The House at Gallants Bower
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it darling?” My mother asked, patting me on the leg.
“It’s quiet,” I replied, staring out the car window as the rocky cliffs whizzed by.
“I think it’s a great place to make a new start,” she replied sternly as if she was trying to convince herself more than me. “How many of your friends back home can say they get to live on the same road as a castle?”
“We’ll never know, we will? They’re still back home.”
“Now, dear… there’s always Skype. And I put that international plan on your cell phone, so you can still text your little heart out.” She let out a little gasp as she slowed the car, pointing to the looming building on the road just below. “Well, now. They just don’t have places like that back in America!”
I leaned forward a little, putting my elbows on the dashboard of the tiny car. Several massive towers protruded from the cliff face spotted with cavernous holes. Although they once held cannons, the empty spaces now looked like gaping mouths, ready to swallow you whole if you dared come too close. Jagged rocks jutted up from the dark blue waters, as waves crashed onto their deadly spear-like surfaces.
“If you ask me, it just looks creepy.” The place gave me an uneasy feeling. While it was clearly a popular tourist destination, the clichéd English rain had chased away all of the history buffs – leaving the castle barren once more. My mother made a tsk noise with her mouth, before steering the car away from the gloomy turrets, following the winding road up into the wooded area that lay ahead.
Image Courtesy www.thetimes.co.uk
After a few moments of quiet, the car turned off the narrow road and slowed to a stop. In front of us stretched an old, two-story cottage, much longer than it was tall; its emerald green shutters and doors a stark contrast to the dingy white of the walls. While surprisingly maintained, the domicile was clearly older than anything they had back in the States. I opened my car door, pulling my wooly cardigan tightly around my neck. The English rain was chilling to the core and the wind whistled through the woodlands surrounding the property, adding an eerie factor to the already sinister setting.
“Come on, Kat,” my mother called from the green doorway. “You’ll catch a cold if you stand in this rain!” She disappeared inside, leaving the door standing open. There was something off-putting about the place. Shaking away the tingle that had begun creeping down my spine, I pulled one of my bags from the back seat and headed inside.
After the rain cleared, and we unloaded the car, I tried to settle into the room I had selected. The house, now owned by the National Trust as a historical landmark, was built in two parts – the original house, which had once belonged to a local fisherman, and the new addition, added when the National Trust took possession of the property. I took a room in the new addition upstairs; but the kitchen, sitting room, and bathroom were all located in the original portion of the home – a vast change to our split floor plan in our home back in Florida.
After my father had passed last year, my mother began searching for a new job. She came across a position as a caretaker for historical homes in Europe. Before I knew it, she had uprooted my entire life and brought us to Dartmouth – a small fishing village buried in the southern tip of England. I guess she thought a change of scenery would do us good. I suppose it could have been worse; although, I’ve never lived in a historical home before. Hell, I’ve never lived in a house that was older than 1970. Being able to say we have a new addition did seem pretty cool, but it was too early to tell.
With my unpacking finished, I picked up my book and tried to read but the heavy rain beating against my window made it hard to concentrate. I’m not used to long rains and this had been coming down in buckets since we had arrived in the country without any signs of letting up. I walked to the window and peered out, pressing my face against the icy cold pane to filter the light from behind me.
All I could see was darkness.
I could make out the outlines of the trees, crowded around the home as if leering at us; waiting to jump on the home and devour it as soon as we weren’t paying attention. I pulled the thick drapes closed and headed downstairs.
My mother had headed off to her bedroom hours ago. I knew she was tired, but the time difference hadn’t caught up with me yet. Maybe it was the drastic change in housing arrangements, but I was wide awake. Besides, the house gave me the willies. I wasn’t sure I could sleep in this place, even if I wanted to. As I made my way down the stairs, I noticed that the wood felt colder underneath my bare feet the closer I got to the bottom. I stopped on the last stair, breathing into my hands to warm myself up. The temperature had dropped drastically from the top of the stairway. It was an old house, perhaps the upstairs was insulated and down here wasn’t?
As I stepped down out of the stairwell, a wall of cold air hit me. The air felt thick, almost suffocating, and it carried a chill that cut right through me. I no longer felt alone. A creak echoed from the dark edges of the room, causing me to jump.
“Mom?” I called out into the shadows. “Mom, is that you?”
