A distant car-alarm pulsed in the street. Rory Cornwell, making a video for one of his many blogs, reduced the pick-up on his mic until the sound registered on his recording as little more than an anxious subliminal heartbeat. With the mic so nearly mute, he had to lean closer for his voice to come through clearly, but that was fine – it gave the audio a whispered, intimate quality.
Outside, the sun was bright on the crooked rooftops and fluttering alder leaves of of the small town of Witchelsea. He should probably be taking advantage of such a glorious day to go out and familiarize himself with the town that was to be his new home for the foreseeable future, but he had barely finished unpacking. He had told himself that his channels could not wait a single more day for an update, and that it would be nice—after all the upheaval—to get back to normal as soon as possible.
So Rory had drawn blackout blinds against the summer, and lit his face from below and slightly to the left by a single gold spot. The playback window in the upper right of his computer screen showed his features made sinister, all sharp yellow lines and dark planes. Brown shadows darkened his bright copper hair to auburn, made the light in his eyes crystalline, mystic. A ghost-hunter should look as though he could see into all the dark spaces in the world, he thought, altering the position of the lamp so that it didn’t directly illuminate the inside of his nose.
He took a quick glimpse down at his notes to refresh his memory of the facts. Then he put the printouts out of sight, took a deep breath, straightened his back and pressed record.
“Welcome back to my channel, ghost fanciers. As you know, I’ve recently moved out of my university rooms and into my own house in a small town in the Cambridgeshire Fens. I’m about a twenty minute drive away from the ancient cathedral city of Ely. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to release a vid last week, but I was able to catch one of Ely’s ghost tours, details of which you can find on my sponsor page. One of their tours promises ‘live ghosts,’ and uses actors to make sure that every participant gets a scare. Fun, but not likely to be very accurate, so I assumed that one was for entertainment only and took the tour guided by ‘the night watchman.’
Rory polished the face of his watch against the hem of his shirt, recalling the evening. The ‘night watchman’ had been dressed in faux nineteenth century clothes and had attempted to give his talk in a similar style, full of Dickensian English. But every so often his genuine zest for the subject had broken through, and he had forgotten he was playing a character. At those moments, one could tell the man was a historian and an enthusiast himself. Those were the best parts.
“Ely is a spooky little place, and we walked through crooked, narrow streets that were first built in the fourteenth century.” He raised his head, fixing the camera with a candid gaze. “I was impressed that the talk didn’t include any lurid murders or exaggerations made up for dramatic effect. The very worst thing mentioned was a faceless monk, who appeared in a child’s bedroom regularly every night and terrified him by looming over his bed.”
He gave a soft huff of laughter. The ghost tour’s sheer lack of drama had convinced him that it was honest. Footsteps in an upper room? Jumpers thrown off shelves while the woolen shop was closed? This was, in his experience, the most common kind of haunting. The truly story-worthy phantoms were rare.
Rory smiled at the camera, depreciatingly. “I still recommend the experience. There’s something really chilling about Oliver Cromwell’s house, and you can feel the pressure of history in these little hoggle-backed yellow-brick cottages.”
“I won’t be replicating any of that information here here for obvious copyright reasons,” he continued, and picked up the facsimile of an 18th century newspaper he had discovered at Ely library. “But I dug up this story, which I went to investigate last night. Let me read you the newspaper entry, and then I’ll try to unravel for you what actually happened on that distant night, and what remains of it to this day.”
He paused for emphasis and to catch his breath. The car alarm had stopped. The silence felt newly formed and profound, as though his fresh start in this new town would finally be the success he hoped for; the beginning of something great.
“In 1778,” he began, speaking to the camera as though it was his only friend, “in a small house on Castle Hythe—”
Someone knocked heavily on the study door, turned the handle and before he could say, “What?” had thrown it open and let in a flood of distinctly non-ghostly primrose summer light. “Mr Cornwell, are you in— Oh sh…sugar, sorry.”
The moment of imminent greatness slipped away. Rory clicked off record and swiveled in his chair to greet his lodger.
Haley Thorpe, a Beyonce lookalike in a white lycra dress covered in yellow roses, had moved in only two days ago. Rory had expected the process of finding a lodger would take a long time, and had not been prepared for a local to be on his doorstep barely half an hour after putting up an advert on the village Facebook page. Haley had needed a room since her grandmother was moving back into the family home, and she had been happy to assemble her own flat packed wardrobe and bed and help with lifting as he arranged the furniture in the other rooms.
