A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMASEly Cathedral

(by Ely OnLine correspondant Alistair Kitching)

An Ely Christmas Ghost Story – Day 1 – 21st December

Arthur did not appear at Ely railway station to meet me and, not knowing the town, or being able to hail a cab at such a late hour (it was almost 10), I was forced to work my way as intuitively as I could toward the top of the hill.

Those same writers who have chipped away so heartlessly at my friend’s reputation in recent years, following the re-investigation of the case, would’ve chuckled to see me blunder through the miasma of fog and snow on such a circuitous and meandering path.

This lengthy preamble to my arrival, however, was as nothing to the bizarre events which followed during the next few days and it is only in order to set the account straight that I know lay it down before you.

I understand that the great lantern tower of the Cathedral has now been illuminated and is a charming beacon for the flat fenlands that surround the Isle. In those days, the evening of the nineteenth century, no such assistance from on high was available and I only had the memory of the cathedral’s bulk, glimpsed briefly and dimly from the train, to orientate me.

Arthur, who had just been made a House master at the boy’s school, had told me that his quarters were situated close to the great church and with this in mind I ploughed eagerly if erratically on.

After half an hour’s fruitless endeavour along narrow terraced streets and up a small hill, I noticed an inn through the murky swirl, signposted “The Windmill”. I stepped in and stamped my feet noisily on the doormat, dislodging a spray of snow across the hallway. I looked up to see a dozen sets of eyes in the small public bar assessing me. I smiled and gradually the customers returned to their drinks.

Approaching the man behind the bar, I asked for a whiskey to scare off the cold. He was a big, red-faced chap, with a nose beginning to show the signs of too much port and a belly beginning to show the signs of not enough exercise.

“Apologies sir,” I said. “I didn’t quite expect to make such a dramatic entrance.”

He nodded but said nothing.

“I’m lost,” I continued. “I arrived in Ely just half an hour ago and this blessed fog and snow has confused me terribly. I’m after the King’s School. Do you think you could set me right?”

The man seemed to take an age and then without taking his eyes off me shouted “Seth!” over his shoulder. A young lad, no more than fourteen, appeared behind him, looking at me as uncertainly as the barman had done. For a moment a very uncomfortable silence fell across our group, until I stammered, once again, “I’m after the King’s School?”

The boy walked around the bar and out to the front door. He pointed across the road.

“See that lane there? Head down there. Left, then right. At the green cross the road and walk left. The school’s through the big ol’ gateway.” And, as tersely as he offered his help he withdrew it, retreating back into the pub and letting the door bang loudly behind him.

It was an inauspicious start to my time in Ely, but more importantly it meant I was becoming increasingly late at the school. Arthur would begin to believe I was not turning up. I headed down the road the boy had directed and pretty soon had walked out onto the green he had described. I noted with some shame that I recognised it, and must’ve passed this way earlier.

I crossed the road as instructed and walking to the left soon found the enormous stone gateway the lad had predicted. Beyond it’s arch faint yellow lamps indicated a sign of welcome life. I stepped into the alcove and started as a figure almost bumped into me. Like me he had his head bowed to the elements.

I apologised for almost colliding with him, but as I turned I could only see his back vanish around the corner I had just traversed. For some reason which I cannot explain I experienced a momentary urge to pursue him, but it was a thought that disappeared as soon as it was conceived. I was cold, hungry and late. What I really needed was a warm fire, food and wine and the generous company of my old college friend.

The entrance to the school building, a long venerable looking structure to my right was obvious, a huge wooden door with a large diamond-shaped gas lamp suspended above it. The cathedral must therefore be … I turned to my left and saw it, or rather sensed it, for visibility was, as I have said, appalling. In the gloom, the huge bulk sat there, just darker than the night that surrounded it, an unknowable mass that would have to wait for the morning.

I entered through the school door and, once again, stamped the snow off my boots. This time no sets of eyes looked up to see me. I was on my own in a great entrance hall. Beyond, candles lit several doorways off to the left and right. It was completely still and silent. I took a step forward and listened again. Nothing. Of course, it was just four days before Christmas, and so I did not expect to see too many boys running around, but someone, surely, would be at hand. The first doorway loomed up on my left and I stepped carefully towards it. I knocked and moved my hand to the handle, turning it gently.

“Hello?”

I pushed and opened the door a hair’s breadth. The room, if it was a room, was pitch black.

“Hello George!”

I jumped, turning around in shock, to see Arthur, a huge grin creasing his face, standing behind me. He laughed heartily to see my discomfort and even more to witness my foolish attempts at telling him I wasn’t at all frightened. After a few minutes he clapped an arm around my shoulders in welcome and marched me up the corridor to a grand staircase.

