This is an homage to the classic seasonal M.R. James tale of the supernatural. I hope it gives you as much pleasure to read as it gave me to write.
The Company He Kept
Mr. James, considerate of my great-grandfather’s anonymity, referred to him as Dennistoun. But his name was Barnes. Warrington Barnes. His monograph on the history and archaeology of St Bertrand de Comminges drew no public demand in his lifetime beyond its initial printing. But it has changed hands recently for respectable sums, the buyers invariably those in the know. That I successfully managed to capitalise on his small claim to fame a hundred years later has doubtless helped bump up the asking price.
It certainly brought Claire Bannoc to me. I remember that her hair was long, falling almost halfway down her back, and she wore a blouse and ankle-length skirt of the most unsullied white. I bit back the smart-arse observation that her ensemble matched her name (bannoc, Gaelic for ‘white’; yes, I was studying languages). Not that she gave me the opportunity to voice more than the first syllable of ‘hello’.
“You wrote this,” she said, eyes and voice filled with purpose. “Didn’t you?” She thrust at me the latest edition of The Ephemeral, opened to my article, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook: the Story Behind the Story’: fifteen hundred words, including citations; a straightforward account, with a few textual references to James’s tale, of my great-grandfather’s experiences. One of the national dailies had picked up on it, and I was in the process of expanding the piece. This less academic, and considerably more adjective-heavy, second incarnation finally appeared under the banner ‘Fear in a French church: true terror behind literary legend’s sinister story’. They love their alliteration, the tabloids.
“There’s something I need to show you,” she continued, apparently satisfied as to my authorship. “Can I come in?”
Before I could nod assent, she had breezed into my glum bedsit and tugged open the curtains. I winced at the light: it was ten in the morning and I was nursing a hangover. She was lucky I was dressed.
She cleared a pile of books off the room’s only chair and sat down. “Your article,” she said; “it quotes heavily from the story. I need you to tell me, in your own words, what happened to Warrington Barnes at Comminges.”
I sat down on the edge of my bed and frowned. “Mind if I ask why? You said you had something to show me.”
“Yes, I have. But first, please, just humour me.” She smiled. “I’ll buy you breakfast afterwards.”
My stomach lurched at the prospect. “Maybe just a cup of coffee,” I said. I rubbed my eyes. “Okay. It would have been 1892—”
“The same year James wrote the story.”
“—and he visited Comminges to do some research. He was particularly interested in the architecture and history of St Bertrand’s Church. He spent a full day making notes and taking photographs. They’re his own plates in the monograph.”
“Do you have a copy?”
I took it from the lockable drawer of the battered old writing desk that took up most of the bedsit’s floor space. I was about to make an admonition, as I passed it to her, that she handle it with extreme care – more than one page was already loose and there was a brittleness to the covers – but the reverence with which she accepted it told me I needn’t bother. She turned the pages the way a museum attendant approaches the moving of a Ming vase. Without looking up, she told me to continue.
“While he was there, he was attended by the verger. Nervous type. Fretting, jumping at shadows. Warrington tried to send him away, but he wouldn’t have it. Said nobody should be left alone in the church. At the end of the day, the verger said he had a book that might be of interest, and Warrington went with him back to his house. The book was basically a journal belonging to—”
“Alberic de Mauléon.”
“—Canon Alberic, yes, and he’d fastened pages from other books into his own journal. There was a lot of rare and valuable stuff in there, going back to the thirteenth century. He asked if he could buy the book, and the verger seemed so glad to get rid of it, that all he asked for was a couple of hundred francs – not even a fraction of what it was worth. A few years later, Warrington sold one set of illustrations from the book – just one page’s worth – for five thousand … that was in 1900!”
Claire closed the monograph and laid it carefully on the desk. “Go on.”
“Before Warrington left the verger’s house, the man’s daughter pressed into his hands a necklace with a crucifix on it. The verger told two of his friends to make sure Warrington got back to his hotel safely, and to stay there overnight. This creeped him out a bit, but he was too excited at acquiring the book to worry about it that much.
