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... Church Square...

... Church Square...

By PeterHunter - 1 Review

…Church Square…
by Peter Hunter

The lonely peal of West Tuddenham church’s bell sounded clean and clear across the shallow valley, as it had done for centuries - singing through the leaves, echoing inside barns and gently titillating the sails of the windmills. Penetrating, timing - as it always had and perhaps always would - the lives, the hovels and the flat fields tracing the existence of many.
Slowly the sound ebbed, faded like a soft winter shadow - paled into the shallow valley containing the meandering river that gave the area its name. Square towered, the stone church, the area’s oldest building, had dominated this land - watching over it whilst lives came and went. Now, in the twentieth century, rapid transport and communication had broadened people’s prospects, bringing change and variety to the quiet valley.
The second oldest building unsurprisingly was its nearest neighbour. Without challenging the Norman ancestry of the church, the untidy Tudor building was joined to it by a tunnel under the ancient overgrown graveyard. Presumably a very old escape route for the priest in the time of Cromwell's purge. Beneath the leaning, fallen gravestones it went - under the narrow road separating church and house. It ran from the crypt to a damp fetid earth-floored cellar under the Tudor building.
For centuries the ends of the tunnel had been blocked with a wall of uneven hand-made red bricks. Over the centuries generations of the Hewitt family had speculated on what might be hidden within the tunnel. Many Hewitt's were buried above - until the ancient graveyard grew full to capacity and had been replaced by a new cemetery half a mile along the road towards Dereham.
Now - mid-century, the Tudor building seemed a curiosity - still wonderfully intact, its upper floor protruding over the lower one in the manner of its period - the white limed clay walls surrounded by a framework of rough textured blackened oak. Inside, each floor was at a slightly different level, uneven, sometimes sloped - only by a few inches but requiring care moving between rooms…
In mid-century the old house was unoccupied - being used as the village butcher shop, owned and operated by Fred Hewitt and his new wife. The woman refused to live or even spend the night there - suggesting it was spooky or haunted. Perhaps it was her superstitious ancestry - in an eastern European country by the Danube River.

Fred himself had been born in the village in that very same Tudor house - living there for almost fifty years until his marriage, late in life, to the gypsy immigrant from Romania, Melitta Iorga. Melitta had at one time worked as a servant at the big house in Bowthorpe, until she had married the estate’s young groom, Dick Newsmith. The wartime liaison had been convenient for Melitta, helping her to achieve British residency and eventually a passport, but the marriage failed and ended in divorce. Melitta’s promiscuous ways would have earned her the reputation of an un-paid village whore if such a small community could acknowledge such an activity.
The relationship did not last - eventually ending in divorce.
The sole offspring of the union was William, a thoughtful, bright child who did not take kindly to the slow-witted Fred; despite his reliance on him when having married Melitta, the man’s generosity was welcomed.
William's intelligence and determined personality were also at odds with the generally slow-witted locals. He was not the most popular boy in the village…

* * *
About twenty-three miles east, in the flat lands bordering the North Sea, lived Fred’s cousin Jim Barter. Existing in a single room above a wooden boathouse, Jim was famous, if fame could be attributed by the hushed, whispered village gossip - for only ever having enjoyed one physical relationship in his life.
Resulting in fathering a daughter with his sister Beryl…
Incest was not uncommon in Norfolk at that time…
The little boathouse contained lonely Jim’s pride and joy, his most valuable possession - his boat, known as a Norfolk punt. Jim was an eel catcher, even by the Fifties a rare and disappearing breed. The boat’s design - shallow draught with pointed ends, much like a wide oversized canoe - made it ideal for the shallow reed fringed waterways of the broadland area. It was perfect for his work - slipping silently from his boathouse, propelled by either oars or quant, to go half mile upstream before the sharp prow enabled him to nudge through fifty yards of reeds - the curtain separating the River Yale from the small, almost secret Ladham Broad.
Jim’s boathouse, alongside two similar ones, stood at the end of a rough unpaved and usually muddy track linking it to the remote hamlet of Ladham. The boathouse’s piled wooden foundations were always awash in the turbid waters of the Yale. The small room, indeed the whole small structure, smelled of dead fish. It had no running water, unless you include the river by the door, and had never benefitted from any electricity supply. Jim also smelled slightly from his employment and the general lack of hygiene facilities in the hut added nothing to his, or its charm. In addition a surgical boot around his clubfoot hindered him on land but seemed not to impair him on his boat.
Not surprisingly, some locals described him as more fish than human…
Often the teenage William would cycle over from West Tuddenham to spend the day with Jim. Once, having completed the short river journey from hut to hidden broad, they could retrieve the eel traps in complete security, keeping the knowledge of the best fishing places to themselves.
With a brimming wicker basket alive with their catch, they would skim the crystal shallow water of the boat-less broad, scattering shoals of roach and bream before them - even spotting the occasional elusive pike darting for the cover of water lily beds. Around them flat marsh meadows were a haven of wildlife - a land of sleepy bullocks - otters, coypu and water birds - even the elusive bittern.
A small patch of England at peace with itself and at peace with nature… Sometimes when lifting the long woven traps - hand made by Jim’s during the long winter evenings in the flickering light of a paraffin lamp - William would tell of the tunnel connecting Fred’s cellar to the vault under the church. As the withy tubular traps were retrieved over the low black tar-rendered sides of the Norfolk punt, the dusk silence was broken only by a low hiss from the mass of wriggling eels.
As he handled the plentiful collection of squirming brown and yellow eels, the older man harboured the theory that, inside the church tunnel, might be the remains of a dead monk or priest - his flesh-less hand clutching a bag of gold coins…
William could well believe this - such are the dreams the young…

