Boskenna's Ghost

by Ursula Wills-Jones

After the Lieutenant’s convoy was hit by an unscheduled mortar round, he spent a good deal of time on his back, wondering what to do with the rest of his life. “I know it sounds mad, but I was thinking about trying my hand at farming,” he told his wife.

    “Honestly, Timothy, that’s ludicrous,” she said. “You’re practically a cripple. It’s lucky you can even walk. I think you must be traumatised.”

    Maybe she had a point. He did dream of things he’d seen. It wasn’t the dead that haunted him, but the burnt villages and ruined crops, the unmilked cows wandering the roads. Life was cheap, he knew that. It was the wasted effort that annoyed him.

    Sensing the presence of a divorce issue, the Lieutenant wrote instead to a chap with whom he’d been at school, who’d gone into the antiques business. He’d scarcely had time to take up this employment, when he found himself on the receiving end of a divorce suit anyway. One day, leafing through the property pages, looking for a bachelor flat, something else caught his eye.

    ‘For auction – Boskenna Farm. In need of renovation.’

The house was exactly as the Lieutenant had seen in the paper, only larger and sadder. He was dismayed to find the agent also showing round another potential buyer, a tanned American who smiled like a corporate brochure.

    “It’s in a bit of a state, I’m afraid,” said the agent. “Not been farmed for years. Shame, really.”

    “I’m figurin' pull that down,” said the American, pointing at what the Lieutenant suspected was a medieval tithe barn. “Build a conference centre. Lecture hall, log cabins, a swimmin’ pool.”     “You won’t get planning permission,” he said.     The American looked like he’d never heard of planning permission. “I have - lawyers,” he said.

    “It’s a bloody long way from anywhere,” said the Lieutenant, sharper than he intended.

    The American looked him up and down. “You get in a car wreck or somethin’?”

    “I was in the army.”

    “You get a lotta bad karma offa killin’ people.”

    The Lieutenant reflected that it was a long time since he had genuinely wanted to punch someone. Fortunately, at this point an old man emerged from behind a water-butt, carrying a shovel.

    “This is Hoskins,” said the agent. “Handyman. Employed by estate. He’ll show you round.”

    “Ah seen enough,” said the American. He leant against the porch, jingling change in his pockets. The Lieutenant was pleased to see a streak of green slime stain his linen suit.

    The Lieutenant followed the old man down a stony track, through a fringe of woodland, thick with oak and elder. They came to a stile. Beyond was an empty cottage, a steep slope and high walls. The Lieutenant climbed over, carefully – he could see the old man watching him – and went through the gap.

    He was standing in a place so beautiful he couldn’t have dreamt it. A river, bounded by trees, ran to the ocean. He saw blue sky and white stones, green fields and red berries; heard birds in the hedgerows, the booming smash of surf.

    His hands moved, like he found them empty, and his eyes watered. He put his hand to his face, lest the old man see, and looked down.

    Beneath his feet, was the imprint of the largest horseshoe he’d ever seen.

    “Is this a bridlepath?” he asked.

    “Oh, that’s just Boskenna,” said the old man, vaguely.

The American buys the place for an eye-watering sum. In the weeks that follow a wild, pointless frustration comes over the Lieutenant. He wants to do something stupid, so he takes his secretary, a woman eighteen years his junior, out to dinner. After a few months, rather stupidly, he’s finds he’s in love. This is going to be a mistake, he thinks, even as he smiles for the wedding photographs.

    It’s almost two years to the day from when he first saw the farm, when his business partner wanders into his office, waving a paper.

    “Tim,” he says. “That place you had an interest in – up for sale again.”

    “How come?”

    “Some sort of scandal.”

    “I can’t. It’s absolute madness. I’ve got a wife and baby.”

    But on the day of the auction, he gets up at four, drives west for six hours.

    That evening, standing in the courtyard, he’s startled to meet the same old man. “Not retired yet?” he says.

    “Just Tuesdays and Fridays, though mostly I come up Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday as well.”

    “What happened to…”

    “Oh Sir, you don’t know?”

    “Know what?”

    “He were murdered, Sir.”

    “WHAT? Where?”

    “Here, Sir. Stabbed, he were.”

    “Who did it?”

    “Oh, I couldn’t tell you that, Sir.”

    “But didn’t they have any leads?”

    “Oh, everybody know who it was, Sir.”

    “Ah,” says the Lieutenant, digesting this information. “That might explain why no-one else seemed to want to buy it, then.”

    The old man laughs, a sharp sound like a fox barking.