“I guess the strange thing about the journal – or scrapbook, as M.R. James called it – was that it only contained two entries by Canon Alberic himself. One was a ground plan with a Latin annotation that suggested something was buried beneath the church. There was also a drawing – the Latin underneath it was in the same hand and identified Alberic as the artist – of a Biblical figure smiting a deformed, spider-like creature. The title was The Dispute of Solomon with a Creature of the Night. Alberic wrote that he had seen the creature in the picture and would see it again before he died.”
“And when your great-grandfather got back to his hotel room?”
“You’ve read the story,” I said, “you know how it ends.” The hangover was going to work on the inside of my skull. I was getting tired of her questions. I wanted to crawl under the duvet and not have to deal with things like daylight and conversation.
“He encountered something in his room,” she said blandly. “Something that looked a lot like the creature in the drawing.”
I nodded. “He panicked, grabbed the crucifix, screamed at it. The verger’s friends heard the noise and went to investigate. Neither of them saw anything, but they felt themselves pushed aside as some kind of—” I shrugged, stuck for the right word “—thing came hurtling out of his room. He left Comminges that day.”
“What happened to the book?” she asked. “M.R. James says it ended up in the Wentworth Collection, but that’s not the case, is it?”
I shook my head. I was beginning to see where she was going with this. “Warrington sold it piecemeal. Got every page authenticated before he put it up for auction. He bided his time, as well. Dropped hints, gave the odd private viewing, waited for the rumour mill to get going. Every bit he sold was calculated to achieve the highest bids. He made a fortune.”
I stopped talking then, conscious that there was too much approbation in my voice. I didn’t want her thinking I was shallow. I was conscious, also, that my grubby bedsit stood as witness to how little of that fortune was left.
“And the picture?” Claire asked. “I know James said your great-grandfather burned it, that only a photograph he took of it remained, but I reckon that’s not quite true, either.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “My dad told me the story, the way he’d heard it from granddad, the way—”
“—he’d heard it from his father. Yes, I get the chronology. You’ve had the story third hand, and augmented it by reading James’s version.” She ran a hand through her long fair hair. Gradually a smile worked its way back across her face. When she spoke again, the testy tone of voice was gone. “I bet we could find out what happened to it, though. Me and you. If we worked together.”
My hangover was starting to recede. For the last few minutes, it had been battling it out with my curiosity. Curiosity won. “What’s all this about, Claire?” I asked, trying out her name, the sound of it aloud, the hard consonants balanced by the softer vowels. Claire.
“I said I had something to show you. Tell me if this means anything to you.” She delved into her bag. Withdrew a short cylindrical object, rusted with age. It was only the powdery brown of the dust that coated it that indicated it was metallic. A few specks flaked off it as I took it from her. It was a few inches in length. There were markings on it. I squinted to read them. A Latin inscription. Qui …I brushed it at, revealed more letters. Quis est …
“Quis est iste que uenit,” Claire said. “Who is this—”
“—who is coming?” I finished. I sat very still, holding my hand away from me, as if the small piece of tubular metal had suddenly transmuted into the tiniest and most venomous of snakes.
“The Colonel threw into the sea.”
“At …” I paused. Now I knew exactly where she was going with this. “At the end of the story.”
She stood up. Slung her bag over her shoulder. “Come on. I have other things to show you.”
A nod. “Artefacts.”
And with that she headed for the door. I sat there a moment longer then, curiosity giving me another prod, I hurried after her. The whistle felt uncomfortable in my hand, so I tucked it in my jacket pocket and, for the next hour or two at least, its heaviness was out of proportion to its negligible weight.
“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” she said, earning an obtuse glance from the assistant. He probably thought there was something salacious in the phrase.
“I’ve read the story,” I said.
“Of course you have. You took it at face value. A story. The Colonel intervenes at the end, disposes of the haunted artefact, normality is restored.”
