Simon Padfoot is looking over his business plans for the fifty houses on Jacob’s Acres. He will trigger his option to purchase as soon as planning is granted. The vendor is a Cayman Island Trust Fund, the real owner is surrounded in secrecy. All his dealings to date have been through a large, London based, lawyer’s practice. He plans to squeeze fifty properties onto the five acre meadow and he is re-working profit margins on his calculator. Padfoot’s fat fingers punch the keys, confident he can swing permission from the County Council planning department. His friendship with the head of planning and the holidays they enjoy together at his villa in Spain should smooth the way to achieving his aims. He knows the local parish will predictably kick up a fuss, but they carry little sway in the final decision.
He had been irritated by a visit from an earnest woman from a heritage society who told him in no uncertain terms he could not build within 100 metres of the ancient burial ground. In addition, it would have to be fenced off and access and parking provided. Such an action would reduce the number of houses and mean changing the road layout, all additional expense and a reduction in profit. He sits upright in his expensive Swedish desk chair and brings up the plans again on his Mac, the large expensive computer screen fits perfectly on his Oscar Jacobsen teak desk. The CAD software enables him to change the site configuration and he tries a new plan that builds around the hump in the ground. Alternatively he could ignore the woman’s demands and include the burial area in the plot of one of the larger property’s gardens. It could be an additional selling point to have an ancient monument in your garden. Brilliant, he thinks, and claps his hands together, sorted.
Padfoot sits back and swivels around in his office chair. He stretches out his legs and his pristine white open neck linen shirt pulls tightly against the crocodile belt of his Brunello Cucinelli jeans. He must lose some weight. Standing up, he straightens his back, loosens his belt a notch and walks to the upstairs office window to admire his precious gun metal Porsche. It is a reassuring sign of his success to see it neatly parked in the bay marked CEO.
At that moment he spies a horse and trap charging into the car park. There are two oddly dressed men sitting on a bench seat, one wearing a checked suit who holds the reins of a cob, he pulls the cart to a halt in front of the Porsche. The passenger, wearing a tall top hat jumps down, he takes a long riding whip from a holder on the side of the cart and begins to thrash his car. Padfoot hammers on the window, shouting expletives at the strange men, but the ultra-efficient, anti-solar gain, triple glazed windows mean the hooligans below can neither hear or see the apoplectic property man.
Padfoot, by now exhausted from shouting, charges out of his office and tripping down the stairs, his suede Gucci loafers sliding dangerously over the treads, dashes across reception and barges through the office double doors into the car park. He can’t believe his eyes, they have disappeared. He searches the car park but there is no horse, trap or peculiarly dressed men. He strides over to his precious car to find the windscreen wipers and radio aerial lying twisted on the tarmac. There are whip marks across the paintwork of the car’s bonnet and front wings down to the bare metal. It will need a complete respray. He picks up the ruined articles and goes back inside to reception.
‘Do you see two men in a horse and cart in the car park a couple of minutes ago?’ He asks Linda, the receptionist. She looks at her boss bewildered and wonders if he has been snorting cocaine. It is the worst kept secret in the office that he takes the stuff.
‘No, I’ve seen nothing. I am certain if there had been I would have
noticed them, particularly a horse and cart.’ she replies, ‘My desk faces directly into the car park so I can get good view before visitors and staff arrive. You remember you asked me to keep a note of any late comers.’
‘You must have seen or heard something,’ he says, ‘look at the damage to my car,’ and he throws the wrecked pieces onto her desk.
‘Good heavens, how did that happen?’
‘I told you two men in a horse drawn cart came into our car park and set about my Porsche. I saw them from my office with my own eyes.’
Linda looks baffled, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t see a thing.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ Padfoot says, disbelievingly. ‘Phone the Porsche garage and tell them to come and pick up my car and bring a a replacement.’ He stalks back to his office wondering if Linda has a hand in this subterfuge, she has been frosty towards him since her minuscule pay rise last Christmas.
