Here is the second of the two short Christmas stories I promised to post on this blog before we finally reach the big day. This is another early one; it first appeared on a spoken-word anthology from Telstar, called HAUNTED HOUSES, back in 1996, and it was read - rather marvelously - by Peter Barkworth. Enjoy it if you can. And have a great Christmas.
THE TRUSTY SERVANT ...
It was to be Wilton’s first Christmas as clerk at the Society Chambers, and he was looking forward to it. The tall narrow building, tucked away at the bottom end of the Parish Church’s dingy rear yard, had an air of Dickens about it. It struck him on his first day there, in September, so he expected it would have an atmosphere all of its own when the icy weather arrived.
It was not that Wilton got particularly excited about Christmas. In fact, he generally spent it alone – he was unmarried and rarely, if ever, saw his parents. But it was impossible to work in the Society Chambers, with their cramped offices and tight winding stairways, not to at least get a sense of Victoriana. And when you looked down from above on the small yard, with its inscribed flagstones and row of dustbins by the church backdoor, or glanced far up to the steeple, where the old bell peeked down at you – the way Scrooge’s had done – the illusion was almost complete. Surely, Wilton thought, the first evening when he came out and found it all grey with fog or glittering in a coat of frost, the true flavour of the season would hit him. For the first time in his life he’d understand the real meaning of the winter solstice.
However, events were to conspire against this. Or so it initially seemed.
The first development to spoil things for Wilton was the appearance of human derelicts in the churchyard. It was not a regular occurrence, but now and then he would stand up from his accounts, stretch his arms and gaze down from the window, only to find one or two tramps drifting around like spectres. On one occasion, a heavily bearded fellow in a voluminous overcoat was staring directly up at him, wearing a hard scowl.
Wilton eventually mentioned it to his employer, Mr Dowerby, who simply shrugged and said that Skid Row men often pestered the parish priest and sometimes ended up in the yard. He didn’t think it anything to worry about. Wilton laughed and assured his boss that it wasn’t worrying him.
The next disturbance came in early November, when some sort of excavation began under the church. At first Wilton was baffled. One moment there was peace during the day, the next bedlam. He noticed that brickwork had been removed from a lower portion of the church’s rear wall, to give access to the foundations, and from that time on saw workmen going in and out – usually the same two or three. He didn’t know what they were doing, but all day long they hammered and banged down there and were always covered in dust when they emerged. Dowerby seemed to recall in passing that the parish authorities had given them written notice some time back about work in the crypt. Hadn’t anyone mentioned it to Wilton? They hadn’t – which seemed a little inconsiderate, as his office was the only one overlooking the yard and therefore the only one within earshot of it. Wilton smiled and said that it didn’t really matter.
The work in the crypt went on into December, and it soon became apparent to Wilton, with the amount of rubble the workmen brought out on a daily basis, that it would continue well into the New Year. So much for his Dickensian Christmas, he thought sourly.
The cold weather arrived on time, with blasts of wind and sleet. Darkness was soon falling by mid-afternoon, which, along with the debris from the excavation, left the yard a precarious place for Wilton to make his way home through. But there was no sense grumbling, he’d tell himself wearily. Doubtless it was a job that had to be done.
However, this resignation to his fate did not last. By the afternoon of December 17th, Wilton had virtually had enough. It was gray and blustery out there, and cold enough for snow, so all the windows were firmly fastened. Even then, he heard what sounded like somebody working in the yard, right under his window. He looked up from his ledger and listened to it in disbelief. It went on: the haphazard clash of steel on steel, and a violent, angry grunting, as though of a man, or men, making strenuous physical efforts. He rose to his feet and moved to the window, hoping someone would see him there and realise they’d disturbed him.
But there was nobody in the yard.
It was completely empty.
The more distant noise of the work in the crypt was still going on, but the other sounds had abruptly ceased. Wilton was surprised but pleased. He went back to his desk. Five minutes later, he heard it again. He stiffened in his chair. As before he listened to the blows of metal on metal, and brutish, breathless grunts. Suddenly it struck him that it didn’t sound like somebody working, so much as somebody fighting!
