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The Poddington Project: Stories

At Night


I don't go up to Barleymede no more, not since that night.

We grow up knowing the stories about what goes on up there after dark. There ain't be many places safe to walk about, around here, when the sun sets and there's naught but the moon's own light to shine a way for your feet. In the village they scurry between building and building, thinking they'll come to no harm that way. But out here in the country, on the moors, where a man can stumble over a rock in the dark and come to harm and there be no one to hear his cry, we close our doors after midnight, and draw tight the shutters, and shiver in our beds until morning.

Me mum taught me about Barleymede, and the DeWinters. Even when I was a young'un me mum seemed so old--that's what hard work will do you, when you live by the land and the tree. By the firelight she looked like a witch, her face carrying more furrows and marks than the fields during plowing, deep shadowed in the flickering light. She'd tell us how the DeWinters were different from us. Different manners. Finer manners. Finer clothing. The women had laces and fripperies so delicate they seemed like to disappear from looking at it too hard. And the men with their fine, shiny boots, and their whips, and their horses. Even the horses would look down at the rest of us in the village like we was the ones what smelled.

There were more of them in those days, a whole family and then some. Three dozen servants, some just to polish the silver and keep the banister clean. Imagine that! Fine carriages up and down the driveways, and the gates always open. The DeWinter dairies employed half the folk in town, then. As fast as the good Cornish cream flowed, in came the gold. They wanted for nothing. Not books, not toys for the brats, not harps and pianos and paintings and amusements. And they never wanted for company, either. Not then.

Money can't cure a curse, though, me mum would say. They were cursed, the DeWinters. Cursed of centuries old by a DeWinter himself. Never been the type to be scared by a story, not me, but when me mum would crunch up her face and make herself out to be the son of a DeWinter sent to Scotland for his sins, I'd look at the fire and pretend she weren't there, until she stopped. "Nae good shall come to the Lord of Barleymede, nor his first-born sons," she would say in a voice that would affrighten any other boy. "Aye, yet a pox upon the First, and a Blessing on the last, for the Last shall rise up and save the land from the Hunter of the Mede."

It were the curse that kept the DeWinters from having more than their title, for centuries. And it were the curse that the lord of the manor, him that married Dame Gregory, tried to break by changing the name of the house. "This is Barleymede no more," he told the servants. "Never call it by that name again." The servants stopped, and the family stopped, and Lord Gregory, he went from being Lord of Barleymede to Lord of a house with no name.

Lord, they were poor. Poor like us, almost. But after Lord Gregory made it hard for the curse to find him, the dairies began to make money, and the horses began to make money, and soon the gold was flowing so thick and rich you'd think they were coining the stuff themselves, down in the cellars. Those was the good years, for them and for us.

But curses ain't fooled for long. It found their little girl first, and took her, God rest her soul. Then the Lord died, and the dairies closed, and the fine and fancy carriages disappeared. The horses was sold, all the ones that thought themselves so fine and mighty. When there was nothing left but the house with no name, and the pictures and furniture no one wanted, the company stopped calling. Things kind of dried up, then.

What was funny was that we none of us in the village ever called the house by its name, after that. Maybe only a few of us remembered it. Even me mum, when she used it, would drop her voice to a whisper, like she was affrighted the curse would mistake us for much finer folk, and leave us like a withered apple neath the tree, sucked of all its life and juice, like it did the DeWinters.

Me mum still tells stories, on a autumn night. The night I went to Barleymede, she sat by the fire, warming her old bones, telling them to Bessie. Bessie, she takes after me, though barely fourteen. She be a Pascoe, through and through, just like her brother. Her temper be fiery like mine, and her looks be comely, and when she sets her jaw and tosses her hair to let you know what she thinks of you, I could be looking in a mirror, it's that close. For her birthday I'd surprised her large and surprised her wide with a wireless, a handsome one in a cherry case brought in by cart from Truro, with its own batteries. She be a good'un with the mechanicals, for a girl. Not much of an ear for a story, though. Me mum noticed how little she heeded, and stopped her tale with a chuckle.

"Agony, I can't get it to work!" She twisted the dial, and me mum covered her ears at the din of it.

"Bessie, you cow, ye go gentle with it, not like th' wild heathen ye are!" I showed her how to turn the noise down, and put her hand on the tuning knob. "Slow an' gentle."

"There's still no signal!"

"Mebbe we've no signal to get here," I said, winking at me mum.

"And where are you going tonight, Agony?"

Bessie worked the dial, just as I'd showed. "He's going out to kiss another girl."

I gave the girl a cuff. No respect, she has. "Meetin' Sukie Ferris," I mumbled, grabbing me coat.

"Don't stay out too late, son."

