Author’s Note: “The Troll Beneath the Bridge” is a long, short story – well a bit longer than some of mine, as it was written without the word restrictions of magazines. It was inspired by an old barn I cycled past once, by the end of the cycle ride the story had grown in my head. This story has never been published before, so it is a premiere for my readers but I warn you, you might need a tissue near the end – when a story makes the writer misty eyed when she rereads it… you know it is definitely a bit of a weepy 😉
I do hope you enjoy this story… and if you do, please let me know by either leaving a comment below, or a message on my Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/janispegrumsmithfanpage/
Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of WordPress, it has been impossible to provide the correct indents in the layout of this story for this blog version. If such things annoy you, you can read the perfectly laid out and indented story in PDF version here The Troll Beneath the Bridge 2017 pdf
The Troll Beneath the Bridge
Janis Pegrum Smith
As Polly stood there, can of paint in one hand, paintbrush in the other, she reflected that it had been just over thirty years since she had first seen it. She was surprised that the colour seemed to have faded little, the brightness of the red did not look weathered at all – or perhaps it was that her memory of it had faded? No, she shook her head, her memory of it was true.
She had been seven years old the first time she had seen it; that hot summer’s day she and Cissy Whitehurst had dared each other to defy the troll that lived beneath the planks of the bridge that crossed Dent’s stream. It wasn’t a proper bridge like the humped back stone one further up the stream – the one that brought the main road into the village. No, this was an ancient, rickety, wooden structure, just like the one in the Three Billy Goats Gruff book Cissy owned. An uneven row of thick planks which straddled the banks, nailed roughly together, with no side rails to stop a person from toppling in, and all the village kids knew a troll lived beneath this bridge, just like the one in the story. It just about took the weight of farmer Duncan’s tractor on the odd occasions he used it to cross into his back field from Sixpenny Meadow, but otherwise it just sat there, between the fields, sheltering the troll.
Having pulled the shortest blade of grass from the two Polly had offered, Cissy had summoned all her courage and just sprinted across the bridge as fast as her legs would carry her. Polly had shut her eyes tight as she listened to Cissy’s shoes clomp loudly against the wooden planks in her haste to cross as swiftly as possible; that was Cissy Whitehurst’s tactic to outsmart the troll, speed. Eyes still closed, Polly waited for the scream, convinced that the ugly, drooling creature would reach up a filthy nailed hand to snatch Cissy from the bridge and drag her down, down, down to his aquatic lair, never to be seen again. Polly would have to break the news of Cissy’s demise to her parents. She imagined herself sitting in their dainty parlour, recounting their daughter’s last moments and wondered if they would let her have Cissy’s story books, as she would have no more use for them anymore. When no scream came, Polly opened her eyes. Cissy Whitehurst was waving with glee from the other side; glee because she had made it across unscathed – glee because Polly now had to do the same or be called ‘chicken’ by every child in the village, for ever more. The moment Polly placed her foot on the wood it was the furthest from home she had ever been on her own in her entire life. Her mother would have a pink fit if she could see what she was up to, but if Cissy Whitehurst had crossed the bridge, then, Polly Goodfellow could do the same, she had to do the same. Polly stuck her tongue between her teeth, the tip protruding from her mouth slightly, as was her habit when concentrating hard. She could feel her heart beating deep within her thin, bony chest, blood rushed inside her ears, whispering to her not to do it, but she ignored the advice. She edged out slowly, very aware that Cissy’s stomping footsteps would have stirred the troll; age may have slowed him enough to miss getting Cissy, but he would now be crouched just below the wood waiting to snatch at Polly’s ankles and topple her into his grasp. Polly peered down at the cracks between the planks, as she tried to cross without making a sound, she even held her breath, as she edged slowly forward. Could she see him through the thin gaps below her feet? Could she? Yes, there he was for sure. She screamed as the fright made her run the last few steps. Slipping, she landed at Cissy’s feet. Cissy had her hands over her eyes but dropped them, looking somewhat surprised, and maybe a little disappointed to see her friend had also made it safely across. Both girls giggled hysterically having conquered their fear, and thought themselves both very special to have crossed the Sixpenny Bridge and still be alive to tell the tale.
‘What are we going to do now?’ asked Cissy, looking distantly across the vast pasture that was farmer Duncan’s back field, ‘We can’t go back across the bridge, the troll would get us for sure! We can’t risk another crossing.’
