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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Ghost of Airmyn Crossings

Tasker Dunham offers a ghost story for Christmas.

Over the years, countless children of Goole have grown up, moved away and made their lives in distant places. Yet they retain a passion for the town, that ‘Port in Green Fields’, with its distinctive history and treasured memories. They record nostalgic recollections of childhood on the internet, wonder at any mention of Goole on television, and always look for their home town football result. Some, when nearby, even after all formal and familial ties are gone, make a special detour simply to pass their old school on Boothferry Road. But not Matt Wetherell. Rather than go out of his way to see Goole, he keeps well away. When duties take him to Hull from his home across the Pennines, he always turns right on to the M18 at Langham, and drives through Lincolnshire to enter the city over the Humber Bridge. Anything to avoid Goole.

Over fifty years ago, when still at school in the sixth form, Matt and a group of friends became regular drinkers at the Percy Arms in Airmyn. In those days, sixth formers caught in a public house would have been in serious trouble at school, even when legally old enough to buy alcohol. It was a misuse of privilege, squandering the opportunities of sixth form study while those less fortunate were cleaning railway engines or keeping the peace in Cyprus. So Matt and his friends kept discreetly out of sight in the taproom, and the handful of teachers that frequented the same public house were careful to stay in the lounge so as not to notice them.

The comforts of the taproom were basic: plain walls, wooden floorboards, bench seats and bare tables, but there was always a warm fire burning. It was perfectly adequate for the main activities there: drinking, smoking, playing cards, playing dominoes and telling yarns. Matt and company tested each others’ memories of the Latin fish names on the faded pictorial chart on the wall. They became familiar with the other regulars: the farmer, the garage owner and the cinema manager who always arrived late with his wife after the last show, never removed his trilby hat and always had a rude story to tell.

To reach the Percy Arms, Matt and his friends walked the mile or so across the fields using the track known as the bridle path or Airmyn Crossings. It was lonely and remote in those days before the roaring motorway was built at the Goole end, and the housing estate encroached at the Airmyn end. It was a pleasant stroll on a warm evening, more of a challenge in wind and rain and undeniably menacing after dark, especially where the trees and bushes joined overhead. The darkness added adventure to the walk home which was always late. Pubs were not supposed to serve drinks after half-past ten, but the landlord bent this rule a little, especially if the cinema manager was delayed. The local police knew when to be diplomatic. Sometimes, it could be nearly midnight before Matt and his friends started home along the pitch black track with several pints of Smith’s inside them, their apprehension kept at bay by vulgar songs and loud bravado. Sometimes a couple of the group would steal ahead to hide in the bushes ready to jump out and frighten the others with piercing cries. It was rowdy, but innocuous enough compared to what some teenagers get up to nowadays.

Matt never finished his sixth form studies. Before his friends went off to university he had left school for a job in a local office, his ambition diverted by a girl friend, the accomplished and beautiful daughter of an affluent local solicitor. They made plans and imagined their future together, but much to her father’s relief, she left for university too. Despite ardent promises to remain true, she gradually drifted away. When Matt last heard of her, she was organising famine relief in Africa.

Thus, one Christmas Eve, Matt found himself alone. He decided for old times’ sake to walk the bridle path to Airmyn. Nothing had changed. The taproom was just as it had been. The floorboards still knocked to his footsteps; the seats remained hard; the tables, bare; the faded fish chart still on the wall. There were few signs it was Christmas, but the coal fire had a more cheerful glow than usual and everyone was in a happy frame of mind. Matt played dominoes with the farmer. The garage owner enquired as to his well-being. The cinema manager arrived late with his hat, wife and rude story.

When Matt eventually started back along the deserted track, a little unsteadily due to the beer inside him, it was late and an ominous fog had descended. It was thick, the kind of fog you only get around Goole, where moisture from the rivers and low-lying fields conceives a dense, cold vapour that penetrates deep inside your lungs and shrouds the sight and sound of your footsteps. Matt’s shadow hung eerily in the mist around him; shapes and silhouettes moved in and out of the bushes and trees nearby; dark forms both ahead and behind gave the impression of something approaching and then dissolving away. The only thing Matt heard was the sound of his own breathing. It intensified his unease.

