DANCING THE HEMPEN JIG

A supernatural short story about Blackwall Point in Greenwich

As he stood on the scaffold on Blackwall Point looking across Bugsby’s Reach, with his bright blue eyes, at the other gibbets on Cuckold’s Point Charlie Hendry was seething with rage. Not only was he about to be hung for something he had not done but these rotten king’s excise men had refused to let him say farewell to his fair Betsy. He could feel the blood drain away from his face as the anger grew inside him. The large crowd were gathered on the shoreline and he could see Betsy standing in the front row, wearing her best red velvet cape, being comforted by her brother Jack as she was clearly in some distress. Standing on the muddy stones at the bottom of the Scaffold stood a man with some paper in his hand and a quill pen, his ink pot rested on the bottom spar. Charlie guessed this must be a journalist waiting to record his last words.
“Anything to say Charlie?” the scribe called up.
“Tell my Betsy I’ll not forget her, and I will do my best to come back and find her,”, he replied, “and tell that lying son of a dozen fathers Ben Beak my soul won’t rest until I get my revenge for what he has done. Neither he nor his family will escape my wrath, no matter that it takes all of time I will wreak my vengeance upon all his spawn. Such a revenant as I will be will stop all hearts when first they see. Mark this well ink man, I am not to be denied my retribution for this heinous miscarriage. “
“You won’t be coming back from where you’re going,” , said the hangman as he tightened the noose around Charlie’s neck, “ain’t no way back from hell!”
The priest began reading out the Lords Prayer and Charlie stared at the rotting corpses hanging in the cages nearby and he knew that soon he would be hanging in a cast iron body cage from the end of a gibbet at the low water tide mark. He knew the fate that awaited him, hung first then face painted with tar and white cotton mask stuck on, left to swing as the tide ebbed and flowed over his body whilst the flesh rotted from his bones. Exhibited as a warning to all who practiced piracy on the high seas. William Kidd, Charles Vane, William Fly, Jack Rackham and many other notorious pirate captains, he knew they had all ended up the same way. Ben Beak had sold his name to the excise men for a pipe of rum, falsely accusing him of being a pirate and robbing one of King George the Thirds war ships moored in the Thames off Greenwich pier.
Charlie looked towards the crowd, shouted out “I am a’coming back for you my sweet lover.” and Betsy stared straight into his gleaming blue eyes as the crowd jeered whist the trap door was released and he fell through with his body wrenching his head and breaking his neck as he struggled to stay alive.
It took a full two minutes before his body stopped twitching and he finished dancing the hempen jig. The executioner and his assistant cut him down, put his body into the body cage, closing the hinges on the arms, legs and head, then they carried him back up the scaffold and connected the link on the top of the head guard to the hook on the chain at the end of the gibbet and there was his final gruesome resting place, swinging in the wind as the red sailed barges and black sailed wherries made their way up the river Thames into the cold sunset on this new years eve of 1799.
In 1999 it was New Years Eve, it was New Millennium Eve. Sir James Beak, chairperson of the events organising committee sat at his desk in his office inside the newly completed Millennium Dome sharing a glass of champagne with his Secretary, Betsy Ellison, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the second, her husband Prince Phillip, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie. Two security guards stood outside the office and everything seemed to be going smoothly. There were two and a half hours to go before the opening of the Dome at midnight, the rehearsal had been fraught but they all seemed to know what there respective roles entailed. The fact that the transport arrangements for all the politicians and the myriad of journalists and VIPs had gone completely to pot was something they could do nothing about. Tony’s legacy project was almost complete and there was no time left.
“I must say Tony this is certainly a most magnificent structure. A fitting place to focus the eyes of the nation at this most important and exciting moment. Thank you so much for for all your diligence in seeing it through to this point.”, said the Queen
“Oh thank you so much but I cannot take the credit for all of it, all of the hard work was done by Sir James and his team, I just kept a watchful eye as the project progressed.”, answered Tony Blair
“Interesting place to put the blighter,” said Prince Phillip, “I heard that Blackwall Point was the place where the Pirates hung on chains in gibbet cages in the old days. One used to be able to order a plate of whitebait and glass of porter whilst looking at their rotting carcases swinging in the breeze through spyglasses in the local riverside taverns. Can’t do that sort of thing these days, more’s the pity.”
“Take no notice of Phillip. he doesn’t mean it, do you?”, the Queen said as she shot Phillip one of her withering glances.
“Eh, what? Oh yes, if you say so my dear. Still a most interesting place indeed.”
Just as Sir James was about to offer more interesting information about the site there was a knock on the door and then the head of security came into the room.
“I am sorry to interrupt your majesty,” he said “I am afraid we have received a telephone call saying that there is a bomb planted in one of the tunnels beneath the dome. We do not think there is anything in it, probably a hoax, but, just to be on the safe side, we are carrying out a search of all the service tunnels. We think it would be best if you all came with me and vacated the site whilst we do our check, just in case you understand.”
