Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A Ghost Story for Christmas

I was sitting in a comfortable armchair by the log fire and had a warming brandy in my glass to keep out the cold weather when Charters came over and dropped himself into the chair next to me. I could see he was a little troubled and he started poking the fire. Eventually he spoke.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked without even looking up.

"Well there are a lot of queer things around," I ventured.

He poked the fire a bit more and then put down the poker and stared vacantly into the flames.

“Are you alright Charters?" I asked.

He looked up at me. There was an expression of consternation across his face.

“Look you had better tell me all about it old man." He slumped back in his chair and looked exhausted. “Here let me get you something to drink.” I summoned our retainer. “Davenport! Get me another double brandy.”

“Yes sir.”

Charters went on, "You know I used to have a brother?"

"Lived somewhere out in the country didn’t he?"

That’s right. It’s over Shillingstone way. It was an isolated spot. His was the only house for miles, and I think that sometimes it got on his nerves, especially when the weather was bad like it has been recently with all the snow about. He often used to get blocked in and then he could be cut off for days.”

The brandy arrived and Charters held it pensively in his hands for a moment then took a large swig.

"He was on his own wasn’t he?" I asked.

“That’s right. Well last this very day in fact, he rang me up. He was very distraught. He thought he’d had prowlers around the house. It was late evening, the snow was still falling and he had gone outside to put out some rubbish. And that’s when he realise someone had been sneaking around.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“He saw footprints.”

“What kind of foot prints?”

“A man’s. They were clear as anything in the snow. He looked around but couldn’t see anyone. He thought they must have been made by a passerby. But they went round the side of the house. So he followed them until he came back to the front again. They went all around the house.” He took another gulp of brandy and finished it off. “And there wasn’t a trace of anyone and no idea where they came from. There was just him and the trees and the snow and empty silence. He rang me up and told me. He wasn’t too worried though, not the first day.”

“The first day?”

“Yes, next day there was more snow and more footprints. There wasn’t a soul. And that’s what got to him. That really shook him that did. One set of footprints you can put down to an over curious person just looking round. But the second time... well that’s something else. And he wasn’t going to put with that. He rang me again and told me he was going to make damn sure that there would be no more prints the next day. Any more brandy?”

“What did he do?”

He set up a mantrap. Yes, I know it’s not the done thing. And I tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. I said I’d come over and see him but he would have none of it. I wish I’d gone over there now.” He stared back at the fire then to his glass. “Davenport, another brandy!”

“Right away, sir”

“He’d had a trap in the barn for goodness knows how long... inherited it with the place. Well he was always good with his hands was Frank. He’d cleaned it up and stuck it on the wall as a souvenir of the bad old days. But it was working. Oh yes he had tried it out and it nearly snapped his hand off.

“Isn’t that illegal old chap, mantraps and things?”

What I’ve found out is that when a man is driven to the end of his tether he doesn’t think about things like that. He doesn’t think straight. Anyway my brother was always one for acting first and thinking afterwards. But I’ll give him this; he first went and put up a sign at the front gate warning people not to trespass. “Danger, trespassers do so at their own risk.” Then he took the trap and he set it up round the side of the house, right where the footprints had gone. It was where the footpath narrows. There are bushes there, jutting out and there’s one point so narrow you could not avoid it. That’s where he would put it. He sprung it back and it took some force I can tell you, I’ve seen it working and it takes two men normally to do it, but my brother had fashioned up some leverage device that meant that he could just about manage it alone. Have you ever seen one of them? It’s a vicious thing, break your leg and leave you trapped in agony until the person who set it came to release you, or if he didn’t, you’d die from exposure and pain.”

Davenport arrived with the brandy and refilled the glass. “I have to remind you sir that Club rules do not permit any further refills sir.”

“Are you suggesting I can’t hold my liquor Davenport?” he asked.

“It’s not me sir, club policy sir,“ and he politely withdrew.