Linda picks up the scattered bits of Porsche on her desk, and throws them into a waste bin. Serves him right, she thinks, he is such an awful bully. Perhaps they were disgruntled property owners from his last development at Lower Wibbenham-in-the-Marshes? Heaven alone knows how he wangled the planing permission to build on a flood plain. The consequences of which are now being felt as those “once-in-a-century floods” have occurred twice in the last three years. I don’t think her boss as heard about climate change.
Simon Padfoot is oblivious to normal rules. He was manifestly rude to Sir Shackleton Hunstswick from Brakehall Parish Council when he came to plead for a change of mind on the proposed development of Jacob’s Acres. Linda remembers taking coffee into the meeting and hear her boss say to Sir Shackleton that he was stuck in the last century. She felt sorry for the old boy, he emerged from the meeting looking battered from the onslaught from young Padfoot’s abrasive tongue
Thinking of Brakehall reminds her, she has to book the airline tickets to Alicante for the head of planning at the County Council and his wife. It will soon be time for their early spring break in the sun at Padfoot Villas.
The first “ghost busters” committee, as it had become known, is held in the village hall in early December, a little over a week after the full meeting. The members are Sir Shackleton, the Rector, Erin Fitzgerald, Roger Cranswick, Doctor Daventry, Edwin Bartrop, Peter Houseman and Cedric Steele.
Welcome the “magnificent eight,”’ says Sir Shackleton, attempting levity. He looks around the square table and asks if anyone has any more news.
‘There are gangs of youngsters dressed in black marauding around at night like vigilantes, spook hunting,’ says Edwin, ‘but nobody has reported anything.’
‘We have to consider what steps we can take to alleviate the tension,’ says Sir Shackleton. Exactly how he has not the faintest idea.
‘Perhaps we should impose a curfew? Suggests Cedric.
‘That’s a bit extreme and likely to cause more panic,’ Sir Shackleton says.
‘It would be up to the police or maybe the Home Office to introduce such a measure,’ says Edwin. There is a silence while everyone thinks what might be done.
‘For some reason we appear to be witnessing the waking of the dead,’ Erin says, quietly. There is a collective gasp from the other members of the group.
‘How can you be so sure we are seeing dead people?’asks Sir Shackleton.
‘Sounds more like a film script,’ comments Roger.
‘Because I have been told by one of their number.’
‘You have to be joking,’ says Cedric.
‘You have to take my word. Last night I spoke to Arum Hunstwick, an ancestor of Sir Shackleton. He’s the figure some of you have seen wearing a top hat.’
‘What do you mean you spoke to him?’ Asks Roger.
‘He knocked on my door.’
‘What! Have you lost your mind?’ There was another pause in the conversation as the group took in what the mild mannered old lady had just said with such calm conviction.
‘No, she is not out of her mind,’ says the doctor. ‘I clearly saw the man in the top hat too.’
‘We all saw him at the town council meeting. You remember the tramp-like figure, I thought he looked familiar,’ says Sir Shackleton. ‘But we didn’t know he was raised from the dead, although he didn’t look in the best of health.’
‘He did seem to recognise you,’ says Roger.
‘But why now, and what on earth did he want?’ Edwin asks.
‘I don’t know. The manifestation of Arum would not be drawn,’ says Erin.
‘But why did he pick on you to visit?’
‘Because he knows I am not a sceptic. He just wanted to be acknowledged for what he is, or was.’
“Why is it that only certain people have seen these apparitions?’
‘I think it is because they have one thing in common: their ancestors lived in the village centuries ago,’ says Erin.
‘That can’t be true?’
‘There are many old families living in Brakehall, not just Sir Shackleton’s ancestors.
I will check the parish records to see who was living here around the time of the Fairfax incident,’ says the Rector.
‘Do you think these mysterious sightings might has something to do with the disgraced parson?’ Asks Sir Shackleton.
‘I am not certain how Fairfax fits into all this, but he was around at the same time. Some of your relatives may have been on the court roll when Fairfax was tried in absentia, and fled to Australia,’ says Erin.