We followed the assistant down into the vaults.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do most – if not all – of M.R. James’s stories have in common?”
“Be more specific.”
“I don’t know. He wrote them as entertainments. Firelight tales at Christmas for friends and students. They’re all creepy, more so for being understated. There’s always a haunting and – usually – a reason for the haunting. Mostly, the reason is darker than the ghostly stuff.”
“Close,” she said. “What the stories have in common is twofold: one, they’re all narrated as if James were simply recounting a story he’d heard from a third party; and two, for the most part, they involve a historical artefact which, as soon as it’s unearthed, unleashes a supernatural force. That’s what makes the stories so great. They’re not gothic fantasias, they don’t conjure up huge otherworldly visions. They’re rooted in the academic, the historic, the antiquarian.”
The assistant interrupted her at this point, and the two of them entered into a short ritual. Finally we were conducted into a cramped room, panelled in dark wood, and left with the contents of a small coffin-like box.
“In virtually every story,” Claire went on, “the supernatural is quite literally unearthed. Usually by a well-meaning but naïve protagonist. If not for their meddling, it would have lain dormant. And this is the thing.” She opened the box. “None of it was fiction.”
Artefacts, she said. Other things to show me. I’d imagined a long, narrow room, parquet floors, exhibits under glass. Instead, she’d taken me to a high street bank; produced the key and confirmed the password to a safety deposit box.
A safety deposit box that mostly contained old papers, one a folded sheet of vellum which Claire spread out on the table to reveal twenty or so lines of writing in what didn’t look like any known language. There was a thin strip of parchment with runic characters in red and black ink. There were two old leather-bound books, their titles no doubt once prominently etched in filigree but now worn away. I made out enough of the letters to identify them as the Sertum Steinfeldense Norbertinum and the Tractate Middoth. I’d only recently reread the Collected Ghost Stories, whilst writing my paper, and I could place every item. Artefacts, Claire called them.
“Where did you get all this?”
“My dad found most of them. He collected antiquarian books. Came across the Tractate Middoth by accident. After that, he dedicated his life to tracking them down. He was working on a book about M.R. James when he died. Not just a biography, though. More like an academic detective story. You see, he realised straightaway that the stories were true. But he knew he couldn’t prove it until he’d assembled all the artefacts. Then he’d be able to publish the greatest academic work on any writer in the English language.” Her eyes were shining. She was staring at me with absolute intensity. Then something occurred to her and her eyes became two pinpoints of accusation. “Of course, I’ll never find Canon Alberic’s scrapbook. Not since your great-grandfather took it apart and sold it.”
The pedant in me reflected that “not since” was a rather inaccurate turn of phrase, given that Warrington had flogged every last page of it a good few decades before Claire’s father was even born. Worse: he’d have been well on his way to wasting it on horses and disreputable company by then.
“Unless—” Claire was standing right in front of me, hand clutching my arm; I was barely aware she’d moved “—he left some record of who he sold them to.”
“He sold them at auction.”
I shrugged. “Either. Both.”
She released my arm. “They’ll have records. There’s ways of finding out. But if we could find the drawing!” Her hand found my arm again, but gently this time. A caress, almost. “He left so much of the book written. He found so many of the artefacts. I came across the whistle a few years ago.”
My hand closed around it. If you asked me now, even with hindsight of what was to come, I couldn’t say why I didn’t give it back to her.
“It didn’t take me long to collect the other artefacts.” She started replacing them in the safety deposit box, as precisely as a lepidopterist pins a butterfly in display case. “Some of the larger pieces are on loan to various museums. I’ve mislead the curators as to the provenance. I want them all back before I publish.” That light in her eyes again. “I’m finishing his book. It was what he lived for, and I want to see his work recognised.”
I thought of my father, embittered at the fortune that was wasted two generations before he could have benefited from it, counting off the nine to five at the insurance company and not a penny put aside for my education, and I couldn’t quite empathise with the whole paternal veneration thing.