“How tiresome.” said Cherie, “You would think people would let us have at least one moment of splendor. Everybody has been so horrible about this project right from the word go. The media, the politicos on the left and the right, none of them have had a good word to say about it. I will be glad when tonight is over and we can all move on into the 2000’s.”
“If you would like to come along with me we have two cars waiting to whisk you all away to safety.”, said the security chief
“I had better go down and see for myself what is going on,” said Sir James,”might be a good idea if you came too Betsy. I will see you all back on the platform at midnight for the opening, I am sure all will be well.”
As the dignitaries left the room Sir James and Betsy hurriedly took out their yellow safety helmets and a halogen flashlight from the cupboard in the corner of the room and went out with the security chief.
Underneath the dome there was another world.  The service tunnel network carried all the services needed for a large structure. Water pipes, sewerage and waste disposal, telecommunications cables, electricity and gas supplies, plus a tunnel that led to the waters edge through which special guests could gain entrance by boat when there was difficulty with excess traffic on the roads.
All the service tunnels had been checked within ninety minutes of the call and they had all been given the all clear, nothing had been found, it was looking like a hoax call after all.  James Beak was feeling mightily relieved as last minute hitches were not the best thing in the world for his heart condition. This was going to be his last major project and he was looking forward to retirement. What better way to bow out than such a prestige event where he had nailed the biggest show in two thousand years of British history. He was feeling good about things again, it would not take long to get the Queen and The Prime Minister back into the royal box in time for the opening of the year long Millennium festivities.
The security team came out of the tunnel that led down to the river and reported that it too was all clear although there seemed to be a strange musty smell in the tunnel but they had been unable to ascertain the source.
“Betsy, we had better take a quick look down there just in case there is something that needs sorting out later.” Sir James said.
“OK James, let’s get on with it, we only have 45 minutes to go before the start, we need to hurry.” she replied.
They went through the double set of flood doors designed to ensure that if there was ever a tidal surge on The Thames it would not get into the network under the Dome.  As they walked towards the platform and the landing jetty at the far end of the tunnel the lighting overhead began flickering. They looked at each other and both noticed the sudden increase in the musty rotting fish-like smell. The lights increased in brightness before going out with a loud sputtering noise as if water had got into the cables.  They were in complete darkness, Sir James switched on the flashlight.
“There we are my dear,” he said,” nothing to worry about just a short in the circuit. That must be what the smell is all about, I have often smelt this in the past when old plug sockets develop shorts.”
Before she could say anything there was a loud rending noise in the tunnel wall just to the left of where they were standing.  Sir James aimed the flashlight beam at the wall and watched as small pieces of concrete began flaking off and then larger chunks began to fall to the floor, within five seconds an enormous hole had appeared over six feet high and three feet wide. the surface behind the tunnel wall was composed of old compacted river mud which was giving a much stronger odour of the same rotting fish smell. Betsy was already moving back along the tunnel towards the Dome but Sir James stood there transfixed by what had just happened. As he looked he noticed that the mud appeared to moving, there was a squelching noise and then a whole section of the mud fell away revealing what looked like the outline of a body. Suddenly the shape moved towards Sir James from the hole and he could make out what appeared to be a corpse covered in stinking rotting flesh, it’s face draped with a disgusting piece of cloth with a hole where the mouth would have been. Sir James felt his heartbeat increase significantly as fear took over his entire body and his adrenaline levels surged. His heart went into arrhythmic spasm. Betsy had turned and screamed as she saw the Revenant of Charlie Hendry in all his gory majesty standing in front of Sir James. Then a strange sound emanated from the horrible being.
“Beak, I said I would return and wreak my vengeance on you.”, Charlie Hendry said in a low pitched gurgling voice, ”  Now as you die I will dance the Hempen Jig once more only this time it will be out of pleasure at your passing.”
The figure began twitching and moving it’s legs and arms in the most alarming fashion, twisting its torso into the most abominable shapes and moving ever closer to Sir James as it did so. The last thing Sir James saw before his heart gave out was a large yellow and green eel emerging from the hole in the mask on the revenants face.  James Beak collapsed dead on the floor. The revenant turned and looked up the tunnel towards the quivering secretary. “You don’t be MY Betsy.”, it gurgled and with that he completely disappeared in front of her very eyes. The lights came back on and the tunnel wall was somehow repaired back to it’s pristine smoothness as before. The strong pungent fishy smell had also gone. Sir James Beak lay dead on the floor. Beside him, slithering along the floor towards the steps down to the water was a three feet long yellow and green eel with the brightest of bright blue eyes.