‘No, he’ll be wide awake now, and waiting.’ Polly wanted to cry, but held her tears because Cissy would tell the bigger kids and they would have called her names. They hadn’t thought of how they’d get back when they made the dare.
‘We’ll have to cross the pasture,’ Cissy said assertively. She stood on her tiptoes and looked all about. ‘We’re in luck, Farmer Duncan’s prize bull isn’t in the field. We can cut across to Black Barn and take the drove from there back into the village.
Hand in hand the girls set out, running through the lush green pasture, stopping to make daisy chains on the way. The sun was high in the sky as the hoverflies hummed and bobbed out of their path.
Daisy crowned and necklaced, they were very hot when they reached the huge barn on the far side of the field. Like all the buildings in the village it was made of flint, well, the bottom half was, for as high as a grown man and a bit more; the rest was made of wood, long black lengths of wood that overlapped and built the walls up until someone had decided it was high enough, and so laid the black timbers differently to crown the barn with a roof.
‘Tis as big as the cathedral in the town,’ said Cissy with authority, for she had been there on a visit to her aunt’s house.
There was no door to the barn, just a huge, cavernous opening which looked cool and welcoming for a respite from the heat. So, despite the fear of what might lurk within, the girls ventured inside. It was cool, as they had anticipated, almost cold. It made Polly shiver. Within the empty barn it was vast and gloomy – though enough light filtered through to illuminate the writing on the back wall. Hand in hand the two friends stared wide-eyed at the red letters – crude, big, bold letters that shouted, as words written in capitals are apt to do. Both of them could read some, Polly certainly knew how to read and write her own name, but it was Cissy who stated the obvious.
‘That’s your name, Polly Goodfellow, that second word says “Goodfellow”.’
Polly nodded in agreement, ‘Think the first word is “John”, my dad’s name.’
‘John Goodfellow is a…’ Cissy read with slow deliberation. ‘What’s that last word, Pol?’
‘Dunno,’ Polly said, but something inside told her whatever it said it wasn’t a good word. The huge red letters looked very angry. Angry with her father. A pigeon took flight in the rafters above their heads making them scream with fright which simultaneously disturbed something verminous in the leavings scattered on the hay loft platform above them.
‘Ghosts!’ said Cissy with a face as white as any spirit.
Screaming, the girls ran from the barn and down the dusty drove that took them back to village, back to their homes in time for tea.
Polly waited until her father had stopped eating before she asked, she had wrestled with her curiosity all through her own tea. Her mother had scolded her for her dirty petticoat, but Polly was too busy in her own head to pay it much mind. Tongue tip just visible between her lips, she took a scrap of newspaper from the basket by the fire, and with a pencil slowly wrote the word she had seen: John. She would have written the other word she wasn’t sure of, too, but she could not remember its spelling.
‘Is that daddy’s name?’ she asked her mother, when she had summoned up the courage. Her mother had confirmed it was, and praised her for being such a clever girl in learning how to write her father’s name. She had thought to question her mother more on what she and Cissy had seen, but thought better of it – there would be a huge row if it was known that she and Cissy Whitehurst had crossed the stream. The stream was their boundary; the stream was officially, by parental decree, the end of their world when they were on their own. All the young children in the village had the same boundaries, Dent’s stream to the north of the village, the church to the west. Being edged by forest to the south and east meant as soon as you fell under the shade of the trees, you were in no-man’s-land, and no child under ten would step any further, except for a dare. It had been the rules when their parents were children, and their grandparents too, as oft the old folk would tell them. Granny Hurst on the corner, who was a hundred if she was a day, said it were the same when she was a girl, too. Polly wondered if she and Cissy Whitehurst were the only six-year-olds to have ever gone so far.
The lifting of the latch on the back door usually signalled her father’s arrival home from his work at the garage at the end of the lane, but on hot summer’s days like this her mother had the door open all day against the heat and so the sudden appearance of his stumpy Jack Russell, Jip, herald her father’s imminent arrival.
‘Dad, what’s that written about you up in farmer Duncan’s barn?’ Polly finally burst forth, once her father was settled in his favourite chair, with the newspaper. During his tea, through all his small talk with her mother about his day, the customers at the garage, his allotment…all through this usual, week night ritual Polly had sat on the floor and tussling with her mind. Should she ask or should she stay silent? She knew she would be in trouble if they knew she had been over the stream and all the way across the back field to the barn, but she had to know, she just had to…
‘What’s that?’ her father’s tone was flat as he lowered his newspaper to look squarely at his daughter. Polly was aware her mother had stilled the wooden mushroom in her hand, and stopped her stitching of the sock that stretched across its back, ‘’ave you been up to Black Barn?’ her father’s face at first looked deathly white, and then flushed red, his voice angry.
