Monday, 24 September 2012

The Tale of the Phantom Rider


I was in Standard 8 when I got my own room and it was around this time I heard the bells of All Saints chime at night. It was also the time that I was permitted to stay up late, to read. I would turn off the lights at midnight and lie awake in the dark listening to the night sounds. In the still of the night, sounds carry over distances and I would often hear a motorbike roar past. Mentally, I started following the progress of the bike down the road from St. Antony’s to Bedford and beyond.


The spires of All Saints at twilight - Jude Thaddaeus

I asked a lot of people who the rider was and why the bells chimed at night, but there was no answer. Then one day, a cousin said, “It’s a ghost, idjet”!
In school we talked about the afterlife and were punished by the nuns for trying the Ouija board. It was around this time that Audrey Marlowe made this announcement that she was born with a cowl. A cowl or veil is a thin membrane which fully covers a new born babe, she was to tell us. Those born with a cowl could see ghosts and could experience the supernatural. The skeptics among us found this hard to believe, so Audrey brought the cowl to school one day.
It was grey and was stuck onto a piece of cardboard, which she told us was done by the midwife, at the time of her birth. It was quite a gruesome thing and even the toughest among us, were revolted.  The cowl, Audrey said, was much sought after by sailors as it was said to be a talisman against drowning. But the psychic properties of the cowl and the effects on the person born with it were of more interest to us.
Until then, we had not paid much attention to Audrey.  She was a bit weird; on second thoughts, not bit, very. Actually what was weird was her stillness, that made her different in a class which was full of noisy thirteen-year olds; the nosiest being the 'Dirty Dozen'. I was a founder member of the ‘Dozen', the anathema of teachers and fellow students alike.
The ‘Dozen' had never noticed her before this; in fact, even the teachers never knew she was there. She was a good student, did her homework and never made a noise in class. The funny thing was she had no friends.
After this revelation, I tried to befriend her. But she was not very forthcoming. I took this as a challenge and made it my mission to become her friend.
The other members of the ‘Dozen' were not very enthused about this new odd ball friend I was cultivating. “You listen to her tall tales if you want to, but don’t inflict her on us at lunchtime” they told me. Lunchtime was special; this is when the gang held conclave in the Lab garden, under the jacaranda tree. We spent most of the time, talking about crushes and which of us were being favored by the boys from College (the boys’ school on the opposite hill). This was strictly gang matter. So I restricted my hobnobbing with Audrey to between classes.
She told me that her parents were abroad and she lived with her aunt and that she was not an Anglo, as her name led us to believe. It seems she was a Rajput and her actual name was Veena Jodha Singh. I screwed up my face, to prevent myself from laughing out loud. Rajput, indeed!  Like I was Mary, Queen of Scots!  My knowledge of Rajputs was minimal and genealogy less.
Audrey was very fair, with thick, dark brown hair and light grey eyes. But I was convinced that she didn’t look like a Rajput. My knowledge on how a Rajput should look, of course, was gleaned from the grotesque figures of the Indian history textbook. I had one question in mind; “Ask your aunt about the motorbike rider and the All Saints bells” was my constant refrain. Audrey, despite the cowl, could throw no light on these things.
Audrey continued to be reticent so I played along.  But this was getting a bit boring. I set myself a deadline and told myself that if I didn’t crack this story soon, I would dump her.  
I started the cooling-off process and would just say a perfunctory hello but sometimes I felt so bad, I would stop and chat. The school year was drawing to a close and the cold was beginning to set in. The invitation finally came, for tea, on the following Saturday. Now, I couldn’t go alone there, so I had to coax Coots, one of the 'Dozen' to come along; and that took some doing.
On Saturday, I set off to meet Coots, who was togged out like me in bell bottoms and a loose shapeless shirt. To get to Barlows Road we had to walk past Bedford (the shopping centre in Upper Coonoor), turn into Church Road and then past All Saints and its graveyard with the weeping willows.
 “You and your stupid story; why did we have to come here" asked Coots as I jangled the cow bell near the gate. After a few minutes, an old decrepit ayah came to the gate. She didn’t say anything, just opened the gate and grandly waved us in as if we were in a car.
This set off a fit of giggles in us. You can’t see the house from road so it came as a surprise. It was a large house, which was once painted green, with a sagging red tiled roof and paint peeling on the bay windows and doors. The house had an open verandah with a number of deep, cushioned cane chairs placed in a circle; most of them occupied by cats. There was also a lot of greenery from the potted planted plants of which I could identify the maiden hair fern.
We had to wait awhile in front of the house, before Audrey put in an appearance. Coots was getting really impatient by now. Just then Audrey rushed out of the front door. “O come on in, girls”, she gushed.
“My aunt will be joining us soon; in the meanwhile, come and see the pictures inside” she said. So we trotted off behind her into a large cavernous room just off the verandah. The room was dark and filled with overstuffed sofas covered in red damask. A thick carpet covered the parquet floor while deep red velvet curtains framed the bay window. There was a strange smell in the room, both sweet and pungent.
