The Bells of Blencathra
Written and illustrated by Andy Paciorek
It may be said that the people of this nation may be divided into those that love Christmas and those that loathe it.
Yet there are others that may actually fear it and it must be said that I am one of that number.
Let me explain for it is not a fear of joy and goodwill, for I am no latter day Ebenezer Scrooge, nor is it one of those irrational phobias that linger from childhood – though it may indeed be irrational, it is however a deep and abject dread that fills my entire being at advent, yet one that stems from a bizarre and monstrous experience that it was my misfortune to bear witness too.
Specifically, though I now shun all of December’s frills and festivities as best I can, it is the sound of bells that fills me with the utmost horror.
To put some perspective on the account I am about to relate, let it be known that my childhood Christmases were filled with as much excitement and fun as any and far more than many, for I had a secure, comfortable upbringing neither spoilt with an over-abundance of luxury nor was I deprived or abused in any way whatsoever. I was a regular child, dull even – not prone to the wandering and wondering imagination that some children possess. It was of this mindset that I was to remain, the Christmases of my teens and twenties spent in revelling with friends and those to follow in the cosy comfort of courting and wedlock … at least for a while. For this is where the story turned.
It was the second year following the split from my wife and the first following the decree absolute. The first I spent in the city apartment that had for years been our marriage home. It was a Christmas spent in absolute misery, the endless same old Christmas songs that played eternally in shops and from the television, although always being irritating had in times past served for some ironic jovial sing-song now sounded like fingers scraped down glass, the happy smiling couples that I saw out in the streets Christmas shopping and heading to and from parties now filled me with pain and loathing for I was no longer part of that lifestyle (and though for every kissing couple at Christmastide, there are those that curse and quarrel, in my loneliness my eyes were blinded to those).
There were no invitations to parties for me to attend, nor were there Christmas cards adorning my apartment, for the only envelopes that fell onto my doormat that year were letters and bills from solicitors. It was then that I discovered that all my friends were in truth her friends and had abandoned me when she did. I found company in the bottle.
So that Yuletide was spent in drunken, isolated sorrow in a house that no longer felt my own. I pledged to myself that the next and no others would be spent the same.
I moved apartment when my finances allowed, not far from where we’d lived together, but somewhere a little smaller, decorated to my newly found bachelor taste; somewhere to call my own. I could not abide to spend the following Xmas alone in the city, yet I still desired my own company and to get away from the hustle and bustle and tinsel and plastic trees.
So it was to the English Lake District I headed that cold December, specifically to a holiday cottage that I had rented close to Troutbeck village. With car filled with food and drink and books that I had always thought about reading but hadn’t got around to I arrived at that lovely isolated cottage with its stunning views of Blencathra mountain. I unpacked, made a coffee on the stove and then drove to town to buy more logs to ensure that the fire would be well stoked for my entire Christmas break.
All was well, as I sat warmly by the fire that cold Christmas Eve, I looked up from my copy of Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’ and gazed out of the window just as the first few flakes of snow fell from the dark sky. Entranced I watched as the fall grew to a flurry and I smiled, the weather forecasters had got it wrong - it would be a White Christmas after all. I felt good, relaxed; it was better this way, isolated yet far away from the isolation of the maddening crowds and away from the solace of the bottom of the bottle (though it must be said that my cup of coffee was heartily topped to the Irish tradition – purely for the extra warmth factor of course).
So in this contented state and hypnotised by the drifting flakes of white on the black canvas of night beyond the windowpane, I drifted into sleep.
I awoke, what seemed like minutes but a quick glance at my watch revealed to be hours later, for it was five minutes to midnight – almost Christmas Day. I threw another log onto the fire and was in contemplation whether to turn in then or to sit awhile longer with a snack and another hearty drink, but then something caught my attention… a distant sound of bells. Not improbable I thought, perhaps a church in a nearby village peeling out the chimes of midnight mass, but no, these bells were gentler, tinkling … distant yet somehow strangely close.
I looked out of the window and beyond the falling snow, which had now gathered upon the ground as a blanket of several inches in depth, I saw what appeared to be lights moving down the rough side of Blencathra. In colour they varied, bright yet in somewhat pastel tones of green and white and red and mauve. Peculiarly they appeared to be floating slowly, yet without doubt they also appeared to be moving upon the cottage at an impossible rate. Then, and now I stop momentarily, for to recollect and relate fills me still with incredulity and confusion and a cold rush down my spine… for there just within the garden of the cottage were a procession of figures.
The bells were now chiming closely with a gentle intensity, the tinkling rhythm unlike any music I had ever heard before, unearthly and haunting.
Who could these people be? It was surely too late for carol singers, perhaps a congregation of the faithful proceeding to church according to a country custom of which I was unaware?
I wiped condensation from the interior of the windowpane to allow me a better view, though clumps of snow that had stuck to the exterior still obscured the view a little. Yet unmistakably the figure holding a lantern at the forefront of the procession was wearing a robe of red and appeared to have a large white beard. Surely Santa Claus, despite being of apparently saintly origins, would have no place in a church pilgrimage? I then suspected revellers, but the cottage stood entirely alone for several miles, so what would they be doing here so far from the pubs of the towns?
Well, more fool them if they want to risk freezing for a giggle, however though I intended days of peace and solitude, if they were of a friendly disposition and if they came knocking, I would offer them some warmth and coffee.
As the convoy of figures moved closer to the cottage though, to my great terror I discovered that they were something far stranger altogether! Behind the scarlet cloaked leader were chained a troop of naked people, men, women, children. Their bodies were pale and gaunt, their expressions both wretched and ecstatic … as if drugged but still aware of some dreadful fate. And behind them, My God … behind them, herding them on, were a myriad host of the most eldritch beings. I cannot begin to adequately describe them … misshapen, chimeric beasts some like skinned dogs, others scaled or covered in bedraggled mangy fur. Their eyes … oh their eyes, burning bright and multi-coloured. Surely some bizarre fancy dress, a perverse heathen practice perhaps, you think? I’d like to think so, I really would.
My attention did not alas go unnoticed and the red-robed entity turned to gaze my way and then to my dire dismay, he proceeded to walk towards the window.
I stood transfixed, both in fear and as if hypnotised by those damned bells, which seemed to be ringing in my head.
FULL STORY CAN BE READ IN CC VOL2