By Amy Dollery
WHEN I was six we moved to Whitby for a year. In between the ice creams and the sand, I fell in love with its folklore. Even at that age it quickly became apparent to me, that Whitby’s foundations were old and its beliefs were older. To ignore this, was as dangerous as believing in it.
This conclusion was only fuelled by my 70-year-old neighbour Edna. Squashed into her tiny kitchen with watered down squash and jam sandwiches made with cheap white bread, she would tell us about the real Whitby. Her Whitby. She didn’t tell us these tales for entertainment, or to give us a thrill, she told us to keep us safe. She passed on to us what had been passed on to her. How to keep a soul from being stolen by a Wharf, or how to understand the old fisher folk when they whispered their warnings from the caves on the beach. She taught us these stories to help us survive.
But it was the Barghest that most left its mark. Every night after hearing the tale I would beg my brother in the twin bed across the room, to let me climb in, top and tail. There I would lie, pressed into Danny’s legs, the pillow pulled over my ears to shut out the chance of hearing the Barghest’s howl.
“The Barghest,” Edna would whisper to us, leaning forward in her rickety kitchen chair, “is the soul of a black hound, travelling from hell itself. He stalks these parts with eyes burning red. If on a dark night my loves, the Barghest appears in front of you, or you see it up ahead walking across your path, someone you know will die. But if in the dead of night, you hear its fearsome howl. You know yourself, you do not have long to live.”
And Edna was not just telling a tale. Edna’s family had been tainted by the Barghest when she was just a child herself. The day it happened she was playing in the yard leading to the beach, whilst her mother, heavily pregnant pegged out her washing. Pausing to rub her back, her mother looked out across the harbour. It was at the moment Edna heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath, and turned to see the washing drop out of her mother’s hand. Edna ran to her mother, who stood silently crossing herself, her eyes still fixed on something in the distance and against her very will Edna eyes followed her mother’s gaze and looked across the harbour. There, stood in front of her father’s boat the May Pole, his eyes ablaze, was the Barghest. Enda stood locked into the hound’s stare until her mother began to scream.
Edna was quickly dispatched to find her father and bring him home. Her father arrived irritated by the dramatics of her daughter, to face the hysterics from his wife. Edna remembers her mum clinging to the front of her father’s shirt, begging him not to leave her. Normally no man would be bound by such antics, but as Edna’s mum was about to give birth, for once and once only he indulged her and stayed. The May Pole left the harbour without him. That night an unearthly storm blew in and the May Pole never returned. Every crew member drowned. The next day Edna’s mother gave birth to a still-born baby.
I often think of that story these days. I think about it when, in the dead of night, I lay awake waiting for an alarm to go off, or worst the lock turn. Any sound that will mean he has found me again. I lie, no longing waiting for a sleep that never comes, but instead for him and the howl of the Barghest to let me know it is the end.
It started with a date, a friend of a friend. We met in the Duke of York and he seemed a nice boy, not boyfriend material but a nice boy. I tried to be kind and tell him upfront that it wasn’t going to go any further, but he explained he had found the dating world very difficult, that he suffered from a chronic lack of self-confidence. He said he understood I didn’t want him as a partner, but asked if I would still meet him as a friend. I felt such pity for him and he wasn’t the only one who had been thrown around by the dating world, so I thought why not? It was the stupidest decision of my life.
The occasional coffee, turned into him waiting for me every lunchtime, and the occasional phone call grew to five calls a night. At first I didn’t say anything because I didn’t quite realise what was happening, and then I didn’t say anything, as I felt stupid, like I had caused it. I thought I could manage it, I was an adult and he was just a lonely man. But it was when I tried to put boundaries on him that it became truly awful.
He began by following me everywhere. He appeared everywhere. At my work, at a friend’s party, at a business networking event. He infiltrated every part of my life. But the worst was the swing. The pendulum where his passion moved from how much he loved me, to how much he wanted me to die and back again. It was that swing which made me feel as though I was going mad. Like when he arranged for me to be mugged and then was the one who rescued me. Like when he tampered with the brakes on my car, and then rang to say he had been watching and was worried about my safety. Like when he broke in, tied me up and then kissed me on the forehead.
He has been to prison twice, it hasn’t stopped. My brother has beaten him on more than one occasion, it hasn’t stopped. I have moved three times, changed all my details, given up my job, and dyed my hair. It hasn’t stopped. I have lost so many days of my life to him. Days to attend police interviews and courts, to see doctors and police psychologists. Days to pure anxiety where I daren’t leave my house and I daren’t stay in it. But none of it makes any difference, and I am just starting to understand, it never will. He will never stop.
So I have decided to stop. After 12 years of waiting for him to take me or kill me, I am tired. If he wants me, he can have me. I want to hear the Barghest howl.
I have come back to Whitby as it seems the fitting place. I tell my mother I will be safer in a hotel full of 100 people. That if I stayed with her, he would instantly find me. He of course knows where they live and Dad who suffered a stroke last year, can’t take any more stress. I tell her he couldn’t possibly guess I will be in Whitby.
I know every comfort I tell my mother is a lie. He will come and he will find me. He always has.
The bottle of wine is half drunk besides me, the corkscrew left abandoned nearby. I look at the pack of sleeping pills I am prescribed but am always too scared to take. I have always needed to be alert. Tonight I think perhaps I could feel differently about them.
I lay on the bed, facing the door, I always face the door now, and listen. There is a ferocious storm outside and the hotel perched on the cliff is taking a battering. It makes me wonder if it was like this the night the May Pole disappeared.
There is a knock on the door and someone shouts “room service”. I am instantly on alert. Through my many therapy sessions I have come to understand the flight reflex and the physiological effect it has on my body. My heart is now pumping faster and my hands have become sweaty. I know it is at this point I should take a breath and think rationally. To analysis the situation in a logical mind-set. The fact that I am in a hotel with hundreds of people, under a false name. That a man just out of prison could never find me so fast. But I also know, I haven’t ordered room service.
I try to ring the front desk, but of course my room phone no longer works. I try my mobile but the storm seems to have taken my signal with it. I look out of the window and see the fire escape. I am about to start climbing, to run again, and then I find I don’t have the energy. The wind screeching, sounds like a howl. So perhaps it is time. I think I want it to be time.
I look through the spy hole but unsurprisingly the person’s face is turned away from me. I open the door, ready for whatever will happen next. He stands in the doorway and smiles. I begin to fold in on myself, let my mind wander off to another place. He steps forward and reaches for my hand, letting the door slowly begin to close behind him. I look up one more time, before I will close my eyes forever, and through the closing gap of the door, I glimpse something. There stood in the corridor behind him, as sleek and as black as Edna described, is the Barghest. The hound’s piercing eyes hold mine until the very last second before the door shuts.
The message is clear. Someone will die tonight, but it isn’t me. Suddenly every inch of my body is alert and somehow the corkscrew has found its way into my hand.
© Amy Dollery 2016