“Mom?” I reached out, my hand fumbling for a light switch. The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up as I turned to face the wall, both hands scrambling across its surface in search of the lever. Just as my fingers found the hard plastic of the light switch, a freezing gust of air slammed into my body pushing me against the wall. I flicked on the switch and a dim light illuminated a small portion of the room, casting menacing shadows across the floor. White sheets were still flung across the antique furniture making the place look like it could have been the inspiration for The Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World.
“Hello?” My voice cracked. I slowly stepped deeper into the faintly lit room. “Who’s there?”
Suddenly, an appalling smell floated up around me. It smelled like a wharf; a combination of fish and salt water. The smell seemed to circle me, and a strange sensation crept across my shoulders – as if an icy hand was running its fingers across my neckline. I stepped backward towards the stairs, keeping my face towards the shadowy ends of the room. The overpowering smell seemed to follow, moving with me as I receded. Feeling the hard stoop of the staircase against my heel, I maneuvered myself onto the step without looking behind me. The minute both feet were on the first step, the smell dissipated as quickly as it had manifested. I didn’t stop to think about it and bolted up the stairs, leaving the light on in the peculiar room below.
When I awoke the next morning, the rain had slowed to a thin drizzle. A fog had set in, rolling across the sheer cliffs like a murky cotton candy blanket. Looking out of my window, I could just make out the towers of the castle below – once intimidating, they appeared to be trying to claw their way out of the foreboding layer of dense fog.
“Seriously creepy,” I muttered. I got dressed – opting for skinny jeans and a black, turtleneck sweater –and headed downstairs to find my mother. The sitting room, the room at the bottom of the stairs, was filled with natural light this morning. The eerie white cloths had been removed from the furniture, revealing a chaise lounge, several wing-backed chairs, a few small tables, and a piano. The furthest wall of the room was more window than wall, while the surrounding walls were lined with overstuffed bookshelves. In the morning light, the room appeared to be charming, albeit a bit stuffy – more like a museum than a home.
Despite the altered appearance of the room, I still moved as quickly as I could through to the kitchen on the other side of a large wooden door. I found my mother with a coffee pot in hand, pouring the dark liquid into two cups. The kitchen seemed to fit my mother. The modern appliances were an interesting contrast to the white-washed brick of the original design. The counters were made of large, hand-cut stone slabs set delicately atop carefully crafted wooden cabinetry.
“Oh good, you’re awake.” She pushed a cup across the stone surface. “You look tired. Did you not sleep?” I quickly began a detailed narrative of the events that took place the night before. My mother sat quietly, taking it all in. When I finished, she took a long sip of her coffee. “It was probably just a draft, honey.”
“What about the smell?” I stammered, slightly annoyed that she didn’t believe me. Of course, until last night, I wouldn’t have either.
“The house has been shut up for quite some time. It’s just stuffy.”
“That smell was not there when we got here yesterday, and it’s not there now!” I rebutted.
“It’s an old house, Kat.” She rinsed out her mug, setting it into the deep farm sink before crossing to the doorway. “There will be all sorts of funny things around here. You’ll get used to it. Anyway, I’m going down to the shop to pick up some supplies. Why don’t you check out the rest of the house?” With that, she disappeared.
I managed to go the entire day without any unexplained gusts of cold air or bizarre aromas. Mom and I busied ourselves unpacking, dusting, and sweeping floors and before we knew it, the sun had set. We had a quick dinner of fish n’ chips from one of the street vendors along the River Dart and watched the waves smash against the sides of the sailboats dotted across the water. After we finished eating, we headed back to the house and mom decided to call it a night.
Alone in my room again, I settled down under the oversized down comforter and attempted to read again. Luckily, the rain had stopped and the room was deathly silent. Sometime into the second to last chapter, I must have dozed off because I awoke several hours later; my book strewn across my chest and a painful crick in my neck from being in an awkward position for too long. Slipping my feet out from under my toasty blankets, I tossed my book onto the Victorian nightstand and began to rub the side of my neck. I’m sure mom has some aspirin downstairs, I thought.
Once at the bottom of the stairs, I hesitated.
It’s just a draft, Kat. I continued to repeat my mother’s words over and over inside my head as I placed my feet on the cool, hardwood floor.
A sigh of relief escaped my lips, and my tense muscles relaxed as I moved across the room to the kitchen. Several cabinets later, I found a travel sized bottle of aspirin. I popped two capsules into my mouth, threw back a swig of water and swallowed. Knowing they wouldn’t take effect for at least a half hour, I decided to peruse the bookshelves in the sitting room. I was getting close to finishing mine and there were no TV hookups installed in the house.
