A Covid-19 Halloween Story
I know I’m not the only one, by any means, but God, what an impact one vicious little germ has had on my life!
I’d lost contact with my friends and colleagues; my granny was sick with Covid-19 in her care home; my girlfriend and I had broken up over “sticking to the rules” and I’d lost my job and home. I felt plagued by my escalating misfortune – “plagued” being the most appropriate word.
But I am determined to be positive and “make a comeback”. I was miserable, lonely, unemployed and practically broke. I teetered on the edge of depression, was drinking too much, continually ranting
and losing my temper, and generally being a complete pain in the neck to everyone. “Not in a good place” as the now-ubiquitous amateur therapists would have it.
But I am determined to be positive and “make a comeback”. No, really. I am.
I drove my old Mercedes to Dorset on Thursday. This was my journey of redemption. I was going to the location of what would be my phoenix-like re-engagement with the world. I had used my three months’ redundancy money from the brewery to put down the first payment on the long-term rental of a small cottage on a farm. I’d be well away from everyone, but just a few miles from towns where I might find work.
I wasn’t pleased about the redundancy, of course, but I didn’t fall out with them. It wasn’t hard to see that it made no sense to employ a district bar sales manager when half of the bars in the said district were closing due to lack of business. Bloody lockdown rules. “Circuit Breaker”, indeed! Life-breaker, more like. I’d even invented my own little game of “The Rule of Six”: meaning that anytime anyone said it, I downed a stiff drink – whatever was available. That soon got out-of-hand. I forced myself to stop it.
The cottage is a two-bedroom place with its own plot of ground, situated in an idyllic spot, within a farm, with a view of the valley. It’s called Valley View, naturally.
What I didn’t anticipate was that the few miles between there and the main local town was via country lanes and so-called “roads” that tested my driving, my patience and my ability to keep the 1963 Merc “Fintail” in one piece, every time I ventured out. It’s called that by (us) enthusiasts because of its Peilstege – the small fins on the rear flanks that were meant to help in reversing it. As it’s a left hand drive, they do – unlikely as it sounds – come in handy for that.
Officially a W110 190Dc, it’s a big old bus, nearly five metres long and 1.8 metres wide. It’ll cruise at 70mph (when it reaches it) just fine. Although I got it relatively cheap at auction because of its “in need of restoration” state, I still wasn’t happy about the overhanging trees from the high-banked horror roads scraping its 57-year-old paintwork.
Probably more challenging was remembering that its old brakes needed an hour’s notice to pull up that nearly one-and-a-half tonnes of German steel. If something unexpectedly came the other way at pace on the near zero-visibility country tracks, stopping the Fintail would be a challenge. Nerve-wracking. I was glad to finally get there.
I settled into the cottage quickly last night. I have to say, it did look inviting when I arrived, its yellow pebble-dashed walls bathed in the watery autumn sunshine. It was furnished comfortably, as if the 1950s had never left us. I had just a few meagre boxes of “stuff to unload.
My upmarket Camden Lock flat had also been ready furnished and I wasn’t much of a shopper for clothes or anything else, really. Had my girlfriend moved in, as we had planned before the row-to-end-all-rows over “staying safe”, “locking down”, “social distancing”, “the rule of six”, “the circuit breaker”, “levels one, two and three” and every other damn curtailment of happiness, liberty and joy, I no doubt would have had more. But then I wouldn’t have been here, I guess. Bloody government.
Anyway, I am confident that my two interviews today are going to go very well indeed. I won’t let them go otherwise. It’s a cold but bright morning and my “valley view” is living up to its name, with the addition of grazing, multicoloured cows as a bonus. My second boiled egg accompanies my interview rehearsal.
“Positive; valuable; confident; experienced; a nice guy that you really should get on the payroll, Mr……umh (I look it up) Gervais Brocklebury”. “Gervais Brocklebury”? Good grief; I’ve lived amongst publicans for the last three years, but none of them sounded like they’d been to Eton. Mostly “Dave”, in fact, that being a cliché or not. Nice, hard working guys to a man; not all men, though.
