After a heck of a break from the series, and bolstered by a lovely shoutout from The Orangutan Librarian, I’m happy to say that I will shortly be posting some new episodes of the Ghosts & Gowns series!
For those who haven’t read it yet, or for whom it was all so long ago you can’t remember it, I’ve set up links to all the various chapters below. I definitely recommend reading the first two chapters if you’d like to know what on earth’s going on in the next installment!
The basic premise of a ghost ending up running a (sadly fictional) Oxford College was just too much fun to let die, and I hope that you’ll have fun in sharing it with me!
Chapter 4: A Crisis of Faith – Everyone expected the Chaplain to be the greatest issue about Professor Richards’ refusal to accept Death as a good excuse to stop working. They were correct in this belief, but not perhaps in the form events happened to take effect.
Chapter 5: The Problem with Ghosts… – Nobody wanted to admit it for the longest time, not even to themselves. Nobody wanted to speak of the problem, for of course once you have given a worry words, you give it a shape to see it by. But in the end, there it was; somebody had to admit it – the Master may have gotten out of hand.
We begin this week with one of my favourite little bits of Urban Legend, the reason for sharing it will, I hope, become clear later in the post.
Once upon a time, a young lady, having found a man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, brought her boyfriend home to meet her grandmother. They all sat in the grandmother’s front room, drinking tea and eating cake, as is traditional, when the young man’s attention was caught by something on the lady’s mantlepiece. Eventually his distraction was noticed and he was asked what he was looking at.
“Mrs Wilson?” He asked instead. “Mrs Wilson, where did you get that object from?”
He gestured as he spoke to a curious metal item on the mantlepiece, all strange shapes melded together. The old lady beamed at him, pleased that he had noticed her treasure.
“Oh well now, dear, I’ve had that for years! My sons brought it home from me when they were very young, why it must have been over fifty years ago now! I polish it every Saturday, you know, got to keep it nice.”
The young man nodded, still distracted and staring at the object.
“Mrs Wilson,” he asked carefully. “Mrs Wilson, do you know what it is?”
She shook her head, unconcerned but curious about the man’s interest.
“No, dear, I’ve no idea. The boys didn’t know either – found it in a field, they said they did.”
“Hmmm…” The young man nodded. “Would you mind very much, Mrs Wilson, if I called someone out to come and look at it? I think they’d be very interested.”
It was agreed that this would be acceptable. The young man called a friend in the army who came out an identified the object promptly … as an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. It had sat safely on this lady’s mantlepiece for over half a century, polished and prized and completely unidentified.
The end of the story is that the whole family trooped out to watch from a safe distance as the army exploded the bomb properly, and that it left a – well! – a very sizable crater indeed for such a small object! The young man was very popular in the family after all that, as you may imagine!
The Evil Overlord List
For those innocent young ones among us, way back in the early 1990s, a man called Peter Anspach began to put together what would become known as The Evil Overlord List. It is a magical thing which I recommend all writers should read at least once because it points to many recurring flaws in the plans of, well, Evil Overlords in fiction. Trying to avoid these recurring issues may be hard, but if you’re looking for a challenge then this is a great start. Also it is hilarious!
I bring Peter Anspach’s mighty work up now because I reread it a few months ago and it got me thinking…
There are several items upon it which definitely inspired a certain mindset for this post, specifically:
#5. The artefact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.
#49. If I learn the whereabouts of the one artefact which can destroy me, I will not send all my troops out to seize it. Instead I will send them out to seize something else and quietly put a Want-Ad in the local paper.
The Weaknesses of MacGuffins
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock to describe certain plot-relevant objects, although the item in question has been around for far longer than that. The Holy Grail is often considered among the first MacGuffins in literature. In reference to movies about spies, Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
I should note that George Lucas disagrees, and feels that the audience should be made to care just as much about the MacGuffin as the characters, but I freely admit that I lean towards Hitchcock in this matter. If King Arthur’s men find the Holy Grail, I may be happy for them, assuming the plot has made me care about them, but I myself will not be affected either way, and on some level even in a well-told tale, I will always be aware of this. The Holy Grail shall become mine in any way.