“Right!” he said, still smiling at his triumph. “Let’s get some food and drink sorted out. You must be famished. I’ve eaten, but I’ll join you in a glass or two. We can toast your doctorate and then I’ll bore you with my school tales.”

We arrived at his rooms, modestly decorated but boasting a fine log fire and two tall-backed red leather chairs well placed for fireside discussions, and soon fell into the habits of our old college days, the stories of triumph and disaster, as young men are wont to describe their daily battles, of our new found professional pride and pretty girls we had noticed beyond the cloistered walls of the university. Arthur’s good humour was infectious, as it always had been.

As midnight approached and I began to wonder if I might be allowed to retire, his mood finally slowed. The fire began to fade in the hearth and as he busied himself finding me blankets and pillows he stopped in his tracks and looked at me for a few seconds.

“George, old friend, what do you think of the notion of ghosts?”

I had never heard him discuss such fanciful things before, and his change of mood fair sent a cold wave across me. I twisted in the chair to look at his face. As he stood there, his arms full of bedding, it was difficult to work out what he must mean, the fire had guttered enough to make his expression unreadable. I looked back into the embers.

“I don’t know. I understand the popular novelists enjoy such things. Myself, I can’t say, as I have never really considered the idea. Why?”

Arthur threw the blankets on the couch to his right and sat back in the chair. He leaned forward, his features now washed in the orange glow from the fire.

“Because, George, I believe I have seen one, here in Ely.”

Day 2 – December 22nd

The clock on the mantle chimed the hour. I looked at my friend in disbelief. Ghosts? He had never entertained such ideas in the past. It was true that since graduation we had communicated infrequently, and five years is a long time to lose track of someone’s state of mind but I would never have imagined that he might begin to be influenced by such ephemera.To be honest with myself, I was momentarily disappointed in him.

He was staring fixedly into the remains of the fire. As the last chimes of midnight faded, he began to speak.

“I have been happy here, please don’t imagine that these are the wild fancies of a disillusioned man. Far from it. This place has already surpassed our college days in my mind. I am richly rewarded here, the life of a young schoolmaster may not be particularly pernicious, quite the contrary, but there are other ledgers against which one must make account.

The other teachers, one or two exceptions aside, are very friendly, the boys are easy to tutor and the town is a delight. My five years here have really been very contented ones.

“Three weeks ago, however, at the start of December, things began to change. We have, had I should say, an old caretaker here, Phillipson. He’d been here since the Ark, he was that old. Well, all summer it was obvious that he was beginning to struggle with his duties and when the leaves began to pile up in the courtyard during October it became obvious that things were reaching a desperate pass.

The Headmaster, Dr Carr, has been here many years and well understood the worth that Phillipson brought to this place, but he needed to balance the needs of the school also and so, rather than offer the old gentleman a retirement package, he decided to take on an understudy.”

“Very clever,” I said. “The logic being that would in fact emphasise just how much work needed to be done and therefore put Phillipson’s retirement decision within his own grasp?”

“Just so.
Carr wished Phillipson to call a conclusion to things himself. He hoped that Christie’s appointment might exacerbate matters.”

“Christie is the caretaker’s understudy?” “Yes. About our age. Tall, rangy chap. We may see him mooching about tomorrow. At first he was excellent, very helpful, very eager. We thought we’d really solved the problem with something to spare. But after that first week, things began to change. One or two people noticed that Christie and Phillipson were conversing rather bitterly and that the old man looked more and more troubled by the exchanges.

After two weeks Phillipson handed his notice in. He looked awful and, so the Head told me,not a little heartbroken. Three days ago he collapsed in the street, just five hundred yards from here, and was dead within minutes. The funeral was today, round the corner in St Mary’s. I spoke to his daughter, she was devastated.

Since then, the atmosphere around the school has been very heavy. There are just a few boys staying over the holiday period but it has been enough to hang a dark cloak of sadness across the place.”

“And Christie?”

“Well, this is the thing. In uncharitable moments I have given myself over to thinking that he would be secretly pleased about the affair, but it is as if he had lost his own father. I have never seen a man so distraught. This morning he came to see me and sat in the very chair your in now. I was amazed as I have barely spoken two sentences to the man since he started,but I am led to believe that he does not come from Ely originally and seems a fairly lonely figure, yet why he decided to confide in me I’m afraid I don’t know. He made no sense, his eyes were wild and he was sweating profusely. After much coercing he started to talk and when he did, why I couldn’t stop him!

“He told me how upset he was about Phillipson’s death and how terribly sad it was that they had parted on bad terms. Then his mood became even more conspiratorial and he whispered that he had seen the old man, just last night, two days after he had been put into the ground!”