This is a complete work of original fiction by me
Harry Rogers, in my hut, Aberbanc, 14th November 2015

“GHOSTIE” a short story

“GHOSTIE”

1944 had one hell of a summer. Greenwich was one of those London boroughs that got a right pasting from the German bombing raids and the local mortuary in St Alphege’s passage was much busier than it had been for a couple of years. This was largely due to the introduction of the doodle bug, Hitler’s flying bomb. I guess you could say that they were the forerunners of the modern day drones, in that they were unmanned aerial vehicles. The people hated to hear the high pitched whine of the doodle bug engine because they knew that somebody was likely to die or, at the very least, get seriously injured in a short space of time.

Johnny Clemence was the attendant at the St Alpheges Field Mortuary and he had been working non stop for 36 hours solid. He decided he would go for a beer in his favourite pub, The White Hart, in Crooms Hill. It was not the closest boozer to the mortuary but it served the best beer in Greenwich by far and that was important in such times of austerity. He was careful not to waste his few shillings of beer money on rubbish and this was just a matter of common sense to him. He walked into the small public bar and there, sat in the bay window, was his best pal Lonnie Manchester. Johnny and Lonnie had grown up together, served in the First World War together and had worked as lighter-men on the Thames until the end of the 1930’s. They were such mates that people used to think they were brothers in their dockers outfits of flat caps, black waistcoats and white mufflers. Johnny ordered two pints of mild and bitter and took them over to the table where Lonnie already shuffled the set of black and white dominoes.

“Alright matey?” said Lonnie

“Knackered.” said Johnny

“I heard there was a lot of action in East Greenwich last night.”

“Yes, Jerry blew the back end off of the Queen Victoria in Trafalgar Road. Luckily nobody was hurt. If the buggers had hit the public bar it would have been total carnage. Apparently the local wood yard sent a van load of timber round there and they have patched it up as best as they could and they were open again at 11.00am and serving cider as usual.”

“This bloody war, it seems like everybody’s so used to it that they just carry on as if it is normal.”, said Lonnie with a resigned sigh.

“I know mate, it’s going on and on. I’ve had a bellyful of it though, I need a break, you know, a couple of weeks hopping down in Kent, or some time at my sisters place down in Lancing. Even a week would do.”

