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The Return

Posted on July 16th 2023

Author’s Note:  This is a Novella, only 15000 words.  The chapters are deliberately short. The following 3 installments will appear in another week.

The Return:

Chapters 1-3 

Chapter 1

Dr. Kirsty Daventry slams her cottage door and on hearing the reassuring sound of the lock click into place, she places her hand into her wax jacket pocket to check she has picked up the keys from the hall table. Her fingers touch the metal heart shaped key ring, a present from her ex. Her good natured Cockapoo, Jack, pulls anxiously at his lead, keen to get on with the important business of his evening walk.

Outside the light is fading and a misty depressing dampness permeates the late autumn evening. The leaves on the footpath have turned from golden crispness to a slippy, sludge underfoot. ‘Stop pulling Jack,’ she says to her companion as she crosses the narrow road onto the village green. Arrows of warm light spill out from the Lamb and Flag pub, she can see a few desultory drinkers through the small paned windows. Mostly farmers, she thinks, remembering there had been a cattle auction today in the adjacent town. They would be chewing over livestock prices, like harvests, the word “good” is absent in famers’ vocabularies. It is not a place for a forty something divorcee to wander into on her own.

She skirts the old Georgian rectory, half-wrapped in shuttered darkness, and passing through a lychgate she enters the ancient graveyard of St Mary of All Angels. The church has been a place of worship since Saxon times and with its many later additions has resulted in a substantial structure. Its size indicating a bygone age of importance as the spiritual heart of village life. The graveyard is bounded by a circular wall, no corners for the devil to hide in, further confirmation of the church’s great age. The doctor takes her usual dog-walking route up the pathway surrounded by crumbling gravestones, passing a large yew tree she approaches the East door. Jack suddenly stops in his tracks and starts to whine, she pulls at his lead. ‘Don’t be silly Jack, come on,’ but the dog lies down and refuses to budge.

It is then she notices a shrouded figure moving among the upright gravestones, the shape looks like a man wearing an old-fashioned stovepipe hat, the coat has tails, reminiscent of a man’s morning dress. There is little illumination in the graveyard, save from the ornamental lantern lights on the edge of the village green which only cast a faint glow in the misty air. She is not sure if her eyes are playing tricks with her as she strains to see the curious shape stooped over a worn inscription on a gravestone.

‘Hello,’ she calls, ‘it’s a miserable evening to be about.’ The figure stands upright, he looks quite tall, maybe the hat gives a false impression, the apparition turns its back and vanishes into the night. The only sound is the lychgate closing; the dog stops whimpering and gets to his feet. The doctor blinks as she continues to stare at the jumbled group of decaying gravestones, she tries to identify the one that had caught the visitor’s attention but without success. Had she imagined it all, the dog had certainly been frightened? She decides not to hang around any longer and walks briskly back down the path. Fumbling the lychgate, she soon finds sanctuary back on the green and draws breath. A parcel delivery van speeds through the village followed by a motorcyclist, the noisy exhaust, which would normally have annoyed her, instead acts as a blast of normality. She considers popping into the pub to relate her experiences but dismisses the idea. The customers may think she is an eccentric, her reputation as a respected local doctor could be undermined. As she crosses the green she spies the lady Rector about to get into her small car and hurries over.

‘Rector, good evening, may I have a word.’

‘Hello doctor, I’m sorry can’t be too long, I have a parochial church council meeting starting soon.’

The Reverend Jessica Daniels, is a good natured pastor, brimming with empty brightness, who with her good friend and companion, Bunty, provide the spiritual solace to the ageing population of Brakehall parish. It is through their combined efforts that the church remains a centre for community affairs and worship.

‘I’m sorry to bother you but I believe I have just seen a ghost in your churchyard.’

‘Good heavens above.’

‘I know it sounds stupid but it looked like a man wearing a tall hat, very old fashioned, sort of Victorian dress?’

‘That’s odd, someone else saw a strange figure outside the old rectory a few nights ago. If you like, I’ll bring it up at the meeting.’

‘Would you, that would be great.’

As the doctor returns to her cottage Jack does not seem fazed to have been frightened out of his wits and have his evening walk cut short. The results of a satisfactory ablution are dropped into the poop bin on the green’s edged.

The doctor ponders if she has been working too hard and decides to ask a colleague at the surgery to check her out. Once back at home, she turns on all the cottage lights and breaking her mid-week pledge, pours herself a large glass of white wine. She sits down in her favourite armchair, Jack at her feet, and decides to visit the graveyard first thing before her surgery shift. Perhaps she might be able to discover the gravestone that was being so carefully studied by the peculiar hatted-figure.

Chapter 2

The Brakehall Parish Council meet on the first Tuesday of every month in the village hall. It had been assembling since their formation by an act of parliament in 1894, but in reality parishes, as the name suggests, revolve around the local church, and have existed for centuries.

