Authors: Babs Horton
A Jarful of Angels
An evocative literary thriller set in a remote Welsh village. Thirty years ago, in a remote Welsh village, Iffy, Bessie, Fatty and Billy formed a remarkable friendship and enjoyed an impoverished yet magical childhood. That winter they found a skull with its front teeth missing, that summer they experienced a plague of frogs, crept into a garden full of strange statutes, and discovered just what mad Carty Annie had been collecting so secretly in those jars of hers. But at the end of that long, hot summer of 1963, one of them disappeared…Over thirty years later, retired detective Will Sloane, is compelled to return to that strange Welsh town of secrets and lunatics to try to solve the case of the missing child. But before he can finally discover the truth about what happened, he finds himself involved in a number of interlocking mysteries.
ancing Duck Lane is no longer marked on the map, perhaps it never was, but it can still be found. From the hump-backed bridge take the road to the left and keep close to the crumbling walls that enclose the charred ruins of the Big House where the roof has long fallen in and where a descendant of the Old Bugger lives now. Magpies yammer in the overgrown kitchen gardens and the statues of the white-skinned girls lie mildewing where they have fallen in the long wet grass. Follow the curve of the river away past the lonely recreation ground. There, the ghost children turn the solitary roundabout, invisible feet kicking up the black dust, their voices rising and falling on winds that still blow up the valley from the faraway sea. Climb over the rotting stile and on past the withered tree. Dancing Duck Lane is an overgrown track leading nowhere in particular.
Only the rubble remains now of Carty Annie’s tumbledown house. Dandelion clocks, stinging nettles and yellow poppies grow there in wild profusion. Stoop down and run your fingers through the damp soil and there in the black coal earth you will find the splintered remnants of tiny bones and the fragments of a hundred broken jars, jars that once held so terrible and so marvellous a secret.
t was a town of lopsided old houses that stretched in terraces up the steep hills towards the restless skies. Inkerman, Balaclava, Sebastopol, and Iron Row where three-legged dogs ran amok and a mad woman swallowed live fish by the bucketful.
There was a Big House hidden away behind high walls where English people had once lived and ghosts still did. It was looked after by Mr Sandicock, a gruff-voiced old misery guts who kept to himself.
In the garden there were statues of naked girls. Sometimes, when the moon was full they came alive and danced on the satin smooth lawns. Then the waters of the fishpond would begin to stir and bubble and the slimy ghost of drowned Dr Medlicott crawled out of the thick, black water and chased them round and round the garden.
The centre of the children’s world was the hump-backed bridge where they had written their names in the concrete, long before they could spell them properly.
William Jonh Edwerds
Elizabeth Gwendlin Meredith
Elibazeth Roof Tranter
It was a town of coal tips and black-faced, whistling colliers whose boots scored bright sparks in the sloping back gwlis.
There were pubs that people were chucked out of:
the Black Prince
And churches and chapels they were dragged into:
the Church of the Immaculate Contraption
There was a town clock with a bong but no tock or tick.
A Penny Bazaar
The Corn Shop
Three Italian café’s with ice cream in silver dishes with raspberry sauce and men with gold teeth serving. A picture house called Olympia – the Limp – a fleapit where gummy old women sucked blood oranges and soppy couples kissed.
Iffy Meredith lived in Inkerman Terrace and so did Bessie Tranter.
Inkerman was one of the Three Rows. Inkerman was almost identical to Balaclava and Sebastopol. They were terraces of small whitewashed houses built for the ironworkers hundreds of years ago. They were all owned by Rabinowicz who lived with the nobs down in Cardiff. Every Thursday he sent a man called Moany Haddock to collect the rents. Moany Haddock had bright red hair and a wrinkly old arse that squeaked when he walked.
Every house had a back door and one sash window. The backs of the houses were single-storeyed, the fronts two. The fronts looked onto a small walled garden, and a gate led into the gwli. Hardly anyone ever used the front doors, only for funerals, weddings and burglary. They lived happier coming and going through the back. From the back doors they stepped onto a communal bailey that stretched from one end of the row to the other. It was where the women washed the clothes in battered tin tubs with washing boards and Sunlight or Fairy soap, where dogs and mothers fought and stray goats and chickens came for a nosy wander.
Opposite every back door was an outside lav. They were full of lurking spiders and Black Pats the size of saucers; there was newspaper on a rusty nail and icicles in winter. Next to the lavs were the coal sheds where bogeymen and rats lived side by side in the dark.
There were buckets outside all the back doors, upturned to keep the mice out. There were tin baths on nails and big stone blocks for sharpening knives. And some of the houses had old men with cloth caps and watery eyes. They sat outside in the bailey on three-legged stools. They smoked dogends and stared ahead all day long until they were taken in at night.
The Three Rows was the poorest part of town. And the night-time in that bit of town was the worst time of all. It was a time of gaslight and candle light. A mysterious world of bat shadows and owl call, of dog bark and frog song, of black, back gwlis where ghosts and blind pirates walked at midnight. It had a milky moon of its own that spun above the hill they called Blagdon’s Tump, like a plate on a conjuror’s stick. And beneath the moon, Jack Look Up, who wasn’t all there, poor dab, flew his red kite and cried for his long-dead son all through the night.
Wandering lunatics lived there too. Loads of them. Some of them were dangerous, and some were not. But it was hard to tell the difference until it was too late. And there were secrets in the town too, well hidden secrets. But that autumn saw the beginning of change.