The bookshelves were amazing – they had everything from classic novels to old, handwritten journals crammed onto the shelves, which were too small to hold the extensive quantity. The shelves were lined with books of all sizes; some standing upright in a tidy line, while others were laid down and piled four or five high. I ran my index finger along their spines – searching for a title that jumped out at me – until I noticed that the putrid aroma had crept back into the room. I stood still, my finger in place on the last title; which just happened to be Melville’s Moby-Dick. The salty smell began to fill the room, overpowering the musty smell of the old books. As the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise, the stench of salt water and fish swirled around me before settling into a block of reeking air directly across from where I stood.
Okay, not a draft.
Suddenly, a chill flashed across my exposed arms and one of the books fell from shelf in front of me, landing at my feet with a muted thud. In an instant, the odor was gone. I bent down, my eyes sweeping the room, and picked up the item that lay on the ground. It was a tattered, stained, leather-bound journal. Obviously very old, the pages were yellowed and fraying. I cautiously opened the cover, the loose pages inside groaning in disagreement. The words splashed across the fragile pages were hand scrawled in an aged cursive. Clearly someone’s diary, the date scratched across the top corner of the first entry read The 3rd of October, 1643. Intrigued, I slammed the book shut and rushed upstairs to the safety of my creepy-odor-free room.
“What’s that?” My mother nodded at the dilapidated journal lying on the counter next to my coffee mug.
“It’s a journal.” I picked it up, turning it sideways, then placing it gently back down. “I found it on one of the bookshelves in there… Or rather, it found me.”
“A journal - that sounds boring.”
“Actually, it’s quite interesting. I’ve almost finished it.” I pushed it across the counter towards her. “I think it’s someone that used to live here – in this house. He was a fisherman back in the 1600s. He talks about surviving horrible storms at sea only to come back to a civil war right here – just up the hill at Gallants Bower.”
“Why don’t we go check that out today?” She said, scanning through the pages.
“Sure, that sounds great.” I replied.
Later that afternoon, we followed a walking trail that led from the back of the property directly to the top of the hill where Gallants Bower was located. The ruins of the fort sat like a crown atop the steep hillside, reminding visitors of the horrific scar in English history. The slopes surrounding the fort are heavily wooded with a public walking path carved into the imposing tree line, adding an ominous feel to the location.
We explored the area, but I quickly ushered us home after we had seen every corner. The place made my spine tingle and I didn’t want to dawdle, despite my interest in the history behind the location. It was as if you could feel the souls of the damned trying to climb out from beneath the rubble. It made me long for the fishy smell of my friendlier apparition, which I had recently decided to name Fred.
Over the next few weeks, Fred’s spontaneous visits continued. I had tried time and time again to talk to my mother about them – but she would just shake her head and walk away. She seems to think I’m stuck in some horrible cycle of grieving. I learned quickly to make sure mom isn’t in the room when I say hello to Fred, which seemed to make the stench disappear. I’ve seen the looks; I know she’s worried about me. It doesn’t help that in all the time she’s spent in the sitting room, she’s never experienced the fishy smell or gusts of cold air. Fred only seemed to appear when I was alone downstairs. But recently, Fred has been getting a little rambunctious.
The last several nights, I’ve been woken up by Fred banging around downstairs. While he doesn’t seem to be able to come into the new addition of the house, he has recently started making a lot of noise. It’s a good thing mom is a heavy sleeper! Every night, Fred has taken it upon himself to throw a section of books onto the floor. It’s the same thing every night – the same section of books end up in the exact same location on the floor, almost as if he’s trying to tell me something.
So far, I’ve managed to clean it up every night before mom could see it. I wouldn’t have a sane reason for why there were books piled on a particular spot on the floor every morning. She already thinks I’m going crazy – I don’t want to add to that fear. But, this morning was different.
“Kat?” I heard my mother yelling from downstairs. “Kathryn – come down here now!”
Sleepily, I flipped open my cell phone to check the time. What could this woman possibly want at 7:30 in the morning? I slid out of the bed and made my way downstairs, still foggy from being awake so late last night, cleaning up after Fred. She was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.
“What am I supposed to do with this, Kathryn?” She was motioning behind her. Not sure what she was talking about, I leaned to the right to peer around her. Oh, my God. On the floor – in Fred’s favorite spot – was the stack of books. Only this time, they were laid out in a design… They spelled the word HELP. What have you done, Fred?
“I know you’ve had a hard time adjusting to your father being gone, and I know it’s been a culture shock moving half way across the world – but I don’t know what to do anymore, Kat. I can’t keep overlooking your strange behavior!” She rubbed her face with her hands. “I’m going to have to call someone – you need help, Kat.”
