JACK FRANCE

Imagine a busy pub in the village of Dorstone, where everyone is quiet, listening to Jack playing his violin. When he finishes the pub erupts into wild applause. As it dies away Bert, Jack’s fellow band member steps forward.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, that’s all for the evening.”

As a mark to the musician’s skill there was a groan of disappointment around the room. “Come on, we’ve all got homes to go to, most of us at least.” To prevent any further call for encores the band started packing up their instruments.

Jack looked at Bert. “I could have got another encore out of them.”

“Easy Jack. There’ll be other evenings.”

“I suppose you want to mingle with the audience.”

“Even an old married man like you must have noticed all those adoring, pretty faces gazing up at us. A shame to waste it.”

“You’re evil.”

“Come with me. Learn from the master.”

“I’m getting home to Helen.”

“It’s a terrible sin. All your fiddle playing wasted on one woman.”

“It’s the way I like it.”

So Jack walked out of the pub and headed home. He knew his wife would be waiting up for him, so he took the shortcut, through the churchyard. Something that Bert had mentioned during his funny introductions to their songs came back to him. This was old Hallowe’en, before they messed with the calendar. This is the night that Death himself comes to church and reads the names of all the souls that will die in the coming year. He smiled to himself, the way the audience had gone quiet listening to this information.

He had been through the churchyard hundreds of times in his life so, even though it was as dark as the grave, he went through the lych gate with barely a thought. He closed the gate, turned and caught his foot in something and fell over. He lay on the floor, surprised rather than hurt. It struck him that it was not a good sign, falling over in a graveyard, but his mother had said “Clumsy oafs make their own bad luck.” So he picked himself up. The rest of the path he could see pretty clearly in the light coming from the church. It struck was odd that there was a light on in the church at this time of night. Most likely it was the vicar practising his sermon.

Although Jack was not a regular church goer, he knew the vicar well enough to know it unlikely he would be practising his sermon on a Saturday night. Well, there was only one way to find out. He might not be too keen on the church but he was going to be damned before he would let some diddikoys from Hay escape with the silver. As he got nearer he heard beautiful fiddle music coming from the church. Definitely not the vicar, that’un was tone deaf and played the trumpet.

The heavy church door creaked open and Jack’s footsteps sounded hollow on the stone floor. As soon as he had entered the music had stopped. Instead there was a voice reciting something. Jack went further into the church. He could not see anybody but his ear became accustomed to the voice and he realised it was a list of names. Jack did not like to speak in the church but knew that not to do so would be odd.

“Hello there. Vicar?” He said it even though he knew it wasn’t. Now he could see there was a dark figure standing in the pulpit, so indistinct that he had not spotted him at first. The voice continued, almost as if it was inside his head. “George Lucas, Terence Jubb, Nancy Middleton… “And her with a little baby as well.” Jack heard himself thinking. “Michael Stout, Edward de Jong…” “Well, good riddance to him.”

“ Yes, I take everybody, bad souls or good.” the voice in his head was saying.

“Then you better get on with it then, or you’ll be here till dawn.” “Jeff Carter, Mary Midgely….Helen France.”

Something seemed to drain from Jack’s body. He could not stay there anymore. He turned and ran out of the church. He ran home and went up to the bedroom, relieved to see his wife in her usual position with her back to him. He was so relieved that he lay down on the bed and put his arm around her. Mistaking his intentions she shrugged him off. “Get off me. You don’t know how angry I am with you, out till all hours.”

Not wanting to upset her any more he lay down quietly next to her and stared at the dark ceiling. The next few days he could hardly bear to leave his wife’s side, which was rather out of character. Even going to work was a trial, something he did with dread. His wife was annoyed by the unusual intimacy and suspicious, because no husband behaves like that unless he has done something.

Then Bert called round and Jack did not seem too pleased to see him. “What’s got into you, Jack? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Jack gave Bert a terrible look. “What’s this?”

“It’s just a stupid superstition.”

“I think you better tell me what exactly did happen.”

“I went into the church and there was just some old man reading out names.”

It was at that moment that Helen, not trusting the two men to be alone together, came into the room.

“You must have heard all the people that are going to die this year.”

“What you fools talking about?”

“Thank you Bert.”

“Anybody we know in these names?”