* * *
Several times, using a cloak of invisibility that seems often to protect the young, William and two of his friends occasionally sneaked into the church - passing the cold, ground floor chamber with its bell ropes hanging from the ceiling - to climb the winding stone steps to the big chamber in which were suspended the three great bells. Then, higher up the rickety ancient wooden ladder, to a square trap door, taking them to the spire on top the church tower. There, peering between the constellations, but still lower than the twenty or more feet of wooden spire, on one of those crystal days following an air-purging cold front, they could see, twenty five miles to the east. The North Sea itself…
Mostly however, the blue haze of distance restricted the view - reducing it to the gently undulating fields and woods covering the county.
The ascent of the tower was tough in winter - across the gentle flat land the grey north sea provided zero shelter - nothing to stop that vicious wind.
No land between their and Spitzbergen…
In nineteen hundred and fifty five, Fred Hewitt became ill - confined to the Wroxham ward of Norfolk and Norwich hospital with a suspected case of gallstones. He no longer lived above the shop - Melitta had made him rent Chain Cottage in Church Street as a condition of their marriage, such was her fear of living in above the shop in the Tudor house. William, now Fred’s stepson, had access to the butcher’s shop. Even then, it was not an attractive place. In those days hygiene was not considered important, the premises had no running water and the adjoining slaughterhouse simply a primitive shed, surrounded by the skulls of butchered sheep and pigs.
Looking and reeking of death…
With Fred absent in hospital - William was determined to solve the riddle of the tunnel. As usual Fred’s Jack Russell dog, Sara, now cared for by William, despite becoming increasingly loyal to him, would not follow him down to the cellar. The dog would remain shivering, howling and brindling with fright at the top of the stairs leading into the cellar. Usually, the dog would follow him anywhere, close at heel and trusting. William would not to lure it into any danger.
It took William all day to unpick enough of the brickwork with a marlinspike in torchlight, before the hole was wide and deep enough to enter. As he wriggled into the gap his breath choked on stale, foul, oxygen-weak air - centuries old perhaps. Inside the entrance, his hands and feet encountered nothing but damp earth sides and ceiling. Pausing to let some new air freshen the narrow passage, his eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness in the beam from his torch.
He crawled forward further and deeper…
Fearfully, William crept further into the dark tunnel. He stopped - a quiet crumbling noise warning him… Whether from the disturbance, age - or some other reason - the roof of the tunnel gently collapsed leaving him trapped inside. With all his breath knocked out by the earth collapsing on top of him, William resisted struggling…
He would, he thought die, in this foreboding place… Its narrowness making it impossible to turn around he slowly, ever so slowly dug himself forward…
Inch by inch…
As he turned he heard, sensing a noise - a slight metallic tinkling - as his trembling hand touched something in the dirt - fabric, leather perhaps?
It was two hours before Fred’s assistant found the Jack Russell bitch - Sara, still howling and shaking at the top of the cellar stairs… stressed and weakened.
Quickly, realising what had happened, he summoned help. Working from the still bricked up church end of the tunnel in the vault - judging it preferable to attempting to clear the fallen roof from the shop cellar - two men worked in shifts taking almost two days to clear a path.
Despite the diminishing air supply, he had survived. The something emerged… stiff, unearthly pale, obviously traumatised. Perhaps it was the boy, but it looked one hundred years old - wrinkled, ancient, sunken eyes and long, unkempt hair. In his hand was a tattered leather bag - the sort once used as a purse - and clinging to it was the thin browned bones of a skeleton hand. The creature's eyes seemed to become more sinister - blank, staring, strangely lifeless…
William, if it was still William, said nothing…
… he never spoke again…


© Peter Hunter 2012

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18 Mar, 2012
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9 mins
3.0 (1 review)

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