ON MY WAY HOME (or THE HAIRPIN BENDS), by CATRYN POWER. PUBLISHED IN 2015.

ON MY WAY HOME

The rain was almost torrential. Drenched and despondent, I stood on the side of the busy main road. The deluge came straight down, hard and fast. It was a Friday evening in early July. I had been waiting in this torrent for almost an hour. I was wet through and my arm was sore from holding it up, to thumb. The heavy weekend traffic couldn’t even see me because of the harsh persistent downpours. This location was usually great for a lift, where the junctions of two busy main roads met, at the edge of the city. At this time many people were heading on one road to a busy beach resort for the weekend. Traffic slowed down at these junctions. There was also a large petrol station with a grocery store here, which resulted in a very active spot. One could usually get a lift in five to ten minutes, but not on this rotten evening! People had enough to think about, and neither did they want a sopping wet hitch-hiker sitting next to them.

It had started raining at 4pm when I left the village where I worked. My colleagues had kindly offered me a lift to the bus station in the city. As I did each weekend, I would then catch the 6 pm intercity express bus home. By car, it would take one hour to the bus. The rain was so heavy, while driving to the bus station that it slowed us down considerably. The traffic on that windy road was slow, and made travelling much worse. Then to top it all, the wipers of this old ford stopped working, about five minutes into the journey. A long-handled brush sticking out the front passenger window, reached the windscreen. I was then the ‘wiper’, pushing the handle of a soft sweeping brush up and down the windscreen. Bonkers! Effective, but, slow, and also cruel on the arm. ‘At least it’s not a yard brush’, Tom, who was driving, guffawed out loud, almost in convulsions. In spite of the danger, the four in the car laughed and joked for the entire journey. That week had been good; as we worked outdoors, it had been a perfect week of sunshine in July, in the mid twenties and a lovely cool breeze to go with it. We were all as brown as berries. Today, however, the weather forecaster on the radio had predicted a change for the worst, and it was correct to the hour.

When my work mates dropped me at the station, the bus had just left, only three or four minutes beforehand. What luck! At this stage, before realising that the bus was gone, I had got out of the car and said my good byes, so after all of that, I had no car to which I could return, to get a lift through the long city. Drat! A very wet walk, getting splashed by cars and tripping into puddles as I hurried, even jogged some of the way through the city, taking several short cuts. An hour later, at about fifteen minutes to 7pm I got to a local hitching spot. By then I was exhausted, and just wanted to be home, and dry. By 7.30pm the clouds had darkened, and there had been no let up in the downpours. There was no stopping the huge splashes from the cars and the deep well-filled ‘puddles’ were continually overflowing. In spite of a good anorak, I was soaking wet. My rucksack was also saturated, and by now weighing heavy on my aching shoulders and back. So in this miserable state, I started to thumb. After one very long hour, I was elated when a dark-coloured Citroen car stopped. It could have been a bicycle or a tractor I would still have been very happy. One of my friends had always said ‘remember to write down the car’s number, before getting into the car’. Of course, that evening, the registration number was the last thing on my mind; it was only when I got into the car that I reminded myself of this. I felt stupid, but then I knew that everything would be grand, as I had hitched a number of times, and only had a few minor incidents with a handful of idiotic gombeens. One chap asked me for advice on how he would tell his children the ‘facts of life’. That got me out of his  car very quickly. Then there was the sleaze-bag from California, originally Irish, who put his hand on my thigh; said he thought I was ‘on the game’, I promptly slapped his hand, and ended up on the side of the road, seconds later. Most people, men, who gave me lifts, were sound. Why did I have to work in out-of-the-way places? No buses. Primitive. My folks would never have approved.

As I sat in the Citroen, out of the corner of my eye, I observed the driver; he was tall, and had a long narrow face, with a long narrow nose. He was solemn. He had deep parallel grooves on each side of his nose. The colour of his face was a deep tan. His face was used to the outdoors, and was hewn with grooves, almost like the bark of a very old oak tree. He had dark curly greasy hair, but not a lot. I can still remember his face to this day. It’s a face that has faded a little, but nevertheless always there, in my mind. It was like the narrow face of a fox, a sly one at that. He didn’t smile either; it was as if he had something on his mind. He wore a navy blue gilet, a thin one, and a navy blue pair of corduroy jeans, well-thinned corduroy in fact. On the dashboard, lay his dirty tweed peeked cap, probably green coloured originally. It seemed at first to be a tidy car, but as I sat there for the first few minutes in silence, I realised there was nothing to tidy; it was bereft of items. I could see a well-scratched magnetic plaque on the dash, showing the giant-like Saint Christopher carrying the Christ infant across a swollen river, much like today’s weather, I thought to myself. The patron saint of travellers was looking after me that evening. The only words spoken between the driver and me, up to that point were ‘Want a lift dear? Am not going to the city, but near enough’, he said. I replied ‘Thanks that would be great’.