Brakehall is a very old established community and the ancestors of the major landowner, Sir Shackleton Hunstwick, known universally as Sir Shackleton, resides in the old rectory facing the village green. The current incumbent Rector of St Mary’s lives in a more modest vicarage, a modern detached house located in part of the old rectory’s walled garden. Until the break with the Roman church the parish managed all ecclesiastical matters. It was the manors, the old system of baronial landlords, who dealt with administration and justice. It was only later, the church took over the role of the manor court.

Today, parish duties are much less onerous but they do act as a voice for local matters, liaising with County Councils on planning, highways and local village amenities, and they still levy a small local tax called the precept. Following tradition, Sir Shackleton Huntswick is the chair of the Brakehall parish council, and his offspring will no doubt continue the precedent, as long the family continues to make a substantial contribution to parish funds.

The minutes of the last meeting have just been agreed and seconded and the main agenda items is about to commence. Suddenly, there is a shuffling noise in the vestibule. which halts proceedings. The parish clerk looks around, all the councillor’s are present, it must be a parishioner who wants to sit in on the meeting. This is surprising as there are no controversial items on the agenda and the clerk wonders who it could possibly be. The door opens and a strangely attired, elderly male figure glides into the hall. He is wearing  long leather riding boots yet his footsteps make no sound, his clothing and overall appearance looks like something from a bygone age. The clerk asks the visitor to take a seat at the back of the room and reminds him no one is allowed to speak until the topics had been fully aired by the councillors. The figure nods in assent and removes his top hat revealing a tangle of side grey hair and a bald pate. He has wiry side whiskers and a pale complexion that could be best described as grey.

‘Councillor Steele, turn the heating up, it seems to have got cold in here all of a sudden,’ asks the Chairman.

The parish clerk who is facing the figure, notices several of the visitor’s teeth are missing, giving his jaw a slack, cadaverous appearance.

The meeting proceeds and the nine councillors do their best to ignore the tramp-like creature who appears only interested in Sir Shackleton. The clerk goes on to confirm the parish council’s objections to the proposed building development of fifty houses on the ancient, pasture known as Jacob’s Acres, has been lodged with the County Council. The visitor nods his head vigorously as if in agreement to this comment, but when other matters are discussed, highways, grass cutting and litter bins, he puts his head in his hands and covers his large ears. When not bowed, he maintains an unnerving gaze at Sir Shackleton. As the meeting draws to a close there is a call for any questions but the expected response from the ragged figure is not forthcoming. Instead, he rises to his feet, his heavy riding boots making no sound and nods in the direction of the chairman as if to acknowledge a past acquaintance. He slips noiselessly from the hall before the stunned Chairman could ask him any questions.

A friend of yours, Sir Shackleton?’ Asks Councillor Cranswick as the meeting breaks up. ‘He gave the impression he knows you from somewhere.’

‘Good God, no, never seen him before, must be a vagrant seeking some warmth  on this cold November evening.’

‘He had a look of your family.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, are you saying I look like a tramp?’

‘Of course not, please don’t take offence.’

‘Damn cheek.’

‘Only saying.’

As Sir Shackleton returns to his once grand, but now only partially occupied old rectory, the East wing being too costly to maintain, he thinks about the strange member of the public who had turned up so unexpectedly.

He remembers his own father telling him about his great, great grandfather, Arum Hunstwick, who had a serious run in with the incumbent pastor, Sebastian Fairfax, way back in the early nineteenth century. The man had been found stealing church funds and was dismissed, an unheard of event at the time. While Fairfax was under investigation, it was also alleged he had tried to poison Arum’s communion wine in act of revenge.

The pair had never got on, nor with the village’s leading members. The pastor had spread rumours that Arum was a secret papist along with other key community members, who he claimed, were a cabal of Rome worshippers. Arum recovered from his attempted poisoning, the local doctor diagnosing he had ingested crushed foxglove.

To say Sebastian Fairfax was a controversial figure was an understatement. He was a fervent evangelist and a man who lived beyond his means, enjoying female company and hard drinking. His sermons were not for the faint-hearted and he chastised those who did not follow “the only way,” in other words, Fairfax’s interpretation of the gospels. His mantra encompassed not just a hatred of Catholics, but Methodists, Jews and any other religious sects he could conjure. Shortly after Arum’s near death experience, Fairfax disappeared, leaving behind a wife and three children, taking with him what church funds he could lay his hands and his wife’s considerable cash savings and jewels. It was believed he managed to jump ship to Australia and had never been heard of again.