That was surely the limit! If the place was starting to attract street-gangs! This time he went only cautiously to the window. But again there was no-one. The violent sounds ceased as soon as he glanced down.
The incident occupied Wilton’s thoughts for a day or so, until something even worse happened. It was early afternoon and he was working in his office, when he heard a step on the landing beyond the door. He glanced up sharply. Dowerby and his partner were both away on business, and their secretaries were on Christmas leave, so Wilton should have been the only person in the building.
Before he knew what he was doing, he was reaching for the telephone. What happened next, however, practically paralysed him. The handle on the door to his office began to turn. But only slowly. Furtively. Wilton felt sweat break on his brow as he watched. His blood went cold.
There was a grunt on the other side of the door, as though whoever was there could not manage to open it. The handle stopped turning and there was a brief silence. Then, the wooden panelling of the door began to creak from some weight being applied to it. Wilton’s spine was literally crawling. He found his fingers fumbling with the dial on the telephone. For ludicrous seconds, he couldn’t remember the emergency code. Then the intruder seemed to move away.
Wilton listened to soft but heavy feet, as they padded up the next flight of stairs.
He stood up, his heart pounding. The whole demeanor of whoever this person was gave him away as a burglar. The outer doors to the Society Chambers were not locked during the day, but a visit like this was not bona fide. Wilton didn’t know what valuables Dowerby and his partner kept in their offices upstairs, but the intruder was clearly on his way to find out. Without hesitation, Wilton called the police. They said they would send someone immediately, but minutes seem to pass and eventually Wilton began to fear that the burglar would leave the premises before they arrived, or even worse try to get into his office again. It was now very quiet upstairs. Wilton strained his ear as he listened against his door. It occurred to him that he was behaving in a rather cowardly fashion. This might be the thing for a young female secretary to do – call for help and then hide. But would he, as a male, not at least be expected to make some approach to the intruder? What would his employers think if he just let the villain walk away again before the police even arrived?
After a minute of agonised indecision, he stuck his head out through the door.
The landing was deserted. That was to be expected, whoever it was having gone upstairs. Wilton followed stealthily, praying for the sound of an approaching siren. At the top of the next flight, there was still no sign of anybody, but the door to Dowerby’s office stood ajar. It could have been left that way, but it seemed unlikely.
Swallowing hard, Wilton advanced towards it. When he pushed it, it swung open. He entered. There was nobody in there. Wilton was now baffled. He had heard somebody coming up here, hadn’t he? He turned to leave – and found his way barred by a hulking man with mad, staring eyes and a gross beard filled with crawling lice.
Wilton gave a piercing shriek and staggered backwards.
It was the man from the yard who Wilton had seen glaring up, though now he seemed more confused than dangerous. He swayed where he stood, looking around in a drunken daze, his ragged coat giving off a foul stench.
Eventually the police arrived and hustled him away.
Wilton, who had locked himself into his employer’s office, had been in a state of near-collapse by then, but the officers told him it was all a misunderstanding. The tramp had been looking for the parish priest. He’d simply lost his way and hadn’t meant any harm.
They were grinning cheerfully as they told him this. In fact, they were almost too cheerful – as though they were about to burst out laughing. In fact they did, the moment they left the building. Wilton stared at the door over his handkerchief, listening to their raucous, hysterical laughter as it echoed from wall to wall in the narrow yard.
On his way home that night, as he walked round the front of the church, Wilton saw the parish priest at the presbytery door, talking to several more derelicts. He was a balding, round-faced man with tufts of brown hair behind his ears. The tramps kept touching their caps to him as he gave out alms. Wilton snorted loudly. This was obviously the source of the problem: more misplaced Christian sentiment!
That night he endured a painful dream.
In it, his bed was full of gritty sand and some hot, thick fluid. He was grovelling in it, in agony, and from somewhere in the distance a series of screams came at him, one after another in succession, as though each one was in response to a separate blow. When Wilton finally woke, he felt sick, and, absurdly, even more hostile towards the parish priest and his homeless congregation.
The next afternoon there was another disturbance from the yard, but this was of a different sort. Wilton was making himself some coffee when he heard a wild shouting from below. He moved to the window and saw one of the tramps being attacked by a dog. Wilton gazed down briefly, then went back to the kettle, finished off his drink and brought it back to the window to watch.