‘He was a wrong ‘un, no doubt, ran off with church funds and left his wife and children, an absolute scoundrel,’ Sir Shackleton says. ‘He accused my great, great grandfather of being a covert Catholic.’
‘That wasn’t a criminal offence in those days,’ says the Rector.
‘No, but he tried to poison him. He would have been hung if caught. The word was that Fairfax hated, high church, Catholics, anything that did not tally with his own eccentric views.’
‘I’ve seen archive church records of the complaints against him, sermons inciting persecution of unbelievers, and accused of drunkenness and licentious behaviour. He was said to keep a lover in Bath.’
‘Whatever next?’ There was silence for a moment and then the doctor spoke quietly.
‘I believe, that way back, I am related to Fairfax.’ There is a collective gasp of surprise from the group.
‘Yet more ancestral links,’ says Erin, ‘it all fits.’
‘So how are you related to the Reverend Fairfax?’ Sir Shackleton asks.
‘I never made the connection before,’ continues the doctor. ‘My relative was a chorus girl from a variety show in Weston-super-Mare. It was said she entertained a suave clergyman from Brakehall. The priest kept rooms in Bath for his elicit affairs. She had an illegitimate child by Fairfax, as you can imagine it was a terrible scandal at the time. She turns out to have been my great, great grandmother. It was fortunate she was brought up by her grandparents in total secrecy. Happily she went on to lead a decent life, despite her unfortunate birth.’
‘I think there is some other reason why these figures have returned. The sighting of Fairfax maybe unconnected, maybe not,’ says Erin.
‘If we are to believe Miss Fitzgerald, what are we to do now,’ says Roger.
‘Wait and see,’ says Erin. ‘We have established there are many ancestral links from centuries ago. It is virtually unheard of that past wrongs are re-visited. I read of an incident in Italy when a nun was murdered by a jealous monk. The murderous monk was never discovered until he returned three hundred years later to the same order and confessed to the then current mother superior.’
‘I have heard that two weird guys in a pony and trap trashed Simon Padfoot’s car in his office car park,’ says Edwin.
‘Padfoot, you mean the tricky property man?’ says Peter.
‘Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,’ says Sir Shackleton. ‘That man is a rogue. Pony and trap, that sounds familiar, I could have sworn I heard one in my driveway a few days ago. When I took a look there was nothing there, very odd carry on.’
‘Tracy in the village shop saw one too, she claimed it drove right through an oncoming car and came out the other side unscathed,’ says Roger.
Erin remained quiet and thoughtful as she absorbs this information. I believe, for reasons we don’t yet understand, that the village has entered a time warp. It has been set off by unreconciled wrongs, more worryingly, it could portend a looming crisis that could affect us all in some way.’
‘You mean something worse than the covid epidemic?’ Asks the Rector.
‘God forbid,’ says Cedric.
‘Let’s not jump to conclusions. I think if there is no more to be said now. I believe we should heed Miss Fitzgerald’s advice and wait and see. Let’s meet again just before Christmas unless nothing else happens in the meantime,’ says Sir Shackleton, trying to dampen further speculation.
The meeting breaks up and the participants hurry to their cars, uneasy about being out of doors in the dark. Sir Shackleton walks Erin and the doctor to their respective doors before making his own way back to the old rectory.
As Sir Shackleton passes the tall rusting gates of the old rectory a dark figure emerges silently into view from behind a bank of overgrown azaleas. Sir Shackleton is frozen to the spot as the figure approaches him. The old man is partly relived to see he is a clergyman dressed in a black smock with a white stock at the collar. He has a glittering crucifix hanging around his neck. The man is smiling.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ he says, ‘you gave me one helluva a fright, what on earth do you want?’
‘Ddd’ont be afraid,’ he stutters. ‘I am sorry to startle you but I am from another age. I c..c..come in peace to amend for past sins and to beg your forgiveness.’
‘You are not a Jehovah’s Witness are you?’
‘What’s one of those?’