“There’s two more things I need.” She straightened up from the deposit box. “The scrapbook … well, maybe I can piece it back together. Or there’s your great-grandfather’s monograph for context. But it’s the drawing that’s the important thing.” Then she was before me again, her hand cupped against my cheek. “Please, help me find it. I’m so close to finishing my dad’s work.”
My grandfather was edging towards his nineties but there was still enough life in him that he could bawl my father out as a cold-hearted bastard for leaving him to rot in a retirement home. Which explains why dad didn’t visit him much anymore. Fortunately, I was spared similar treatment. Probably because Claire was with me.
“Nice girl,” he said. No preamble. “How did you get so lucky?”
“Granddad, this is Claire. She’s—”
“On the rebound?”
Claire’s expression was somewhere between amused and embarrassed. The more my grandfather talked, the higher the chance of embarrassment winning out. I came straight to the point:
“Claire’s writing a book about M.R. James. How everything he wrote about has a basis in fact.”
Granddad was slouched in an easy chair. He straightened himself up as best he could and beamed at Claire. “That right, my dear? Oh, then I’ve got a story for you.”
“Yes, your grandson’s told me—”
“Not the way I can tell it, he hasn’t.”
Which accounted for the next hour.
The walls of the retirement home were a despondent mauve, a half-hearted orange or a queasy magnolia, depending if you were in the TV lounge, the dining hall or your own room (or cell, as granddad put it). The staff eyed him cautiously whenever they passed, as if he routinely threatened or ogled them, pertinent to their sex. Outside, the afternoon sun threaded strands of hazy light through the trees lining the stretch of parkland that bordered the premises. I watched kids playing football, couples smooching, some oiks in hoodies conducting what looked suspiciously like a drug deal. Thirteen if they were a day.
The drive from Eton to Nottingham had taken over two and a half hours. Claire didn’t have a car; she’d sold it, she told me, to fund the acquisition of more artefacts. We’d used my third-hand VW Jetta and when Claire had enquired about air-conditioning I’d referred her to the handle that wound the window down. Lunch was a cob and a bottle of mineral water from a filling station. The mineral water had more substance. I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Trace elements of the hangover lingered.
Granddad’s narrative ended and I turned back from the window.
“But what about the drawing? The one that Canon Alberic made of Solomon vanquishing the demon? Surely your father didn’t sell that?”
“No, no. That would have been too much for the genteel academics and collectors who bought the other pages. No, my father didn’t sell the drawing. But he didn’t keep it, either. He photographed it, just so that there was a record of it, but he couldn’t stand to have the drawing under his roof. It wasn’t long before he threw the photograph away, either. Said even that was too lifelike.”
“But in the story, M.R. James intimates that he has the photograph, whereas your father burned the drawing.”
“No, no. My father destroyed the photograph. But the original drawing—”
Claire leaned forward. “Yes?”
“He gave that to M.R. James.”
The look Claire gave me was exultant.
“When was this?”
“Soon after he got back from France.”
“How did he know M.R. James? Through the college? Your father was a university man, wasn’t he?”
“Oh yes, but not at James’s college. Oxford man, my father.”
“They came from the same village. M.R. James often went back to the Rectory. Where he grew up, you know. My father grew up a few streets away.” Granddad laughed. “A place that small, everywhere is a few streets away.”
He frowned. “You’re writing a book and you don’t know where he was born?”
“Somewhere near Bury St Edmunds,” Claire said.
“Great Livermere,” I said.
“Nice place,” granddad added. “Off the beaten track. Bit of peace and quiet.” He yawned, eyes drooping. “Good of you to drop by.”
“But—” Claire began.
I shook my head and took her arm and steered towards the door.
“Give my regards that cold-hearted bastard father of yours,” granddad murmured. “You know, the one who left me to rot in this dump.” A passing orderly glowered. “Ask him for the diary while you’re at it.”