It wasn’t any of the tramps he recognised, but the dog – a big black Alsatian – was dragging the man round, first of all by his rags, then by his flesh. The old wretch’s terrified screams grew weaker and weaker as the brute hauled him back and forth across the yard, slashing and tearing at him relentlessly.
Wilton felt his first tremor of excitement. He downed his coffee in one. It scorched his throat, but he ignored it. A minute later he was egging the dog on: at first under his breath, but soon at the top of his voice, shouting out in a frenzy of delight. He had never seen a dog attack a man in that kind of berserk rage before – it was surely unnatural, but he admired and loved the Alsatian all the more because of it.
An hour later, as he stood by his window, watching policemen talk with the parish priest – who’d gone white with shock – he felt mildly guilty. But as the undertakers loaded the body-bag into their van, he decided that it was all the priest’s fault for encouraging the low-lives to come round there in the first place. Why should he be upset? He hoped it would be a salutary lesson to them all.
However, at five o’clock that evening, when he was due to go home, Wilton began to wonder what had happened to the dog. He glanced warily out of the door into the yard. Surely he would hear it snuffling about in the dark if it was still out there? Eventually he stepped out and walked quickly towards the yard-gate – when another sound stopped him. It came from the crypt. Wilton looked over towards it. Scaffolding surrounded the crypt entrance, and plastic sheeting had been tacked over it, but he could still hear something going on in there. He went cautiously over and listened.
It was a dull, repetitive boom – emitting from deep inside. Yet he knew he had seen the workmen leave earlier. He drew back the plastic sheeting. Dense blackness filled the cavity but the sound continued, now more defined. It was a steady and repeated blow – like a hammer on an anvil; an echoing clunk, falling over and over again. It was far inside and must have been deafening at its source.
Wilton retreated slowly, his neck clammy with sweat. The plastic sheeting rustled back into place. The noise continued unabated; in fact it seemed to get louder. Quickly, he turned to walk away – but almost collided with a figure standing directly behind him. The moon shone down onto a hideous, decayed face. It had dull idiot eyes and a gross, lice-infested beard.
The tramp was simply standing there, as bewildered as before. But this time Wilton didn’t cower away. He suddenly longed to bash those lifSeless features into pulp. He looked around for a weapon: a tool, a hunk of rock, anything. There was nothing there, so he turned angrily back to the tramp, fists clenched.
“You’re in the wrong place again, God damn you!” he shouted. “Get the hell away from here, before you infect us all!”
The tramp backed away, eyes wild with fright. Wilton stalked after him. Finally, the tramp turned and blundered clumsily off into the night. Wilton watched him go, feeling pleased with himself, but also puzzled. Never before had he felt so ready for a fight.
Then he realised that down in the crypt the heavy blows had ceased, as if whoever had been causing them had paused to listen.
Unnerved, Wilton hurried in the direction of home.
He did not sleep well that night, beset by images of red-rimmed eyes gazing at him from a place of deep darkness. Ordinarily, such a dream might have terrified him. For some reason, this one didn’t. He was not in his own bedroom for one thing, but in some damp, cold place which reeked of blood. And the eyes, though awesome to behold, were not threatening. They simply watched him.
The next day was Christmas Eve and the town was alive with the festive spirit. The markets and malls – already long decked in evergreens – were now thronging with happy shoppers, the squares playing host to brass bands, the street-corners to roast chestnut and baked-potato vendors. During the morning, a frozen mist came down.
Despite all this, Wilton was at his desk in a grumpy mood – and he couldn’t explain why; especially as Dowerby had been in first thing, wished him the best for the season and told him to knock off at lunchtime. It was a token gesture, of course. It would be the same everywhere. Shortly before eleven, for example, Wilton saw the workmen from the crypt making their way eagerly to the pub across the road, shouting and laughing. Their working day was clearly over.
It was odd but, despite all the disturbance they’d caused him, only then did he begin to wonder what they’d been doing beneath the church. The thought was still with him when he came out into the yard at one o’clock, so he plunged his hands into his overcoat pockets and walked over to the crypt entrance. He stood there warily, his breath smoking, and then drew back the plastic cover. A moment later he was actually inside, stooping as he made his way down a low passage. He noticed that, instead of loose rubble and dirt, the walls and ceiling down here were constructed of smooth stone blocks – he began to wonder how old the church was.