It was a town where mostly it rained, but all that November impudent winds flounced up the valley stirring the leaves of the trees into a bubbling broth, snatching up washing and littering the mountain with long Johns and darned stockings. The winds grew more boisterous with each day until the skinny backyard dogs were whipped to a barking frenzy and the farm dogs howled and strained on their rattling chains.
The school playgrounds puffed up with whooping children, full of argument and rude, rough talk. Full to bursting with elbowing games of slap and spit and fury.
The moon blew in each night and struggled to anchor itself above Blagdon’s Tump. An alien moon, waxed with blue ice, silvered with frost. Beneath her cold glare the town slept fitfully behind groaning windows and uneasy curtains.
As autumn stripped the trees and froze the wits, a little more black coal dust was blown away and slowly but inevitably secrets came towards the light. Then the winds moved on, down the valley to the faraway sea, to stir up souls in other parts and set them on a journey.
Iffy Meredith lay in her big bed in the downstairs bedroom in the house where she lived with her grandparents in Inkerman Terrace. Outside the winds blew roughly and made the old house groan beneath their buffeting. The curtains shivered in the draught. The candle on the ancient tallboy flickered and ghostly phantoms danced along with the hanging bat shadows on the white, cracked bedroom walls.
Down beyond the hump-backed bridge in Carmel graveyard, the owl they called the Old Bugger hooted long and low as he hunted for chapel mice. Far away, on Old Man Morgan’s hill farm, Barny the bulldog rattled his chains and bawled at the melting moon.
Iffy pulled the patchwork quilt up over her head to dampen the noises. The quilt was made from snippets of dead people’s clothes. It smelled of ancient candles and incense clinging to old first-communion dresses. It reeked of curdled milk sick and wet rusks on babies’ rompers. The wistful perfume of love-struck war-time girls. The hard, sharp, muck sweat of a collier’s shirt.
Stealthy footsteps crossed the parlour outside her room. Iffy stiffened like a corpse. She held her breath and listened. The footsteps paused outside the door.
She bit her fist beneath the covers.
The latch on the bedroom door rattled, lifted slowly.
Iffy pushed back the quilt, heart bomping against her ribs. She smiled suddenly as Nan’s face appeared round the door, bright and friendly in the glow of the candle light. Tucking-in time.
The old lady’s shadow wiped the hanging bats from the walls and the writhing shadows of bogeymen slunk reluctantly away into corners.
A wisp of silvery hair tickled Iffy’s nose as Nan bent over to kiss her. Iffy giggled. Nan kissed her softly with a toothless kiss.
Iffy breathed in deeply the comforting smells of Fairy soap and tired old lavender that were ingrained in Nan’s skin.
“Goodnight. Gobless, Iffy.”
She looked very old standing there in the glimmering candle light and Iffy had a thought that she’d never had before. It was a horrible thought that grew like a snowball, gathering speed beneath her ribs, pushing up hard and painfully until it felt like a punch that knocked the breath out of her.
Nan was old. She didn’t know how old, but probably old enough to die. Soon. In the night. Tonight.
And Grancha was even older.
And if he died too there would be no one left for her except a few old aunties and a cousin with shell-shock from the war. And they’d put her in Bethlehem House with the nuns who smelled of strong polish and stale wee. They’d make her wear hobnailed boots and hair shirts, eat boiled cabbage with grubs in, and swede. And go to bed with the light out.
“Don’t forget your prayers mind, Iffy.”
Nan turned away from her and left the room.
The shadows snook out from their hiding places.
Iffy wanted to call her back but the door closed with a soft click.
Eyes shut tight. Hands together. She prayed:
She listened to the soft shuffle and scuff of Nan’s slippers as she went through the back parlour, past the sideboard with the withered palm crosses and the holy pictures of miserable-looking saints. She heard the latch being lifted on the kitchen door.
Iffy pulled the pillow around her face and kept it there until it was damp from her breath, until it soaked up her hot tears. She cried until her ribs stretched and ached. She cried until her eyes were swollen and itching.
She came up for air.
The sounds of the warbling kitchen wireless travelled through the dark back parlour and seeped in under the crack of the door.
In the kitchen she knew the light would be bright and the shadows friendly. Nan and Grancha would be talking quietly, the kettle would be hissing on the hob, and there would be the chesty purr of the cat and the tick tocking of the lop-sided clock that had once been pawned.
But between her and them lay the back parlour. An eternity of blackness not to be crossed on your own in the dark. The back parlour was bad enough in the daytime. But at night! At night it was thick with the dusty taste of fear, it was ghostly and terrifying.
The night noises of the house grew louder all around her. The creak of the bed beneath her, a bed where old people had lain dying in olden times. She heard spiders uncrossing their legs in dark corners. The scurry of a Black Pat hurrying across the lino.
And then she heard THEM…moving around furtively in the parlour. They came every night. Creeping out from the cupboard under the stairs. They were in there now.
The high-backed wooden settle creaked under their weight. The weight of resting ghosts who smelled of moth balls and Robin starch. Sitting side by side in the dark. The three of them: Grancha Gallivan who only had half a face, the other half had been melted away by a splash of red-hot metal when he worked in the iron foundry; Auntie Mary Ann, light-fingered, with one leg shorter than the other and wavy red hair down to her bum, who had died in a workhouse giving birth to a dead child; William Arthur, a big-eared boy with stiff, high collars, who was a bit of a scholar. Found dead in bed. This bed. Aged twelve. RIP.
On the sideboard in the parlour there was an empty wooden biscuit barrel and Auntie Mary Meredith had told Iffy, and she wished she hadn’t, that once the lid lifted off on its own and a black hand came out and grabbed her by her rude bits.