Ghost story – Beyond Bridge 39
The following story was highly commended in the Yeovil Prize 2011.
It started, as most dares do, over drink. We were sat outside the Junction pub sipping beer, staring at a barge refuelling. It was late afternoon and some of the boaters were tying up in search of a pie and a pint. I sighed, taking my feet off the bench. We’d finished our exams and piled into Lister’s Saab, hurtling through the back lanes. The excitement and demob spirit we’d felt had dissipated. An awkward silence hung over us; perhaps it was the unspoken realisation we were moving on and we’d never meet like this again.
‘So what do we do now?’ I said.
Lister scoffed. ‘There’s nothing on at the cinema.’
Dave suggested Water World, but we’d done the slides and the wave-machines last week and most of us were broke. There were empty glasses on the bench and no one was budging. A boat came into view, chugging under the whitewashed brick bridge. A terrier scampered up and down on deck, its paws slipping on fresh paint and varnish.
‘You know about Monkey Man, don’t you?’ Lister said.
Everyone knew the story of Monkey Man. He was meant to be the ghost of a drowned boatman who haunted this stretch of the canal. He was shaggy and black and prowled Bridge 39 where the embankments were steepest and darkest.
‘You can go to bridge 39…’ Lister began.
I shrugged. I was expecting worse.
‘We’ll all do a dare. It’ll be something to sign off like.’ Lister smirked.
I tried not to smile. I had no intention of going as far as Bridge 39; as long as I disappeared out of sight among the trees and bracken who would be any the wiser?
Lister cracked his knuckles. ‘It was a bitter January night many years ago,’ he began.
‘Is that meant to be scary?’ I said, ‘you’re not even by a fireside.’
Lister continued: ‘A farm labourer was dragging his cart across the frosted fields. As he neared the canal he sensed a presence, something hideous. It was pitch-black down there in the cut. Suddenly a shaggy monkey-creature dropped onto his shoulders and snarled and kicked and bit him. He screamed and ran, fearing for his life.’
Lister reached into his backpack and took out a digital camera.
‘You can take some photos of the bridge to prove you’ve been.’
Lister waved me away. I took the camera and set off. I’d only walked a short way when I began to feel foolish. Were they setting me up? Was one of them changing into a gorilla costume and driving down to Bridge 39 to jump out and spook me?
Light began to fade
Beyond the moorings the white gravel towpath seemed to taper into the distance. The light began to fade, though it was not yet three in the afternoon. Trees hung over the path. The stone or corrugated iron panels that lined the canal gave way to turf or overhanging weeds and bracken. There were no boats or walkers in sight, just a moorhen bobbing about on the surface. The embankment began to rise steeply and sharply. We were far below the farm fields. It was damp and cool and plumes of my breath rose high into the air like fog. I rubbed at my arms, flattening out the goose pimples, and tucked my T-shirt into my belt. Before long, Bridge 39 towered above. The brickwork was specked with luminescent moss. I waited and watched for what must have been ten minutes until I was sure there was no sign of Lister. Then I took the camera and snapped away, taking shots of the arch and the basin and the steep wooded slopes. I held it at arm’s length and pulled faces with the bridge as the backdrop. We’ll see who’s scared, Lister.
I took a steep track and emerged breathless into woodland. A giant oak had Sadie & Brian and a heart carved clumsily into its trunk. Steps had been pegged into the mud bank. I jogged up onto a ridge of land. On one side the land fell away steeply towards the canal. To the other side the slope fell a little gentler. Beyond a thin line of birch trees at the foot of the slope I was amazed to see a lake-shore. I edged down the broken slope. There was a bench beneath a willow. I pushed through the branches and saw the lake was vast, with its own boathouse. It was surrounded by rushes and saplings. A bottle green boat bobbed out from behind a bank of ferns. A man in a hat sat in the boat. The man began to row. A dog scrambled onto the side of the boat and started yapping. The man was wearing tweed and a floppy checked cap. Geese took flight in the furthest stretch of the lake. I squinted and saw a woman step out of the boathouse and stretch. Jazz music drifted across the water. The boat came nearer.
It’s a nice day for it
‘It’s a nice day for it,’ I called out.
It was the kind of thing my Dad would say. The man brought a fishing rod out and tinkered with it. I remembered the camera, pointed it at the boat and snapped.
‘What’s the fishing like?’
The man flicked his wrist deftly and cast the line out into the still waters. When he didn’t answer I fired off a few more shots, muttered and set off through the trees.
‘The wanderer returns,’ Lister shouted. ‘So what kept you?’
The three of them were up ahead on the towpath.
‘Monkey Man didn’t get you then?’
I shook my head. ‘Now it’s your turn,’ I said.
‘Proof,’ he said, holding out a hand for the camera.
I handed it over. Lister flicked through the images with his thumbnail.
‘OK, clever dick,’ he said.
‘I took some shots of the lake as well,’ I said.
All three of them stared at me.
‘The lake in the trees.’
Lister was shaking his head.
‘There’s no lake round here. You’re losing it.’
I snatched the camera, flicking through the images. The bridge was there and the canal and the trees. There were shots of me pulling faces. The next image was fuzzy.
‘It’s out of focus that’s all.’
Lister rubbed his chin. My heart lurched. The next image (13/19) was a field of lush green reeds. The next one was the same, shot from a lower angle. The birch trees were there and the outline of a vast open space where the lake should have been. My stomach twitched.
He looks like he’s seen a ghost
‘He looks like he’s seen a ghost,’ Lister said.
‘This isn’t right,’ I said.
Andy winked. ‘Show us the lake,’ he said.
My legs were weak and shaky as I climbed the pegged wooden steps into the trees. There were images of a flat field bristling with reeds and rushes where there should’ve been a lake and a boat, a man and a dog.
‘Up here,’ I said.
I ran down the bank. The bench was under the willow. Cold, clammy sweat broke out on my forehead. I blinked. There was a large clearing filled with reeds and dotted with birch saplings.
‘This your boating lake, is it?’ Andy said.
‘Here, right here. I’m telling you. Over there look…’
I gestured with a hand to the far side of the lake where the boathouse had been. There was a clump of brush and a cluster of silver birches glowing in the sunlight. Andy was tapping his temple.
‘Yeah, I know. You think I’m mental.’
‘What was in that drink bud?’
I put my head in my hands. I was massaging my scalp when Dave called out.
‘What is it?’ Lister shouted.
‘You need to get over here.’
Lister and Andy picked their way through the bracken and brambles, cursing as it snagged their jeans and trainers. Lister was laughing.
‘Did you think we wouldn’t see this?’
I trudged over to them. They were pointing at a notice-board and smirking.
‘Trying to scare us, were you?’ Lister said, thumping me on the shoulder.
I froze when I saw what was written on the board. Beneath the name of the nature reserve was a sepia-tinted photograph of a man in checks and tweed sitting in a rowing boat with a dog. They were fishing on a lake. In the background it was possible to make out a fuzzy building and a landing stage.
‘Nice try, but we spotted it didn’t we?’ Lister said.
I wasn’t listening. I was staring open-mouthed at the words.
….The lake would have originally have been the size or six football pitches. It began to dry up as vegetation took over, but was still regularly used for sport in the 1920s. It was large enough to support a boathouse……
I swallowed. Was it possible even now to hear the faint tinkle of ragtime?