WEDNESDAY: The Oak at Midnight

BY FERGUS EGAN

This is an excerpt from Fergus’s self-published novel The Coin and the Key. Copyright is held by the author.

Friday, 14 July 1950
Cheshire, England

JOHN CROSS has had a busy day. Everything is done as he was instructed. He has closed all his bank accounts and transferred the funds as directed, having retained two week’s expense money. He could get by on £1, but £5 is more prudent. He finally decides that £10 would cover any unexpected expenses. John Cross pats his pocket and feels the bulge of ten £1 notes. His driver’s licence is gone, his car insurance certificate is gone, all his certificates of education and achievements awards are gone. Everything that bears the name ‘John Cross’ is now just the dying wisps of smoke in the garden fire-pit. He walks out his front door, leaving his house keys and car keys behind him on the hall table. He checks his inside pocket for his sole piece of identification, the Manchester library rolodex card in the name of Peter Oldthorpe on which he has scribbled ‘????? at St Bawn’s’. Satisfied that he is ready to leave, John Cross shuts his front door, and ‘Peter Oldthorpe’ steps his way along Eve Street and down to the A533. He is dressed the same as on the previous night: black oxfords, black mac and black fedora. He glances at his wristwatch. It is 10:45pm. This time he has an adequate supply of cigarettes. He lights a cigarette and says “Okay, Peter Oldthorpe. There is no turning back now.”

Upon reaching the A533, Peter Oldthorpe (he is already adjusted to the new name) sees the closed garage and strides past it without giving it any attention. Tonight is the new moon. There are a few others out walking tonight. Peter Oldthorpe catches up with a couple. He strides past them and hears the young lady address him.

“Mr Cross?”

He turns and looks back.

“It’s Mr Cross, isn’t it? Mr Cross who drives the Morris Minor?”

It is the waitress from the Crowing Cock, Bess. “Bess, I did not recognize you . . .”

“Because I’m not in an apron?” And to her male companion, “Charlie, George tells me that Mr Cross here was talking about me in the pub yesterday. What do you think of that?”

To which Charlie replies, “Well, that depends on what he was saying. Doesn’t it?”

Peter Oldthorpe (John Cross) is a bit embarrassed and attempts an explanation. “I was surprised that anyone could know me.”

Bess pretends not to hear and continues talking to Charlie. “Mr Cross has been living here for four years, and he doesn’t know anyone in Middlethorpe. And he is surprised that we all know about him. How about that?”

Oldthorpe/Cross is still attempting an explanation and apology. Charlie and Bess still pretend not to hear him. Charlie responds to Bess. “Knows nobody? Not at the pub? The church? Not anybody at all?” Oldthorpe/Cross now realises that they are taking the mickey. He falls in stride with them and plays along.

Bess is dressed in a navy-blue gabardine coat. Because it is night, it appears black, but he knows that it is the style of coat popular with schoolgirls. She is also wearing a beret and black walking shoes. Yes, she looks all the world like a teenage English schoolgirl. Charlie looks like he is still in his teens too. He is dressed in a blazer, a school blazer perhaps? Light grey trousers and white shirt and black oxfords, and sporting a dark grey herringbone flat cap. He may or may not be wearing a tie. Flung around his neck is a long muffler scarf trailing down his back. A college scarf, perhaps? He walks with both hands in his trouser pockets. Bess has linked his arm and playfully tugs or pushes it to knock him off stride.

Bess and Charlie continue with their ribbing. “You know, Charlie, Mr Cross does know someone in Middlethorpe.”

“He does? Who might that be?”

“I think Daisy has taken a shine to him.”

“You mean Daisy Wright, the librarian? No!”

Bess turns to Peter Oldthorpe/Cross. “We’re all going to the sacred oak. No? For the new moon ritual. Are we not?” Bess does not wait for a response. As far as she is concerned there is only one reason to be walking this route at this time. “How come you’re not walking with Daisy then?” Bess talks so much, there is little room for a response. She continues, “No, I suppose not. Daisy is one of the druids. All the druids walk along the riverbank, along the Dane, and come out by a laneway at the house beside the oak. That’s the way the druids of old made their way to the oak. You’re not a druid then, Mr Cross?” and she nudges Charlie, “I’m not even sure if he is an adherent.”

“Ah, a non-believer?”

Peter Oldthorpe/Cross does a rapid mental calculation. Druids? That’s two thousand years ago. The oak tree can’t be more than 300 years old. “The oak tree can’t be that old.”

“Of course it is,” replies Bess.