Fifteen minutes down the road, and the rain had eased slightly. He had talked a little, mainly asking me about myself, where I had been, where I was going and so on, and as I was a chatterbox, that was easy. However, it was when he put his hand down my jumper, and held onto to me that I screamed. I roared at him to let go, and to stop the car, so I could get out. He smiled and said with a leer ‘I will let you out all right’, as the car slowed down, but while he still held his grip. He quickly veered the car onto a lay by. With that I thought that I would jump out, but as I made a go for the handle of the door, it was locked.

I was struck with utter terror, realising his plan. ‘You’re not going to get away that lightly; you can earn your lift!’ He said this maliciously and with such venom, that he was spitting directly into my face. ‘Sure isn’t that what hitching is all about? Getting to know one another, and getting a return for my kindness? Wouldn’t you be soaking wet, if I hadn’t stopped?’ he whispered menacingly, all the time hanging onto me. Again I screamed, shouting that I wasn’t interested. With that he lunged at me. A white Opel Kadett suddenly stopped behind the Citroen. By some miracle the door on my side opened and I got out quickly grabbing my wet and soggy rucksack. This unbelievable nightmarish incident had all happened in a short time; from the time I got into the car, to the time I jumped out, all of about fifteen minutes. The metal on the rucksack had stung my hand and face, as I had pulled it after me. The rain had started pouring down again, just as I hit the waterlogged ground. As I picked myself up, another noise, gave me a fright. The driver of the white Opel Kadett, a grey-haired man, opened the door, and called to me, as he approached the driver of the Citroen.  I ran.

It was by now exceptionally warm, and of course, I was much hotter with the ordeal that had just taken place. Big woolly black clouds were gathering. There had been several downbursts in quick succession. I ran, splashing into numerous muddy puddles, until I came to an opening in a field fence. I almost fell in. Then there were so many bumps in that field, and to make it worse, furze bushes, were also scattered amongst these hillocky bumps. I scurried, tripping, frantically trying to find a place to hide. Large briar-filled field fences prevented me from climbing out of this field from any other route than the one, which I had entered. I also lost my footing in several deep holes in the ground. There was nowhere to hide. Then my foot got stuck in a large opening in the side of a large rock. A blast of pain went through the arch of my foot. I stopped myself from crying out. I limped and crept and wriggled with great difficulty into this crevice. In an instant, outside, there was a flash of light, followed a few seconds later by a rumbling sound, which seemed to shake the very ground that I was hiding in. I normally liked the spectacle of lightning in the sky, but right now, it was not very pleasant. I could think of far better places to be. This was an old cave. It couldn’t collapse in, surely? It must be here for thousands of years. It feels solid? I crept in as far as possible and lay huddled in this small cavity in what seemed the very bowels of the earth. It wasn’t cold or too warm and the ground was dry and earthen. I felt safe here, from man and nature, for the meantime. Damn! Why did I have to miss that bus?

