THE SPIRIT OF BODIAM CASTLE
Jake was walking along the battlements on the south wall of Bodiam Castle, one of the most beautiful and romantic medieval moated castles in England which looks out over the river Rother across glorious green Sussex countryside. He was halfway between one of the great round drum corner towers and a square postern tower in the middle when he saw a very large youth trying to prise out a stone from the wall, grunting with the effort.
Jake was not a particularly pious or self-righteous boy. He was not big, although he could be very loud. He had been in detention three times in the last term, principally for ‘inappropriate behaviour’, in the classroom, in morning assembly, and in the lunch queue where the dinner ladies dished out red cards for alleged misdemeanours with all the triumphant flourish of a football referee. But the youth was tugging at the heavy stone for no purpose at all. He couldn't possibly have taken it with him and, besides, Jake took a proprietorial pride in the castle.
He had visited it with school parties, as this large teenager was evidently doing now, more than once in the past. But he lived only ten minutes away across the fields. He could see the castle from his bedroom window through a gap in the trees. He regarded it as his own. And he objected to a spotty youth pulling it to pieces. He knew for a fact that petty pilfering of stones in the 18th Century had reduced the beautiful castle to something of an ivy-clad ruin before the local squire, Mad Jack Fuller, had bought and rescued it a hundred years later.
‘What you playing at?’ he yelled angrily. ‘Put that back!’
The other boy glared at him, but dropped the big stone and sloped away down the western wall where a group of his friends in the same dark blue school t-shirts were pinging pebbles over the battlements. He would probably be back, with reinforcements. He saw him pointing, heard his indignant voice. Jake picked the big stone up and began to slowly push it back into the gap it had left when he suddenly heard a heavy, muffled, spluttering sound.
He looked round. There was no-one within fifty feet of him.
‘I wol not in this prisoun stille dwell!’
He looked round again, bewildered, and put the stone down at his feet.
‘Joye and blisse!’
He felt suddenly giddy. Now the voice was loud that it seemed to be in his head. He shook his head, clapped his hands over his ears.
‘Sorry, boy. Didn’t mean to shout. Haven’t spoken for so many years and it leaves you a little husky. Mentally, that is. And although I am using your mind now, your modern language is still going to sound very odd to me.’
The big boy was returning with his mates. ‘That’s him. That little nerd. Thinks he owns the castle. Naffing cheek.’
The other voice was in his ears again, softer now, but just as close. ‘Are you in trouble, boy? We will just see if my wind is restored.’
As the now jeering boys drew closer there was a roaring sound and a rush of hot air which seemed to come from within him and he heard his voice as never before, not just loud, but terrible. Deep and angry, mighty and awesome. ‘Be gone, vermin!’ And he saw the youths flattened back into the corner of the next drum tower, eyes bulging, mouths open.
‘He's a raving nutcase, madman, having a fit! Get out of here!’ the first boy jabbered and they turned and fled back down the stone stairs from the battlement.
‘Excellent. You never lose the voice of authority.’ The voice sounded complacent, pleased with itself. It really was inside his head! Perhaps the yob was right. He was going mad.
‘I really am exceedingly grateful to you, boy, letting me out like that. I've been walled up in there for six centuries and that’s a long time, even for a spirit.’
‘A spirit?’ he heard his own voice at last, squeaky with alarm and bewilderment. “You said a spirit?”
‘No need to talk out loud, boy. I’m not. I’m in your mind. Just think your words back. I'll hear them. And nobody else can hear me either. That was the problem. I wasted the first fifty years shouting and bellowing behind the stone and not a soul could hear me. I tried getting into people’s heads, but I couldn't move behind that brick. Until you came and released me. Blessed boy!’
‘Strictly speaking, I didn't release you,’ said Jake. ’That boy released you.. He took the stone out. I was putting it back in!’
‘Keep quiet. Think your words. You will alert others,’ said the voice crossly. ‘You can hear me adequately, I think. And I am entirely in your mind.'
‘My mind!’ thought Jake. ‘He is in my mind!’
‘That’s better,’ said the voice. ‘Hearing you loud and clear and you didn't open your mouth. You seem to be getting the hang of it. I’m still a bit thrown by your modern vernacular, even through your mind.’
