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Asterisk Anthology: Volume I

Round 2 Runner-up

The Figure at the Window

© Jonathan Cromack

The gas lamp is on, so I expect she’ll be there again. As I come round the side of the Churchyard, my eyes are drawn like a moth to an orange flame that is the top window.

I should really be watching out for carts on this corner as there’ve been some terrible accidents here, but I must see.

Yes. She’s there.

I’m closer to the house, so I can see quite well – a lady far up at the top window. She is of not dissimilar age to me, but she wears a lovely high collared, purple gown – maybe she’s going out somewhere, perhaps to a dance. But then – the way she gazes across the road into the old churchyard, her arms upon the panes, her white forehead pushed onto the glass and with that look on her face. Such sadness. Such grief. I confess that it affects me greatly. I yearn to help her if I am able.

I pass high stone walls, the glossy black door with its brass knocker – a shiny lion’s head. This house is so huge. I, I cannot.

It is not my place to interfere. I do not wish to be assumed a busybody. As I pass by, I glance over to the opposite side of the road, above the wall, over the shrubs to glimpse the sandstone walls of the ancient church. There is the clatter of an approaching cart which causes me to keep into the side; the road is narrow and empty. A carriage passes by – hooves and iron shattering the quietness. Then the church clock sounds Six-o-Clock. I’m late again. A quick glance behind me, once more to the upper window, to see if she’s still there. I can’t quite see from my angle so close to the wall. Maybe the carriage is here for her. But it ambles past, back towards the center of town, catching the yellow street lights in its majestic wake.

***

Some days I loathe my work. It’s quiet tonight at the Crescent Moon, being a Tuesday, but the regulars are here, Jacob the sweep, Charlie, and Bert who work in service further along the road and Jim. These men choose to spend so much of their lives in this dim, airless room among the brass, timber and tobacco smoke. Jim’s sitting at the bar still; he’s been here since we opened up this morning. The man hasn’t worked a single day since the bakery closed eighteen months ago. He was then a respected man in this community.

“Y’ alright Jane?”

“Jim.”

“Stan working tonight?”

“No. He’s at home with Samuel and Lucy.”

“If he ain’t workin’ then you more n’ likely are, eh Jane?” He says before finishing his pint in two long pulls and wiping his face with the back of a hand. “I heard about the accident last fortnight. Winching cable snapped, so they reckoned.”

“It’s bad enough working those pits without something like that happenin’. It shouldn’t have happened Jim. I knew those lads.”

“Aye. An’ me. Recon it was the owners not keeping things right. I’ve been hearing grumblings for a long time.”

“They’re just lookin’ after their own pockets is all. They got off with it. I hope to God nothing more like that is to happen.”

I wipe a cloth over a tankard to steady my agitation. “I just wish I could give them a piece of my mind,” I say. “Though it is not my place…”

“Aye Jane. I know.” Jim says with understanding, but his restless stance indicates that he has other concerns, “I’ll have another pint if you wouldn’t mind, love.” he says.

The door opens, letting in an icy breeze. A figure steps inside, craggy-faced, clutching his cap. He smiles widely.

“Hey, Ed,” Jim calls, turning groggily on his stool to look back. “Come an’ join me.” His head swivels back to me, “Make that a couple of pints Jane.” He turns around again, “How’re ye’ me’ ole pal…”

These men accept what life throws in their path, burying their heads in the sand like ostriches are said to do. I hope for a peaceful closing time tonight; not another battle, like last Saturday.

Only five more hours to go. Only five.

***

Anton wasn’t short of a penny or two; he being Stan’s Brother – my Brother in Law. Over the neat rectangular hole of his final resting place, stands his Widow – Anne. Slim and good looking in black. A handkerchief in her lace gloved hands hides her pretty face. Poor Anne – her husband died too young; not by some industrial accident or destitution like so many others I’ve known. No, Anton succumbed to consumption. Death gets us all one way or another.

The vicar, a white figure among so many in black throws dirt upon the coffin which makes a gravely, drumming – invading the solitude below.

“Earth to earth…”

Stan says nothing, but holds me close where we stand. It is peaceful here; just the birds twittering – they know that the day’s end is drawing near. The church clock clangs noisily in its closeness – deeply, six times – Six-o-Clock. I would normally be on my way to work by now…

I jerk my head up and see through the sparse, skeletal branches, that dormer window, twenty yards across the road. The light is on and, yes, I can see her shadowy form leaning heavily upon the panes. If I squint my eyes, I can see more clearly. Is she looking this way? It seems that she’s pointing and thumping clenched fists on the window pane, waving her arms and pointing at… at me? I strain my neck to hear her crying out but there’s only the vicar’s solemn verse and the mellow, lethargic breeze.