They take possession in January. He spends the first week just walking. He wants to know it all: every wall and tree and ditch. The weather changes every ten minutes: fog to wind to warm and back again. He comes homes exhausted, a vile ache spreading up through his leg into his hip and spine.

    Next, he throws himself at the work: ripping ivy off the house, moving dead wood. At the end of the second week, the mess is as bad as ever. Frustrated, he retreats into the house, draws up a plan of campaign, strategy, tactics.

    All spring he gets up at six, comes home at nine. The more he sees of the place the more he finds to see. Heaped rubbish reveals walls: walls open to show fireplaces. Neglect has protected a thousand interesting things.

    “Honestly, I never see you,” complains his wife. “Like being married to a man with a mistress.”

    He mutters something apologetic. It is passion that he feels for the land. Its curves, its secrets, its capricious ways fascinate him. As summer heightens, the ache that filled his body eases. Autumn begins to fall. In October, he finds a pumpkin in the garden of the derelict cottage.

    “I thought you could make a lantern,” he says to Sukey.

    “But we should eat it,” she says. “It’s the first thing we’ve grown.”

    Halloween comes up unseasonably warm and wet. Wind drives at the window panes. The pumpkin tastes watery but pleasant, strangely full of life. He’s just opening a bottle when outside, he hears the noise. A sharp, metallic clink, like a horse’s bridle. He stares at his wife.

    “Expecting someone?” he says.

    “No. Were you?”

    The temperature drops, like a cold wind blew. A hoof scrapes on cobbles. Then a thump on the door: bang, bang, bang.

    He goes to the door. As he undoes the latch, a stench of frost and horse-sweat comes in. On the threshold is a man, dwarfed by the horse he rides. He has black hair, curled in thick ringlets: a beard, peppered with grey. Beaten gold glints at his neck. A great dark cloak billows round him. The Lieutenant cannot say what the man’s eyes look like: he can’t bring himself to look.

    “I am Lord over these lands,” says the man. “I have been long riding, and I am very thirsty. Lady, bring me wine.”

    For a second she stands, frozen, then runs and comes back. Wine slops on her fingers. The man on the horse leans down and takes the glass. The Lieutenant feels the man’s eyes on him. He doesn’t look up, but he feels it. Somehow, the Lieutenant finds his hand lifting up in a salute. The man on the horse nods, as if accepting his due. He sinks the wine, throws the glass on the cobbles. It smashes. Then he wheels the horse, and is gone.

    In the morning, neither of them refer to the incident. The Lieutenant finds Hoskins sweeping leaves out of the drive. “Hoskins,” he says. “Who did kill the American?”

    Hoskins looks surprised, like this is a daft question. “Why, Sir,” he says. “It were Lord Boskenna. He don’t pay him no respect, see.”

Winter curves into spring. Catkins come out on the hazel trees. The baby begins to walk, tottering over the cobbles. He buys some pedigree cattle: small and ancient looking, with curly brown coats. They look oddly at home on the rough, stony soil. Summer boils: soil dries up, plants wilt, and the sky stays blue for months. Then it’s gone, and another pumpkin grows in the cottage garden.

    “Halloween,” he says. “We should go out – a restaurant – “

    “I’m cooking,” says Sukey, with unusual stubbornness.

    While she is cooking the pumpkin he goes upstairs, fidgets with papers. He looks out of the window. In the light of the front porch he sees Sukey open the door. She is carrying a plate. She puts it down on a table, brings wine and a glass, leaves the door wide, and goes back to the kitchen.

    The Lieutenant thinks about this. Then he takes a copy of the plan he’s drawn up for the farm, goes down to the porch and leaves it under the plate. He feels a bit stupid.

    They sit down to dinner, strangely jumpy and polite. Then it comes: the noise of hooves outside. The outer door bangs. They sit, rigid, hardly breathing. Outside, a glass smashes on cobbles. After five minutes the two of them uncurl their fingers.

    “Do you think,” says Sukey, cautiously, “he did kill the American?”

    “Yes,” he says. “Almost certainly.”

    “Are you afraid?”

    The Lieutenant thinks about this. “No,” he says. “I have seen dead people before, you know,” he adds.

    “Yes,” says Sukey. “But they were dead dead people, weren’t they?”

    This sends the two of them into hysterical laughter. The Lieutenant looks at his wife, and wonders what happened to the air-headed girl that he married. It occurs to him then, that in fact, marrying her is probably the first sensible thing he’s done in his life. This falls on him so suddenly, and he is so unable to put it into words, that he can only seize her hands and hold them hard, saying nothing, while the gravy begins to go cold.

