(Inspired by M.R.James, master of the ghost story in whose footsteps I aspire to follow, with reverence)
The date upon which the following incident occurred is a little unclear, but its consequences are most certainly not. A very close friend has had life changed immeasurably for him and my own views on the necessary rational response to things inexplicable have been shaken to their very foundation.
Those who travel in the south-west of England quite often neglect to spend much time in the county of Somerset. This dismissal is quite unjustified – the countryside, towns and villages have many charms and the coastline of the north is varied and dramatic. For those who admit to an interest in the supernatural there is much to absorb: the mysteries of the levels, of Glastonbury and of Exmoor. Perhaps there is an inward-looking aspect to the locals of this expansive county that appears unwelcoming, but this is not in truth the case. Certainly my friend – who for this story I shall call Adams, was used to experiencing nothing but kindness.
Adams was something of an antiques ‘enthusiast’. He absorbed books on the subject; approached experts for advice and attended lectures at Universities across Europe. You may assume, rightly, that Adams was not required to work for a living, having inherited a considerable sum from an aged aunt who had, it seems a similar love of antiquity. Unfortunately her taste in old items was lacking and it was during Adams’ efforts to find dealers willing to take on large, dark lumps of mahogany that his curiosity in things of greater finesse was piqued.
The story that I here recall is set in a small town on the edge of Exmoor, visited by Adams one autumn on an antique-hunting expedition. He had never been to this place before but had read in the antiques press, for there is such a thing apparently, of a large shop that occupied three floors of an old mill. How he had not come across this establishment before was a mystery but these things happen and he determined to rectify his omission. Thus he arrived, late on a blustery autumn afternoon, and booked into the small public house in the square. A tiny room looking out upon the blank wall of a neighbouring cottage was all that was available to him but it would do and refreshed by a splash of cold water on the face he unpacked his few belongings, set his notebook on the bedside cupboard and went down to an early supper.
Described to me later, this first evening should have offered to Adams a premonition of the events to come. However, at the time the quiet that came upon the bar as he sat down, the coolness of the landlord at his attempts to converse on the subject of the shop he wished to visit and the lumpen dinner he was served were nothing in the excitement of his anticipated shopping trip. The conversation downstairs limited, he decided upon an early night and retired to a bed as lumpy as his dinner.
The night was, as is often the case in these stories, stormy. The frames in the windows of his room were metal and loose but having folded a piece of notepaper small and stuffed it between the frames he achieved a modicum of peace and slept until eight.
Breakfast was quieter even than dinner. Gobbling his porridge and swiftly taking in quantities of coffee he escaped the bar, returned to his room to wrap up warm against the still swirling winds and set off to an appointment he had made in writing to the owner of the antiques shop. Ten O’Clock saw him at the heavy, green metal door of the mill, upon which was the sign ‘The Pews- viewing by appointment only.’ The knocker, as was always likely, was large and heavy and the sound as Adams hit it twice against the metal resonated throughout the building. He was not a man who was easily rattled but he told me that he did then feel something of a shiver, although at the time it was more likely of excitement than fear. In any event when the door opened all such feelings evaporated at the enthusiastic welcome he was afforded by the small, white-haired man who greeted him. A strong smell of wax polish and an unusual blast of warm air (in his experience these establishments were most often kept cool for the preservation of the stock) met him as he followed Mr Pew (for so he introduced himself) into the small office in which the proprietor clearly did his accounts, for it was full of red leather ledgers on shelves and invoices stuck with sharp pins around the walls.
Adams was asked what most interested him, what he might be looking for and was directed by Mr Pew to the largest of the three rooms open to customers. Although polite, Mr Pew was firm and clear in his wish that his customer should restrict himself to the area offered to him. Adams accepted these terms, relieved to note that Pew did not intend to accompany him on his ramblings.
The high ceilinged room he entered was across the whole first floor of the mill and being the skilled player he was seemed to Adams about the size of two tennis courts. It was a maze of walkways between rows of brown furniture – oak davenports; trunks and armoires; washstands with tiled backs; corner cupboards on top of chests of drawers and in the last row, glass cabinets of finer goods – silver, enamels and ivory.
As Adams walked past the furniture, to him very much the same as other goods in other shops, he noticed that despite the initial warmth by Mr Pew’s office the room was getting increasingly cool as he went down the last row of furniture – largely uninteresting nests of tables upon which uninteresting items of second-rate porcelain were arranged – and approached the glass cabinets.
It also seemed to be a little darker at this distance from the front of the shop. The lighting was the same but it could not penetrate the shadows that loomed ever higher up the walls between the cabinets. The effect was even stranger as Adams noticed that behind the displays of jewellery, page turners and small flasks large and ornate mirrors were displayed, hung on the walls with large hooks more befitting sides of beef than eighteenth century Venetian.
