Our tour of England had gone wonderfully so far, with little rain to mar the splendid early autumn weather. Every corner turned unveiled fresh romantic vistas, every night offered a different inn of lopsided passages and nose-high door frames, all exactly what would please a North American’s expectations and bring on fits of giggling.
On the last day of September, I parked our rented car in the small lot beside an inn at the west edge of Upper Pinchet. It was not as aggressively quaint as some of our previous stops, but it still had flint walls and exposed timbers enough to meet our criteria as lodging. It was also convenient to my limit of dealing with English roads and the drivers thereon, especially as night was coming on and long-absent rain was beginning to threaten.
As we arranged for a room, the owner, a wonderfully craggy fellow with eyebrows like air ferns, asked in the accent we’d grown accustomed to in Oxfordshire whether we were Americans. We set him right on that point, and he asked, “Not here for the ghosts, I hope?”
My wife and I looked at each other for a moment, and she said, “Not specifically. Do you have any?”
“Oh, I should say. Not here,” he gestured around the little space that acted as lobby, “but there’s a fair crop of them out at The Monks’ Wood.”
“Really?” I tried not to sound too enthusiastic. We liked the idea of ghosts, and English ghosts in particular, but none of our stops had produced so much as an unaccountable groan. “Maybe after supper we could go have a look, if that rain doesn’t develop.”
Our host and all his eyebrows regarded us carefully. “How do you feel about the healing power of crystals?”
He asked so seriously that we responded in the same tone. We had lived through the peak of the craze for that sort of thing. My wife discounted it as utterly flakey, while I thought it might have some vague foundation in either chemistry or the placebo effect. Neither of us could really claim to be believers.
Our host considered this, and lightened. He handed us our room key, saying if we didn’t mind the company at dinner he could tell us a bit of a story about The Monks’ Wood. We said, in truth, that we would be delighted, and that evening we sat in the inn’s bar with an assortment of sausages, cheeses and potatoes, drinks at the ready, while host Rumbold told us about the Crystal Woman and the Monks of The Wood. Afterwards, I annoyed my wife keeping the light on in our room as I furiously made the notes which, after some research, allowed me to fabricate a narrative.
Cast imagination back to late October well before the end of the century, and in Upper Pinchet it was an uncommonly cold, windy evening. The sign of the little inn on the west side of the village, swinging vigorously, seemed almost to be warning travellers away rather than beckoning them. The inn itself was not as inviting as it once was and would one day be again, in need of attention from painters and thatchers. All the same, a Ford Sierra crept into the parking area. A shape clad in what seemed a collection of table-cloths walked from it to the inn’s door.
At the desk, less craggy and less baroque of eyebrow, the man who would in a few years buy and revive the place stood watching the strange apparition flap in from the night. It threw aside some if its upper coverings to reveal a round, plain woman’s face.
Apart from her extraordinary dress, there was little to mark her in the memory except her eyes. Such round, bright eyes often make one think of innocence, but there was an extra element of enthusiasm in them that put Rumbold on guard. When she put both hands carefully against the wall behind the door, closed her big wondering eyes and adopted an expression of intent listening, he nodded over his first impression’s confirmation.
“You’re some way from Gladstonbury,” he said with a manager’s freedom, “and the festival’s long since over.”
The woman nodded. “Hmm. Yes,” she said, and then rather less sensibly, “I certainly will. Just wait a while.” She then opened her eyes, looked at Rumbold, and said, “Oh, hello. Do you have any rooms available?”
Rumbold toyed with the lie, then set it aside. Her accent was American, and he didn’t relish an argument with an American in tourist mode. “We do. You don’t, I think, have a reservation?”
“No. Just me, though. I might have to stay more than one night.” As she spoke, she was looking all about the room rather than at Rumbold.
“We should be able to accommodate you,” he replied, looking at the absence of recent names in the register. “Name, please?”
“Astabella.” Still looking around, she spoke the name in an arc around his head. He wrote it down, thinking it must be self-inflicted.
“And… last name?”
She waved a hand, as one dismissing trivia. “Jefferies,” she said eventually. Over the next several minutes, Rumbold discovered that her home address was in Fresno, California, that she expected he’d send “your boy” out to the car for her bag, and that the inn was positively stuffed with restless spirits which she intended to “help across.” As she was paying her deposit from a comically large roll composed of twenty and fifty pound notes, he decided not to question her too much on the latter topic.
As the evening developed, questioning proved unnecessarily. Astabella Jefferies spoke about herself, at great length and in a fine projecting voice, to any who were handy. On a damp Wednesday evening, this ran to Rumbold, Debbie the waitress, and Old Walter, who had not missed a night at the bar since demobbing in 1945.
Astabella was, the company learned, using the proceeds from an inheritance to tour England, a nation well known for its supply of poor wayward spirits. She was, she confided, a medium and had seen her first ghost in high school.
