A Ghost Story for Christmas
I recently had a message from a friend asking whether my short story ‘The Ice House’ had ever been published. Well, yes and no. It was read aloud to an enthralled audience at the Pitlochry Theatre on February 12th 2016. But given that it’s nearly Christmas, and a person who appears in my story had a tradition of delivering a new ghost story to his acolytes each Yuletide, I thought it a good idea to give this tale to you, to chill you on these dark nights around the solstice. Like all good stories, this one is based on true events.
A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery, the mystery of…
I knew him as ‘Uncle Montague’, though my father, who had been up at Cambridge, called him ‘James’, or familiarly ‘old man’. I was in fact no blood relative, nor even his god-daughter, but I made him an honorary uncle the first time I met him, and the cognomen stuck. I have the impression he bore it unwillingly, but he bore it nonetheless. I was born as the old century died, just after midnight, in the first minute of 1901, and I was thirty-five when he died. But in 1919, a year in which the nation finally sagged its shoulders when it realised how few young men had returned whole from the Great War, I became a student at the University of St Andrews, reading Law at the University College in Dundee. Uncle Montague, only lately appointed Provost of the famous Eton College, down south in England, did me the singular kindness of coming to Dundee during the summer holidays, and presenting me with an autographed copy of his new book, A Thin Ghost and Other Stories.
“Uncle Montague,” I said, as we strolled around the Geddes Quadrangle, “surely we know, in this age, that it is from the living and not the dead that we have most to fear. I mean, I don’t belittle your imaginative stories, but these are days when cause-and-effect rules, and matters are decided by evidence. Is there a place still for bauchles and brownies?”
“I hear you,” said he, “and yet we are a creature endowed with other modes of perception than a logician would wish us to have. Certainly we are rational, but you mention imagination – of what use is this throwback if we are now all to be purely rational? What purpose does it serve entirely rational men to go to church on a Sunday and hear how Lazarus was called forth from his grave? But they do. And the homeliness of that account is due only to its familiarity, its association with a wholesome power, and they accept it as truth. Would these same rational men view with equanimity the knowledge that one of their own, in search of knowledge, had brought back a man from the dead, in order to learn his secrets? Would they perhaps… why, Elspeth my dear, you’re shivering. If it were Christmas Eve I would invite you to sit closer to the fire.”
“It’s nothing… and now I can see you’re laughing at me!”
“Not at all,” he said, looking at me most directly through his round spectacles. “Elspeth you are a born lawyer, with a brain that is as keen as a rapier when it comes to logic. God knows that is a good quality for an advocate – and may he help whomever may, one day, be your opponent in a Sherriff Court! But there is much more that moves, always has moved, and always will move mankind, be mankind represented by twelve citizens on a jury, one judge on the bench, or one poor wretch in the dock. The latter, my dear, knows that most terrible of fears – that of being utterly alone, the whole world against him, and not just the world seen, but the world unseen of every force that acts upon man. It is not simply the fear of physical harm, nor even of death and oblivion, although every man is aware that he is – as Epictetus has it – ‘a little soul carrying around a corpse’. It is also the fear that goes along with the promise of the survival of the soul, that this very survival is not wholly understood, may often not be wholesome, and may under some circumstances be made to spill its unwholesomeness into our world. On that fear rests every small ritual of safety, every blessing, every childhood rhyme and story. Do you imagine that my stories simply come from my own imagination? No, Elspeth, they all come from that common pit of loneliness, and from the things that, reason or no, emerge from it and, like Coleridge’s fiend, ‘close behind us tread’.”
Of course I laughed at that, and in laughing I hid my shivers until they had abated, by which time Uncle Montague was laughing too, apologising for putting a cloud into the blue sky. His visit had been all too brief, and he was due to depart the next day. I realised suddenly that I would miss him, that I wanted to be as close to him as a real niece might be, that if ever I did feel that terrible tread behind me, his company would be the one I would value most. Nevertheless the summer continued after his departure, here in this sunny nook of Scotland, and the sunshine of the next week or so banished much of the irrational chill his words had left me with. The residue I put down to his skill as a storyteller.
