The spookiest moment of my life started with something as distinctly non spooky as a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with cheese. It was around lunchtime, and I was taking the two hour drive from my home to a pre-Christmas school reunion.
The area surrounding the old school, a large, rambling red brick building built in the 1700’s, was nothing but long winding country lanes. There were frequent road signs warning of the likelihood of crossing deer.
Rabbits, were it night time, would most likely be caught blinking in the headlights.
But it was not night time, it was a foggy, misty Sunday afternoon, and hoar frost was still hanging over the white frozen fields.
I had stopped a little earlier at a town along the way to order the McDonalds and fries. Now they were sitting temptingly on the dashboard of my Saab 900 Turbo. I had already grabbed a few fries but now I hungered for the burger.
Just to throw in a little gratuitous watch ...., I do recall admiring the gleam of my 1950s Vacheron Constantin 18ct gold watch with a P454/5B calibre movement still in mint, crisp condition after all these years. A treasured inheritance from my grandfather in the days when there was money in the family. School reunions were all about subtle, and often not so subtle one-upmanship, and my plan was to let this fine vintage watch do some of the talking for me.
Back to the winding country lanes, the hoar frost and the frozen fields. It was just as I was reaching for the burger, with my eyes temporarily diverted from the road by the gleam of the watch, that it happened.
Whether it was black ice or an unexpected twist in the road I don’t know, but I skidded out of control.
Suddenly instead of driving on the road I was heading straight for the pine woods to the left of me.
The burger and fries flew on to the passenger seat as the car traversed a shallow ditch and powered on through into the canopy of trees. I managed to swerve to avoid one tree but inevitably the next one was too close to avoid and the car smashed head on into the trunk of the tree.
Everything happened at once. My dinner jacket flew forward, branches and debris cascaded onto the bonnet of the car, the windscreen cracked, and I could see the dark green bodywork buckle.
The only thing that didn’t happen was the airbag decided it wasn’t a sufficiently serious situation to bother to blow up in my face. I switched off the engine which was making an unhealthy revving noise. Thanks to the superb head rests on the Saab I had no whiplash or head injuries, but as the silence settled in I was shaken.
I say silence, but there was steam spilling from the broken radiator and the sound of that coupled with the disturbed wildlife reinforced the fact that I had been in an accident, I was maybe thirty yards into secluded woodland sitting in a crumpled car.
I got out to inspect the damage, my legs were shaking. It was hard to tell if the car was going to be a write off, but it wasn’t looking very happy.
The next thing to do was to call for a tow truck; Sunday afternoon in deepest darkest Shropshire? Good luck. Then I remembered having signed up for AA membership at a motorway service station and it covered callouts for just this type of emergency. I pulled out the yellow plastic card with the number on it and called in. I was told they’d be there within a couple of hours to take me to wherever I wanted to go. Perfect.
I climbed back into the car. With nothing better to do, I proceeded to pick my burger off the passenger seat where it had been violently deposited and ate it. There was no point leaving the car, it was freezing outside and a stroll in muddy woods in my Loake black patent leather shoes was simply not going to happen.
Two hours went by. I know this from the trusty Vacheron Constantin, fortunately unharmed by our unscheduled off road adventure. Even by mid afternoon it was getting dark. The dense foliage only served to add to the gloom, and the frost was fast settling in.
I didn’t want to risk switching on the engine and overheating it due to the bust radiator so I reached behind me for the thick plaid travel rug and wrapped it around me.
I don’t know how long I sat there and I’m not sure if I dozed off, but I suddenly became aware of a woman in the distance walking among the trees. Perhaps nothing unusual in that, but she was wearing a resplendent silvery ballroom gown, its sheen heightened by my headlights. Was she going to the school reunion? I dipped my headlights because I thought the glare of them would be piercing her eyes but she just walked on.
Curious, I climbed out of the car to see where she was going. In her evening finery she looked as out of place in these woods as did I. As she walked, my view of her was obscured by a tree. I waited for her to pass it, but she didn’t. It was as if she was deliberatley hiding behind it. I stood there for several minutes and she did not show herself. Was she playing a game? A game of hide and seek with a perfect stranger on a freezing Sunday afternoon clad in just a ball gown? There was no sign of her now. I was freezing so I got back into the car. My eyes remained fixed on the tree, waiting for her to reveal herself again.
I grew impatient for the AA tow truck and called them again. They were behind schedule, it was going to be another half an hour to forty minutes, ‘please stay where you are’ said the AA lady.
Just as she said so, the lady appeared again, but to my amazement, not from behind the tree. She was walking in the exact same spot where I had first seen her, even though my eyes had been glued to the tree where she was supposed to be hiding.