Coots and I walked towards a table which held a number of photographs. The first one was taken on the steps of some palace or the other;  a group of six people were squinting at the camera. There were three women in the frame, all of them in georgette saris, with their heads covered. “This is my mother” said Audrey pointing to the most beautiful woman in the picture. “This is my aunt and this, their friend Mabel” she said. And so it went on, there were even pictures with the prime minister. Both of us were well and truly impressed.
“Indeera was always jealous of me” said a low, gravelly voice. Coots and I jumped out of our skins. We turned and got another fright; a very pale middle aged woman was standing behind us. It was one of the women from the photograph and she could have been given the lead in Bram Stoker’s epic.
She was dressed in black satin pants and a black calf-length silk kurta; her hands were weighed down with bangles and rings. Around her neck were a number of necklaces, plain gold and beaded ones. Her hair was jet black and in stark contrast with her face. Her eyes were glazed over.  “She looks like a snake” whispered Coots.
“Come and sit, girls. Let me take a look at you”. She showed us to large sofa and sat down on a winged sofa. “So finally, Audrey has some friends”! She asked us our names as we sat down. “You girls like some tea”, she asked and without waiting for our answer she said, "You must try my chamomile tea". She then turned to us and said, "You are very interested in the supernatural, Audrey says. Is that true"?
Both of us nodded. Audrey stood near the door, looking at us impassively. “What day is it today, do you know”? We shook our heads.
 "Oh these girls don’t talk! Well today is November 10. Tomorrow, there will be a bowl of red poppies in the centre of the coffee table".
..”
We must have looked blank, because she said, “Ok, you girls don’t know anything. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. The day the First World War ended. I remember the dead; those who fell in battles long ago.”
Audrey now came forward and touched her aunt’s shoulder, “Aunt Tia… about the Phantom Rider” The older woman laughed, “Oh you want to frighten your friends? Ok, I will tell you.” We listened, sipping the strange, bitter tea.
“The year was 1918, the Great War in Europe was drawing to a close. The talk of peace which was in the air since August seemed to be fructifying into actual peace and by November 10 everyone knew that the treaty would be signed the next day. There was a lot of rejoicing in the barracks in Wellington and around town with impromptu parties springing up in hotels, clubs and private homes.
 It was almost midnight, when the radio operator at the Barracks got an important message which had to be delivered to a high ranking civilian, who was visiting Coonoor. A dispatcher was promptly sent off to deliver the message.    
It was a dark moonless night and there was a thick fog riding the road. Visibility was almost zero. The dispatch rider had to leave the warmth of the barracks and his friends, who were celebrating, to deliver the message.
But he was young and without a care, so he had another peg and jumped onto the saddle and roared off through the mist to Coonoor. He rode past the golf links, Orange Grove and Sims Park, gaining speed as he rode. He was almost near Glen View Hotel, where the message had to be delivered, when the bells at All Saints pealed announcing the new day when peace would reign. The sound carried through the night. The dispatcher was within sight of Glen View Hotel when the bike skidded under him and he was tossed across the road; his unfastened helmet leaving his head completely exposed. The man died that night with his message undelivered".
"Even today", Audrey’s aunt said, "people in Coonoor hear the motorbike at night especially when a thick pea soup fog shrouds the town; they hear  the bells of All Saints ring out and they know the Phantom Rider rides to deliver the message”.
She sighed, then got up and wandered off. We waited for her to come back, but she didn’t. We replaced the cups on the table and excused ourselves as it was getting very late. A thin mist was rising from the valley and the street lights had come on.
I told Coots," Hurry, before it gets very dark"
“You know” said Coots, “the tea she gave us was very weird; it’s making me feel strange”. I was also feeling quite strange.
We hurried with our heads bent forward. It was cold and the mist kept getting thicker. We were now near All Saints, "You think the church bells will ring" asked Coots. The thought of it scared me so much that I started running; Coots was laughing but she ran too.
The shops at Bedford were closing early and the taxi stand was empty. Once past the shopping centre we started running again up the Walker& Greig slope. My legs felt like lead and my chest was about to explode. Half way up the slope, we stopped; a brief goodbye and Coots ran up the short cut to her house. I still had some distance to go.
The mist was very thick now and the road was deserted. Not a man or mouse on the road. The street lights cast intermittent spheres of light, leaving the rest of the area in darkness. I continued to run, the condensing mist making my face damp. I was almost near the peti kadai when I saw a vehicle moving towards me. It had only one light. Fear gripped my heart and I couldn’t breathe at all; "was it a bike, was it a bike", I asked myself. I couldn’t stop, I kept running forward.
The shape was clearer now; it was an old Vauxhall taxi with just one light burning. The taxi came in line with me and stopped. I looked through the corner of my eye without turning my head and saw the car doors opening. Now, I was really scared and fear gave fresh impetus to speed.  Someone called out, but I just ran.