“What diary?” Claire asked.
But I already knew.
“I didn’t know you were up for the weekend.” He glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, hello. And you are …?”
“Dad, this is Claire.”
“Please to meet you. So, how long have you two been—?”
“We’re, er, working together on a research project.”
“Of course.” His tone implied that he hadn’t really expected anything else.
Although she was champing at the bit to get the niceties out of the way, I have to give Claire her due: she knew how to play it with my father. Turning on the charm doesn’t even begin to cover it. She even called him ‘sir’ a couple of times. Ten minutes and he couldn’t do enough to help, retrieving Warrington’s diary and leaving us alone in the sitting room to examine it. Claire speed read, flipping from page to page. She found the entry in no time.
Dined with Montague at the Rectory. At his behest, described the events at St Bertrand de Comminges in some detail. He asked if I had brought Canon A.’s drawing. I told him I had, but had left it on the occasional table in the hallway. Even now, weeks after leaving France behind me, I don’t care to have it in the same room.
He went out to fetch it, tearing open the envelope in which I had sealed it with great eagerness, like a youngster on Christmas morning. I took my glass of port and sat the at opposite end of the room while he stood by the window with it, holding the abhorrent thing up to the light for all the world as if he intended to hang it and were pondering which type of frame would flatter it best.
I believe he may even do that. The man is a collector of arcana. Much of what adorns the walls presents a strange taste in art for one who keeps house at a Rectory. One picture in particular: a mezzotint, badly done apart from its decent evocation of moonlight; the dullest of scenes, a pathway leading to a manor house, with just the hint of a figure entering or departing the frame. Dull, but something about it compelled me to look away before I began to examine it too intently.
I told him the drawing was his, and welcome to it. I finished my port hurriedly and made my excuses.
Nottingham to Great Livermere: another two and a half hour drive. I gave up trying to reason with her after the first twenty minutes. It made sense, to me, to approach the current occupants of the Rectory in writing or by phone and ascertain how much – if any – of James’s particulars were still there. He’d grown up in the Rectory and it had been his home until 1907. A lot of redecoration could happen in a century. One man’s collection of the arcana was another man’s car boot sale.
“It’s probably,” I added, somewhere around Junction 23, “been cleared out and flogged on eBay by now.”
“I told you,” she said frostily: “there are only two more things I need. The mezzotint is the other. We have to go to the Rectory. Please, help me with this. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”
We drove in silence for a while. I considered the various permutations by which ‘I’ll make it worth your while’ could be defined. Paying for the fuel, plus a couple of notes for my time. A solid meal and a good bottle of wine once the trip was done. A room at a Holiday Inn on the way back, a couple drinks, then maybe … I shook my head. I popped a cigarette into my mouth – amazingly, my first of the day – and took one hand off the wheel to interrogate my pockets for my lighter.
“Could you please not smoke?” Claire asked. “I’m asthmatic.”
I snapped the lighter closed with an ungracious sigh, and tucked the cigarette behind my ear.
Claire tuned the radio into a classical music broadcast. The announcer identified the piece as Webern’s Passacaglia. It was music for nightmares. The fact that it was so often quiet in its menace only made it more effective. If M.R. James’s stories had been written with a soundtrack in mind, I thought, this would be it.
We left the M1 and joined the A14, a tedious expanse of road that cut blandly through miles of unchanging scenery. Claire turned the radio down and started talking about the preface to The Collected Ghost Stories, published in 1931, five years before he died in which James addressed two questions: whether he believed in ghosts (he cagily states that he is prepared to consider evidence and accept it if found satisfactory); and whether he intended to write more ghost stories.
“He wrote ‘I fear I must answer, Probably not.’ Interesting turn of phrase, don’t you think? ‘I fear’.”
“But he did write more stories, though, didn’t he?”
“Mostly fragments, unfinished works. Although there are a couple of complete pieces. But I have an idea why he was reticent about further stories in the preface.”