‘Six hundred years?' he heard himself ask. ‘What does your own language sound like then? Middle English? Like Chaucer?’
‘You still study Geoffrey Chaucer? After all these centuries - how remarkable! How splendid! I am so delighted that his work lives on. You are familiar perhaps with the description of The Knight, which, I might point out, comes first in The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. He was clearly intended to be the principal figure from the start. I am a knight myself.’
‘A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,That fro the tyme that he first biganTo riden out, he loved chivalrie,Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.’‘
‘Well, I’m only in Year Eight. We haven‘t done Chaucer yet. And that is how you would speak and think if you were not with me - in my head? Oh no, I don‘t like this!’
‘Beware, two strangers approach. They sound curious in tone. Tourists I believe you call them. I have picked up a good deal in odd smatterings, behind that brick these past hundreds of years and, heavens, how speech patterns have changed! That was just in spring and summer months, of course. The whole place is deserted through the autumn and winter. Very lonely. How much we shall have to talk about, you and I. And of course, now I am in your mind, I can use your brain! I will be able to understand your modern tongue so much better and in time speak it almost as naturally as you! Wonderful! Quite wonderful! And your eyes and ears are at my service too, saving your grace, of course.’
‘No, no, no! It’s too much! No permission. Get out of my head!’ shouted Jake. ‘Get out!’
The two American tourists picked their way cautiously along the battlement past him and looked back at him in alarm. ‘Poor child,’ said the woman compassionately. ‘So young, too.’
‘I told you no talking necessary. Think your words.’
‘That’s better. I may have been in error supposing that you had released me from my purgatory, but I can see I have chosen wisely. I did not like the look of that spotty youth at all. No, I am happy that you are my chosen vessel.’
‘Please go away. Just leave me in peace. I really do seem to be going mad.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the voice cheerily. ‘It takes a bit of getting used to, I grant you. And I may slip up with speech patterns once or twice, but even without your mind I've a very good ear for them. You’re a little self-conscious about the word thinking at present, if I may say so. Imagine it as silent speaking rather than thinking.’
‘I'll try,’ said Jake in his head again.
‘Oh, that’s very good. Almost perfect. Let’s go somewhere quiet where we can exchange our thoughts in peace. Is that food in your bag?’
‘You can see everything?’
‘I can see what you can see. I am in your head. You appear to have excellent vision, too. Mine was a little cloudy when they came for me.’
Jake moved on down towards the stone stairs at the end of the western wall. ‘They?’
‘Yes, my time had come, do you see. I was approaching sixty. A good age in those days. They came at night in my dream. We went up a great staircase to a blinding white light and I thought oh good, it is going to be just as I had hoped. Only when I reached the gate, the celestial portcullis came down and they said I could not enter. I argued, of course. Go away and redeem yourself, they said. You are not ready for this place. You have not been a good man. I thought that was very harsh indeed. I was generally considered a reasonable knight. I was no worse than my neighbours. Much better than some. Sir John Gathercomb had slain many. And he married his cousin Ned’s wife three months after Ned was found floating face down in the moat down there. And what about Sir Wilfred Neskins? I said. Spent half his life plundering and looting and then came home and treated his tenant farmers like dogs. Terrible chap. And as for Sir Thomas Bland, I said, for all his castle and houses and lands and ladies, he was no more than a common horse thief.
‘Well, they said, politely enough, mind, Sir John, Sir Wilfred and Sir Thomas are not here either, but if you wish to go and join them at another place, that can certainly be arranged. I did not like the way they said it and I thought, well, if I am to be given a chance to redeem myself, why not take it? So I said fair enough, bring me back to life. And they laughed most terrible and said there would be no more mortal life for me. I would spend centuries in purgatory and then if by chance I were released, then I might have the chance to right my wrongs and attain that blessed place. And the next thing I knew, I was deep inside that wretched wall!
‘Look around, boy, would you? I’d just like to see a little more through your eyes - Lord above, but the place is in absolute ruins!’
‘No, it is not!’ said Jake indignantly. ‘It is still much loved. My history master Gruesome Gadd says it is the finest example of medieval moated military architecture in Britain.’
‘Well, it’s been patched up well enough,’ said the voice grudgingly. ‘But it is not as I knew it. I helped to build it! '