***

“It will be some weeks before the stonemasons will be in a position to release the headstone. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful spot, I’m sure you’d agree.”

The vicar, sitting beside Stan and me on the bench, takes out his watch and glances at the face.

“You are correct Mrs. Carpenter. Death has no prejudice, none at all. When you consider your brother-in-law here, stopped so suddenly at only thirty-five summers.”

“It’s a shame indeed.” murmurs Stan, looking to his feet. A quiet man, whose feelings run deep, yet none the less fragile for it. There is silence between the three of us until a fox barks pityingly in the distance. Now is my opportunity to try to quench the burning question I have.

“Vicar.” I try to sound casual. “You are aware of the large house over the road?” I point beyond some ancient headstones at the rectangle of orange light penetrating the churchyard hedge. “Do you know who lives there?”

The Vicar answers me with a renewed vigor, “Indeed. That house is owned by the Sharpe family. Wool merchants by profession. They attend Church here on Sunday’s. A charming family.”

“Mrs. Sharpe. Is she?…”

“An invalid. She doesn’t leave the house much but she is still able to attend Church by use of her wheelchair.”

“That’s strange, because I have seen her regularly, always standing at the dormer window on the top floor often seeming to be terribly upset.”

The vicar’s wide eyes and wringing hands belay his perplexed amusement. “I assure you Mrs. Carpenter, that that would be impossible. The good woman would not be able to stand without considerable assistance. Her legs have been of no assistance to her since infancy, I’m afraid.”

I am now the one who is perplexed, “Then who do I see so regularly, standing at the window of that upper dormer – in such obvious turmoil?” I glance back to the house but the only illumination gleams from a single street lamp.

The Vicar does little to conceal his amusement “No, that is impossible Mrs. Carpenter. You must have been mistaken. I have spoken to the Sharpe’s many times regarding their fascinating home and its history. The upper dormer room has remained sealed for many years now. It is never occupied. In fact, that particular part of the house is the last remaining part of a building which formerly occupied the site. This was where the local businessman and his family resided. That house was built in the mid-1600’s and demolished in the last century to make room for the building you now see. Timbers from the original structure were constructed to form the small room at the top of the house.” The vicar smiles, relishing the subject, “I believe it adds a certain grandness to the house.”

I am confused and humbled, “Oh, I, I see. Perhaps I was mistaken after all.”

“Yes. Perhaps you are fatigued Mrs. Carpenter. I know that you, you both work hard.” The vicar stands and faces us. “I must take my leave, it is getting late. I hope to see you both for service on Sunday.” he bows curtly. “Good night Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter.”

“Good night Vicar” I hear myself mumble, in unison with Stan.

***

I have not seen her so often these last few evenings. She is rarely at her window when I return from work – the window being merely a black void, edged with frost; quite a contrast to the otherwise well lit, cheerful house. Tonight though, she is there; her figure standing further back from the window this time. A shadow, so very still. It is as if she has forsaken all.

Has she forsaken me!

I cannot leave her like this.

I must cast aside my reservations and try to get to the bottom of this once and for all.

***

The hollow knock echoes back from the brass lion’s head as my stomach churns in anticipation. Eventually, the door creaks open and a man swings it aside, peering round with an expression of guarded curiosity. He has kind eyes. Behind him I glimpse a woman within the flickering candlelight; she wheels herself upon a wicker wheelchair which is covered with a huge, grey blanket. She is older than he, but she too has a kind face, which emboldens me.

“Good evening Sir, Ma’am. I am sorry to bother you so late, but I wanted to ask if I may be of any assistance?”

Two pairs of eyes regard me with uncertainty.

“You see – it’s the woman at the top window.”

The man’s face creases, but his tone is calm. “Woman? There’s only my wife and me at home. The children are at their grandparents’ house and as you can see,” he opens the heavy door a little wider revealing a flag-stoned hallway and an iron umbrella stand, “my wife remains downstairs at all times.”

“The lady is in full view from the road at this very moment.” I insist, “Please, Sir, if I could trouble you to come and see for yourself.”

His face relaxes as he decides upon the innocence of my intent. “Very well.”

Mr. Sharpe and I walk the few steps away from the house, through the iron gate and into the narrow, leafy road. We stand with our backs against the tall churchyard wall and gaze up at the softly glowing window. I feel a surge of assurance as the familiar figure leans forlornly on the glass, shaking her head from side to side in anguish.

