The Syderstone Ghost

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2 – Syderstone, Norfolk 1955

“Reverend Fourdrinier!”

Norman Douglas Fourdrinier rose stiffly from his crouched position over a gravestone in the churchyard.

“Charlie Talbot?” the reverend pressed his hands into the base of his spine and tried to ease out a crink.

“What a surprise to see you here,” beamed Charlie, moving over to the reverend and shaking his hand vigorously.

“What a surprise to see you in civvy clothes,” Fourdrinier laughed. “It must be nearly ten years since I last saw you.”

“1946. Before I was demobbed,” Charlie stood back to take in the reverend. “You’ve aged, old boy.”

“You’ve grown fat,” Fourdrinier said pointedly, nodding to a round belly that threatened to pop out of Charlie’s brown tweed suit. Charlie laughed.

“I’m a gentleman farmer now. I’m expected to grow fat!”

“Well, in my experience, reverends are expected to look old. It implies wisdom, which I always felt was a very unwise idea.”

Charlie suddenly looked a touch abashed.

“I always meant to come and visit you in Norwich, you know. When I got the car I meant to plan a visit, discuss old times, the war and such. But you know how it is,” Charlie gave a shrug. “Farming takes up a lot of time, not to mention all the committees you find yourself on. Farmer’s Association, the Parish Council, Common Land Trust, you name it and I seem to be on it. Even the darts team has me signed up as a member.”

“That doesn’t surprise me Charlie, you were always the outgoing sort,” Fourdrinier leaned back on a tomb and stared at his former curate. “How long have you been running a farm?”

“Oh, since ’48. That’s when father died. The war muddled me up slightly and I found it incompatible with my new views to return to the church. I still believe though.”

Fourdrinier nodded.

“You don’t have to apologise, Charlie, many men feel the same and as for the visit, well, I hardly went out of my way to find you either.”

Charlie propped himself on a gravestone.

“Perhaps I was worried too. Worried you might want me to return to the church. I couldn’t…”

Fourdrinier was moved by the younger man’s sudden dismay. He had always had a fondness for the big, bluff Charlie Talbot who wore his heart on his sleeve.

“I wouldn’t have done that,” he assured him. “But it doesn’t matter anyway.”

The air had a damp taste to it in the graveyard and Fourdrinier found himself craving a warm fire and a pint of something wet and strong.

“Care to treat your old reverend to a drink?” he asked.

Charlie looked buoyant again.

“Certainly! What brings you to Syderstone, anyway?”

Charlie pointed to the churchyard gates and started to lead the way as he spoke.

“I am taking a service here on Sunday,” Fourdrinier answered, noting the ornate A and R wrought into the iron of the gate. “I thought I would pay a visit to remind myself of the place. I’m working on a history of the Church in Norfolk.”

“Really? Mind you, I always pegged you for a historian.”

“You mean boring?”

“I mean curious,” Charlie nudged him merrily. “And a nosey parker, all historians can’t resist poking their noses into other people’s affairs.”

“Oh well, that I will grant you.”

“So you will be writing a chapter on Syderstone?”

“I think so.”

“There are certainly plenty of stories to tell about this place,” Charlie and Fourdrinier paused as they came level with the former parsonage, now looking rather run down as its dark windows gazed across into the graveyard.

“I confess that is part of the reason I am here,” Fourdrinier stared at the house that seemed deserted. “I was curious about the Stewarts. Reverend John Stewart was curate here in the 1830s and 40s. The grave I was looking at was for his daughter, Margaret.”

“I don’t know much about the Stewarts,” Charlie shrugged. “I know there is a story that one of the curates here was a notorious drunk and had to have people cling to his surplice to prevent him falling into graves during funeral services.”

“Ah, I think that will be William Mantle. I have only just begun to delve into his story. A curious character, actually.”

Charlie gave a shrug and a smile.

“Aren’t we all in Norfolk?”

“Speak for yourself,” Fourdrinier answered with mock sternness.

Charlie’s smile spread to a grin.

“And how is Great Aunt Ida?”

Fourdrinier groaned.

“You still remember her then?”

“She is rather hard to forget especially after the last occasion,” Charlie smirked, “It was ’36 and I do believe she turned up for divine service in Middle Eastern costume and insisted on calling herself Cleopatra?”

“She had just returned from that fateful Nile trip, convinced she was a reincarnation of an Egyptian queen. I felt half-inclined to have her committed there and then.”

“Not dear Ida!” Charlie pretended to be horrified. “Where would we be without her informing us that the church cat was a sacred being from the time of Tutankhamen and should be treated as a god?”

“At least we have ventured past that infatuation,” Fourdrinier stifled a slight grimace.

“What preoccupies Ida now?”

“Spiritualism,” Fourdrinier shook his head. “I offended her deeply last Christmas when I informed her that as an Anglican cleric I was fundamentally opposed to the premise. It hardly prevents her from pulling the drawing room curtains and summoning who knows what, of course.”