Perhaps she had taken that as an indication of how things were going to be run in general. When Rory had stressed the fact that he worked from home, he had thought it would go without mentioning that when he was in the study, he was not to be disturbed short of emergencies. But perhaps all the tea drinking and running in and out of rooms with assembly instructions had set a different precedent.
“I didn’t realize you’d gone back to work,” Haley continued, dropping the hand she had pressed to her mouth in apology. “You make films then? Did I ruin it?”
She flashed Rory a nervous grin. Echoes of Rory’s father in the back of his mind wanted him to reply, “You could indeed have ruined it. Did no one teach you to wait for permission until you enter a room?” But one of the reasons why Rory was out here in a poky little house in a town where he knew no-one, instead of at home in Chelsea, was that he was determined he was not going to grow up to resemble his father.
So he smiled in return and flapped a hand in lieu of a shrug. “It’s fine, I can cut that bit out. Is there a problem?”
Haley avoided his eye. “It’s kinda embarrassing. Um, and I know we only just moved in and I don’t know you. And you don’t know me.”
She ground her toes into the carpet. She had, Rory noticed, Doc Martins on with the dress, giving it a butch touch of which he approved. “But…?” he prompted.
“But I’m going with my mum and dad to the Witchelsea Straw Man Festival today, and my mum asked me should she ask Sean along – Sean is my dad’s apprentice down at the garage.” Her mouth pinched.
“And you… don’t want him to come?” Rory guessed.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” Haley explained, “It’s just that I don’t like him like that, you know? And I thought maybe if I told my parents I was turning up with you, mum would jump to her own conclusions and lay off. She’s always trying to set me up with someone, and I’m like ‘Mum! I’ve got other things to do,’ you know?”
Rory began the long process of shutting down all his open tabs and programs as a way of concealing the expression on his face until he had worked out what he felt. Haley wanted him to be her fake date? That was flattering, and bemusing, because he didn’t really believe such things occurred outside rom-com movies and fan-fiction.
If he did this, there would be no going back to the plan of treating his lodger like someone he simply nodded to on the stairs. But that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. Rory really did know no one at all here, and perhaps he could start making friends with the person with whom he shared a roof.
As long as Haley didn’t think he had agreed to more than being friends. Could he trust her not to make this weird? What if she was asking him as a step in a grand plan to end up with actual dating?
He wasn’t sure he could bring herself to say no. Not when Haley was looking at him with such imploring eyes. If complications arose he would just deal with them then. “All right,” he agreed, hoping for the best. Switching off the power, he rose to roll up the blind. The sky shone a Mediterranean indigo above the trees, and the creamy-coloured buildings next door seemed to quiver in the heat. He reminded himself to stop by the bathroom and grab the maximum protection sun-cream. “You tell your mum I’m coming, and I’ll find a hat.”
Haley’s plan worked without a hitch. Mrs Thorpe – a statuesque black woman with her hair wrapped high in an orange gele – had gently grilled Rory over his prospects and intentions for five minutes, but had then allowed herself to be guided away by her husband with the words “Young people need their privacy, love. We’ll see you whenever, Haley – we might stay and end up at the pub, or we might walk home. Nice to meet you Rory.” And sotto voce, between them as they walked away he had whispered, “Fuck me. He’s a bit lah-di-dah.”
“And what’s so wrong with lah-di-dah?” his wife had replied. “Don’t you let your pride get in the way of my grandchildren just because he’s posh.”
“They think no one can hear them,” Haley rolled her eyes, fondly exasperated, and watched them until they turned up toward the sound of drumming on the high street. “But thanks for coming. You don’t have to stay, now you’ve done your bit.”
Witchelsea itself was all but unknown to Rory; it was one of the tiny towns crowded onto the high land of the Isle of Ely, far enough from Cambridge and deep enough into the economically depressed Fenlands for Rory to have been able to afford to buy a small house outright with his inheritance. There were, as Mrs Thorpe said, advantages to being lah-di-dah.
Before the fenlands had been drained, the high land on which Witchelsea was built had been one huge island, full of farms and orchards, surrounded by water and reeds. Now it remained as an area of houses and villages, surrounded by acres of arable land. At this time in the summer, the fields were an almost neon yellow with the flowers of oil-seed rape, and the wind was a floral perfume.
Between the village of Sutton and the cathedral city of Ely, Witchelsea was a town of modest pinkish-yellow buildings hogging the curve of the A10. Its three streets met in a town square that boasted a statue of the social reformer Octavia Hill—whom most locals mistook for Florence Nightingale.