I gasped, despite myself. “Where? Where did he see him?”

“Outside here, the road that leads up to the Cathedral, it is called the’Gallery’. Christie had finished his duties and was walking back home at about eleven. He says the night constable had just passed him and told him the time. He lives along the Lynn Road and so would be heading out to the north. In front of him a figure approached and he realised as it veered unerringly towards him that it was Phillipson. He was dumbstruck, frozen to the spot. He told me he couldn’t remember anything after that, but must’ve fainted. The night constable found him on his return patrol, presumably at midnight, and escorted him home.”

“You don’t believe him, Arthur? Surely not? The man is obviously feeling guilty about Phillipson’s death. I imagine he has dreamt this whole scenario up as some form of comfort for those who might miss the caretaker.” I stoked the fire a little, showering hot embers up the chimney.

“No, George,” said my friend. “Ordinarily I would agree with you. But he struck me as a man telling the truth. In fact, he was fiercely persuasive. I sent a boy to the constable’s office who returned my message in the affirmative, confirming that Christie had been found in a state of distress. Then, well, then I had verification.”

“What can you mean?”

Arthur looked me in the eye. His voice dropped. “There are three boys here over the holidays. This evening, I can’t quite believe it, but this evening one of them stopped me in the corridor and asked why Mr Phillipson was standing at the school gates.”

Day 2 (part ii) 22nd December

I slept badly. Arthur’s story, unbelievable as it was, filtered in and out of my dreams and during the moments when I was awake I could think of nothing else.

Consequently, I rose much later than I had intended and, once dressed, discovered that Arthur had already left, I assumed for school business. He had told me that there were still boys in residence and they must therefore require some level of supervision. If, I deduced, the majority of the masters had family commitments then it would be logical that the burden of responsibility for the boarders would fall with my host. And so, with little to do before his return, I busied myself with assessing my orientation within the school. Arthur’s rooms looked out on two fronts. One, to the road which he had, if I remembered correctly, called ‘The Gallery’, beyond which lay a set of old buildings that I imagined were also part of the school. Adjacent to this lay the small green I had crossed the previous evening. The fog had lifted and the snow, which looked fairly thick, gave the scene a tranquil unruffled air. Through the other set of windows sat the massive south-facing side of the cathedral. I had seen sketches before but I was unprepared for the beauty of it. The great lantern tower, unique in all these isles was a wonder to behold. I wished very much to leave this room and immerse myself in it, put I had no key and not knowing when Arthur would return dare not leave. I contented myself with organising a modest breakfast and sitting in the window seat ready for my companion’s return.

The last dregs of my coffee were barely cold when Arthur entered the room. He was dressed, not as I imagined, in his school robes, but a simple casual woollen suit.

“George, you found the breakfast things then? Good, good. Come on, let’s get ourselves ready! We have a busy day! I should warn you that I may be called upon at a moment’s notice, however,” he said. “One of the boys was taken ill in the night. It may be that I have to take over from the Nurse at some stage.”

I could not pretend I wasn’t disappointed. “Couldn’t another teacher take over?”

“No, the others left yesterday. There’s just the Nurse, myself, Jeannie the scullery maid, oh and Christie of course. Even Carr has gone now.”

“And the three boys.”

“What? Oh yes, and the three boys.”

“What’re their names? Will I meet them?”

“Turlough, Stevenson and Barnes. Stevenson is the youngest, a first year. The others are in the Fourth. You’ll get to see them as they’ll be taking their Christmas meal with us. Anyway, come on, I’m free now so we may as well make the most of it. I’ve told Nurse that we’ll be in the cathedral for the morning in case she needs to send for me.”

We spent several hours in the cathedral, entering via the south transept door. In recent times the use of electric light and decline of incense in our english churches has, for me, irrevocably damaged the atmosphere of first walking into a holy place. At the time I am talking about, though, the heavy silver and gold thuribles still swung up and down the naves, filling the great space with the very essence of their mystical medieval power. The lantern tower, even grander from inside, the high Norman arches, the ringing steps of priests and their acolytes, all vied for my attention. I craned my neck constantly, admiring the fine artwork on the ceiling and the pillar capitals wreathed in stone flowers. Arthur introduced me to the Precentor who told us we must attend the Christmas matins as he had a very special programme of early music planned. All told, it was an astonishing morning, and when we left, blinking into the midday sunshine, dazzled by the snow, I was breathless.

“What do you think?” asked Arthur, pulling his gloves on, and looking up and down the street.

“It’s a magnificent place, old friend. You’re very lu-”

“No, no. What do you think of the matter we discussed last night? I knew you weren’t listening. I was just saying that we were now in the Gallery. See, down there to your left? There is the Magna Porta, the school entrance. And here-” he strode several steps down the road and I was obliged to follow, a little flustered – “is where the night constable discovered Christie the night before last.”

