The sea is moving closer. It eats away the clay cliffs, and the rain turns soil to flowing brown custard, cascading down onto the sand.
As it falls it takes with it memories of the past. Roots and rocks once firmly embedded in the land. Concrete comes down, from roads we once travelled on, and from the foundations of homes.
It creates a space between land and water, surreal and compelling. Drowned forests, ruined bunkers, fossils, sea glass, twisted metal.
There is life in the wreckage. Kelp, red algae, sargassum on the rocks and sand.
This coast buries its past in the blue depths. Piers, villages, towns drowned; not in a dramatic swoop. More like a crack in the soil one year, a fallen fence the next. The land dribbles away. Sometimes it shifts down a metre or so, as if it is furtively attempting to escape our attention. Then another metre. And next week it is smashed boulders of clay and clumps of grass across the beach.
There are ghosts here. They emerge when the tide goes out, and make us wonder what their story was before the sea came.
Harassed by neighbours and the police, it was only in the closing pages of Tales of the Boy in Winter that Hannah revealed the truth.
WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers. If you’ve not read the book, it won’t make much sense, apart from being an interesting letter from abroad.
19th January 1975. To Mr J A Pembleton. Pepper, Pembleton and Patterson Publishing Co. Ltd. Yorvik House. 13 Riverside. York. North Yorkshire. United Kingdom.
Dear Mr Pembleton,
Thank you so much for your recent correspondence. I am in reasonable health considering my circumstances. It is good to catch up with the news in England. I do hope the young woman that was taken is found unharmed.
My Aunt Myrtle was also kidnapped, in 1953. I believe it was a bungled robbery, and her coat was caught in the back door of the getaway vehicle as she was walking to the post box with a letter to my Great Aunt Mary. She was rather dishevelled when the bank robbers reached their destination, having been thrown up onto the boot on a tight bend. She said it wasn’t a fast journey – the thieves had chosen a Renault Dauphine – but it was rather windy that day. It blew her Poodle clip into an Italian bouffant. It was only luck on their behalf, that they clipped the local policeman’s bicycle as he arrived at the scene thus taking out of action the only vehicle available for pursuit by the Pollington Constabulary. It was a pity one of the buttons had come off her coat that morning. In her hurry to leave, Aunt Myrtle had sewn herself into her coat, thus rendering escape from it and the back of the Renault Dauphine impossible.
The horrible men kept her for over a week, until she was able to escape up the chimney after chewing through the rope they tied to her wrists. I pray that the abducted girl isn’t forced to bake bread and make pots of tea like my poor aunt had to. She could never look at a tea strainer afterwards without coming over funny.
I am grateful for the cheque you enclosed. It will go towards expenses we have incurred whilst travelling. Mr Pembleton, you are quite at liberty to disclose this location to the police. I do understand that while I am regarded as an accomplice to murder(s), and having no means of legal representation, I will remain a fugitive. We are leaving this morning for new ‘climes’. I have to say it will be a relief. It is a beautiful country, but in order to go anywhere we are accompanied by armed guards. Perhaps they think we are oil tycoons!
I do not understand why anyone would think that I could kill George. I still love him, and I tell Mr Watson this every day. He understands now. He has apologised, but I have not accepted this, or the flowers he leaves outside my room every morning. I was questioned at the police station here for rather a long time after the fork incident. It was quite awkward. I was unable to defend my actions without giving away my true identity. Fortunately, after receiving adequate medical attention, Mr Watson decided not to press charges, so they let me go. I do wish everyone would stop mistaking me for his wife.
I believe that my brother Harold has stirred things up with the press. He seems quite determined to ruin me. Perhaps ‘Tales of the Boy in Winter’ shall make enough money to pay a solicitor’s fees? I can only rely on your reputable firm in this matter.
I do miss my little house and my geraniums. I suppose Harold has thrown them away now. They were very old, George’s plants. Perhaps they were taken away as evidence, and WPC Crouch now has them on a windowsill? I doubt she will, after what happened.
I must go now. Our car has arrived to take us to the airport. I never know where we are going. I leave that to Mr Watson. Please continue to send correspondence to the post office box number as previous and I will respond as soon as I can. I remain ever grateful for your support.
19th January is the day that celebrates the Worcester Bishop Wulfstan (c1008 – 1095). As you can see by the dates, he lived through one of the most traumatic times in the history of England, the Norman Conquest. He was a close confidante of Harold Godwinson, Harold the Second, the last crowned Anglo-Saxon King of England. How he survived the invasion, and kept his bishopric is strange as most others were replaced over the coming years by Normans.