“No, mom – please!” I dropped off the steps and into the living room, pulling at her arms. “Please, I’m fine! I promise. I’m sorry, I’ll…” The icy fingers of Fred’s touch began to crawl up my arm as the strong fishy odor swirled around me. Not now, Fred, I thought to myself.
“I’m sorry, Kat.” She sighed. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
She pulled her cardigan around her tightly, as if she was chilly. “You need a shower, Kat. You smell like you’ve been out fishing all day.”
“Wait – you can smell that?” Suddenly, I got excited. This was the first time Fred had made an appearance with my mother in the room.
“Yes, it’s disgusting. Go take a shower.” And with that, she snatched her phone from one of the side tables and stormed out of the room.
“Thanks, Fred. Thanks a lot.” I said out loud. With a loud sigh, I bent down and picked up his cryptic message, placing the books back on the shelf. “Help… Help you how? You’re a ghost. What could you possibly need help with?” I slid the books back into their spaces on the shelf. As I reached up to replace the last book, I noticed the title running down the spine, beneath my fingertips. Ghosts, Hauntings, and Apparitions: a guide to helping your spirit friends. I sat down on one of the large, wing backed chairs and thumbed through the pages.
According to the chapter entitled Ghosts: Why they Haunt, Fred must have had unfinished business. From what I could understand from the text, spirits generally do not cross over when they have an issue that needs to be resolved, such as warning a loved one about impending danger, solving their own murder, or needing a proper burial. I wonder what Fred’s problem was? I quickly put the book back on the shelf and rushed into the kitchen.
“Mom, this place is a historical landmark, right?” I asked hurriedly.
“Well, yes.” She leaned against the counter with a puzzled look on her face. “It’s protected by the National Trust since it’s technically part of the original Gallants Bower.”
“So are there people in town that have experience with the house? You know, like someone who has lived here before?”
“Well, I suppose there’s the gardener.” She replied. “I was told he was familiar with the house in case we needed anything, because he had lived here as a child. He lives in the small cottage off to the side of the property – the one that looks just like this.”
“Thanks, mom,” I yelled over my shoulder as I raced upstairs to get dressed.
After a short walk through a field of blue bells, I came upon the gardener’s cottage. It was a smaller version of the main house; a single story with matching green shutters and a freshly painted green door. The door was a barn door and the top portion was swung open, revealing the innards of the dollhouse-like cottage. I tapped gently on the open portion of the door, leaning in slightly to look for movement.
“Hello?” I called into the room. There was no response. “Hello, anyone here?”
“Can I help you, my dear?” A tiny, frail voice called from the side of the cottage. I turned to see an elderly man, pushing a wheelbarrow full of dirt. He placed it down softly, wiping his hands on his tweed pants.
“Hi. Are you the gardener?”
“I supposed I am.” He motioned to the wheelbarrow, chuckling quietly to himself.
“Hi, I’m Kathryn. I live in the main house. My mom said that you grew up there – I was wondering if you could answer some questions for me.”
“Ah, you’re here about the fisherman.” He opened the bottom portion of his door, and shuffled inside. “You’d best come in, child.” After a cup of tea and some scones were laid out, the gardener turned his attention to my questions.
“What would you like to know?” He set his cup down and folded his hands on his lap.
“Anything you can tell me, I suppose. Who is he, where did he come from, how did he die?” The gardener began to weave a beautiful tale about the wealthy fisherman who had built The House at Gallants Bower. It was one of the most stunning houses in the village at the time of its construction. The fisherman was unmarried and had produced no children to inherit his fortune, which upset many of the town’s well-to-dos. Nobody wanted the property to fall into disrepair, as it sat on the most prominent hill of the village. No matter how much anyone tried to convince the fisherman to marry, he would claim that his heart was taken by one he could not have.
“So, he was in love? Why couldn’t he marry her?” I asked, thoroughly enthralled by the gardener’s detailed account.
“The rumors, according to letters and journals found many, many years later, implied that he was in love with a woman who was already married. Nobody was sure who, exactly, but it was thought that she was the wife of one of the well-to-dos; someone extremely important in the village.” He recounted.
“So what happened? Did he ever marry?”
“No. According to the town records, he simply disappeared. Shortly after the battle at Gallants Bower, it was said that he vanished. Some say he was lost at sea, others say he couldn’t handle the heartbreak of his love affair so he left town. With no legal heirs to the house and no inclination as to where the fisherman might be, the town council seized the property. They made some repairs, built the addition, and the house has belonged to the National Trust ever since.”