Bert went pale. “Please not me. Please not me.”

“He read out your name.”

“Mine! You were looking at Helen then, right?”

“I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen.”

Helen looked shocked. “I knew you were a fool but I did not think you that big a fool. You can’t believe such stuff?”

“Believe it or not I’m going to do something about it.”

“You must have been drinking some stuff.”

Bert saw a chance to help. “Oh we were and that’s the truth of it.”

“You shouldn’t go frightening bodies with such foolishness.”

“Helen…”

“At least if death came from me he would free me from you. I’m going to have a lie down I’ve been so vexed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And I don’t want to hear any more of this madness. They’ll be carting you off to St Mary’s if this gets out.” She slammed the door behind her.

“He’s not going to get his own way.”

“What can you do? After all he’s…death.”

“And he’s a fiddle player too.”

“What d’yer mean?”

“What do fiddle players like best when they meet?”

“Drink?”

“Swap tunes. I’ll find him a tune he’ll like so much he’ll leave me Helen.”

“Where are you going to find a tune like that?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“We only play in ale houses. I expect he’s heard all those tunes.”

“Then I’ll find somewhere else.”

“Probably composed most of ‘em, given their subject matter.”

“Where would all the good violin players live?”

“Well, Hereford I suppose.”

“Then I’ll go there, find the best one and get him to teach me his best tune.”

“What’s Helen going to say about that, you going on the tramp?”

“It’s for her own good.”

That evening he heard Helen sobbing in the front room. He felt sick. But he was a brave man and he entered the room.

“Helen! I’m sorry I upset you. I never meant to. That fool Bert…”

“Oh it’s not that foolishness.”

“If it pleases you I’ll never take a drop again.”

“Old George Lucas is dead.”

“What!”

“Just dropped dead in the field. He was a good age but just to go suddenly like that.”

“That’s the first one then. Helen, I’m going away for a bit. Business. I’ll keep it as short as I may.”

“You can’t go now.”

“Here’s some money. It’ll tied you over ‘til I’m back.”

“Where are you going?”

“The big city.” With that he turned on his heels and was out of the house before wiser councils could prevail.

A hard rain was falling in Hereford that night and the violin teacher was running quickly towards his house, searching for his keys. He was rather startled when a figure came towards him out of the rain.

“Mr Elgar!”

“Who the devil?”

“Mr Elgar sir. I’m really sorry to bother you, but may I speak to you?”

“You may sir, but you’ll have to wait until you and I are in the dry.”

The violin teacher found his keys, opened his front door and held it open for the man, who shrunk back.

“Inside sir, inside. Otherwise I will have to wait with you and we will both catch our deaths.”

Inside the warm hall they both dripped on the hall carpet. “My God, you’re half drowned.”

“Sorry sir. I was waiting for you.”

“Well come along into the parlour. There should be a fire in there by now.”

“Oh no sir, I’ll be fine here. I can drip on the mat.”

“Then I will have to stay with you and possibly catch a chill. You seem to have a great recklessness with my life young man.”

“No sir. That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Then get along in there.”

In the parlour a good fire was burning and both men gravitated to it. “Now then, what can I do for you?”

“I want to learn to play the violin sir.”

“Do you indeed.”

“Oh, I can play a bit sir, the old country way, but I want to play properly.”

“Properly?”

“The way you do.”

“Is your violin dry?”

“Yes sir. My mother gave me this case.”

“Then play me something.”

Nervously Jack took out his old fiddle and started to play one of his favourite jigs. When he had finished he felt the teacher looking at him.

“That was very good and it proves what I suspected. There is little I can teach you. You play excellently. In your own style. If I tried to teach you anything now, the best we could do is produce a poor imitation of me. Your individuality would be lost and that, in my view, would be a great crime.”

“But I must.”

“Also I am not a rich man. I need to charge for my lessons. More than I expect it would be reasonable to charge you.”

“I need to play sir. I can work for you. Do odd jobs. Why I want to learn… I’m being pursued by Death.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“My wife will die soon.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s why I want new songs. They can keep Death away. They can keep her alive.”

“I thought I believed in the power of music.”

“I believe in it too.”

