The Way Home – a Short Story
The Jacobean Rectory was remarkable, mostly for being hidden from view. It stood behind the church in walled grounds approached by a curving driveway, and even in winter its blackened stonework was masked by a tracery of trees. It was perhaps this air of mystery that gave rise to the ghost stories.
Jim was an engineer, a practical man whose beliefs were restricted to what could be seen and proved. Elsie, his wife, was of a more romantic turn of mind – not that she had much time for romance, with two young children and the financial side of Jim’s new business to manage. She always said the war had brought her here – that and marriage to Jim. To Elsie, this village with its rows of mill-workers’ cottages had little to recommend it, but after years of deprivation through the war and after, by the early 1950s things were beginning to improve. They could rarely afford an evening out, but on Friday night, to celebrate Jim’s birthday, Elsie had arranged for a friend to see to the children.
They went to the local picture house to see a film, and later called for a drink at the Red Lion, on the village square opposite the church. At closing time, they bought fish & chips from the nearby chippie, eating them from the paper as they headed for home.
The shortest way took them along dark and narrow Church Lane, edged by the church and its graveyard on one side, and the high walls of a woollen mill on the other. Trees rustled above them as they crested the rise, but beyond the mill the lane opened out a little, with workshops facing the Rectory grounds.
Elsie didn’t like walking down the lane at night, but Jim jollied her along, saying there was nowt to be afraid of – and anyway, it was the quickest way home.
With the solitary street light behind them, they were approaching the rear entrance to the Rectory, when Elsie saw a figure emerging from the gateway.
‘What’s he doing, this time o’ night?’
‘And what the ‘ell’s he wearing?’ Jim muttered, eyes narrowing as he took in what looked like a brimmed hat and a cloak.
The figure paused to glance down the lane, before turning in their direction. Big hat, long boots, dark cloak flapping as he strode towards them.
He was clearer in the light. As Jim and Elsie halted in astonishment, she noticed a buff-coloured jerkin under the cloak. She saw his beard too, but eyes and face were hidden by the hat. Head down, it seemed he would march straight into them.
Hastily stepping aside, Elsie stumbled against the wall and dropped her fish and chips.
Swearing, catching her arm, Jim called out to the ignorant bloke in fancy dress. ‘Hey, you – can’t yer see where yer going?’
He shouted in vain. There was nobody there. Perhaps twenty paces away, the street light showed an empty lane edged by graveyard wall.
‘Where’d he go?’ Jim demanded.
Elsie abandoned her supper lying in the road. ‘Oh, Jim,’ she whispered, eyes wide with fright, ‘I don’t think he was real. I think he… I think he was a…’
‘Nay, lass,’ he exclaimed, ‘don’t be giving me that nonsense. Course he was real – I felt him pass! He’s scrambled over that wall…’
Furious about the wasted fish and chips, Jim insisted on going back to the police station and sticking to his story. This bloke – whoever he was in his fancy dress – had walked straight into them, terrified his wife, practically knocked her down, and ruined their evening out – not to mention their fish & chips. Jim wanted him found and given a tough talking to.
The policeman on duty was tired and weary. First, he wanted their details, then he asked how much drink they’d consumed before leaving the Red Lion.
‘You can ask landlord, if you don’t believe me – I’ve had a pint and me wife’s had a port and lemon. We’re neither of us drunk – we know what happened!’
A young constable was summoned, and asked to accompany Jim and Elsie to the scene of the incident. They heard the church clock strike eleven as they set off up the lane.
In the approximate area, the constable shone his torch along the wall and over it, ummed and aahed a few times, then said he could see no sign of footmarks.
‘You’re hardly likely to,’ Jim protested, ‘it’s a stone wall!’
The constable sighed and walked as far as the gate into the Rectory grounds. Clearly the gate hadn’t been opened in a long time – the ground beneath was choked by weeds.
Elsie shuddered and turned away. ‘What did I tell you?’
To his credit, Jim did seem flummoxed by that. But only for a moment. ‘Must’ve climbed over it – like he did the wall.’