Rory and Haley stood now beside the Rabbit and Hare pub, in the faint cooling spray of its riotous window-boxes, trailing vines of purple lobelia almost brushing their hats. Women in summer dresses and men in shorts had begun to cluster on the pavements around them, beer cans in hand, and the feeling of expectation was palpable.
“I might as well see what the place has to offer,” Rory decided. “Since I’m here. A Straw Man Festival? What does that entail?”
“’Entail’,” Haley muttered, with a goodnatured, mocking smile. “Well, it’s a bit of a rip off of the Straw Bear Festival, to tell the truth. You know? The one they hold on Plough Monday in the middle of the winter. We figured that if hundreds of people would turn out to watch the Straw Bear in the freezing cold—and spend a fortune in the shops and pubs while they’re at it—how many more would come to one in the summer.”
“I mean the Straw Bear festival is the real deal, you know? Ours is made up and modern – we can’t even claim it’s ancient cause Witchelsea’s never had any culture that I know of, but…” she squinted into the distance from which the pulse of a deep drum could be heard. “Somehow it felt like we’d woken something up, you know? Something that had always been there.”
The drumming growled louder, and was that a Sousaphone? A brass instrument went “Oomph, oomph,” as a skirl of brightly colored humanity swerved around the corner from the high street and began to sway towards them.
At the head of the procession, an eight foot tall giant entirely covered in what looked like hay danced with eerie, stork-like movements. If there was a man inside it, his face was also thatched over with smooth bundles of straw. The eyes and long curling beard on his head were pure ornamentation, made from something silver – perhaps tin foil – that flashed each time he stepped or swayed.
A noose of wheat straw around his neck was attached to a long rope, and a child—dressed like a Victorian peasant farmer—walked solemnly ahead of him with the end of the leash in his hand.
Behind the Straw Man came a dozen different teams of dancers, each with their own musicians. Every musician was playing the same strange, lilting melody in a minor key. It made Rory shiver.
That’s only a stilt-walker, Rory thought, holding tight to his skepticism, because something visceral in his DNA said No. It’s a monster. It’s a sacrifice. It’s something I always knew, and hadn’t remembered until now.
He’d only had such a thought before in the presence of ghosts, and it made him sit up, professionally, and take note.
Once the giant reached the marketplace, it sat itself down on a throne of straw, surrounded by wheat dollies, tankards and pumpkins. Behind the throne, in threat or promise, an unlit bonfire of packing crates loomed like a latent volcano, surrounded by hazard tape and tipped, right at the top, by an empty chair.
The dancing began in earnest, each troupe dancing three dances before the next came on. A wild flurry of feathers and colored cloth streamers and the beating of sticks was punctuated here and there with contrastingly delicate dances that drew white arcs of handkerchiefs against the lapis sky.
The sun beat relentlessly on Rory’s panama hat, as he wondered if perhaps he would like to crown it with fresh flowers and join the dancing. He could just imagine the scathing things his father would have to say about any son of his who lowered himself to morris dancing, and that would add spice to the fun. For, from the wide grins on the performers’ faces, fun it certainly seemed to be.
He watched for about an hour, entranced at the vitality and aggression, at the joie de vivre and even at the democratic amateurishness of the dances. He might have watched for longer, but when they had seen every side once, Haley yawned and suggested a pub lunch.
“Glad you came?” she asked, inside the Anchor as they waited for food. Witchelsea was well provided with pubs, and Haley—who worked in the Village Inn—claimed she liked to avoid her usual crowd when she was not on duty.
“I am,” Rory agreed. “Is the festival a ritual thing? It strikes me as a bit pagan.”
“Heh,” Haley snorted. “If you think that now, you should see the burning. Tomorrow, they have like a little ceremony and burn the Man. It gives me the willies, honestly, but that’s the point, isn’t it? D’you want to come back tomorrow and see? It’s a bit hokey, but it’s also kind of weird—hard to explain—as soon as we started doing it, it felt like it wouldn’t be safe to stop again.”
“I’ll bring a camera,” Rory beamed, imagining it with increasing excitement. Maybe he hadn’t lost a day’s work after all. Maybe he had gained a potential new revenue stream. “’Dark rituals of the Fens.’ I bet my subscribers would be all over that.”