They were at the door of the pub and Charlie opened it for the reverend.

“Aunt Ida is another reason I am here,” Fourdrinier blushed mildly as he made his confession. “Ida read my first draft of the history of Syderstone parish and is now convinced she has made contact with the spirit of Margaret Stewart.”

“The daughter of Reverend John Stewart?”

“Yes, look at this,” Fourdrinier pulled a letter from his pocket.

Charlie took it as they nestled into opposite sides of the snug by the fire. Fourdrinier lifted up his aching feet and rested them on the hearthstone.

“‘Dearest nephew,’” Charlie read, “‘I hope you are well and enjoying the Norfolk air. I have heard pheasant are prosperous there and would be inclined for a pair if you might send them…’”

“Skip to the third paragraph,” Fourdrinier interrupted politely.

“‘We held a séance on Thursday last, I am certain you will be appalled, but after reading your latest draft about the Stewart household I had a strange notion that I just must contact one of them. I cannot explain these moods I have, not to a man such as you who is opposed to the matter so vehemently, but I felt something moving in spirit,’” Charlie cast his eyes up at the reverend, who was slumped back and rubbing his brow.

“It gets better,” Fourdrinier prompted.

“‘So, we held a séance. Nancy came, a pretty girl, very in touch with the other side. I shall not go into all the details. There was a great deal of noise that night from the old silver trumpet,’” Charlie paused. “Trumpet?”

“They use it to communicate with the spirits.”

“Oh, right,” Charlie quenched a laugh as he carried on. “’Nancy slipped into a most delightfully deep trance, I was certain we would get a message soon and indeed we did. I record it here verbatim for I feel it is deeply important on a spiritual level and must not be ignored. Nancy spoke in a child-like voice and said, “Do you know who I am?” I said no. “You must know! She must know. I am Margaret.” Margaret who, I asked. “Margaret Stewart. You know of me.” Yes, I do, I agreed at once. I was elated that my intuition was correct. I inquired of the spirit if she had a message for us, but at first it came all out as a whisper, then Nancy trembled and spoke louder, “…don’t like it here. Want to be free. Soul….” What about your soul, I asked. “Trapped” she answered. That confused us for a moment, then Nancy seemed to whisper “purgatory”. There was a silence when Nancy was breathing very deeply and I was growing inclined to wake her, when in a terribly bleak little voice she said, “tell him to solve the riddle of the sealed room.” And suddenly Nancy came awake by herself.

“‘You see nephew, I am sure this is important. The little girl Margaret is clearly in some sort of spiritual torment, which we must resolve for her. I feel certain God has directed us to this lost soul to save her from her plight. I can only think the ’him’ referred to you. There were no other men in the room and Nancy had no idea of your connection to Margaret Stewart. So I set you forth on a task to solve this mystery, you shall be my agent in this. Write soon with news, I shall continue to try and contact Margaret. Your eternally loving aunt, Ida.’”

Charlie laid the letter down on the table.

“She writes a good story, doesn’t she?” Fourdrinier smiled miserably. “The truth of it is, I dread her disappointment enough that I came here with the purpose of looking up any details of Margaret Stewart. Aunt Ida has a weak heart and doesn’t travel far, the doctors feel I should indulge her fancies as otherwise she becomes upset and that can damage her health.”

“Has she ever been to Syderstone?” Charlie had a curious look on his face.

“Never. She only ever visited me in Norwich. She lives in London and hasn’t left the city, oh, not since before ’39. Her nerves were affected during the war, of course, she never quite recovered from that.”

“And this riddle of the sealed room?”

“I know! I honestly don’t know where they get this nonsense from! The papers perhaps? Or Nancy has a vivid imagination.”

“Only,” Charlie averted his eyes to the letter, “there is, or should I say was, a sealed room.”

Fourdrinier sat up slightly.

“Do not jest, Charlie.”

“I don’t. Syderstone parsonage, the old one we just walked past, had a sealed room. No one knows why it was sealed, nor by who, but it was shut up for at least a century, certainly during Reverend Stewart’s time here.”

Fourdrinier hardly believed his ears.

“This is an old wives’ tale!”

“No, the story was true enough. I dear say I haven’t heard it spoken of in many years, not since the war at least. My grandfather told me about it, he heard it in the 1860s from his own father who recalled the room being unsealed. It was also said the parsonage was haunted.”

“My aunt would have a field day listening to you,” Fourdrinier shook his head. “Ghosts too?”

“The usual sort of tales, unearthly groans and footsteps. Some people claimed they saw the ghost of a man in a nightgown, they claimed it was Reverend Mantle back from the dead because of his wicked ways in life. There were also those who said the ghost was Amy Robsart.”

“Who?”

“The Robsart family owned Syderstone in the sixteenth century. The town is linked with Amy after Walter Scott wrote a novel concerning her life and death. You saw her initials on the gate of the churchyard just now.”

“Indeed I did. Why would she haunt the parsonage?”

