The clouds scud. There’s a moon up there somewhere, but it keeps vanishing. The same winds that tumble the skies are tossing the trees, whistling in their high boughs. When the moon creeps out for a moment or two, fat-bellied and gibbous, the shadows of thrashing branches snake and writhe across the road, black on white.
It’s a night for terror, if you are disposed to fear. But the women, rolling homewards, are immune, bold and carefree in drink. A little inebriation keeps most monsters at bay, and they are more than a little inebriated. They weave along the road, in each other’s arms for mutual support, their roaring songs and shrieks of inane mirth drowning out the sough and creaks of the gale.
Until they come to the bridge.
Just an ancient arch, that squeezes the road between its crumbling parapets. It spans the Arian stream, as it comes bounding down from the hills to join the deep, slow surge of the river. Beside the stream runs a track, stumbling onto the road at the half-buried milestone by the bridge.
The women pause to catch their breath, and they peer up, up steep-stepped track and spuming stream, into the darkness of rising woods, just as the moon comes out. An oak tree creaks above them, and as the moon comes out in all its melodrama, the woods emit a scream.
The women freeze. Drunken embrace becomes a holding of hands. Their eyes meet, as they struggle to remember. Was it this day, this All Hallow’s Eve a year ago, when the murder took place, up there by the dark chapel, in the secret meadow?
If they had been sober, they’d have taken to their heels, but they are drunk. Drunk enough to find courage in each other’s company and let their curiosity win the day. Chivvying each other on, they begin to scramble up the track, into the darkness of the trees, with nothing but the gush and chatter of the stream to guide them.
Panting, they reach the levelling of the path. They feel the bite of the wind on their faces, telling them they have reached the chapel glade. They wait, swaying, their exertions sobering them fast. And then, once more, the clouds rip apart, the moon floats free. A banshee scream splits the wind, echoing around them and there, in the black, gaping doorway of the chapel, a ghost flickers white and swoops towards them.
Drunkenness drains from them as they turn and flee, shrieking their terror as they trip and tumble down the track, the breath burning in their throats, the ice of hell clutching in their stomachs. Quivering and sobbing, they reach the bridge and hurtle on their way to the safety of Llanfechan, to tell their tale.
Well, that’s how the story goes. I expect the big, bold menfolk of Llanfechan mocked the terrified wives for their silly fancies, and boasted, over their ale, how they’d give any ghost something to wail about, but, despite their scorn, the story stuck, worming its way into the collective subconscious, until it has become gospel that on October 31st, the ghosts of the murdered lovers rise up to scream their grief and haunt the place of their cruel end.
It has become such a myth that no-one can now be sure in which year the unhallowed apparitions first appeared. Who were the drunken wives who first witnessed it? Betty and Val, rolling home after an evening of port and lemon. Or Kylie and Caz, too steeped in Bacardi and coke? Or perhaps some distant Hannah and Joan, tipsy on mead? Was the murder within living memory, or recorded in the miniscule print of some yellowing news sheet, or was it lost in the mists of history? No-one is certain, but the imprecision does nothing to undermine the appeal of the tale, because it is taken for a fact that this place is haunted.
Well, consider it, and ask yourself, how could it not be haunted? It just cries out for ghosts. It’s the way it’s formed. The Nant Arian bites deep into the rock, in its tumble from the hills, carving ravines and cataracts, but here it paused and runs still and sinister between two sinuous bends. The public footpath that takes energetic ramblers from Llanfechan to Blaenarian is a jumble of boulders and slithering slopes elsewhere, but here it spreads itself in the long grass of a hidden meadow, where the tangled trees, rearing up on either side, draw back sufficiently for the noonday sun to glint down on the rattling head of dried buttercups and campion, and the weaving weed in the dark green water. You can stand here and gaze into chiaroscuro greenery for minutes at a time before realising that you are watching a grey heron who in turn stands motionless, watching you, and you begin to wonder what other unseen eyes are fixed upon your shoulder blades.
In the cold dawn light, some unseen necromancer draws up mists from the whispering waters to drift spectrally into the brooding trees, and at dusk the darkness swells out from the surrounding curtain of foliage like a vampire, rising to engulf the slow and unwary.
But at night, ah, at night, when the moon’s rays, dissected and disturbed by the surrounding branches, creep across the meadow and cast long shadows in the bloodless unlight, then it is oh so easy to believe that ghosts walk here. Or run, or fall, or scream.