Sunday morning dawned grayer, dressing the sky in many layers of slate. The clear light had dimmed to an oppressive dun, but the rain held off, and if it was chilly, that could easily be combated with a jacket. Although Rory’s ghost videos were close to his heart, most of his income came from both his gluten free cooking channel and his gentleman’s outfitting blog. This would be an excellent opportunity to showcase a new pure wool lightweight tweed, which he was being paid a nominal sum to advertise. The jacket was a herringbone weave in slate and charcoal and made his red hair look like a lit match. He paired it with a classic white t-shirt and grey chinos, considered how the Panama would sit with the outfit and took a few selfies against the muted light of his bedroom window.
Deciding against the hat, he left his room and met Haley on the stairs. Today she was wearing a macho outfit of black jeans and a Metallica t-shirt, and seemed to have sprayed glitter over her Bantu knots. Rory wasn’t yet sure what theme unified her style—perhaps there was none—but she was pretty enough to wear a paper bag and look good in it. The eccentricity came off as charming, therefore.
Rory had been anxious and awkward all his life, and had very few friends as a result, but an indefinable something in him relaxed and felt comforted by the sight of Haley this morning, which he took to be a good sign.
“I’ll be glad of a bonfire today,” Haley said, as they left the house. They walked past the Village Inn and down toward the marketplace. “The Great British summer is up to its usual freezing tricks. But I guess as long as it doesn’t start raining, it’ll be fine. Did you see that Witchelsea was on the news last night? That’ll help the festival – it’d be cool if it grew as big as Ely Folk Festival, or even bigger.”
“I don’t really watch the TV.”
“Oh no, I saw it on Facebook. There’s lots of social media buzz compared with last year. My uncle Jimi is in the Tawdry Springers, and he says we should open up more campsites, put on some ceilidhs, make it a folk week. It would be good for the local businesses, don’t you think?”
“Mm,” Rory agreed as they reached a spot where they could see both the unlit bonfire and the street down which the procession had come yesterday. He unfolded his tripod and set his camera on it, best zoom lens attached.
The Straw Man already sat in the chair on top of the bonfire. Without a dancer inside, moving it, it should have looked like no more than a Bonfire Night Guy; a ragged scarecrow, only frightening to birds. But perhaps because he had seen it alive and so active, so full of celebration, only yesterday, there was something genuinely tragic about its empty sprawl.
A worm of distress crept up his spine, and he got in front of the camera to record a snippet of video while the genuine discomfort was still visible on his face. His viewers liked a bit of emotion. The sprawled figure of the sacrificed Man made an eye catching backdrop, so he also snapped a couple of stills of the jacket, before the pavement became too crowded with bypassers and onlookers to work with.
He checked his watch. With five minutes to go, he turned and trained the camera on the end of the street, expecting a repeat of yesterday’s parade.
The road was now lined with spectators five people deep. But the usual susurration of thousands of conversations fell off and went silent at the sound of a bell.
Yesterday’s eerie melody struck up again, but this time only the fiddles and the pipes played. Without the squeeze-boxes and the brass, the music was high, thin, otherworldly. It was punctuated not by drums but by that one lone sweet bell.
No one was dancing now. The procession marched slowly forward with their hats off and their painted faces solemn as if they were attending a funeral. They cradled candles in their cupped hands. The child who had lead the Man now walked in front of a stretcher where a dozen smaller replicas of the creature were piled like tinder for the fire.
It was hokey, just as Haley had said, but Rory’s gut still turned over, and a foolish cold nestled between his lungs, making him catch his breath.
He recorded the procession as it approached, then passed him. The stretcher bearers stopped at the base of the bonfire, and the town mayor lifted the tinder Men from their bier and piled them on top of the firewood. Light shone on the mayor’s gold chain and the gilded embroidery of her hijab.
Clad in mock Victorian farming garb, the festival organizers gathered with song sheets and began an untutored but earnest song whose words Rory couldn’t quite make out. Something about ‘harvest’ and ‘sun’. And that must have been ‘light’ because the boy was approaching with a candle held between his two hands like a soup bowl.
The mayor guided the flame to the pile of tinder figures. It kindled with an eagerness that suggested they had been soaked in firelighting liquid, and the blaze spread cheerily up the straw and into the packing beneath the bonfire’s lattice of planks.
For a short while, the flames were not visible – working their way inward. All that could be seen was an increasing fume of white smoke, while the fire crackled on in hiding. Then a flame broke out half way up the pile on the far side. Someone cheered, and all together the bands of the gathered morris teams began to play with deafening gusto.