“He was a janitor or something,” she said. “I thought he was a pervert, but when he disappeared after I screamed, I knew he was a ghost.”
In preparation for her great work, she had studied esoteric works dating back as far as 1954, and had adopted the Wiccan creed once she had realized she was a pagan. “Pastor Arbuthnot was so mad when I told him, but he still let me help out when the church did a hot dog sale.”
Rumbold tipped the last of the bottle of white she’d called for into her glass, saying, “Some you’ve come to see some English ghosts, then?”
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” The zealous element in her eyes flared. “I’m here to free them.” There followed several minutes of monologue, throughout which Debbie and Rumbold avoided looking at one another for fear of breaking down in laughter, in which Astabella explained the sad fate of genus Ghost. Trapped in the mortal sphere by anger at those who wronged them or fear of what lay beyond, they missed out on the glories of the afterlife and the opportunity to advance in the cycle of reincarnation. A willing medium could, with the help of her crystals and the intervention of the Goddess, see them on their way.
“After I’m done here,” and she emphasized her meaning by raising her glass, “I’m going to take my crystals into your foyer and help that poor man in the wig. He thinks the person who stabbed him is still waiting outside, and he really wants some help.”
Rumbold was mulling a response, the heads of which included a lack of reported spectres in the front hall and an unwillingness to have strange rituals just inside the door but moderated by a disinclination to see a large roll of cash stomp off in a huff, when Old Walter looked up from his mug. He smiled and said, “Oh, he in yon hall ain’t patch on them old monks out t’Wood.”
Astabella stared at him, perplexed, as many American tourists were by Old Walter’s idiosyncratic accent. Rumbold, seeing a chance to move strange practices out of the inn, jumped in to translate.
“That’s true. If you want some ghosts in need of laying, the Monks of The Wood are your lads.”
“How do you get ghost monks out in the woods?” Astabella asked, not in the tones of one who thinks there’s a punch-line coming, but as one absorbed by novelty.
“Did you come up from the south?” She nodded. “You might have noticed the big house on the left. That’s called Pinchet Priory, but it was built long after the real priory was knocked down. That was in… well, when Henry VIII was cutting off the Pope, anyway.
“The monks at Pinchet wouldn’t turn over their land, nor swear the oath, so King Henry sent some soldiers around to make his position clear. The monks locked themselves in, the soldiers set the place on fire, and anyone that jumped out a window got pitched back in.
“They left the ruins as they were, a warning style of thing, and The Wood grew up around them, between the village and the new Pinchet Priory. Ever since, people said they could sometimes hear the monks, screeching or praying in Latin in the dark of night.”
“I seen them once,” Debbie offered, a look of acute sobriety on her face, “when I was a girl, me and some friends dared each other to go into The Wood.” Old Walter, communing with the bottom of his cup again, chuckled. Debbie glared at him, crossed her arms, and left the anecdote as it stood.
“Well, I’ll need to go and visit those poor monks,” Astabella said. “I’ll need two big bowls, a box of salt, and some bottled water,” she told Rumbold. He stood, working out the proper hotel-grade mark-up on a box of salt as he did so, and admirably suppressed his shudder when she went on, “I’ll be in the foyer, showing that gentleman how to find his way to the light.”
While that is happening, a moment of digression. A few miles to the south of Upper Pinchet is a stereotypic stately home of England, a lesser Pemberley. Home to the same family since 1703, Pinchet Priory contains a library in keeping with its outward appearance. The head of the house at the end of the 19th Century was very interested in the history of the area, particularly in the events which had lent his entirely secular dwelling its ecclesiastical name, and he stocked the library accordingly.
In that library, in a portfolio of historical letters, is a brief report written by John Tregonwell to Thomas Cromwell in 1535. In it, he laments the absence of objectionable behaviour in the community at Pinchley Priory. It was, as far as he could discover, a profoundly devoted and humble house. One can hardly mistake the air of admiration as he points out that the only real failing of the Pinchet monks was the depth of their devotion to Rome, an attitude only slightly shaken by what the brothers apparently felt was too soft an approach by the pontiff to keeping the flock in line.
He foresaw no means, he wrote to his patron, of bringing the group in line with the new facts of the church in England. They were altogether too strict in their orthodoxy to accept His Majesty as their spiritual sovereign. It would have to be on the grounds of this treasonous attitude that Pinchet Priory would be suppressed. None of the more usual venal excuses could be applied.
Entirely unaware of this long-ago description of Pinchet’s monks, Astabella spent the day after her arrival at the inn making pronouncements about the sprites and nymphs of the immediate area, bathing her crystals in rather expensive salt water, and asking for ever more detailed directions to The Wood. After a light and early dinner, as the sun was going down, she took up her mauve suede medicine pouch and a carefully annotated map drawn by Rumbold. She paused in the bar and said to the assembled company, “I go now in the name of the Goddess to bring peace to the ghosts of the woods.”
