Harrogate too has its mysteries,
lurking outside the library,
sitting by the cider bench,
people that don’t get a mention
till they reach the other side.
Then they become beatified,
mourned with many false tears,
feeding the worms through the years.
Sitting in the only chair in the room the guitarist began to sing. She sang the carpet into furrows of clay and the light-bulb into a paled sun. She sang twelve jolly dons into the already crowded bedsit. Through the floor erupted stick tied men, the taint of mildewed coats filling the room. Around the window shabby crows cluttered up the curtain rail. On a Monday outside time she sang beauty between those four walls that lingered long after everyone left.
When the day passed to night I passed the night sleeping alone in a single bed, under a window too easily opened from the outside. Next morning I got up in my one pair of jeans, with my reduced money for the week, and I carried inside my chest one crow feather, a mildewed thread, and a clod of ploughed clay.
Nobody but the knight-giant knew why he had left his cave and transmogrified into the wall of a cliff. But the question was the subject of local rumour up until the last century, after which such debates were, somewhat predictably, removed to academic institutions.
The knight-giant was one of the few from the York district to have made it back from the wars but, on returning, he had found himself without shelter. Worse than that, Miriam’s first reaction to his knock at the door was to draw back and wring her dress through her fingers. He had witnessed enough abroad to know at once that she was no longer a maid, done enough to allow him to forgive her for that. But seeing himself through her wary eyes, not a brave man but a scarred man, ganglier even than he had been before he went away, he realised he had been foolish to hope that she would open her arms to him, seven long years on. There was no denying it; the cords of their betrothal were severed.
As he left Miriam’s place some young uns leapt up from the mud where they were playing and scattered. Quick enough to catch one of the smallest by the scruff, he lifted him up to eye level. ‘Does Mrs Adcock still abide by the tanners?’
The boy stopped struggling and began to cry.
A girl of about twelve edged towards him. Mary-Ann, Louise’s eldest? The boy’s sister, most likely. ‘Mrs Adcock’s passed on two years hence, Sir.’
The cold stone of grief filled his stomach.
She gulped. ‘Will you put him down? He thinks you’re a ghost.’
‘He might be right, at that.’ And the knight-giant put the boy down with a gentleness that hadn’t left him though he’d had little cause to use it for many a year.
A little way down the street, was the farriers. He paused by the door but either his old friend Peter was intent on the stubborn stone in the hoof he was examining or he was too afraid to offer him a hello.
Because he could think of nothing else to do and because war and the journey back had made him used to walking – not all knights had the privilege of a horse to ride – the knight-giant left the village. Pebbles pressing through the thinned leather of his shoes, he pushed his way into the forest. And for days and the nights that followed, he trudged without sleep in the circles of wolves, tormented by the ghosts every soldier carries with him.
By the time he came to the cave on the banks of the Nidd, he had walked off much of his grief for his mother and Miriam, much of his resentment at a country that only valued its soldiers on the battlefield, for villagers that could not bear to be reminded of the wounds he had gained for them.
He carved a bed of stone from a fallen rock and took up residence in the cave. It was a natural hollow, small, but it never grew very cold and the woods had berries and rabbits enough to keep him. Besides, apart from the rush of the Nidd, it was a quiet spot and after the clatter of war he was glad of that, so glad that he pledged to honour its tranquillity by keeping his silence until he had something to say.
It was in his daily baths in the nearby dropping well that his gashes began to heal, their infections soothed by the saline water. His fractured bones benefited too, mended with the calcium carbonate that filtered through the rock into the waters. Unlike in the village he hailed from, those he met at the well did not retreat from him for they understood well that those wounds could not be passed on to others. Yet he didn’t speak to them for he still had nothing to say.
Every day from his cave he watched handfuls of them trudge along the riverside – pilgrims in pain – watched them walk back, often a little lighter, until one day, after the shadow of noon had passed, a bright-eyed young boy stopped at the cave mouth. John had noticed him because he had passed both ways several times over the last few months and because of his limp that did not improve for all his visits to the well.
The boy swung his stiffened leg into the cave and asked a question. After eighteen months of silence, the knight-giant found it was a question that he could answer, and so he did. The boy went away with the limp he had come with but lighter nevertheless and he did not visit the dropping well again. After that the knight-giant had many visitors, all with questions that he found he could answer and they all went away lighter, unless gravity was what they needed, in which case that was what they found.
This way of things went on for more years than anyone knows until one day the knight-giant left the cave and took up post a little further along the cliff. It could be that from outside the cave he found it easier to hear the prayers uttered by the torrents of the Nidd or that he simply liked the feel of sandstone against his back or perhaps he knew that one day a man would carve a holy place into the cliff and would need someone to protect him and his icons. It is not known whether from his place as sentinel of the rock he continued advising the pilgrims that came by there or whether he had run out of words altogether. But what is known is that he had showered so frequently in the waters and breathed in so much of the calcium carbonate in the stone that his flesh eventually solidified to rock.