Well-used MacGuffins often set the plot in motion in the first act and then should decrease in importance because the plot and the characters are increasingly the focus for the audience. Yes, the Holy Grail may be why the Knights of the Round Table go off on this quest, but the adventures and mis-adventures they encounter along the way should be more interesting than ‘Find the Thingy’. Yes, trying to get to the Holy Grail before the Bad Knights may be a source for conflict, but the characters need to be distinct and interesting, and what choices they make in search for their goal should be more interesting than ‘Will they find the Thingy before the others do?’
A badly-used MacGuffin needs to keep reasserting its importance to the plot all the way through because apparently there wasn’t something more interesting going on. If you are concerned about your MacGuffin, check back through your work and see if you find a strikingly high number of times someones cries ‘Where’s the [Thingy]?!’, ‘What have you done with the [Thingy]?’, [I have to get to the [Thingy]!’ Also check for conflict-based cries of ‘He has the [Thingy]!’, ‘Don’t use the [Thingy]!’ ‘No! If we do that then they will have the [Thingy]!’
MacGuffins have had a bit of a rough reception in recent years, because they have mostly been used poorly by writers and especially films to create and drive narrative tension as easily as possible. They seem unaware though that the tension these MacGuffins bring (that of two or more people wanting the Thingy) is very shallow, and since I, as the audience, do not want the Thingy, you can imagine how much I Do Not Care.
Sensing this, writers have taken, again often in films as they are such a visual medium, to placing MacGuffins in increasingly iconic but ludicrous places. No seriously, why is the Thingy hidden behind a trap door on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral? How did they get it there without someone noticing and do you have any idea how often maintenance and repair work has to be done on that roof? How have the workmen not found it, or at least accidentally bricked up the secret entrance because they didn’t know about it? What, is every set of contractors given a briefing so that they don’t mess with the Thingy before starting work? And it’s still a secret?
Obviously, as writers we could try and write stories without such devices, but as such a staple of drama in stories for so long, that’s a lot harder to manage than to say. It would be like saying ‘right, I shall now write a series without any romance.’ Or ‘I shall write a book without a villain.’ These things are possible, and there are some great works that manage this without any apparent effort, but they are few and far between for a reason.
Playing ‘Hide the Whatsit’
Rather than discarding MacGuffins in all their iterations – which would be sad, as it’s not their fault they are poorly used – in this post we shall consider some more … mundane places to hide your MacGuffin, places in which it is definitely conceivable that an item could have been hidden for long stretches of time.
Because I believe firmly that the interesting thing about MacGuffins is often simply the mystery of working out where they are and/or what they look like. Many a good story has rested on the conceit that even if the characters have heard of a magical object of legend, they still won’t know what it looks like. Also, because objects can move around and change hands a lot over the years, they can end up in some very unexpected places. And I don’t mean, in the abandoned pagan temple half-buried by a landslide, unexpected. Like, in this chap’s garage because he picked it up at a car-boot for £4.50 and then forgot about it because it didn’t fit in the alcove like he wanted it to, unexpected.
Your readers won’t see it coming, which will always be a nice change, and you’ll be forced, as a writer, to be more creative with your plot to accommodate this lack of daring chase scene up the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the Do-Hickey that simply could not still be there after six decades without being disturbed by now.
This harkens back to the WWII bomb sitting safely in a woman’s front room for fifty years. (See, I told you this would all make sense!) No one knew it was there, but it was quite safe, and there was no need to hide it in the darkest depths of the land either.
Here’s some suggestions to start you off:
Great Auntie Freda’s Display Case
Auntie Freda’s lived in that house for nearly seventy years, and that display case hasn’t moved in all that time. You’ve visited every month since you were little, and you might think you know what’s in there, it’s in plain sight and all, but come to think of it, have you really looked inside it since you were six? No, no you have not! That slightly tatty box at the back might as well have the Philosopher’s Stone in it for all you know! Auntie Freda herself probably doesn’t know what all of it actually is, although she’d be able to tell you where most of it came from if you asked her. But only if you asked her though, you’d not be interested in hearing the stories of an old lady now, would you, dear?
