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The Ferryman

by Simon Curtis 7 months ago in Short Story
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An Edwardian Ghost Story

The Ferryman
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

To preface this story I feel it is very important to tell you a little of my own background. While I am somewhat incidental in the events, why I am now writing about them is significant if only to demonstrate that I have nothing to gain from having imagined it all.

I am an accounts clerk for a very large firm based in Bristol. I have been there since I finished my schooling and the owners have been very good to me. When they needed someone to begin work establishing a new office in Bath they didn’t choose one of their accountants, they chose me. It was a wonderful opportunity, I was to organise a new building even begin seeking new clients. They gave me a very large allowance for my lodging and sustenance and more freedom than I could possibly have ever hoped for. It was truly an unlikely but amazing opportunity and one I intended to make the most of. What I was not expecting was, well, everything that transpired in Midford in that unusual February of 1901.

Those observant readers may note that rather than this set of events taking place in Bath, they occurred in Mitford. The reason for this is that I had chosen to take lodgings outside Bath itself for the duration of my stay. The reason for this was threefold, firstly, the cost of lodgings in Bath itself was very high, even for meagre (ands sometimes downright squalid) boarding. Secondly I enjoy taking a constitutional stroll to get myself ready for the day and Mitford offered this. Thirdly, my spare time is spent sketching the natural world, flora, fungi and I am lucky, the odd bit of fauna. Staying in Mitford offered wonderful countryside strolling opportunities during my quiet weekends.

I also particularly enjoyed the company of the lovely couple who ran the Hope and Anchor, Dennis, the eccentric old Landlord had been an infantryman and was wounded as part of one of the relief parties trying to get to Gordon on Khartoum. He had a knife mounted behind the bar that he claimed he had been thrust through his arm by a “Bloody Madhist who looked like my Great Aunt Violet”. Though the wounding wasn’t doubted, once I got to know the regulars they suggested he might have actually picked the knife up from an Alexandrian market on his way home.

His wife Annie was a mother hen. She fussed over me the entire time I stayed there and if I am honest she is the greatest cook to have ever prepared a meal for me.

Though I never asked her there was always a lunch bundled up for me when I left for my walk to work and a hot drink and a meal ready when I arrived back. This was particularly welcome as though I cherished my quiet walk back to the pub as we struggled through that bitter winter I was often so cold and wet when I arrived I needed the mug to restore feeling to my fingers.

My first week was very successful, I managed to secure the perfect premises within half a day, negotiated some advertising in the local newspapers and was Preparing for setting interviews by the end of the week. I was very pleased with myself but realised that my efficiency was hurrying my exit from this pleasant new lifestyle. I needn’t have worried though. When the message about the impending interviews came back from the directors they asked me to stay on till the end of March at least to ensure the office started well. I celebrated this news with a particularly long Saturday walk.

It was my favourite kind of day that Saturday. Clear, but brisk, and with a hint of frost when I set out. Annie had bundled together some cheese and ham with some of her home made bread for me and Dennis had given me directions to some of the quieter woods that he was certain to have all sorts for me to draw. I set off in very high spirits along the road and off on my first explore of the area.

It was an incredibly peaceful day, and the stroll along the riverbank was uninterrupted by even a bird singing. All I could hear was the disarming gurgle of the river. I stopped a few times to see if I could find anything to sketch but there was nothing that caught my eye. I spotted a few clusters of fungi on the opposite bank and decided that at the next opportunity I would cross and try my luck over there. It wasn’t long before I spotted an old looking stone bridge and so made my way up to it. As I got closer I noticed an elderly gentleman in a small dinghy on the bank I was on. When it became clear I was going to cross the man waved me over. I approached and was taken aback by the sight of a man clearly well past his prime manning a wooden vessel in somewhat the same condition.

“I’ll take you across the river, no charge, the bridge is far too unsafe.”

Something did not seem right about the scene. The sturdy stone bridge or the fragile old man. Even as he stood in front of me I felt a gust of wind may take him away. However there was a look of sincerity in his cloudy old eyes that persuaded me to take him up on the offer. When I accepted and climbed into his boat I had expected something of a conversation, at the very least an explanation of why the bridge was not safe to use but the journey was done in silence other than the man’s grunts as he hauled the oars through the icy water.

I thanked him and he nodded silently as I climbed up the bank and onto the path on the other side. Once I was heading away I looked back briefly and he was gone. I assumed he was obscured by the bank and the bridge and continued on my way.

I had a very pleasant day, spotted a few very late fungi and a couple of early bluebells, both found their way into my sketchbook. I enjoyed a lovely lunch along with a bottle of beer I’d been handed by Dennis as I left in the morning. As I headed back down the path I remembered the odd gentleman with the boat and wondered if he would still be there. To my surprise he was, in fact he was waiting on my side as if he had been expecting me. He beckoned me down and ushered me into the boat before we spent another silent trip.

