I loved the garden the moment I first saw it. Overgrown, neglected, yet it had been loved once, and could be again. There were brambles as thick as my wrist everywhere, but underneath a few valiant plants struggled to emerge.
In the first year we spent time putting the house straight. After all, you live in the house for most of the time, not the garden. But the garden was my first love, and I dreamed of making it lush and fertile once again. Not for me the straight backed herbaceous borders, everything in its place and a place for everything, or the bowling green lawn that no-one’s allowed to walk on. No, I like a bit of wildness, a bit of the unexpected. Perhaps it’s the Celt in me. After all, the Welsh have a tradition that gardens should never be too tidy, there should always be a little corner set aside for Himself. Whoever He may be.
Likewise with sowing seed. As the old saying goes: One for the earth, one for the mice – and one for the Master.
It’s a mentality that takes hold all too quickly. The belief that someone else, the genus loci of the place if you like, is there, watching, nodding approval – or not, as the case may be. You can’t help yourself, it influences you, makes you a little more aware that you are only the caretaker, the trustee. You don’t own a garden. It owns itself.
And of course, everything in the garden conspired to produce beauty. Even the beech tree, at the bottom of the garden. Did you know that beech leaves make the very best leaf mould? All you need to do is pile them up and leave them to rot down. Couldn’t be simpler. No need to mess about with compost accelerators and all that, just make a bloody great tump at the bottom of the garden underneath the tree and leave ’em. Which I did.
At first Mr Penry didn’t like the slow worms that soon moved into the great gooey pile of copper and purple leaves. But then he likes slugs even less, so when I pointed out that slow worms hunt, kill and eat slugs, he was happy to leave the slow worms alone, provided of course that they reciprocated and left him alone. In fact, I think he’s beginning to lose his fear of snakey things since coming across a few of them while out in the garden.
Anyway, you begin to get the picture, don’t you? The garden was more than willing to work with us to make it beautiful again. All I had to do was read the signs, (plus a couple of well chosen gardening books) and with a minimum of effort there were flowers everywhere. I cleared away a load of old branches left at the bottom of the garden and suddenly there were golden daffodils in the spring and flaming orange montbretias in the autumn. I didn’t have to buy or plant anything. The garden took care of it.
Soon I began to see the garden as a separate entity. It had its mystical places, and we did our best to enhance these. A great wooden toadstool on the lawn became a place to sit and think. We made a well head and placed a Roman goddess to watch over it. We put up fountains, made a herb garden, a giant bird house. And the garden, I believe, was well pleased.
Now we hadn’t heard from the people who bought our old place since the first Christmas. I’d spent ages writing a history of their new home and its environs, complete with maps, references to nineteenth century street directories etc., and posted it to them, complete with a Welcome to your new home card and their response was – nothing.
Then just before Christmas, we had a card indicating their intention to visit. The cheek of it! I was furious, and so was Mr Penry. He was so mad he ripped their card up and stamped on it. I couldn’t blame him. They’d really made moving house hell for us. They’d fought and stalled every inch of the way. They’d even gone on holiday in the middle of things! We should have easily been able to move in so that the children could start at their new school on the first day of term. Instead it was three weeks into term before they set foot in the place. Starting a new school is hard enough anyway, the Moorcrofts had made it ten times worse, and I didn’t forgive them for that.
In the new year we began thinking about getting the hedge cut. The whole place is surrounded by a high laurel hedge and while it gives us a lot of privacy, it’s the sort of feature that’s liable to run amok if you’re not careful. I’d been giving it a bit of a trim myself from the inside, a snip here and there to keep it in check, but outside, what with the boundary wall and everything it’s about twenty feet tall and we knew we were going to have to get a professional in to sort it out.
It was while I was cutting the hedge, however, that I found the witch bottle. Just a small bottle, carefully tied into the hedge long so ago that the cord had bitten into the bark of the branch. Weird, I thought. But then we found lots of odd things here when we moved in. Stones with black crosses made of electrical tape.
