Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Last Man In

This evening, Neil Bristow presents a tale culled from the notes and papers of local antiquarian, Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes...
December 1881
I impart to you now dear reader a dark and sombre tale told to me some ten years past by Mr_____, who as all good Greenockians know, is a god fearing and honest man. This account I place before you now is exactly as it was passed to me and as such I hope that however disturbing you find it, you will take it not for some fanciful tale, like parents tell their children of Auld Dunrod, but rather as a real and genuine - if at points unfathomable - reporting of true events.
It begins thus; you will doubtless recall the old mansion house of Greenock, once the stately home and castle of the lords Shaw, which stood within the grounds of that much loved landmark the Well Park. Surely you will remember too, that it was with great sadness and in the name of progress that this ancient structure, seat of the cup bearers to the Kings of Scotland for over two hundred years, was demolished in 1871, standing as it did in the way (or more accurately, above) the route of the tunnel being constructed by the Greenock Railway company to extend the line to the West Station.
It is with the demolition of this structure that our account opens. As you may remember dear reader, there were at this time a great many Irishmen employed in the construction of the railway; the work was hard, dangerous and low paid and as such it was the poor immigrant workers from across the sea (or sometimes their highland cousins), who were most often found in the employ of the railway gangs. The gang masters were harsh; none more so than Mr Thomas; a brute of a man who cared little for the safety of his crews. 
Work on the new tunnel was  already underway in the winter of 1871; the cold frost biting at the hands of the workers as they chiselled and blasted their way slowly through the rock, and they were fast approaching the area occupied by the foundations of the old mansion house as Christmas approached. The area, if not handled correctly could pose the threat of a cave in, and it was therefore essential that the house was demolished before tunnelling continued. Not wishing work to be delayed, unwilling to pay any more men than was necessary, and well aware there was a small profit to be had in the timber and stone which remained,  Mr Thomas dispatched three of his men to finish what little there was in the clearing of the old mansion house foundations (the bulk of it having already been cleared by stone masons and salvagers).
So it was that on Christmas Eve, Jack Murphy, John O'Connor and Sean Molloy found themselves in the ruins of the old house, clearing rubble and timber from what had been the basement, but was now simply a dark pit, open to the elements, save for a few half crumbling walls casting odd shaped shadows. As the day waned, they lit a fire to keep themselves warm as they worked, the shovels cold in their hands.
Long into the evening they laboured, as the winter sun dipped behind the hills and dusk settled over the town. Quitting time could not have been far off when Jack’s shovel turned up the first bones.  No beast of burden did these once frame; these were the remains of a man.  Perhaps it was curiosity that compelled them to continue, perhaps godly respect; or perhaps something else. Whatever the case, continue to dig they did. And when they had finished, it was not the remains of just one man that lay before them, but five.
“Saints preserve us lads”, exclaimed Jack, “we’ve a whole cemeteries worth here.” As they had dug away, regularity had emerged to the bones. They had been buried facing north to south in a line. Around what remained of the bodies were the tattered rags of what might have once been well made clothes; jackets of faded blue, with rusted buttons, and shirts of linen now rotted and decayed.  Who were they? Why were they here?  “Someone has off’d these poor souls”, whispered John, “and buried them here in the old lairds cellars.”
“Aye”, echoed Jack, “maybe one of the old lairds themselves.” But Sean was not as confident in this assessment as his fellow countrymen. Something in the regularity of their burial spoke of slight reverence and respect. “I don’t know....perhaps we should just cover them back over and leave them in peace.”, he muttered, half to himself. But the other two were pushed on by their morbid curiosities, and nothing would have it till the five corpses were fully uncovered. There was nothing to distinguish between them; nothing to mark them in memoriam.  Save, dear reader, for one curiosity. The last in the row of bodies held between his skeletal hands the remains of a tattered cloth bag, whose contents were creeping through the soil eaten holes. “Whats this ‘ere?” breathed Jack.
Now dear reader, while it will not surprise you to hear that these three men from St Patricks Isle were born god fearing and raised piously, I should remind you that they were poor, destitute and perhaps a little strayed from the path. Keep this in your mind when I tell you that not one of them was reluctant when Jack decided in that instant to take this bag from the poor souls grasp, spilling its contents onto the ground in the firelight.
And there before them lay three objects; an carved ivory pipe box, a beaten pewter flask and a solid gold coin. In the great tradition of looters, the men (forgetting themselves and all they had been taught), quickly drew lots for the dead man’s goods. To Jack, went the beautiful pipe box (and its contents; an equally elegant pipe and a draw bag of fine leave tobacco, still dry); to John, the flask, and its much welcome contents of fine smelling brandy. And to Sean the solid gold coin, inscribed with foreign lettering and eyed jealously by his countrymen.
Jack lit his pipe. John wet his lips. But Sean only pocketed the coin; perhaps this was not one to spend.  Loot shared, curiosity turned to guilt and fear. The shadows were long now, and the fire dying as the realisation of their situation dawned upon them. Three men, five bodies on a cold winter’s night.  “Let’s be for home boys,” said Jack. “We’ll cover them over quick and make tracks.”
