The Tidy Ghost of Rook Manor
by L. Roger Quilter
“Granddad, tell us the story about the tidy ghost again.” Billy, aged eight, was deeply inquisitive about the supernatural, while his twin sister, Katie, enjoyed stories on more worldly matters.
Settling in my armchair I thought about my ghostly encounter. The children enjoyed this story more than ones conjured from my imagination. This tale was true and perhaps the kids sensed it, I’m not sure.
I stretched out my bad leg and began. “You remember I was seriously wounded in France.” Two heads nodded in affirmation.
* * *
My mind raced ahead of the tale. Fear formed a knot in my stomach even as I spoke. I remembered everything. Over sixty years have gone by since the events occurred, but they still remain clear as crystal.
I was rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk, shipped by destroyer to England and taken to a hospital in Croydon where shrapnel was removed from my thigh. Because of the hospital’s proximity to potential enemy targets, including Croydon aerodrome, most patients after being stabilized were dispatched to quieter areas, away from danger.
After several days recovering from my badly shattered leg I was assigned to a group of Dunkirk survivors. We departed on a bus at night, reaching our destination three hours later. The blackout prevented us from seeing where we were going, and we were tired as a result of the late time of travel. Eventually the bus stopped in a winding driveway in front of a large house, silhouetted menacingly against the night sky.
Exiting the bus, tired servicemen passed through the huge front doors into a darkened reception hall featuring a high ceiling supported by ancient oak beams. Limping patients stumbled through an archway into a massive hall, assisted by several nurses and seated into comfortable chairs.
Within moments an elderly, white-haired gentleman supported by two canes shuffled slowly to the centre of the room. Despite his great age, his eyes shone brightly and his demeanor showed great strength of character.
“Welcome to Rook Manor, gentlemen.” His voice, barely audible in the vast area of that hall, sounded weak. “I’m Lord Rook, owner of this estate, which is now being used as a convalescent home for you.” He paused to wipe his nose. “This Manor, constructed in the twelfth century, has been in the Rook family since it was built.”
A few moans greeted this history lesson; sleep was a priority for exhausted patients. Lord Rook informed us that Haverhill, Suffolk, was a few miles to the south. Now we knew approximately where we were.
I have never forgotten his closing remarks. “Gentlemen, this house is haunted.” Roars of laughter and ironic cheers greeted this statement. “You may laugh, but believe me it is true, as some of you will find out before very long. Good night, gentlemen; sleep well.”
Following his departure we were assigned our rooms. My lack of mobility assured me one on the ground floor. Once inside I looked around and noted the original furniture was gone, because a folding army bed with a thin mattress, a cheap table and a chair were the only items in it.
True, there was a cupboard where I hung my blue hospital uniform and put my boots on the floor, boots I had not worn since being wounded. I placed my few belongings on the cupboard shelf and my respirator on the table. Bolting the door, I undressed, dropped my slippers on the floor and settled down.
I slept deeply. No dreams of ghostly visitations disturbed me and I awoke when a nurse tapped on the door. The room appeared smaller in daylight. Two leaded glass windows allowed sufficient light for me to stare in astonishment at my slippers. Cast aside when I went to bed, they were aligned perfectly on the floor by my bedside. How had they landed so neatly?
At first, the possibility of spiritual interference didn’t cross my mind. I stepped gingerly into my slippers and dressing gown, picked up my crutches and opened the door to visit the bathroom. Completing my ablutions, I returned to my room to dress.
Breakfast, served in the main hall, differed not at all from hospital food: powdered eggs and toast with weak tea. Patients picked up utensils that were set out on the end of the table next to a pile of out-of-date books and magazines, but there was no silverware in sight; the stately trappings were stowed away for the duration of hostilities.
The house accommodated eighteen patients and was run by the Ministry of Deadbeats or some similar organization. The nursing staff consisted of volunteers from local villages who provided adequate care under the eyes of two weary doctors of indeterminate age.
Resting in my room before lunch, I pondered the mystery of the moving slippers. Gazing around the room, I could find no means of entry except through the solid oak door. The heavy bolt I’d used the night before seemed strong enough to bar intruders and two small leaded windows were sealed shut with paint. A small section at the top, too small for even a child to pass through, was open. Checking the walls, cupboard, floor, and vaulted ceiling, I saw no possible opening anywhere.
Lunch turned out to be some form of stew, horsemeat probably, with dumplings, potatoes and greens followed by suet pudding. Ugh! It was typical fare for the rest of my stay. After a year or two of war, strict rationing was in effect throughout the country.
Following this repast, several lightly injured patients left by bus to visit the nearest village. My cumbersome crutches prevented me from accompanying them and I retired to my room and slept.
I awoke around three, soaking in sweat. The heat of the July sun had warmed my room to the extent I had become uncomfortable.
The respirator I had dropped on the floor after lunch now sat on my bedside table perfectly aligned with the edges. My uniform, casually draped over the end of the bed now hung neatly in the cupboard. Everything was in its place!
The door was securely bolted. Despite the heat I felt icy cold. It was fear; I was panic-stricken. I dressed quickly, grabbed my crutches and fled, leaving my room door wide open.
Entering the library, situated off the main hall, I hoped to find something interesting to read. I spent over an hour perusing volume after volume of musty, ancient tomes that I replaced as fast as I lifted them from the shelves. I almost gave up, but drawn to a far corner where the light was dim I noted a small book entitled, History of Rook Manor. Curious about the house, I pulled it from the shelf and sat in a deep armchair skipping through the pages.
For some reason, I stopped on page thirteen where the word ghost leaped out of the page. I felt the hair at the nape of my neck rise. With shaking hands and pounding heart, I began to read.
