Castle Keep

By Robert Aston

"Oh good! You've brought the bagpipes with you". This was not something I heard every day, especially from a bloke who was completely encased in shining armour. "Yea, verily" I replied, holding up my carrier-bag. The bagpipes inside it were Spanish, but their single drone-pipe made them identical to those played in England during the Middle Ages. "They'll need putting together and tuning" I said apologetically, 'And it might take some time."

"That's all right, chap. Take as long as you like" The plumed helmet nodded towards a door in the chapel wall: "Join us in the undercroft when you're ready". This was the yearly gathering of Dudley's Medieval Re-enactment Society and I had come up to the Castle to make my debut as their bagpiper.

Once I had fitted the wooden tubes onto their bag, I tucked it underneath my armpit and puffed it full of wind. The resultant discord was strident enough to loosen ear-wax as it echoed back and forth between the walls of the courtyard. Fortunately for mine hosts, they had left me alone. Above me, the great Keep towered against the darkening sky, its twin drum-towers looming round and massive - each limestone block outlined as though with Indian Ink.

While my hands adjusted the length of the drone-pipe, my ears listened to the improvement in its harmony with the chanter (where the melody comes from). And all the while, my brain was worrying itself sick because it couldn't remember a single medieval tune. Thanks to some twerp's car-radio, the only tune I could recall was: "Orrrnnnn the Weennngs of Lorrrve". Once a song like that gets into your head, there's no getting rid of it... except by loading in another. I couldn't read music so, with this eventuality in mind I had brought along my psaltery. Laying this box-shaped harp on a convenient table, I plucked on the strings, following a sequence of notes that I had cunningly graphed-out on a card beneath them.

In no time at all, the first of my medieval tunes had been loaded back into my memory cells. Swinging the drone-pipe over my shoulder, I grasped the chanter, and as soon as my fingers located their respective holes, the desired melody came tootling out. That doesn't always happen; you can be half-way through a tune before you realise that your fingers have decided to play something completely different. Anyway; on this occasion they were being so well-behaved that I almost felt competent enough to face an audience.

"Ahrr, the rememberraunce. Thet Me liketh... . againward, wyht"

Embarrassed by the unwelcome intrusion, I sprang around. As I did so the blowpipe escaped from my mouth, the pipes groaned in protest and something tapped me lightly on the shoulder. But the courtyard was deserted, with not a living soul between me and the great, grassy mound which bore up the Keep. Another tap got me jumping round again. Only then, did I realise that the pennant which I had hung from the drone-pipe was swinging against my back.

"Calm down, you silly beggar," I told myself. Yet even as I breathed a sigh of relief, something flickered high up among the battlements of the Keep ... a flash of red and white ... and a spear! How could anybody have got up that narrow staircase in so short a time?

"I suppose you think that's funny," I yelled up at the grey stone towers. Their arrow-slit windows stared blankly down, while above them, an enormous flag of Saint George billowed out on a breeze that was conspicuously absent from the courtyard. Pulling myself together, I sucked in a lungful of the cool damp air and exhaled deeply into the bag. That Castle would play on anybody's mind, never mind somebody who was struggling to keep his bag inflated, while allowing his fingers just enough free-rein to get on with the mysterious business of playing a tune. But those strange words had flowed into my head in much the same way as the notes were emerging from the chanter, with no conscious effort on my part. My fingers might be behaving themselves, but my subconscious mind must be running riot.

"Play a murry norte, thanne" whispered my subconscious mind. I was accustomed to stray thoughts flitting into my head, especially when there were females about. But never before like this. "Soddoff" I muttered. Expelling all thoughts from my mind, I blew harder into the bag, rammed it up under my armpit, and skirled across the darkening turf to the undercroft door.

The scene in that cellar was straight out of a history book. Most of the men were clad in armour and the women wore multi-coloured robes and jewels. To add to the atmosphere, a stone fireplace in the far corner had been fitted with one of those fluttering lamp-things. In its flickering crimson light, a suit of rusty armour stood guard over a pair of enormous stone coffins. I stood there enchanted, as thirty-odd faces turned in my direction and sixty-odd ears pricked up to listen. If my feet hadn't been rooted to the spot, I'd have turned-tail and run. However, there was nothing else for it but to carry on playing, staring up at the barrel-vaulted ceiling and praying that my fingers knew what was expected of them.

They did, and spite of a few odd notes, my efforts seemed to go down well enough ... as did a mugful of ale when I eventually ran out of wind.