“There,” I say. “You see?”

Mr. Sharpe’s eyes scan the dead upper windows.

“I…I’m afraid not, young lady.”

“But surely. I can see her clearly with my own eyes.”

At this moment, a figure looms around the corner, allaying our attention. It is David, one of the regulars from the Crescent Moon. I seize this opportunity to obtain a witness, calling out with some desperation, “David. D’ you see the woman at the window of this house?”

David turns mid-step, a little unsteadily to join Mr. Sharpe and myself by the wall. On approaching the Gentleman, he touches his cap, bidding a ‘Good Evenin.’ He squints up at the house. “Is it that timber-framed room up top you’re lookin’ at?” he asks.

“Aye. Aye.” I confirm with impatience.

“Nothin’ up there,” he says bolstering my growing embarrassment. He glances at Mr. Sharp with an incredulous look on his face and then he simply walks away fading into the dimness around the corner.

“Ta ta.” his voice calls back invisibly.

The two of us remain silent, standing on the cold street. The Gentleman and the idiot.

I lift my head “I am sorry Sir. Indeed, it seems that I am mistaken. Perhaps I am suffering a malady of some kind.” I glance quickly up at the window once more, but the pane is dark and still now, even to my own eyes. Perhaps I am indeed suffering an encroaching illness.

Mr. Sharp smiles at me but his eyes remain a little weary. “No, no, it’s quite alright. This sort of thing may happen to any of us. You were only doing as you saw fit.”

Mumbling my thanks for his patience, I wrap my shawl around my cold shoulders and start to continue upon my way. Mrs. Sharp is within the shadows by the walls of the house, watching me intently. Mr. Sharp rushes over to her and takes the handles of her chair.

“Eve, what’re you doing outside? Let me get you back in the warm.”

The woman looks to me as she addresses her husband in a surprisingly determined voice, “Thank you Christopher, but please, I wish to speak alone to our friend here. Please, if she would be kind enough to accompany me in the drawing-room for a moment. Please?”

***

I perch on the edge of a floral-patterned settee amid the hissing gaslights and the ticking clock. The room is large, but the furniture is arranged close together which affords the room a pleasant cozy feel. Mrs. Sharp faces me across a low table. She does not look at me directly but busies herself with the tea things upon the table as she begins to speak.

“I know that you did see this woman.” she says, pausing before continuing, “I too have seen her from the road, on those rare occasions I go out. Until now, I thought I was alone in being able to see her, as, like you, no one else seems able to perceive her. I originally put this down to my unique disability,” she gestures to her crippled legs beneath the blanket, “somehow opening my senses to… such things. I had scarlet fever as a child, you understand.” Mrs. Sharpe pauses again, this time to pour tea for us.

“This woman doesn’t exist in the physical form, but is merely a residue, able to withstand death itself.”

I gaze ahead, dumbstruck.

Mrs. Sharpe continues steadily, unperturbed, “Yes. A ghost, if you like.”

“Do you know who she is?” I manage to whisper.

“She was the lady of the house which stood before this one. Name of Owen. The window, the room in which we see her now once stood, as it does now, atop the building.”

“Why does she look so sad? What happened to her?”

Mrs. Sharp’s head jerks up, tilted questioningly, before relaxing again “Would you like a biscuit?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Sharpe.”

My hostess snuggles beneath her blanket, “The family house was badly damaged by fire. A servant had left a candle burning in the nursery and gone off somewhere – they say to meet a suitor. Within that nursery was the young child of the house, Master Owen. His parents were upstairs at the time dealing with a pressing financial matter related to the family business. If they only knew that their only Child was suffocating in the smoke below them.

When they became alerted to the smell of burning and went downstairs to investigate, well, that was when they discovered their little boy, quite dead, I’m afraid.” Mrs. Sharp squirms uncomfortably beneath the blanket. “Such a tragedy.”

“How do you know this Mrs. Sharp?” I ask.

My mother told me the story and she herself had been told by her mother. I was starting to think that these sightings at the window were merely a figment of my imagination having been told all this as an impressionable young girl. Until today that is.

But please, I haven’t quite finished. After discovering their dead child, such was their grief that the Owens’s retreated to the room at the top of the building, bolting themselves inside. Neighbors and firemen urged them to leave the burning house while they still could – finally succeeding in drawing the couple from their impoundment, encouraging them out of the door. Mr. Owen led his wife by the hand slowly out through the doorway, but she, weeping wretchedly, snapped back her hand from his at the last moment and bolted herself back inside. Mr. Owen tried to beat down the door to get to his wife but had to be dragged away by three firemen before the flames were upon them.