Especially good for hiding small and shiny items, which might otherwise catch people’s eyes. Anything that’s got a serious ‘I am important to the plot and the universe’ vibe *ahem-Infinity Stones equivalent-ahem* will be utterly disguised by a mundane setting and a surrounding environment of sentimental tat.
Old Mr Wilson’s Shed
Maybe not all that suitable for perishable items, but Mr Wilson has used that shed as a covert place to stick anything he didn’t want his Good Lady Wife to find for years, but his memory’s not what it once was. Stick The Sacred Stone behind the half-full tins of paint in colours that don’t match any walls in the house any more, no one’s going to find it.
Or maybe it’s an old key that’s hanging on a hook behind the door? Again, you’re not going to look twice at it, are you? No one knows what all the random keys once belonged to, do they? Frankly anything small and vaguely metallic can be kept perfectly safe in an old tool box, or stuck near the bottom of a jar of screws? Like garages, only more so, sheds are the last descendants of an alchemists’ laboratory, and should always be approached with the same level of caution. One never knows what secrets one may stumble across, if due care is not given…
The Bottom of Someone’s Filing Tray
OK, you might think this is a silly one, but think about it. No one ever gets to the bottom of their filing tray. Ever. Even with the best will in the world, you get two-thirds of the way down, you run out of energy and you give up. Then you wait until it fills up again so far that it’s threatening to slide and topple all over the floor and you start filing again. And of course you get two-thirds through it and run out of steam, and…
Yep, so let’s be honest, you haven’t seen what’s at the bottom of that tray in forever, have you? This will not, of course, work for large or round MacGuffins, but if you ever need to hide the map to the secret treasure, or the password to the bank vault, or anything that’s paper-based, then the bottom of a filing tray is a perfectly good place to start!
Charity Shops and Car Boot Sales
Neil Gaiman (of course) has already shown the possibilities here with a short story about an elderly lady finding the Holy Grail in the Oxfam Shop on her way back from picking up her pension. It’s a hilarious story, especially when Sir Galahad turns up, you should read it.
People pick up random things they can’t identify all the time from car boot sales and such, just because it’s cheap and quirky and it might look nice in that corner of the bedroom. And the people selling things in car boot sales are often clearing their homes of stuff they don’t need, or getting rid of bits and pieces after a relative has died. If Great Aunt Freda dies, Cousin Errol isn’t going to know or care about anything much in her display case, is he? It’s mostly all just random souvenirs from holidays only she remembered, isn’t it? He’ll just want to get a little bit of money from it to help with the legal fees, and that’s all.
You could even take the idea to another level and have Cousin Errol call in a day-time tv show like Cash-in-the-Attic, or have the car boot feature on Bargain Hunt, and have a member of the Search Team just happen to catch sight of the Thingy when the show airs. So the reader gets a glimpse of the Thingy, but now we need to track it down again. To arms!
A National Trust Property
I have been convinced for years now that the National Trust exists entirely for the purpose of hiding and guarding Britain’s Magical Items, and no one has found a good reason yet to show that it isn’t!
The usual National Trust property combines everything that is perfect for hiding a MacGuffin. It’s bureaucratic enough that no one will question when or from where an item has come from, so long as the paperwork looks genuine. It’s small and homely enough that random items can be dismissed as an old curio of once-sentimental value. It’s probably been heard of by very, very few people, unlike something like the Tate Modern or the British Museum, which everyone has heard of and will think to look in. It’s guarded by Little Old Ladies – no, really, have you stepped across the line in a NT house? Those women will eat you up alive and make you apologise afterwards for causing them the trouble. They can glare a man into submission at a hundred yards. Never displease a Little Old Lady who has literally got all day to make you suffer appropriately!
Think of them as the modern equivalent of the knight with the sacred vow to watch over an item for all eternity (you know the one). The only flaw they might have is if you bribe them with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Keep an eye out for that.