But she wouldn’t say more until we reached Great Livermere. And by then I had other things to worry about. The Jetta made it to the outskirts of the village. The engine started spluttering. Steam hissed from under the bonnet. I pulled over, turned the engine off.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.
“It’s just overheated,” I said, hoping desperately that was all it was. In my non-comprehension of anything mechanical, I worried it was something serious and costly, probably more so than the car was worth.
“Well, it gives us a way in at the Rectory,” she said breezily. “Excuse me, our car’s broken down, can we use your phone.”
Oh, Christ. A 140-mile drive and her only follow-up to a knock on a door that might, for all we knew, go unanswered was a suddenly extemporised cliché occasioned by the passing of my VW. I felt like thumping the steering wheel in frustration. Work, you frigging teutonic hippie-mobile, let me turn round and go back to my digs and my hangover.
“Why don’t you head into the village,” I suggested, “find out where the Rectory is. I’ll give it a few minutes, see if the car starts.”
“Okay,” she said, and I almost sighed with relief. I’d be spared the embarrassment of witnessing her overtures at the Rectory. She took her bag from back seat and slung it over her shoulder, then pushed the passenger side door open and got out. “Head for the church. That’ll be the easiest place to find. I’ll meet you there.”
She darted a smiling glance back at me, then set off towards Great Livermere as purposefully as she’d walked into my bedsit – I checked my watch: eight PM – ten hours ago. Ten hours. Disappearing into the distance, she still looked as fresh, her white blouse and long white skirt unblemished, uncreased. My reflection, squashed into the rearview mirror, told a completely different story. As shoddy as I felt, I looked worse.
I gave it ten minutes. Retrieved the cigarette from behind my ear. Smoked it unhurriedly.
Then I tried the engine again.
It caught, rumbled, shuddered, died. I listened to the radio for another few minutes. One more try, then I’d walk into the village and hope nobody came tearing down the narrow B-road too fast and smashed into the Jetta and finished the job.
Second time lucky. The engine turned over, caught. The needle on the temperature gauge was nudging the red. Unbelievable: my rationale had been right. The coolant must have low when we set off – I hadn’t checked the levels for a while. Still, I could get water somewhere in the village. I put it in first, dropped the handbrake and drove slowly and cautiously into Great Livermere.
I parked near the war memorial and wandered down a single track road lined with the overhanging branches of trees gnarled with age. Few of the houses showed lighted windows. The church came looming at me out of the dusk. A metal gate opened into the graveyard, its once-white paint crumbling. I closed it behind me, then stopped sharply, convinced I’d seen someone standing close by one of the larger monuments. I looked again and there were only shadows.
The graveyard was overgrown, long grasses caressing the tombstones. There was another gate to the left, the only other opening in the low stone wall. It gave onto nothing; dead land. Everything about the place seemed wrong. The church itself was too large for the plot of land it stood in; the graves around it seemed squashed together. Its walls were yellow-white, as if the building were jaundiced. The spire was truncated; instead of the traditional bell-tower, it was topped by a curious wooden structure that made me think of a sniper’s nest.
Movement alerted me. The church door was opening – although heavy and of a roughly finished wooden construction, it swung open without a sound – and a pallid figure emerged into what faint light was left. I gasped and stepped back involuntarily, almost immediately feeling stupid as I realised it was Claire.
“Come here, I’ve got something to show you.”
I followed her into the church. She pushed the door closed (again, not even a creak of timber; it settled into its frame noiselessly). There had been little sound in the graveyard – no birdsong or traffic noise, only the vaguest whisper of wind through the trees. Inside the church, there was a total absence of sound. The interior was cold, austere. Comfortless.
“Is the car working again?”
I nodded. “I’ll need water from somewhere, though.”
“We can get that anywhere.” She’d slung her bag on a pew and was taking something from it.
“How did you get on at the Rectory?” I asked.
“Take a look.” She handed me a small picture in a simple frame. “Oh ye of little faith,” she said.
