Bedsheets and Boomsticks at Sullatober
‘What’s the shotgun for?’ I asked Michael as I moved over to give him room on the driving seat of the two horse coach I was driving for lawyer O’Malley. He set the springs squeaking as he took hold of the rail and heaved himself up, still holding the shotgun.
He kept me waiting until he’d settled down to watch the glowing windows of the public house where the gentry were chasing away the dregs of the last market day of 1900 with strong drink and noise before he answered. ‘It’s to kill a ghost,’ he told me.
‘A ghost?’ I asked.
‘Just that! A ghost! And what am I to do, Sean. I can’t let Halfpenny go firing off a shotgun at Currie’s gate.’
‘Why would he want to do such a thing, anyway?’
‘Oh, it goes back a long way, but what am I to do about the gun?’
‘Can’t you just hide the thing? By the time he comes out of the pub, he’ll not have all his senses and I’ll be surprised if he even remembers the gun.’
‘Oh, he’ll remember it all right. He’s never got over how he was tricked by What’s-his-name into buying Dundoyle and thinking he was buying Currie’s place with it. When he tried to close that back gate into Dundoyle and knock down the pillars, Currie stopped him and there was all that trouble with lawyers. Even though they hadn’t managed to get what he wanted, he couldn’t get out of paying them like he does some others and, to top it all, Currie himself got that grand entrance into nothing more than a five acre field.’
‘But Currie’s been dead these five years!’
‘So he has, but it still annoys Halfpenny.’
‘Didn’t he try to marry Currie’s widow?’ I asked.
‘Not to marry her, to get her to move in and be his housekeeper, but she was having none of it and now he stops outside the gate and shouts abuse at the place every time he passes, especially when he’s had a drop or two, like now. The horses have been trained to stop when they pass the pillars and even if he’s full of porter and asleep on the way up the North Road, he wakes up when the carriage stops.’
‘But where does the ghost come into it and how come it’s yourself that’s driving the man?’
Michael sighed and shook his head. ‘The last time old Fagin was driving him, the horses stopped as usual. It was that almost dark time when you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing and on top of that, there was a bit of a mist drifting about. There was a bit of a smell, most likely from someone killing a pig, but it all made the hairs on old Fagin’s neck stand up like needles in a pin-cushion. That’s when the ghost started moaning and walking along Currie’s wall. Old Fagin could stand no more and just as Halfpenny stood up to shout his insults, Fagin gave the reins a fearful snap and the horses shot off, dumping Halfpenny back in the carriage.’
The picture of old Fagin, who was for ever seeing fairies and leprechauns and leaving saucers of milk for them, seeing a ghost, and the tubby Halfpenny tumbling back into the little two wheeled trap he insisted in calling a carriage made me laugh but I sobered at Michael’s worried look.
‘Old Fagin swore it was Currie’s ghost come back to answer all the insults Halfpenny had been shouting at his place and refused to drive up past Curries in the dark again and that’s why I’m driving himself.’
‘So you’ve been promoted to coachman,’ I joked.
‘I’m embarrassed enough without you making jokes, Sean. The man has delusions of grandeur and insists on calling us coachmen and us driving no more than a jaunting car. We’re a laughing stock. That’s bad enough, but what am I to do with this gun, Sean?’ Michael asked again.
‘Why must you do anything?’ I asked.
‘Because the ghost was most likely young Sammy Currie with a sheet on a broomstick and if himself fires this gun, he could kill the lad.’
I understood why Michael was worried. It was just the kind of trick Sammy would be up to. If she knew, his mother would take a blackthorn switch to his backside to chase any ghosts out of his head but Michael was right – a blast from a double barrel shotgun might take the top of Sammy’s head off.
‘Why don’t you get two blanks from the innkeeper and swap them over. All you need is the noise, the flash and the kick of the thing. Coming from this shindig, Halfpenny isn’t likely to know too much about it.’
Michael slapped me on the leg and rushed off to get the blanks.
I didn’t see did Michael get the blanks because, just then, the pub door opened a bit and the noise became a din. The door slammed wide and, in the dim light at the doorway, I could see two figures struggling, one tall and burly and the other short and rounded, portly you might call it. There was a bit of swearing and then the portly outline staggered free from the hands of its sturdy partner, staggered a few steps, wobbled, steadied and began to shout. ‘Michael! Michael! Coachman! Coachman!’ it shouted and I realised it was Halfpenny.
‘Where’s the carriage,’ Halfpenny was shouting. ‘I’ll not stay another minute in a place that refuses me a drink. I may be only a Halfpenny but I’m more of a gentleman than any of them in there and we’ll see who’s afraid of a ghost.’
Halfpenny wobbled a bit more and turned back to face the door, shaking his fist at it. ‘I’ve a gun in the carriage, loaded, primed. If that ghost shows its face to Halfpenny, it’ll go straight to Hell,’ he shouted at the door.
At the sound of the shouting, Michael came rushing back. ‘I’m here, Mister Halfpenny, and I’ll have the carriage around this minute,’ he called.
I could do nothing more than wave to Michaael as he drove off.
On Saturday, when I’d finished work and was sitting in O’Malley’s kitchen, the boot boy, was tracing the words across the newspaper with his grubby finger and he read out, ‘Last Market Day a tragic accident o-c-cur-red on the North Road. Mr Half-penny of The-The Grange fired a shot-gun at what he took to be an ap-par- i -tion and Sam-uel Currie was severely wounded by the shot.’