‘No, Daddy, Gilbert Munnings said…’ It was the only evasive action she could think of in the panic of the moment; Gilbert Munnings was far enough removed from her father’s world to be used as an excuse, she calculated.
‘Whatever Gilbert Munnings told you, he was tellin’ you lies,’ her father spoke in a low, slow, deliberate way, she could see he was angry, but he was doing all he could to control it, ’Time for bed I think, young lady.’
Polly opened her mouth to protest that it was nowhere near her bedtime, but the look within her father’s eye persuaded her to retreat now, and that she had gotten off lightly.
As she lay in her little bed, beneath the low slung eaves of her room, she wondered. The church clock distantly struck seven, as Polly mulled things over. It was not the tear she saw in her mother’s eye as she kissed her goodnight and obeyed her father’s command; nor was it the worry of hearing her father mutter something about speaking to Gerald Munnings about his youngest, as she closed the stair door. No, what played upon Polly’s six-year-old mind as she lay beneath her crisp, starched sheets was why had her father told a lie?
Ten summers passed before Polly found herself in Black Barn again. Ten summers of youth and innocence washed quickly away on the tidal wave of war that descended upon the village and changed everything for ever. Her father left them to do his bit. Her mother didn’t want him to go, but he said it was his duty, especially with his skills. Old Mr Thorpe held the fort at the garage – he was the owner, but relied upon her father to mend the cars, Mr Thorpe just served the petrol and sold all manner of things from the village shop next-door. Her father’s young apprentice, Will, said he could cope till he was old enough to go off to join the war, but Dad said it would be all over before young Will reached seventeen. Her dad moved from cars to aeroplanes as the Royal Air Force made him a sergeant and took him far away from the village, first to the south of England and then to Africa. Cissy Whitehurst’s father had joined up too, as had all the village men who were able. He had joined the army, with Cissy’s older brother, Harry; both had died when the Allies had retreated in the early days, chased back across the Channel by the Nazis. Cissy and her mother had moved to live with her aunt in the town, and Polly never saw her again.
‘Why you’re a pretty thing and no mistake,’ the Yank had drawled across the counter of the post office. Polly loved the attention of these exotic men, an oasis of testosterone after the desert of young men in the village. The camp had been thrown up quickly, on farmer Duncan’s land. The Yanks would cut across the back field and risk the troll to cross the bridge over Dent’s stream. A path had worn through the middle of Sixpenny Meadow where they trod the quickest route to the village. Polly had left school one day and started at the post office the next, a week later the newly built camp, on the incline people thereabouts called a hill, filled up with GIs behind its perimeter of barbed wire. ‘Wanna’ come to dance Saturday night?’
‘No,’ had been Polly’s answer to her dates suggestion, but her body went all the same; through the gap in the wire and along the worn path through the grass.
The barn loomed out of the night, she had forgotten about the barn! On the edge of the army camp now, forgotten and forlorn, the camp lights gently illuminated its dilapidation as the gay music and the laughter of the dance faded into the distance behind them. Polly’s head was dizzy with the excitement of the evening and from the alcohol they had shared from Deke’s little flask that he carried in the breast pocket of his uniform. He’d sneaked dashes of it in their cokes all night. He made her giggle, and his talk of America made her head swim as he threw her around the dance floor and kept telling her how beautiful she was.
‘No,’ she heard herself say, as he pulled her into the barn; ‘No.’ The rough flint dug into her back as his tongue worked its way between her lips.
‘Some guy sure as hell don’t like John Goodfellow,’ Deke laughed, doing up his fly whilst reading the words on the wall above Polly’s head. Then he was gone into the night, and Polly made her own way down the drove, back to the village. She did not run, like she had with Cissy Whitehurst’s hot, sticky hand clamped tightly within her own, all those summers before, but walked very slowly, one foot very deliberately in front of the other, until she was lifting the back door latch as gently as she could and creeping to her bed, hoping not to wake her mother. It was not until she felt the coolness of the crisp, white linen of her pillowcase against her cheek that she let herself cry.
‘Great Yarmouth’s far enough away,’ was all her mother said as she put Polly on the bus. Dr Jenkins had been discrete with the arrangements, it hadn’t taken him long to find a place to send her.