At first I thought maybe they were grave markers, you know, the sort of thing kids do to mark their hamster’s grave. But there were rather too many, and in odd places. Like near the fireplace in the hall. Or out on the stone terrace (don’t tell me there’s a chinchilla buried under there cos I won’t believe you. It would be much too difficult to dig the flagstones up and then replace them.) And there were an awful lot of those stones with their black markers down near the bottom of the garden.
It was when one of my daughters finally got a computer that I finally discovered the significance of the bottle in the hedge. It is a witch bottle, put there to guard against ill wishing and bad luck. Most witch bottles are very old, and when I consulted the gentleman who is apparently the authority on such matters in the UK, told me that he thought the tradition had died out only to be revived in the last 5 – 10 years by the New Agers. That is, until I sent him my bottle.
Now he isn’t so sure because our bottle had obviously been in situ for a long time, yet not more than thirty years. So the tradition of witch bottles never did die out completely, as he had thought. It was alive and well in the Welsh Valleys. But why? What were the last occupants so afraid of?
Perhaps at this stage I ought to mention a bit about the history of our house. I’ve been up to the local reference library, copied maps, checked the street directories, all the usual stuff. The most interesting thing about the place is that it isn’t the first house on the site, there was another, much earlier on, built in what is now the front garden. The trouble is of course that unless I know its name I can’t begin looking up who lived there, though believe me, I’ve tried. The copper beech tree is marked in all the maps, just at the front of the house. Well, it must have been a lot smaller then. The fact is, though, the tree is much older than the present house.
The people who lived here before us were a bit of a funny bunch. I know, I’ve met some of them. As sanctimonious a shower as you would ever wish to meet, they only got the place because of their connections with the big old chapel in the next town and even then they had to pay through the nose for it. But that’s beside the point. What is relevant to our story is that they regarded themselves as God-fearing folk. Definitely not the sort to put up witch bottles. Not without good reason, anyway.
We, on the other hand, are cut from different cloth. Though Mr Penry has a degree in Divinity, God-fearing is not a phrase that springs to mind when you meet him. Irreverent, yes. Blasphemous, occasionally. But God-fearing? Well, not really. And then there’s Yours Truly. I’ve always been into the witchy side of things, even when I was a child. I celebrated Halloween when nobody else in the house ever did, and always felt there was something special about it, something which needed to be celebrated.
The house must see quite a difference from its previous inhabitants, which until 1960 were almost all Chapel clergy and their families. Crystals, runes, tarot, oh, and the ceremonial ringing of bells to purify the place every week. Quite a change.
Or is it? It all depends who lived in the earlier house, I suppose.
Anyway, to get back to the Moorcrofts. It was Mr Penrys fervent wish never to set eyes on the little bastard ever again, and for a while we didn’t. Though we never quite worked out why he bought our old house, it turned out to be quite an investment as house prices when the boom began and house prices went through the roof. Moorcroft stood to make more on our old house in two years than we had made in almost twenty.
Moorcroft should be pleased, said Mr Penry, the greedy little bastard.
But Moorcroft wasn’t pleased. Far from it. He began to pester us. First it was a phone call, vaguely rabbiting on about things we hadn’t told him and hinting that he would be taking legal advice.
Cheeky sod, said Mr Penry.
Then we got a letter. Matters had not been disclosed, it read, I shall be going to the High Court and Issuing a Writ.
Let him, said Mr Penry. I’ll tell him I’m a Judge.
And a good judge too, sang our merry band of children who were raised on a strict diet of Gilbert and Suliivan.
But I have to admit, I began to worry. Every morning when I went out to get the post, I kept looking for anything which looked vaguely legal. But nothing came.
Then we had another phone call from Moorcroft. Before moving he had asked us specifically whether the loft conversion we had had done back years ago had been fireproofed. We had told him it had (which was true, so far as we knew) and he said he now had proof that it wasn’t and would be suing for the costs of putting it right, plus legal costs and substantial damages for putting him and his family at risk.
I’ll put him at bloody risk if I ever clap eyes on the little shit, said Mr Penry.