Side-Note – Transporting One’s MacGuffin
Of course, once your Fearless Heroes have finally acquired their MacGuffin, they need to take it somewhere. But how?
Ok, don’t panic, and don’t reach for the ‘I must epic-i-fy this’ button! This is really quite simple.
I mean, you could call in Special-Ops, and move under the cover of night. You could do that. I have no doubt that it would be very suspense-full and the villains will doubtless have a spy in the camp anyway, and they will track your caravan of ‘covert’ cars down easily enough and give chase…
Orrrr you could just take on the train with you.
I recently bought my mother a Christmas present (I know I’m early, but it was perfect, and don’t worry, she doesn’t read this blog!) The thing was taller than I am, but thin, and I wrapped it up in bubble-wrap, and just walked onto the train. You know the best part? It didn’t matter how weird it looked, or how many side-long looks I received, no one – and I do mean no one – actually asked any questions whatsoever. Because of course they didn’t. Perish the thought!
The best part of this, though?
Even if your villains do give chase, all you have to do is shout ‘Oi! That’s my bag you’re running off with!’ and the entire carriage will leap to your aid as a distraction from the tedious reality of being on a train for two hours! It’s perfect!
Basically MacGuffins, and the searching for and acquisition thereof are a staple of stories for longer than writing has been around. They are so long-lived for a reason and just discarding them would be a huge shame. Still they are boring to the audience when writers forget that, like all storytelling elements, they are not intrinsically interesting without characters and plots that are interesting around them.
So don’t be boring with your MacGuffin and assume that a scary castle location will save it. Have a bit of fun with the concept! Your readers will thank you for it later…
Liked this post? Let me know in the comments where you would hide your MacGuffins!
And check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series for more weird and wacky ideas what writing than you could possibly wish for!
So some friends and I were having lunch at the weekend and we got talking, as you do, about horror films and such. (Everyone else does this, right?)
We were focusing on our incomprehension about the local communities in stories where there’s a long history of haunted happenings (the vicious murder that resulted in this angry ghost took place in 1647, for example) and why no one in the local communities ever seems to know what’s going on or have dealt with it.
Like, humans are a lot more astute than that and even if they don’t know what may be causing the problem, they will learn to avoid it if necessary. The Romans didn’t know what malaria was, but they knew if they built their cities near swamps then the people who lived there became really sick really quickly… so they just didn’t build their cities next to swamps. If there’s a wood next to your village that people walk into and never walk out of, you can absolutely bet that people are going to pick up on that pretty quickly, especially in a largely intransient population like rural areas. Oh sure, in modern times it’s easy to write a bunch of characters who dismiss such supernatural occurrences as superstitious nonsense, but the plain hard fact is that if there is a problem which directly affects you living right next door, you’re not going to cling to that idea for very long.
From there it just seemed natural to talk about what we thought people’s reaction today really would be to finding out that ghosts were real or stumbling across magical objects.
Would the news report on it, or ignore it as being too weird to publish in a professional newspaper? Obviously if there was something visible that showed up on camera then YouTube would be full of shaky phone-footage of it and the comments’ section would be filled with people trying to work out the trick. But what if it wasn’t? Because we all know that if there aren’t pictures, it never happened right? What would it take for the science community to show up and try to figure out if everything they assumed about the world was wrong?
This got me thinking and then I remembered that in some way I did actually know what would happen! Because I lived through a small instance of this happening and I will always remember what it felt like and how people reacted.
So, in the interests of writers everywhere who struggle with the idea of what people would do in the face of real-life magic, I want to tell you all a story from not so long ago. A story of people realising that something was amiss in their community and refusing to just leave things to continue. Because it seems that when there’s evil magic afoot, the result is that someone, somewhere, will eventually call in a solution.
This is the story of how the people of Carlisle made themselves a magic stone and then wondered if they’d cursed their whole city by accident.
It is also a true story.