Charters just stared at him and then continued. “Where was I? ...Oh yes, so he set this thing up in the snow and covered it with leaves and waited. It was the first time he slept easy that night knowing his defences were up and he had the upper hand at last.” He drained his brandy in one. “He didn’t know what to expect in the morning – nothing really because there had been no noise, no disturbance, no snap of the iron jaws and no screams in the night. It was what he found later that had scared him and now more than ever.”

He put his glass down and I waited patiently for him to continue.

“Anyways, he got up early and decided to go out and check the trap before breakfast. There had been another fall of fresh snow during the night and the previous footprints were almost obliterated. But when he got to his garden path, there they were – new footprints wandering around the house in the same way. Someone had been here again and been to the trap. Well it was time to see what he had caught, but not before he had gone back for his shot gun. There was no knowing what he would find. “

“But why hadn’t he heard anything? Nothing could have got round that path without being caught. He loaded the gun and tucked it under his arm and followed the footprints round the house. They were perfectly clear in the crisp snow. He felt like he was stalking some elusive prey. Gun at the ready he turned the corner and approached the trap. The footprints went right to the trap and then right through it and then on round the house. He stopped where he knew the trap should be. The leaves that covered it were themselves covered in snow and the footprints lay right through the centre as though some ghostly phantom had passed that way.”

“At first he thought the trap had failed. There must be something faulty with the mechanism. No one could leave a trail like that and not trip the lever. He bent down closer to examine it. He could just make out the edges of the trap. They were there, unmarked. He couldn’t understand it. How could the trap not be sprung? If he walked through it, there’s no doubt it would have caught him and any other person too. He kicked out pushing the trap along with his foot. Nothing happened. It’s broken, he thought, that must be it. He could just discern the pressure plate though the leaves. The trap had failed to spring. He stood back and pushed the shoulder of his gun on the pressure plate.”

“With a violence that completely took him unawares the steel jaws sprang to life and snapped shut on the gun. It was a miracle the gun did not go off. If it had it would have been nasty as it was pointed upwards and directly towards him. He sat down in the snow with a bump, the shock echoed through his bones.”

“Back in the house he took stock. Whatever this prowler was, he was lucky. He had come round the house for the third time and had walked right though the man trap and been very, very lucky. Well he was going to make darn sure that he didn’t escape again. Luck was about to run out for this phantom.”

“That evening he set to work rigging up his contraption. It didn’t take him long and when he had finished he went back inside and thought he had solved his problems and was in for a good night’s sleep.”

“But that night he didn’t sleep well. Half awake and half asleep he heard a noise coming from outside. A plaintive noise more a weeping than a yelling. He peered through the windows but could nothing but swirling snow in the dark night air. And yet there it was again like the soulful whimpering of a trapped dog. The sound was caught on the air and sinewed its way through the open window and echoed round the house. The sound seemed to amplify in his head till he could stand it no longer and he clapped his hands to his ears to blot it out rocking back and forth on the bed. In desperation he rang me about and told me he was going out to get it. I pleaded with him to wait until morning. But he put the phone down and that was the last I heard of him.”

Charters was about to call out for another brandy but thought better of it. If someone looked like they needed a brandy then it was him. “Here old man, have mine.” And I offered him my glass.

“Thanks,” he took another sip. “They had found him the next morning outside. He was caught in the mantrap and the side of his face had been blown off by a shot gun. The police came round and investigated everything of course. Their forensic pathologists went over it all with a fine tooth comb. They said he had set up a booby trap with his own shotgun. There was some tripwire thing apparently. He had constructed it in the garden out of wooden stakes and thin twine. They couldn’t understand what made him do it. The inquest said it was probably suicide.”

“Did they check out the footprints? Did you tell them about the footprints?” I asked.

“Yes. Oh yes, they looked at them most carefully. And they came up with nothing. They were quite adamant about one thing though. All the footprints, all of them mind you; they were all the same, made by the same person.... They were all made by my brother.”

“Are they sure?”

“Absolutely – they matched only his shoes. He was his own phantom.”

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