So if, on the course of your pilgrimage, you visit Knaresborough and happen to have a question, do pose it to that knight in the cliff, just at the entrance of where the chapel is now. Listen carefully for his answer before standing beneath the dropping well to let those waters wash over your skin. Only take care you don’t stay too long.
N.B. This story was inspired by the etching on display at The Mercer Gallery 7th Feb-21st June. ‘St Robert’s Church at Knaresborough near Harrogate Spa in Yorkshire’ by an unknown artist.
Society’s staid and structured classes,
each one linked by a steel rickety bridge.
We tell our children, ‘Oh, if you only work hard,
you’ll saunter across and live the dream.’
And, whilst for the favoured few
who were born with beauty, wit or charm,
an easy crossing may be theirs,
far more common, sadly, to find
a grubby child, neglected and old before time,
stood with toe tentatively outreached
on a violently swaying hole-ridden bridge,
never to reach the other side
because of misfortune of birth
and a generation’s lies.
The sulphur turned us impish, nestling in our marrow like a hiding toddler. Staring at our faces you may have noticed small nubs of keratin erupt upon our foreheads. Behind us dragged our tails of thorns and fox tongues.
We did not inflict our mischief upon others. All our tricks were inward looking. We were both Grifter and Mark.
Our horns we hid. The girls with concealer, the boys with fringes that scraped their eyes. But our tails? Oh, we were proud of our tails. We bedecked them with ribbons and lengths of neon climbing rope. Bottle tops that caught the light, and some with bells teased from the necks of friendly cats. We dressed them like we were mingling at Carnivale, and we were proud of them. Yet they were treacherous things, our tails. Their thorns snagged three score times a day. Sometimes upon ephemeral things like a whispered word. Or the glance of those taking afternoon tea beyond a window we would never see from the other side.
Other times they caught in the route of a store detective. Shifted his footsteps until they fell in behind ours. The dance moves of the uniformed were never as rapid and staccato as those tapped out by our cloven hoofs.
On curtained days the thorns of our tails became knotted, tearing into our sheets. Became wrapped around with strands of brown and blue smoke. In the dark the fox tongues whispered words to us like blackberries. Some sweet. Some sour. We picked ourselves free with care, thread by thread.
The chalybeate turned us ferrous, seeping into our skin like midnight thoughts. If you looked close enough at us you would see cuisse and revebrace cleave to our limbs. Plackart wrapped around our torsos. Vental covering our face when we no longer wished to talk. Yet we had no oils to care for the iron that wrapped us. No wax to rub into the once polished surface.
On our slow walks around town, feet weighed down by rusted sabaton, blisters of corrosion chipped off with each step. Our armour became shabby with each encounter. Rusted crumbs littering the well-tended grass where we lounged. Where we avoided people and homes that were not homes.
The magnesia turned us luminous, woven through our fingers like strands of radiance. No-one paid us attention, but we glowed. The midday sun at midnight. Magical and out of place. We gleamed and glittered. They ignored us. We knew this was because the brightness under our skin would scorch their eyes out. So they stepped aside and lowered their heads away from us. Glanced anywhere but in our direction.
We invite stories or poems from people who have experienced homelessness, or vulnerable housing in Harrogate.
Please send 250 words, or 25 lines of poetry including blank lines, and a 50 word bio about your experiences of homelessness or vulnerable housing.
Closing date 20th April.
All appropriate submissions will be put on the website and some pieces will be selected for the anthology.
Submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
v. To inhabit, visit, or appear to in the form of a ghost.
n. A place much frequented.
v. To haunt one’s thoughts or memory.
The history of this town haunts us.
These buildings in which we live are spectres of past opulence.
The healing of this town is not for us.
Harrogate is known for its past as a wealthy spa town, and still has a reputation as a genteel place of tea rooms and flower shows.
This is not the Harrogate of everyone. For some people this idealised history is a haunting presence in their lives. In the fabric of buildings where they live in one room, or the parks where they sleep. Their experiences are muffled beneath the dominant voice of Harrogate.
Haunt explores how people who are homeless, or bedsit residents, live inside these ghosts of the town’s past. Haunt gives people a place to tell stories not normally heard within the accepted narrative of the town and bring them to a wider audience.
It is more than ten years since
we sloughed off our memories with unwanted cells.
Now we come, like door-knockers in suits,
to collect again what remains.
No arguing with the grave
pull of prolapse between my legs,
the thickened sceptre of your waist –
calluses of the years between.
After seventeen years of stilled voices,
these uncanny bodies are ours.
Let’s undrawer the patterns of our youth.
strew them along the unmarked track
through the pinewoods,
dance the basement in a time before fear,
emerge, head back, to swallow the stars.
Despite the science, the body remembers
that gesture made once in love,
relays back to itself, anaphoric,
the grazing of bodies against bodies,
of bodies against walls.
Dissolving into the homeopathy of our stories,
will we recollect what we are,
might we find a cure
in the well