The Road North – a ghost story

It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man. 

But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….

It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.

They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –

“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”

– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous

Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”

“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”

“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”

“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”

” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”

” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”

” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”

“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”

“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.

Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.

Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”

“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”

“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”

They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”

“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”

” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.

And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.

It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.

It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )

“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”

“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.

I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”

” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”

The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.

“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”

It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.

“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.

There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.

“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”

“Hwhat?”

” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”

Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”

– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”

“Then hwhat-?”

” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”

“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”

“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”

Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.

” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”

“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”

“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”

“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”

The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”

“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.

“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”

“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”

All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”

” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”

” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”

Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”

Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”

“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.

“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”

They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “

Putting Your Trust In Princes

“No,” Russell says, very firmly. “I will not countenance it.”
Hollie sniffs. “Oh, straighten your face. Call it a starburst, if you like, instead of an arsehole.”
The marred lieutenant closes his eyes and looks pained. “I will not countenance it. I am not – it is not funny!”
“Why do you care? Do you carry ’em?” Hollie wants to know, and then says nothing, very smugly.

Luce is trying not to laugh, not very successfully.
See, it’s a bit like this. They had colours, previous. Quite inconspicuous colours, they were, a rather discreet shade of madder-red quartered with a white cross on a black background: several previous careful owners. It was possibly His Majesty’s musketeers at Marston Moor that finished them altogether – that, or the red mare’s habit of pivoting in circles on her own axis, at a point when the said colours were underneath her. (So, to be fair, was Lucey. Not one of his better days.) Or, possibly, the dog’s tendency to sleep on them. Whichever. By the end of the Yorkshire campaign, Hollie’s colours were in rags.
And then Hollie decided –
“I did not decide!” he says indignantly, “Henrietta decided I should have summat a bit more befitting!”

So Het decided to make something that was more befitting to her husband’s status as a respectable senior officer.

“That wench wants her sight tested, she thinks you’re respectable,” Captain Venning – whose own troop colours are an unremarkable blue and bear neither the form of a fish nor a pie, to Hollie’s disgust – mutters darkly.

They began life as Het’s best company silk skirt, a garment she has possessed since her girlish youth. Hollie is prepared to be indignant about the sacrifice of the said garment, until Luce points out that anything that fitted her in her girlish youth is unlikely to be a comfortable fit after two years of marriage, a daughter, and provisioning the bottomless likes of one Colonel H. T. Babbitt.
“Are you suggesting that my wife has increased?” Hollie says, and Luce raises his eyebrows.
“She’s my auntie, sir. Ihave known her some time. And, well, you are known to be a good solid trencherman, when the mood is on you. She was ever possessed of a competitive streak.”
“I dunno where he puts it all,” Venning mutters, not quite under his breath, “he never seems to get no fatter.”

It’s a sunburst. It’s a black sunburst, a black sun with spiralling black arms, on that silvery birch-green background.

“You’d have to be some kind o’ special to have an arsehole looked like that!” – Venning’s determined to make the best of it, and Hollie is determined that having found a device that will give alarm and distress to the more proper members of his company he’s sticking to it.
Russell won’t even look at it if he can help it, which is going to make following it into battle awkward. Luce giggles every time he looks at it.

“Lot o’ work she put into that,” Hollie says smugly, and there is a shy tenderness in the way his hand lingers over the silk.

But a motto? That’s going to be difficult.
Baiser mon cul, is Hollie’s suggestion.
Luce favours Classical allusion, if they must -Contritionem praecidit superbia. Arrogance goes before contrition – pride before a fall.

But in the end they go with Russell’s preference, as much as to shut him up as anything else.

Put not your trust in princes.

The Smell of Smoke – a true story….

It wasn’t one of our better days, yesterday.

My son was at a party, and he was messing about with one of his rowdier mates. Fell off the stairs and hurt his foot, and by tea time he was crying with pain, couldn’t put his weight on it.

And then next thing my mum’s on the phone, asking if we have any butterfly plasters because she’s fallen over the vacuum cleaner and split her head open, and she’s bleeding heavily. (Mum’s 75, not always great on her feet. It happens.)

And having sorted out the mess all round, when all was quiet bar the laundry, and little ‘un was in our bed having woken up with nightmares at 2am, I decide this is the absolute perfect time to have a panic attack.

Again – it happens, I’m a lady of a certain age, I do this stuff. But the last thing my sleeping boys – the big one and the little one – need, is me shaking hard enough to rattle the bed under them. So I get up, and go and sit in the bathroom in the dark.

Oh – and the toilet started leaking last night, as well.

But I’m sitting there, very gingerly on my leaky khazi, in the dark,while the house sleeps and settles around me.

And I start to smell smoke. Cigarette smoke.

We don’t smoke. I used to, gave it up ten years ago. Husband is an asthmatic and a very passionate anti-smoker. Little un’s six.

Can’t smell it in our bedroom at the front of the house, so it’s not someone passing on the road outside. Just in the bathroom.

And that means it’s downstairs. Someone is, or has been, smoking cigarettes downstairs.

It’s two nights before Halloween. The night when the dead come back to watch their beloved living.

It’s not the anniversary of his death. It’s nothing so obvious. But I sat in the dark, smelling smoke, and stopped shaking, and went back to bed.

The toilet stopped leaking. Little un’s bruised his foot, but he’s all right. Mum stopped bleeding within a few minutes.

We’re all right, dad. We’re good.  

You can go back, now.