"I never do," I growled, wishing I lived in a place where a man didn't have to mind the dark so much. Bessie'd been right. Kissing Sukie Ferris was all I could think about, her with the lips like cherries and a smell of summer wind in her hair. A man can't help but notice the looks a woman gives him when she wants him, and wants him bad. Sukie wanted me. She said it with her eyes, when she'd trip by on her way to the vicarage in her maid's uniform and pretend not to notice me. She said it in the way she played with the ribbon in her Bible, on Sundays in the pew, twining it round and round and round with her soft plump fingers. She'd agreed to meet me that night on the old Dairy Road, where the gates of Barleymede shut off the old house from the rest of the world. Nothing was going to stop me from kissing her, and kissing her good and hard, in the dark, when we were alone.

Hard to believe that the gates had once stood open night and day, for all them fancy carriages and haughty horses, once upon a time. I'd never seen them open in me life. I heard a rustle in the leaves, and a voice like a calf's, sweet and high and unsure of itself. "Agony?"

I can walk like a cat when I care to. I could slide up to a man on a sunny day, take the pound note case from his coat, and slink to the shadows, and he'd notice no more of me than you or I do of a rabbit in the underbrush. I grinned and opened up me shirt another button, and like a weasel I crept up to her side and grabbed her around the waist. She screamed, and I laughed like a king given a plate of curd for his dinner.

"Agony! Oh, how you frightened me! It is you, isn't it? I can't see!"

A girl don't want an answer to a question like that. She wants a kiss. I gave her one, and imagined the blush of those cherry lips as they met mine, kissed hard and long. I savoured the taste of her, and devoured her. She struggled. They all do, at first, but soon she was responding like a bonfire fanned into a fury, making little kitten noises as I kissed her harder and let me hands roam where they would.

I grabbed her fine boned little hand and put it inside me shirt, onto me chest, to let her feel the muscle and hair I knew she wanted to touch. I felt her mouth open in protest, and when I probed deep into it with me tongue she struggled and ran down the road toward the village. "Where be ye goin', ye minx?" I yelled after her.

It's all in the chase, for a girl like that. Even in the faint moonlight I saw the flap of a white dress as it vanished around the corner, down the long road that the servants and tradesmen would to reach Barleymede. She was far ahead of me, vanishing down the deep-rutted drive. "Silly bitch." I headed after her anyway.

She didn't know what she were getting into, that one. We all knew not to go to Barleymede after dark. Feeling like a bloody fool I pounded down the road after her, passing by the backs of the stables and the old ice house and finally coming to the back of the gardens, where she stood by an old fountain. Its white marble glowed under the sliver of moon, and above us the stars shone as if someone had hung them there just for us. "Ye be a damned fool to set foot in here," I told the wench, panting a little just for show. "I'll larn you a lesson for running away from me like that, ye little tease."

She stood there by the fountain, facing me, saying not a word.

I stepped toward her. "Kiss me again," I murmured in a low voice, taking her by that tiny hand to pull her close to me.

She were not Sukie. I saw it too late. Sukie had run from me, but she'd worn no white dress that evening. This were another girl, a woman, a lady, dressed in silks, hair long and loose. Her hand was cold in mine, and seemed to draw the warm from me very insides. Me heart felt pierced through with an icicle, as she grasped me harder and harder, sucking more of the fire from me veins. I shivered and felt less of a man for the way me arms and legs shook at the cold of it.

She opened her mouth to scream. I swear up and down, by all the saints good and true, I never seen a woman's mouth open so long. I shrunk back affrighted, but she kept ahold of me hand. It weren't no mortal scream she let fly either. When she opened that mouth of hers, that long, unending mouth, she let out the sounds of leaves rustling in a storm, of winter branches dry and bare, cracking violent-like against each other. It was a clatter of hail in the forest and the hiss of rain on a fire, and the howl you hear in the distance on a lonely night on the moors after the wind has died down. The softest sounds in the world, they were, but so loud that me ears nearly burst from them

I felt a cold, wet thing on me face, and reached up to wipe it off with me cold free hand. I could barely make me fingers work.. A willow's leaf. Another struck me face, and another. I saw they were coming from that mouth, a whirlwind of them, a scream of rain and wind and willow leaves, coming from that mouth in a spiral. I knew me time was up. She sucked the very life out of me with her touch. I closed me eyes and tried to pray to God. But there were no God to pray to. There were only wind and leaves, the sweet smell of the willow leaves as they buried me, and I'd never see me mum or me sweet sister again.

And then I let go, and drifted back, and drifted down into blackness, where the only sound was the echo of leaves as the fell from the branches.

They found me the next morning, under the willows on the village green. They told me I'd been drunk. They laughed for weeks after that, starting their greetings with "Get a good night's sleep last night, Pascoe?" or "You look a little stiff, Pascoe. Mattress uncomfortable?" Then more laughing. But they don't know. They don't know what's up there, in the dark, waiting. And I'll not be the one who'll tell them.

I don't go up to Barleymede no more, not since that night.

(V. Briceland)