by Peter Hunter
Leveret Smith contemplated the half empty tankard - adding another ash log to the warming stack that the landlord had thoughtfully lit earlier. The reinstated fire - an acknowledgment of the shortening autumn days and brightening the advancing evenings - appeared - like the cider he seemed to chew rather than drink, to herald the dull inevitable winter ahead.
Outside the evening was wild and turbulent - its cool fluctuating breeze audible under the chasing clouds and the bright flat light of an expanding moon - an evening for poets, writers and other romantics - troubadours, singers of folk songs and lonely fugitives from reality.
The low, scudding and scattered clouds - like ghostly cattle grazing those phantom pastures over the dim slow South Wiltshire downs added the illusion of a reality that had ever so slightly passed into its own story land. Wispy moon-glowing clusters - chased by an invisible breeze - succumbing to an unknown urgency that rendered them ephemeral.
Just another evening - on more summer faded into winter and gathering with it the sadness and frustration of lives slipping towards their ultimate extinction - a surrender towards fate and maybe some gods unknown.
Old Leveret Smith drank more deeply now - draining the pewter tankard for the refill which would inevitably follow. The banging noise of the stable-like half-door heralded another customer entering the almost deserted stone walled pub which legend claimed originated long ago - far back in the fourteenth century witness its smoke-blacked oak beams and uneven stone floor - not perhaps needing the almost compulsory horse brasses, the exposed wire along the walls, just a few concessions towards modernity and planning laws.
Not really requiring the endorsement they provided - the ghosts were already in residence - needing only a receptive imagination and a perhaps a relaxed mind.
His greeting to the young couple received a less than enthusiastic reply. Cary and Mike, -normally extrovert and cheerful seemed flushed, confused - concerned and strangely subdued.
‘We walked here’ Mike explained slightly breathlessly ‘across the downs from Ash Chalk. We thought - it being such a clear evening, bright and crisp - that it might be fun.’
The few others scattered around the bar - standing beer glasses in hand or sitting at one of the tired-looking tables meant to convey an antique atmosphere to go with the ancient image of the building - paused not obviously but to facilitate their native nosiness or curiosity.
Leveret knew what the young couple meant - but his days of enjoying the cool fresh air that follows the passing of a low-pressure frontal system were way passed and no longer a pleasure when measured against the competition of a pint of the brew made from ancient West Country apples.
‘Not your usual selves tonight?’ he observed ‘bad day at work?’
Mike hesitated ‘No’ he spluttered ‘there was something up on the downs ‘where the path from Ash Chalk crosses the Drove.’ Not far from the old disused chalk pit.
‘Must have been some sort of animal - the panther they all talk about perhaps - a loud unearthly scream that seemed to continue for eternity - loud at first then tapering off into a lingering low howl’
‘Like something in pain’ added Cary moving nearer and stumbling slightly on the uneven floor ‘something maybe dying.’
Using the delaying tactic of stuffing tobacco into his pipe - Leveret contemplated. The story of the wild panther, leopard or puma, was common in these parts. The romantics, the dreamers, those with good imaginations and a thirst for relieving boredom were believers - but he was not so sure.
He looked searchingly at the other faces around him - listening.
She continued; ‘it was chilling and mournful with a touch of sadness as well as full of fear - I will never forget it.
The others in the bar were very quiet now - fearful of missing any of the story.
Leveret continued to refuel his battered briar then slowly and deliberately sipped a little more cider, ‘Could you see anything - something that could have made the noise?’
‘Nothing - not a thing’ replied Mike a mystified look on his normally alert face.
Hesitantly and slowly the old man continued ‘You’re not the first - not the first to have heard it.’ The few others present remained silent. ‘Its not panther - about five years ago - Barney Adams and another guy were lamping for foxes one night - ‘bought the same time as you were up on the hill - it was a night similar to today - his mate took a shot at what he thought was the reflection from old foxy’s eyes - there was a scream - then shouting.’
Mike and Cary patiently waited for him to continue.
‘There were two or them, both young - a husband and wife - a similar age to you both’ Leveret drew deeply at the cider as if the drink would inspire him to continue ‘The lady was carrying her cat - it was the animal’s eyes that reflecting in the beam from the lamp.- the poor thing was killed by the shot.’
‘A horrible accident’ contributed Cary ‘but hardly the end of the world - she could easily get another cat.’
‘The bullet had also smashed her arm’ added Leveret.
‘Still not a disaster that would linger on to haunt us - not the end of the world’ she judged.
‘Perhaps…’ observed the wrinkled pensioner wistfully ‘but she was a leading concert violinist…’
© Peter Hunter 2012