So Polly was sent to St Paul’s Hope with all the other girls from the far side of the county, and beyond, who were in the same circumstance as her. Some she found had said ‘no’, as she had, others had said ‘yes’, but either way it all ended up the same – girls without a wedding ring and with a “bun in the oven”. Some of the other girls were nice, some were barbarous; Polly learned quickly how to get by. The people who ran the home for the unmarried mothers, and their fatherless babies, were more efficient than kind. They could arrange everything efficiently, if you didn’t want to take your baby with you when you left, they could arrange for respectable, married parents to adopt it, and this was the path highly encouraged – this was what was expected. Her mum never visited. No one visited. Polly had her baby, she named him John for her father and – once she had signed all the paperwork required to keep the managers of St Paul’s Hope satisfied – she took the first bus out of Great Yarmouth, in the opposite direction from the village.
It was twenty years before Polly went home, back to the cottage where she had been born. By then she had a husband, a nice house in a big town far, far away, another life… but curiosity and nostalgia took them there on a drive one Sunday. The Black Barn stood dilapidated now, its wooden parts completely disappeared: only the walls remained. Its shadowy ruin on the horizon made Polly shudder.
‘Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all,’ she said to her husband Geoffrey.
‘Well, we’re here now,’ he said, ‘but we could always just turn round.’
‘No,’ Polly said, after a pause, she knew she had to face that troll once and for all, she had been running from it for far too long. She directed Geoffrey to drive them to the barn first, along the drove. The army camp was gone now, though some of the buildings remained. White slab roads of ineradicable concrete crisscrossed; scars running through the weeds, whilst the rest had been ploughed away and reclaimed by the farm. At Polly’s request, Geoffrey stayed in the car. Although the roof of the barn was missing, the flint walls still stood high enough to hide the interior from the drove.
‘I won’t be a moment,’ she said, and she wasn’t – just long enough to confirm to herself that the writing existed, that it said on that wall exactly what she remembered: that it said what it did about her father.
‘You OK?’ Geoffrey asked as she returned to the car, stone faced and dry eyed. ‘Was it still there?’
‘Oh yes,’ she confirmed, allowing him to pat her hand in concern and consolation. Long ago, very early in their relationship, she he had told him all about the barn and the words which stood in red paint, three-foot high upon the wall. There were no secrets between them, he knew all there was to know about her, all.
The cottage had not changed, though it was much smaller than she remembered, but its little white door and windows still looked out toward the village green, and pink roses still climbed beside the back door.
Geoffrey stood beside her, it was he who rapped his knuckles against the door, for having got this far she found she could not: she dare not make a sound and wake the troll within. Geoffrey took her hand in his as they waited, patted it with the other ‘It will be all right,’ he breathed assuredly.
The wait seemed interminable, but then there were footsteps. Who would it be? Who would answer the door? Her mother? Her father? A Stranger?..
She recognised Dr Jenkins immediately, he was grey haired now and weightier than she remembered, a man in his sixties, and far removed from the dark-haired, distinguished fellow she recalled, the one who used to tell her that she was the very first child he brought into the world when he came to the village. She had often considered how apt it was that it had been he who had sent her away.
‘Polly Goodfellow?’ he recognised her.
‘Thorpe now,’ Polly corrected stiffly. She had not been Polly Goodfellow for so many years, it sounded strange to hear that ghost referred to. ‘I was wondering, do my parents still live here?’
Twenty years of catching up. That her mother had died did not move her, that her father was dying did. Before the week was out she was sleeping in her little old bed, listening to the death rattle of her father’s last breaths through the wall between them. She made him as comfortable as she could, cared for him as he had her when she was a child. They made their peace, and John Goodfellow died knowing his daughter loved him, and was now cared for by a kind and loving husband.
‘This isn’t right,’ she said to Dr Jenkins as she read the death certificate he had just signed, ‘You have put Robert Goodfellow, not John!’ Polly’s eyes were wet with tears, her heart raw from her final farewell to the father she now realised she adored, but still she knew it was not her mistake, she considered Dr Jenkins was going senile.
‘No, it is correct I think you will find, my dear,’ the doctor assured. ‘You see, your father was born Robert, his elder brother was John. When John…died, he took his brother’s name. Everyone in the village thought it most queer at the time, but he had his reasons and folk left it at that.’