Suddenly, just where the path bends beneath overhanging trees, Matt sensed something tumbling from above, as if someone was falling on him, and then, inches away from his own face, another face, a terrifying face with hollowed-out eyes and grimacing, uneven teeth. Matt raised his arm to push it away. His hand slipped into the mouth; it felt wet and cold; his fingers scraped across rough teeth. He shuddered and screamed, staggered sideways and fell into the adjacent field, the surface of which lay some two or three feet below the level of the path.

Looking up from the ground, Matt realised he was alone. No one else was on the path. Yet, surely, he was certain it had been real. His fingers were wet where they had entered the open mouth, and sore where they had rubbed across the teeth. Beside him, on the ground, was something round. It took a few moments to realise it was a human skull. It had the same uneven teeth as the face that had materialised in front of him. Matt cursed. Stone cold sober, he scrambled back up to the path and ran as fast as he could to the safety of the lights on Airmyn Road.

Rationalising afterwards, Matt decided the skull must indeed have been real. He still had a graze on his hand to prove it. In his drunken state, he must have fallen from the path, dislodging the skull from the loose earth at the side of the field; it only seemed to have dropped from above as the ground came up towards him, an illusion. He had probably covered it up again as he scrambled back up to the track. He never related the incident to anyone, and there was never any report of human remains found on Airmyn Crossings.

The following week, Matt’s employer offered him a promotion away from Goole. It was several years before he visited the Percy Arms again. When he did, reluctantly, but necessarily because of a family function, much had changed. Outwardly, the place looked the same, but internally it had become a single large, refurbished lounge. There was no sign that the taproom had ever existed. He drove there by car, but passing along Airmyn Road, he just had time to register that the route of the old Airmyn Crossings had been diverted at the Goole end to accommodate the new motorway.

All of this was now fifty years ago. The farmer, the garage owner, the cinema manager and his wife must be long gone. Recently, Matt heard a tale that seemed to have some bearing on the events of that Christmas Eve when last he saw them. A distant cousin, Louisa, of whom he knew only vaguely, visited him in the course of tracing her family history. Matt was unable to add much to her findings by way of family memories or old photographs, but she told him a story previously told by her grandmother, who had in turn heard it from her grandmother.

His name, Matt, or Matthew, had run through the Wetherell family for generations. An earlier Matthew had been born, not in the Goole area, but in a village many miles away to the North. That Matthew had worked on the lands of the Northumberland estates, and one summer had transgressed unwritten social expectations by becoming too familiar with the daughter of the incumbent of the local Parish. To prevent the friendship developing into anything more serious, it had been arranged that Matthew would be moved to other lands owned by the Northumberland estates in distant Airmyn. Matthew’s brother Mark also had to move with him for no reason other than that he was Matthew’s brother. In due course, the news arrived that the vicar’s daughter of whom Matthew had been so fond, was now married, and had moved to the colonies with her new husband. Matthew, distressed, took to wandering like a tramp in the woods and fields. He disappeared just before Christmas and nothing was seen or heard of him again.

More happily, Matthew’s brother, Mark, remained in Airmyn. He married and had a large family. He was the common ancestor of both the present day Matt and Louisa who had told him of these far-off events. If you care to look in the Airmyn Parish registers for the early years of the nineteenth century, you will find mention of a Mark Wetherell, servant in husbandry, son of John and Mary Wetherell of Melsonby, which is in North Yorkshire, near Richmond.

The precise location of Matt’s disturbing experience that dark Christmas Eve must now be somewhere beneath the Eastbound carriageway of the M62, after you drive past the end of West Park but before you reach the Airmyn Road flyover. Strange things happen just at that point: engines misfire, sudden gusts of wind cause vehicles to swerve, drivers slow down for no apparent reason. You should concentrate and take extra care there, especially on Christmas Eve. Matt Wetherell avoids it like it was haunted.

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