They decided that the news of the discovery could wait till Christmas Day had been and gone; no work would take place for another two days, and then they could let Mr Thomas know; it would be on his head what should be done with the bodies, and no-one would be the wiser about the loot. So it was that with only a few hours of Christmas Eve remaining, the three men made their way home.
Now dear reader, what happened next is the most unsettling. 
They walked home past Cathcart Square, looking then, much as it does today. Here each man was required to take leave of his companions, their lodgings all lying in separate areas of the town.  Jack made his way down through the Vennel, the streets dark, empty and silent. Silent, save for a curious singing“Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre”.  The words repeated, again and again as he hurried through the cobbled lanes, as if spoken by the wind itself.  Finally at his door, he sighed in relief; the night’s events having clearly got the better of him he suspected. But then turning, he saw a quite frightening sight. There, at the end of the lane stood a tall dark man, with a wide brimmed hat, his face hidden by shadow. At his back, a rickety old cart, pulled by a black horse. Arm outstretched, he pointed a long finger at Jack O’Connor, before turning slowly and dragging his cart off down the alley. Jack sought safety and solace in a cup of warm whisky, courtesy of his landlady.
At the same hour, as accounts from associates later verified, John set off down Slaughterhouse Lane, his lodgings lying to the west of the town. He too found the streets empty and dark, and he too caught the whisper of a song on the winter wind; “Que de partager leur cercueil”. Though aging and work weary, he quickened his pace through the town, convinced he was being followed, and coming at last to the bunkhouse. Inside, he too steadied his nerves with a bottle from his bunkmate, who thought him somewhat mad. Yet as John sought sleep, rest was denied him by the rattling noise of cart wheels in the street outside.
I wonder at this stage in the account if it will surprise you dear reader when I tell you that both men were found dead in their beds on Christmas morning? The life had literally been terrified out of them. But what of the third immigrant from the Emerald Isle? What of Sean Molloy? Well, his walk home was an uneventful one.
Yet in the morning, word came to him of his companions, and a fear took a hold of him. Choosing not to seek solace in the house of god on Christmas Day, he opted instead for one of the tap houses which littered the quayside.  Sitting nervously round the fire he craved another drink, yet sensibly dear reader, and with a caution not exercised by many, refused to spend the coin in his pocket. Yet, his lips loosened by what little whisky he had, he imparted his tale to a few less sober individuals.  Upon finishing, the tap room went silent; before raucous laughter erupted around him, and the men went back to their glasses.
It would seem reader, that no-one believed him. No-one, save one Mr Teulon, who as many among you will know, claims his ancestry from the French Huguenots.
The elderly Mr Teulon had listened intently as Sean told his tale, and as the laughter faded, he said to Sean, “Now Irishman, I will tell you a tale of my own. It begins in 1804, when there came to Greenock a boat carrying some of my father’s countrymen; Frenchmen in Napoleons navy, captured and brought here as prisoners. My father, being known as a French speaker, was summoned to the Laird’s house, to translate for these six poor souls. There he was instructed to have them go to work in the rebuilding of parts of Lord Shaws house. Worked hard, and fed little, within six months, all but two of them were dead; Captain Beaudoin and his second officer, Msr Langouin having buried their compatriots in shallow graves in the cellar. Sadly, on the last day of the year, Languoin too succumbed to fever and died. Now I should tell you that these French men where not Huguenots like my father, but Bretons; they had more in common with you Irishman, than with a Frenchman from Paris, thinking themselves more of the celtic line. It was their belief, that the last man buried in a cemetery on the last day of the year was appointed Ankou, or watchman of the dead; he is deaths servant, collecting souls, and singing the hymn of the charnel house to warn the living. This is the lot of the last man in. To make the burden on his friend easier, and in keeping with tradition, Captain Beaudoin buried his friend with three tokens; a pipe to pass the hours of his vigil, a flask to wet his lips, for death is thirsty work, and a coin, so that when your time is done, and a new watchman appointed, you can pay the ferryman his due. It is these tokens which you and your companions must have taken; and clearly, Ankou has taken them back.”
Sean, was, as you most likely are, both amazed and terrified by this tale. And yet it spoke to the traditions he had been brought up with; the traditions of the graveyard and the power of the dead at year’s end. Perhaps he reflected how he and the Frenchmen were not so different; bonded labour in a foreign land.  He grasped the coin in his pocket, and gave a silent thanks that he had not spent it. Thanks too he gave to Mr Teulon for the revelation he provided, as he took himself into the cold of Christmas night.
As he made the long walk back to Fenian Alley, he thought he caught the whisper of a song in his ear; it sounded more like a prayer or a hymn. And reader, without surprise, he encountered the cartsman, who at the crossroads at St Andrew's Square, stopped courteously to let him pass, giving a tip of his broad brimmed hat. 
The next day, imploring upon Mr Thomas to make good the bodies found, Sean Molloy found himself loading a cart with the remains of the Frenchmen, and taking them to the cemetery to be buried in the unmarked section and granting them some sense of peace again.
And so you would hope dear reader, this marks an end to our account. But sadly not. A few days later, in the cold bite of the last day of the year, Sean Molloy was found dead, at peace in his bed, his hand locked tightly round a single gold coin. So it fell to what few friends he had to bury him in the graveyard, grasping still in his hands the gold coin; the last man in.

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