‘He didn’t kill the boy, did he?’ I asked.
‘Doctor McPheat at – tend – ed the lad and reports that he is expected to live,’ Boots read.
Well, that’s something, I thought, rubbing at my chin, remembering how worried Michael had been and trying to think what could have happened.
Boots went on. ‘It appears Mr Halfpenny hoped the sound of g-gunfire would frighten the ap-par-i-tion off. As we all know, the entrance to the Currie home is the old back gate to The Grange. It seems Sam-uel and his b-brothers were using the wall of this gateway to enact part of the Shake-spear-ean drama Macbeth, in which a ghost appears, when the accident occurred.’
‘He must have forgotten the blanks in all the rush,’ I muttered.
‘What blanks?’ Boots asked.
‘The blanks in this Macbeth.’ I told him. ‘You can’t go firing off real guns in a play, can you?’
On the next Market Day, I was on eggs waiting for Michael and Halfpenny to appear outside the public house but when he came, Michael was his usual self, nodding and treating old Halfpenny as if he was gentry and, of course, old Halfpenny was stiff and he took his time getting out. His stick got caught on the hand rail of the jaunting car and then, as he walked away, he remembered something and went back to give Michael some instruction he didn’t need.
I couldn’t wait for Michael to come to me and as soon as old Halfpenny was on his way I climbed up beside Michael. ‘So what the devil happened?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t you get the blanks?’
‘Oh, I got the blanks all right,’ Michael answered. ‘And, as I told you he would, Halfpenny was snoring like ten pigs as soon as the clip-clop started but, then, just as we got to Currie’s place, there was this eerie glow behind the wall. The old horse stopped and your man woke up. Right on cue, the ghost rose up behind the wall. What with the moonlight and the light shining from behind the wall it looked every bit an apparition. The ghost gave a bit of a dance and started moaning and scritchin’ and I’ll tell you, even though I knew it was some kind of a trick, I was ready for snapping the reins and off, when Halfpenny grabs his shotgun and lets fly, BOOM!.
‘“What have you done?” I shouted at him.
‘But between the flash of the gun blinding him, the noise, the smoke, the smell of the powder and the recoil landing him back in his seat in a daze, he wasn’t hearing anything.
‘What none of us knew was that old Fagin had been to visit Mrs Currie to warn her it was the full moon again and the ghost might come back and to pour scorn on Halfpenny thinking he could kill a ghost with a shotgun.
‘Of course, her boys heard all this and Sammy was well prepared. At the bang from the shot, the ghost falls back behind the wall and before I’d time to think, young Sammy comes staggering through the gate with a sheet over his head. The sheet’s in tatters and covered with splotches that, in the moonlight, looked for all the world like blood.
‘Well, I knew that Halfpenny had fired blanks, but the way young Sammy staggered about, you’d have thought he’d been hit by a canon load of grape shot. ”Tell mother I’m done for,” he shouts. “I can hardly draw me breath. This is the punishment I get for being a bad example to the others. Tell mother and sister Lizzie I love them.”
‘With that, he falls down and rolls over once or twice and then lies still.
‘Halfpenny’s eyes were sticking out like a frogs and before I could get down and stop the performance, Halfpenny grabs the reins and we were off running to The Grange.
‘Halfpenny got down at the door and started calling for brandy. At the same time, he’s shouting, “Take the gun, Michael, take the gun. It was his own fault. He deserved what he got.”
‘Cook is all a-fluster trying to get some sense out of the man and asking, “Who got…”
‘By then, I was taking the horse to the stables. I finished rubbing down and clearing up and went back looking for a cup of tea.
‘When I got into the kitchen, Cook flew at me. “How could you let him do a thing like that,” she shouted. “And then just go and put the horse away. I’ve sent for the doctor. Heaven preserve us, I hope the boy lives.”
‘Well now, I thought, this will be a bit of a thing, especially with the doctor sweet on Sammy’s mother.
‘After about an hour that was full of sniffling and wailing, who comes knocking at the door but the doctor himself.
‘“Will the boy live?” asks Cook.
‘“He’s in good hands, I only wish there were nurses like his mother at the hospital,” he says.
‘At that, doesn’t Halfpenny himself come in. “The damn boy shouldn’t be scaring the people. He deserved what he got,” Halfpenny is shouting.
‘“Oh, I’m no’ saying he didn’t,” says the doctor in that Scot’s accent of his, “but he had his whole life ahead of him and, if he sues for damages, it’ll come to a bonny penny.”
‘“Damages,” shouts Halfpenny, trying to stand tall and make himself look important. “He was creating a disturbance of the peace and I did what any decent man would have done.”
‘“Aye, well, I’ll not be making predictions, but it’ll likely be a few thousand pounds, I’m thinking,” the doctor tells him, and ups and leaves.
‘The next day, I’m to take Halfpenny to the lawyer’s and whatever took place there, we were off to the doctor’s and you’ll maybe have heard the doctor has bought The Grange from Halfpenny.’
I started grinning. ‘And Sammy?’
Michael laughed, ‘Not a scratch on the young devil, at least, till his mother got hold of him. Whatever happened then, the doctor has him wrapped up in bandages like a wounded soldier and Sammy’s playing up to it like a hero, but he’ll meet his match if he tries anything with that doctor.’
Sullatober Dalton 2014