Lantern Jack by Christopher Fowler
A classic ghost story for Hallowe'en and long winter nights
No, please, you were before me. Age before beauty, ha ha. I’m in no rush to be served. The barmaid knows me, she’ll get around to looking after me soon enough. This is my local. I’m always in here on special evenings. Well, there’s never anything on the telly and at least you meet interesting people here. There’s always someone new passing through.
I don’t come in on a Saturday night because they have a DJ now and the music’s too loud for me. You’d probably enjoy it, being young. I haven’t seen you in here before. This place? Yes, it’s unusual to find a traditional pub like this. The Jack O’ Lantern has an interesting history. Well, if you’re sure I’m not boring you. I like your Hallowe’en outfit; sexy witch, very original. This place is a bit of a pet subject of mine.
We’re on the site of an ancient peat bog, you know. The strange phenomenon of gas flickering over it was called ignis fatuus, from which we get the flickering of the Jack O’ Lantern. They built a coaching inn on the marsh in 1720. Not a good idea. Even now, there’s still water seeping through the basement walls. Later it became a gin palace. That burned down, and it was rebuilt as a pub called ‘The Duke of Wellington’. Being on the corner of Southwark Street and Leather Lane, the pub was caught between two districts, one of elegant town houses and the other of terrible, reeking slums.
See this counter? It’s part of the original bar. Solid teak, brass fittings. It was curved in a great horseshoe that took in all three rooms, the public, the snug and the saloon. But the Jack was caught between two worlds. The drunken poor came in on that side in order to drown their miseries in cheap ale, and the fine gentlemen ventured in to swig down their port while visiting the brothels nearby. Oh yes, there were dozens in the backstreets. The area was notorious back then. It’s all gentrified now. Urban professionals. They don’t drink in here. Not posh enough for them. They’ll be the first to scream when it’s gone. Not that the area will ever really change. You don’t change London, London changes you.
Of course, there was always trouble in here on All Hallows Eve, right from when it first opened. One time, close to midnight, two of the king’s horsemen came in and proceeded to get drunk. They mocked one of the poor ostlers who stood at the other side of the bar, and brought him over for their amusement. They challenged him to prove that he had not been born a bastard. When he couldn’t do so, they told him that if he could win a game of wits, they would give him five gold sovereigns.
They placed a white swan feather on one of the tables and seated themselves on either side of it. Then they produced a meat cleaver that belonged to the cook, sharpened it and challenged him to drop the feather into his lap before they could bring down the cleaver on his hand.
The ostler knew that the king’s horsemen were employed for their strength and speed, and feared that they would cut off his fingers even though they were drunk, but once the bet had been made he couldn’t refuse to go through with it. You never went back on a bet in those days.
They splayed his fingers on the table, six inches from the feather. As one of the men raised the cleaver high above his head, the other counted down on his pocket watch. The ostler held his hand flat and lowered his head to the level of the table, studying the feather. Then, as the countdown ended and the cleaver swooped, the ostler sucked the feather into his mouth and spat it into his lap. He won the bet. Unfortunately, the king’s men were so angered that they took him outside and cut off his nose with their swords. The nose remained on the wall here for, oh, decades.
During the Second World War no one was much in the mood to celebrate Hallowe’en. No female could come in alone, because it was considered immoral in those days. Well, so many men were off fighting, and most of the women around here were left behind. If they entered the pub by themselves it meant they were available, see. But there was one attractive married lady, a redhead, Marjorie somebody, who came in regularly and drank alone. None of the accompanied women would talk to her – they cut her dead. This Marjorie took no notice, just sat at the bar enjoying her drink.
But the whispering campaign took its toll. The other women said she was a tart, sitting there drinking gin and French while her husband was flying on dangerous missions over Germany. The pointed remarks grew louder, until they were directly addressed to her. Finally, Marjorie couldn’t sit there any longer without answering back. She told the others that her husband had been shot down during the first weeks of the war, and that was why she came in alone, because it was his favourite place and she missed him so much.
The other women were chastened by this and felt sorry for her, but in time they became disapproving again, saying that a young widow should show remorse and respect for the dead. People were very judgmental in those days.
Then on October thirty-first 1944, when she’d been at the bar longer than usual, a handsome young airman came into the pub towards the end of the evening and kissed her passionately without even introducing himself. Everyone professed to be shocked. The women said it was disgusting for her to make such a spectacle, but their disapproval turned to outrage because she slid from her stool, put her arm around his waist and went off into the foggy night with him.
It wasn’t until the barman was cleaning up that night that he found the photograph of Marjorie’s husband lying on the counter. And of course, it was the young airman. He’d come back to find her on All Hallows Eve. Had he survived being shot down after all, or had the power of her love called him back from the other side, to be with her again? They never returned to the pub, so I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.
In the sixties they changed the name of the pub again. It became ‘The Groove’. Psychedelic, it was, very druggy. All crimson-painted walls and rotating oil lights. Let’s see, then it was ‘Swingers’, a purple plastic seventies pick-up joint, then in the eighties it was a gay leather bar called ‘The Anvil’, then it became ‘The Frog ‘n’ Firkin’, then it was a black-light techno club called ‘ZeeQ’, then it was a French-themed gastropub, ‘La Petite Maison’, and now it’s back to being ‘The Jack O’ Lantern’ again. Always on the same site, always changing identities. But the nature of the place never changed, always the rich rubbing against the poor, the dead disturbing the living, the marsh rising up toward midnight.
See the pumpkin flickering above the bar? It’s lit all year round, not just tonight. If you look carefully, it looks like you can see a skull behind the smile. It was put there one All Hallows Eve in the sixties. For months a sad-looking young man and his sick father would come and sit in that corner over there. The young man wanted to move in with his girlfriend, but her life was in Sheffield, and being with her meant moving away from his father. I would sit here and listen to the old man complaining about his illnesses, watching as his son got torn up inside about the decision he knew would soon have to make.
His father would sit there and cough and complain, and would catalogue the debilitating diseases from which he was suffering, but the funny thing was that he looked better with each passing week, while his son looked sicker and sicker.
I could see what was going to happen. The young man had to make a choice, and his decision coincided with his father’s worst attack, although nobody knew what was wrong with him. The old man still managed to make it to the pub every night. The son made up his mind to leave, but he couldn’t desert his father, even though Papa was slowly draining his life away. Finally he broke off with his girlfriend to look after his father, who looked so well in his hour of triumph that even the son became suspicious.
I heard the girl quickly married someone else. We didn’t see the boy for a while, but when he finally came back in, he sat on that stool alone. It seemed the old man had fallen down the coal cellar steps at midnight on Hallowe’en, and had twisted his head right round. The son put the Jack O’ Lantern up there that very night. It even looks like the old man…
The bar stool didn’t stay empty for long. It was taken by a vivacious young woman who turned the head of every man as she pushed open the crimson curtains into the pub. Everyone loved her, the way she laughed and enjoyed the company of men so openly, without a care in the world. She came in every evening at eight o’clock. She drank a little too much and never had any money, but being in her presence made you feel like you’d won a prize.
She wanted to fall in love with a man who would bring some order to her chaotic life, and then one day she met such a man at a party. He held a senior post at the American Embassy and gave her everything she ever wanted; a beautiful house, nice clothes, money, stability. She stopped her drinking, bore him a son and became a model wife. His only stipulation was she should never again come into the pub. One evening he came home and found her hanging from a beam in their farmhouse. I think you can guess what night that was.
Of course, everyone in here has a story. There was a woman who used to come in once a month and get completely legless, but the landlord never banned her. I asked him why, and he told me that she was an actress hired to play drunk in bars for the Alcohol Licensing Board. They used to collect data on how often drunks were served liquor, and she came here to practise her act. The stress of her job got to her, though. One evening, she decided to have a real drink and got genuinely plastered, but the landlord thought she was just acting again. On the way home, she drove her car into a lamp post and was beheaded. Hallowe’en again.
Look, it’s like the lantern’s laughing now, doesn’t it?
You think this pub has endured more than its fair share of tragedy? I knew them all, and I’m still here. I sit here drinking while the tragedies of others unfold around me, and I can do nothing for them, any more than they can change me. And which of us is the main character in the story? Perhaps we only ever belong at the edges of someone else’s tale. We suffer, we cry, we die unnoticed, and the people we consider unimportant fail to sense our suffering because to them we are merely background colours, minor characters in their story.
Of course, I could add my own story to the list of peripheral tales. I could tell you about the bizarre death of my wife, and what happened when the newspapers discovered where I had buried – oh, but that was so long ago.
Who am I? They call me Lantern Jack. I suppose I’m the pub mascot. Only here one night a year. And only ever seen by special people.
What’s that? You can see me?
Yes, dear, and I’ll tell you why.
Let me whisper in your ear.
It means you join me tonight.
Well, I should let you get on. I shouldn’t have taken up so much of your time. I’m sure you must have many important things to do before midnight.
Read more about author Christopher Fowler here.