The Cursed Stone of Carlisle
The year was 2001 and to celebrate the New Millennium, the local museum of Tullie House and Carlisle City Council commissioned and erected a granite sculpture; a great polished stone engraved with the words of a 16th century curse. For in that time the lands all along the border between England and Scotland were ravaged by clans of reivers who stole all they could and burned what they could not take, were blackmailers and highwaymen. They were daring people, who evaded capture by the law, and to this day many tales are told of their exploits, both good and bad.
But you can well imagine that such people were not looked kindly upon by the Church, who often lost precious bibles, chalices and plate to those thieving hordes. And in the year 1525 the Archbishop of Glasgow, a man by the name of Gavin Dunbar, finally lost his patience. He placed a curse upon the Border Reivers, and commanded that it be read aloud in every parish of the borderlands, so that all would hear and know that the curse had been cast.
Pretty spooky stuff.
Then along come artists Gordon Young and Andy Altman, who turn this terrible curse into a beautiful piece of artwork. It gets installed, with much ceremony in the under-ground entrance to Tully House, and then…
I feel that BBC Cumbria’s article at the time best summarised what came over the next five years:
“Livestock herds around the city on the border with Scotland were wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, there has been a devastating flood, factories have closed, a boy was murdered in a local bakery and Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league.” [Full article]
Reporter Tanya Gold, from the Guardian, said it was like a “Universal horror film… or a Hammer lesbian-vampire tale” (which incidentally is remarkably specific, Tanya…). Either way, there was a definite sense that something was horribly wrong in the City of Carlisle since the Curse Stone was erected.
Small wonder, for many of the people living in the city of Carlisle are descended from strong reiver families; the Armstrongs, the Gordons, the Elliots and Bells, the Grahams, the Littles and the Ridleys. In the light of this fact, you kind definitely see the logic of these concerns. If the curse was placed on reivers and their families, then a whole city full of their descendants is one hell of a Risk Assessment fail!
Leslie Irving, a local man and editor of a Christian publication Bound Together gives a chilling idea of what the city was facing: “There is absolutely no doubt,” he said, “that when Dunbar laid the curse he did it in absolute sincerity. He wanted harm to come to the Reivers. The stone was created to attract tourists but what has it attracted? A baby held by his mother had his throat slashed in the town centre a few years ago. The man who created the project died. The man who opposed the project died. The only high-ranking Christian to speak out – the Bishop of Lancaster – died. The Archbishop of Glasgow died.”
Finally, it seems, enough was enough. In 2005, the amazingly-named local councillor Jim Tootle demanded that the 14-ton stone be removed and destroyed. As Councillor Tootle (never not calling him that) declared; “[s]ince the millennium project, there have been several disasters reaching biblical proportions. Many groups and individuals warned the council that the placing of a non-Christian artefact, based on an old curse on local families, would bring ill luck to the city.” [Full Article]
Local religious leaders were equally sure that something needed to be done. The Rev Kevin Davies, the vicar of Scotby and Cotehill with Cumwhinton, was adamant that the stone be destroyed;
“Clearly, the council holds matters spiritual in such trivial regard that it can cheerfully commission the equivalent of a loaded gun and regard it as a tourist attraction,” he wrote in his parish magazine. “Its spiritual violence will act like a cancer underneath the fabric of society. I don’t think anyone in their right mind could argue that this is what Cumbria needs just now.” [Full Article]
Now, Carlisle City Council were not thrilled by the idea, not least because removing the stone would, as the leader of the City Council, Mike Mitchelson explained, have “cost several thousands of pounds,” at a time when the city was already repairing the damage from the flooding.
Gordon Young’s response to the suggestion that his work had brought doom upon his home city was rather more passionate: “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”
For a while, it seemed that things were at a stalemate. There really were no good answers – do you spend time and money removing and destroying a piece of public art you spent a good deal of grant money erecting in the first place not four years before or do you take the chance that magic is real and you are in its evil presence? The people of Carlisle are a practical lot; if there’s a problem in front of you then don’t sit around pretending it’s not there. You get on with things and fix it. But how?