I thanked him again and made my way back to the pub where Annie fussed around me with warm drinks and yet another delicious meal. I kept her and Dennis entertained with my sketches and after I’d described my walk to them. I broached the subject of the old ferryman and what his name was. Dennis looked at his wife and she looked back.

“Nobody seems to know. He’s been there for years, longer than anyone who lives round here. Thing is, it’s not just that we don’t know his name, but nobody knows where he lives or why he does it. But that bit of the water near the bridge, it’s the most dangerous bit of water from here to the Thames I promise you.”

I asked if the bridge itself was dangerous but the response was a shrug and a general sense that there was little evidence one way or the other and even less interest in finding out. Dennis pointed me in the direction of the older of his regulars and not one of them knew a thing about him other than he had always been there and he never seemed to age. One of the men, a retired Lock-keeper went a little further. He claimed to have seen him disappear once and was certain he was the ferryman to the beyond and an omen of bad things.

Not being a superstitious type I laughed along with his friends and disregarded his input, though in the back of my mind I wondered if I too had seen him disappear. While I didn’t dwell on this I will admit there were times in between turning out the light and falling asleep his face did appear to me and while it didn’t scare me I can’t say it was an easy vision to sleep to.

After another hard but successful week I took another walk up the river to investigate a couple of the other woodlands I saw on my walk and of course this one inevitably took me to the bridge again. Like before, the old ferryman sat waiting in his boat ready to take me across to the other bank. I tried to engage him in conversation again to no avail on either leg of the journey. He stayed silent and focused on the shore not once reacting to my friendly conversation starters. I chuckled to myself as I walked back to the pub and was almost there when the man I had spoken to the week before stopped me and looked resolutely into my eyes.

“Don’t be trusting the old ferryman young sir. He won’t bring you nothin good.”

I tried to elicit some sort of explanation but he mumbled something and made his way into the warm light of the pub. I followed soon after and spent the rest of the evening listening to Dennis’s reminiscences of his days in the army. This was punctuated by a few hands of cards and a blast of songs from a group of workers from the local mill. It was yet another pleasant end to an equally enjoyable day.

Another week went by successfully but relatively uneventfully. It had been a rotten week for weather and I was very pleased to have invested in a new Mackintosh the previous December. I occasionally contemplated hiring a Hanson into Bath but decided it would be a bad habit to get into

And persevered with the sodden trudge. However, by Thursday the rain had lightened and it had become far more likely that I would get out on one of my walks at the weekend.

When I woke on Saturday morning I saw that despite a little fog the weather was perfect. Still, dry and a hint of sun beginning to break through the clouds. I readied myself, taking my raincoat as a precaution and set out. During the previous weekend I had spotted a very secluded little stream that I wanted to investigate. As ever, when I got to the bridge the ferryman was there and we went through the usual silent journey and as I got out I turned to thank him. Usually I would get no response but today was an exception.

“Weather will turn today. You’d best not stay out as long as you usually do.”

I was taken aback and very nearly forgot to thank him for his advice, I clambered up the bank, said my unreciprocated goodbyes and continued on my way up the river.

The stream was something of a disappointment, while it was peaceful and pretty it was also inaccessible beyond the first half a mile and resulted in me doubling back to see if I could find another new path to explore. There were a few routes I had noted the previous week and so began to head to the nearest one due to the time lost earlier. This route was far more interesting and I was actually really rather pleased the other had been such a let down. I spotted deer, a robin and what I am certain was a stoat all before I had sat down to enjoy my lunch.

While I sat enjoying the bread and ham I noticed a slight change in the temperature and the slightest hint of rain dampened the air. Heeding the ferryman’s warning I packed my things away and began the walk back to the pub. Almost as soon as I stood up the rain came crashing down and the sky darkened quickly. I closed up my raincoat and strode as quickly as I could towards the river.

By the time I had reached the path along the bank the sun had been completely obscured and along with the dark, the heavy curtains of rain were so dense the visibility ahead of me was terrible. I hurried along the path as the river swelled and roared past me almost as it it were racing me back to the bridge, which when it came into sight I was mightily relieved at!

I ran the last few yards to the ferryman’s spot and peering through the gloom I could not see him. I was unsurprised as given the circumstances only a madman would have dared to use a boat on the river as it was, in fact I could barely see the banks as the level had risen so much. I climbed onto the old stone bridge and made my way across. As I reached halfway I noticed a commotion on the other side. The ferryman was stood near to where his boat was usually moored. He was shouting something at me I couldn’t hear for the wind and waving at me. I stopped for a minute to try and make out what was being shouted. In that split second I felt a crash against the back of my head, I span around and in my insensible state threw my arms out to grasp whatever had hit me, but dazed, half conscious and blinded by rain I saw nothing.