I could hear the doors of the two cars loudly slamming shut and the voices of two men coming toward the field. Why on earth would presumably the two car drivers come along together? They must know one another. I lay as still as I could. Their voices could be heard, coming closer. I inched quietly back further into the cave. It was so black. ‘She must have gone out over the field boundary wall’, one of the men said to the other, ‘she’s a strong one, nicely rounded and fit’, and he laughed. ‘Yes indeed, but got away. The night is young yet’. I was so taken aback that the two men were very familiar with one another. What on earth was their game?’ Their voices came closer, and I inched back, even further back. As I did, I felt unusually soft textured stone; in the dark cavern my hand tried to find an outline, but no luck. It didn’t feel good in here. There were holes in the rock, nothing that I had ever felt before. Someone must have used it as a dump. A heap of rubble seemed to obstruct my advance further back into the cave. As I crawled around the small area inside the cave, I clambered carefully over many branches; they felt as if they would break easily; and then one did which gave me an almighty scare. I suddenly thought of rats; how I loathed even the name, and hoped that there weren’t any here. I trembled with that notion. I froze as I heard the voices of the men, who were now outside the cave. ‘Yes, she must have gone out. She would never have gone into the crypts? said one of the men, whose sneaky voice she recognised as the Citroen owner. ‘Doubtful, but let’s have a look at any rate’, the other man, replied. Then a light flashed across the sky, followed by a thunderous crack. A heavy downpour fell out of the sky. The two men yelled at one another, and their voices faded. I breathed a sigh of relief. But what did one of them say? A crypt? I didn’t recall seeing any in the field, but then I was in a hurry. Then with sudden realisation, I shuddered. God almighty, I was in a tomb! Almost half afraid to move, I started feeling around the ground, those stones and sticks were bones! Human bones! Immediately I scrambled to the front of the tomb. I had to get out of here. The hard rain poured into the opening. Then the sound of the men’s voices returned. I shuddered again, and thought my heart had stopped this time. I crept quickly to the side of the tomb. This time I tumbled over uneven ground. As I felt around the floor carefully, for the second time, I could now identify piles of what were most probably bones everywhere, mixed with stone and wood. I couldn’t stomach sitting here. I was petrified of the voices above ground as well as being in a tomb. I felt that my brain might explode! My knees were sore, my foot hurt, and my legs cramped. I had now started shaking, almost uncontrollably. I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream or cry. I could do neither anyway, with those mad men outside. Were these bones in the crypt of female hitch-hikers, whom these men have given lifts; were they foolish young girls, like myself, unsuspecting prey for these lunatics? I had often heard of girls going missing, and I had  never given it much thought.

I thought of escaping, but as suddenly as they had vanished, the voices returned and this time came closer. But oddly enough, the accents of the two men were very different. They certainly were not the car drivers. These men had strong, loud voices, but were very rustic compared to the urban accents of the two drivers. One older of the two explained ‘Well, Mister Pilkington. I am Doctor Shea Sullivan, and I have a small errand’. He chuckled. The other man, obviously Mister Pilkington said nothing. ‘This is the vault of the Howard-Leach family. A young mother and her infant son died of smallpox last week and were interred here. This tomb was robbed very recently. The body of Augusta Philippa, wife of Randolph Howard-Leach, is missing. It is said that the Nathanial Street gang visited the tomb, to steal jewellery, which was buried with her’. At this juncture, the voice trailed away. ‘A considerable cache for anyone! Whichever gang of thieves arrived here, they let it be known that Mrs. Howard-Leach’s body was taken, and the opening to the chamber had been resealed. They were shocked to find that the infant boy’s corpse was also gone. They wanted nothing to do with body snatching. They were simple thieves; jewellery was their forte, not bodies. Word spread soon around the criminal community and then to the constabulary that the infant’s body as well as his mother’s body was missing. This was worse than despicable. Of course, Randolph Howard-Leach has ordered an investigation into the situation. For a mild mannered man, Howard-Leach got into such a rage. Being one of the primary benefactors of the Medical School, he has threatened to withdraw his generous donations’. The voices became louder again, as I could hear noises outside the crypt. ‘The tomb will be reopened tomorrow morning with various witnesses, and the local Reverend Geoffrey Billinghay for a blessing. I will also be there and I will identify the corpse as that of the Howard-Leach infant.  Call to the rear of the Medical School at midnight; there will be someone waiting for you with a dispatch. Bring it back to this tomb, which will be open. I sent out a notice to the underworld that the child’s body at the very least be returned, without fear of arrest. The mother’s body could be anywhere, well concealed in a dissection room by now’. Mister Pilkington replied ‘you are indeed admirable, Doctor, securing the rescue of the child’s body’. ‘Indeed, one has to do one’s bit for propriety in any civilised society’, the doctor said.

While all of this whispered conversation was going on, my thoughts were all over the place. This type of stuff was of the nineteenth century. Were they rehearsing for a play? What was all of this carry-on? I knew that in Victorian times grave robbers worked in the city areas quite frequently, in particular as the local Medical Schools discretely offered good prices for a recently deceased body.  As the men continued talking, the pair passed near my hiding place, where I lay still and huddled in my cavernous refuge, trying desperately to hold my breath. I felt that they would hear my heart racing. All I could think of was being buried alive in a tomb. My body was aching from the cramped conditions, and parts of my feet were numb. As I listened to their conversation, I thought about smallpox; I seemed to remember that it couldn’t have killed that mother and baby; it was more common in the last century than nowadays. It is a disease which has been eradicated worldwide, I recalled. The recent newspapers would have had headlines about their deaths, if it was caused by smallpox. Unless, of course, if it was kept quiet! Who were these guys? Robbing bodies, stealing jewellery from tombs? Or was it myself that was going bonkers? I heard the men approach my refuge again. Then there was some thudding noise nearby. Mr……………….. With that, one of the men screamed as I heard a gunshot. I froze on the spot, afraid to edge back any further. I curled into the smallest ball of myself that I could produce, and stayed petrified for ages. What on earth was happening? Then there was a second shot, followed soon after by a third. Then silence. I waited and waited. I thought that I would never get out alive. These guys must be criminals. I was so cramped that I felt that I could never again move.