The mist rising- photo credit Henriksen Greaves

The ultimate test in bravery was to negotiate the drive to Nenagh in zero visibility. Even on moonlit nights it was pitch dark, and the only way you could stay on the road was to look up at the night sky between the thick growths of trees on both sides.   
Sticking to the centre of the road I ran, as I never ran before, the rush of blood pounding in my head and my chest so tight that the breath came in short gasps. A low lying branch whipped into my face and I realized that I had strayed too much to the left. I finally reached the third hairpin bend and home.
I have never been so glad to be home. The warmth, the fragrance of roses and the promise of safety!
 My mother was cross," Where were you? It’s so late". I mumbled something in answer.
I fell asleep early that night and dreamt of the snake-like woman, the phantom rider and woke at midnight as the bells chimed, sweating in the cold night.
photo credit HG
Disclaimer: The characters in this story are a figment of my imagination and bear no relation to any character. Any resemblance is coincidental.

12 comments:

  1. wonderful reading. ah! the grey swirling mist can help your imagination run riot.

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  2. How all of us had this manufactured fear of ghosts, someone who could talk with them, someone who has seen them all wrapped wonderfully into tales delivered to students batch after batch....wonder if kids have their share of ghosts stories to circulate in school now. Nice reading Nina.

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  3. The story of ghosts and the eerie effects when it gets misty...brings back a lot of memories..."Gangs"..Girls...the walks...cycle trips...everything came flooding back...!!!the road in front of All Saints still has this eerie effect!!!Who could it have been on the taxi who called out???the mystery remains...hahahahaha...I could even visualize Aunty's stern look asking you where you were...hahahaha...just too good!!!

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  4. Paadunar, Tessy Thomman
    The fear of ghosts is carefully cultivated by older cousins and friends. Nowadays, in the absence of the extended family, I think the movies and tv show do the trick.

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  5. Ghost-riders and chimes
    From First World War times
    Roads which are misty
    Make palms sweaty
    Not to forget cowls making conducive climes!

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  6. Nina, this is beautiful. You've told a nice eerie tale. Keep going. And, very soon hope to see your collection on the stands.

    This was very nice. Tell us some more about the supernaturals and the bells...

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  7. Childhood fears (and bravado) so beautifully captured, in simple words, simple sentences. Like a good story-teller you took me right back to those places and times, and left me peering cautiously through the mist...

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