“It’s not the original oak,” counters Charlie.

“Yes, it is.”

This time Charlie interrupts Bess and continues with the explanation of the oak tree. “There was once an ancient oak tree in the same spot. I don‘t know how old it was, but everyone believed that it was from ancient times. During the Civil War, in 1646, just before the Siege of Goodrich Castle, there was a battle here — the battle of Bostock Green. It was not a decisive battle, more of a skirmish. But one thing of significance was the appearance of a new cannon, the ‘Roaring Meg’, that the Parliamentarians wanted to test. The Roaring Meg fired a 2cwt hollow ball filled with gunpowder with devastating effect, but totally unsuitable for the battlefield. It was designed for siege warfare. At the battle of Bostock Green, the only fatality at the hands of the Puritans was the sacred oak. Roaring Meg destroyed the oak.”

“No, it didn’t! The sacred oak got damaged.”

Charlie continues, ignoring Bess’s interruption. “Some years later, Lord Bostock planted a new oak tree in the same spot.”

“No. That’s not how it happened at all. The sacred oak was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Everyone believed that to be the end of the oak, having survived from druid times. But a year later a new shoot appeared coming through the ground from the roots. You see, the oak was damaged, but the destruction was only above ground. The roots survived. And what you see today is the same oak that the druids revered long ago.” And turning to Peter Oldthorpe/Cross, “Don’t listen to Charlie here. He only knows what they are taught at college. If you want the true story, you must ask Daisy or one of the druids.”

They continue straight where the A533 turns left. Peter Oldthorpe hears again the trickle of running water. Charlie and Bess stop to drink from the fountain. Peter Oldthorpe glances up and down and every which way. There is no sign of any of the men that Egbert warned him about on the previous night. He lights another cigarette and checks the time. He is satisfied that they are on schedule. It is a 20-minute walk from here to the oak. And the time is 25 minutes to midnight. Having satisfied their thirst, Charlie and Bess rejoin him, and they continue in the direction of the oak.

Twelve minutes later they come to the bend in the road. It’s a ten-minute walk from here, but at Bess and Charlie’s pace, thirteen minutes is more likely. Peter Oldthorpe is confident of reaching the oak at precisely twelve o’clock. If necessary, he can speed up or slow down to get the timing right. Having rounded the bend, he is now within sight of the oak or, to be more accurate, within sight of the house beside the oak, a distance of three furlongs. He spots two men ahead, also walking in the direction of the oak. The men from last night? They might be, or might not. He never got a good look at either of them. At this pace, Peter Oldthorpe expects to catch up with them. But this in itself is not suspicious. If they are also headed to the oak for midnight, of course they would be walking more slowly, being so much closer.

Five minutes from the oak, and from up ahead, in the distance, Peter Oldthorpe hears flute music and drumming.

“Oh, no,” exclaims Bess. “Not the Irish. The damn Irish are here with their tin whistles and stupid drums.”

“So what’s wrong with the Irish?” Peter Oldthorpe asks.

“They are loud, most likely drunk. And they don’t observe the correct ritual. Not in the way the druids explained to us. And they know the ritual from ancient times.” Clearly, Bess is upset at the intrusion of ‘heretics’ at the ritual.

Charlie laughs in amusement. “Mr Cross, Bess here, and the local druids, are jealous of the Irish. You see, the Irish actually talk to the oak, and they claim that the oak communicates to them. None of the druids here can make such a claim. They are upset because the loud drunken Irish always manage to upstage them.”

Peter Oldthorpe can make out the party of Irish approaching from the other side. Although it is a moonless night, it is not pitch dark. It is easy to make out figures, but not features. There are two lots of Irish. About six men are out in front. Two are playing tin whistles, and one is drumming on a mummer’s hand drum. A group of women in black and tartan shawls are walking behind them. Peter Oldthorpe cannot make out their numbers because they are huddled together behind the men. There appears to be a couple of children too. He then realizes that his view of the Irish group is not obstructed by any walkers ahead. What happened to the two men? Where did they go? Peter Oldthorpe begins to feel troubled. Egbert was right. He is being watched.

Bess is still complaining about the presence of the Irish. “Look at those cockamamie caps they wear.”

“Flat caps,” Charlie informs her.

“No, they’re not. You’re wearing a flat cap, Charlie. These Irish are wearing caps that stick up and come down to their eyes.”

“No. Watch.” Charlie takes off his flat cap and unclasps the peak. He puts it back on his head and says to Bess. “See? Now don’t I look Irish?”

