Christmas at Scarhelldeath Hall Part 3


Chapter 3

And so it was! This spectral phantom was none other than that of our long-dead headmaster, the Rev Jethro Maestri! Heaven knew how many donkey’s years it had been since he’d popped his clogs, but here he was again – from beyond the grave!

The glowing ghost turned its baleful eye in my direction. ‘Stirling Major!’ it ululated. ‘Wretched boy! Still showing ye little boabie for thrupence to the other boys’ in the bushes, eh?’

I was outraged. Can one sue the dead for slander?

‘When I’ve finished with it, ye posterior will be hotter than the depths of hell!’ the grisly apparition snarled.

‘And you’d know, I presume, Maestri,’ I retorted, irked by its defamatory imputations.

The shimmering ghoul pointed a bony finger at Noddy. ‘Ye will leave my school, ye feeble Sassenach, ‘it wailed. ‘All of ye. And if ye don’t, I will set all the smoking demons of hell onto ye, with their pitchforks and red-hot pokers and emery boards and very sharp scissors. Ye will suffer a doom ye can only dream about in your worst nightmares.’

‘But why?’ I asked. ‘Why should Nod… Reverend Nodward-Holder leave? What’s he done to upset you?’

The luminous spook didn’t reply specifically, but let out an unearthly wail. ‘Begone! Begone! Before ye regret it.’

At this, the ghost stopped glowing and we were left in pitch darkness. Someone lit a candle on the Head Table. Even by this feeble light, we could see the ghastly fiend had vanished.

No-one spoke. Noddy stood up, his legs obviously wobbly beneath him. ‘Go to bed boys,’ he commanded. ‘And remain there until morning. I will find out who is behind this… ludicrous joke and they will be punished.’

The boys fled, all fighting each other to be the first through the doors.

Noddy turned towards the Masters at the head table… but they too had left, even the decrepit old boy must have hauled up his gown and scarpered.

‘Matron, if you would kindly check that the boys are tucked up.’ Matron, sphinx-like as ever, stood to go. ‘And maybe best if you lock them into their dorms, eh?’ She nodded and left.

Noddy looked at me, despair in his watery eyes, his mutton-chops drooping with the angst of it all.

I poured Noddy and myself hefty glasses of Scotch. Not the best vintage, I noted, and Budgen’s own brand. Noddy’s study was reasonably cosy, but the furniture was threadbare, and the room was lit by the omnipresent candles. Did they even have electricity in the place, I wondered? Did we even have it in my time? For the life of me I couldn’t remember.

A small fire flickered in the grate, but by the feebleness of the flames, it had less than an hour’s life left in it unless fed with a small tree at the very least. Another portrait of the deceased – but not resting – Rev Jethro hung behind Noddy’s desk. The rancid heathen must have spent half his life posing for artists. No wonder the old narcissist refused to lie down dead.

We sat in frayed armchairs in front of the fire and supped our Scotch. Inferior booze it may have been, but by God, it hit the spot.

‘So what the hell is going on, Noddy?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, Puffball,…’ he started.

‘None of that,’ I warned him. I never cared for that nickname back in the day, I certainly wasn’t going to tolerate it now.

‘Sorry, Puff… Stirling.’ He took a deep glug. ‘Frankly, Scarhelldeath Hall is dying on its arse. Parents just don’t want to send their little buggers to schools like ours any more. Can’t blame them. I wanted to make the place more progressive, but Dorcas won’t let me. Says it’s our duty to keep the faith, and that brutal discipline and cabbage is more vital than ever.’

‘I don’t remember you having a sister back in the day, Noddy.’

‘Oh, I didn’t. Noddy poured us both a another generous helping of the filthy muck. ‘Half-sister actually. Result of one of Pater’s illicit leg-overs. We only connected recently, long after the old man bit the dust.’

Interesting.

‘I’d worked here since after the war,’ Noddy continued. ‘Worked my way up from the bottom – PE and games – to Deputy Head. Did a correspondence course to get my Reverence which was a pretty crucial title if one wanted to be a Head back then. No intention of staying long-term, but I got stuck, you know.   Old Man Maestri died without issue…’

‘What happened to that odd sister of his?’