And then of course there’s the chapel. If you have a ruined chapel, how can you not have ghosts? Some say God came first and others suggest that it was the haunting of murdered souls in this spot that led to the chapel being built here in the first place, but now dell and chapel are fused inescapably, a brooding threshold into – something. The chapel is a ghost in itself; one ribbed archway, a broken pillar with acanthus leaves and a corner of crumbling wall where a hint of a carved face, gargoyle or saint, is no longer recognisable. It’s all so deeply engulfed in long-fingered ivy that the decaying masonry can hardly be traced any more. It was created for phantoms.
Which is literally true, exactly what the architect intended. Passing tourists, mistaking it for an ancient holy site, probably picture monks, hooded and hunched, progressing with candles and incense into the darkness of long-fallen vaulting, but it was actually put here, in its precisely ruined state, by Augustus Garwood, a Victorian landowner with a taste for Gothick revival, and a fancy for a pointless folly. The Garwood mansion, with its grand sweep, its stable blocks and servants’ quarters, has, ironically, disappeared under an industrial development and a council estate, but the silly contrived ruin, lost in the woods, stubbornly holds its own.
“Ruin” is how the Ordnance Survey map labels it, without passing judgement on its authenticity, and this secluded stretch of the river is called “Pwll Du.” But that’s just the map. To the locals it’s Hell’s Hollow. The name was coined by the Reverend Charles Williams, minister of the Baptist chapel in Llanfechan, who used the scandal of the murder to launch a diatribe against depravity and sin. The world has gained a more equivocal perspective on adultery and hell fire since then, but the name has stuck, thanks to the pleasingly sinister alliteration.
Perhaps our modern world has it right. Hell and its fires are an illusion that need not trouble us. But the murder that happened here was real, and speaking personally, murder is hell enough for me.
So this is the sad tale. Once upon a time, there was a farmer, stolid, taciturn, his soul rooted deep in stubborn soil rather than imagination, with nothing to offer his wife beyond a cold bed, scant board and an unending cycle of numbing dreariness. And there was a wife, far too young for him, trapped by the stark realities of her dry marriage and foolishly yearning, poor woman, for some immense passion to engulf her, some momentous throbbing fire, promising an impossible burst of joy and happiness. So of course there was the spotty-faced lover, too easily led by commonplace lust to think of caution, too confident in his all-conquering youth to believe he could be vulnerable.
Yes, the same old, same old triangle business. Shakespearian tragedy or grubby domestic implosion? How you see the tale depends on how it’s told. With the right sense of drama and timing, it can almost be heroic. Sad or silly, it was, of course, inevitable. The husband caught the lovers here in Hell’s Hollow and did what husbands of his mould were bound to do. He shot the lover dead and throttled the life out of his screaming wife.
An appendix to the tale suggests that the husband rounded off the tragedy by throwing himself into the river and drowning, never to be found. It could well be true. After the primeval deed, he probably would have embraced the simplistic finale of his own death.
The Nant Arian here is more of a stream with attitude than a seriously muscular river, but if there had been heavy rains with the waters in full spate, a man could be swept away, out to the estuary, into the anonymous depths of the ocean. In a wet autumn, the floods can run fast and furious.
What is beyond dispute is that on the night of October 31st, the gurgling, stifled screams of a murdered woman can be heard, as she is sucked into the eternal darkness of the chapel ruins.
It’s what people want to believe. Most of them, at least. There are a few party poopers who have to argue. Carl Evans, the local rationalist, naturalist and cynic, dismisses all believers as gullible hysterics. He’s convinced they are driven by a craving for the thrill of supernatural terror. You may well hear screams on October 31st, he’ll tell you, although spring would be more likely, that being the mating season for the barn owls that have colonised the old sheds of Jericho farm, just round the bend. But in spring, you are not expecting ghosts. In spring you’ll recognise the shimmer of white as owl wings, not as drifting shrouds of the dead, which is how it will appear at Halloween. Throw in the shrill night yowls of the foxes up in the woods beyond Pwll Du and you’re guaranteed a truly terrifying Hammer House of Horrors experience. Carl, being too rational for fear, has spent the entire night here on October 31st, keeping vigil with a flask of coffee and a copy of “The God Delusion.” He has photographed a barn owl swooping through the chapel arch, and recorded its eerie shriek, as incontrovertible proof of his theory.
Incontrovertible, that is, to anyone predisposed to agree.
