It was raining heavily as the train pulled into the Bodmin railway station. So much so it was making visibility difficult, as the rain was coming down in heavy sheets. I was traveling alone, on my way back to London. I knew the train was scheduled to stop for only a few minutes, so I disembarked quickly to stretch my legs, prepared to jump back on board at any moment. However, I needn’t have worried, as due to the storm there was an announcement made over the old crackly station intercom advising passengers and crew the signals ahead had malfunctioned and the train won’t be departing now until the following morning, there was a collective moan coming from within the carriages.
Passengers were told they could sleep on the train, or disembark and seek overnight accommodation in the village. My first thought was to ring London and inform the Hotel I was booked into I would be delayed by one night, but I decided to look for accommodation first, and call the Hotel from there.
Bodmin is a very small, yet historical village in Cornwall England, but with little to offer a passing traveller. I sought out and found the portly train station master, he had squinty tired eyes and was clearly in a foul mood. As such, I kept my questions short about where I might find a Taxi or Bus into the village centre. A grimace crossed his face when he told me in no uncertain terms there were no Taxis or Buses and I would have to walk the main road for about twenty minutes into town with my suitcase. As I walked away, he shouted out to me “Good luck, there’s only one pub”.
As I pulled my suitcase behind me, I noted I was the only passenger leaving the station, it appeared everyone else was going to stay on the train overnight! By this time the rain had settled into a drizzle and I was comfortable with my decision to find a room, as opposed to sleeping upright on the train. As I walked down the long winding road, the rain slowly eased off even more and gradually came to a stop. Too late for me though, I was already soaked through and so I pictured a nice pub meal and maybe even a little open fire ahead of me, to motivate myself.
The road was quite pretty in the night air, it was lined with very tall Pine Trees on both sides that lifted your eyes up to the skies above and the clouds were starting to clear, letting the stars shine through. The mist gave the area an eerie feel and an owl hooted from somewhere in the wooded area that surrounded me. The moon was emerging from the dark sky and was helping to light my way, but just as I started to relax and enjoy the walk, a dog suddenly started yapping and gave me a start. Although I couldn’t quite make out where the barking was coming from, until I saw a shadowy figure ahead of me. I turned to look behind me, to try and get an idea of how far I had come, but when I turned again, the man was now standing right in front of me, but he had two dogs, not one! Two little Terriers that were sniffing my feet and legs, they seemed harmless enough, although excited and curious. The man was unshaven, tall and scraggly, he wore a long coat that might have been from another century it was so old and he had heavy work boots on that would have looked more at home on a Miner! Despite his apparent age, he had the most piercing clear blue eyes I have ever seen! “Evenin” he grunted.
Whist trying to regain my composure, I introduced myself and I explained to the old timer the train signals had faulted and I needed to find the local pub to stay the night. In a stupid attempt to prove I wasn’t a threat, I patted the dogs and ruffled their ears, only to make then growl at me. His response was in a thick gruff Cornish accent, he told me the only hotel in the area had closed years ago and there’s no accommodation to be found in the town, so I could either go back to the train, or if it suited me, I could stay with him on his farm nearby. He told me his name was Jack and we shook hands. It was an effort for me to understand everything he said, as his accent was so thick and heavy, but I did manage to grasp he’d lived here his whole live and now it’s just him and his dogs. He led me down the road a little more and then we veered off on a winding farm laneway which appeared to have not been used by vehicles or walkers for some time, as weeds and grasses grew all over it. The trees along this laneway were much taller, heavier and older than those on the road and one felt they had been here for an age!
Within about 10 minutes we approached an old farmhouse and my hopes of an open fire and something to eat were starting to feel less of a dream and more like a possibility. Jack opened the front door; it wasn’t locked and it reminded me yet again of the little differences that do matter between city living and country living. The inside of the farmhouse was dimly lit with kerosine lamps and I asked Jack if he doesn’t have electricity. Jack said the grid stops at the main intersection and he’s never had a need for it.
The old cottage was sparse, but felt homely enough and it became obvious to me he’d clearly lived alone for so long with little needs and maybe he even prefers it that way. Beginning to feel more and more settled, I appreciated the hospitality and was thankful for a dry haven and a bed for the night, come morning I would be back on my way to London.
Jack asked me if I would like “summat ta drink” as he made his way to the fireplace and old woodstove, he quickly had both burning nicely, before I even had a chance to offer to help. He suggested I take off my wet coat and he hung it on the back of the door for me and I could already feel the warmth of the fire and stove starting to permeate through my clothes. The two little dogs were watching my every move, they didn’t seem threatened, but they continued to observe and scrutinise this stranger in their midst.