And then – nothing. Not a word. No solicitor’s letter, no writ. Nothing. It was as though he was playing a game with us, piling on the pressure, taking it off, putting it back on again. It took the sunshine off my summer, I don’t mind telling you.
Months passed. Summer came and went, and not a word from Moorcroft. I wanted to contact Mr Martin, the man who’d done the loft conversion for us, but Mr Penry said we ought to sit tight and let Moorcroft make the first move.
That move came last week, in the form of another phone call. We ought to meet to discuss this, announced Moorcroft.
Sod off, said Mr Penry, only he didn’t say sod.
I will take you to court and I will win and you will have to sell your house and pay me everything, persisted Moorcroft, sounding more and more like a bad impersonation of the Demon King in a pantomime. Come and see me and we shall try to settle this before it gets to Court.
What is it you really want? I asked, snatching the phone away from Mr Penry who was just taking a deep breath to hurl obscenities at our caller. You had the house at a rock bottom price, it’s almost doubled in less than two years, for God’s sake! You could sell the place now and make a bloody good profit!
Why should I sell the ‘ouse? I do not want to sell it. In another two years Ill be able to make an even bigger profit!
So what do you want from us?
Come and see me, both of you, and we shall discuss a price. I am thinking of £20,000.
Mr Penry snatched the phone back. And I am thinking of strangling you, you arrogant little….And if you think I’m wasting my time coming down to see you –
Moorcroft sighed. Then I must come and see you. Tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock. And he put the phone down.
Well, we both knew we were in deep shit. We didn’t have £20,000, nor any means of raising it, not without selling the house. Besides, we were certain that the loft conversion had been properly done because the building inspectors had been out to check that everything met the current planning regulations. So what the hell was Moorcroft going on about?
He’s talking through his arse, said Mr Penry. By the time I’ve finished with him it’ll be the only place he will be able to talk through!
Neither of us knew what to do for the best. We still believed he was bluffing, but we also knew he was quite capable of ripping out any fire-proofing and then claiming it had never been installed just so he could claim damages. Although it was the end of October, it was a still warm and sunny so we sat out in the garden discussing it so the children didn’t overhear. There was no point upsetting them, at least, not until we had a better idea what was going to happen.
He’s got money worries, said Mr Penry, that’s what it is. He needs the money and sees us as a soft touch.
But if he goes ahead and takes us to court, I said, and if he wins…
He won’t win, said Mr Penry, he hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
But he might, He could have ripped out the fire proofing for all we know – who’d listen to us then? We’d have to sell up, and leave here…. I looked around sadly at the garden, wondering how I could ever bear to say goodbye to it.
If he has the nerve to turn up here tomorrow, I’ll kill him, said Mr Penry.
Then maybe you’d better stay out of the way, I suggested, and let me deal with him.
He probably won’t even turn up, said Mr Penry.
But Moorcroft did turn up. And promptly, too, just as the clock struck eleven o’clock. In he swaggered, all teeth and designer clothes, his beady eyes taking in everything as he looked around.
Nice house, he nodded.
We’ll talk outside, I said, it’s a lovely warm day. This was true. It was one of those rare days in October that makes you think winter won’t be quite so bad after all. Besides, I didn’t want him in our new home. That was one thing we’d promised ourselves when we moved here. It was to be a new start, nothing from the past would be allowed to taint it. Still, Moorcroft didn’t mind staying out in the garden, and we had plenty of benches where we could sit and discuss exactly what he had in mind.
Just so you know, I mean to have compensation from you, he announced, I will take you to court if I have to, but then the judge will award costs against you, and that will cost you much more. So – suppose we say you make a one-off payment of £20,000?
Upstairs I saw a curtain twitch in our bedroom window. Mr Penry was lurking there, listening to everything. Any minute now I expected a spanner to come flying out of the window and bounce off Moorcroft’s head.
We don’t have that kind of money.
Then you will just have to find it, won’t you?
Look Mr Moorcroft, I said, you know that loft conversion was a good job. It was fireproofed. You can’t prove otherwise.
He gave a small, cold smile. Oh, I think I could.
Only if you cheat.
He laughed out loud at that. But of course! I fully intend to.