Thankfully all was not lost! For a compromise was proposed; the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, rode in to the rescue, and broke the deadlock. A Man of God had placed this curse upon his people, and a Man of God could just come in and fix it!
“I understand that it is a piece of history and it is reasonable for it to be known about, but words have power and in as much as the curse wishes evil on people it should be revoked,” the Bishop said. “If it has to stay I would prefer a blessing to offset it. We can’t treat it as just a joke. People have differing views about spiritual power and its capacity to do evil, but I am sure that it is a real force.”
(Incidentally, does anyone else think that, in times of crisis, it is encouraging to know that the Church has apparently carefully hung onto all the old protocols for ‘We May Have An Evil Curse, Where’s The Undo Code?’)
With the backing of many denominations of Christian churches, Bishop Dow wrote to the Archbishop of Glasgow and requested that he come down to Carlisle to perform an exorcism on the stone. And indeed an exorcism was eventually performed, after which things did seem to settle down, and the stone has been allowed to stay.
But what was that curse which Gavin Dunbar placed upon the Border Reivers?
The brave and bold among you may read it here, but take heed, for who knows what dangers may await you…
The Bishop’s Curse
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
“I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds. I (bring ill wishes upon) their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock. I (bring ill wishes upon) their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.
“May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
“May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.
“May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.
“May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.
“May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorra and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins. May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and opression.
“May all the plagues that fell upon Pharoah and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.
“May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharoah and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.
“May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.
“May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.
“May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absolom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.
“May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Olifernus, making war and savagery upon true christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.
“And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.
“I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth. I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled / subjugated by this curse.
“I forbid all christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.
“I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.
“I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.
“I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead (rosary); of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be christian people, while this curse is in effect.
“And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world. And their candle (light of their life) goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.”
It was said in the old days that evil spirits couldn’t walk the earth on Christmas Eve. I suppose that the coming of Jesus was such a holy time that no evil could stand it. Regardless, this gave rise to the tradition that Christmas Eve night was the time to tell your friends and family your very scariest ghost stories, and still go to bed safe in the knowledge that all the terrifying ghosts and ghouls you’d been talking about couldn’t get you this night.
Happy Halloween Everybody! In celebration of this spookiest day of the year, I thought it would be fun to publish the conclusion of The Hero of The Hour a whole day early! Don’t worry – there’ll be a post on Wednesday as usual, but I just couldn’t resist a chance to let our favourite ghost be the star of the day!
This story is the second of two parts; it will not make any sense without reading Part 1…
Richards wasn’t sure if he was proud or insulted that the night-porter, Stephen-no-really-sir-call-me-Steve, appeared not in the least shocked to find the Master of the College striding back and forth in the chapel while lecturing on college history (with brief tangents in the general ecclesiastical trends and their efforts on socio-economic norms) to three bound and gagged young men.
“Interesting night for you, was it, Professor?”
Richards tried not to be too obviously embarrassed at being caught in such … unusual circumstances. He was suddenly aware that even by the standards of Devon College this was not a Normal Start to the Day.
Fortunately, the Stiff Upper Lip asserted itself, as it always ought to in Trying Situations.
“Ah, good morning Stephen! And how do you fare this dawn?”
Stephen-no-honestly-sir-please-call-me-Steve was still staring at Richards’ captive audience, but he was grinning as he responded that the dawn was especially picturesque today and that Richards would be pleased to know that the weather forecast was due to be fine and dry throughout the day.
“I’m sorry, Professor, but I really feel like we need to get back to the – ah – the visitors you seem to be entertaining?”
The poor man was giving every sign of a man who was not at all sure that he wanted the explanation, but the resignation in his tone was displaying fully their mutual knowledge that he was going to be asked for such an explanation very soon. He looked no happier when Richards provided the explanation, although they shared an instinctive feeling that it was Undoubtedly Best to attempt to get the matter cleared up before the senior fellows were up and about.
