BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
ON A chilly autumn afternoon, an old man stopped by his wife’s grave and collected his thoughts.
As a boy at his boarding school he devoured the occult paperback novels of Dennis Wheatley by flashlight beneath his bed covers.
He was a timid boy of 11 or 12 then and, terrified out of his mind, read the books one after another to overcome his fear of Death. He knew, from no greater an authority than Dennis Wheatley himself, that Death constantly stalked him, always just out of sight, ready to tap his shoulder. If he turned his head swiftly to catch Death unprepared, it was never there, and he relaxed for a moment. When quizzed by the other boys in his dormitory he professed, in a display of bravado that belied his years, to love the books. “All rubbish,” he said in his treble voice. “There are no such things as ghosts.”
“Yes, there are,” came the several replies in hushed voices (for talking after lights out was an offence punishable by anywhere from a reprimand to six of the best, depending on which prefect caught you).
“It says so in the Bible,” offered one hesitant voice.
“And the Father and the Son,” added another. “It says so. Somewhere.”
“It’s bollocks,” the Dennis Wheatley fan replied, trying to minimize the quaver in his thin voice.
The voices grew louder and the language coarser as the discussion enveloped all eight boys
The door opened. “Enough,” a deep voice barked. “All of you, the boot shed after breakfast. I’ll decide of how many in the morning.” The door closed.
A sepulchral silence descended until one voice whispered, “It’s your fault, idiot.”
As a teenager, no longer at boarding school, he had to walk twice daily to his school past the ruins of the Church of the Holy Ghost. Though he no longer read Dennis Wheatley, those stories still haunted and tortured his imagination. For four months of the year it was twilight or fully night when he passed the darkened ruins. He heard an owl once, breaking cover, and sprinted for home, gasping for breath behind the locked bathroom door.
There were ghosts there, at the Holy Ghost ruins. It made sense. They watched for the unwary, waiting for a dawdler to pass. Or for some foolhardy person to stop and light a cigarette, in defiance of Death. Then Death would wrap you in its arms and spirit you away. Everyone knew that. Only a fool didn’t hurry past the graveyard.
He didn’t know how old the ruins were. The earliest grave markings, worn all but flat by rain, feet and time, dated from 1348 and the Black Death. Some said the church was destroyed during the Reformation but the graveyard was still in use in the mid-1840s, if you believed the dates on some headstones. Two of the ruined church’s stone walls, shedding crumbling mortar like dead skin, stood at an angle in precarious support of the skeleton of a sightless window. Tall evergreens, among them yews and hemlock – which everyone knew were poisonous — shaded the gravestones peering over the seed heads of the uncut grass. A prickly holly bush brooded in a dark corner marking the rotted stumps where the lych gate used to stand.
All around the young man smelled decay and Death, seeking him to feed its insatiable appetite.
Decades later, when arthritis and the weather permitted, the old man who had once been terrorized by the mention of ghosts strolled through the cemetery in a different town on a different continent. Death, and its constant companions, ghosts, no longer frightened him. His parents, his wife, a son had all stepped over the threshold of the event horizon and been sucked irretrievably into the black hole. So many he had once known and loved had passed through this life that he had come to regard Death as commonplace, as unremarkable as a Tim Hortons coffee.
He couldn’t prevent the small tear from trickling down his white stubbled cheek; he never could. He wiped the tear away with the back of a chapped hand and swallowed the lump that formed in his chest. He shivered, for it was a cold, All Saints Day afternoon with dusk falling and the leaves gone from all but a pair of sentinel columnar oaks standing guard over the cemetery gates. He stood alone, yet not completely alone. A presence, unseen, watched him as he touched the pink granite headstone with its simple inscription and his name next to hers, the second date blank. He felt the presence within him and knew from the warmth enveloping him that it came from the only woman he had ever loved.
An image of the Holy Ghost ruins ran through his mind. How silly, he thought, that we trivialize ghosts at Halloween as if they were nothing but small children beneath torn sheets, watched over by parents who should know better. The trick or treaters knew nothing; no more than he did when he was their age. Innocence, perhaps, carried its own blessing.
He thrust his hand in his coat pocket and pulled out a bite-size Mars bar, one he had saved from the shell-outs the night before. He peeled the wrapper and popped the treat in his mouth. A smile crossed his creased face as he bit in to the chocolate and caramel.
“Not today, my love,” he whispered. “But soon.”