Then there was a huge thud into my chest that knocked me backwards and took the wind from my lungs. I suddenly felt the sensation of my balance deserting me and I reached out backwards to grab the stone wall of the bridge. I grabbed a large brick but it came away in my hand and I tumbled backwards into the cold, brutal torrent beneath me.

I hit the water hard and I think, though I could not be sure, I lost consciousness momentarily. The murky, cold water filled my mouth and nose, my legs were flung around like flags in a gale. I gained my senses and tried to swim by kicking my legs and clawing at the water. Then just as I felt I was winning my struggle I felt a thing on my belt. It was the unmistakable feeling of hands grasping my tough leather belt and dragging me downwards.

I kicked harder and the pulling increased. I tried to call out and just managed to fill my throat with water again.

My head dropped below the surface.

I couldn’t fight any more. The strength of the water and these unknown hands had beaten me and I began to relax into my fate. Then, just as I felt death begin to take me a rough hand grabbed the collar of my coat and wrenched me above the water. I rallied and began to kick again. The upward force twisted me round and in front of my eyes was the side of the ferryman’s little dinghy and he was there dragging me aboard.

I managed to get one hand on the side of the boat and with his help lifted myself up and into the safety of the dinghy as we careered down the river without control. As soon as I was in the ferryman grabbed his oars and battled the current to ease us to a low part of the bank where he crashed us into an overhanging tree before helping me onto the grass and then leaping from the boat and collapsing beside me breathing heavily.

“Thank you,” I said weakly.

“No, don’t thank me, ‘twas my fault. I should have known it would happen.”

I looked at him puzzled and for the first time I saw his resolute expression break slightly.

“I spose I’d better explain.” He sighed as he sat up and reached inside his coat for his small battered flask. He took a drink before offering it to me. “I don’t know what you believe in sir but you just had a lucky escape from a nasty, bad and murderously angry spirit. He’s been patrolling this bridge here for nearly forty years. I know this cos I caused him into being. Wasn’t my fault mind. Was his own really but I played my part so I’ve been here ever since watching over folk. Getting them across the river.”

“I don’t, I don’t understand.” I stammered.

“My daughter. She was a beautiful soul but my wife and I were poor, she had to go into service, it was a good honest job but I’d like to have had er get more schooling you know. But she found a good respectable house. A lawyer and his wife and their children. She was happy and the pay was reliable. But then her master, the lawyer, he violated her. Got her with child and without a thought he sacked er, kicked er out and so she came home.

Well we was happy to have er home but the circumstances, thems weren’t great. But we did our best, but we couldn’t afford a doctor and there were problems. You know, with the baby, and before we had even had the chance to think about there being a baby in the house they was gone. Both of em. My wife and I had been at work all day and when we got in there she was, all cold on the floor. She’d been dead a while. Loss of blood. Er and the baby gone. Well I’s got myself maudlin for some time and I did a lot of drinking here there and everywhere and one night I was at the Hope and Anchor up the way and I lost my temper. I shouted out what had happened and named the Lawyer. Well that was just about the stupidest thing I could have done. Saying that, in the pub, well that will wreck a mans career, his marriage, his standing. Well his gardener was there, in the pub and while I drank away he made his way back to the Lawyer’s house. The Lawyer he was furious, he came looking for me. He waited for me, on the bridge.”

The ferryman looked over his shoulder towards the bridge with a look of sorrow and regret.

“He was there with a knife, he stopped me on the bridge and made to cut me. I managed to parry him and kicked him hard in the leg. Something happened, he slipped, he fell onto the wall of the bridge and then over into the water. He hit his head on something on the way over and when he hit the water he never came back up. Nobody ever spoke of him again, nobody knew what had gone on. I never told anyone. Then the accidents started happening on the bridge, five deaths in a year. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. So I bought this boat here and I’ve been ferrying folk across ever since my penance see.” He gave a rueful smile and sighed a deep breath of relief. I placed my hand on his shoulder and thanked him again.

Suddenly there was a whoosh, a roar then a crash, we both span round to see the bridge tumbling under the force of the river. A wave raced down towards us carrying stones, branches and anything else it picked up on its way. We scrambled away from the river just in time for a branch to smash into the boat breaking its side and dragged it down the river and down to the bottom of the water where it broke as it was rattled along the river bed.

The ferryman fell back onto the grass and began laughing to himself then he stopped for a moment to whisper, “it’s over,” before chuckling away to himself.

“It’s over.”

Short Story

About the author

Simon Curtis

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