27 December 2019

Mistletoe Berries - A Ghost Story from Ambridge

Until 2013, the BBC hosted a lively messageboard for The Archers, their long-running radio soap set in the fictional English village of Ambridge.  Among other things, it encouraged listeners to post Archers parodies and fantasies (Archers fanfic, I suppose, though I never saw the term used) and I contributed a few from 2006 onwards, writing as vicarshusband. Mine included crossovers between The Archers and Biggles, Doctor Who and Dad's Army as well as a parody of the WB Yeats poem The Death of Cuchulain - and some ghost stories.

A couple of years ago I saved all the ones that I could find and put them on this very blog in their own tab. I'm disinterring this one now as next week the BBC are actually doing some "Ghost Stories from Ambridge" and also as a small tribute to Edward Kelsey, the actor who played Joe Grundy and who died earlier this year. (And because it's seasonal!)

For context, I wrote this referring to a then current storyline in which Joe was selling mistletoe (harvested, of course, illicitly) and performing "Druidic" rites (for cash, of course).

Mistletoe Berries

Joe Grundy opened the back door of Keeper's Cottage very, very cautiously and peered out. Nobody was in sight. He scuttled out - as much as a man in his late 80s can be said to scuttle - and made for the shed. Try as he might, he couldn't shake off the sensation of being... watched. To a man with as many past and present scams and dodges on his conscience as Joe had, this was a far from welcome feeling. (The word "conscience" should not be taken to imply any sense of guilt, rather a fervent desire Not To Be Caught. Especially not by Clarrie. Or by Jim Lloyd, bother him.)

Once Joe had reached the shed, he soothed his nerves with a spot of cider and tried to remember when the feeling began, but it was hopeless. 'Pull yourself together, Joe' he told himself. 'What would your Susan say if she could see you?' The thought of his departed wife watching him did not bring the comfort it ought to, and he took another gulp of cider, before slipping the bottle of Tumble Tussock into the poacher's pocket of his long coat and collecting up his Druid outfit. Although he had - nearly - promised Jim that his days of Druidry were over, he had one or two appointments, made beforehand, to keep, and it was only nearly a promise. A man deserved a little bit of money to spend down the Bull when it was cold and his farmer's lung (cough) was bothering him, didn't he?

Joe set out down the lane, then took the short cut through the field. He had known these fields and paths all his life and could walk them near blindfold. His knowledge had served him well many times when there had been a need to avoid gamekeepers or other trouble. But he didn't feel at home as he usually did. There was that sense again of watching, and waiting. His shook his head impatiently. Cut across the back here -

Joe stopped. There was a small clump of trees in front of him which he didn't remember. Must have missed the gap in the hedge - but no, there was the Am. It was that Brian Aldridge, no doubt he'd been planting more trees to get a green subsidy or such. There'd been no green subsidies for the Grundys when they were at Grange Farm. Wasn't fair, all the money went to the Aldridges and the Archers.

He made towards the trees. As he came closer, he saw that there were little lights among them, and he seemed to hear voices. Perhaps best leave well alone, it might be Jamie and some of his nasty mates. Joe tried to stop, but it was if he had been lifted up by a host of invisible hands, carrying him closer and closer to the circle of trees, set atop a mound that definitely hadn't been in the field that morning. Joe seemed to hear laughter, and faint hoofbeats.

As he entered - or rather, was flung into - the ring, Joe saw, by the light of a small fire, a seated figure. It was an ancient man, dressed in a garment made all of green leaves. He had a long, white beard and wore a garland set with small, white berries. Mistletoe berries. Behind this figure, Joe though he saw little, flickering creatures that seemed to dart around like licking flames. When he looked directly at them, he saw nothing. But the sense of being watched returned tenfold.

'Joseph Grundy!' boomed the figure

'Your honour?' replied Joe 'What do you want with me? I'm only a poor farmer!'

'Joseph Grundy!' repeated the figure 'You have taken the golden sickle, and sung the growing song to the trees in the midst of winter. There is a price to be paid.'

'It were only a bit of fun' said Joe. 'Didn't mean no harm by it'

'Harm!' replied the other, rising from his throne. 'You have woken the Sleepers from the Nine Mounds. The Maidens have risen from the seven pools. The Three...'

'Now' said Joe 'it was all a misunderstanding, that's all. But seeing as I'm here, perhaps you'd care to join me in a drop of cider, and we can talk about it.'  He pulled the bottle out of his pocket, and offered it 'And there's more where that come from. And why don't you just invite them Seven Maidens over an' all...' (this accompanied by a filthy wink).

Lights and music drifted through the village all that night, but nobody woke to look for the disturbance or complain about it, not even Lynda Snell.

And when Joe woke the next morning in his bed, he thought that he had had the strangest dream - until he saw the mistletoe berries scattered about on the floor.

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