“I’m sorry, I thought we had dismissed this as the ramblings of a man with a guilty conscience and a schoolboy’s mischief-making?”

Arthur shook his head and smiled. “You had done that, George. I feel there is something to their stories.” I could not believe that we had stepped so artlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous. The cathedral had excited my altruism but I was nowhere nearly as susceptible as Arthur would require to accept this.

“George,” he said, trying to be calm. “The boy who says he saw Phillipson standing just across there at the gate is Stevenson, the first year, Stevenson. He is now the boy who lies in the sick room, shaking with a fever.”

“All the more reason to dismiss his nonsense, if he’s delirious.”

“He wasn’t when he told me he’d seen Phillipson standing at the gate. Come, let us check back at the school and then take lunch at the ‘White Hart’.”

Nurse was happy for us to continue our tour of the town and so it was that a couple of hours later we sat back from an excellent luncheon at the ‘White Hart’ and watched as Ely’s residents milled around the market square on their daily travails. Later that afternoon, Arthur routed us down to the river and then back up via the incline through the park to allow me another excellent view of the cathedral. The light faded quickly and soon we were back in Arthur’s rooms, after a detour to the Nurse to inform her of our return, lighting a fire and stamping some warmth back into our feet and hands.

The day had tired me, and despite my best endeavours I must have fallen asleep in the fireside chair. I woke up with a start, not knowing where I was, or indeed the time, but with a loud banging coming from the door. Arthur was nowhere to be seen and so I stumbled, wearily, to see who might be disturbing me. I swung the door open and found a young man, no more than sixteen years old, staring at me with some agitation. I rubbed my eyes and tried to look as accommodating as possible.

“Hello, you must be either Turlough or Barnes, I think? Arth- …Mr Lloyd isn’t here at the moment.”

The boy looked extremely anxious. “I know sir, he’s downstairs sir. It’s you we want. I’m afraid there’s been some trouble. It’s Mr Phillipson, sir. He’s come back.”

Day 2 (part iii) 22nd December

I stepped out of Arthur’s quarters into a nightmare.

Immediately the door closed behind me I realised that I was solely dependent upon a boy I’d never met before. As we turned the first corner I found myself in a corridor I didn’t recognise. The darkness closed around us like a blanket, and the boy (was it Turlough or Barnes, I still hadn’t found out) was beginning to fast outpace me. I was also wildly disoriented from having just woken up in such a startling manner and thoroughly confused by the information I had been handed; Phillipson back? Arthur in trouble? What did it all mean?

Turlough (or Barnes) ducked out of sight round a darkened corner, I reached the bend just in time to see him vanish again. Around this next curve and there he was, this time pulling a door open and – by the sound of his steps – immediately descending. I hit the door a few seconds later, stumbling on the first step but regaining my balance. It was darker still in this room and I discovered to my horror that I could no longer see the young lad who’d led me here. But another thought struck me before the previous one had even faded: where on earth was I?

I stopped running. My breath came in great gasps and my heart pounded, I told myself, with the exercise. But I knew it was more than that. I tried to listen, for it was the only sense I could trust in the dark.

A scream, a child’s scream ripped through the pitch black and hit me square in the face. It had come from there, no, to my left, no… I span around. Where to turn? I couldn’t see the walls of the room I stood in, so carefully I inched forward, hands in front of me, my eyes straining for some definition in the gloom.

Eventually my fingers touched a surface, a wall! I eased myself around, feeling the brick, steadily working myself along until, I hoped, a door. But then my fingers passed across something softer, something made of fabric, something substantial behind it, something moving. I moved my hand up, across a .. a shoulder, a neck, a jawline and a face. A face, sticky and wet, cold and unmoving. A face which started to come away in my hands…

As I fall into a darkness greater than I have know before, I sense people shouting, trying to be happy. Shouting something in unison.

My room here looks down onto the rear yard of the ‘Windmill’. I find this has a certain ironic quality, but such observations in no way compensate for the fact that I am not allowed a view of the cathedral.

I never found out if the boy was Turlough or Barnes, and I would really like to know, for I think that in the final moment the scheme required a cool head, and perhaps it was the head of the instigator, the mastermind if you will. This is why I do not blame Arthur, well, only in part.

And I do not believe he could’ve dreamt it up. He at least has the good grace to visit me. Phillipson did for a while, as did Christie, but now it is just Arthur, my faithful old friend, although even his trips here have reduced in frequency over the years. He has offered to come and see me this Christmas as usual, for my birthday. I am, of course, always pleased to see him, but I would perhaps prefer it if this year he did not plan any surprises.

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