Bess can’t help laughing. She pushes Charlie off the sidewalk onto the road, where he pretends to stagger drunkenly back to the pathway. “And look at those overcoats. Overcoats in summer? Do you know why they wear overcoats, unfastened, unbuttoned and unbelted?” As usual, Bess continues with the answer to her own question. “Bottles of black porter carried hidden inside. Their overcoats are their own portable bars.”

Charlie rearranges his flat cap back to a flat cap shape. He makes a face as if to say “So what?”

Coming around the corner of the house beside the oak, from the laneway to the river, six figures emerge, completely enveloped in white hooded robes, all carrying burning candles. Their arrival at the roadside coincides with the party of Irish walking south. Bess, Charlie and Peter Oldthorpe, walking north, meet up with them at the entrance to the oak enclosure. It is twelve o’clock midnight.

They all troop in and encircle the oak. The druids are sombre and silent. Their faces are concealed. One hood shifts slightly and rights itself again. Peter Oldthorpe catches a glimpse of Daisy who gives him a momentary look of recognition.

The Irish musicians cease playing. They put their instruments inside their overcoats, which Bess is certain contain a stock of black porter. There are over twenty people assembled in the small space. An orderly inner circle forms, and an undefined outer circle forms. The six druids are in the inner circle. They place their burning candles on the bench surrounding the trunk. Bess and Charlie join them. Bess gestures to Peter Oldthorpe to come too. But he declines. He is about to step back to the outer circle when one of the druids grabs him by the elbow and pulls him in. Now he is in step with the other eight. With arms linked, they walk sideways around the oak, three times clockwise. Then they stop. Unlink arms. And approach the trunk close enough to lean a hand on the bark. Peter Oldthorpe does likewise. After a minute or so, they retreat back from the trunk and join the outer circle. The candles are still burning on the bench around the base of the tree.

The Irish musicians start up again. A group of Irish break from the outer circle and approach the oak. Three of the men and four of the women form a new inner circle. As before, Peter Oldthorpe steps back to the outer circle, but once again, he is grabbed and taken into the inner circle. This time they don’t walk. The music is frantic. The group encircles the tree; they dance vigorously with knees flying high. Clockwise, and then counter-clockwise, and then Peter Oldthorpe loses track, he loses his balance, and would undoubtedly fall over except for the tightness of the circle. The smell from the Irish is peculiar. Yes, there is the unmistakable smell of porter, but what is the strange smell of smoke?

Suddenly they stop. The musicians cease. All are motionless. Peter Oldthorpe expects to place his palm against the bark as before. But no. The group addresses the oak. Facing the trunk they chant up to its branches, “Dara! Dara! Dara!” After a moment’s silence, they resume the chant. Peter Oldthorpe gets a dig in the ribs and interprets this as his invitation to join the chant. Peter and the Irish all chant up at the overhanging branches, “Dara! Dara! Dara!” One of the women from the outer circle breaks through to the oak. Her tartan shawl covers her head and her body all the way to the ground. The inner circle moves back to merge with the outer circle.

The Irish girl beside Peter Oldthorpe whispers to him. “Shh. It’s Shanwar.”

Peter realizes that Daisy told him nothing of this. All observe silence, even the druids and disapproving Bess. It is so quiet now that they hear the flames of the candles flickering in the breeze. The Irish are all looking up at the branches. The English are also caught up in the solemnity of the ritual. They are, for the moment, at one with the Irish. The flames flicker audibly and a breeze shakes the upper branches. One oak leaf flutters to the ground. Oak does not shed leaves in July. This is regarded as a portent.

“Where did it land?” someone whispers.

“Shh!”

“Is it shiny side up or dull side up?”

“Shh! Wait for Shanwar to speak.”

“Who did it land at? Is it pointing to or away?”

A crying wailing voice, like a keen, emits from the mouth of Shanwar. “The Sacred Oak speaks. See the leaf, the oak’s message. See how the leaf lies between two stones. Is the shiny side up? No. Is the dull side up? No. It is bent in a curve and the edge is to the ground. There is no luck — neither good luck nor bad luck. Empty of luck. It is bent, pointing away from and pointing towards one person. Heed this. This person has no past; this person has no future; this person can bring no joy to the marriage bed.”

Shanwar is pointing to the leaf. She slowly raises her pointing finger. All eyes follow her finger as it rises from the ground to the person standing over the leaf. Her moving finger stops to point at Peter Oldthorpe, still known as John Cross.