Most people are predisposed to disagree, which has been invaluable to Huw Lloyd. He’s the enterprising publican at the Drover’s Arms. Huw doesn’t want a rational explanation. Anything but. He wants fear and loathing in Llanfechan. There’s nothing like a good tragedy, with a haunting to boot, to encourage business. It worked in Beddgelert, so why not here?
His cousin has produced a leaflet, the Legend of the Green Chapel, which is sold at the Drover’s bar, along with postcards of the ruins, and a particularly vinegary brew called Haunted Hops. In this leaflet, the story has acquired some not entirely substantiated colour. The real husband, his wife and her lover did have names of their own, common boring names to match their common boring lives, but forget that. They have transmogrified into the noble Lord Cynfael, the Fair Aelwen and the darkly handsome minstrel Elidir. In this version, the jealous Cynfael, cunningly enticing Elidir to hunt with him, speared the minstrel through the heart in Hell’s Hollow, and when Aelwen, creeping to their trysting place, came upon his bloodied corpse, she drowned herself in despair. Then the grieving Cynfael, repenting of his wrath, built a chapel on the site of his crime and lived out his days as a penitent hermit. And to this day Aelwen’s ghost can be seen, drifting, dripping, in the meadow in search of her slain lover.
Yes, well. Tourists lap it up – as long as Carl isn’t around to pour scorn on it. And he is no longer around, in the Drover’s Arms, because the difference of opinion between landlord and sceptic became so heated, one evening, that it came to blows, and Carl has been banned ever since. The Legend of the Green Chapel is now unchallenged in the pub, and, told with the right verve, it sounds good, poetic even. The pamphlet’s illustrations, drawn by Huw’s cousin’s art teacher wife, have Lord Cynfael wearing full armour, Aelwen in an improbable steeple hennin and Elidir wrestling with a harp.
Well, why not? It could easily be a mediaeval tale. The day is fixed, but the year of the murder is very much a moveable feast. There are plenty of locals at the bar who’ll assure visitors that the ghosts are real. Aelwen has been seen, the screams have been heard. If they haven’t seen or heard for themselves, the locals will swear that they know someone who has.
Don’t mock. I may sound disparaging, but I’m not going to challenge anyone’s certainties. Because, you see, I have heard screams. And I really have witnessed the lovers – their passion and their terror.
Though I know more of the truth than ever comes across in the gothic retellings, I don’t scorn the desire for romantic inaccuracy. The period may be wrong, but what does the passage of time matter?
To the dead, nothing, that’s for certain. Once the threshold of eternity is crossed, there is no measure of years. For the living, time is equally irrelevant when it comes to atavistic terror, to the wolves that lurk under the child’s bed, the hoodied muggers concealed in black alleyways or the unspeakable menaces that creep among the graves in dark church yards. Such terror is not a thing of any particular moment. It stems from a perpetual pulse in the blood, a desire for fear that keeps the oxygen in circulation. The living crave the imprecise touch of the phantom icy finger on their spine, the instinctive creep between the shoulder blades, the unexplained unknown.
It is a timeless need, like all our basic urges. Just like the urge to swoon in ecstasy in another’s arms, with no thought for time or place. Perhaps that is the reality of ghosts. More than rationalist Carl will admit but less than opportunist Huw would like. They are our need for fear, coagulating around our dark desires. The stronger the desires, the more they linger, the life force that once impelled them driving them still, when all else has dissolved. The desire that once drove lovers here to this meadow, drives them still, year upon year, their urgency drowning out all whispered caution.
So that is how I come to see lovers in this haunted dell, how I come to hear their sighs, their groans in the creaking of the trees, to catch their sweet muttered endearments and their shrill gasps, as the wind soughs through the branches and gives voice to their timeless urgency. Year upon year, they come, lured out of the darkness into the moonlight, compelled by the nature of the beast. They can’t keep away; the Toms and Marys, the Waynes and Tracys, the Liams and Jades. I see them, sneaking in to grope and grunt where they think no one will be watching.
Except that I am watching. Always. I see them – and sometimes they see me.
That’s when they start to scream, as they flee from the meadow, wilted, semi-naked and pimply with terror.
I have seen them run, heard them scream, so that is how I know I must be real.
I don’t scream. Well, only on October 31st. That’s when they really wet themselves. I don’t know why I do it. Perhaps because, in the midst of all the myths and false memories that have drowned out the dull, squalid reality of my brief life, it is all that’s left of the truth.
All that is left of me.