“I know, Stephen, that these may be the feelings of an old man, but I understand that the police-force is getting younger every year. There’s really no call to subject them to the Bursar before it is absolutely necessary. Some faith in humanity is doubtless an important aspect in young officers of the law?”
Stephen’s wife had been in the police force in the past, Richards’ recalled, and he hoped that this valuable experience would aid him in crafting whatever semblance of the night’s events would be socially acceptable…
The saying goes that the best-laid plans go often awry and sadly so it proved this morning.
It had begun smoothly enough; the Chaplain had been summoned and, when menacing Richards with an Outburst of Gratitude, was swiftly diverted onto providing the three would-be vandals with tea, biscuits and Encouraging Words. No harm’s been done after all, Horace, and I’m sure that these young men have simply lost the True Path. They just need someone to believe in them! I’ll just sit with them and have a nice chat…
Richards swiftly got out of sight as the police arrived, no reason to cause more awkward questions. Last time he saw the Chaplain, he’d pulled out the pamphlets. You almost had to feel sorry for the boys – this night was doubtless one they would long regret.
Richards tried very hard not to sigh from his perch on the chapel roof, when the Trunbridge and Farthingbury Fellows strolled nonchalantly into the quad, took one look at the uniformed officers leading Richards’ erstwhile new acquaintances out of the chapel, and all-but flew back into their shared office. He supposed it was too much to ask that the alarm might remain silent until it was all over?
Richards had the highest respect for the intellectual pursuits and talents of his colleagues, but sadly he was also well-aware of their ‘general life-skills’ as one of the summer helpers had called them. Sarah, the Bursar’s PA, would often say (in his hearing no less – she knew perfectly well that he had hidden from the Chaplain inside that cleaning cupboard!) that Richards was too hard on the Fellows. Their behaviour this morning proved his case beyond dispute.
“Sirs, I’m sorry to bother you with this, especially since there’s no question of this going to trial – the men have all admitted to breaking-and-entering. But they all agree that they were held prisoner by a ghost?”
The Detective-Sergeant was clearly eager to get the last of the questions over and done with. Stephen-no-sir-I-promise-you-everyone-calls-me-Steve had volunteered to assert that he had stumbled across the men on his rounds and had subdued them more by luck than skill (Richards’ had been impressed by the man’s humility, if not his honesty). The evidence had been plain, the culprits caught, there was surely little remaining, and yet…
“What?!” Three of the gathered academics cried, jumping like schoolboys caught with illicit cookies.
Richards groaned and buried his face in his hands, as the Bursar took it upon himself to gallantly make everything worse.
“What nonsense! The college has no ghosts on its staff!” At this point, the Bursar’s brain clearly attempted to regain control of his mouth for a brief shining instant. “Not that ghosts are real of course. Because they are not. Clearly the ravings of sleep-deprivation, I should say, poor chaps.” Before sadly his habitual inability to cease and desist while ahead broke through. “And even if ghosts were real, I make a point of not employing them in the college under any circumstances!”
Richards sighed and made a note to ask Sarah if she could find the Bursar a nice unaudited ledger, or some small change to count. Something to settle the poor man’s nerves after the ordeal of having to speak to people he could not bluster into submission…
“Yes sir,” and too his credit, the Sergeant’s face barely even twitched. If being faced with a flustered Bursar first-thing in the morning couldn’t shake the man, Richards really had no wish to envision what comprised his usual duty. “Sir, do you think we might be able to speak to the Master of the College before we leave?”
There was a long, horrified pause.
“No!” “Totally impossible!” “Utterly out of the question, terribly sorry-“
Dependably, the Bursar continued to Provide Assistance. “And not because the man’s a ghost of course! Because he isn’t!”
“He’s in meeting!” The Clevebury Fellow jumped in.
“He’s at a conference,” The Meterston Lecturer spoke at the same time.
“He’s not been feeling very well lately!” Everyone fell silent to look disparagingly at the Trunbridge Fellow; it seemed that imagination was not the poor chap’s strong point.
It was hardly surprising that the police were starting to look suspicious. Richards was thankful that acting was not a key requirement across academia; he would, on this showing, be left with an empty college…
The Bursar tried to salvage everything.