Peter Oldthorpe to be, John Cross no more, experiences a cold shiver even though he is not superstitious. The music starts up again before he has time to dwell on the Shanwar’s curse. This time it is more frantic. Peter Oldthorpe is lifted once more into the tight circle of dancers. Around and around he is spun. He stumbles and is righted. Peter Oldthorpe speaks aloud to himself attempting to hold himself together. “My hat. I’ve lost my hat. No. There it is, back again. No. That’s not my hat; it too low down on my eyes. I’m stumbling again. Blast. I spun clear out of my coat. Wait? Someone’s put it back on. The music has stopped, but I am so dizzy I cannot stand. Thankfully I am being held up on both sides. Please, someone walk me to where I may lie down.”

He hears the sound of a car. Then, thankfully, he is placed lying down. Peter Oldthorpe senses motion and hears the sound of a car accelerating. Speaking to no one in particular, he asks, “I am in a car? Am I going somewhere?”

***

To Bess and Charlie and Daisy, and to any observer, John Cross’s experience is viewed with a different understanding. He is dancing with the drunken Irish, stumbling around the oak. It is somewhat amusing for the onlookers. The musicians cease playing, and the Irish dancers break formation and walk away from the oak, stumbling and staggering together. The druids retrieve their candles. John Cross extricates himself from the dancers and stands alone at the back of the enclosure. They know it must be John Cross. He is the only one here in a black mac and a fedora. They do not realise that this is not John Cross, but a John Cross decoy wearing his fedora and mac. They pay little attention to the three staggering Irish in their unclasped peaked Irish soft caps and unfastened overcoats, staggering towards the entrance of the enclosure. They are inattentive to the white van that drives slowly past the oak enclosure. Without actually stopping, the three staggering Irish are swished through the back doors of the van and taken off in the direction of Northorpe. If anyone notices, it is with relief at the removal of the drunken Irish. Isn’t it always like this? Some of the Irish always get drunk and need to be removed and be transported away like bags of cement from a construction site.

The druids assemble for their walk back to Middlethorpe via the bank of the river Dane. The rest of the Irish walk north in the direction from whence they came. Bess and Charlie set off south along the roadway.

Daisy looks for John Cross. She sees him standing alone in the dark at the rear of the enclosure, but she fails to get his attention.

Bess turns around and shouts to him, “Mr Cross! Do you want to walk back with us?”

“John Cross” makes no reply. He walks through the enclosure and continues straight across the road into Brick Kiln Lane.

“Don’t go home by Brick Kiln Lane. It’s the long way,” Bess shouts.

Charlie nudges Bess. “He’s gone to relieve himself.”

“Oh, I believe you’re right. I see him standing at the hedge in the lane.”

Charlie and Bess walk slowly south in the direction of Middlethorpe, slow enough to allow John Cross to catch up.

The two MI6 agents, Andrews and Brady, standing in the shadow of the farmhouse lane, observe John Cross too. They had expected him to walk south past them within a few feet. They see the unmistakable fedora against the sky, and the shadow below, standing at the hedge in Brick Kiln Lane. They wait to see if he will return to Bostock Green and go back the way he came.

“It can’t take him that long to relieve himself,” remarks Andrews, the senior agent.

“I agree. Let’s walk by him and see,” responds Brady, his colleague. The agents casually walk up Brick Kiln Lane as if to go to one of the farmhouses. They walk past John Cross. He remains still.

“I’ll go to the hedge as well to relieve myself too. That way I’ll get a closer look.”

“Okay.”

Agent Andrews goes to the hedge, a short distance from John Cross. “Nice night.”

No response. It is not polite to stare into the face of one who is thus engaged, so Agent Andrews glances down at John Cross’s feet. He observes that there are no legs protruding from under the mac. He tugs hard at the mac and it slides off a tree branch, and the fedora falls to the ground. “He’s gone! John Cross is gone!” he shouts to his colleague.

“We need to radio for backup. Damn, the radio is in the car.”

“Right. And the car is a mile down the road.”

“I’ll search the field, you run to the car.” Agent Andrews jumps through the hedge, but it is too dark to see anything of note in the field. “Damn you, Cross. Now I know why you walked.”

Brady knows the procedure. Radio MI6, who will activate the emergency-measure protocols introduced during the war to coordinate appropriate agencies in the face of a threat to national security. MI6 (SIS) will immediately contact the Police Special Branch. The local police in Cheshire should be informed and engaged within minutes of Brady’s radio call.

Five minutes have elapsed since Peter Oldthorpe (John Cross) was bundled into the back of a van. It is another 15 minutes before backup is employed to seal off roads and commence a search — too late to net a catch.

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