The assembled company, consisting of Rumbold, Debbie, Old Walter, and an office equipment salesman from Leeds, watched her go. Old Walter began laughing before the door had quite closed. Debbie shared an amused look with Rumbold. The salesman, Andy Plasketh, looked about for a moment, as if trying to form a question, but the effort ended with a shrug and a return of his attention to the plate of shepherd’s pie he had before him.
Some hours later, the population of the inn was down to Rumbold in his little office and Plasketh in his room. Rumbold was looking at the brochures for new computerized cash registers which the salesman had pressed upon him. Plasketh was looking out the window of his room, sitting in a breeze while offending letter and spirit of the new anti-smoking regulations.
The window looked out on the road which ran into Upper Pinchet. As the road travelled beside a small river, the view revealed by the waxing moon was pleasant, showing the old stone foot-bridge which had been the first waypoint on the map given to Astabella. The road, known locally as the Great Causton Way, was not a busy one. Plasketh watched a fox twinkle across it, disappearing into the grass between pavement and river before giving one of its unearthly little cries.
Plasketh smiled at the sound. Rumbold had, eventually, explained what the oddly-dressed American had been on about, and the picture of her out there in the dark trees on a chilly night with only the sounds of nature for company gave him far more entertainment than what television had on offer that night. He finished his cigarette, flipped the stub towards the road, and closed the window. He thought he might have heard the fox again, but it may have been the wood of the sash screeching in its frame. He gave Astabella Jefferies no more thought until some days later when the detectives spoke to him on the telephone.
Rumbold was, the next morning, slightly surprised not to have been awakened in the night by the return of his night-wandering guest. He gave the matter little thought, as occasionally guests did manage to work out the latch for themselves, and it was not until Debbie in her daytime role of maid came to him that he became concerned.
“Miss Magic weren’t in her bed last night,” she said. “Should I re-make it? She left books and doings all over it.”
Rumbold had a look in the room. Various large paperbacks, almost all with a pentangle somewhere on the cover, were indeed littered about the bed, the coverlet of which was still tucked around mattress and pillows. With the books was a scattering of pendants and other trinkets, and a half-geode acted as a weight on some loose handwritten sheets. A vast satchel of a handbag stood on the floor, its mouth agape to reveal Astabella’s bank-roll. Clearly she had meant to return, Rumbold thought as he poked the bag closed with a toe.
While Plasketh contentedly chewed his continental breakfast in the restaurant, Rumbold came to an unwelcome resolution. After the salesman had settled his reckoning and promised to look in again on his return leg, Rumbold called Debbie to watch the front.
“I think I ought to step over to The Wood for a moment,” he said, drawing on a jacket.
A better morning for a walk in that season could hardly have been imagined. Sunbeams slanted through those leaves still on the trees, birds twittered overhead, the smell of the mossy earth rose to waiting nostril, and the chuckling of the river drowned out what little traffic noise might have come from Great Causton Way. A few minutes of tramping through this gift of autumn brought Rumbold in sight of the ruinous wall which was all that remained of the original Pinchet Priory. He slowed, listening and looking for the American woman.
Stepping around the end of the wall, he saw her face. She looked upset, an expression of disapproval souring her features and the twinkle gone from her eyes. He followed the line of her gaze across the long clearing which still somehow defined the priory’s great refectory hall, its clerestories replaced with lines of elm and ash trees, until his own gaze came upon her out-flung left arm, so many yards distant.
He looked back towards the middle of the clearing, unwilling to keep his eyes on either fragment of his erstwhile guest. A shine caught his attention, just before he turned to rush back to the inn. A small group of crystals, in a roughly pentagonal arrangement, were stamped into ground which had become muddy from the still-pattering red drops falling from something in the overhanging boughs.
Rumbold returned. He used the telephone. While Debbie, amazed into silence, stood by at the front he went to, in his words, “secure the room.” The police came, first in twos and then in great crowds. They asked their questions, examined the room, released very few details, and after some time put the investigation onto the proverbial back burner, unable to connect a horrible attack on a foreign national to the IRA, organized crime, or any of the few local roughs. With the coroner’s inquest declaring death a result of an attack by several unknown persons, Astabella’s clothes, books, trinkets and a small group of bills amounting to sixty-eight pounds was sent to the family in America, and no more was heard of the matter in Upper Pinchet save the occasion re-telling of the story.
Finding that the rain had stopped sometime in the night, my wife and I decided that we would go walking in The Monks’ Wood before departing. The ruins of the old priory are picturesque, and if one didn’t know how they came to be ruins and was unaware of the more recent event, it would be a congenial spot for a picnic.
But we knew the stories. We stood only a few moments, listening to the whisper of the wind and the rattle of the leaves. Then, we held hands like children and hurried back to the bridge.
The Healing Power of Crystals ©2015 Dirck de Lint