A short Christmas ghost tale for my regular readers – Have a fabulous Solstice/Yule/Christmas and prosperous 2020!
Anne Boleyn’s Last Ride
Back in 1971 most pubs closed at midday on Christmas Eve but as luck would have it our local wasn’t one of them. And so it was that, at 8pm, we slouched, in relative good mood, across the bridge over Carshalton ponds; past the Vinyl works that, in honour of the season, was not belching its usual fumes into the air from the far bank of the Wandle; and into the Lord Palmerston Public House.
As always we avoided the spit and sawdust, because even we bikers had standards. In the saloon bar a battle-scarred bar top reflected one solitary strand of coloured lights strung above it, and the carpet’s bi-annual clean ensured that it pulled slightly less stickily at our boots. Yet, despite its shortcomings, entering the Lord Palm, with its dim light and beery fumes and welcoming warmth, was like sliding into comfy slippers.
Most of the regulars were sprog-wrangling in their own homes, but at the far end of the room, Charlie Hooper was pounding away at the piano, belting out old sing-along tunes accompanied by his brother Ron, on a solitary snare drum.
‘Ev’nin’ lads. Usuals?’ Margaret, never to be called Maggie – ever, was already pulling pints, and our table was soon covered with pint pots half-filled with bitter, accompanied by glistening bottles of light ale.
Someone, at some point, had began a round of Christmas ghost stories, most of which were less Christmas Carol, and more urban myths. You know the ones. Ghostly hitchhikers, ghostly black hounds, ghostly bloody Mary, plus one that more specific to the streets in which we lived.
‘Anne Boleyn’, said Robby, ‘haunts that water well, over by All Saints church.’
‘But All Saints weren’t even built when she got the chop,’ said Bill.
‘Ah, you do know that’s all to do with St Philomena’s?’ said Jigger George, waving in the general direction of St Philomena’s Convent. ‘That, and the headless coachman.’
The lads nodded sagely. In a world of metal turners and TV repair men? Jigger was the brainy one.
‘Cos,’ as Robby would say, ‘he plays violin for the BBC you know.’
It was an odd logic but nobody ever argued and they’d soon settled back waiting for Jigger to continue his pontification.
‘The legend has it,’ said Jigger, ‘that Henry VIII was staying at Nonsuch Park and was out hunting, when he happened to be passing St Philomena Convent, just as a bunch of Nuns and their pupils were coming out of the gates. Naturally Henry’s horse reared up at the sight of all them penguins, and the King fell off at Anne feet. Well, one look at her and he made the decision on the spot that he was going to marry the Boleyn girl. Of course we all know Boleyn was later executed in the Tower.’
‘So if she died in the Tower,’ said Bill, ‘what’s her ghost doin’ here?’
‘Legend goes on to say,’ Jigger replied with an edge of impatience, ‘that her loyal servants swapped Anne’s headless body for an unknown corpse, and dashed here with her mortal remains, so that her final wish to be buried in last place she’d been happy could be fulfilled. They drove hell for leather, bare minutes ahead of the King’s men. But as they crossed over the pond bridge the cart overturned and the servants were drowned. Poor Anne’s head was thrown free, and, on the very spot where it landed, a new spring rose high up into the air.‘ He leaned forward, lowering his voice to a spooky growl ‘And on cold, dark, nights the sound of ghostly horses can still be heard, racing toward the gates of St Phil’s, desperate to complete Anne Boleyn’s final journey.’ Jigger took a long swig of beer and grinned at the circle of faces around the table.
‘So who’s the headless coachmen?’ Bill said, bewildered, which wasn’t unusual.
Jigger chuckled into his beer, ‘Ah now that, my old mate, is another story.’
‘Time, Gentlemen! Time please!’ Margaret bellowed, over the loud clanging of an old ship’s bell. ‘I’m ‘avin’ none of yer hangin’ about tonight! Get yerselves ‘ome.’
There was no argument and we emerged onto the street a few minutes later straight into a wall of cold air that threatened to slap us sober.
We huddled on the pub steps in a ragged, leather-clad cluster, peering around us like a nest full of fledging crows, surrounded by the eerie, paleness.
In the hours that we’d been drinking the world had been turned white. Great globs of snow were swirling past us, obscuring both the Vinyl works and the river. Those street lamps still in view were mere globes of fuzziness. Snow had already obliterated the line between road and paving and there was not a single tyre track to mar its perfection.
Then, through the storm, came the muffled kerlumph-kerlumph of horses hooves on a snowy surface, and the chatter of harness, and rumble of wagon wheels. Alien sounds in the days of cars and buses yet unmistakable. And whatever logic was telling us? I doubt there was one of us, in that moment, who didn’t have Anne Boleyn on our mind.
The dark shape of a horses head, and the bulk of his body, and the low cart swaying behind him, gradually became clear. In the driving seat was a huddled figure, so swathed in scarves that his hat seemed to spring straight from his shoulders. We held our breaths as the apparition drew closer, and closer, until it halted a few feet from where the kerb should be.
And, for a tiny moment? There WAS a deathly silence, but for the shushing wind and the jingle of bit and bridle. Jigger’s tale of headless coachmen, however ridiculous, could not be held at bay.
‘Mind yer backs.’ Charlie and Ron shouted as they pushed past us and hoisted themselves into the back of their old dad’s Rag and Bone cart.
We watched them roll away, toward the Ponds and vanish into the whiteness and we were stunned into a new quiet; one which was finally broken by Robby.
‘Bugger me,’ he muttered. ‘I know old man Hooper think’s he’s a pearly King but where’re they gonna find some daft sod willing to be Anne Boleyn?’
(c) 2019 Jan Edwards. Not to be copied without permission