“So how do you know it’s his ghost?”
“The smell,” the gardener said. “The fishy smell appeared after the house was seized by the town council and it’s been there ever since, but only in the original portion of the house.”
“Is it possible that he was murdered?” I asked. The old man let out a chuckle.
“Well, anything is possible, my dear. Anyway, it was very long ago. I wouldn’t think another moment on it. Whatever, or whoever, that smell is, it’s harmless.”
Later that night, I sat on the edge of my bed rereading Fred’s journal. I felt a sorrow for this man who was unable to be with the woman he loved. I wanted to know what happened to him. Would he be able to tell me? I decided it couldn’t hurt to ask. After checking mom was in her room, I bounded down the stairs and was quickly greeted by Fred’s familiar odor and frosty air.
“What happened to you?” I called out into the open. “Were you murdered?”
A gust of ice cold air swept up from the floor, whirling its way around my body until my hair was blown straight up from my neck. My skin tingled with the cold, causing a shiver to run through my spine.
“I want to help you,” I replied, smoothing my hair back down into place. “You just have to tell me how.”
Books leapt one by one from the shelf, landing in a heap below.
“What is it with the books? I don’t understand.”
Bone-chilling air erupted from the center of the room, as more books leapt from their shelves. As the coolness enveloped the room, so did the smell, causing me to struggle against my gag reflex.
I spun around to see my mother standing on the bottom stair. Of course – how could she sleep through the mini-squall taking place in our sitting room? The house wasn’t that big.
“It’s okay, mom. He won’t hurt us!” N
ot sure that statement was any more comforting, I reached my hand out towards her. She rushed to my side, and held tightly to my hand.
“What is happening?” I could see fear in her eyes, as her hair whipped around her face.
“It’s the fisherman, from the journal I found.” I yelled over the flurry of wind still churning through the room. I turned my attention back to Fred. “Help me, Fred! Help me understand!”
As if on command, the books on the floor began to slide and shift, shimmying into formation. There, on the floor, was the word HERE. All of a sudden, I understood. It all made sense.
“I know what to do!” I called out into the cold. The blustering wind stopped and the room began to return to a comfortable temperature. I rushed out of the room, leaving mom standing there; obviously taken aback by what she had just witnessed. On the bright side, she no longer thinks I’m crazy.
I reentered the room with a tool bag I had pilfered from under the kitchen sink. I dropped it on the ground next to me and pushed the book-formed word out of the way. Digging out a hammer, I began trying to pry up the floor boards.
“What are you doing?” My mother yelled at me. I ignored her, ripping the boards from their positions and tossing them off to the side. After a moment of stunned silence, my mother plopped down on the floor next to me, and began to help. “What are we looking for?”
“I think he’s here.” I grunted, as I fought with a stubborn board. “I think he’s down here and he needs our help.”
Once we had made a large enough space, I began to dig through the exposed dirt with my bare hands. Just as I was beginning to think I was wrong, my fingers brushed against something smooth and hard. I paused, looking up into my mother’s worried face. Without saying a word, she thrust her hands into the soil and helped me uncover the object beneath my fingers. Within minutes, we were staring at a partially exposed human skull. I dropped my dirt-crusted hands onto my already ruined pajama pants and sat back.
“He was murdered.” I said, breaking the silence. I pointed to a large hole in the side of the skull, where he had clearly been hit with a hard object; a fatal blow. “He was in love with the wife of a town council member. The councilman must have used the addition as a way to renovate, hiding the body under the new flooring.” My mother reached across, resting her hand on my knee.
“I’m sorry, Kat.”
“It’s okay; I wouldn’t have believed me either.” I sighed. “He needs a proper burial, mom.”
With the help of the village, we buried Fred a few weeks later. The entire village came out to the ceremony, including the gardener and several members of the National Trust. It was a beautiful service. Although I felt pleased that Fred was now able to move on, part of me was going to miss him.
Mother and I still live in the house at Gallants Bower, but we are no longer roommates with Fred the ghostly fisherman. Since Fred’s burial, the house has been quiet; no unexplained gusts of wintry air or fish smells that mysteriously move around the room. I still read Fred’s journal from time to time; often wondering if the woman ever knew what became of him, or if she too believed he ran away to sea. Over three hundred years of being trapped below his own floor, Fred roamed the house where he was brutally murdered. Finally, he was free. I only hope he was able to reunite with the woman he lost his life for.