December 2018, Author: Matthew Preston
The yellow flames licked gently around the Yule log in the grate. The low hubbub in the pub was accompanied by its gentle spitting and the tang of those molecules of wood smoke that were not escaping up the old stone chimney.
“It’s never gone out, know,” Kayleigh told me.
“The fire. It’s never gone out, ever since the seventeenth century.” She was looking at me over the sticky barroom table, an amused glint in the corner of her eye. “I presume that’s why you are so fascinated.”
“Sorry, sorry!” I said. “It’s just that’s, you know, flickering lights…”
“Yes, yes. I know. How could your friends hope to match the allure of random chemical reactions,” I bristled defensively at this as Kayleigh continued. “It’s so kind of the big city boy to come back and see his friends in the little town where he grew up.”
Kayleigh always seemed to find a way to get under my skin. It was true that I hadn’t been back as much as I had promised, but after the capital, my hometown just felt so… parochial. This year, Kayleigh had finally guilt-tripped me into coming back for a Christmas reunion. And so, I was sat around a table in the pub where I’d spent nearly every Saturday night of my formative years with a group of old school friends.
“Give him a break Kayleigh,” laughed Ben. “Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue Service works him hard collecting all our hard-earned pay.”
“Revenue and Customs…” I murmured as the table laughed uneasily. Taxman was almost as effective a conversation killer as policeman. “And I’m on the customs side. Imports and exports… I don’t get involved with income tax.” Kayleigh giggled, “then no wonder you are transfixed by the fire!” I gave her a quizzical look and she raised her eyebrows. “Oh, come on, Rob. You must know the story?” I shrugged, and Ben laughed. “Maybe you’re right Kayleigh, he’s gone all native with the city slickers. Dude, we came here every week! I can’t believe you’ve shed all your history so easily, did we mean that little to you?”
“I know the story,” I protested. “They lit the fire and it’s not gone out for two centuries. It’s bad luck if anyone ever let’s it go out.”
“Pfft. But do you know why? You tell him, Kayleigh.”
“I don’t know, it might upset him. Worse, he might report us to the authorities!”
At this the table collapsed in laughter. I glared at my old friends, but that only set them off again. Spluttering, Andy went to the bar to get the next round and finally Kayleigh put me out of my misery.
“So, you know this pub has been here since the early 17th century, right? Well, back then the pub was owned by an old sea captain. Probably salty, certainly grizzled. He still had links to some of his old shipmates, who, whale hunting having proved too arduous, had turned their hands to smuggling. They needed somewhere to meet to exchange the contraband, and this very room was where they chose to do it.”
Kayleigh nodded her thanks to Andy as he passed round the drinks, and then continued her story. “So, all this coming and going attracted the eye of the revenue men, who as you know are more than happy to stick their noses in wherever they smell the possibility of people making a living.”
Ben grinned at me as I spluttered a process, which Kayleigh ignored. “They had quite a reputation in these parts – vicious, grasping and not averse to taking a cut for themselves of whatever illicit goods they found. They were led by Thomas Morrell, well known by reputation for his strong armed tactics towards enforcing his majesty’s share. His men turned over the pub, but somehow the landlord had got wind of their arrival and they found nothing. Morrell was not to be deterred though, and when his men left, he concealed himself in the cellar, hoping to discover the smugglers.”
“Pretty much like your days at work, right?” Andy jabbed me in the ribs.
“Sure, but with more spreadsheets and less hiding in the dark,” I said gamely.
“I’d hope not,” said Kayleigh. “Morrell has a reputation as having been pretty brutal. He wasn’t averse to using threats of violence to make families reveal where the smugglers were hiding. These days, we’d call it collective punishment and he’d be in jail himself, but back then…” I half wanted to protest that families really did conceal their relatives from the law, and that sometimes it was necessary to be tough to protect society, but Kayleigh and I had had that argument in the past. I didn’t want to further strain an already awkward atmosphere.
“So, where were we? Ah yes, Morrell stayed in the cellar all evening, listening and waiting. The landlord, thinking the coast was clear, called back the smugglers and it looked like Morrell’s plan was going to work. However, halfway through the meet, one of the casks ran out of beer. Smugglers being smugglers, and seamen being seamen, the deal couldn’t be concluded on dry throats, and so the landlord’s son was sent down to fetch a replacement cask. Morrell had no compunction in running the boy through with his sword, but the noise brought the men running and Morrell was found. You can imagine how that went – to find a customs officer hidden below where you were concluding an illicit trade, his hands red with the blood of your host’s son. Morrell was killed, nastily by all accounts, but now they had a different problem.
“Morrell had hidden alone, but surely his men would come looking for him. The evidence, that is, his body, needed to be hidden. At that moment, the landlord had an idea. They buried him under the hearth and lit a roaring fire on top. ‘This fire must never go out!’ proclaimed the landlord. ‘For no one will look under the flames.’, and indeed when the excise men returned, they found no trace of Morrell and despite their suspicions left empty handed.”
“See,” said Ben. “The taxmen were pretty thick back then too.”
“Now,” continued Kayleigh. “The fire was kept burning throughout the life of the landlord, and when he died the tradition was passed down. But, as things tend to do, rumours spread that in fact, the fire wasn’t to stop the excise men from searching the hearth, but was instead to stop Morrell from returning to enact his revenge on the people in the pub. I guess given his reputation, his haunting from beyond the grave was to be expected – and maybe the link between the fire and the flames of hell fanned someone’s imagination. However, folk fear turned into tradition and now the fire has been lit nearly 200 years.”
“I never really believed that,” said Andy. “I mean, surely it’s gone out once or twice.”
