Liverpool is a cosmopolitan place. In its great public buildings, its fine squares, hotels and railway stations it breathes forth am atmosphere reminiscent of the Capital. Outside St. Georges Hall by the Wellington Memorial, watching old ladies feeding the pigeons, you might, were it not for the rich scouse accents that assail you on all sides, imagine yourself in Trafalgar Square. The Liver buildings, Liverpool's two great cathedrals, the St. Johns Precinct Tower all these things give the city a river frontage and distant skyline matched nowhere north of the Capital. Like Londons 'Greater London' Liverpool too, engulfs a 'Greater Merseyside', old villages and communities swallowed up long ago by the relentless march of suburbia. Amid the ring roads, schools, shopping centres and endless streets of semi detached houses, ancient stones lurk unsuspected in unprepossessing nooks and crannies, unimagined at first view, awaiting discovery by the stranger.
So I arrived and discovered the buses were on strike! Odd how when you recall a day that marks a major watershed in your life it is the trivial things that most often mark the moment as special. Canning Place, Liverpool. September 1968. Fresh off the Lancashire United coach from Manchester. Destination St Judes College, Chilwell, a place five miles out into the suburbs and not a bus in sight! Here I was, a student teacher about to embark upon my first year of teacher training. For me, not long free of my mother's apron strings, it marked the start of a great adventure. But there weren't any buses, and having little more than five pounds to live on in anticipation of the arrival of a grant cheque, taking a taxi was not an option. It was no good. I would have to walk. Four months had elapsed since that first successful interview, and although I had visited the college before, I had not the least idea as to how I should get to it. I would simply have to ask the way.
Behind the coach terminus at Canning Place was a patch of muddy waste ground, the site of a demolished warehouse. In one corner of it, hard against the grubby bricks of the neighbouring building, a ricketty green shack sold coffee, hot dogs and bacon butties. Tired and famished after my long journey from North Yorkshire, I decided to seek out both refreshment and advice.
"Chilwell? Bit of walk that wack! You gorra get out onto the Smithdown Road an' follow it as far as Queens Drive. Yer cant miss that. Its the ring road. Then yer turn left along it to Chilwell Roundabout and that'll bring yerout near the village."
"But how do I get to, what you say - the Smithdown Road- from here.
"That's easy. Turn right on the end of here and head for the Metropolitan Cathedral. Yer can't miss that. Its like a Lords coronet. That'll get yer up near the Uni - from there you walk out past the Coffee House towards Penny Lane. But you'll not recognise it. The'yve nicked all the street signs. Bloody silly if you ask me. See that warehouse over there? Far side o' that was what they used to call the 'Cavern Club'. Them lads used to come here an' get a coffee an' a chip butty on their way home."
"The Beatles? You're kidding me!"
"Think what yer like mate. I tell yer in them days, them lads didn't have two ha'pennies to rub together! Nobody thought things would have turned out the way they did."
And so I set off on my lonely oddysey around the suburbs of Liverpool. It was three in the afternoon before perspiring and footsore I rolled up outside the gates of St. Judes' - which was to be my home for the next three years.
St. Judes dated from the 1930's. Modelled on pseudo monastic lines it consisted of two three storeyed dormitory blocks and a range of college buildings constructed round a central cloister garden with a fountain. The central block, containing the chapel and principal's offices was surmounted by a high green clocktower. Newer buildings - a gymnasium, science and music blocks, lecture rooms and an assembly hall cum theatre had been built adjacent in the early sixties. Beyond lay Ambleside House (a new hall of residence) looking out over playing fields and an orchard. St. Judes had originally been an all girl's college, but the co-educational sixties had seen the admission of male students, and I was, I was informed, in the third male intake.
I was assigned to room 5, Unit Six, Ambleside House. The only male block out of seven female units. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of my fellow students here hailed from Yorkshire, and it wasn't long before some wag had posted a large 'YORKIES' sign over the unit entrance.
Foremost among my new found comrades-in-iniquity was Ben Turnbull. He was firmly convinced that the best thing about Liverpool was 'the road back to Rotherham'. Tall and thin, with thick glasses and long hair he had been the first person I had spoken to on my arrival at St. Judes. We quickly became firm friends. Then there was Dave Flower from Barnsley, Donald 'Wally' Malham from Leeds, 'Squire' John Sattonstall a farmer's son from Grassington, Dave Johns from Halifax, and last, but by no means least - Clive Barber, the only scouser in the group - thick set with a shock of red hair, 'mutton chop' sideboards and a total looney! Between us we formed the elite corps of soon-to-be notorious 'unit six' - misfit city!
Life at St. Judes at the end of the 'swinging sixties' was a hoot. It was a friendly campus, a small, relatively intimate community, lacking the lonely isolation often suffered by degree students at the University in town. Indeed it soon became virtually impossible to walk from one side of the campus to the other without greeting at least six fellow students of one's aquaintance!
St. Judes was a Church of England College, but this did not stop it intaking Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews and even the odd Muslim student! It did however, in consequence of it having been a girls college, entertain some ideas somewhat out of step with the swinging values of 1968. One such idea was that the college had to act 'in loco parentis' until its students passed the age of twenty one. In practice this meant that everybody had to be in their halls of residence by ten thirty, and lights out and lock up at eleven! Members of the opposite sex were required to vacate students rooms by five pm, and a core of burly scouse 'porters' were employed to ensure these regulations were complied with. It was like one of Her Majesties' Prisons! The only problem with this was that the Labour government had just lowered the age of majority to eighteen, which made the 'in loco parentis' scenario somewhat untenable. Despite this, the college authorities refused to abandon its victorian status quo, and it took a year of demonstrations, sit ins, people climbing through dormitory windows in the small hours, and many hours of dedicated 'porter baiting' before the regime was finally relaxed.
The other problem at St. Judes lay in the realms of liquid refreshment. It had a coffee bar and TV lounge and a refectory, but the sale of alcohol was 'verboten'. Eventually, we got a bar on campus, but even then it was closed on Sundays, forcing us to go to the Sunday bar and disco in the nearby Roman Catholic College!! But in 1968 there was no bar at all, so come weekends, hordes of students would sally forth to partake of the local watering holes. It was one such expedition in search of booze that was to precipitate the frightening sequence of events I am about to relate.
"Alright Mr. Barber. You're the local here. We're pigged off with the bloody beer down at the Lane Ends. Do you know of anywhere else around here where we may partake of some liquid refreshment."
Ben Turnbull nudged 'the squire' aside. "He means - 'where do we get a decent bevvy round here?" Clive Barber grinned, the smile lighting up his flushed and freckly face. "Well you could always try the 'monks trod' lads!""Monks trod?"
So it was, that with Clive leading the way, we set off on our first visit to the Abbey Gate Inn. Chilwell Village lay at the bottom of a narrow winding lane, fringed by trees and picturesque cottages built of reddish brown Cheshire Sandstone, a sudden and refreshing change from the endless brick suburbia that lay all around. The lane wound left by the lych gate of Chilwell Church, a fine mediaeval structure with a tall spire and ancient porch facing out onto a mossy graveyard lined with yew trees and filled with eroded, illegible gravestones, standing in mute testimony to the futility of remembrance.
The pub stood opposite. A weird structure to say the least. The Abbey Gate looked like it had been just that - the gatehouse of a monastery, except that the gateway had been walled up long ago, and the building almost entirely reconstructed in that whimsical 'Gothick' style so fashionable in the early part of the nineteenth century. The whole structure was constructed of chocolate brown sandstone, heavy masonry with 'gothick' lancet windows almost buried in ivy. The eastern end of the building, where the lane curled around it, was half hexagonal in construction. Behind, the lane ended in a gravelly parking area. Inside, the inn was a labyrinth of narrow corridors and low, oak beamed rooms exuding clouds of cigarette smoke and a hubbub of chatter; much of it coming from young people wearing the brown and white scarves of St. Judes. We were not the first, it seemed, to have discovered the delights of the Abbey Gate.
The bar lay to the right of the main entrance. A tall thin young man, with a smart suit and horn rimmed glasses glared malevolently at us as we came in. We scowled back. Mark Storry was President of the Students Union. He had never forgiven Clive for being overly literal when at a recent A.G.M. he had insisted that he speak 'through the chair'. Clive had picked up his seat and done so. Everyone laughed, and Storry felt a fool. Since then he had had it in for the Unit Six Set.
We ordered our beers and made ourselves scarce, opting to drink elsewhere in this mercifully rambling pub. At the end of a narrow hallway, beyond a succession of rooms we passed through a low doorway and entered a room signed 'the Snug'. Inside a warm coal fire crackled in an ancient looking fireplace bordered by oak settles. The room was furnished with plush bar stools, cast iron tables and a couple of window sill lamps with shades showing stagecoach scenes. This room was quite unlike the rest of the pub, exhibiting bare stone walls and a floor partially constructed from curiously patterned red tiles, the rest being heavy stone flags. But the thing that caught the eye, giving a sense of antiquity not found elswhere in the building was the curious stone niche in the wall above the fireplace, and its even more unusual contents. This strange receptacle, crowned by a lancet of gothic tracery enclosing an odd stonecarving of two men riding on a horse, was obviously a fragment from the lost abbey, and it appeared that its contents might also have emanated from the same source. Standing side by side, blackened and cracked by antiquity and fire smoke were three small wooden figurines, each about twelve inches high and executed in a crude style. The three bearded men, in fifteenth century garb, were more or less identical save that one held a book, the second a bell and the third a candle and they had, so far as one could tell, been painted in different colours, now faded, blackened and flaked away, but with enough remaining to give some idea of their original splendour. Enquiries to Harry the landlord regarding their provenance proved unilluminating-
"The little men in the snug? Oh that's 'Bell' 'Book' an' 'Candle'. They've been there as long as anyone can remember. I was gonna throw the 'orrible things out until the vicar got on to the missus and intervened."
"Yeh. 'ee drinks in 'ere. 'Ee reckons they're magic or somethin'. Says that in days gone by folks used to deck them with flowers. He also reckons that the last time they were thrown out they were returned sharp like!"
"Seems they don't like to be moved. Load of bunkum if you ask me, but my Bridie's dead superstitious about things like that, so she left 'em where they were."
And we should have done the same, but students in drink get silly ideas and do even sillier things. It had, after all, been Unit Six who had removed the U.S. flag from outside the American Studies Department and flown it from St. Judes Clocktower. Then there had been the abstract sculpture from the art department that had finished up on the traffic island at Lane Ends. Last, but by no means least, there had been the 'witches sabbath' in the orchard, and it was this inspired prank, dreamed up in one of Clive's less lucid moments, that was to set in motion a most unfortunate train of events.
The orchard behind Ambleside House loomed dark and sinister before us as we rolled home from the 'Monk's Trod'. It was a cool summer's night, I recall, and, despite the efforts of Merseysides' sodium streetlights the stars shone crisply overhead. An owl was hooting somewhere in one of the trees, and a fox (or something!) could be heard scratching in nearby bushes. The orchard, with its cool lawns and shrubs, was in fact, a fine haven for local wildlife, where scouse rabbits would openly frolic in broad daylight. Some of them had a reddish hue to their fur, which made them, according to Clive, devotees of that man Shankly who didn't, (his words!) know a football from a wild hairy haggis! One might be forgiven, in view of this, for imagining Clive an Everton Supporter - but no! His heart belonged to South Liverpool, an obscure Premier League side with enough supporters to fill a minibus! He would attend their matches religiously, shouting and raving frenziedly on the touchline. Clive was not the leader of the Kop - at South Liverpool he was the Kop. Not surprisingly everyone else thought him an utter looney! Beyond the dark orchard, the lights of Ambleside House loomed invitingly. Because there was nothing at the back, the young female inhabitants of units one to four tended not to bother much about drawing curtains, consequently offering a voyeurs paradise to anyone cutting across the orchard. It was almost midnight, and the units had been locked at eleven. At the end of the line unit six lay plunged in darkness. The Squire's room, on the ground floor at the back, had been left with the window slightly open to allow us to come home 'late'. This was why we were wont to climb the wall and cut across the grounds, not of course, to observe nubile young ladies flitting arround in towels, bras, baby doll nighties or even less! They were just the added bonus!
"..........In Rotheram's fair city, where the girls are so shitty, I -"
"Will you can it Ben, you'll have the fair maidens thinking we're prowlers!"
"........ first set my eyes on sweet Spadger Malone....."
"Forget it Dave ... he thinks he IS a prowler!"
".......as she wheeled her six babbies, in a four wheeled.... Oh fuck! I feel sick!!"
"Oh God, now he's putting food down for the bloody rabbits!"
"I didn't think rabbits were partial to greasy chop suey rolls."
"If its chinese my dear fellow, scousers will eat it."
"Not if its partially digested Lord Clive, you ask Mr. Sattonstall here. He used to feed pigs - it makes him an expert."
"Oh I don't know. What about that cheese and mushroom pie they served up in refec. this morning? Looks like sick, tastes like sick and....."
"SHH!! Will you all shut up and let the poor barstard puke in peace?"
A pregnant pause. A moment of half silence, coloured by the drab rumble of distant traffic on the Queens Drive and the sound of Ben Turnbull's pathetic retching softened the still night air. It was the best Liverpool could offer. It didn't last long.
"For Gods sake help him up lads, and let's get inside. Its starting to feel bloody cold out here. That bloody scratching down there. It's positively creepy".
The Squire smiled thoughtfully. "Yes it is is, isn't it. But what if we sort of, somehow, made it creepier?!"
"How do you mean?"
Dave Flower groaned. "Oh no. He's got one of his ideas coming on. If its owt to do wi' climbin' drainpipes we dont want to know. Poor old Clive nearly got killed with that bloody flag!"
"You may relax Mr. Flower. It's nothing of that sort. Lets get inside and I'll tell you over a hot beverage."
Ben Turnbull glanced up, his thick spectacles lying crookedly askew on his pale weary face.
"I hope by beverage he means a black coffee, I couldn't face another beer. Four pints and I've had it." Dave Flower smiled. "Don't worry Ben, you can keep bragging. Your secret is safe with us!"
We got into the Squires room without too much difficulty, apart from having to heave a near catatonic Ben up over the sill. Ten minutes later, with Ben snoring fitfully on the floor, his head supported by a duffel bag and with the rest of us lolling around Sattonstall's room drinking coffee, the squire unfolded his master plan.
"A witches sabbath. We raid the units bedsheets, get some candles from Wally and away we go." "Candles? From Wally?"
"Yes, he's on the folk club committee. They put them in bottles. Come come, you know what I mean - one candle per table and lights out. It lends ambience when everybodys pissed and wailing about 'Wild Mountain Thyme."
"Wot? Yer mean they've got the stuff stashed at the folk club?"
"No they haven't Clive. It's a bloody song. Why is it at the mere mention of herbs you start thinking about cannabis?".
"Its his lack of upbringing my good man, he can't help coming from Liverpool. But what do you think of the idea. It'll have 'em wetting their knickers!"
We all concurred. It was a good one. A witches sabbath in the Orchard. Sunday at midnight. Meeting adjourned, we tucked Benny in his little bed and crashed out for the night.
Sunday dawned murky. It was one of those days, frequently encountered on Merseyside when a car exhaust fog fills the air, and the streets are damp and dirty. The 'Widnes Stink' was upon us, gases discharged from the chemical works which, when the wind was right, made the whole city smell like a stale urinal.
I slept in late, missed breakfast and consequently spent most of the day feeling ravenous. Sunday there was no lunch, and the main dinner at 4pm was invariably a salad, even in the depths of winter. The only solution to this problen was to descend upon the chinese takeaway on Penny Lane, where we could at least get a decent supper. This entailed a walk of nearly a mile and a half, and the place didn't open till eight thirty. All of us, with the exception of Clive, who was inclined to put 'bevvy before belly' and had slunk off down the 'Monks Trod', set off on the 'Macao Marathon' about seven thirty.
The area round Penny Lane was much as John Lennon describes it in his song. A bus shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a fire station, a NEMS record shop, and Bioletti's,the 'barber showing photographs' (and visiting cards) of local 'turns' and groups. As for Penny Lane itself, it was known only to the initiate. Its signs had been stolen long ago, and any attempt to replace them had had the same result. The council had simply given up the ghost! We sat on a bench and scoffed the take-aways, watching the traffic rumbling down the Smithdown Road, and then suitably fed, began the long plod back to St. Judes.
After our return, just after eleven PM, when we had organised the candles and sheets and were almost prepared for our midnight sally into the orchard in rolled Clive, red as a beetroot and well inebriated.
"Is the gig still on then lads?"
Yeh - witches sabbath an' all that!'
We informed him that it was. He grinned.
"Great. I'm glad, cos I brought yer dese pagan idols, to sorta give it a bit of atmosphere like."
He upended the Tesco bag he was carrying onto Sattonstall's bed. Out fell three small gnarled wooden figurines - 'Bell' 'Book' and 'Candle', fresh from the Abbey Gate.
Ben gasped. "What the hell are you doin' with them Clive?"
"Sorta like picked 'em up from the pub."
"You mean you flogged them?"
"Not exactly. More like a fair exchange. You know them three Disney figurines in Dave's room - Mickey, Donald and Goofy?"
"Dear God! You didn't swop them?"
"He bloody well did." I said. "Next thing we'll have the bloody scuffers knockin' on our door!" Clive grinned. "Trouble wi' you lot, is you've no sense of fun. Harry wont mind. He's wanted rid of the bloody things for ages. Its 'is missus who's frightened to let 'em out of the house."
Wally Malham's voice rose timidly from the corner of the room. "And what if she's right Clive. What if there is some sort of curse attached to the horrid looking things. What are you goin' to do then?"
Clive smirked. "You think I'm gonna be driven to top meself or something? I don't believe in that sort o' stuff ye daft beggar."
"Maybe not now," piped up Ben, "but wait till South Liverpool lose on Saturday!!"
The witches sabbath was a great success. We lit our candles, illuminated our evil looking figurines, and, suitably shrouded formed a circle in the dark orchard and began chanting rubbish in pigeon latin....
"NIL ILLEGITIMUS TATUM CARBORU-UN-DUM !" IN FRONTIS NUDIT PUBICUM !
One of the girls in unit four, clad in a nighty with a towel turban on her head spotted us as she was just about to shut her bedroom curtains. She screamed. Heads appeared at windows and other screams followed. Of course it wasn't long before they rumbled what was going on and a fire hose appeared on the scene. "Throw money! Throw money!" shouted Ben. It was no good. They opened up with the hose and we got doused, by the time the hubbub had subsided and we were safely back in unit six we were soaked, and the bedsheets, newly washed the previous day, were wet and muddied. We had to put up with them for the rest of the week, and got a rocket when they finally went in for laundering. Thus passed into legend the 'unit six witches sabbath'!
Two weeks later Ben and I were taking lunch in the refectory when Wally Malham appeared, waved, and grabbed a self service tray. As he did so, Ben leaned across the table in a conspiratorial manner, flashed a glance over to Wally, then turned to me.
"You wearing a watch Jim?" He whispered.
"Of course. Why?"
"Just keep an eye on it when Wally starts eating."
"What? You mean time him?
"Yeh. You'll be amazed!"
Wally by now had run the gauntlet of scouse dinner ladies who plied us with rubber meat, cludgy beans and mashed potato with cold hard bits inside, and tray piled high with food, was soon heading towards our table.
"Hi Wal. Owt new?"
"No. Not really. See it's steak and mash again."
"Steak? Is that what you call it?"
Ben winked at me. "Let the poor lad eat his dinner will you?"
So we did. It was amazing. Wally wolfed his dinner down at an incredible speed, cleared off the ice cream and coffee and the went back for seconds! How anybody could put down that indigestible mashed potato at such a breakneck pace seemed incomprehensible to me, but Wally sucked the plate dry with the ease of a vacuum cleaner! Finally he finished off the carafe and wiped his lips with his napkin. "See you later lads. Can't stay, I've got some exam revision to do in study room one. I'll take those biscuits to put me on til five. Catch you at teatime lads!" He rose to his feet, tucked in the chair and was gone.
"Two minutes thirty five seconds. I'm amazed he had time to chew it!"
"Probably didn't. But he'll be back here at five as ravenous as ever. He's like a void that can't be filled. I just don't know where he puts it all."
"'Appen he's got a tapeworm."
"He's got somethin' James. Its all he ever thinks about these days. Every time I see him he's either eating or talking about eating. He just harps on about being hungry all the time. That's all he seems to do - eat and study."
"Well he always was a bit of a swot has our Walter."
"Yeh. But this eating bit. Its only over the last few weeks he's been like this; and then there's Clive."
"Clive yeh. He's out drinking all the time!"
"So what else is new? Likes 'is booze does our Clive."
"I know, but now he's into lemonade and ginger beer as well!"
"You're kidding. Clives cred would never allow it! "
"I'm not kidding. He carries bottles of pop round in his duffel bag. He only hits the alcoholic stuff when he can afford it. You watch him in refec. tonight. He goes through a whole carafe of water. I tell you there's something wrong with him."
I shrugged. "Maybe it's his kidneys. And booze does make you feel thirsty when it wears off."
"Not like him mate. He's thirsty all the time. It's uncanny. Ever since we had that ruddy witches sabbath in the orchard."
"Oh come on Ben," I said. "Surely you're not going all superstitious on me. I mean what about the rest of us? We were all there weren't we?"
"Well yes, but..."
"I think you're getting paranoid Benny boy. You ought to be giving more thought to the education tutorial this afternoon. I mean we are supposed to be trainee teachers!"
"I know," he grinned. "Sometimes I forget thats all!"
I smiled back at him. "I forget most of the time!!"
The Squire's room was locked. I knocked but there was no answer. Dave Flower poked his head out from the adjacent door. "Whats up owd love?"
"Just wanted to see his nibs about his pink forms. We're only a month off T.P. and I haven't even started yet. Thought he might be in at this time."
Dave Flower scratched his head. "Haven't seen much of him since the weekend. been keepin' himself to himself, an' that's unusual for Squire John. He popped in to see me two days ago about something, but all he seemed to do was to harp on about the temperature all the time."
"I'm not surprised really, it's been stifling hot in bed these last few nights."
"Hot? Nay, he were moanin' about how cold he was. Kept saying my room was like the ruddy arctic. Suggested I turn the central heating up!"
Then we heard a noise in the adjacent room.
"Good Lord. Sounds like there is someone in there. You in there John? You OK?"
There was the sound of a bolt being drawn, and the Squire poked his head around the doorway. He looked awful.
"Sorry lads, I was asleep. Come in, come in and shut the door behind you. I don't want you letting all the heat out."
We entered his room and an amazing sight met our eyes. Not only was the central heating up full, but the Squire had an electric bar fire burning merrily in the far corner. The room was stifling. All the windows were shut, and there was our host in pyjamas and overcoat, sweating profusely! Outside, summer birds were singing and students were lazing on the lawns, and here was Sattonstall muffled up for the winter! This was madness and we told him so!
"Just so cold that all lads. I feel cold all the time. I think I might have caught a bit of a chill when we were out in the orchard."
"Haven't you been up to sick bay?"
"Yes. She sent me to the physician fellow. But he says there's nothing wrong with me. 'Throw physick to the dogs I'll have none of it!'I can't understand what's making me feel like this."
In that moment a thought crossed my mind. There on the Squire's desk was a small blackened figure bearing a candle.
"I see you've still got that weird thing from the pub here. You don't suppose I could borrow it for a while do you?"
"Help yourself. I know you history students like stuff like that. Personally I prefer scientific instruments."
Dave Flower grinned. "Let's not start all that 'arts versus science' stuff again. What you goin' to do with it James?"
"I'm not sure yet. Think I might see if I can find out anything about it." Then another thought crossed my mind. "And what about the other two figurines, what happened to them?"
Sattonstall smiled absently. "Oh... they're all around the unit old chap. Wally Malham's got the 'book' one. I think Clive might have the other!"
This was stretching coincidence a bit far I thought, but for all my rational doubts a small voice deep inside said there had to be a connection. Clive, Wally and Sattonstall all acting strangely and each one in possession of one of these sinister little figurines. There just had to be a link. But what?? Returning to my room I placed 'Candle' by my desk lamp. I resolved that in the sober light of day, I would somehow attempt to find out what this ugly little object was supposed to signify - but tonight I had to write up some history notes.
I worked most of the evening, not so much out of 'swottishness' as out of the realisation that if I didn't get my finger out quickly I was going to flunk my impending teaching practice. By nine o' clock it was twilight and there was a mist over the orchard. Feeling a bit cold I closed the window, pulled on the curtains and switched on my desk lamp. By ten o' clock I was feeling drowsy, so I got into bed and read awhile, finally turning out the lights about 11pm. All was still save for the barking of dogs, the distant rumble of traffic and the mournful sound of a ship plying the Mersey. I sighed, turning over into a foetal position as sleep overcame me.
Now I was dreaming. I was walking down the darkened nave of a great cathedral. It was evening and candles were flickering everywhere. Distantly I could hear a choir in full throat. As I reached the crossing I saw a darkness, not a figure or a living being, just a dark smudge in the air a shapeless prescence, which somehow drew me to turn right, into the southern transept. The transept contained three chapels, but it was the third one that beckoned, its entrance hung over with black velvet drapes edged with a border of splayed scarlet crosses. I parted the curtains and looked inside - a walled up arch with a small oaken door. I entered, not with so much with a feeling of trepidation, but more one of exhilaration at the thought of the gnosis I knew to be beyond that forbidden door. Now I was inside - not in a memorial chapel, but inside a cave, it walls sparkling with crystal and flowstone, reflected in the light of hundreds of small flickering candles, young buds on a great stalagmite of melted wax. The roof of this cave lay high above, invisible in the darkness. The air was stifling, smoky and hard to breathe. I turned to re-enter the transept but could no longer find the door. I pulled and tugged at the drapes but there was nothing behind them but stone. I yelled out in panic as I ran down that corridor to consciousness that ends with a fast beating heart, a cold sweat and the stillness of night.
I jerked awake. It was four am and I felt chilled to the marrow. A weird blue light was flickering on the wall above my bed, intermittently illuminating my darkened room. God I was cold! I struggled to sit upright, and then discovered to my horror that my bedclothes felt stiff to the touch. As my eyes adjusted to the faint light entering the room an amazing sight met my gaze.
The room was coated in white hoar frost. Damp and twinkling it sparkled on the walls and on my bedsheets, twinkling in reflection of that blue flashing light beyond the drapes. On my desk, silhouetted in the gap between the curtains I could make out the tiny crooked figure of 'Candle'. Now I understood. I reached out for the damn thing, intent on throwing it from the window and letting it spend the rest of the night on the orchard lawn. But I was thwarted. As I clutched at it a searing pain shot up my arm and the loathsome thing glowed like a red hot iron in my hand. There was smoke and a shrivelling of flesh. I screamed and passed out.
"You alright me old mate, you look dreadful."
My eyes focussed to reveal the anxious face of Ben peering down at me.
"Oh God! My hand!" I jerked upright instinctively and raised my right arm, but there was no burnt and painful hand. I looked around me. The room was brightly lit up and there was no sign of any frost or moisture. On the contrary, it was stiflingly hot. I must have imagined the whole thing.
"I'm O.K. Just a nightmare that's all. God it was vivid, a dream within a dream."
"I heard you yell out, so I came to investigate."
I looked at my watch. It was 4.15 am. "Hell, look at the time. Sorry I woke you up at this ungodly hour."
"You didn't mate. I was already up. Most of the unit's up in fact. We've had a bit of a flap on. Clive's been taken into hospital."
"Why? What happened?"
"He went round to Dave Flower's complaining of pains in his kidneys. Then he collapsed. So we called the ambulance."
"When did it get here?"
"About four o' clock. It pulled up just outside your window, blue light flashing. I'm surprised you didn't notice."
"Er... I think I did!"
Ben grinned. "Was it in your dream?"
"I suppose it was. It was four am and there was this blue light flashing on the wall."
"It must have half woken you and then you fell back asleep into your dream again."
"I suppose so. Anyway I'm alright now. You'd better get some shuteye. It's main education lectures in the morning. You came to my aid - for what it's worth, thanks mate!"
"Don't mention it."
I settled back into bed, but didn't feel much like going to sleep. Fact is, I was scared to. I lay there a moment reflecting. Then I thought of the figurine. What had become of it? I leaned over the edge of the bed, and as I did so a faint smell of burnt fabric assailed my nostrils. 'Candle' lay on the carpet in one corner of the room, a toppled juju doll of gnarled and blackened wood. I clambered out of bed and retrieved it, placing it back on my desk. As I did so I noticed a faint brown stain on the floor where it had been lying. I got to my knees and examined it more closely. I had found the source of the odour. The carpet was scorched.
Next day there was more in the way of ill tidings. This time when I heard that Wally had been taken into sickbay with suspected gastric flu. Ben and I visited Clive in hospital in the afternoon. He was feeling much better, but whilst recognising the seriousness of the symptoms, the medicos had so far been unable to diagnose the cause, and were now merely keeping him in for observation. After leaving the hospital, and bumming around for awhile exploring derelict warehouses on the Albert Dock, we finally made our way to the Abbey Gate for a pint, and there a surprise awaited us - our favourite room was locked.
"What's up with the snug Harry, you decorating it or something?"
The landlord shrugged. "No lads. Just locked it up that's all. It's redundant. No-one wants to go in there."
"Well we do."
"Suit yerselves. I'll open it up if yer like. But there's no fire in there. That's the funny thing."
"Yeh. Everytime I light one it just seems to go out. It's freezing and damp in there. I just got fed up of people complaining about it. What with that and the beer."
"But it's summer. Surely it's not that cold in there! And what about the beer? Something wrong with it?"
The landlord smiled. "Nothing. So far as I can tell. It's just that everyone who goes in there complains about the beer being off. Go in and see for yourselves."
We took him at his word. We armed ourselves with a pint and a pork pie each, and settled down to lunch in 'the snug'. Harry had been right:- snug 'the snug' most definitely was not. It was in fact, perishing cold. In the niche above the fireplace Mickey, Donald and Goofy stared forlornly into a damp, draughty and cheerless room with dank walls and rank, foetid air.
Ben frowned. "Dear God what's that smell? It smells like a foisty dungeon and - yeeuch!"
"What's the matter?"
"This bitter tastes foul. Try yours."
I took a sip of my beer. It tasted like vinegar. "God! Harry was right. There's something very strange going on. I think we should -"
I was cut off by Bens half choked cry of revulsion.
"What is it."
"My pie. There's maggots in the ruddy meat!"
He dropped it in the middle of the table. It was crawling. I decided to leave my pie alone. Ben was furious.
"I'm going to have a word with Harry about this!"
"But he did warn us Ben."
"Oh come on. It's just a tale so he can fob us off with old stock. He's not ruddy getting away with this!"
Back at the bar Harry sampled the offending beers. "They taste alright to me mate. And as for your pie. Maggots? I think you're imagining things." Emulating Harry, I concurred. There was nothing wrong with either beer or pie. The problem was 'the snug'. In my mind it was now making some sort of sense.
"When did you start having problems with the snug Harry?"
Harry frowned. "The day after those silly scalawags flogged Bell, Book and Candle. I mean, I was glad to see the back of 'em at first, but I never thought I'd have all this trouble. My Bridie won't let me live it down. All I get is 'told you so' all the time."
We consumed the rest of our beer in the main lounge. Ben was distraught. "I feel szuch a fool. But I did see maggots in that pie, I know I did. I think I'm losing it James!"
I smiled back reassuringly. "You're not mate. I saw them too. I'm convinced there's something going on here. Something supernatural."
"You mean the pub's haunted?"
"Yes. That and something more besides. I'll fill you in when I find out more."
That evening, back on campus, I mulled the days events over in my mind. It was no good. On the morrow I would have to get to the bottom of this mystery, and I knew who might just have the answer. I turned out my lamp and settled down to sleep, though not before I had put 'Candle' out for the night!
Professor Shaugnessy was in his study. The man did not match the title. John Shaughnessy was actually quite young, in his early thirties, with wire spectacles and a thin, neatly trimmed red beard. He was a man of illustrious irish ancestry. One of his forebears, adventuring out in India, had fought at Plassey - on the french side. He wore a faded harris tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and blue jeans. Despite the beatnik appearance he was a considerable scholar. He was working on an authoritative tome on the '12th Century Renaissance', a deeply researched volume containing much in the way of previously unpublished source material, much of it in latin. Not only was he head of the history faculty he was also my personal tutor. In this capacity he was the lecturer I was assigned to consult if I had any personal problems. In view of recent happenings now seemed like a good time. Not only that, he was a specialist in mediaeval history, and what I was going to ask him would be right up his street.
I knocked on the door, and a quiet voice bade me enter. This was Shaughnessy's chiefest foible. He was so softly spoken that at times you felt it might be a good idea to take up lip reading. You really had to strain your ears sometimes to take in what he said.
"Ah Mr. James I see. Not often I encounter your goodself out of working hours. What brings you into my lair? It's not the Peasants Revolt assignment giving you trouble is it? I should have thought that was right up your street."
He smiled gently, that mischievous twinkle in his eye that often left you perplexed as to the boundary between earnestness and dry humour. Behind the gentle, deliberate facade lay a sharp mind and an even sharper wit.
"No its not that Mr. Shaughnessy, its more -"
"Call me John. This isn't school you know, though it seems like it sometimes."
"Sorry - John. As I said it's nothing to do with course work, its something different, something affecting everyone in Unit Six."
"Its not fleas is it? They had to fumigate the whole block last summer."
"No its more to do with little black figurines, little black mediaeval figurines in fact." Shaugnessy's eyes lit up at the word 'mediaeval'. "What do you mean?"
I pulled 'Candle' from my pocket and placed it on his desk, blackened, gnarled and wicked. "I mean this Mr. Shaughnessy. It seems to be causing chaos everywhere it goes."
He drummed his fingers softly on the desk.
"Ah I see .... 'Candle'. Do I take it that you've got his two compatriots stashed away in unit six as well?"
"But.... how did you....."
Shaugnessy smiled gently.
"You students don't have a sole monopoly on the 'Abbey Gate' you know! Mr. Pollard told me last week that someone had stolen the little men again. I knew it would only be a matter of time before they resurfaced. They always do!"
"I don't understand. You mean they've been stolen -"
"Before? Oh yes. At least twice in recent years to my knowledge. And there are stories connected with them going as far back as the 1790's when the Abbey Gate was rebuilt as an inn. That was when they were first found. Seems they had been walled up in the ruins of the gatehouse. The story goes that the builders threw them away, but things went so badly awry that they wasted no time in putting them back!"
"So there is a jinx connected with them?"
"By all accounts yes. According to local legend they were put there to stand guard, to prevent something dark and evil escaping."
"You mean remove them and you let the genie out of the bottle?"
"Yes. Something like that. It's said the builders also found a skull hidden in the wall, which they replaced. As far as anyone knows, its still there, sealed up in the masonry."
"Whose skull was it?"
"No-one knows. Remember we're talking folklore here. Rumour. Hearsay. There may not even have been a skull. It's really a matter of what you believe."
"A monk of the abbey perhaps? Walled up for being naughty?"
Shaugnessy smiled. "I don't think so. There never was an abbey at Chilwell. There wasn't even a priory. And besides, they never immured monks - only nuns. They were a bit sexist in those days!"
"But the Abbey Gate?"
"It's a misnomer. There was a monastic foundation at Chilwell in the middle ages, but it wasn't an abbey - it was a preceptory."
"Oh come on James. You were doing the Crusades last semester. You should be clued up on the military orders. Chilwell was a preceptory of the Knights Templars. Poor knights of Christ. That's why the lane down to Chilwell village is called Temple Gate."
"But surely the gate was at the pub?"
"The actual gateway, yes, but in the sense of street names gate means a way, or a road. It gomes from 'Gata'- old Norse for street. Recall our field trip to York last month? Every street there is called a gate."
"Yes I see. But the Templars - their badge was a splayed red cross wasn't it?"
"The Croix Patte, yes, that was the symbol on their livery, but their badge depicted two men riding on one horse. A symbol of their poverty."
"The carving at the Abbey Gate..... "
"So the skull was that of a Templar?"
"If there is any truth to the story, almost certainly. The Abbey Gate was all that remained of the preceptory after the suppression of the order. A few years ago I came upon some very interesting material about Chilwell in the Picton Library which supplied me with a very plausible hypothesis concerning the whole matter. A most fascinating story in fact."
"So you know what it's all about?"
"Look, I'll give you the known facts and you can draw your own conclusions. OK?"
"Well first of all, as you should already know from your course, our 'poor knights of Christ' were not poor at all. On the contrary, the order was very rich and powerful, too rich for its own good in point of fact. Wealth, arrogance and pursuit of power, combined with mysticism and secrecy - a recipe for ruin and downfall if ever there was one. The loss of the Holy Land deprived them of their raison d'etre. They were after all formed to fight the saracens. After the fall of Acre they moved to Cyprus, then finally they based themselves in France, becoming bankers and financiers to the monarchs of Europe, a virtual state-within-a-state, professing the power to make or unmake kings. Needless to say they were widely resented, particularly by Philip the Fair of France who had his eyes on their lands and estates. You see Philip had approached them as a postulant and they had refused him. Consequently he had it in for them."
"So he acted against them?"
"Brilliantly! Hitler and the S.S. would have approved. It was like the 'night of the long knives'! He sent sealed orders to his seneschals to be opened and implemented at dawn on Friday 13th October 1307."
"You know your dates, Mr. Shaughnessy, if you don't mind me saying so!"
Shaughnessy smiled gently. "That's my job. Anyway, most of the Templars and their leaders were rounded up in one mighty coup. They were imprisoned, and confessions obtained under torture, which enabled Philip to pursuade the Pope to officially suppress the Order."
"It was alleged that Templars spat on the cross, and worshipped a human head which they called Baphomet. They were accused of heresy, homosexuality, witchcraft and sorcery. The rumours spread like wildfire, and the final suppression of the Order enabled Philip to have them burned in droves."
"Were they guilty?"
"Historians differ. The confessions were obtained under torture, so innocence is currently fashionable. But it seems pretty certain that the Templars engaged in some queer rituals, they were, after all, a semi secret brotherhood."
"So they were burnt at the stake?"
"In France yes. They fared rather better here. Edward II stuck up for them, until the Pope finally turned against them. Then he was forced to act. But it was pretty half hearted really. He imprisoned some, transferred others to the Knights of St. John. Most of them got off pretty lightly. In Scotland they were hardly suppressed at all. It's said that a contingent of Templars fought with Bruce at Bannockburn."