We’re not paying you, I said. Not one penny.
Maybe I was getting jumpy, but I was sure I saw something move down the bottom of the garden, by the pile of leaf mould. Maybe it was the neighbour’s cat, I’d have to shoo it away later, before our Floss spotted it.
Moorcroft walked down the three stone steps that lead from the front terrace down to the main lawn. How do you feel about losing this place? You’ve done a lot of work to it, I can tell. And the garden especially is really very beautiful.
He wandered around, pretending to be interested in the bird table Mr Penry had made the first year we moved in, in the hydrangeas, the roses and hebes. But in reality all he was interested in was the money he thought he would make from us.
You don’t have a mortgage, do you? he asked suddenly. So why don’t you raise a mortgage on this house? Twenty thousand is nothing on a place like this.
We couldn’t afford to repay it, I said. We’d have to sell.
He shrugged. Well, this place is too good for people like you, anyway, I might even buy it off you. I could offer a good price.
Like the last time? If you think we’d ever do business with you again…
You don’t have a choice, Mrs Penry. I mean to have the money one way or another. He glanced around smugly. Yes, I think I would enjoy owning this place…. of course I’d put new windows in, and that hedge would have to go…much too gloomy, don’t you think? I could offer say – £45,000. You could pay me off and still have enough to buy a nice little terraced house somewhere.
And then either something really weird happened or I started hallucinating. A man stood up in the middle of the pile of leaf mould. A big man, easily Mr Penry’s height and build, he was covered in leaves, in his hair, over his face, his clothes, everything except his eyes and he began to move towards us. Moorcroft with his back to him, didn’t seem to notice.
It was like one of those dreams where you want to shout but when you open your mouth nothing comes out. Nothing came out of Moorcroft’s mouth either. One minute he was going on about making us pay, the next thing he was struggling with a gob full of leaves, retching and choking.
The creature – almost a man, but not quite – had hold of him around the neck and the waist, lifting him clear off the ground and dragging him backwards down the garden towards the tree. Of course, nobody outside the garden could see anything because of the high hedge, and the whole attack took place in virtual silence.
By the time it was over, and the leaf man had returned to his mound of leaves, dragging Moorcroft with him, Mr Penry had hurried down from upstairs and was standing there in the garden beside me. Neither of us made any effort to help our visitor.
Bloody hell, said Mr Penry, did you see what I think I saw?
Possibly. I’m not sure.
What was it? It looked like a man made of – leaves.
I think that’s exactly what it was. The Green Man. Spirit of the Woods and fields. And Moorcroft was his human sacrifice.
Mr Penry shuddered. Do you think we’re safe?
Oh yes. We understand this place, dont we? But Moorcroft was threatening to make us sell to him, and talking about how he was going to change everything, especially the garden. Clearly someone – or something – took exception to that.
We waited a while, then moved closer to the heap of leaf mould down by the tree. There was no sign of Moorcroft, though the heap seemed to be moving a bit, and there were sounds of chewing and slurping coming out from the centre of it.
Shit, said Mr Penry, he really has gone. What are we going to do? They’re bound to come looking for him.
Funnily enough, though, the police made very few enquiries. Moorcroft’s car, a nice flash number with all mod cons quickly disappeared from outside our house, driven away we suspect by one of the local yobbery who took it for a spin up on Rhigos mountain before setting fire to it. Moorcroft, it emerged, was a man of many faces, married yet had more than one mistress, his business dealings enmeshed with the type of people it’s better not to know.
In a way, his secrecy was his own undoing. Nobody knew where he should have been the morning of his disappearance simply because he never trusted anyone enough to confide in them, not even his wife. Nobody was really surprised when he just disappeared. It’s as good a way as any to avoid paying the bills. About 30,000 do the same thing every year, and only a tiny percentage ever resurface. And in his case it was as good a way as any to avoid paying his bills. That was why he’d started coming onto us, he was heavily in debt and needed the money.
And this year, the pile of leaves at the bottom of my garden is deeper and denser than ever…
Best to leave things as they are….
Copyright Tylluan Penry 2012