Rory swept the camera’s focus up the bonfire and trained it on the Man, zooming in tight enough to see the individual stalks that had been plaited around the bundles, keeping the costume together. Smoke was sliding past the green stalks and the lower ends had begun to steam. The volume of the music made Rory think of Ibn Fadlan’s account of human sacrifice among the vikings – of how all the onlookers clashed their spears and yelled so no one had to hear the victim’s screams.
“I see what you mean about creepy,” he commented, leaning into the viewfinder, watching the Straw Man begin to sizzle. A queasiness had started in his throat, and he wanted to look away, as though this was a real person being immolated for the amusement of the village.
At this magnification, he could where some of the tied bundles of straw had already begun to fall apart. A strange nobbly thing had poked through from inside, half way up that long lower leg. Rory’s eye returned to it like a tongue returning to the socket of a tooth – knowing instinctively that it was something wrong. Something painful. Surely the Man was hollow, like a suit of clothes with its wearer removed? What was this then?
The lens would not zoom in any further. Still the nobbly thing remained stubbornly mysterious—brown, rounded. It blackened as the flames reached it and a narrow strip parted from the base. As if by magic Rory’s brain made sense of it suddenly; it was a shoe, the sole peeling away from the upper, revealing a sock.
“No,” Rory whispered. He shook his head – he must be seeing things. Morbid imagination must be getting the better of him. This could not be true. He straightened up. The naked eye could see nothing wrong – the figure was small with distance, concealed by the wreathing smoke.
He’d imagined it. He’d imagined it. Yet the blood in his veins was thin and cold as ice-water. His teeth chattered. He forced them together and bent back down.
The sock was gone now, and in the red and charred lump that remained gleamed the bones of toes.
Rory’s knees almost gave out. He staggered and had to grab for the t-shirt of the man in front of him, all but tearing it.
“Watch what you’re—!” the man started, but Rory had unstuck his throat and mouth and started shouting.
“There’s a body in there! There’s a body in the fire! Put it out!”
“Someone’s had too much to drink,” scoffed a voice next to him to the accompaniment of a general laugh.
A cautionary hand landed on Rory’s elbow – the man with the t-shirt giving him an amused and condescending look. “It’s not a real man, mate. It’s made of straw.”
Rory tore himself away from the restraining hand, and once his legs were moving they would not stop – they bore him half unwillingly toward the fire. Its heat was now intense and growing on his face. His eyebrows felt like they were burning, his lips raw, and the voice that came out of him was not one he had known he possessed. It was a bark of authority, terrier like compared to his father’s bulldog roar, but upper-class and hooray-Henry and everything that he didn’t want to be. “Put it out. Put it out this instant! Someone’s in there!”
At the cordon around the fire, the organizers had placed regular buckets of sand, presumably to douse any tendrils that threatened to spread. They certainly would do no good in putting the main blaze out now. Rory seized one anyway and as he was lifting it one of the event stewards pinned him around the chest in a bear hug, mashing his arms against his sides and immobilizing him.
“All right son, calm down.”
The voice tore out of him again, red raw, like he was ordering a charge to the death on the battlefield. “Let me go at once. Damn you! They’re in there. They’re in there. I saw them. In the straw!”
He lunged forward, but the steward – a burly creature, as wide as Rory was tall – just lifted him off his feet, let his legs windmill like those of a cartoon character run out over a cliff.
“Always one, isn’t there?” said the steward to a policeman who had come up to investigate, and Rory felt half insane with frustration, anger and terror. He didn’t know how to shout this loud enough to make someone listen.
Then Haley pushed her way through the crowd to his side, Rory’s camera in her hand. Her face was ashen as she held it out to the policeman, the recording playing back on the tiny screen. “You should look at this, officer. I think he might be right.”
There was a poised moment as the world waited to see if the policeman would take the evidence. Rory coughed and got his feet back under himself, still trembling and alight with adrenaline. And then there was a groan overhead.
They looked up in time to see the blackened husk of the Straw Man burst apart and fall in flaming gouts into the center of the fire. The corpse inside sagged forward, but for one long instant its blackened clothes and roasted skin were visible to all. Blood coursed down both sides of its now unrecognizable face.
The music shattered into discordances and fell silent. The burning chair on which the corpse sat disintegrated under it as the whole delicate structure of the top of the bonfire fell in on itself.
Bile flooded into Rory’s throat and he turned away to cover his mouth, fighting not to throw up just as a dozen voices in the crowd began to scream.
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