His disgraced wife and family went to live with her elderly, well to do parents, in Bath. Mrs Fairfax’s father, a retired bishop, had never seen eye-to-eye with his son in law and his unorthodox view of the Faith. He regarded Fairfax with suspicion from the outset of the ill-fated marriage. ‘He not only preaches humbug, but is a philandering knave to boot,’ he was heard to say. It was with relief to suddenly find his daughter and grandchildren arrive on his doorstep and welcome them back into the secure bosom of a true Christian household.

Chapter 3

Two days after the parish council meeting, Tracy Armitage, the owner the village shop and post office, had a bizarre experience. In a rare quiet moment, she was looking out of the shop window onto the street, day-dreaming when she and her husband could sell up and spend more time at their caravan at the coast. Her reverie was interrupted by a man in an old-fashioned tweed suit and deerstalker hat speeding by in a pony and trap. The green painted trap was travelling on the wrong side of the road and heading directly towards a car approaching in the opposite direction. She watched in horror for the inevitable collision, her hands went to her mouth to stifle a scream, but the next thing she sees is the tweed suited man complete with horse and trap disappearing down the road as if nothing has happened. Meanwhile, the car continues its journey unscathed in the opposite direction.

Tracy blinks and tries to remember what she has just witnessed. How was that possible? Had her eyes played tricks on her, the horse and trap seemed to dissolve into the car and pass through it and come out the other side. Her shock is interrupted by the shop door bell ringing and Mr. Archer, a regular customer comes in to buy his newspaper.‘Did you see that horse and trap just now?’ She asks.

‘Oh yes, there was a funny old chap in a tweed suit whipping the pony like crazy to make it go faster?’

‘Yes, that’s him.’

‘Wherever he was going he seemed in an awful hurry. I saw it turn into Sir Huntswick’s driveway’

‘Did he appear normal?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Oh, never mind, here’s your newspaper, anything else today?’

‘No thanks. There was something strange about that trap, as if it was from a previous century, rather charming and timeless I suppose. The man was wearing funny old clothes, but the speed of the trap seemed out of keeping with the driver’s. age, he looked fairly ancient to me.’

‘Yes, I thought so too.’

‘I am certain there some simple explanation.’ Tracy did not say any more as she was still baffled by what she had seen, and worried if she told Mr. Archer, he may think she was going bonkers.


The parochial church council (PCC) meeting had been as uneventful as the town council’s gathering earlier in the week. The focus of discussions were the usual worries about the cost of repairs to the church roof and the recent theft of a lead drainpipe. At the end of the meeting the Rector brought up Dr Daventry’s strange encounter in the churchyard. The PCC consisted of the Rector, her close friend, Bunty, two churchwardens and five other dedicated members of the laity. They listened to the story with a mixture of fascination and disbelief.

Peter Houseman, one of the churchwardens, added an experience he had a few days previously. ‘Late in the afternoon last Tuesday, no Wednesday, no it was Tuesday, I was working in my allotment pulling out the remains of my runner beans when I spotted this figure coming out of Roger Cranswick’s shed on the other side of the allotment. That’s funny, I thought, what’s he up to?’


‘Get on with it, Peter,’ says Nigel Kennedy, the youngest member of the PCC with a reputation for impatience.

‘Carry on Peter,’ says the Rector.

‘So picking up my fork, I approached him thinking he might be trying to steal some of Roger’s tools.’

‘And?’ Says Nigel.

‘Well, when I got close to him he just disappeared, vanished into thin air.’

‘Did you get a good look at him?’

‘Not really, the face was shrouded under a hood, the figure was wearing a sort of green drover’s coat, long, it came down to nearly his boots, they looked hobnailed too, like something from an old painting. I was wondering if I was about to meet my Maker. If he’d been carrying a scythe I would have known my number was up. It gave me quite a turn, I can tell you.’

‘Have you mentioned this to anyone before?’

‘Nah, except the wife, who thought I was out of my head, said I must have been at the cider again.’

‘Well, some strange things seem to be happening in Brakehall, let’s all try and keep an open mind,’ says the Rector. ‘Let’s finish with a prayer.’

‘Good Lord, let us go about our duties selflessly and help the poor, sick and needy of our parish. May we find ways to keep the fabric of our beloved church fit for the worship of Your holy name. And may we not be frightened by those who may be moving among us, souls that have yet to come to rest in your heavenly care. Amen.’

A resounding amen came from the assembled group.

As they left the church hall they could hear the church lych bell’s repeated single toll, the toll that marks a death in the parish. Its single monotonous chime echoed round the village. Who had died, and more importantly who was ringing the bell? Roger Cranswick, the Sexton, was the only person authorised to ring it, and he is standing next to the Rector, and both are staring up at the bell tower in disbelief.

‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ says Roger. ‘Pardon my language, Rector, I will go and see who the mischief maker is.’

Roger dashes off to the tower but as reaches the entrance door the bell ceases to ring. The door is still locked and when Roger gains entry there is no-one to be seen.