For all my logic, I am a woman of sudden whims, and one day I took it into my head to put on my stoutest shoes, pack a satchel with food, and take the earliest ferry from Broughty Castle to Tayport. It was my intention to strike out from there into the sand dunes along the coast, to see if I could find the March Stone, the boundary marker between two salmon-fishing domains. The following year the dunes were to be planted with conifers, and I wished to see them while sand still whispered in the grasses, while only the sky tented them, and before they were covered by the stillness and sombreness of pines. I drew some glances of disapproval – a young woman alone – but this was 1919 and I was, indeed I am, a modern woman, not deterred by the bad opinions of some any more than I am flattered by the good opinions of others. After an hour or more of walking, casting about for where I thought the March Stone to be, I came suddenly to a trough in between two dunes. In that trough, lying across it at an angle, with one end partly covered by the sand, there was a low building made of stone. The roof appeared to have a domed cross-section rather than a gabled one, and the stones from which it was constructed seemed to be old, far older than the structure itself, and assembled with little logic beyond perhaps the making of the basic shape. I walked around it several times clockwise but could find no entrance, but when I retraced my steps anti-clockwise I found what certainly had been a doorway at one time, but which was now blocked with old bricks and mortar. It lay partly obscured by the build-up of sand and by the sharp dune grasses that grow there. It was nevertheless quite obvious and I wondered how I could have missed it.
A recollection came to me from a childhood tale of how it was supposedly bad luck to circle something anti-clockwise – in effect against the motion of the sun across the sky – as ‘widdershins’ progress was supposedly a part of arcane, magic rituals. I shivered, and immediately chided myself for being so irrational. Without thinking, I reached out and touched the bricked-up door. Whether I then lost myself in thoughts or, tired from my walk, somehow slumbered on my feet I do not know. I had the impression that some charge in the old stones and bricks had entered my body through my fingertips, and worked upon my mind, sending my psyche I-know-not-where. When I pulled my hand away I was cold. A cloud had passed in front of the sun, borne on a strengthened wind, and when it had cleared I realised that the sun was low in the sky. How long had I stood there? I felt something like panic rise in me and began to walk away from the building, back in the direction from which I had originally approached it. I looked back once. The building seemed to crouch and hunch like a living creature. I didn’t look back again, but quickened my pace as though Coleridge’s fiend was truly behind me. I did not care that I had dropped my unopened satchel of food by the building, I simply wanted to be away from there. By the time I reached Tayport – only just in time for the last ferry – I was running. In the boat I was breathless and shivering, and on reaching home I collapsed and was taken to my bed.
Our family doctor was summoned, and all he could say was that I had an unspecified fever. For the next few days I was barely lucid, and my nights were disturbed by dreams. I wrestled with my bedclothes, and sometimes was found sitting on or standing by my bed, or ranging round my bedroom. The doctor said the fever was affecting that part of my brain that keeps a person still whilst dreaming. He offered me a sedative which, in my lucidity I refused and, when raving, batted or pushed away. From time to time I was able to eat, and to talk well enough. I let the doctor know about my dreams, and he said it might help my condition if I noted them down, or described them to him. I told him that some of them were dark, leaving me with little but impressions – such as one where I felt as though I was struggling for my life against waves – but others were very vivid. Three stood out, and I remember them still.
In the first I had the sense of being in a yellowing canvas tent, the door-flap of which was slapping in a breeze, allowing in a slant of sunlight each time it opened. The tent contained two cots, seemingly made of driftwood, and two stacked piles of jumble and gear. I knew one cot and one pile to be mine. The rest belonged to someone else, of whom I was wary. I was taking something from my pile of gear and stowing it hastily under the rough bedclothes on the cot. Then I became aware of someone else obscuring the entrance to the tent. I turned round and found a bearded man in faded and patched antique dress scowling at me. In my dream I recognised him, I feared him but could not show it, so I turned my back on him. At that point I felt a pain in my head so intense that it woke me up, screaming and moaning.
In the second dream everything was dark. Strangely there was nothing visual at all in this dream, and in fact for a moment or two I thought I was back in the dark sea. I became acutely aware with all my other senses, however, and realised that I was in a still place, not in the grip of a tempest. I could feel an ache in my head, I could feel a coldness against my back and a roughness covering me, and I could smell the sea… no, a smell more familiar in the harbor of the small fishing town where I was born, but staler. I reached out pushing away what felt like straw, hearing it falling away from my face. As I moved I also felt the shifting, slippery, cold surface of ice beneath me, and heard pieces groan and shatter. Stretching out my arms, I barked my knuckles against a hard, cruel surface. It was stone. I realised I was entombed somewhere, and in terror I began to claw at and beat against the walls, waking when my terror was at its highest point.
