Atop a hill in the moors sits an old man, wrapped in his beloved waterproof. It’s red with black buttons, and only some of them are missing. He sits on a carefully laid blanket, an empty space beside him, and sips from his Thermos. His gaze never shifts from the sister hill opposite him. In the drizzle and the fog, he is waiting for the ghost.
The air is cold and the sky is free to bloom with the tiny flourishes of long forgotten light. Next to the old man is another flask, untouched. He pats the blanket, gives it a tender little rub, and says:
‘She’ll be here soon, just you wait.’
Behind where the old man is sat stands his tent. It’s his favourite tent and only some of the pegs are missing. From inside it comes a muffled, distressed sound.
‘Just you wait.’
From his hill, the old man can survey the surrounding countryside. Most lies beneath a thick veil of fog, so the peaks of hills seem like islands in a shifting, ethereal sea. The hill opposite, where he patiently awaits the ghost, looks much like his own: a soft incline leading to a craggy peak. It’s not much, but the old man likes it. The quiet helps him think. He drains the last of his Thermos and screws the lid back on.
‘Are you going to drink yours?’ He says to the drizzle.
Before waiting for an answer, he leans over and takes it. The tea is cold now, but he drinks it anyway. The drizzle becomes rain as the damp mist graduates into distinguished drops. The old man pulls the collar of his favourite waterproof up higher, trying to cover more of his neck. Another rumbling comes from the tent behind.
‘I know,’ he says with a smile, ‘how about a story to pass the time?’
When I was a boy, before we moved away, there was a thatcher who lived not far from us. We used to call him Old Joe Straw. With his thin grey hair that hung limply at his shoulders and glazed eyes, he gave you a fright first time you saw him, but we all loved Joe. When he was in town, he used to let us come up and sit on the roof with him and his boy while they worked.
I remember sitting up there, maybe twenty feet off the ground, amazed that I could see over the hedgerows where I used to pick blackberries with my mum. Beyond that were the fields where the rape grew, and beyond that the river that formed the border of my childhood. I never wanted to come down, even when the straw began to poke through my shorts and made it awful uncomfortable to stay up there.
Even better, when our parents weren’t looking, Joe would slip us his flask and tell us stories of all the places he had been. He was famous for his stories. Been telling the same stories for generations, to our parents and our parent’s parents, or so he said. For us kids, most of whom hadn’t left the village, he was the most exciting thing we’d ever come across.
He’d tell us stories of hard nights sleeping under the trees when they couldn’t hitch a ride, and of long, exhausting days. Stories of all the people he’d met, weird and wonderful people, not the kind that lived where we did.
Stories of people like Jack Montgomery, ‘Mad Monty’ Joe called him, who had three wives, all at once, competing to give him a son and win his fortune; or of Joanna Fitzgerald, who sent her kids out to pick mushrooms while she cooked her husband at home; or Jeremy Pynchon, who killed his twin to steal his wife, his children and his life.
The kind of stories that we all loved to hear.
He told me once about a house he’d thatched, some fifty-odd miles away. It was a big house, stately he said, but not quite a manor house – despite what the owners seemed to think.
Haughty, he called them, too big for their damn boots. Well, when he was thatching a part of the roof that sat above one of the bedrooms, he said he could hear voices below. Harsh voices, angry voices.
Now, Joe wasn’t a nosey man, but something drew him to that room and those voices. He never could pass up the opportunity for a good story.
He told me it was an argument between the wife of the husband who had employed him, and her son. The words were cloudy, distant and obscured, but Joe knew enough to know it was none of his business. He told me that, ‘I should’ve left that roof right there and then.’
But he didn’t.
Sat on the roof, half the village kids had now clambered up to listen to his story. His son worked on and Joe would lazily move a bundle of dried and starched reeds here and there from time to time. The sun had started to dim and began to kiss the rolling horizon, the air became amber and heavy, tugging at our eyelids.
Joe continued, after a quick break to take a swig from his flask. In the room, he told us, were mother and son, arguing. Joe lowered himself down, pressed his chest into the thatch and prayed no one walked past below. He crawled across the partly made roof until he was laying above the window.
‘You don’t understand’, Ole’ Joe had the son saying, ‘it’s not like that.’
‘Don’t you even dare,’ said the mother.
‘Please, just listen.’
‘You’ll do as you’re told and that’s the end of it.’
‘Don’t tell father.’
‘He has a right to know.’
‘You can’t, he’ll kill me.’
‘That’s up to him.’
A shuffle of footsteps on hardwood floor, moving away, towards the door. The click of the handle and the creak of a forgotten hinge.
‘Wait.’ The boy’s voice swelled.
‘Get your hand off me,’ followed by a crack, like a flash of thunder. ‘Control yourself.’
A shout came from the boy, and a scream of shock and terror from the mother. A scuffle of feet. Leather soles screeching against the floorboards. Muffled yells, the sound of hands clawing at clothes, and strangled sobbing.
Joe stopped talking after that. The village mothers had started to congregate below the roof upon which we were perched and had begun to call us home. Mine wasn’t there. I watched as the other kids all left, until it was just me and Joe.
I took a sip from his flask when offered, and shuddered at the harsh warmth. Joe went back to his thatching, I stayed, sat on that roof, until day sunk into night, before wandering home in the dark.
That was the last time we gathered round Joe Straw for his stories. After that afternoon, he didn’t feel much like talking anymore. A few month later, his house caught alight and both he and his boy died in the blaze. They never found out what caused it.
The rain continues to pour, beating a dull symphony on the canvas tent. The old man still sits on his blanket, thoroughly sodden now. The cold tea goes down just as quickly as the hot.
‘Thanks,’ he says.
From inside the tent comes another noise, a crack, an echo of a crack, like a bundle of dried twigs snapped underfoot.
‘Oh you be quiet,’ he turns towards the tent, ‘it’s no use, she’s almost here now.’
The noise quiets.
On the other hill, the sister hill, a faint glow begins to build. Orange, gold and yellow, a miniature dawn slowly cresting the lonely hill. The rest of the moor is still coated in thick, oily night. The old man peels off his gloves and rubs his hands together, holding them out in the direction of the light.
From inside his waterproof, he takes out a pair of binoculars – they’re his favourite pair, he doesn’t like to leave without them. He peers through them, well-worn from use, and smiles.
‘There you are, my love.’
On the hill, the old man sees his ghost.
Header photograph: Deutsche Fotothek [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons