Thursday, 13 December 2012
by Barry Woodham
The first time I felt the cold touch of death, was when I knelt down by the entrance of the churchyard to tie a loose shoelace. I had climbed the steep hill and was out of breath. A small child from behind a twisted gravestone was watching me intently. I straightened up and saw that it was a thin, lightly clothed girl. There was something not quite right about her and I could not reason just what it was.
Just then a bitter breeze rustled the dead leaves around my feet and I realised just how cold it was. The black iron railings were white with frost along the front of the graveyard and the unkempt grass along the path to the church, were also decked in tiny fingers of ice. The little girl had no coat upon her scrawny shoulders and as she moved away from behind the old, lichen covered headstone, no shoes! As I met her gaze I found myself looking into two black pits where I expected her eyes to be.
I stumbled in shock, looked away and she was no longer there. I walked inside the open gates to where she had stood and shivered in apprehension. There was no imprint in the bright frosty grass and no sign that she had ever been there. The poor gravestone she had stood behind was dedicated to a J, something and his wife, who had departed this life more than a hundred years ago. The oldest graves at the churchyard were the in front of the church and situated along the pathway. This headstone had worn away with the years of neglect and the fact that it was of a cheap, soft, stone.
I turned towards the church and wondered whom she might have been and why she had made herself known to me? The entrance of the church had been decorated with the usual Nativity scene, just inside the front set of doors that had been left open. Behind these, was the internal set of carved heavy doors that led to the inside of the church. There had been something about the child that had stuck with me in our fleeting encounter. She was in need! What she wanted I could not even guess, only that it was something that I knew that I alone could help her with.
On some strange impulse, I walked up to the entrance to this gathering place of the faithful. It was the usual cold and grey-stone building, with little welcome to such as I, as I was not of a religious bent. Never the less, I could appreciate that those who were would like to come here and congregate together. I had been in such places as a child, driven there by my parents’ belief and knew enough about these buildings to know my way around. I opened the large carved doors and went inside.
The child was there, waiting for me. Once more those dark pits, where eyes should be, fixed me with a cold longing. She beckoned and I entered, closing the doors behind me. The inside of the church lit up as I did so, with the flickering light of hundreds of candles. Most of the pews were full of kneeling people who were following the prayer recited by the priest in his pulpit, in total obedience. They were dressed in clothes from a bygone age. My ghost child had gone; to be replaced by a living girl dressed poorly and in the company of similar children, all sat at the back of the church.
I guessed that these were the orphans of the parish. They were life’s unwanted and they were sat with a well-dressed couple of women, who looked as if they had never been hungry in their life. Sat at the end of the row was a fat, red faced man dressed in tightly fitted clothes and fancy lace cuffs to his sleeves. He carried a whippy cane in his tight stubby fingers and a three cornered hat. As he followed the preacher’s empty words he flexed the instrument of pain as if anticipating future usage.
None of them could see me!
The little girl could. This time, eyes of deep brown looked beseechingly at mine.
Her mouth framed the words, “Help us!”
Now all of the children became aware of me, stood just inside the door and they showed no fear. It was as if I had been expected. Each face shone with hope and I knew that somehow I had to be connected to their salvation.
The congregation got off their knees and stood to receive their blessing from the priest, before they braved the cold winds blowing outside the churchyard. These few children were not dressed for the cold and I could see that they were not looking forwards to the journey back to the parish orphanage. The people from the front pews were the first to exit the church and strode away without a backward glance at the cold and hungry boys and girls sat at the back. Although money clinked into the collecting box, none was offered to those whose duties lay with the children. I had an object lesson here of the parable of the rich man and the eye of the needle. It was apparent to me that these people were quite oblivious to the suffering of these young boys and girls. I mused on the facts that this religion taught the tale of a warm and compassionate god that in real life had not one wit of benevolence, bestowed onto the needy.
This ghost of the little girl on this cold and bitter Christmas Eve had somehow pulled me out of my time, to change the series of events that had terminated that poor child’s life. She had looked for me, found me and brought me back to alter the past. I knew that this night or the next, the little girl would die, cold and hungry if I did nothing. Others of her little group would follow over the years.
“Well,” I thought, “I would see about that.”
The children were the last to leave and huddled into the clothes that they had against the bitter wind that blew around the cold stone tombstones of the churchyard. The fat man raised his cane to induce a little more speed from the group in venturing out of the shelter of the doorway. In my anger, I reached forwards and wrenched it from his chubby fingers, snapping the cane in two. I could touch these people, even though they could not see me! The fat man’s eyes almost popped from their sockets as the broken cane was hurled into the night. There would be more to come! I marshalled the dark powers of death and pinched him by his earlobe. He shrieked once, like a kicked pig and ran out into the night, holding his ear and leaving the two women staring after him in shocked surprise.
I followed the small group outside, as the ladies hurried the children along to a grey building just outside the churchyard gates. The fat man was nowhere to be seen, but the door of the parish orphanage hung open. Inside, some flickering candles illuminated a grim kitchen, where a black leaded range was alight. From the oven came the smell of roast chicken.
The curtains had been pulled shut to make some effort to keep out the winter’s night. One of the women lit an oil lamp and pushed more wood into the stove. Soon a little more heat began to empty into the room. The children had removed their thin coats and now all sat at the empty table, with their hands folded into their laps. There was no excited chatter from these cold and hungry boys and girls. They waited quietly, casting the occasional glance at me and also at the range where the other woman was putting a saucepan of water over the heated hob. She had placed a several large bones and some tired looking vegetables into the pan. This was their evening meal! I looked in vain for anything else to supplement this meagre offering.
One of the women opened the oven door to show a big roasting chicken, surrounded by potatoes and parsnips. I could also see that other saucepans had freshly prepared cabbage, carrots and cauliflower ready for cooking. Soon the range was radiating heat and all the pans were boiling, sending steam into the air. The shorter women made some suet dumplings and tossed them in with the watery stew. I found that I could move through solid objects with ease and although I could sense the heat of the range, it did me no harm.
I found that I could stop time for the women and everyone froze where they were.
I opened the oven door, removing some of the roast potatoes and parsnips from out of the oven. I put them into the stew, crushing them so that they would thicken up, while the cook’s back was turned. Some of the cabbage, carrots and cauliflower I swapped from the boiling pans and added to the stew. I tore off the legs and wings from the nearly cooked bird and added them to the mix, allowing the stew to cook. When the oven was opened there would be quite a surprise! All this time the two women were frozen, facing the door, waiting for the fat man to come into the kitchen. They looked worried and concerned when I released them, while the children watched me intently. I smiled at them and they smiled back from behind their hands.
At last, giving up their vigil for the fat man, the taller of the two women heaved the saucepan of stew onto the bare wooden table and removed the lid. She began to spoon out the contents into the bowls that each child held up to her. The look of surprise on her face was a picture. She tried to stop spooning my fortified stew into the bowls, but I would not let her stop. Each child got a dumpling each and plenty of meat and a mixture of vegetables in the thickened up stew. With one of my hands upon her serving wrist and the other holding the one grasping the saucepan, she continued to fill the bowls until all the stew was gone. Only then did I release her from my cold bony grasp and allow her to escape.
Clutching her wrists she sat weakly down on a chair by the range where her companion was staring into the oven at the depleted roast chicken with the missing wings, legs and roast vegetables.
“Sara!” she cried, “Most of our chicken is missing. Also a lot of the roast potatoes and parsnips have disappeared.”
“I fed them to the children, Agnes, in the stew,” she replied with eyes filled with terror. “Something held my wrist and made me spoon it all into their bowls, until it was gone. We have been judged!”
This was when the fat man reappeared at the doorway. As he entered the kitchen I tripped him and watched him go full length onto the floor. Before he got unsteadily to his feet I noticed that where I had pinched his ear it had gone black!
The two women were staring round the room trying to see if anything was there. They still were not able to see me, but the children could! For the first time in their short lives they had eaten a good filling meal and were not hungry. I waited to see what would come next and wondered how they saw me? I was dressed in a black coat and dark trousers so would have been difficult to see in the poor light, yet these children were not afraid. They seemed to know I that meant them well and that the little girl had fetched me here. Her face was one big smile and I knew that things would change.
“Are you alright John? You seemed to trip over nothing,” Sara said and stared at the fat man’s ear. What has happened to your ear?”
“At the church, when I was going to move the children on with my stick, something broke my cane and pinched me by the ear! You said that we have been judged. I think we have been visited by one of the Lord’s angels. We have lived well off the parish taxes for years, by feeding and clothing the children at a minimum expenditure. I tell you we have been humbled and brought down. I say to you now, make sure that the children have enough warm blankets on their beds to keep out the chill. Light a fire in their bedrooms. Increase the amount of food that we feed them and make sure that if they go hungry, then we are hungry too. We have been placed in a position of trust. If we break it, we may incur the wrath of this angel again!”
“I think you are out of your senses, John Smithers,” Agnes replied. “We have a good living looking after these unwanted children, why change it?”
This was too much and I lent over and laid death’s icy touch on her ears by pinching them tightly. Agnes screamed with fear and I shook her head from side to side and in my anger they caught a glimpse of me dressed in black.
“He is still here! The Lord has sent the angel of death to us as a punishment! Look at Agnes’s ears! They are as black as mine. The three of them went down on their knees and beseeched the empty air for forgiveness.
The air was empty, as I was gone from that place of reckoning and back to my own time. The cold wind blew once more around the churchyard and I found myself stood by the side of John Smithers’ headstone. It was now made of good marble and deeply carved. A stone as expensive as this had to have been paid for by many people.
I read the inscription that I’m sure was not there before.
Here lies John Smithers, Beadle of this parish
for twenty-six years. 1803-1878
and Sara Smithers. 1805- 1881
They were the Refuge of lost children.
A good man and well loved by many an orphan.
May they lay in the arms of the Lord.
It seems to me that I made a difference.
I often wonder where she went and the life that she led, that child that came to me as a ghost of what was and became what was to be. I only know that for a short while I was drawn into an existence where I became the angel of death, in a world that I once believed in.
©2012 Barry Woodham. All rights reserved. Do not use or reproduce without permission.