“Syderstone Hall no longer exists. Fell into ruins centuries ago. Local legend has it, Amy’s restless spirit moved to the next convenient location and that happened to be the parsonage, though no one seems inclined to explain why the ghost everyone claims to have heard and seen is distinctly male.”

Fourdrinier let out a dark laugh.

“Would you care to go to one of my aunt’s séances?”

“Don’t you find it curious though, Fourdrinier? How could your aunt, let alone this Nancy, know of the sealed room? It is a local story that hasn’t been spoken about in years. If your aunt has never been here, how could she know?”

“You are assuming a lot of creditability for the talents of Nancy. She may have been acting to please my aunt.”

“But if Aunt Ida had not mentioned Margaret Stewart, how would she know to drop in that information? How would she know to gather information about an old legend that no one hardly remembers?”

“Good fortune can provide some amazing coincidences,” Fourdrinier answered.

Charlie frowned.

“Doesn’t it interest you slightly? The possibility of a lost soul reaching out to us?”

“I believe in an afterlife Charlie, obviously,” Fourdrinier carefully took back his letter. “But that we can communicate with the dead? No, that is not something I accept. It is against the church’s teachings and it stinks a little sordidly of witchcraft and chicanery.”

“But what if it were true?”

Fourdrinier hesitated. There was a look of absolute desperation in Charlie’s eyes. He had leaned across the table that divided them and was pleading with his whole being for Fourdrinier to give him some hope, some reassurance.

“We set ourselves the task of reaching out to lost souls in this life, but what about the next?” Charlie persisted. “If a person has never heard of God and dies, are they then condemned to forever drift in limbo? Or have we been given the power to help them?”

Fourdrinier was a touch shaken by his earnestness.

“Charlie, dear boy, I don’t deal in ghosts.”

“Why not?”

Fourdrinier didn’t know how to answer him.

“Because I don’t believe in them.”

Charlie almost fell back in his seat. His expression was hard and determined.

“You are wrong Fourdrinier. I have seen… things. Things that made me challenge my old beliefs in the Church. Religion doesn’t know everything.”

“God does.”

“Perhaps God is asking us to open our minds and to look at things differently. How confident are you in your beliefs to deny this child even just the chance of salvation?”

“You are confusing the issue.”

“No, I am not.”

Fourdrinier rubbed his old fingers. They were stiff from the cold and damp.

“Margaret Stewart died of tuberculosis.”

“What does that matter?”

“I am dealing with facts, Charlie, be patient. Nancy’s insights are not facts.”

“The sealed room is. There was a sealed room and neither Nancy nor your aunt could have known about it.”

Fourdrinier shook his head.

“I have barely examined the Stewarts yet, just mentioned them in passing at the start of a fresh chapter. My aunt has jumped upon them.”

“Then perhaps it is time you investigated them. If there is something there it will either prove or disprove your aunt.”

“Why are you so determined Charlie?”

The younger man was staring at him intently.

“I lied before, Fourdrinier. I did not keep my faith. I lost it somewhere between the streets of Paris and outside those hellish concentration camps the Germans built. It left a hole, an ache inside. I’ve been empty ever since, throwing myself into work and the community to try and ease it. I lost something important back there, but I can’t bring myself to believe again. I’m a lost soul too.”

“No one is a lost soul,” Fourdrinier reached out to touch the arm of his old curate, upset to hear his honest confusion and keen to help.

“That is one of the things I wonder about being true. Fourdrinier, you talk of facts. I want a fact that will prove to me once and for all that God exists and is watching over us.”

“I’m not sure that fact exists.”

“No?” Charlie removed his arm bitterly from Fourdrinier’s grasp. “What if this child, this lost soul from the other side is a fact? What if she is the proof that I need, that the world needs?”

Fourdrinier wanted to tell him he was clutching at straws, the séances and ghost stories were not equivalent to faith, but he snagged his tongue, knowing he would hurt his friend deeply.

“If I could, I would find you proof Charlie.”

Charlie’s expression, hard and angry, softened.

“You will be researching the Stewarts anyway?”

“Yes?”

“Meet me here again and tell me what you find, would you?”

Fourdrinier nodded.

“I can do that.”

“I’m starting to feel it was fortuitous my meeting you today,” Charlie’s smile had returned. “You will be here Sunday? Come for lunch at the farm, I’ll pick you up in the car after the service.”

Fourdrinier agreed, not pushing his luck to try and get Charlie to come to the service.

“What will you write to your aunt Ida?” the tension had lifted between the two men.

“The usual thing, that she is a nutcase, completely off her rocker and that I love her dearly and shall do exactly as she asks me.”

“Then I hardly need have argued with you?” Charlie said incredulously.

“Oh I don’t say that,” Fourdrinier smiled. “You’ve given me something to think over and a challenge nonetheless.”

“To help Margaret Stewart?”

“To help my old curate and friend.” Fourdrinier said firmly.

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