just so that the previous owner could fix a toilet cabinet to the inside of it.”
“Really?” I inquired, my ears pricking up at this. Was this to be another for my collection, I wondered? And how right I was.
The architect continued. “A week or so later another couple came out from England to visit us and we had a fine day with them, visiting a few local caves to stock up on wine, down to Beaune for the market, lunch in a café, a really nice Burgundy day out, under that glorious blue sky and brilliant sunshine, then back up to our house to spend the end of the day in the warmth of the courtyard. We had dinner outside, coq au vin, the coq being supplied by a neighbour, followed by excellent cheese, wine and chat till long after the bats began to flit through the air above our heads and the stars began to twinkle.
“That was two weeks ago. It was the first night that we had really enjoyed our new home-from-home, the first night that it had lived up to expectations; and unfortunately the last, too.
“That night I slept fitfully. It was hot and the air seemed oppressive and heavy─our hose is in the mountains and I could feel a change coming on─there was thunder in the air. I suppose about three in the morning it broke, with a dreadful clattering of thunder that battered around the hills for it seemed an age and a blinding flash of lightning.
“Instinctively I rose from my bed to check that the windows and shutters were all closed, because already angry blasts of wind were whipping around the house. When I had done, and looked in on the children, who were soundly asleep as though nothing was happening, I went to the echaugette to fetch a drink of water from the tap there.
“You have no idea how I wish I had not, now. I poured the water─the water in our village is really delicious, you know, they ought to bottle it─and drained it. As I stood there came another crackling boom of thunder and a brilliant flash, even closer than before, that lit up the whole of the scene before me─coincidentally the scene through the little peep-hole I was so proud to have uncovered.”
At this his hand rose once again to his throat and stayed there. At length, and it seemed with great difficulty, he continued, his voice now shaking.
“You cannot imagine what I saw revealed in that flash of thunder. A band of men─armed men─were crowded around the front door of the house! I couldn’t help but look more closely, and though it was quite dark as the village streetlamps are switched off in the wee hours, somehow or another the scene seemed to have its own illumination, so that I could quite clearly make out what was going on. As I pressed closer to the peep-hole I could see that this light, this hellish, orange light, came from a building on fire further away on the other side of the square. I thought at first it was the Mairie but I quickly realised that it was not, though I had no idea what building it was that was burning─I had never seen it before, not in all of my exploration of the village.
“By this same glow I could see that here and there lying on the ground were shapes that at first looked like bundles of rags that had been cast aside, but which I soon saw, to my complete horror, were bodies─bodies with dark blood all round them. The men in front of the house were attired in very strange clothes─rusty cuirasses, helmets, bucklers and long boots; they carried spears and axes and battle-notched swords.
“I now realised that by some agency outside of myself I was peering into a vision from some time long in the past. I thought that I may have been dreaming─but what a dream! So vivid, so exact. The men, I now could hear, were shouting in angry, drunken voices in a dialect I had never heard before but which by some strange means I could understand. They were calling for someone by name─to come out. And though it was not my name that they called, I was struck by the chilling realisation that it was nevertheless me whom they wished to parley with.
“I don’t know why, but I was not frightened, not then. I did not understand what I was seeing, but still it seemed far enough away. But then I got a real shock. I turned to leave the echaugette and opened the door into the bedroom. Where my wife should have been sleeping soundly in the darkness, there was candlelight and an open fire, and a woman I had never seen before gazing at me with terrified eyes, huddling two sobbing children to her. I say I had never seen the woman before, and I had not, yet I knew she was my wife, and that those were my children she sheltered. I looked down at myself and instead of the night-shirt I knew I had been wearing I was attired all in black, in a frock coat and stockings.
“Suddenly there was a furious hammering on the door. I looked again out of the little window that had so betrayed me. The crowd outside had fetched great axes and two men were attacking the door wile the others gazed evilly up at me, leering, their lips sneering, and all the while taunting me with what they proposed to do to me.
“It seemed an age, and yet an instant─the door, tough though it was, gave way under those crashing blows, and the beasts ran in and up the spiral staircase towards me─I should say us. The woman in the room behind me─my wife in this ghastly alter ego screamed─this time in French, but with a tremendous accent ─Help us, dear God! Husband, help us!─The children were screaming too now.