The fire was eventually extinguished, but like her son, Mrs. Owen perished from suffocating on the smoke. Smoke which gathered inside that very room in which we see her now.”

My mind feels heavy with the weight of this new information. “The figure, it points towards the graveyard – is that where she is buried?”

“I too have seen her gestures over the years and have tried to find some meaning within them. The answer to your question is no. When Mr. Owen died, many years later, he was buried with his wife, I believe somewhere in Gloucestershire. I assume the child also reposes there with them.”

***

As a mother, I can only imagine the intensity of that woman’s grief upon discovering her child dead. Is there a greater dread for a woman? I only hope the servant was strung-up for leaving the child alone like that.

Today is Sunday, there are not many folk about this freezing night; but even standing here, blowing misty breath onto my cold, gloved hands, it is something of a comfort to know that my own children are safe at home with their father. A good man.

She is there tonight. I can see well enough from the edge of the church grounds, above the road, directly across, though a little lower, from her window.

Since I spoke to Mrs. Sharp and learned of the story of this poor specter, I feel some correlation with the figure who so frantically gestures to me. I am not afraid; I feel that we two women are somehow connected, though two hundred years span between us; what is more is that I feel no adversity to this connection.

She moves jerkily, pointing desperately. I am convinced that she is trying to tell me something.

How I yearn to be able to know, to be able to help her.

Eyes pleading, lips moving, forming words – something that sounds like the you. It doesn’t mean anything to me. She seems to be more desperate than I have thus far seen. Am I close to something? She frantically gestures – hands together in prayer, begging, a hand held out, palm upwards, gesturing somewhere to my right.

I turn and scan the ground for a clue, anything at all. Nothing but wintry, icy shrubs and trees.

But then I see a Yew tree. A common sight in churchyards.

The you. Could it be The Yew?

I scurry underneath the drooping gnarled branches into wild, untrodden undergrowth beneath. I pull back handfuls of icy twigs and leaves. In the dim moonlight, my eyes catch something light within the gloom. It is a flat stone. From its smoothness I can tell that it is man-made; there are several beneath the Yew tree in a patch some twelve feet by twelve feet. These are headstones; grey, weathered, often broken, but all are curiously small in stature. I pluck up the weeds before one of the stones and tilt my head so as to catch the sparse moonlight on its surface. The weathered writing reads Anthony Bracegirdle, passed from us into the hands of God – October 6th, 1690. Another reads Evangeline Bradley died February 1711, merely two years old – for whom our hearts shall forever beat.

I realize what I must surely soon uncover and so I frantically check the scrawled masonry on each of the weathered stones, as if their inscriptions will fade away as I search. As I uncover a dark, lichen covered oval headstone, my fervor reaches its pique as I begin to read:

Here lyeth the remains of Theolodus Owen – died in a fire at six-o-clock on January 15th in the year of our lord 1676. Forever may peace bestow his gentle soul.

Kneeling in the leaves and sharply scented undergrowth I let my head fall to the ground, and my tears silently flow; pitying the little souls lying forgotten, here in this corner of the churchyard.

When I lift my head again, I look up towards the black and white dormer room and to its window. Through the maze of branches, I see the lighted window, penetrating the gloom. She is there, looking at me, though she seems quite still now. I rise to my feet, ducking under the branches of the Yew tree, rushing out to the edge of the churchyard at the crest of the wall which borders the road. We gaze at each other, she and I. The moonlight shines on the ice-kissed roof tiles. With arms outstretched, her lips move, they form some word. Again and again. I watch and eventually decipher the words Thank You. A smile forms on her face – such a warm, radiating smile which makes me put out my hand to clasp something which I cannot reach. As I do so, she fades gently away and the room darkens, as though it is now time to sleep.

The vicar and I take care of this little patch of the churchyard. He is so appreciative of my help. It is rewarding to see these old, once forgotten graves, now well tended. He was so apologetic and tells me that he had no record and so no notion that there were any graves in this particular corner which had become shadowed by the mighty Yew tree over the years.

A child’s graveyard. I think the little headstones suit this spot, under the protection of the old tree standing guard. All it took was to dig up the weeds and shrubs, to clip the grass and keep the little graves looking tidy with herbs in winter; and in the summer, beautiful colorful flowers.

I will continue to bring Stan and the children here to this spot. My little patch. It is such a beautiful place. How lucky we are being here to enjoy such peace.

From Shrewsbury UK, Jonathan Cromack is a writer of historical horror and ghost short stories. His published work, appearing in various small print anthologies can be found listed on Amazon.

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