There is a story that when he was ordered to surrender his staff, he stuck it into the tomb of King Edward saying that only Edward, who had appointed him, could take it off him. No-one could remove the staff but Wulfstan, so he kept his role. But perhaps it was his dedication to others and his reputation for healing and prophesies that saved him becoming de-robed. He dedicated his work to helping the poor and is known to have ended the slave trade from Bristol. He was a social reformer in difficult times, operating under a new regime.
He wore lambskins, not decorated robes, and was a vegetarian.
He was buried in Worcester Cathedral (his favourite rebuild) and shortly after a ‘hagiography’ or saint’s life was written about him. It wasn’t long before people started reporting miraculous cures that happened at his tomb. One of these miracles was the curing of King Harold’s daughter, although it’s not documented what was wrong with her.
He was one of the top saints in the Middle Ages. In those times, people undertook arduous journeys to shrines to receive some form of divinity, be it a cure, a message, or a relic (the trade in pieces of tombs, clothing, sacred jewellery and bones was very popular).
Pilgrimages in St Wulfstan’s name continued until the early 1700’s.
King John, at his own request, was buried between St Wulfstan and St Oswald in the Cathedral in 1216. At the time of the Reformation his shrine was destroyed, and his bones buried near the high altar.
Today, he is one of England’s lost saints. We do not celebrate his day still as we do dragon slayers, but here is a man who dedicated his life to ending the suffering of poverty and slavery, in a time of great change.
‘Sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people.’ Saint Wulfstan of Worcester.
How did a member of the canine family become entwined in folklore and myth?
When I was thinking about what creatures my main characters meet in the Tales of the Boy in Winter, I admit it was about maximising the amount of blood in the snow, but for a long time I wanted to write about a wolf in a dark forest, on a long moonlit night.
Imagine being amongst the bare trees on a winter’s night, a little lost perhaps, wanting to be home in front of a fire or tucked up in a warm bed. It’s been a long day. You are on your own. Frozen twigs crackle under your feet as you walk. The air is still. You always forget your gloves on evenings like this. Now your fingers are turning numb.
Leafless trees surround the path, weaving webs of branches across the sky.
You remember an old fairy tale as you walk along, the cold air permeating your coat.
Little Red Riding Hood. A girl in a forest going to visit her grandmother. The clever wolf. The agreement of a race between him and her.
We hunted them, pushed them away from our farmsteads, and populated areas, into the truly wild places, where they live now.
But not here.
The moon surfaces from a grey cloud, casting silver light through the branches. What was that? Did something move out there, to the left, amongst the creeping dead strands of bramble?
Nothing. Your imagination. You continue, a little faster, thinking about the Harry Potter film, with the black wolves. Which one was it?
Out of interest, I looked up the words ‘accursed’ and ‘wolf’ in an old English dictionary. I don’t know if the Anglo-Saxons used the phrase, but I thought I would. It was what Hannah’s mother called them. She knew a lot about strange things.
Our relationship with wolves goes back to a time of the first known writing. The Babylonian epic ‘Gilgamesh’ refers to the goddess Ishtar transforming a shepherd – her lover – into a wolf, the very creature he guarded against.
The Dacians, an ancient people who came from the area now known as Central and Eastern Europe, seemed to have a special relationship with wolves. The stories say their youngsters were initiated by living for a year as a wolf. This would give them the skills to become adept warriors – an artisan much sought after in a time of shifting power and boundaries. In some rituals the warrior donned a wolf-skin and exhibited his canine agility. The man becomes the wolf.
In Greek mythology Lycaon king of Arcadia was a cruel man who killed his own son. For this, he was turned into a wolf by the god Zeus.
The cult of Zeus Lycaeus was still practised in the first century when a man from the Antaeus family told Pliny the Elder that he had been a lycanthrope for nine years. Pliny perhaps felt a need to set things straight. In Book 8 of ‘Natural History’, the world’s first encyclopaedia, he said although the Greeks believed in it, it was not true that ‘men can be turned into wolves and back into men.’
The word lycanthrope has come to mean someone who believes they have changed into a wolf, referring to a mental illness, rather than a shapeshifting event.
We have not been able to tame the wolf. He remains wild, in the mountains and forests far from human population. Even today we see him as a cunning creature, devising ways of confounding our best efforts, in order to secure a good meal. The longer he is around humans, the more confident he gets.
Fairy tales from the seventeenth century cast the wolf as the hungry people eater. Charles Perrault wrote Little Red Riding Hood in 1697. The wolf eats the grandmother, and after some banter, the little girl.
Picture courtesy of Prawny from Pixabay
But then someone comes along and cuts the wolf open, releasing them. Fairy tales have happy endings, don’t they?