In fact, I was proudest of one of “my” female bar owners, who pushed back against the tide of regulation that was trying to put her out of business. She pointed out that the “no bar service” rule was nonsense, forcing her staff to interact multiple times with (unmasked) punters at their tables, rather than once, safely, by ordering drink and food at the bar through the screens that she had put up. Far too much common sense at work there. She was shouted down and has now been closed down. Bloody nonsense Covid-19 rules.
Time to leave for the interview.
I negotiate those crazy roads again (thankfully with nothing coming the other way) and arrive at The Twisted Anchor on Seatown beach with 15 minutes to spare. “Mr Brocklebury – Gervais – it’s 9.45 and your new General Manager is entering the car park.”
My second interview is at 1.00pm at the Bridport Arms Hotel, twenty minutes back along the coast to the east. It’s on the beautiful West Bay. Well, I say “beautiful”, at least from the pictures I’ve seen and what I saw on the “Broadchurch” TV show, which was set and filmed there. I’m not thinking of that one, yet, though. Let’s get offered this one, first.
I announce my arrival – as ever – with the graunching sound of a slightly distorted, rusted metal car door opening. I look around the sloping sandy car park. A number of other cars are parked at the same extreme angle as the Fintail. There’s a small booth near the opening that seems too keen to prescribe the parking charges and instructions.
I walk down the slope of the car park towards the pub. It’s up on the hill above me, across a small bridge over a stream that seems not to go to the sea (I can see the beach to my left) but into a clear-watered pool that looks man-made. A strong breeze whips up from the beach. It looks stunning out there. The tide seems to be out. Focus, mate; you’re not here to be a tourist.
I stride up towards the pub. It looks reasonably well-cared-for, with lots of outside seating under large white gazebos out front. There are more seats up on the slope to the left. Those seats obviously have a great view of the beachscape, where a few people are out strolling. There’s what looks like a beach hut to one side. It’s an outside wine bar. Enterprising! I’m liking the look of it. I put on my plain black Covid-19 mask. I have been wearing a selection of “amusing” ones, but I want to avoid any focus on the damn thing for this interview. The door is open and I walk in.
It’s an hour later; I’m walking out with a new job offer in my hand. And I’ve accepted it, to start on Monday! Gervais turns out to be a
very nice chap indeed. We got on extremely well. His family had owned the pub for decades and it was also his home. He was friendly, clever, probing of me and my CV, but fair and measured. I even managed to push up the salary on offer. It ended up slightly above my previous basic, though without any commission element. I’d benefitted from that in the last role. It often gave me an additional 30 per cent at the end of some quarters and paid a few bills. I’d miss that, but I’d cope. My expenses were going to be a lot less than living in London. The job was going to be demanding, I could see that, particularly because Gervais was intending to make it essentially an outdoor business to accommodate the damn virus restrictions, but I was happy.
I walk onto the stony beach: stunning. The gold and grey cliffs; the red – yes, red – stones; the soft hiss of the tide that looks like it’s coming in now, noisily pushing and dragging the stones as it does so. There were some people fishing along the shore and a few walkers, bent against the breeze, crunching along. I could imagine that the bay could be hostile in the bad weather, but today it’s idyllic. I take out my mobile phone – some signal, here, but weak – and call the other pub. I opt out of the interview. The guy doesn’t sound too bothered.
I drive away, rerunning the interview in my head. Why did Gervais ask, “You’re not easily spooked, are you? It gets dark and moody down here at night”. I said “No”, obviously – with a laugh. Strange question. I’m going to explore the local area over the weekend and be a new man on Monday. “General Manager – The Twisted Anchor”!
After three weeks in my new job, this feels like a way that I could happily spend the next few years. It’s been another long day. We serve breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, then shut at 10pm. Being outside becomes a natural state after a while but I’m constantly impressed by our customers’ determination to enjoy their food and drink despite the weather and all the rules constraining their fun. Will they stick with it throughout the winter? My job might depend on it.
It’s a cold October night. The brisk breeze blows the heavy grey cloud quickly across the bright three-quarter moon, alternately brightening and darkening the scene around me. I enjoy going down to the beach before I leave each night. I find it calming; it feels like the right way to end the day in this unique place.