But there were no obvious answers to be found in the crypt. He entered it by ducking under yet more scaffolding. Faint shafts of light came down through the floorboards above, so he could see more than he’d expected, but he still found it a damp hole. The ground was of hard flat rock, while more ancient brickwork rose up at the sides, but only in fragments. Tools of every description were littered all over the place, and the air was thick with dust. At the far end, Wilton saw that two heavy timber beams had fallen down from above, and now lay across each other, barring any further progress.
He looked briefly around, then blundered back up the passage – to find the yard in darkness!
He was numbed with shock.
How long had he been down there?
Surely only minutes?
Was there an eclipse, or something?
Petrified, Wilton hurried through the gate and up alongside the church to the main road. Across it, multi-coloured lights shimmered from the pub. He could hear music and laughter. Suddenly he felt the world swimming around him. He leaned out for support and came up hard against the church wall. Seconds seeped past. All he could hear was the beating of his own heart.
Then somebody asked him if he was alright.
He looked up and found the parish priest there, an expression of genuine concern on his face. Wilton pointed back towards the gate. “The crypt, father,” he whispered. “I think it’s come from the crypt.” The priest looked bewildered. “I’ll show you,” Wilton stammered. “Please ...”
The priest seemed puzzled but nodded, and they went down there together. It looked as it had before, only much colder and darker. But now that he had the clergyman with him, Wilton realised there was nothing to be afraid of. He must have fallen asleep when he’d come down here previously. What other explanation was there?
Later, Wilton called in at the pub. He’d never been in there before, but now seemed like a good time. It was called The Trusty Servant, and it was a grand old place of white plaster and polished woodwork.
With it being Christmas Eve, it was full to bursting. But that didn’t stop Wilton. In fact, he had himself a rare old time. It was stifling in there, filled with cigarette smoke and lit with lurid red lights. Famous Christmas hits belted out from the juke-box and everyone was dancing wildly, Wilton among them. For the first time in his life, he began to really celebrate, pouring beer down his throat, stripping off his tie and jacket.
He didn’t know the crowd in there, but they were a lively bunch. He recognised one or two faces – the workmen from the crypt, Dowerby’s secretary – but there seemed to be a lot of foreigners in as well. Everywhere he looked, he saw swarthy, sun-burned faces: on the far side of the bar; peering at him over other people’s shoulders. The drink still flowed though, the music thumped.
It was by far the most exciting Christmas Eve Wilton could ever remember. Close on midnight he found himself ordering yet another drink and now talking to one of the workmen, a short, tubby man with a ginger beard and friendly face. Wilton introduced himself and asked what they were working on under the church.
The workman, who actually wasn’t a real workman but an archaeologist from the university, gave it some thought. “It’s all pretty intriguing, really. We reckon we’re looking at a Roman temple. Funny how one religious site always seems to get placed on top of another.”
Wilton bought the man a drink. He was fascinated. “What sort of temple?”
“We reckon to Saturn,” the archaeologist said. “Very dark and mysterious figure in Roman mythology. Quite appropriate, though … his feast was December 17th to December 24th. Ended on Christmas Eve.” He chuckled. “Pretty wild around here in those days, I can tell you.”
“What did they do?” Wilton asked.
The archaeologist shrugged. “Usual stuff. Gladiatorial contests ... man against man, man against beast. All that. Up until the last day, when they celebrated with a human sacrifice.”
“Sounds gruesome,” Wilton said.
The archaeologist agreed. “It was. We reckon it was by crucifixion.”
Wilton nodded. That would be right. He thought about the cross-beams in the crypt, now heavily laden. Good job it was so deep underground. Otherwise the hammering might have disturbed someone.
He stepped outside the pub on the stroke of midnight.
The air was now clear and ice-cold. Across the road, he saw one or two tramps wandering about on the church forecourt, perplexed and hugging themselves in their rags. Wilton watched for a moment, then crossed over to them. He’d give them all his change, he decided. It was the least he could do on Christmas Morning.