‘That’s really weird’ I said.
The lady on the phone said matter of factly: ‘It’s not weird Sir, there are several breakdowns today so we’re over extended’.
It was all I could do to thank her and put the phone down. I watched transfixed as the lady continued to walk, seemingly oblivious to the unusual sight of a car getting up close and personal with a pine tree.
I got out of the car again and watched her intently. She reached the same tree, and I just knew with a shiver coming over my neck and arms, that she was not going to emerge from the other side. She did not. Without hesitation I climbed back into the car again and locked the doors.
I knew that I was witnessing something very strange. I also knew if I waited a little more, I would see her walk across my line of vision once again and simply disappear.
Well, it happened again, and I have to confess I had now become fearful and desperate to leave.
‘Please stay where you are’ the words of the AA lady came back to me. Meanwhile the lady in the ethereal ball gown was in hiding once more, playing her spooky little game. If I ran just a short distance I could find her behind that tree right now. Suddenly, unmistakeably, she broke the pattern; she peeped round the tree at me, her gown glowing white in the headlights. I ducked under the dashboard and hid, my heart thundering in my ears.
I was stricken with the panicky thought that she would walk right up to me. It wouldn’t take more than a minute to do so. I peeped over the dashboard and she was not there. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad.
I was chilled to the bone, but sweating too. What would her next move be? What could I do?
The mobile burst into life, causing a near myocardial infarction. It was the AA lady, they had my location but they needed me to stand by the road in order for the tow truck driver to find me. But how could I leave the car?
I had no choice, I just couldn’t afford to be a wimp. I leapt out of the Saab and ran the thirty yards to the place where I had run off the road. I waited there for five tense minutes, constantly watching the dark and eerie woods. And then, just seconds before the truck arrived the lady was there again. I am certain she summoned me to her.
I can only tell you I know that she was watching us from behind the tree as we pushed the car down to the road, and with some struggle, elevated the front of the car onto the tow truck ramp.
I quickly climbed into the warmth of the truck’s cab and we pulled away into the gloom. More or less straightaway I blurted out to the guy ‘I think I’ve just seen a ghost.’ The tow truck driver was a local and to my surprise he greeted my news without dismay.
‘Well here in the Cocky Olly woods I wouldn’t be surprised’.
‘Is that the Cocky Olly woods?’ I said ‘No wonder’.
‘Ah’ said the driver, “you know of it?”
Everyone round those parts knows about the haunting of the Cock Olly woods.
Long ago there was a grand ball given in the old house that is now the school. ‘Strictly carriages at midnight’ read the invitation card, meaning all had to depart at that time and no later. Only one coachman was late. He had been drinking and frolicking in the servants quarters with a scullery maid.
Eventually at close to 1am he appeared, somewhat the worse for drink. He was thoroughly denounced by the master of the house as a blackguard and a scoundrel as he climbed up on the carriage to take the ladies home. It was strongly implied that a good horse whipping would cure his tardiness.
They made it down the long winding driveway of the grounds, but reporting upon it later in what was judged to be a drunkard’s fanciful tale, the coachman swore that his eyes were diverted from the road by a lady in a silver ball gown. Thinking she had lost her way, he traversed the road and took the carriage, through the Cocky Olly woods following where she led him.
He reported that the horses became mightily uneasy and this both scared and concerned him, but as he was about to turn the carriage around, the ground beneath them gave way and the carriage plunged into a pool of icy water. Being positioned higher than the ladies in the coachman’s seat and not within the confines of the carriage, he was able to jump into the icy waters and swim to safety, unfortunately the ladies in his charge perished. One of the horses broke its leg and had to be shot.
The poor coachman lost his job and had to content himself with mucking out horses for the rest of his days. In the local taverns, where he frequently drank himself insensible, he would tell the tale to anyone who would buy him an ale, of the lady in the silvery ball gown who led him to his miserable downfall.
‘But it’s strange’ said the tow truck driver as we drove through the pitch black night, the rabbits racing across the road for the sanctuary of the woods.
‘They say she only appears at 13 o’ clock – the witching hour, that’s why they always insisted on carriages at midnight. But she appeared to you in the mid afternoon. That’s a strange one.’
Three weeks past and I got my car back from the workshop with a new radiator, a new front grille, a new windscreen and a gleaming new green bonnet. I climbed in the car, happy to have it back, switched on the engine and glanced at the handy digital clock on the dashboard.
A small shiver of understanding rippled through me; the dashboard clock had stopped at precisely 13:00.
’13 o’clock’ picture courtesy of Budgie at www.deviantart.com
Carriage picture courtesy of Spooky Hoofs video game
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