Crunching my way purposefully across the red stones towards the hissing sea, I wander northwards, towards the headland. The onshore breeze is biting at my face, now. My ears are going numb with the cold. My coat isn’t warm enough. I made a mental note to buy a new, heavier one for the colder weather.
I scan the dark line of the horizon. As my gaze drifts south, a tiny flash of light to my left catches my eye. It’s indistinct in the dark, but near the cliffs and moving slowly along the beach. I assume it’s someone else enjoying a late-night, refreshing walk. Staring harder, I realise that the light is too yellow to be from a torch. And it’s flickering; flame-like; odd.
Without much thought as to why, I turn and start walking towards it. I’m a little too close to the lapping waves now, so I move up the beach slightly, to avoid getting my feet wet. It’s an even less forgiving surface here; my progress is slow as my feet sink into the mass of the larger stones. It’s very dark here. After a few minutes of laborious crunching, I’ve moved quite a way along towards the South. I don’t seem to be any nearer the light, which must be moving away from me.
Suddenly, a flash of moonlight – released from the fast-moving grey cloud – illuminates everything. It spotlights a dark figure, cloaked in black, holding that tiny, flickering source of light. The figure, stopping, turns slowly toward me. I still can’t see too clearly, but I do now see that the light is from one or more candles, held by the stooping figure. Candles?
I shudder as an elongated, whitened face is lit by the moonlight. No. It’s too big to be a face. It’s a hood or mask. I stop walking. The figure turns away again and begins to move off. Right on cue, the moonlight is obscured by clouds and the complete blackness surrounds me once again.
I begin to stride out, faster; then stop, again. The wind begins to whistle like a film soundtrack. What am I doing? I’m tempted to cry out, but don’t want to sound challenging or aggressive, so resist the temptation. I can now see neither the flickering flame nor the figure. I look around me. The only light I can see is from the upper floor of the pub, off at some distance behind me. I shudder. I think I’ll get to my car. I hurry to the car park, jump in and feel safe. Safe from what? I drive home in something of a dream state, reliving my odd and disconcerting beach experience.
It’s the following day, at the pub. I’m bursting to relate my night-time beach story to someone, but think better of it. Still the new guy; don’t want to create the wrong impression. Gervais and I are finishing the supply order for next week, sitting on opposite sides of a small table in the empty bar. It’s no good; I have to do it:
“Funny thing happened last night, Gervais. I saw something on the beach as I was leaving”
“Oh yes”, he replied in his cut-glass English accent, “Someone left something behind there?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. When I say “something”, I mean “someone”, I think.”
“At 10.30? That was a keen fisherman. They do suffer for their sport around here and-”
“No”, I interrupted curtly, realising that he was only half-listening. “What I saw was someone – a slight figure cloaked in black – walking along the beach”. Now I have his attention. I detect some unease.
“You’re supposed to make sure the car park is empty by 10pm, you know. I assume there was another car there?”
I hadn’t thought of that at the time, or since.
“No, actually. There was no other car”.
Gervais rises and pushes his chair under the table. “A local, then, obviously. Out for a long walk.” He’s making as if to leave. I’m determined to pursue my questioning.
“Well….ummh….yes, but…” (I really didn’t want my new boss to think I was some kind of lunatic) “He or she seemed to be carrying candles. Crazy, I know, but there was that and the long hood or mask……”
Gervais looks at me directly and puts down his iPad on the table. He pulls his chair out again and sits back down at the table.
“Ahh”. He wipes his face with both hands and sweeps back his abundant dark hair. He pauses, saying nothing.
“What?”, I say, worrying that I’ve been too candid.
“I didn’t really expect this to happen, but now that it has, it will happen again. Do you remember my asking you at the interview if you were easily spooked?”
“I do. I assumed that was because of the darkness and quiet isolation at closing time. Was it not?”
“You assumed that, but it was about something else. Something else that you saw last night.”
“O….K…..”, I say slowly, putting down my own iPad on the table. “What precisely has happened?”
Gervais – despite the empty bar – stage-whispers at me,” What you saw was something, or someone, that not everyone around here has done. Those that have – I know just three or four this year – won’t ever forget it.” I shudder a little – and not because of the cold, this time.
