Oul’ Thamas an’ the Knockin’

On Hallowe'en 1942, the Ireland's Saturday Night newspaper printed a ghost story of sorts, one with a moral, an oul' storyteller, and a touch of Ulster-Scots.

I'm going to spend Hallowe'en as I did last year - out at old Thamas'. I don't often get out to see him now, at his wee cottage up at the end of the loanin' - what with early blackouts and fire-watching and so on. But Hallowe'en is ticked off on my mental calendar as Thamas' Night, and nothing short of a blitz would make me miss it.

A chance remark of mine concerning a certain family in a nearby district set his tongue wagging.

“Och, deed aye! James is a decent fella an’ so was his da afore him. The folks all said he wasnae iver the same again after the knockin’.”

“The knocking?” I queried, sensing a story.

“Aye, the time his brother Willium appeared.”

“Thamas took two or three draws at the pipe and gazed into the fire in a way which I had learnt meant that he was away back among “the ould yins”. I bided my time, waiting patiently for him to return to the story.

“Ye see,” he went on, tapping his pipe against the fireplace. “It was the boys an’ girls were up at Henry James fer a bit o’fun. There had been a good bit o’ feasting an’ dancing, an’ so on, for Henry James, ever since his brother Willium had died, had aye had an open han’. It had been different wi’ Willium alive an’ many the cross bit was between them on account o’ Willium’s stintin’, miserly ways.”

“Weel, the fun was at its height when one o’ the girls came runnin’ intil the room. It was some time before they cud mak’ heid nor tale o’ what she was sayin’. Howsomever, it seems she had been down the passage at the end o’ the house, takin’ part in some game. She saw this man standin’ as though listenin’. She was just creepin’ up on him tae gi’ him a fright when he turned an’ looked at her. It was Willium… an’ he had died eight months afore. She screamed an’ raced past him up tae the room.”

“Did no one else see the ghost?”, I asked.

“Weel, no’ then, oneyway. It sort o’ put a wet blanket on the rest o’ the evenin’ and soon they all decided it was time tae go home. James Henry pooh-pohhed the story, but Mary, the wife, was worried. That night they weren’t hardly settled down ’til Mary sat up in bed.

“James. Did ye hear that? Someone’s knockin’.”

They listened. There it was again. A quiet knocking at the front door. Mary peeped out o’ the bedroom window. A man was standin’ there in the moonlight. James hurried down to open up. Some neighbour was in need o’ somethin’. Mary listenin’ from the bedroom door, heard the bolts an’ chains withdrawn. The door creaked open… A moment’s silence, an’ then she heard her husband’s voice gaspin’ as though in terror.

“Willium! Don’t!”

Then the door banged shut an’ all was still. Racin’ downstairs, she foun’ James Henry lyin’ unconscious besdie the door.

“What had happened”, I asked, for Thamas had gone back to his dreaming into the fire. He shook his head.

“Ah don’t know”, he said. “An’ naebudy iver will. For James Henry niver spoke o’ it ’til man nor boy frae that day.”

“You said he was never the same again”, I said. “In what way did it affect him?”

“Och, some o’ the folks wud hae ye believe that he was aye a wee bit touched like after, but ah don’t think he was. Sartinly, he didn’t throw his money about as much as before, an’ folks all thought he had turned miserly. But they learned different a few years later when he died. It seems that fer the last year or so o’ his earthly journey, James Henry had spent his money doin’ good. Many’s the orphaned child an’ helpless widow prayed fer his soul the night he passed away.”

I thought of the rich man who, we are told, wished to return after death to warn his brothers, and I mentioned this to Thamas.

“Maybe”, he said. “Ah don’t know. One thing is sartin. He saw Willium. An’ frae that day, he lost all heart in layin’ up treasure.”

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