The church gates are closed but not locked. She remembers them locked. Perhaps because it was night-time. Recalls their skint-kneed, tanned limbs clambering over. Angela McIntyre, smiling, beckoning her in.
Pauline reaches for her make-up bag, flips down the overhead mirror. Lips balmed, she collects her things and gets out of the car.
A variation of stone on the church’s exterior suggests a core dating from the Middle Ages, respectfully preserved despite later additions. A small cemetery lies to the east and slopes towards a burn that runs the length of the village.
Pauline is a taphophile. Someone with a love of graveyards. She enjoys wandering around cemeteries. Likes deciphering inscriptions on crumbling gravestones, conjuring stories from lists of names and occupations. Sitting on wooden benches breathing the still, sad air.
Her granny liked a graveyard too. She often took Pauline to this one on days when there was no school and Mum was working. In between the housework and the shopping, the pair of them would take a breather with the local dead. Isa would plonk down her message bag, and they’d sit companionably on a bench or a stone wall. Pauline fishing sweets from a poke, and Isa smoking a nip she’d secreted earlier in a small, zipped compartment of her purse.
It is late summer. Changeable. Trail clouds skim over a faint blue sky. Sunlight pours through gaps in dense leaves, casting shadows. Pauline walks along the main path, stopping now and then to read the engraving on a headstone. She knows this is distraction. She knows she is looking for the angel.
In her mind’s eye, the angel overlooks the graveyard, clean, pale, and distinct.
In clear moonlight, with the smell of woods all around, the angel loomed over them, in stark relief against ivy dense as ink. The ordinariness of the cemetery in daylight, forty-five years later, is hard to equate with the portentous scene she remembers. Or thinks she remembers. A quartet of little girls in summer clothes, beginning to shiver as night falls and cold sets in. Angela McIntyre, reading out the inscription, weaving a ghostly story from the angel’s warning.
When Mrs McIntyre suggested Pauline play with Angela and her pals, Mum was pleased. She could get on with the housework, while the older girls kept Pauline occupied.
Angela was the eldest, two years ahead of Pauline in school. The other two were in Angela’s class and old enough to walk by themselves from adjoining parts of the village. Gail Wilson’s ears were pierced with smooth golden globes. Fiona Bell wore flared denims embroidered with yellow-eyed daisies. All three enticed and intimidated in equal measure. Pauline hardly opened her mouth except to answer questions fired at her on unfamiliar topics. They went into fits when she said she preferred David Cassidy over the Bay City Rollers.
The waste ground behind their terraced houses comprised a strip of land full of overgrown shrubs and weeds. The local garage sat to one side. The girls climbed a slatted fence and dropped down onto a low wall. They crept along, careful of splinters and the worst of the nettles. Gradually, a flattened pathway emerged, leading to a rusted delivery van.
The floor had been cleared of dirt and an empty cable reel hauled inside to serve as a table. It was here that a plan was hatched. After tea, they would meet at the McIntyre’s and, from there, Angela promised a night-time adventure. She had something to show them.
Pauline’s stomach felt knotted and hard. She forked her chips and cold meat and dipped them in bean sauce. Swallowed it down anyway.
Angela chapped on the door at six-thirty. To collect her and promise to walk her home later. It was still light outside.
The McIntyre’s house shared the same layout as Pauline’s. Their bedrooms were facsimiles of each other. Angela sat cross-legged on a patchwork quilt. Her bed had a padded headboard and a blue gingham valance. Fiona and Gail stretched out on the carpet. Pauline perched on a stool that slid out from Angela’s vanity unit.
Angela’s eyes shone with intent. They would say they were going down the main street to buy sweeties.
‘The Paki’s is still open,’ said Angela.
Pauline’s mum told her not to say paki and chinkie but not what the alternative was. If she said Hussain’s or the Bamboo Garden, folk would look at her like she was from another planet. It was easier just to keep her mouth shut.
The four of them breezed out of the front door into the twilight. Angela’s parents barely glanced up from the telly.
It was still relatively warm outside as they walked through the underpass and on to the main street. Instead of heading left to go to the shop, they turned right, towards the cemetery.
Angela scaled the gates first and Fiona followed. Pauline, though smaller, got over without much bother. Gail had short legs and moaned that she would get her clothes ruined. Still, they hauled her over eventually.
It was dark and damp in the graveyard. Even with the moon shining, it was difficult to distinguish the path or to be sure of what she was looking at.
Angela led the way to a cluster of elaborate headstones and her three acolytes watched, mesmerised, as she clambered over a moss-covered stone and began to brush twisted brambles and honeysuckle back from the large headstone itself. Rising from the grave was an alabaster figure, white against dark trees and sky.
Angela’s skinny fingers began to trace the letters wrapped around the monument.
‘Erected by Thomas Young. In memory of his beloved wife Margaret Keith Cameron. Born 28thNovember 1854 died, 15thAugust 1895.’
Pauline peered at the words, could make out a jumble of capital letters, numbers and the word love. She doubted she would ever be as good a reader as Angela.
Fiona shivered. ‘I’m freezing.’
Gail giggled and rubbed her own goose-pimpled arms.
Angela bent down to another carving that contained a list of names. Her sandalled feet tangled in green tendrils of ivy.
‘And their children: Thomas, died 1890, aged 2, Agnes, died 1890, aged 1, Maggie, died 1894, aged 18 months.’
All those little children dead. Pauline thought of their bones under the stone. Eyes still glittering in their sockets.
Gail stood open mouthed.
‘Aww. They wee children. That’s a pure sin.’
‘That’s what happened in the olden days,’ Angela said, disdainfully.
She pointed at the figure towering above them.
‘See that?’ she asked Pauline.
‘That’s his beloved wife, watching over her dead babies.’
