Christmas 2016, Ghost stories...

Rachel’s children

I started walking at the beginning of December last year: all that sitting behind a desk, staring at a screen, within reach of the biscuits . . . I realised that, short of moving the biscuits out of the building altogether, exercise was the answer. Early morning was best. I found it set me up for the day and, if I really pushed myself, the endorphins could last till lunchtime. Even my boss’s boss noticed the raised productivity in my section of the office.

I began by exploring the local footpaths but got bored with saying hello to the same dog walkers every day – as well as avoiding the evidence of their passing – so I diverted to the field behind the church. I was fascinated by the graveyard and all that it represented – people who had lived and loved, fought and died, leaving a shadow in the soil around the church. Jemima and I would go there on Sunday afternoons in the summer, reading the gravestones and amusing one another with ever more far-fetched stories of the lives and deaths represented there. Albert Archer was born in 1851 and lost at sea 1882 so the grave was really that of his wife Julia, who outlived him by 47 years. George Fitzwilliam’s grand edifice recorded his death in 1645 in a barely discernible description mentioning that he fell in defence of his King at Naseby.

The tomb of Rachel Warren stood near the altar wall at the far end of the churchyard. The tragedy of her tale was etched in the statue some benefactor had erected – a life-sized angel draped across the tomb in an attitude of utter despair. The legend on the tomb told of a fire in Waltham’s Wood which had taken the lives of all nine of Rachel’s children. Beneath was a quotation from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

An almost overgrown path skirted the graveyard, leading to a stile with a tree-shadowed lane beyond. In the twilight of the pre-dawn a wintry ground-mist obscured the grass, and bushes appeared to rise out of a translucent sea. I didn’t expect to see anyone on those walks. Dog walkers are creatures of habit and the well-worn alleys between the houses were lamp lit and, somehow, felt safer. But I treasured the silence, broken only by the uneasy grating of winter branches or the owl’s cry as he mourned the passing of the night.
February dawned and, as the not-so-new year stretched towards spring, I decided to extend the walk. I left home half-an-hour earlier so I could watch the light change from dark to twilight to golden dawn as the stars faded into their ritual obscurity. Deep in morning thoughts and revelling in the stillness, I was merely irritated the first time I saw the lady. She was at the edge of the trees across the lane from the stile and she wasn’t doing anything, just standing and staring towards the first glow in the east. Her face was set in a mask of anxiety, her brow was furrowed, her lips pursed, her eyes wide and black. I was taken aback. I had got used to the solitude that set me up for the crowded mayhem of the day ahead. I felt unreasonably affronted that someone had intruded on my special time and what I now regarded as my very own place. I was aware that I gave her a rather hostile glare as I stepped over the stile and turned right along the lane, but she didn’t appear to notice. When I glanced back, after walking ten yards or so, she was no longer there.

I didn’t see her again for four days but, when I did, it was raining. Refusing to be cowed by the vagaries of the February climate, I was wearing Jemima’s old cagoule. The rain was dripping off the hood, running in irritating rivulets down my face, but the woman wasn’t wearing a coat. Her shoulders were lightly covered by some sort of shawl and the hem of her dress trailed in the mud. This time, she wasn’t looking up. Instead, her eyes, still ridden with anxiety, were turned towards me and in them I read a sort of plea. Feeling embarrassed by my previous churlish behaviour, I nodded and muttered, “Morning.” She didn’t respond, but her hand rose slightly, almost in a gesture of supplication, as I turned along the lane.
The last time I saw her was the following week. It had snowed during the night and the ground was lightly dusted with flakes, enough for my steps to sully the virgin ground with a trail of footprints. She was standing in the middle of the lane, near the stile, as if she was waiting for me. I smiled this time and stopped in the act of climbing the familiar wooden barrier, opening my mouth to utter a more congenial greeting. Her dark eyes widened and I felt a constriction in my solar plexus at the desperation that emanated from her face. As I hesitated she moved back towards the trees and turned until, in the obscure light, her shape was indistinguishable from the vegetation. I felt profoundly disturbed as I continued to clamber over the stile, looking down the lane as I did so. What I saw, as the sun slid over the horizon, made me stop again: where she had stood the snow glistened, unmarked and pure. There were no footprints.

I turned back, almost falling in my haste to retrace my own steps. The lights in the village had never looked so welcoming and I would have given my eye teeth for a dog walker at that moment. I was running by the time I reached the graveyard again, heading straight for the east wall where the path bent to the left. I couldn’t avoid noticing the grave of Rachel’s children with its weeping angel. The hem of the angel’s dress trailed in the mud around the gravestone and, above her wings, her shoulders were covered by a shawl. Her eyes gazed toward the wood, her marble face rested on one outstretched arm and her free hand was raised in a gesture of supplication.

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