Johnny got his bread and dripping sandwiches out of his coat pocket whilst Lonnie dealt the dominoes for their lunchtime game. They usually played “batchy fives” using a cribbage board to score with and counted the scores in multiples of five. Both of them were experts and knew each other’s game too well and so it was not unusual for their games to go right down to the last domino, and this day was no exception. Johnny won the game by one point, the closest of margins and he picked up the two sixpences they had been playing for and put them into his waistcoat ticket pocket. He lifted up his pint glass and drained the last of the beer.

“Back to the grindstone for me, no peace for the wicked, I’ve got a load of people to get ready for the undertakers to take for embalming this afternoon.”

“OK pal,” said Lonnie, “same time tomorrow, I want to win back me tanner.”

They both laughed as Johnny took his glass back to the bar.

“Sees yer later.” he said and set off back to work.

The afternoon sun shone brightly as Johnny walked past the church and turned down St Alphege’s Passage. The pavement of this small street was made up of old headstones and, if you took your time, you could still read the names of long dead people from the 1700’s as you walked along. Johnny whistled his favourite Arthur Tracy song, “Marta (rambling rose of the wild wood)”, he particularly liked the accordion accompaniment, as he walked into the small park where the mortuary stood in the far corner, next to the children’s playground. By the time he got into the staff room the weather had changed and there was a typical summer downpour. Johnny turned on the radio and tuned it to the light programme, then he put on his white overalls and moved into the main area where the cadavers were stored after autopsy. Johnny had the unenviable task of clearing up once autopsies were completed. He had taken this job after he had fallen between two barges on the river and badly damaged his right leg. He could walk OK and people never noticed his slight limp but he was nowhere near agile enough to hop from barge to barge any more and so had been retired off the river. This was a source of great sadness to him as there was not a day went by that he didn’t miss travelling up and down Bugsby’s Reach on the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich.

Johnny looked at the six bodies on the slabs in the main Autopsy room, three women, an old man and two young children, victims of the previous nights bombing raid, and he set about carefully sprinkling them with the Chloramine powder he used for stopping stinks, and killing flies and maggots, before he wrapped them in cotton sheets and put them onto the special sliding trays for insertion into the cadaver storage room. By four o’clock he had finished this task and was well into washing down the slabs and scrubbing the floor. He was a stickler for cleanliness and always made sure that when the pathologists and forensic staff came in everything was ship shape for them. He took pride in his work and, even though it was often gruesome, he saw it as something totally worthwhile. He finished washing down at six thirty and was just spreading the Chloramine powder on the floor when he heard the sound of a doodle bug approaching. “Oh my gawd,” he thought “not another load of work.” That summer in London and the South East there were over eight thousand deaths and tens of thousands injured by these terrifying, rocket propelled, war machines. Johnny was glad that he heard this one pass on by but a second doodle bug was right behind the first and he never noticed the engine cutting out. This was the moment that Londoners hated the most because when the engine cut out that meant that the bug was about to drop out of the sky and if you heard the whining stop then it was very likely that it was going to land near you. Johnny was putting the Chloramine away in the storage cupboard when the doodle bug hit the mortuary. He hadn’t heard a thing and was oblivious as the building erupted with a catastrophic explosion.

There were a lot of people in the Lord Hood public house in Creek Road who heard the enormous detonation of the bomb and many of them rushed around the corner to what remained of the mortuary. There was a large cloud of smoke hanging in the air and Billy Cole, the local butcher, said “There is absolutely no way anybody could survive that.”

As he spoke, there appeared a figure staggering through the smoke and ashes. What a ghastly sight they saw as he came towards the crowd. Johnny was covered from head to foot in the white embalming powder. Two women started screaming and Billy said “Blimey it’s a bleeding ghost.” They took Johnny into the snug at the Lord Hood and gave him a large glass of rum. The powder storage room had given just enough protection to save him from the main blast, although his hearing was never quite the same again. His fame as a survivor spread all over Greenwich and Deptford and that was how, for the rest of his life, he became known as “Ghostie”, one of the few to survive a direct hit by a flying bomb in what was called the “doodle bug summer” of 1944.

Harry Rogers, in the old study, 26th June 2013