It must have been twenty minutes and there had been no sound, when I thought it was safe to move. It was now drizzling. In spite of my cramped condition in the small space, I ran out of that field like the hammers of hell. I could not see anybody in the area, no dead bodies, guns, nothing, thankfully! The men must have left the field in a hurry. I ran up the hilly road, where the three hairpin bends were located, above the nearby town. I was so exhausted, I felt as if I was dragging my legs with my hands. I reached the first hairpin, half-way up the steep hill, and then I dived into the roadside ditch as I heard a car revving up behind. It was a white rover. I waited another ten minutes, before moving on. At this stage, I felt like crying and just curling up on the side of the road. However, covered in a wet, mucky mess, I walked slowly up the remainder of the hill, to the second hairpin. Finally I passed the third hairpin and it was nine pm when I stood at the top of that hill, looking over the valley, and fields, and in the distance the nearby town and estuary. It was quiet and getting dark. Specks of light were slowly appearing in the town. It looked pretty. The rain had stopped. In spite of the horror and madness, of all that had happened I could remember that the night was warming and there was a wonderful scent from the wet hedgerows. It was a secure familiar smell, which made me feel safe and lucky at my escape. No mobile phone in those days, to ring for a lift, or help! I had no option but to hitch again, it was nearly half an hour’s drive home; no buses this late at night. I convinced myself that everyone on the road tonight can’t be bad.

As I was trying to think of what had just happened, my body stiffened with fear, as I heard the sound of metal immediately behind. Then a voice coming near me, made my heart stand still. A shadowy figure was walking slowly towards me. ‘What in heaven’s name is a slip of a thing like yourself doing on the side of these dangerous bends at this time of night? It was a very old stooped man, with a brimmed hat on his head, closing the gate to a field, as he came onto the roadside. He must have been in his eighties or nineties. He walked with the help of a crooked stick. At his feet was a black and white collie dog, hunched up and looking as if it was going to spring, and treat me like one of the sheep that would be shooed into the field. ‘I missed my bus, and got a lift to this spot’, I replied. I just did not want a lecture on the hazards of hitching. I had just had an insane night, and didn’t even want to talk too much, especially since I knew that I shouldn’t have been hitching.

‘What kind of yob would leave you at the top of the hairpin bends? And in the dark! And at this hour! Sure, you’ll never get a lift from here. Best move beyond the bends, where the straight bit starts’. He talked very quaintly ‘And if I were you, take my advice! You shouldn’t be on your own looking for a lift, again. Too dangerous! Too many strange characters!’ ‘Thanks’. I replied, and started to walk up the hill. For some reason I looked behind and asked him ‘what’s  that field at the bottom of the hill?’ He gave a peculiar look, and asked ‘Why do you ask?’ ‘No reason in particular’. I explained sheepishly. He put his hand firmly on the gate to steady his old frame. Looking down at the field, the farmer pointed, with a furrowed frown on his face ‘That field is a private cemetery of the Howard-Leaches. When the owner’s young wife and new born son died, they were interred in the family vault, but body snatchers took the corpses.  Then the young husband acted totally out of character’. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, while feeling absurd on the top of the road, in the dark, asking this unfamiliar farmer these strange questions. The farmer was a bit agitated and began giving more of the story. ‘His wife had died and soon after the family physician said the infant was also sick. The father Randolph Howard Leach maintained that the baby boy was not sick. The physician’s wife took the motherless child to their house, on the evening that the mother died. There a wet nurse attended to the infant. ‘I stared, and asked ‘What could be wrong with that?’ The old man, looking very weary, replied ‘Randolph never saw his little son’s dead body. For some reason, he suspected that their ‘good friend’ the physician was not being honest. ‘Why?’ I asked with amazement. The old farmer scratched his ears and carried on talking, as he was becoming invigorated by this tale. ‘He did quite a lot, to be honest. He went to the cemetery one stormy evening, much like tonight strangely enough, and saw that Dr. O’Shea Sullivan met with a well-known criminal, in the cemetery. Randolph listened to their conversation, while discretely standing behind  the wall of the cemetery,  and guessed that there was more to this than body snatching. Randolph was enlivened, and  fired three shots with his hand gun, two into the head of the physician, killing him instantly, and the third into the stomach of the grave robber, from which that man died many months later from an agonising and infected wound’. With that the old man began to stare at nothing in particular. Then he gave himself a shake, almost like his dog. ‘It’s very late, young lady, off you go; reminding one of these sad tales does no one any good; it was such a very long time ago, indeed, a very long time ago; history now, to be sure’. With that he seemed to get bothered, as he walked slowly back from where he came, followed by his dog. He looked a very sad figure. As he vanished through the gate way, he raised his arm with the stick, waving it, and feebly called after me ‘dangerous people on these roads, mind yourself and no more hitching!’