From my worn but comfortable old chair, I asked him about the history of the farm and house and if he had always lived alone. Jack told me how his father had built the house and he took over the farm when his parents died. He told me of his late wife, Elsie. He told me he and Elsie had three kids, two girls and a boy, but they had also passed away. Then very abruptly, he finished the subject by looking at me very intently and stating “Now just me and da dogs, dat’s all der is to et.”
To say his story piqued my interest is an understatement, I was so curious as to what had happened to his family, how could his wife and all three kids be dead? Did some terrible pandemic pass through the village, was there a fire, or a horrible farming accident? Over and over my mind raced through the different possible scenarios and yet I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, as his last words on the matter had such a final intenseness about them, he made it extraordinarily clear to ensure I understood the matter was closed and done!
Jack had made a pot of Tea and he took out some biscuits from an old tin by the fire. There didn’t appear to be any milk and sugar, as he didn’t offer them, so I just drank my Tea black, as was he. We sat in silence and the crackling open-fire filled the void. The dogs had made themselves comfortable near Jack’s feet and had both dozed off, only occasionally opening an eye to check on me. Eventually I asked Jack what he did for a living and Jack told me about his life working on the trains for five and twenty years, every so often he would make a reference to his wife and family, but then would quickly move the topic back to his work on the trains, negating me any opportunity to ask about them. By this time, it was nearing midnight and I allowed a yawn to escape, hoping this would trigger our goodnights, as it had been a long day. He hadn’t mentioned any compensation for staying the night and so I offered him €35 as it was all I had in cash on me and he waved his hands saying “nowit reason for dat” and he showed me to my little room.
My room was sparse as in fact was whole cottage, but it was cosy and I could feel the heat from the fire slowly but surely infiltrating in through from the other room. There was a single cast iron bed, a small bedside table and I tried to convince myself it suited me quite nicely for one night. Jack handed me the small kerosine lantern he was holding and bade me goodnight, but his parting words left me chilled! As he was closing the door behind him, he muttered: “best yer don’t leave yer room till morn son,” and with that he closed the door with a firm thud.
When I first awoke, I thought it must be dawn but I realised it was still pitch-black outside. I closed my eyes again, but a moment later I heard the noise that had awoken me in the first place, so it wasn’t a dream after all! It was a scratching sound, quite loud and consistent, I immediately thought of rats. But then I heard giggling, children giggling, before everything went quiet again. Remembering Jack’s last words to me, I lay there and listened for any more noise, but there was nothing, it was dark and quiet and I soon drifted off again.
However, from a deep sleep I was again awoken this time by whispering, it was a woman’s voice and although I couldn’t quite decipher what she was saying, there was an explicit sense of urgency about it and I just lay there with my eyes open, but very still, for although I could see no one in the room with me, I could feel a presence. I relit the lamp to be sure and as I suspected; I was alone in the room.
From the warmth of my bed, I rose and tried to open the door handle, but it was locked and again Jack’s words came back to me about not leaving the room till morn! Rushing back to my little ratchety old bed, I climbed under the quilt and tried to go back to sleep, but it was no use, now the scratching had started again and this time it was really loud and even more demanding, but demanding of what? I heard the clock in the next room strike 2am and I instantly knew the 2 hours or so of sleep I’d had was probably all I would get this night. As I laid there, I attempted to get a sense of where the scratching was emanating from and I realised the source was the window, so I got out of bed again and went to the window and put my hand on the glass, it was hot!
How could the glass be hot, when the room and outside was cold!
Wide awake now and sleep was no longer even an option, I stood there and listened and the whispering started to increase in volume and slowly became clearer, it was a woman’s voice without a doubt, although it sounded like it was coming to me via a tunnel. Finally, I was able to decipher it: “The water is deep, but it makes a shallow grave.”
Now I’d interpreted the whispering, it was clear it was the same words being repeated over and over. So, I sat on my bed and wondered what could it all mean? Who was making these sounds and why? The whispering stopped, as did the scratching, but the giggling had started again. Was I actually awake, or was I dreaming, my throbbing head from broken sleep confirmed I was awake. Rising from my bedside again, I returned to the window and found the pane of glass was now cold, thank God I thought, finally something is as it should be. The window opened easily and I threw my clothes back on and grabbed my bag, in a split-second moment I’d decided I was going to head back to the train station.
From outside the cottage, I realised how ridiculous I was being, what would poor old Jack think to find his guest has done a runner in the middle of the night! No thanks for the hospitality and bed! Then I saw her, she was strikingly beautiful. Her hair was long, thick, beautiful and dark. Her skin was so pale, almost translucent and for what felt like an age, but was probably just a minute, we just stared at each other. Without knowing how, I knew, I just knew she was the one who’d been whispering to me over and over.