“I found that I was holding a cocked pistol─I have no idea how it got there. Suddenly the door of the room burst open and a great monster of a man, swarthy, unwashed, carrying an axe, smashed his way in. I levelled the pistol at him and fired, catching him full in the chest. He fell dead on the floor. I knew he was dead, though I don’t know how I knew. There was a pause, and silence─confusion─and I realised that I had shot the leader. But quickly another─smaller, but no less evil-looking burst in and leaned over the body while others of the band slowly advanced on me. I realised that, having discharged the pistol, I was defenceless. The newcomer leered up at me.
“So you killed him at last!─ he shouted. ─You killed me brother! But now I take revenge!”
“And with that he leaped towards the woman and the children, his sword large and ugly in his hand. I threw myself forward to protect them, but he knocked me aside with a blow that I shall never forget and then two of his henchmen pounced on me and grabbed me.
“You will watch this and then die, Hugo!” shouted my attacker, and hacked at the pathetic group until they all lay dead on the tiled floor, their blood black in the candle-light.
“This scene was so horrible, and so real, that I no longer believed I was part of the comfortable world of the 21st century, but that I really was trapped in some dreadful slippage of time that had taken me back to an altogether different, evil past. That I had travelled through that cursed window into another time─into another person, another life. Every one of the gestures and moves that I made during that horrible time, every word that I said, seemed predestined─as if I , that is the conscious I that sits before you now in this palace of modernity, had no will, nothing to do but to play a pre-determined role in an oft-repeated tragedy.
“Anyway I had little enough time to think as the rough hands that held me dragged─or perhaps threw─me down the stairs. Outside the band encircled me and I could smell them, smell the drink on their breaths. I looked up and could see flames mounting inside the room I had so recently seen such awful things in.
“Then I saw him coming out─he who had murdered my wife and children─you see, I was now fully inhabiting this other life, this life that I had never known or dreamed of before─and I broke free from the arms that held me and leapt at him in a fury of rage. But he just laughed a sickening laugh of pure menace and sliced at me with his sword, cutting me under the chin and slitting my throat open. I fell to the ground, feeling my life’s energy flood out onto the ground, and the scene around me faded to blackness.”
The physical effort that Jim had required to relate this astonishing tale had taken its toll on him and he lapsed into silence, his shoulders heaving, pale, the perspiration beaded on his forehead. Then he spoke again.
“My wife and children left as soon as they─well as soon as they could. I moved into a hotel and from there arranged for the house to go back on the market. I could not bring myself to go to the fat rogue who had sold us the place─I had an idea he had known something and that was why he had tried to put us off. In fact I had a bit of a job getting anyone to take it on their books. Apparently the house has a reputation which precedes it. But eventually I found an agent, someone who deals mainly with foreigners. And before I left the place for the last time I had that infernal window plastered up, both inside and out.”
“One last thing,” said Jim, as we thought he had finished. “Two days ago I went to the local museum to see if I could find out more, and just by luck I was put in touch with a historian who knew the house well. Apparently during the Revolution it was occupied by a Notary Public with Royalist sympathies. His family had a blood feud with a family from the next village for generations, and one night two brothers of this clan gathered a band of ruffians to put an end to the feud under the pretext of furthering the Revolution by putting down a well known Royalist. The Notary and his wife and children, together with those servants who could not escape, were all massacred, but before he died the Notary shot and killed the older of the two brothers.” Jim sat back slowly.
“And there my story ends.”
“My God!” said the Glaswegian, at length breaking the shocked silence that we had all lapsed into. “That’s a hell of a yarn, Jim. But surely it was all just a bad dream brought on by the coq and too much Pommard? You must have heard the story of the blood feud somewhere and suggestion did the rest.”
Jim stared at him and then laughed a hollow laugh. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” he said quietly, and then, more firmly, “You know I really wish it was as simple as that. But then you should know that my wife found me in a dead faint in the road outside the house. That I was in a fever for days. And although that is perhaps not enough to convince you that what I experienced was more than a simple nightmare brought on by an excess of food and drink, then perhaps you’d like to explain this. If this was caused by a simple nightmare, then it is a different order of nightmare from any I have ever heard of.”
And so saying he quietly slipped off the cravat, to reveal a fiery red weal, looking like nothing so much as a recently healed gash, deeply cut into the flesh, which stretched quite from one ear to the other.
A Little Shop of Horrors
Copyright © Rod Fleming 2001