‘Oh, that poor creature had long since gone to meet her maker. Smallpox, I believe. I bought the Hall from his estate. For a song. My plan was to make success of it, do it up, sell for a profit, then bugger off to warmer climes to see out my days supping Pina Coladas in a hammock while my thighs were caressed by dusky maidens.’

‘Didn’t work out like that.’ He sighed. ‘And I expect you’re wondering about Nodworth-Holder Minor. Much like Dorcas, he was the by-product of a crafty knee-trembler. Local girl. Pretty. Worked here as a cleaner. Christmas party, too much Scotch, kilt ended up over my head – mine, not hers, unwise fumble in the pantry, she ends up with a bun. I offered to marry her, but she declined. Shame, she was nice. Upshot was that as soon as the boy reached school age, she parcelled him up and posted him to me, then vamoosed. Last seen auditioning for one of these ghastly talent shows on the box. An acrobat, I believe.’

I stared at the hideous painting of Maestri. He was in full Highland dress, his foot on a dead stag which he’d obviously bludgeoned to death, judging by the blood-soaked shillelagh. Impressive thing to do with no arms.

Wait a minute, no arms….

‘And Jethro? When did he pop up again?’

‘A couple of weeks ago. On top of everything else – diminishing customers, electricity being cut off, the roof of the east wing being blown off in a storm – his manifestations were the final straw. A third of the boys just scarpered. Can’t blame them really. Boarding school’s bad enough without the supernatural giving more grief.’

Personally, I think the paranormal would have enlivened my own schooldays up no end, but I didn’t have to heart to contradict him.

‘Anyway, this is the end.’ Noddy slurped down the last of his drink. ‘End of term tomorrow. I’ll write to the parents telling them not to bother sending the little buggers back after Christmas. Then I’ll sell. Won’t get much, but hopefully enough to buy a small maisonette down south. Bexhill perhaps?’

I shuddered.

He stood up, slightly uncertainly. ‘Bed now. Hmm, that whiskey has given me courage. If I encounter that wretched phantom in the corridors I shall bally well give him a bunch of fives. Got everything you need?’

‘Yes, thank you, Noddy. I’m coming up myself.’

‘That’s a clever trick for a chap of our age.’

‘Ah, there’s the old Noddy,’ I thumped him on the back. He staggered. ‘Trouser on, old chap, it’ll all work out in the end. I say, mind if I use your phone before I climb the wooden hills?’

‘Be my guest. Bit late though.’ He giggled. ‘Late night banter with your latest bit of stuff, eh?’

‘No, just a quick word with my secretary.’

‘At this hour?’

‘Oh, she won’t mind.’

I made my up the stairs to bed, diminished whisky bottle in hand, lugholes still ringing from the blasting that Cilla, my secretary, had just given them. Just because I telephoned her during ‘the jungle’ – whatever that is.

I’d enjoyed a brief snoop around after Noddy has left me. Well, as much as one can snoop in a building in which every single floorboard creaks. Even my stealth training couldn’t overcome that. What I’d found had intrigued me, one object in particular which was now nestling in my pocket. My suspicions were aroused.

My only light was by a half-used candle. The dripping wax had already scalded my hand twice. The guttering of the flame caused shadows to dance on the gloomy walls. I was taken back to midnight raids on the kitchen in my childhood, although then we dared not use a candle lest we been seen by any prowling teacher. To be honest, none of us were ever so hungry that we wished to brave the long and spooky trek to the kitchen in the dark, but either one would be dared to do so, or an older boy would demand a midnight feast be brought to him – or else one’s head would be dunked in the outside privy.

I suddenly heard the squeak of a floorboard behind me. I ground to a halt, stood very still and listened. Another very faint creak.

I spun around. ‘Show yourselves!’ I commanded.

Continued here….

To hear Sir Desmond at work go to http://www.whatnoise.co.uk

Read my memoirs THE DEVIL TALKS THE HINDMOST

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