With a heavy heart, I’ve decided to set down here an event from my distant youth, one that’s been troubling me for many a year. I’m now five years short of my century, not long for this Earthly plane and I need to get it off my chest.
Well, it would have been back in about 1933, those inter-war years I so fondly remember, when hope burned in all our breasts, and optimism exuded from every pore. We’d gone on a school trip to South Wales and were staying in a youth hostel, a converted lifeboat house. I remember the normally wooden or steel launching ramp had been concreted over for some reason.
Anyway, youth hostels were known to be austere in those days, not tarted up to fourth-rate hotels like they are now. This one was more austere than most. Bare stick-like furniture, cold, damp and no hot water or electricity. So, in the evenings we’d congregate in a corner of the refectory where logs blazed in an open fire and there was table football and darts.
Well, I loved table football, the excitement of pushing and pulling the rods to position the players, the powerful flick of the wrist to send the ball flying and the split-second reactions needed to block a ball from your goal. All to the excited shouts and laughter of a bunch of schoolboys.
So, there we were, on our first evening, about to start our evening meal. Curiously, I can remember it even now. Parsnip soup and bread, followed by beef stew with dumplings, potatoes and carrots, that we’d spent an hour peeling beforehand. First, though, the hostel manager, ‘Skipper,’ asked us to bow our heads as he said grace.
In the silence I could hear waves crashing on the rocks outside, and the quiet hiss of gas lamps. When Skipper had finished, he cleared his throat. “… and, listen carefully, no one is to leave the hostel in the hours of darkness.”
“I hope that doesn’t include me,” laughed our teacher Mr Hughes, “I thought I’d take a walk down the coast to the village pub, … just for linguistic studies, you understand.”
We all laughed.
“I’m sorry, Mr Hughes, that does include you, sir, it can be dangerous out there, er, … the wind and the waves ….”
“He doesn’t want us to bump into any Mound Folk, that’s what it’s about!” Joseph, my classmate, whispered from his bunk in the dormitory. From the snoring and heavy breathing surrounding us, it sounded like we were the only two still awake.
“What are you on about?!”
“They’re elves, tall and thin. They live on the moors hereabouts, under those mounds you see sometimes.”
“How do you know?”
“Sally, the lady who brings milk in the mornings told me. At night their menfolk make jewellery, pots and pans, and fashion swords. The women bake and brew and herd their cattle. And they love to dance! Sally says they play the fiddle like you’ve never heard. Even the trees and stones have to dance! If you hear it though, you can’t stop dancing, unless someone cuts the fiddler’s strings. And if it gets light before you stop dancing, well, you turn to stone!”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well, I’m going to find out!”
“No, Joseph, don’t, you might … get lost … or something.”
Not one for following rules, he’d pulled on some clothes and crept out of the hostel via a back door Sally had shown him, locked at night, but the key left in the lock.
And that was the last time I ever saw him.
In the cold light of day, I awoke. I could hear waves thundering on the shingle outside but there was dead silence in the dormitory. Then I looked over at Joseph’s bunk and was horrified to find it empty.
I couldn’t sleep after that and I found Mr Hughes, bedraggled and unshaven in his bed, and told him Joseph wasn’t there. There followed a day of frantic searching, us boys at first, then the local bobbies, then even the army were brought in.
There was no sign of Joseph. Eventually, it was assumed that he must have fallen into the sea and drowned. A tragic accident. A memorial service would be held and a tree would be planted in his name.
But on our last day there, we’d had some free time and I walked up onto the moor and to one of the mounds Joseph had referred to. There was a stone obelisk, nearly five feet high. It looked quite new, the sides showing no sign of wind erosion.
I circled the stone, pulling my collar up against a high wind, and wondering. Then, as I turned to walk back to the hostel for lunch and the bus home, I heard a high-pitched wail. It could have been the merciless wind whipping the bare turf, or perhaps a gull high above, being thrown across the sky, or maybe even the sound of a small boy crying out desperately from his stone prison – for help that could never come.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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