I squinted to make it out. It was a detailed if frantically rendered sketch of …
“Oh Christ,” I muttered.
… a spider-like figure …
“That’s not all.”
She took Canon Alberic’s sketch from my hands, slid it back into her bag, then produced another picture; this one slightly larger and, when I held it, heavier. A mezzotint.
I started to phrase a question but the words were a muddle.
“They were both in the Rectory,” she explained. “Hanging in the hallway.” She grinned triumphantly. “A lot can stay the same in a hundred years.”
“And they just let you have them?”
Claire tilted her head to one, half pouting, half smirking. “I’ve been a bad girl.”
“You didn’t …?”
“They’re so trusting around here,” she said, tucking the pictures back into her bag, “leaving their doors unlocked.”
I shook my head. Started to turn away. She said my name, her tongue licking honey around its syllables. Against my better judgement, I turned back to her.
“I need these. The book’s worth nothing unless I can prove all the artefacts exist. All my father’s work: nothing unless I can prove everything.”
Exhaling, I shook my head. “You’d best publish it under a pseudonym, then.”
“Otherwise you might have to explain how you came by them.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Her manner was airy and carefree again. “Who’s to say I didn’t acquire them through an unscrupulous dealer?” She shrugged. “By the time I realised his credentials were false, he’d disappeared. Even the name he gave me was phoney. By the time the book’s published, I can be perfectly magnanimous and offer to restore them to the rightful owner. It’ll be a nice bit of extra publicity. By then, I’ll have proved my case; I’ll have completed my father’s work.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then gave up. Trying to rationalise with her would have had the same effect as stacking up three sandbags against an oncoming tidal wave. I’d have been washed away by the unstoppability – the sheer certainty – of it. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. “We’re close enough to Bury St Edmunds. The car should hold till then. We can get the coolant topped up at a garage or something.”
She brushed past me and walked towards the transept. “I just need to show you one more thing.”
I rolled my eyes and followed her. Behind the pulpit, the church narrowed. There were choir stalls to either side, then the altar. To our right, wall-mounted, was a plaque, white lettering on black, commemorating M.R. James.
No longer a sojourner,
but a fellow citizen of the saints
and of the household of God.
I grabbed Claire’s arm and made to steer her towards the door, but she shook free. “I need a picture.” She was thumbing through the options on her mobile phone, raising it as she selected camera mode. My patience gave out.
“I’ll be at the car,” I said, spinning on my heel. I dug my hands in my coat pockets, groping for the car keys. “I’m parked near the – … oh, Jesus!”
The man was sitting in the foremost pew. His clothes were a century out of date, and dusty – as if he’d just emerged from some tomb beneath the church. There was no colour to his skin. There was no substance to his body.
The fellow citizen of the saints and of the household of God sat glassy eyed and unmoving in the church he’d grown up around.
“He’s been here the whole time,” Claire said. The click and whirr of her camera-phone provided a moment of incongruous counterpoint. “I wondered when you’d see him.” She nodded towards the nave, and I noticed that the door was now standing open. “You’ll probably be able to see them now, as well.”
A spider-like figure, clicking its way slowly down the aisle.
“They were in the churchyard when I came in,” she continued, aiming her mobile at the man in the pew. “Shit! There’s just no resolution when I try to get his picture.” She held the phone up. There was a shapeless haziness in the centre of the screen, while the rest of the shot – aisle, pew, wall – was in perfect focus.
Behind the spider-thing, a few miniature versions of the same. The Ash-Tree, I thought.
Behind that, something hunched and shambolic, a cross outlined on the rags that hung like a winding sheet from its deformed body.
“They were moving forward between the graves when I came in,” Claire offered. “It was like they were advancing on the church.” An air-hostess running robotically through the safety procedures on her thousandth trip couldn’t have aspired to a more bland tone of voice.