Happy endings were tagged onto the later versions. Unfortunately, no-one comes to rescue the little girl and her ancestor. They are eaten up. The End.
You hear the snapping of twigs, off to the left. Any ideas you had that the dark shadow behind the bramble bush may be a barghest (black dog) disappear with your confidence. Whatever is over there is corporeal. Time to be home.
There’s still a distance to go, and your legs carry you quickly. At first there is nothing but your panting breaths, as you trip and slide along the uneven forest floor. Later, when you are in your chair eating that juicy joint you are going to berate yourself for allowing your imagination to get the better of you.
Hannah’s mother is correct in telling us that we cannot outrun a wolf. During a chase he can reach 40 mph. He can leap up to 16 feet (5 metres). Theodore Roosevelt said wolves were difficult to hunt because of their elusiveness, sharp senses, high endurance and ability to incapacitate dogs. Men use guns now, from the air. Much easier. No risk involved. The wolf has no idea what will happen. He runs from the vibration of the engines. But men have cut down the trees. There is no cover, nowhere to shelter. In confusion and fear, he dies, and the hunters land for their trophy photoshoots.
Your legs are aching with the effort. Heat radiates from your working muscles. But you are not aware of that. Your eyes, sharpened, see the path in front, the branches that lay across it, easily cleared with your lengthening bounds.
Behind you, it moves. You hear it, in between your crashing footsteps, like an echo. The wolf is coming. The wolf is hungry. Fear guides you through the trees, across wide winter streams.
Get home. Your family are waiting for you. What would they do if you didn’t return?
Wolves live in family units. They are social and display advanced expressive behaviour. The problem has always been their relationship with humans, which has swung from respect and worship in some hunter-gatherer peoples, to being despised and hunted to extinction in pastoral societies.
Picture courtesy of David Mark from Pixabay
During the witchcraft trials, people could be accused of lycanthropy. A pact with the devil would bring the gift of transformation to a wolf. A werewolf. A man (traditionally) who transforms into a wolf during a full moon, through self-will. He roams under the full moon, devouring people and corpses. A bite or a curse from a werewolf brings the curse to the victim. Here is the tragedy. An innocent is transformed and brings death or transformation to more innocents. How long before a whole village would be infected?
You are moving fast now; the trees are thinning. Your feet don’t seem to touch the ground. You see the faces of your loved ones, in your memory. Perhaps they are at the window, looking out, into the darkness that surrounds the house. But the thing that pursues you is gaining ground. You can hear it’s panting. Terror drives you on. You don’t want to die. You want to live. Not for the things that drove you the day before. A new car, better job, holiday in the sun. You want to see the people you love. To touch their faces and tell them how much they mean to you.
Now, with hot breath on the back of your neck, it seems too much to ask for.
If a wolf can be killed from the air with a bullet, how easy is it to kill a shapeshifter?
Not with lead. The bullet must be silver. The composition gives it deeper penetration at short range. Perhaps that is the reason. No deformation. A straighter shot than lead.
A silver bullet is also a metaphor. A simple solution to a complex problem.
Another is to pray to saint Hubert. But he is the patron saint of hunters. Also mathematicians. You have taught maths to your children. But that doesn’t stop you from being attacked, does it? It’s useless and futile. And Hubert’s been dead for years.
Your thoughts are jumbled now. It’s almost upon you. There’s no gun in the house. You threw out your grandfather’s air rifle years ago.
Then you see your home. Your heart soars. One last sprint, shouting ‘open the door!’
Wolves are habitual. They will find their old trails in the snow and use them, following the banks of rivers, through ravines, and even the roads and pathways of humans.
The door is opening, light spilling out into the garden. Your dog is barking at the window. It shows its teeth.
At last! Get in and bar the door. Banish the ghosts back to the wintery darkness.
But on the threshold, you pause for a moment, looking into the eyes of your loved one. There is a reflection. An image of you in their eyes.
You see the wierged wulf.
Picture courtesy of Yvonne Hopfl from Pixabay
Thank you for reading.
Breverton’s Phantasmagoria, Terry Breverton.
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, John and Caitlyn Matthews.
Hannah is a
woman under siege. Her neighbours are hounding her, distracting her from
discovering her family’s mysterious history.
to us a short compilation of tales dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria.
A little girl trying to find her way, a forgotten son, several step-mothers,
ghosts, wolves, fluffy kittens and loose guttering. It all adds up to sleepless
nights, frayed tempers, suspect plates of sweets and… murder.
All as poor Hannah becomes increasingly tormented by the antics of the people behind the wall. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?
Short stories infused with dark humour coming soon to Amazon