“But he is, with any shadow of a doubt, alive, wherever he is! You can rest assured on that count.”
Richards wondered if Margaret had a way to send anonymous tokens of gratitude to the police force of Oxford? Something to compensate them for dealing with his fellows like this. Not one single officer laughed and no one was arrested for insanity. He wasn’t sure if this said something of the generosity of their hearts or the poor impression of academics generally? Either way, he was going to have to Speak To his fellows Most Strongly about The Importance of Interacting with Society Properly. This was obviously well-overdue.
Just as the gathering had reached its peak of utter preposterousness, a cry came from the back like the rallying-call of a beleaguered army when rescued by angels.
“Margaret! You’re here!”
Richards watched as the police, the fellows and the staff all turned in perfect synchrony, like a field of sunflowers, towards their saviour, sent as if by prayer to redeem them from the pit of their own making. Richards was momentarily afraid that the Fernbury Fellow was about to propose marriage he looked so relieved to see salvation approaching in a woolly jumper and sensible mackintosh.
That Margaret did not turn on her sensible heel, duck past Stephen-even-my-wife-calls-me-Steve as he tried to usher her towards the disaster that was Devon’s fellows Interacting with Society faster, and walk straight back out of Devon College heading for the safety of home was yet another sign that she was a Treasure the likes of which whole wars had once been fought over.
She smiled politely at the officers in greeting, requested their patience for a few moments longer, soothed the fellows back to some semblance of sense and coherency before shooing them off to their breakfast, and even diverted the Bursar’s attention from causing further disaster by casually mentioning that the strong-room doubtless needed to be checked for signs of a forced entry.
One officer – younger than the rest and still overly keen – tried to explain that the porters had gone with the police already to check but had cowered under the sharp glare he had received over behind the Bursar’s back. Even his colleagues had shot him reproving looks at his near-scuppering of any scheme to send the overwrought man away with some busy-work.
At last, however the crowd had been disbursed with the calm authority of an empress in her own court and Margaret was free to favour the police with a benevolent smile.
“Now how may I help you, gentlemen? My understanding is that the matter is all but cleared up, is that not correct?”
“No, Ma’am, that’s correct,” the sergeant mumbled after being pushed forward by the others, “we only wanted to speak with the Master of the College, ma’am, before heading out.”
“Ah,” Margaret’s smile was so kindly that even Richards blushed and shuffled his feet. “I see now. Well, I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen but Professor Richards is away on a research trip this week, but I shall brief him on all that has occurred and I expect that you will receive a note of thanks in the next few days.”
Richards wondered idly if he was going to see this note he was writing before it was sent…
The sound of fluttering tweeds signalled the return of the Bursar as the last police car drove away.
“Margaret, you were wonderful!” Steady on, thought Richards, don’t go overboard there, Bursar, you can’t go around stealing my secretary just like that! He needn’t have worried though; the Bursar could always be relied upon to sink his own fleet. “I solemnly apologise for all those times I changed my papers for the Governing Body meetings the night before to make you re-do the photocopying.”
There was a considered pause, in which Richards silently promised himself that when Margaret killed the Bursar in the main quad, he would not stand for the man coming back to share his afterlife. No, not even if Sarah threatened to cry at him.
However Margaret only smiled fondly, as though the Bursar were a ridiculous but cherished nephew and patted his forearm gently.
“Yes well, Bursar, just so long as you try to refrain from such nonsense in the future.”
As the Bursar bustled off again, Margaret turned and, presumably with the magic powers she swore she didn’t have, looked directly at the invisible Richards. She said nothing and nothing needed to be said. Richards floated meekly to her side and shimmered back into view.
“I see that you have already accomplished impossible feats before breakfast, Professor.”
She smiled at him then, warm and fond and even (a little) respectful. “Well done, Professor.”
“Thank you, Margaret.”
They went into the office together. The day had only just started, after all.
Missed Part 1 of Hero of the Hour? Need to catch up? Follow the link here.