Apparently, during the time of Cromwell, a fierce battle erupted around Rook Manor, and many men of both sides were killed or severely wounded. One such man, a roundhead, sought sanctuary in the house. Joshua Hall, such was his name, dragged his badly shattered leg across the threshold where two servants helped him to a ground floor room.
The sounds of battle subsided as the two armies moved away, and a doctor examined Joshua’s leg, saying amputation was required or he would die. It took four men to hold him down while the doctor removed the limb above the knee. Following the primitive surgery, bandages were applied and Hall left to rest. The gruesome remains of surgery were discarded indiscriminately as everyone was weary.
A servant checked Hall’s room an hour later to find the amputated limb on the floor in the precise centre of the room and Joshua’s blood-soaked clothes neatly piled on a chair. Hall appeared to be unconscious, but when the servant checked closer he discovered he was dead.
Since 1644 the room had remained empty. Once a year servants cleaned it, but every time something was left out of place it ended up neatly positioned. The room never lost its immaculate condition.
The grim contents of this chapter left me feeling very uneasy. Replacing the book, I left.
With little to do, life became tedious and only the nights seemed interesting. By keeping my room tidy I evaded visitations from any out-of-this-world entity and thought life would now be peaceful.
Day after humdrum day went by and August came with its heat and pleasant aromas wafting in from the gardens. I was comfortable until my privacy was shattered by dramatic, inexplicable events.
In the middle of one night I heard something scratching at the window. Petrified, I remained still, eyes wide open; hardly daring to breathe. A gust of wind rattled the window, followed by several more, each stronger than the one before. The scratching returned when the wind abated and I assured myself that branches from an apple tree had touched the window, moved by the wind.
Next morning I woke early and dressed for a morning stroll around the grounds. I stepped outside and was greeted by an air raid warden who had spent the night in a small shack in front of the house keeping an eye and ear out for enemy aircraft. He ensured that strict blackout regulations were maintained.
“Good morning, Sir,” he said. “How’s the leg?”
I paused, leaning on my crutches and replied, “Much better, thanks. That was some gale last night, wasn’t it?”
“Gale! What gale?” He appeared surprised. “It were quiet as the tomb all night; not even a breeze.”
I stared at him, disturbed by this news, but not wishing to show it. I left him with a quizzical look on his face, wondering if I was joking or maybe had gone mad.
The next night, my last as it turned out, was a night of sheer terror.
I woke before dawn and couldn’t move. I could see nothing in the pitch darkness as I struggled in vain to get up. Unseen hands held me down and I heard a clink of metal striking metal. Surgical implements!
I screamed as the pain from my wounded leg worsened. In a paroxysm of agony, I struggled frantically almost breaking free from the restraining fingers, but the pain became excruciating causing me to pass out.
About an hour later I woke, sweating and confused. Early morning light filtered through the window; the blackout curtains were drawn aside. Feverishly I dressed, grabbed my crutches and moved out of the room as fast as I could. I left the house determined never to return. In the distance I heard gunfire and the sound of an approaching aircraft.
“Air raid, sir.” It was the warden. “Take cover immediately.” He dashed toward the house.
Taking no notice, I moved away down the lane and around a bend; I just needed to get away. I sat down on an old stile and thought about the previous night’s happenings.
Had I been transported back in time and felt the agony of Joshua Hall’s surgery? Or was the pain from my own wounds?
The aircraft flew low overhead, followed by a whistle as it dropped its bombs. I rose and stood stock still in the middle of the lane. The house, hidden by trees, exploded with a tremendous roar. Flames leapt in the air. I turned around and slowly hobbled back. By the time the grounds came in view, the house, what was left of it, was engulfed in flames.
* * *
“That ended my ghostly experiences,” I told the kids. “I was the only survivor.”
“Granddad, you always end the story with your leg off.” Billy looked bemused. “But you still have it.”
I didn’t answer right away. How can you explain things that defy explanation?
“It is just a ghost story, Billy,” I finally spluttered, “just a story. It isn’t real; it isn’t true; just a story.” Sweat poured from me and I felt uncomfortable telling Billy what I considered a lie.
* * *
Two years ago I visited the Haverhill area to find no traces of Rook Manor. It was as if it had never existed. None of the local inhabitants could recall much as, prior to the war, Lord Rook had been a recluse. History books recorded the battles in the area, but there were few details. I spent several hours in the local library asking the custodian many questions and reading history books.
Noon found me famished and thirsty so I visited a Haverhill pub where I struck up a conversation with the locals. Most of them were young and weren’t even born until after the war. They could shed no light on the subject. My attention focused on the old-timers.
“There be a grave marker near the old apple tree,” one bewhiskered old farmhand quietly told me. “People stayed away ’cos the ’ouse were ’aunted.”
“Place were bombed in war,” a lady added. “Burnt to the ground.”
With these sparse facts I drove to where Rook Manor had stood. I rounded the bend where I’d heard the explosion, but there was nothing to see of the manor ruins. I saw only the huge apple tree, where, partially obscured by tall grass, stood a granite marker that stated,
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
KILLED BY ENEMY ACTION
AUGUST 10th 1940
REST IN PEACE
Joshua Hall? It was the same name as that roundhead who died so long ago. Was he a descendant of the apparition I had never seen? Or was there something more sinister? Was Joshua Hall an air raid warden, a ghost or both? Had he tried to have me killed when I left so hurriedly or was it my imagination? I thought he might have asked me to take shelter, knowing death was imminent. I cast aside these maudlin thoughts and moved to the apple tree.
Questions, always questions, but what were the answers? Perhaps if I stayed here a while some answers would come to me, but before I could come to any conclusions an event occurred that stopped me from my intended task.
Despite the calm day the apple tree’s branches suddenly began moving wildly. I left as quickly as my bad leg allowed and never returned.
Copyright © 2009 by L. Roger Quilter