“It’s an important tradition,” Ben replied grumpily. “A connection to our past, our families.”
“Maybe it has gone out, maybe it hasn’t. But the link is still there, isn’t it?” Kayleigh soothed him before turning back to me. “I still can’t believe you’ve never heard that story. Ian used to tell anyone who would listen.”
“Oh, I never listened to him!” I said. “If you started talking to him, you wouldn’t escape for hours. Whatever happened to him? The old man was always in here.”
“He passed away last winter,” Ben said sadly. “There’s been lots of changes since you’ve been away, you know.” And the conversation moved on away from the fire to the people we used to know, to the new estate that had been built on Millers’ fields, to Ben’s parents’ divorce and other events that I shouldn’t have missed. I got the next round, then Ben, and so it went until when the closing bell rang my vision was blurry and our group had whittled down to just Kayleigh, Ben and I.
“I better be going,” said Kayleigh. “We don’t have a room upstairs like you!” The beer in me considered asking her to stay, but Ben was there and by the time I’d gathered my courage he was helping her on with her coat. “We can share a taxi if you like,” he told her and then after a too brief hug, they were gone.
I ordered a final nightcap from the bar. “I shouldn’t really,” said the barmaid as she was pulling the pint. “But as long as you don’t tell the officials…” and she smiled and I smiled, kind of, and I finished my drink and stumbled up the stairs to my room.
Later that night I woke, desperate for the toilet and regretting that I’d booked a room without an en suite. I pulled on my jeans and picked my way along the narrow winding corridor, stubbing my toes and banging my head on the exposed beams, on my way to the communal bathroom on the ground floor. Outside the December wind was rising, and the public house was softly creaking and moaning to itself. I trailed my hand on the rough plaster wall as I crept down the uneven staircase, my vision still blurry and my footing unsure. Downstairs was dark about for the flickering of the fire in the hearth, and there was no one about. I staggered towards the toilets, before pausing, a thought coming to my head.
I looked at the red marked yule log. I heard Andy’s voice “…surely it’s gone out once or twice…” and Ben’s angry response. And then I thought of Ben’s arm around Kayleigh as he helped her coat on, and my mind was made up.
I unzipped my fly, and with a small sigh of relief let myself urinate onto the smouldering log. The hiss and crackle as the liquid hit the glowing log sounded deafening, but no one seemed to stir. I kept going for what seemed like an eternity, playing the yellow flow of liquid up and down the log, slowly and inexorably extinguishing the remaining sparks. By the time I’d finished, the fire was out and the room was filled with the sour smell of my piss. Guilt immediately surfaced, and I glanced around the empty barroom expecting to be accosted by a member of staff. But only the rustling branches outside and the creaks of the old house broke the silence, and I zipped up my fly.
Without the warm glow of the fire, the barroom was cold and dark. I stumbled a number of times as I made my way back to the stairs, and had just placed my foot on the bottom step when there was a sudden knocking. I looked around alarmed, seeing no one. The knocking appeared to have come from round the back of the bar and I hesitated. It might have been more sensible to return to my room and hope that the next morning would bring no forth no witnesses nor CCTV footage, but Dutch courage convinced me instead to turn back and by the light of my phone screen start to pick my way towards the noise.
There was nothing behind the bar, apart from some dirty glasses and discarded beer mats. I frowned and was turning back when the knocking came again. I took an uncertain step forwards, and then saw the wooden trapdoor that led down to the celler. It was closed and bolted, but the padlock stood unclasped. As I looked at it, there was another knock and the wood shook as if someone was beating on it from the other side.
“Um, hello?” I called out nervously. Maybe someone was stuck down there, accidentally locked in? There was no reply. I bit my lip, and reached for the iron bolt, drawing it back with a rusty squeak. The wooden trapdoor was stiff, and it took both hands to lift, meaning I had to stuff my phone into my jeans sending me back into darkness. Finally I had the door open, and I fished my phone out my pocket, almost falling headfirst into the dark hole that was in front of me, and was empty. I steadied myself and sat down on the edge, resting my feet on the rungs of the ladder and shining my phone down to the cellar.
“Hello?” I called out quietly. I’d rescue someone trapped, but I certainly didn’t want to wake anyone up. There was no answer. The smell of my crime still permeated the bar, and this spurred me into action. The sooner I established if anyone was in the cellar, the sooner I could return to bed and put the whole evening behind me. As I descended the ladder, I rehearsed my look of shock and horror when they told me about the fire tomorrow morning. “How could someone do that?” I’d say. Or maybe they’d say nothing at all? After all, as Andy said, surely the fire had gone out in the past. Maybe they’d assume the log burnt down and would just quietly replace it? It was as I was considering this, that my foot touched the hard stone floor of the cellar.
I shone my phone in an arc, revealing a small room made of a series of arches, beneath each of which were piled metal casks of beer adorned with the logo of the breweries. Boxes of crisps and other bar snacks stood in a heap on one side. The cellar was full, presumably stocked up for the festive period and the weak light of the phone meant that I couldn’t make out the far side of the room. “Hello? Is anyone there?” I called out again. There was no reply and I was about to turn and climb back up the ladder, when out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a shadow move. “Hello?” I said again and took a step towards the far end of the room. I was certain now that I could hear shuffling, and was that muffled breathing? Why on earth would anyone be hiding down here now I’d opened the trapdoor? I neared the final pile of kegs and held my phone up high to shine a light, just as the screen dimmed and switched off. But as it flicked off, I caught a flash of a red coat with golden buttons, a twisted grimace of hatred and the glint of silver metal. I heard a snarled “time to pay your duty, boy”, as a sharp pain erupted in my abdomen and the darkness became complete.