He continues: “That was Masked Mary”.
I gulp and cough nervously, “Masked Mary? Wearing an oversized Covid-19 mask on the deserted beach, at night, isn’t normal behaviour, is it! A local eccentric or something, then?”
“More like the “something”, I’m afraid, Don. It is a plague mask she’s wearing, you’re right about that, but it’s to protect against the 14th century plague, not the 21st century one.”
“Well, a lot of people do go absolutely over the top on that stuff, these days don’t they, Gervais? The scaremongering works better on some than on others”
“The thing is, Don, she’s protecting herself from the 14th century plague that killed her two teenage sailor sons – the Black Death, as it was better known.”
I shift in my seat, leaning back from the table, unsure what to say next. I think I see where this is going. “So, she believes this is the return of the Black Death?”
“You’re either deliberately misunderstanding, or I’ve not yet explained this well enough”. He’s plainly agitated about it.
“Let me be specific. What you saw was Mary Brocklebury, the mother of Stephen and Mark Brocklebury. They both died of the disease. They were early victims and were blamed by the locals for bringing it to Dorset – into Weymouth Harbour, to be precise – from France. It soon spread to busy maritime Bridport and elsewhere”.
“Oh, right. A bit of the old pitchfork-waving like the Welsh and the Cumbrians have been doing. Of course, the death toll is tragic, particularly as they were so unusually young for it to happen.”
“Don! You’re still not getting it! Those boys didn’t die in 2020. I’m talking about 1389! Those two young sailors were Mary’s 17 and 19- year-old sons who died in agony of the Black Death in the 14th century, leaving her alone to protect their little brother of ten.” Gervais looked at me long and hard. “Do you see, now?”
There was a long and awkward pause. I return the stare, letting the information sink in; unsure how to respond.
“That was her ghost, then? I saw a ghost?”
“Yes”, he sighed, heavily.
“Why is she on the beach, though?”
“She was a beachcomber. She gathered the fossils, the unusual stones and anything else she could find to sell as trinkets. After her boys died, she had no other way of earning enough to keep herself and her little one alive. He died, too, the following year. She bought the “plague doctor” mask, designed to maintain a “social distance”, if you will, so that people would buy from her, even though they blamed her dead sons for carrying the disease here. They say that her spirit is doomed to comb the beach, forever”, said Gervais with finality.
I’d seen a ghost, then. A spook. An actual spirit of a dead person. “Is she always there. Has she always been there?”
“No, but it’s said that she was seen…….”
“Hold on”, I interrupted. “Brocklebury?! You’re related to her.”
“Yes. The story goes that wherever I go, and there she will appear now. But not randomly, she’s been seen only when there is a plague-like infection ravaging the nation, as if that is a trigger for her ghost to remerge. There are reports of her being seen in the mid-1660s, during the Great Plague – the Bubonic Plague – and in 1918, when the Spanish Flu killed millions. I first saw her in March this year. It looks like the Covid-19 pandemic is the clarion call for her to reappear this time.”
There’s an awkward, pregnant pause.
I pick up the iPad and stand up, saying nothing. Gervais does the same. It’s awkward. Neither of us knows how to finish the conversation, so we say nothing. He goes up the stairs; I walk outside.
There’s a brisk, cold breeze ruffling the hair and clothes of the few hardy souls eating and drinking at the outside tables.There’s A queue of four at the wine bar, unnecessarily masked and dutifully distanced, hands in pockets and hunched against the October chill, I can hear the banter of enforced camaraderie.
I admit it. I’m spooked to my boots; still in a haze of disbelief.
I look down across the beach. It looks bracing but idyllic. The low autumn sun glistens on the rough incoming tide waters. I wonder how many of these visitors would run a mile if they heard my story? On the other hand, I can imagine that there would be a social-media driven frenzy of rushing down here to see the local ghost. Perhaps that’s the more likely scenario.
It won’t happen, though, because I’ll never tell anyone. Ever. Or go for my late-night stroll on the beach again, at least not until this pandemic is over and Masked Mary can once again go to her rest.
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