‘Doubt it,’ the constable said, shining his torch, ‘there’s moss on them bars…’
‘Well, I know what I saw – a bloke as real as you and me, coming out of this here gateway!’
‘Right.’ For a moment the constable seemed lost in thought. He glanced up the lane and back at the old Rectory, no more than a shadow in the darkness. ‘Well, it’s a fair walk round – but I don’t fancy tramping over the Rector’s veg patch at this time o’ night…’
It was starting to rain – just a fine drizzle, but enough to prompt a cluck of dismay from Elsie as they retraced their steps. If Jim hadn’t been so insistent on calling the police, they could have been home and dry by now. And what about her friend, looking after the children?
Passing the church, it was another couple of hundred yards to the Rectory’s main entrance, and back along the tree-shrouded drive to the house. Elsie was nervous, she’d never been this close before. Once or twice, calling her children home, she’d crossed the field dividing the street’s back gardens from the Rectory grounds. Each time, after an awestruck glance between the trees, she’d ushered them home with strict orders not to go trespassing again.
In the darkness, the Jacobean Rectory seemed huge, its looming gables and mullioned windows guaranteed to give anyone the shivers, no matter what Jim had to say. A light shone above the porch and in one of the first-floor windows. As the constable pressed the old-fashioned bell beside a stout oak door, Elsie took a deep breath.
They waited. The constable tried the bell again, and eventually, they heard the sound of bolts being drawn back. A moment later, the door opened, and a tall, elderly man in a dressing gown was standing there.
‘Good evening, sir – sorry to bother you…’
‘It’s rather late for callers, Constable. Is something wrong?’
‘Well, sir,’ the younger man replied, ‘it’s a strange story, but…’ He turned to Jim and Elsie. ‘These folk have had a strange encounter tonight – a gentleman in fancy dress almost knocked ‘em down as he left the Rectory grounds…’
‘Yes, sir. Erm… well, sorry to ask, sir, but – but have you been holding a fancy dress party here this evening?’
‘A fancy dress party?’ Astonished, the Rector laughed. ‘No, Constable, most decidedly not!’
But just as the young policeman was apologising for the intrusion, the Rector shook his head and invited them into the hall. ‘What kind of fancy dress?’
Less intimidated than Jim, Elsie found her voice. ‘A hat with a big brim and a cloak – and long boots. Oh, and he had a coat under the cloak – with a sort of belt thing, across his chest…’
‘Ah, I see…’ With a rueful smile, the Rector nodded. ‘From your description, he sounds like our resident ghost…’
Jim’s jaw dropped in disbelief. Elsie sighed. ‘So we weren’t imagining him?’
‘Probably not. We had guests, you see, during the Civil War…’ At Jim’s blank look, he added, ‘After Marston Moor, you understand, when the Royalists were fleeing…’
The Rector, keen on local history, went on to explain that after the battle in July 1644, Cromwell’s troops had pursued Prince Rupert’s cavalry as they headed away from York. Sympathies between the King and Parliament were strongly divided, he said, and perhaps no more so than in these small townships of the West Riding.
‘Here, it’s said Cromwell’s troops drank the Red Lion dry – it’s also said they destroyed our Anglo-Saxon cross which used to stand where the replica is now. Whether they also sacked the church is doubtful, but it’s easy to imagine feelings running high… I gather the Rector of the time did his bit in hiding the injured Royalists. Difficult, because the Rectory was then taken over by Cromwell’s men.’
Breaking off, he indicated the oak staircase facing them. ‘Occasionally, we hear one of them on the stairs. There’s a cry and a thumping noise as he falls. The poor chap was murdered, you see, while trying to escape…’
‘But you don’t see him?’
‘We haven’t, certainly, but others have – oddly enough, it’s usually around this time of year. They see a figure much as you describe, wearing a hat and a cloak – as real as you and me, they say… He hurries past – usually, through the rear hall, heading for the door – or rather, where a door used to be. And then, well – he just disappears…’
‘But we saw him in the back lane!’
‘So you did…’ Musing for a moment, the Rector said, ‘We do pray for him, especially on these occasions. Maybe one day, God willing, he will find his true way home…’