Through the door came every child’s approximation of a ghost, a thing of human dimensions but made up of crumpled linen. At half its height – it stood easily six foot, if not more – and if the folds of its attire had been white not grey, and if the shape of a child’s head had been present instead of the hooded aperture that disclosed only darkness where a face should have been, it might have been ridiculous; funny, even.
But I recognised it from the pages of James’s … fiction? God, no. The tales he’d enthralled friends and students with by candlelight had been straightforward reportage: dispatches from a point beyond scientific and academic understanding.
“You see, that’s my theory,” Claire said. “Everything he wrote was true. All of the artefacts exist. And he paid the price for acquiring them. That’s why he said he wouldn’t write anymore ghost stories. He was already being haunted by them.”
The spider-thing and its scions, the deformed hunchback marked with the cross; halfway down the aisle, they scuttled to one side, taking up rustling, sibilant positions in the pews.
The ghost of M.R. James looked helplessly at me as they gathered behind him, the apparitions that had plagued him through life and death for a century.
I couldn’t do or say anything. The crumpled grey creature with a gaping void for a face was … no, it was impossible. How could something without a face look at me? It raised an arm that terminated without a hand. Pointed at me.
Peripherally, I was aware of the other apparitions slithering forward to the next pew, closer to James.
My hands were still in my pockets; one closed round an object I’d forgotten, after the initial discomfit of its presence, was there. The whistle. In a flash of hatred and frustration, I yanked it out and – screaming, my voice ragged, throat hurting – hurled it at the creature confronting me.
A low moan filled the church and it dissipated in a sudden but blinding shimmer. I was conscious of something whipping through the air, then a sharp blow to the cheek. My hand fluttered to the side of my face – my vision was still blurry – and came away hot and warm. Blood. There was a tink, a metallic object impacting on stone. I reached down, my fingers finding it. My eyes focussed. The whistle was bent out of shape, molten at one end, the Latin inscription barely readable.
Realisation snapped into place in my mind.
Claire was still talking as I walked back to her. I didn’t take in a single word. I seized her bag with one hand and used the other to shove her backwards. I upended the bag, shaking the contents out. I dropped to my knees and smashed the frame of Canon Alberic’s sketch against the cold stone floor. Splinters of wood and shards of glass. I snatched up the drawing, flipped open my cigarette lighter and thumbed it into life. Two inches of flame, a wavering frond of yellow over a cone of blue. I touched it to the parchment.
“Nooooooo!” Claire wailed.
I released my grip on the picture, flicking the last burning fragment of it away from me.
The spider-thing disappeared. This time I shielded my eyes.
I reached for the mezzotint next.
It was gone.
I straightened up, but I wasn’t quick enough.
“You bastard, you bastard!”
Claire was standing over me. A sharp corner of the mezzotint caught me above the eye and I fell back. She swung it again and the second blow made patterns of starfire behind my eyes. Then there was the cloying velvet suffocation of blackness.
I woke to early morning light, bruises and an empty church. My wallet and car keys were missing. So was the VW.
I walked the ten miles or so back to the A14 and thumbed a lift into Bury St Edmunds. I found a police station and reported my car stolen, making up a story that I’d pulled in at a parking spot to take a leak, only to trip and knock myself out, my car gone when I came to.
Telling them the real story wasn’t an option. It’s in my best interests to keep Claire Bannoc’s researches quiet. My part in them pretty much fits the definition of aiding and abetting.
I can only assume that she’s found it harder than she expected to complete the book; or, if she has, to secure a publishing deal. Whichever, I think she needs the money.
I think she’s selling the collection off.
The Tractate Middoth surfaced six months ago. It cost me everything I earned from the tabloid publication of my article on Warrington Barnes’s experiences at the church of St Bertrand de Comminges, and then some. I took it to Great Livermere and waited till the apparitions came crawling in. Then, kneeling in the transept, facing them as they approached, I burned it.
Watched another of them disappear.
And I’ll destroy every artefact that Claire Bannoc came into possession of, however long it takes and whatever it costs me.