I felt safe again, with his kind and calm words. I took one breath of relief and got to the top of the last hairpin bend quickly. It must have been near ten pm at this stage. I had just arrived at the beginning of the straight bit, when a black jaguar saloon car stopped. An older suited man was returning to the city. He was a pharmacist. He was very kind, and told me several times the dangers of hitching. He did not want to see me hitching again. In half an hour, he had dropped me to the door of my home, and security. I never told him, nor my family about the old farmer, or what had happened in the first car, or in the cemetery. As the years went by, my thoughts and some of the memories had faded; I had often thought of the man with the unforgettable long narrow face, who was driving the Citroen. I had often kicked myself for not memorising his car registration number. Then I thought of young Randolph and his wife and their baby, and the physician. I had thought of those two kind men, who helped me to get home, the pharmacist and the farmer; people like that removed the evil of the world from my thoughts and gave me immense inner consolation. I felt that I had been so fortunate in many ways that night, and obviously never hitched a lift again.

Many years later when my own twelve year old son, Jonathon, was in the local public library, carrying out some research for a local history project for school, he found an article in an old newspaper about a family called the Howard-Leaches. I had never mentioned the story to him, and had never heard of the Howard-Leach family since that night, years earlier. It was about the conviction for murder of one of this family, a Randolph. With interest, I asked him why he was researching this family. Jonathon whispered with a scary face, ‘Mum, Ghost stories!’ Puzzled, I replied. ‘What do the Howard-Leaches have to do with ghost stories?’ Delighted with my interest, he whispered with great enthusiasm. ‘You know these people?’ ‘Not really’, I said quickly. He continued reading from the newspaper ‘A ghost is seen late on  summer nights, in fact around the anniversary of Randolph’s wife’s death, walking the road, with his sheep dog, always hoping to tell people that his infant son never died’. I looked at Jonathon, my mouth open. With a grin Jonathon continued  in a low spooky voice ‘He was convinced that his only infant son was sold for a huge sum by a medical doctor, Thomas  O’Shea Sullivan  to people in America, to be reared, by a proper family of father and mother, or so it was told by a widow living in the area, a Mrs. Pilkington.   The death of Randolph’s beloved wife, Augusta Phillipa was caused by smallpox, but the greedy physician thought it fitting that the baby be sold, so he feigned its death, also from smallpox. Dr O’Shea Sullivan refused to allow anyone, even Randolph, husband and father, see the corpse of mother and son, saying it was for fear of contraction and the onset of an epidemic of the deadly disease. The pair was speedily entombed in the family vault, the funeral services taking place at some later date’.

As Jonathon continued reading out the story, his voice faded as I thought of the three shots fired in the cemetery that night, many years ago. ‘Mother, are you listening?’ Jonathon was saying, as the librarian gave him a glare. ‘So Randolph was imprisoned for shooting the physician, and his accomplice, Mr. Pilkington?’ I queried. Jonathon looked up and gave a frown. ‘Aw Mom, you have read this before!’ I laughed ‘No, just good at guessing! So what became of Randolph?’  Jonathon was delighted that I couldn’t guess everything, so he went on ‘Many years later he was released, penniless and homeless. By then he was a very old man. He lived in an outhouse, on the top of the hill overlooking the cemetery, where his beloved Augusta Phillippa lay. That poor chap Randolph must have been demented’.  Stunned, I replied, placing my hand on Jonathon’s shoulder ‘Yes, indeed, my love, he most certainly must have been extremely demented, the poor man’.

2014-2020. Catryn Power. All rights reserved.

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