‘I didn’t know he had a brother,’ Polly was shocked at this revelation, ‘He never, ever mentioned it.’
‘Well, given the circumstances, I guess he wouldn’t have,’ said the doctor.
‘Not today, it is a tale for another time when the dead are buried and you are more over your grief.’
‘I’ve got the ladder,’ John said carrying it on his shoulder, he was tall and strong, built like she remembered his father to have been, not that she chose to think of Deke very often. ‘Dad’s just locking the car. Bloody hell! I didn’t know they knew words like that back then!’
Polly sighed, ‘Apparently they did.’ She had been staring at the words, running everything through her head, Cissy Whitehurst, dares, trolls, Yanks… Black Barn had a lot to answer for in their family’s history, she was glad it was crumbling to nothing. If she could have taken a sledgehammer she would have knocked it down, short of that, this was the best she could do.
‘Do you want me to go up and do it? I don’t like the thought of my old mum up a ladder.’ John went to take the paint can from her, how could his twenty-first birthday be less than a month away she questioned, where had the time gone? It only seemed like yesterday that Geoffrey was picking him up from the pavement when he’d tumbled from his first bike, who would have thought a girl could meet her husband like that. Especially when she had given up all hope of finding love now she was a single mother.
‘Oi, less of the old, you,’ she smiled, best thing she ever did, holding her ground and refusing to give him up for adoption.
‘There it is, then,’ Geoffrey entered, slipping his arm supportively around Polly’s waist, ‘you’d better get it done, boy.’
They watched as John began to apply the black paint from the can, slowly he obliterated his own name, and then his mother’s maiden name, then the two small words, the three little letters which linked the name to what the writer thought of the bearer of that name. Then the obscenity began to disappear, all the shameful letters, one by one till they were all gone.
‘All finished!’ John climbed down and stood back to admire his handiwork as if it were a masterpiece hung in a gallery.
‘Thank you,’ was all Polly could muster as she turned and walked away. Her focus was upon the car, but her mind was still trying to absorb what she had made Dr Jenkins tell her at her Daddy’s wake. The emotions that swirled within her were mixed, and she knew it would be a long time before she could reconcile herself to what she now knew.
‘Your mother and father had been engaged for over a year when it happened,’ the doctor explained, ‘One night they had fallen into a row and she had gone up to Black Barn with his older brother, John, to spite him. That was when she got pregnant with you.’ The revelation had been stark, but she had pressed the doctor and, as he explained, there was no kind way to tell it, ‘She had never slept with your father you see, not before that point. That was what the row had been about, he insisted they waited till the wedding, she didn’t want to. Your father, Robert as he was then, went into a fury when he found out, it was he who wrote the words upon the barn wall. I arrived in the village the next day, straight from medical school, delighted in my position as the new doctor to the village. Your uncle’s death certificate was my first job here. He had hung himself the night before from a rafter of the Black Barn, your father’s words the last thing he would have seen. No one wept for John Goodfellow longer or deeper than his brother, the man you grew up to know as your dad. He married your mother and chose to go by his brother’s name, bringing you up as his own.’
‘Why did no one get rid of the words in the barn?’ Polly had asked through her tears.
‘Your father wouldn’t let them and no one ever went there, most were afraid of seeing your real father’s ghost.’
‘John Goodfellow was my father?’ Polly stammered, ‘Or should I say Robert?’
‘John Goodfellow was your father, whichever way you look upon it, my dear.’ The doctor had patted her hand and left her with her thoughts.
The sun came out as they drove from the barn, down the drove to the road bridge that crossed Dent’s stream, Polly looked to her right along the length of the stream to the little wooden farm bridge and wondered if the troll still lurked beneath? It would take a long time for her to get her head around everything that had happened, everything she had learned. She was full of anger at her mother, that she had sent her away after she herself had borne a child that was not her husband’s. She felt the full weight of sorrow for her father, if only she had known she would have tried to bring him comfort… all this and more was swimming around in her head, trying to find some order, trying to find some rest.
‘I love you, Mum.’ John’s hand was on her shoulder from the back seat.
‘And I love you, too.’ Geoffrey took one hand form the steering wheel and held hers for a moment.
They drove through the village, past the house she was born in and on past the churchyard where her parents now resided. When the troll died, and die he would, one day, as time dictates, no one would bury his bones – they would wash down the stream to the river and then on out to the sea where he would be eaten by the fish and ripped apart by the waves, until not a bit of him remained, not even the ghost of a memory.