"The Archery Group meets here on Monday evenings at. . ."
"Forgive me," I groaned, "but is there a toilet anywhere up here?" Compelled by a growing pressure in my bladder I had been forced to interrupt mine host's account of the activities of the group. "Oh! There are some toilets in the 'Grey Lady' tea-rooms" my informant replied. "But they'll be locked-up by now". He smirked conspiratorially. "You'll have to find yourself a secluded place out there in the courtyard. It should be dark enough".

As I rushed for the door, he called after me: "But don't piddle up the stonework. It's got a protection order on it." "As if I would!" I shouted back over my shoulder, laughing.

I emerged from the noise and gaiety of the party into complete silence arid almost total darkness. But as my eyes accustomed themselves, I became aware, once again, of the great mass of the Keep. Now silhouetted against a star-speckled sky, it cast its coal-black shadow over the whole courtyard ... except for two narrow strips of moonlight which were streaming out through the lancet-windows as if there was a party going on up there as well, as well there might have been, seven hundred years earlier. But at this stage in its history, the Keep was as silent as the grave.

After scrabbling about in my bag for my torch, I located a secluded bush and was giving it a liquid-feed when "Tuck thet away and play us a sorng on thy otherr pipes". My subconscious mind was now impersonating a Scottish woman. "CW make it jollee," the voice continued in a whisper. "My lem-mon". When I enrolled for the meditation classes, they never warned me that my subconscious mind could behave like this. But surely, my subconscious mind should have known that I had left the pipes behind in the undercroft. Thoughtfully, I shook my leg, which slapped against the carrier-bag, heavy with the weight of the psaltery. It was time to load another tune into my head.

"Intendestow to make it jollier" asked my subconscious mind. "Perssssorff," I whispered as the torch's swaying beam searchlighted a wooden bench near to the curtain wall. "Shahrrmawn" protested my subconscious mind.

With the psaltery laid flat on my knees, I slid another card beneath the strings and, by the light of the torch, began to pluck-out the notes of a troubadour's love-song. 'Ker-plink, plink. Ker-phnk, plink'. The ringing strings sounded pleasantly intimate in that dark arena.

"Tra-lu-la, tra-la-la," trilled the voice in my head. "Nay stint ofthyplukke".

The psaltery twanged discordantly as my fingers got tangled-up in its strings. I sat there petrified. Either I was going crackers, or the Castle was haunted. Well at least a ghost might give me the chance to prove that there really was life-after-death, after all.

"Is there anybody there?" I enquired experimentally. "Nay stint of thy pluck", commanded the voice. "That en-joyeth me moochel". As my legs tensed for a dash to the undercroft, I reined them in. After all, how could you run away from a voice in your own head? But why had it sounded female? Then I remembered our meditation-instructor telling us to get in touch with our feminine sides. She hadn't mentioned that our feminine sides could get in touch with us. Apprehensive of the probable answer, I forced myself to ask the question:

"Are you, my feminine side, then?" The voice adopted an exasperated tone: "Nay, lemmon. If thee must woost, I was damyselle to her Lady-sheep" "Dammy-sell? Lady sheep?" I repeated, intrigued and excited. "And what the Hell is 'woost' supposed to mean? If you want to talk to me, at least have the courtesy to use the Queen's English."

"Rank caytif" the voice spluttered. "Naye be needful for a youngling sich as yow to learn me-self to spaek". There was a slight pause, and then an emphatic pronouncement. "I spaek Long-Shanks Englisshe als gode als yow". I was being reprimanded by somebody who couldn't even talk proper English. It was like having a telephone conversation with a woman in a foreign call-centre.

"Who are you, then?" I asked. "As I sayed thee". The voice had now developed a wistfulness which hadn't been there before. "Me selfwerr chamberrere - serr-ving wench to mine maistress". The guidebooks claimed that the castle was haunted, but by a Grey Lady, not by a serving-wench.

"Why are you still here then?" I demanded, instantly doubtful if I really wanted to know. "I was y-mured in yonderr currtain", groaned the voice. "They said thet I had a-pysoned my lady" My blood ran cold. "And did you?" "Nay" the denial was too emphatic to be disbelieved, "On-a-day, me-Lady took sick. Myne graund-dame sended her suckets for hir relief. . . mith horehound and licoryse th-rin".

"Come again?" I muttered - struggling to understand, yet impatient to learn more. "My Lady complain-ed that the suckets were sourr . . . and shortly sythan, she y-waxeth seoc, mith semblance of dying". I had just about deciphered what these words meant, when more of them began to stutter into my head like bursts of bullets from a machine-gun:

"The leech/mon/proclaim-ed/her/to be empoisoned and leet/dun/spewen the suckets . . . oot". It sounded like an audio-recording, played too fast. "Sy-then, the chapelein judged me lutherr-Socerress ond Homicide". The voice had resumed a normal speed, but the words were increasingly hard to follow. "Naught thet I sayed might hem dissuade. They deed streep me stert-naked. . . bolted my body with irrons . . . and put me up in yonder wawe". The voice swelled to a silent scream. "Tofor-clemm to dyeth".