She looks like an angel, thought Pauline.
The statue’s blank eyes were raised heavenwards, hands clasped in futile prayer.
Angela brushed moss from a stone carved in the shape of an open book. Her voice was laced with catastrophe. ‘He who touches her left hand before midnight shall find his own vanished by morning.’
Fiona wound a piece of chewing gum round her pink tongue.
‘What does that even mean, Angela?’
Angela kept her gaze on Pauline.
‘It means,’ said Angela pointedly, ‘that her husband has laid a curse upon the tomb. A warning to those who come near her.’
Pauline peered at the faint, old fashioned script, letters curling into each other. She thought she recognised the word midnight from fairy tales.
Angela clambered back towards them. She nudged Pauline.
‘Touch it. I dare you.’
Fiona and Gail giggled, nervously.
Pauline didn’t move.
‘You’re too scared, aren’t you?’
‘No,’ Pauline said flatly.
She was terrified but too frightened of Angela to admit it. She felt sick and trapped and childish. She wanted her mum, her granny, home.
‘Go on, then,’ Angela said.
Pauline turned and faced the statue.
She inched gingerly over the mosses and lichens that split and slipped under her feet. Globules of sweet, black bramble juice spilled onto thin white flowers. She reached out to steady herself and felt, too late, the spikes hidden beneath their broad leaves. Tears, too fat to hold in, leaked from her eyes.
Pauline stole a momentary glance behind her and saw Gail and Fiona clutching each other, squawking with soap-opera emotion. Angela stood off to one side, watching curiously, like a cat idly toying with a maimed daddy-long-legs.
Pauline felt as if she were a puppet, her legs and arms jangling like string, jerked around by a force much stronger than herself. The realisation that there was no way out built up inside her until it was almost a relief to reach the statue and stretch upwards in search of her hand. If she died here, she might be taken underground by the angel, entombed alongside the dead children, mercifully out of reach of Angela McIntyre.
‘Hurry up, Pauline. We cannae wait all night.’
The encroaching boredom in Angela’s voice spurred Pauline on.
Her narrow chest filled with hatred and, for a moment, Pauline’s limbs juddered into action. She flung her arm up and grasped the stone hand. It was cold and rough and when she drew her own hand back, she saw a dark shape on her palm grow wings. She clawed at it in panic, sending a stout-bodied moth plummeting into the undergrowth.
They walked home, shrouded in silence. There was a palpable sense of something stretched too far and silent acknowledgement that they should hold tight to the corners, in case it snapped. Fiona and Gail looked relieved when they parted ways at the underpass.
At Pauline’s door, Angela paused.
‘Do you think that curse is true?’ she asked, eyes wide in mock innocence.
Pauline shrugged and stared at the ground. She lifted the letterbox. Let it rattle down noisily. Angela leaned on the pebble-dash wall, pressing herself against it so hard that her bare arms were mottled when she turned around to leave.
Inside, eyebrows were raised at Pauline’s getting back so late. By the time she got into her nightie, Mum had come upstairs to set a yellow plastic tumbler of water on the tallboy. Pauline slipped in between the sheets and lay, stock-still, watching moonlight trickle through the gaps in her curtains.
She clenched her left fist. The weight of her plight overwhelmed her. She began to cry. Despite believing she was doomed to remain awake until dawn, sometime later she drifted off to sleep.
Pauline wanders into the corner of the graveyard more by accident than design. It looks similar to how it was forty-five years ago, but the individual memorials are hard to pick out. Only the honeysuckle, still locked in its dance with brambles, provides a clue to the angel’s whereabouts. She presses forward and stands in an opening of sorts.
Margaret Cameron and the bodies of her three dead infants are still there. The memorial has been added to, over the years. Two daughters, Catherine and Elizabeth, are mentioned; one of them dying as late as 1974. A smaller stone commemorates Thomas Young, the widower who carved his grief in alabaster, and who died in 1929.
The book is still open, and Pauline leans forward to read the inscription.
Oh, for a touch of her vanished hand and the sound of her voice that is still. There will be no night there.
Not a curse at all.
Angela McIntyre didn’t simply drag a little girl to a locked churchyard to terrify her with a bizarre inscription. Pauline had always imagined Angela’s motive was either to test whether the curse was true or just to demonstrate the control she wielded.
Had Angela made up the curse on the spot or had she planned her deceit in advance? Pauline had been sure Angela would have stayed awake for hours, listening out for screams or sirens, proof that the spell had power. Angela McIntyre had simply gone home, laughing.
Pauline had avoided Angela for the rest of the summer holidays. She stuck limpet-like to her mum’s side, using her as a shield whenever they were in Angela’s orbit. Mum never asked her if anything had happened but neither did she manoeuvre her back to the group of older girls.
Only once did she feel exposed again. It was a Saturday and she was sent to buy biscuits from the corner shop. As she passed the McIntyre’s house on her way to the underpass, she heard muffled voices. Behind the narrow glass insert of her front door, Angela, Fiona and Gail were staring out at her. Pauline considered retreating, but the alternative route was long and confusing, and, anyway, she was in their sights now. No choice but to put one foot in front of the other. Pick up the terror and shame; find a way of carrying it with her.
As she stands there, Pauline considers the tyranny of childhood. The tiniest ways in which you were different from other people. You watched Blue Peter not Magpie; Coronation Street instead of Crossroads. Some families had nail and thread pictures at the top of the stairs and crazy paving in their garden. Some people ate cold meat from a tin, and others bought it sliced at the butcher’s counter.
Pauline finds a foothold in front of the grave and reaches out. She curls her fingers around Margaret Cameron’s hand. There is no angel. No elaborate wings of pure white stone. Just an ordinary woman that someone loved enough to commemorate.