When spring comes, he realises that the farm is no longer the neglected, sad place that he purchased. The cows are fat; the hedges tidy; the barns roofed. Even the locals have stopped looking at him like he won’t last a week. He takes on two more people: some monosyllabic relative of Hoskins, and Kevin, an ex-squaddie from Lincolnshire with an encyclopaedic knowledge of potatoes. Summer passes.

    At Halloween, they leave a bottle of wine and a glass outside. Finding it untouched, the Lieutenant feels strangely sad, like a friend neglected to visit. Winter falls. His wife’s belly begins to swell again. At Christmas, there are twelve people at the dinner table. Standing in the courtyard, he hears not silence, but the hum of work, the squawk of voices. He holds up his hands, and looks at them. Soil has collected in the creases.

    Late in February, his wife and children go to visit her family. For the first time in a long time, he finds himself alone on the farm. Rain pours down. He closes the shutters, and begins to work his way through the paperwork. The rain turns to a violent rattle. At midnight, the phone rings.

    “Eh Sir, we can’t get ‘ome,” says Kevin’s voice. “We’re stuck in the pub. Tide’s across road. Winds gone round.”

    The Lieutenant opens a shutter: it bangs closed again. A slate pitches from the roof and smashes. “Stay there,” he orders.

    The Lieutenant takes a torch and goes out in the courtyard. He gets in the landrover, drives down the track. Water floods the cottage garden, swamping the daffodils.

    The tide has pushed right up the beach. Breakers smash at the cliffs, spray flying. He parks the Landrover, stops for a moment to admire the storm. Lightening illuminates everything: sea, cliffs, land. It lights up the cows, huddling in the shed. Water from a newly formed stream runs round their feet, and the iron sheets from the shed roof blow around the field. The cattle eye him despondently, like the storm’s his fault.

    He opens the gate and shoos them into a field up the valley, catches the flying metal, and stacks it inside. Water makes its way down his neck. He realises he’s whistling.

    He goes back for the landrover, climbs in, turns on the headlights, and curses.

    He goes back for the landrover, climbs in, turns on the headlights, and curses.     The bridge he drove over is completely submerged. Flood from the sea meets flood from the land. He can see the bridge where it disturbs the flow of water, so he starts the engine, and drives towards it. Spray smashes at the windscreen. The landrover moves forward, then tilts. It shifts slowly sideways, and he knows it’s going over, seconds before it does. The landrover swings round, metal crunching onto stone; the windscreen smashes. He feels the crack as his ribs are punched inward, opens his mouth to yell. Cold, salt water rushes in.

    He’s not sure how he gets out, just that he lies on the mud, panting. The landrover lies on its side. One headlight shines uselessly in the darkness, flickers, and dies. Pain swamps his body. Seawater and blood run down his face. It occurs to him, coldly, logically, that he’s miles from a phone, and no-one’s in the farm. In short, he’s going to die.

    He gets up, leans on a tree. He feels angry.

    He walks a little, stops. It gets harder to breathe, like someone leant a dead weight on him. Then he keels over. The world swims round. He holds onto the grass. Before him, at a strange angle, he sees the river flooding into the sea, the waves that come to embrace it. Ragged clouds part, revealing a carpet of stars. He feels the wind on his face. A voice, which might be his, calls out something.

    Quiet spreads around him, as if the wind, and the water, and the storm have all been dulled. In the silence he hears it: the thud, thud, thud of a horse’s hooves. The hooves come closer. He squeezes his eyes shut. Terror fills him, swamping every other sensation. There’s a thump, the shuffle of feet in wet grass, a stench of horse-sweat and the dead, dead, cold. Something brushes his face.

    A voice, right next to his ear, says: “You keep my lands well, soldier.” Close enough that he should feel the breath. Breath there is none. Terror and pain overwhelm him: he faints.

Next thing he knows, a light shines in his face. He feels a moment’s disappointment that the afterlife should be so predictable, before the light resolves itself into the headlights of an ambulance. He becomes conscious that he is lying in the road, outside the farm gates. More than two miles from where he passed out. Kevin is kneeling in the road at his side, holding his hand and weeping. He stares at this sight in disbelief. Kevin never weeps, he is an ex-squaddie from Lincolnshire with an encyclopaedic knowledge of potatoes.

    A paramedic leans over him. The man looks terrified: the whites of his eyes glitter.

    “Sir,” he says, “I need to know if someone attacked you?”

    The Lieutenant thinks about this for a bit. Rain falls on his skin.

    “No,” he says, though it takes him one whole breath for each word. “ I was… alone.” He turns his face away from the glare. In the mud, right next to him, an enormous hoof-print is slowly filling with water.