I sat there, aghast, in the darkness. Despite my difficulty with the words, their meaning was only too clear: a great wrong had been done here. "Natheless, they did-nay prosper" the voice continued. "For that rather afterr, the Grete Dyeth schent hem all". A mocking laugh rang around the inside of my skull. "I trow thet my Grandamere war some-how my vengeress. In truth, she really was lutherr". This was like listening to a play on the radio. "Pity thou me" the voice wailed. "Human life . . . is such a little while . . . in comparisoun with what I mot endurre. I pray thee rue upon my pain".

Overwhelmed with sadness and distress, I recalled that ghosts are said to be lost souls that are prevented from finding eternal rest by the circumstances of their dying. "I get it", I said. "You want to be dug out of that wall and given a Christian burial'. "Nay, lemmon!"

The 'nay' was clear enough, even though I still hadn't a clue what 'lemon' meant. "Lette mine auldbuons slaype. It were Cristens that slen me". That shook me, I can tell you. "So there's nothing I can do for you, then?" I stated flatly. The ensuing silence was even harder to endure than the revelations had been. Had she gone and left me alone in the dark? The windows of the undercroft glowed invitingly. The revellers would be waiting. "There is oone thing". The suddenness of it made me jump. "And what is that?" My enthusiasm for psychic exploration was waning as the coldness of the night air seeped in through my split-tights.

"Ye kenn what grieveth me sore? What me be-wailen that I nath nay doon?" I shook my head. "That I nay bred childer". The voice was more like a breath of wind than a whisper: "That a burd so love-worthy as I, never swived a mon". As a bachelor of long-standing, I naturally associated wives with love-making.

"It's a bit late now", I muttered unsympathetically. "Nay nairdas", denied the voice. "Not whilst thou art here". The voice grew stronger and more urgent: "Wultow swive me?" Bloody hell: I was being propositioned by a ghost. "Humans can't make love to ghosts," I declared as if I knew this for a certain fact.

"Hast thou nay he-ard of succubae?" the voice countered. I had read about spirits seducing people, but that was in the far-distant past. Nowadays, that sort of thing was put down to repressed urges. "Yes I have." I said. "But I couldn't."

"By Helles-womb, hwy naught" As the words squawked into my head, I felt the faint caress of a hand on my knee. "Nay be shy, my sweet lem-mon". At this point, I almost ran off screaming into the night, but male vanity (and a suddenly-extended blood circulatory system) prevailed. After all, what better way could there be of easing the suffering of a damsel in distress? And as a bagpipe addict, I was feeling pretty deprived in the mating-stakes myself. "Art-ow mis-liking my likerrousness?" the voice enquired sweetly. "What the Hell is lickerousness?" I was intrigued by the mental image it conjured up. "Thees" An invisible hand caressed my thigh. This was becoming a lot more interesting than plucking on a psaltery.

'Get ready for liberation', I promised my repressed urges. "I'm up for it if you are", I said aloud. "Soo I see", the voice murmured. "And now may we both our lustes full-fill". It sounded as though she was saying Grace at the dinner table. In the coolness of the night, I burned. "Unlouke thy middel," the voice ordered, briskly. "And lay thee bolt up-right up on the bench."

"How am I supposed to lie bolt-upright?" I quibbled. "Stynt thy clapp ond lay thee doon", snapped the voice. "Than lehve all to me. Ond kape thine honden to thyself". After laying the psaltery down on the dark wet turf, I stretched out along the cold hard bench. I won't describe what happened next. If somebody had told me that psychic research could be like this, I'd have taken it up years ago.

As the sensations hastened to their climax, a volley of words gasped into my head: "Goddess. .. bless . .. thee . .. my . .. LEM-MON". Of their own volition, my hands reached out to caress the invisible source of my delight. But instead of firm young buttocks, my fingers encountered scrawny, bony haunches. Cackling Laughter screeched into my head:

"Mony afeen note pricked on an auld sautry". Even as I recoiled in horror, the courtyard became flooded with intense light. The party-goers must be leaving already and I had let them down. A man's voice rang out across the courtyard: "Hey, Bagpiper! 1 thought you were supposed to be playing for us?" The reproach was drowned out by group laughter as an excruciating chest pain catapulted me off the bench. The last thing I heard was the twanging of breaking strings.

Dudley Castle stands dark and deserted now. Every-body has gone … except for the crone and me. Oh my gawd! Here she comes again.

(Images courtesy of Robert Aston)