The third dream was the strangest and most terrifying. I found myself standing in a prison cell. I knew it was not mine. It was dark except for the light from a stub of candle that must have been left burning when occupant of the cell fell asleep on his bunk. I looked down at him, and recognised the same bearded man I had seen in the tent. He opened his eyes, then gaped at me in horror, calling out in a language that was neither English nor Scots, but that I nonetheless understood as my own.
“Gud hjælpe mig. Nej! Nej!” he croaked. Sitting up and thrashing his arms in my direction, he went on shouting hoarsely. “Gå væk! For Guds skyld, gå væk! O nej… bag mig Satan!”
I stretched out my hands towards him. I saw them, bloodied, crooked like talons, and – this is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the dream – I knew that whatever I was in that dream, I had ceased to be human.
Time, and perhaps the telling of the dreams, worked upon me, and over the next few days the fever and nighttime restlessness abated, until I was recovered. During my convalescence I wondered about what I had experienced, how it had overthrown my rationality completely. I even considered, and was on the point of proposing, a return visit to the old building in the dunes in company, when a letter arrived for me which persuaded me otherwise. Its contents were as follows.
My dear Elspeth,
This is just a brief note to you on a matter that you might find of interest. A letter turned up amongst some papers through which I was looking whilst researching an unrelated matter. Written in 1780 from an address in Dundee, it concerns a legal case in the city earlier in that century, shortly after the first Jacobite uprising, though it is not a full court record but rather some recollections by the writer. Perhaps you will discover fuller details in some public office in your city. I shall précis it for you, though it will sound a little like something from one of my own stories; it is supposedly a true account, and is an illustration of the fear beyond reason, that you and I discussed that day in the Geddes Quadrangle.
In the year 1717, the Danish brig Astrid ran aground, just south of Abertay sands, in a severe storm. All but a handful of the crew were able to come ashore. The ship’s master and mate being among the drowned, the remaining sailors had no one among them to act in authority. However they managed to construct tents from the debris and canvas of the wrecked vessel, and set up camp amongst the dunes. There they remained for several months, in a little republic of their own, not having the means of removing elsewhere, living off seabirds’ eggs, coneys, and fish from Morton Loch. Though they held what amounted to councils regularly, their democracy was not without its internal suspicions, for it had been thought that the captain had had a cache of gold coins. There was speculation that this had not been lost in the wreck, but had been brought ashore and hidden by one of them. One seaman, Silas Østergaard by name, suspected the man who shared his tent. That man, Adam Kjær, had been the captain’s steward, and had been seen by Østergaard in proximity to the master just before the shipwreck. However, he did not voice his suspicions, because he wanted the gold for himself. It was alleged that one day he had attacked Adam Kjær, found and taken for himself the cache of gold, and had incarcerated Kjær, not caring whether he was alive or dead, in an ice-house in the dunes, where salmon was sometimes stored and preserved by the chill of ice taken from Morton Loch in winter. Alerted by an informer amongst the Danes, the authorities in Dundee sent a troop of militia to the dunes. Østergaard was arrested with a pouch of gold coins in his possession; he was taken in chains to Portincragge – that is, I believe the old name for Tayport – and from there by ferry to the old Dundee jail to await trial. Adam Kjær was not found. Østergaard was questioned closely by officers of the Sherriff, but adamantly denied any part in his crewmate’s disappearance, claiming moreover that the gold was his own. Thirteen days after his arrest, he was heard screaming in his cell late at night. When his cell door was opened, the terrified Østergaard, his eyes wild and his hair standing up on his head, claimed that he had been visited by Adam Kjær’s vengeful ghost, and that he now wished to confess to his comrade’s murder.
The old ice-house was opened, and a body was found in there, its fingernails ragged and bloody from tearing at the walls. There was no decomposition, though whether that was due to the preservative qualities of the ice or because the sailor had survived thirteen days of incarceration before succumbing, the science of the day could not say. The ice-house was sealed and never used again.
Now, how was that for a tale? Truth stranger than fiction!
Your affectionate ‘uncle’,
M R James.