A banner flutters in the winter sunlight outside the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at this weekend’s Victorian Christmas Fair in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Creator Arthur Conan Doyle was a local resident, living in Southsea in the 1880s when he started writing the Sherlock Holmes stories. I also learned from the exhibition that he was a doctor and, er, the first ever goalkeeper for Portsmouth FC.
What do you see here? An eyesore? Let me tell you – I have so many happy memories of this place, the place I still call home. The family meals – the birthdays and Christmas holidays that we celebrated here together; the cameraderie with the other families in the block, and that fiercely strong community spirit.
Now the flat – indeed the whole block – has been emptied, and scheduled for imminent demolition, to be replaced by new affordable housing. They tell me it is called progress. Progress for some, maybe. The building may soon be dust, but those priceless memories will never be erased.
“War is futile” said the Question Master, dispensing his wisdom to the group of pilgrims before him. They had travelled many miles to this mystical place to hear him speak, and to learn from his vast knowledge and clever insight.
“War is like a meeting of fire and ice,” the Question Master continued. “The fire melts the ice, and the ice becomes water. The water drips on the fire and extinguishes it. These are the laws of nature. Opposing forces cancel each other out. Neither wins. Both will suffer in the end.”
It was late afternoon when Sally Goodman stepped off the bus, after a 45 minute journey from central Salem. According to her map, it was only a short walk to Gallowtree Plain, which her research suggested had been the family home of her American ancestors for at least 400 years.
It was October 31st – Halloween. The sun was now very low in the sky. Soon it would be dark.
She felt sure she was in the right place, yet all she could see was a graveyard – a very ancient one at that, overrun with tangles of wild ivy. She spotted the figure of a woman by an old neglected grave, dressed head to toe in a long black cloak and veil, her stare fixed upon a crumbling tombstone.
“Excuse me” Sally called, rushing towards her. “Can you help me? I am trying to get to Gallowtree Plain.”
The woman turned slowly to face her, removing the black veil. Sally let out a little gasp. It was the woman who had brought her the microfiche records at the Records Office the previous day. She spoke to Sally in a low, tremulous voice.
“Why didn’t you go back, like you were warned, when you had the opportunity?”
Sally bore a blank expression, speechless.
“It’s too late now,” the stranger continued. “You came here to find out all about your ancestral line? Well your wish is granted. You see, the Goodmans are no ordinary family. You have heard the ancient stories about this part of the world being a centre for witchcraft? I can tell you now – it is all true. You are the descendant of a very noble line. Now you are here with your ancestors, it is their wish that you join them – that you fulfil your destiny.”
“But…but, what do you mean?” exclaimed Sally, nervously. “I just came here to see where my ancestors lived. I understood they lived here.”
The stranger smiled. “They do, my dear, oh they do!” She turned away, pulling her veil back over her head, her gaze falling once again upon the aged tombstone. Sally sensed a strange feeling, as if tens of arms were pulling at her legs and shoulders, dragging her down, down towards the earth. The late afternoon quickly gave way to dusk, and then night. Very soon it was completely dark.
The next morning, as the pale rays of the rising sun fell upon the tombstone, it showed a new engraving. There, underneath the well worn names of all the deceased women of the Goodman family, stretching back to the 1600s, was some freshly etched lettering. It read:
“Sally Goodman – departed this earthly existence October 31 2013″
This is a continuation of the story begun in Salem’s Call
What a strange town this was. As Halloween grew closer, each day brought a new influx of visitors to enjoy Salem’s unique atmosphere. Some came dressed as zombies, some as witches, admiring the jack o’lantern displays in the market, sipping refreshments at tables outside the Ice Screamery or browsing in the Harry Potter witchcraft emporium. She, of course, had travelled here all the way from England for a much more serious purpose – to trace the family tree back through her great grandfather. He had been born here, before coming to England and dying tragically in the First World War.
Today she was visiting Salem’s Record Office for Births, Marriages and Deaths. It was a dark place, with row after row of shelves filled with old, dusty ledgers and box files, housed in a gothic building in one of the quieter back streets of town. The receptionist helped locate the right documents, now held on microfiche. Soon she was making good progress, having identified four generations of her great grandfather’s family, extending back to the late 1700s. They had all lived on Gallowtree Plain, a farmstead on the edge of Salem. Maybe she could go back even further, she wondered?
She asked if she could see the earlier documents. “I’ll need to log a special request for those, to have the archivist bring them down out of storage” the receptionist replied. “Can I take your name, please, Ma’am?”
“Yes, of course it’s Mrs Goodman – Sally Goodman”.
“Take a seat,” said the receptionist. “The archivist will bring them over in a bit”.
Ten minutes later, another member of staff delivered a faded folder. She was an older, somewhat gaunt, woman in a black dress, her greying hair pinned back in a bun. “Thank you” said Sally. Only the merest hint of a smile passed the woman’s lips, before she turned and was gone.
Opening the folder, Sally took out the microfiche record and inserted it in the viewer. Excitement grew as, studying the magnified images on the screen, she found a handwritten reference to the birth of a boy, Joshua Goodman, in 1698 here in Salem. Moving the acetate around in the viewer, she searched for the names of the parents, when suddenly a chill ran down her spine. It was the same feeling she had yesterday when that bizarre message appeared on her mobile phone. There, written large on the screen in front of her, in ornate 17th Century handwriting, were the words “Go back“.
Was someone playing a trick on her, she wondered? Maybe, for some of the strange people she had found in this town, it was their idea of a joke? She walked over to the receptionist, who had been so helpful to her earlier. She smiled as Sally approached.
“This microfiche record that your archivist brought me – there is something wrong with it.” The receptionist looked puzzled. Sally continued: “It appears that it’s been tampered with.”
“But….” the receptionist responded, “I don’t understand. Our archivist is still upstairs trying to locate the files you asked for. He will bring them down when he’s found them.”
“You mean the archivist is a man?” asked Sally.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Is that any kind of a problem for you?”
Sally fell back into quiet thought – her normally rational and logical mind trying to process what had happened. Who was the gaunt lady in the black dress? Why was she receiving messages telling her to “Go back“? She was determined not to be swayed from her research.
It did not take her long – she knew what she had to do.
“Could you show me please on a map where Gallowtree Plain can be found?” The receptionist obliged. Yes, it still existed, although it was in a remote position on the edge of town. It was now very dilapidated and reputed to be the home of a somewhat reclusive woman. Sally made up her mind instantly. She would go there the next day to continue her research.
The next day would be October 31st.
The final part of Salem’s Call will be posted here on Halloween night.