Sir Shackleton tries to gather his wits, deciding whether to dash for his doorway, or to hold his ground. He tries to move his feet but they feel rooted to the spot, he is powerless and wonders if he is having a turn. After a moment he says, ‘Beg my forgiveness, for what, you’ve done me no harm…yet? I am not a man of the cloth, you’d be better asking the Rector.’.
‘I have already spoken with her, a woman priest, how can she give me absolution? ‘It’s with you I need to make ammmm..ends.’
Sir Shackleton is slowly regaining his composure after the initial fright. ‘You say you come from another age, were you, or are you, the Reverend Sebastian Fairfax?’
‘I was that aawffful, evil, man.’
If he is to believe the words of mild Miss Fitzgerald the man before him looks bizarrely real, although she claims he’s dead. ‘Didn’t you die long ago?’
‘I died, but never left.’
‘I thought you bolted to Australia to avoid justice?’
‘I went to Carlisle where I undertook a transformation for the better.’
‘The better? You were a thief, a womaniser and a poisoner, if history is to be believed.’
The priest dipped his head in shame, ‘Everything you say is correct, the devil had his grips upon me, but eventually I shook free of him.’
‘What do you want with me?’
‘I made false accusations to your ancestor Arum Hunstwick, I tried to ruin his life in many ways.’
‘Did you know my great, great, grandfather Arum Hunstwick, has been seen in the village?’
‘So he too has not crossed the bridge.’
‘The Bridge of Reckoning. You will come to it in time, we all do. But I do not wish to encounter your ancestor for I fear he will do me harm.’
‘How can he, if he is like you, a spirit from the past?’
‘He can prevent me from reaching my final destination. When I knew him I was blinded by evil and believed him to be a heretic. Only now, I have discovered his motives were noble, even if he, with his village friends, worshipped other Gods secretly.’
‘What are you talking about. Arum was never a catholic?’
‘He was not a Christian believer, but no matter. My priesthood was punctuated with falsehoods and deeds of avarice to advance my selfish ways.’
‘Shouldn’t you be confessing these sins to your Maker.’
‘I am not allowed until I have reconciled my sins here on earth.’
‘But what is the point, you are hundreds of years too late?’
‘You must help me, I cannot move on until I have met the living ancestors of those I have wronged. I have to make my peace with them. I have reached the others, you are the last. My evil culminated with your distant relative who I accused of heresy and also attempted to poison.’
‘So it was true, you did poison poor old Arum.’
‘It was only good f..f..fortune that I failed in my quest, but I made him very ill. He will never except my forgiveness.’
‘But surely now is your chance to confront him with your confession, he is roaming around the village. I cannot forgive you for a deed that you have not committed on me, my forgiveness is worthless.’
‘But you must, I beg you.’
‘If you want to meet old Arum I think I know where he might be.’
‘In the east wing of my house, he once lived there,’ says Sir Shackleton, pointing in the direction of the Old Rectory. ‘I think he and his other spirits are in there now. For what it is worth, I forgive you for your past sins against my family. Now will you please will let me return to my house.’ Sir Shackleton feels his feet and legs are once again free of movement.
The priest looks at him, he thinks he is trying to smile but his features are indistinct, ‘Thank you. You are correct, I need to make my peace with Arum, it’s my only chance of crossing the Bridge.’
‘Good luck, with your journey,’ says Sir Shackleton, as he walks towards his front door, the mysterious clergyman follows silently behind him. He turns and sees the figure standing in front of the east wing windows. He appears to be hesitating as if making up his mind, stealing himself before entering the building. Sir Shackleton stands in his doorway between two doric columns and watches the priest holding his crucifix in both hands. Finally, the shrouded figure walks forward, his hands still holding the cross now cupped in prayer. Sir Shackleton looks on in astonishment as the priest melts through the stonework into the old ballroom. He hears a loud, unearthly roar followed by sounds like howling dogs. Then the whole building is cloaked in complete silence, even the owls stop screeching in the nearby woods.
Sir Shackleton feels an empty bubble of absence as he hurries into the house and bolts the door behind him.