The News Christmas Ghost Story competition | Runner-up revealed

The runner-up in The News’ annual ghost story competition is Gary Dunstan, 63, from Fareham. His story is called Let Well Alone.

By Gary Dunstan
Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 10:03 am

As a pallid sun appears over snow-encrusted hedgerows, wisps of steam rise wraith-like in the valley ahead.

I trudge onwards, now a dozen or so miles from home.

I’d vowed to be home for Christmas.

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The cast of Cinderella at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth reading out The News Portsmouth Christmas Ghost stories. Pictured: Chris Aukett who plays Marjorie the Ugly Sister, Edward Baker-Duly who plays the Baron Hardu and Ellie Fullalove who plays Dandini at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Now I am doubtful, my progress hindered by ailing limbs. I massage a gammy leg, ruined by cannon fire months earlier as the French attempted to break port at Rochefort.

The ball unfortunately passed me by; alas a fusillade of splinters did not. Fragments of the Unicorn’s hull are with me, buried deep.

Walking the lanes north from Wickham the shards of wood come alive, mercilessly stabbing, digging to the bone’s core.Eventually I’ll reach Milberry’s, perched high on Milbarrow Down.

I crave beer and a prized spot alongside the inglenook.

But most of all, I yearn for rest. My canvas tool bag is a burden, full of carpenters’ implements, handles glossy with wear.

I’ve whittled away at wood since boyhood.

But now wood will chip away at me, flesh-embedded splinters poisoning a comfortable old age.Some days at sea I’d long to wander alongside trees and meadows, listening to cuckoo’s call.

Looking ahead, the track evidently uphill, I yearn for the tang of salt, rum, a swaying hammock.

I smell woodsmoke moments before alighting on a sole cottage, ramshackle, at first hidden by dense woodland.

The sun has now fallen, creating unearthly half-light. My hard boots crunch over fresh snow.

As I pass, I sense movement, a figure emerges from within.

She sashays along a recently swept pathway, turning to face me.“You look dead on your feet. Have you travelled far? Rest up here awhile?”I pause, taking in a radiant smile. She has noticed my limp, but her demeanour oozes welcome not pity.“I have trudged from Portsmouth. My ship docked two days ago. Last night I rested up at Wickham.

I’m headed home to Cheriton. I’ll soon be at Milberry’s.” I continue walking, despite limbs begging for respite. She blocks my path.“No need to waste good money dallying in that villain’s den,” she jokes. “You can stay here for free. I always crave company this time of year. I’ve a lovely venison stew bubbling away.

Come, rest besides the fire. There’s a glass of rum too, if you’re so minded. They call me Betty. Betty Mundy. Come on, don’t dawdle!”She is persuasive. I introduce myself as Thomas.

It’s been over a year since I’ve been in a woman’s company and I delight in her heady scent. I duck to clear the shallow doorway.

She ushers me to a bench seat nestling inside a vast, blackened inglenook. There are hooks and intricate iron workings suspended above the flames.

A pot dangles inches above the blaze, its innards emanating savoury aromas. Well-seasoned logs sit alongside the hearth glowing with soothing warmth.

But opposite two men are already ensconced, their navy apparel suggestive of a sea-faring past.Betty proffers a crystal tumbler, half full of rum. “There”, she smiles, “that’ll warm you”. My fireside companions are ignored. Her are eyes are only for me.She turns away crossing to a scullery where an array of vegetables nestle in a wicker basket. A well-honed blade is removed from a dresser drawer. She commences peeling.My companions eye me over. One extends his hand by way of friendship. It is gnarled, and, despite his fireside perch, feels strangely cold.“You a navy man?” he asks. I nod agreement, perusing his dark blue reefer, decorated with fetching crimson epaulettes.“Discharged this week, from HMS Unicorn,” I respond. “I was ship’s carpenter. We fought the French at Basque Roads in April.”

I massage an ailing thigh.

“French navy were no match for us, but this leg took a pasting from one gunner who knew his craft. And you?”“Fought the Dutch three years ago, 1806, aboard the Greyhound, “ he began. “Came home soon after.

We captured such loot; I returned a rich man. Unlike the fellows in our sister ship, the Blenheim.

Sailed into a hurricane, all hands lost. Maddening, brooding over old shipmates sunk with gold they can't spend.”His comrade chuckles but keeps his counsel. We shake, his rough fist cold and clammy.“Like you,” he begins. “I fought the French, aboard the Mars. Our crew split the booty from many captured ships.

I returned well provided for.”I take in his threadbare cord trousers and a stained jacket, but say nothing.We are shaken from a semi-slumber by a gentle knocking. A child stands in the doorway, barefooted and bedraggled.

She wears a tattered shawl over a collection of ragged outer garments. Her feet and hands are matted with grime.“Come on in, lovely,” invites Betty.

“I did tell you to call on Christmas Eve. Here’s food for the family’s dinner tomorrow, for once you and your sisters can enjoy full bellies. Betty passes a basket to the waif.

Inside is a joint of meat – probably a hand of pork, a pound or two of carrots, a swede and half a dozen parsnips.“Miss Mundy, you are too kind,” she whispers.

She palms a gold coin which disappears magically into a fold of clothing. She stares at me with mournful eyes. “Make the most of your meal, too, Sir,” she implores, before departing.Betty fixes me with baleful eyes.

“I’ll not see those children starve. You’d think the master up at Preshaw House would pay his workers a living wage! It’s not that they toffs lack for anything!

Why, Master Walter is now studying up London at Lincoln’s Inn. You know how much that’s going to cost! And yet they expect farmhands to live on scraps!I frown at Betty’s vehemence, her sudden violence disconcerting and ominous. The knife’s blade is now embedded in the wooden trestle, it’s handle reverberating like an angry pendulum.Betty ladles stew into deep-sided wooden bowls.

She chops hunks of bread to mop thick, savoury gravy. I drink more rum until tiredness takes hold.

We are led to an outbuilding adjacent to the cottage. Inside a thick layer of straw covers a dirt floor.

Garden tools and several iron pails litter the surface.Before settling I tie the handle of the tool bag around my wrist with a sturdy iron chain.

The implements weigh heavy, as do the seventy guineas sown into the holdall’s base.

A year’s wages, that will buy outright a tiny cottage to give shelter for my remaining days.

Within minutes my two companions are snoring gently.

Soon, I dream of an urchin’s joy as she hands her mother a basketful of gold.I awake disorientated. The two sailors are long gone. Instinctively I heave on the attached chain. I feel relief, it holds firm.

I pull myself to sitting, brushing loose straw from crumpled sleeves. I hear frantic shrieks from outside.“Thomas!” she cries, “fetch water! Quickly! The kitchen is afire! My hands are burnt!” Betty cries loud enough to raise the dead. I untie cold metal, freeing myself.“It’s out back! The well! Thomas, make haste!

She stands agitated in the barn’s doorway, her hands wrapped in cloth. I push past, moving as fast as a ravaged leg will allow.

I veer behind outbuildings towards a bricked well.

I pause, seeking the pail. Nails protrude from the sheer walls, housing candles which emit an eerie glow.

I feel a sudden pressure against my lower back, instantly overbalancing.

As I fall, there is no evidence of water below.

Instead I glimpse a flash of crimson, and what appears to be rumpled blue coats shrouding fragments of decayed ivory.

And there is darkness.

The competition has been kindly sponsored by The Hayling Island Bookshop at Mengham Road.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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