The expression on the woman’s face was of such sadness and I felt a wave of pity for her, though not knowing or understanding why. Suddenly my stomach muscles tightened, my throat muscles choked me and my head began to pound even more as it dawned on me this startling woman had no mouth! Where her mouth should be, was just skin! She turned from me and drifted towards a clump of trees, I say she drifted, because that’s exactly how she moved. Intuitively and again not knowing why, I placed my bag back inside the open window and I followed her. On the other side of a small group of trees, was a lake, I walked down to the lake. Glancing back at where the woman was standing, I saw she was gone. Now there was nothing but silence and I was obviously alone, alone in the dark, alone by the lake, it was just me, I felt like a fool.
To this day, hand on heart, I honestly have no idea why I did what I did next, I waded in. The moon shone above casting shadows over the surface of the water and creating reflections from the trees and skies above, it was surprisingly peaceful, yet at the same time unnerving, as I was unable to reconcile why I had waded in.
Suddenly I heard the giggling again, this time it was really clear and close and I spun around and saw three small children standing at the edge of the lake where I was just a moment ago! Two little girls and a boy, so close, I could reach out and touch them! They were giggling and I felt pulled towards them, so I started to wade through the shallow waters back to the edge. When I got close enough, I felt the sickness in my stomach return like before, as I realised they too had no mouths, just skin where their little mouths should be. They stood there, all three of them, their giggling wafting over me like an unseen, but bothersome mist. Moving to the side, I left the waters just a meter or so from where they were standing and abruptly realised I hadn’t taken my shoes off! They were full of water and it felt weird, strange and cold and nothing made sense, why did I wade in, let alone wade in with my shoes on?
Suddenly the giggling stopped and one of the little girls, the one that appeared to be the eldest, pointed to a second clump of trees, a smaller clump than the one the woman had led me to earlier, but very close by. Sensing this is where they wanted me to go, I walked to the smaller clump of trees and found a headstone, it was very old and moss-covered, but still readable in the moonlight:
“In loving memory of Elsie Welham and her three children Jane, Mary and Jack Junior. May the four innocents Rest in Peace and shine in God’s Glory, 16 January 1888.”
Reading the epitaph several times over trying to make some sense of it all created even more anxiety in me and I turned to seek some guidance from the children, however the children, like the woman, had disappeared. Panic stricken I ran, I ran as fast as I could back to the farmhouse cottage and climbed back through the window I had clambered out of, scraping and cutting my knees and arms on the windowsill edges in my haste, but I didn’t care, I closed the window behind me.
Removing my wet clothes and sodden shoes and socks, I climbed into bed and fell into a tormented sleep.
When at last dawn did actually arrive, I arose and dressed. My clothes and shoes were still wet from the night before, proving yet again I was not having a nightmare. Putting on dry clothes from my bag and begrudgingly my wet shoes, all I cared about was getting to the train station and on my way to London.
The knob on my bedroom door opened easily this time and I geared myself up to try and be cheery and appreciative to my host, but Jack was nowhere to be seen! Even more odd there was a feeling of abandonment and dust had settled over everything, there was even dust in the fireplace which only the night before had helped provide a warm refuge for me!
The house was clearly abandoned and had been for years, I ran! The exhaustion I had initially felt after such a tormented night had left me and I was brimming with adrenalin induced energy, so I just ran!
The old careworn faced conductor was waiting on the platform when I arrived, he looked at the state I was in and my sleep deprived face and asked what in God’s name had happened to me? Desperate to just get on the train, I feigned a smile and said I didn’t get much sleep, but before stepping up onto the train, I went on to ask him if he’s ever heard of a local called Jack Welham?
“Aye, course I ‘eard of old Jack Welham! Everyone know of Jack. Sad bloody bugga in all. His wife and little ‘uns drowned in da lake, so tha story goes. ‘appens soon after, he shot ‘imself and his wee little dogs too. Yer havta wonder what was on his mind, and how did all his family drown, we’ll never know, dis all ‘append over a hundred years ago now.”
Suddenly his craggy face and crinkly eyes honed in on me and he asked me why was I asking? Without answering, I boarded the train and once I found myself alone, I started to cry. The train soon departed when I noticed my bag was missing, where’s my bag, oh God, my bag! In my insane haste to flee the cottage, I must have left it behind.
This all happened three years ago now and I still often wonder about Jack, Elsie, Jane, Mary and little Jack, but mostly, I wonder if I went back there, would I be alone looking for my bag…….