"So how does all this relate to Chilwell?"
"As I said, most of them got off lightly. There was, however an exception - the Preceptor of Lancaster, Gilbert de Gant. He refused to accept the suppression of the order and appeared in arms against the king at the head of his knights. It's said that when he read the allegations of sorcery and homosexuality which were levelled at the Order he retorted that King Edward had little rooom to talk considering his behaviour with Piers Gaveston! Needless to say, you could not say things like that about a king in those days and expect to get away with it. When he finally fell into Edward's hands he was condemned as a traitor, and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a penalty which had first been exercised by Edwards father Edward I, against William Wallace. It's said that when he begged the king for mercy, Edward relented and promised he would not allow him to be disembowelled until he had been hanged 'full dead'. But Edward had not forgotten the insult. He had never said anything about hanging De Gant 'by the neck'. If the story is to be believed, the vengeful king had De Gant hanged alive in chains and left to the elements and the crows. It would have taken him at least a week to die. It's said that De Gant cursed the king with his dying breath."
"Well maybe his curse came true. Edward II was murdered wasn't he?"
"That's right. In Berkeley Castle, with a red hot iron stuck into his bowel. But the point is the De Gant's preceptory was here at Chilwell, and legend has it that he was hanged in chains by his own gateway."
"The Abbey Gate!"
"Yes, interesting isn't it!"
"But what about the statues?"
"Who knows? They are, of course symbolic of the ritual of excommunication. After sentence of excommunication was read from the book, a bell was rung and a candle extinguished. Of course excommunication was usually a matter of degree, in this case, the severest. Exclusion from the Eucharist and from Christian burial - a dire penalty in mediaeval times."
"So the figurines represent De Gant's excommunication?"
"I wouldn't go so far as to say so. We are now back in the realms of speculation. The Eucharist of course is the bread and the wine, which at the Mass transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Jesus. But they also symbolise the succour of the Mother Church - food and drink for the spirit -"
"Which in De Gant's case were denied - metaphorically and literally."
"Yes, you could look at it that way, it would have made slow death by hunger and thirst seem very appropriate."
"A dreadful death exposed to the sun and frost, an unhallowed burial and a condemnation to spiritual hunger and thirst for all eternity. It would explain a lot."
Shaughnessy removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. He yawned and stretched in his seat.
"So what will you do now?"
I smiled. "I think that's pretty obvious!"
Clive raised his glass. "To Unit Six, and all them bloody yorkies who dwell therein! They can't help being the way they are!"
The Squire raised his. "I'll drink to that my good sir." He looked over his shoulder. "Where's Wally?"
I grinned."Oh, he's in 'The Snug', having a confab with the Rt. Honourable M. Storry. Something to do with raising money for the Student's Union Rag Week."
Ben laughed. "Not sponsored eating I hope?"
"No. He's over that now. Sponsored swotting more likely! Oh God. Here comes Storry now. Pompous git! WHY HELLO MIKE! WHAT BRINGS YOU TO OUR TABLE?"
"Not your lot I assure you, I was wondering if you had any fundraising ideas for the Students Union."
Ben gasped. "He asks us! Dear God he asks us! Last we heard you were planning on catching the nine o' clock town bus in your pyjamas! What on earth could we possibly suggest oh Exalted One?"
Storry shrugged. "I don't know, you daft beggars, that's why I'm asking you! I've been round everyone else and there's just you lot left to ask."
"Please note, gentlemen, how he leaves us till last," observed the Squire. "It shows how highly he regards us," I said.
"Anyway," observed Storry, "why do you lot sit here by the bar? 'The Snug' was always your place. I thought at one point you were going to paint 'Unit Six Annexe' over the door. You've not been in there since Harry reopened it. Us lot from the college Debating Society go in there now."
Clive grinned. "To avoid us no doubt!"
"Things change," I said "we found it a bit too cold in there for our liking!"
"Piffle! It's been warm weather all summer and Harry keeps a nice fire going in there. You're bloody weird you lot! Anyway .... no ideas then? Good! I'll be off!"
But Clive grabbed his sleeve. "Hang on, mister Storry, what makes you think we've no ideas then? Sit down a sec. an' I'll give you one!"
Storry sat down as Clive leaned across the iron table in a conspiratorial manner, glancing towards the bar.
"Did you manage to pursuade Harry to cough up anything for Rag Week then?"
Storry shrugged. "No such luck. I told him it went towards the children's hospital, but he wasn't interested. Said a landlord's job is to make money, not give it away."
Clive grinned. "Yep that sounds like our Harry!"
"Aye. I always said he was tight arsed bastard!"
Clive leaned closer, speaking in a low voice. "What if I tell you I know a sure fire way to make him donate handsomely to your fund?"
"Well you know those three wooden statues above the fireplace in 'The Snug'?"
"Yes. Odd things aren't they?"
"More than you know. Come rag week kidnap them and leave a ransom note. Harry will happily pay you to get them back, and you'll be quids in."
Storry laughed, his sniggering, forced laugh. "Huh! Typical Unit Six one that. Of dubious legality as usual. But it does have a certain appeal. I'll raise it with the rag committee. They might just take it on board."
"They will," said Clive, "and I'm sure they'll appreciate you for it!"
Storry got to his feet and disappeared into 'The Snug'. When he had gone we pelted Clive with beer mats.
"What did you do that for you sods," yelled Clive, throwing back an empty fag packet in feeble retaliation.
"Because," I said, "You're a DIRTY, ROTTEN SWINE..................!!!!"