The first cabinet contained nothing of interest to my friend, who was looking for items of chased silver to add to his collection. The second too was full of things he had seen many times before in his antique travels. The third though, was a different matter. Amongst some exquisite tea bowls, small silver salvers and a teapot Adams recognised as rare Irish mid-Georgian silver was a collection of spoons and at the very back a tiny scoop. The handle was slender, engraved with a fine design that looked for all the world like tangled fingers but which was, surely, some sort of tubular blossom. The scooped end was long and straight with the gentlest of curves. It was clearly a fine silver object, but the scoop seemed to glow with the faintest ruby tinge and Adams recognised it as something very rare.
Used as he was to asking the proprietors of antique shops for a key to display cabinets and expecting company to ensure he did not slip any item into a pocket (for these were the days before alarms and such) he was about to call for Mr Pew when he saw a tiny key in the glass door. Looking around, realising how far he was now from the office, and confident in his innate honesty he turned the key and opened the cabinet door. Prices on the small labels were high, but Adams was a tough negotiator and by now the scoop was all that interested him. He reached to the back and turned over the tiny piece of card describing it as a ‘George III Marrow Scoop by renowned silversmith Robert Lowner’ and naming a price that made even the wealthy Adams blanche. No amount of negotiating would bring it to a price he was willing to pay and in all honesty he could not see how such a sum could be justified. However, he now felt so drawn to the scoop that he almost felt as if he had to have it and very unlike him I must say, as his close friend, he began to countenance the idea of taking it, putting it inside his jacket and walking out with some other small item to distract from his actions.
There is little doubt that what happened next almost turned his mind and has certainly made me think carefully about certain assumptions I have made about the known world. As he reached in to grasp the marrow scoop, now looking more ruby-red and appealing than ever he glanced in the decorative mirror behind the cabinet and saw to his horror that his hand, or so he thought it, was reflected back at him not pale and white as it was in reality (unused to hard work as Adams had been) but rough and coarse. Hairs sprouted from his knuckles and the nails were quite black. Worst of all, there were bruises and smears of something that looked very like blood visible on the palm as it turned uppermost as he picked up the silver scoop.
The silver object became like fire in his hand and he dropped it and ran back through the cavernous shop as quickly as he could, knocking his arms and legs on the many sharp corners that fell in his way. He barely noticed anything, other than the total absence of Mr Pew, something he was only relieved about in his state of abject terror. He ran at the metal door which opened swiftly and ejected him onto the pavement outside, slamming behind him.
How he made his way back to the room in the inn he does not know. All he can remember is that it took him some time to recover any sort of composure. He fell into a sort of restless, tormented sleep and only woke when the noise of laughter from the bar below came up through the floorboards. Thinking some jolly company may soothe his nerves he went down to the saloon. Once again, a silence greeted him, but this time something in his visage must have aroused latent sympathies in the landlord who quietly poured him a brandy, came round and sat him down on a bench seat. Taking a stool next to him, the man signed to Adams to drink up and before my friend could say anything he started and explanation.
‘I fears you must have had a fright. I wish on all that is holy I had seen fit to warn you but we are odd in these parts sometimes, wanting outsiders to feel so much that way. I am only glad that this time I am able to say my sorrys. Not many come back even to collect their belongings.
You have been to a place by appointment and that is the only way to see it. If you go back there tomorrow you will not gain access; not because you sought to take something that wasn’t yours – you won’t be the first to have done that – but because the door will not even be there to open to you. The man who first owned that building, Pew, would if he were who he claims, be about 150 years old. Thats if he hadn’t been hung more than eighty years past….’
At this point my friend admits to feeling very shaky once more, but the landlord just continued.
‘Pew was a collector but not just of antiques. He used his precious bits and pieces to bring in collectors, usually lonely, eccentric ones of independent means if you understand sir?’
Adams recognised himself at once, poor fellow.
‘It was only after three men had vanished that some folk turned up to find their uncle, who wasn’t as lonely as Pew had thought, being much-loved by his nieces and nephews. The trail led to the shop where Pew was surprised by the family and the local magistrate. I am afraid to say sir he was a-eating of the Uncle, scooping out some juicy bits with a long silver scoop.’
A picture of that marrow scoop, glowing red in the dim light of the cabinet was all too clear in Adams’ mind.
‘ Well sir, Pew got what he deserved. He was out of his mind long before he went to the gallows, desperate as he was for the taste of human flesh. All seemed quiet as he was cut down. The shop was dismantled and its contents sent abroad to send any more collectors far from this poor town. But still, every few years, an advert appears in a magazine and someone like yourself is drawn to the place. So far no-one has told of what happened to them. Perhaps sir, they feel guilty?’
Adams blushed. He knew that he too would only confide in his most trusted friends; those who knew him to be an honest fellow taken over by some power he couldn’t resist. I am one such and I write this only after long consideration and with Adams’ permission. For today, in the antiques press, another advert appeared….
© Suzie Grogan October 2011