“That kind of belief and you’re bound to be disappointed.” But there was something about the look of desperation on the man’s face. So Jack listened to Edward Elgar play and he learned the clever tunes and when he felt he was ready he walked back to Dorstone. He had come along the road just where one turning leads up to the Neolithic tomb called Arthur’s Stone and one leads down to the church when he saw Bert walking along the road towards him.

“Hi there Bert!” he called. Bert hesitated. For a moment it looked as if he was going to turn to get out of his friend’s way. Then he pulled himself together and waited for Jack to come up to him.

“Bert, what are you doing here? You should be at work.”

“I was on my way to Hereford to fetch you.”

“I know I’ve been away a long time, but I’m coming back now.”

“Jack…”

“Come on, we can talk along the way. I want to get back to Helen.”

“That’s what I was getting you for.”

“Why?”

“Helen, she fell ill.”

“How bad is she?”

“Pretty bad.”

“Come on then.” But running, shouting, crying, none of it did any good and, just two days later, Jack and Bert were standing a few yards away from where they had met, in the churchyard.

“I didn’t learn all that violin for nothing. I’m still going to make my bargain.”

“Jack, it’s over.”

“Ever since I went in that bloody church something has been hovering over me. I’m not going to let it win. The next time that devil comes to Dorstone church I’m going to better him.”

“Come on lad, don’t make yourself a fool. Even the vicar wouldn’t meddle in this kind of stuff.”

“Then perhaps he should.” Time passed and Jack could no longer be found in pubs or festivities. He did his work and then he went home. Passers by to his cottage heard fiddle music coming from it even if they passed by very late into the night.

At last the time of old Hallowe’en came around again. All the evening, although there was no one to hear him, Jack played his fiddle to himself in his cottage. Then, as midnight drew closer, he came out and walked down his path, carrying his fiddle but leaving his cottage door open behind him. As he came into the churchyard his heart skipped as he saw the lights on in the church. Without hesitation he pushed the heavy church door and entered, the musty deadness of the building hitting his nostrils. He walked up to the pulpit. The dark figure behind it had fallen silent when he had entered and now seemed to be watching him beneath his black cowl.

“You took my wife.” The figure did not move. Jack lifted up his fiddle. “You give her back and I’ll teach you a tune like you never heard.”

In reply the figure reached into his cloak and pulled out a violin, a fine thing whose varnish made the wood shine in the candle light. Death nodded towards Jack, who picked up his fiddle and played the song that Elgar had taught him. After a while Death joined in. For a while they played a duet, Jack stopping occasionally, making Death go over a passage that it had got wrong but, in a surprisingly little time, the creature had picked up the various melodies and could play the whole piece without mistake.

“There, I have kept my part of the bargain.” said Jack.

“Very well, you can take back your wife.” said Death. As he spoke Jack felt cold sweat run down his back, though they had been players together and a man should be friends with someone he plays with.

“Turn around and play yourself out of the church with your fiddle and your wife will follow you, and do not stop playing until you are back on unhallowed soil. She is still mine until she passes through the lych gate. Do not look back at her until then.”

So Jack turned and he picked up his fiddle and played and he walked towards the heavy oak door. As he approached the door it opened by itself but with a terrible creak and he was able to pass through it. As he went out into the cold night air the thought struck him that Death might be deceiving him. He was not known for being a straight dealing sort of fellow. Jack wanted to turn around and check that Death’s part of the bargain had been honoured, but he knew that he must not and he played on. He carried on down the path and he thought he heard a footfall behind him. Was it his wife’s? He wanted to turn around and see but he knew that he could not, so he played on.

He came to the lych gate. A voice came behind him. “That’s typical of you that is. You get me out of a nice warm bed to go walking in the cold and mist in a graveyard.”

It was his wife’s voice and Jack turned around to reason with her. He was only doing it for the best. But as he turned he stopped playing and all he saw was a surprised look on his wife’s face and then there was only the darkness of the churchyard and mist swirling around the graves. He ran back into the church but now it was cold and dark and felt as if no one had been there in years. He cried out his wife’s name but only cold grey stone echoed back at him.

As his wife had prophesized he ended up in St Mary’s Lunatic Asylum. He refused to play his fiddle, although the doctors thought it would be good for him. He would not tell the doctors anything but, occasionally, his face would contort, as if his mind was being torn apart by angry demons.

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