I came jolting along in a cart, wrapped up in a bale of cloth on a warm wet day in August, following a summer of fever and failed crops.
I remember the journey well.
The carter didn’t know I was there, of course. He’d transported the package of cloth all the way from London, as he was paid to do, and had no inkling of the deadly cargo he carried. He had no idea I was a passenger on board.
His was a humble existence. He leaned forward on his narrow perch and encouraged his horse to keep moving over the rough track to the address he’d been given in the Derbyshire dales.
I sat back and enjoyed the ride, admiring the view of the green sward as it opened towards the dales where the little village of Eyam nestled safely in its folds – a little like the fleas we carried in the folds of the bolt of cloth.
We rolled up outside the Hadfield house where the tailor lived with his wife. The parcel of cloth was delivered, and I stepped down silently from my place beside the carter, and bid him a fond farewell.
He ignored me, of course.
He was completely unaware I had been his travelling companion throughout our rather pleasant but silent journey, stopping to sup at the same inns, sleeping in the same lodgings.
He hitched his horse, and carried on.
I, however, stepped down into the cottage of the Hadfields, along with the bolt of cloth.
“George,” Mrs Hadfield cried. “Can you see to the cloth?”
George Vicars, the young tailor’s apprentice, opened the parcel.
I stood aside and watched him, taking note of my surroundings. It was a small bare room, unadorned, not much in the way of furnishings, which was often the case back then. Chairs, a table, a dresser with some clay and earthenware cups and plates on it, jugs, a large black kettle beside the fire.
George lifted the cloth to his nose and inhaled. A terrible stench came off it where the rain had got through. The cloth was damp so he bent towards the fire, riddled the ashes and laid more wood upon it. I watched as the flames began to build.
Mrs Hadfield looked in on him and said, “My word, George. Do we need such a blaze?”
“Tis to dry out the cloth, Mrs Hadfield. It smells bad.”
He lifted it in the air and the stench unfurled towards the mistress of the house.
She nodded in affirmation and left him to his work.
He unrolled the cloth, wafted it outwards, and lay it before the fire on the backs of two chairs.
An odour of musty wool rose into the enclosed space, and immediately the fleas began to bite and George began to itch.
He itched and scratched and slapped the back of his neck, and I watched him from where I stood beside the window.
The fleas were hungry, and they were nipping.
George was aware of them as an irritant. Fleas were not uncommon then, just one of life’s daily inconveniences, an everyday nuisance to be endured.
By the evening the cloth had almost dried, though it was still a little damp in places.
“There,” George said, putting his nose to the cloth. “Don’t smell quite so bad now.”
But he was still not entirely satisfied with the result.
I opened the outer door and took a stroll through the narrow country lanes, bordered by little cottages, which were soon to become so familiar to me.
Might as well settle in, I told myself, before the hard work begins. I’ll be here for a while yet.
A scene of rural contentment unfolded before my eyes. I saw a young maid leading a cow, another scattering grain for a few scratching chickens, and chiding a goat with the personality of a stroppy teenager.
I saw fields fairly bristling with yellow haystacks, and a barrel full of apples leaning against a barn wall, just gathered from the orchard, ready to make cider or pies. They were browning in the air and looked set to be sour rather than sweet, but these things do not concern me.
I don’t have the pleasure and privilege of a ravenous appetite.
I watch you mere mortals tuck in to your flitches of bacon and your loaves of sweet bread, and I envy the pleasure you feel, the delight, the anticipation.
As I have said before, I am merely an observer of life, a bystander, uninvolved. I do not salivate or feel the juices rising. My mouth does not water, my stomach does not growl, my throat feels no thirst.
When you crumble white cheese between your fingers, or sip clear ale from a pewter jug, I watch in fascination, feeling nothing but a calm sense of observation: fact-recording, note-taking, assessing.
These are my predominant emotions.
There were children standing in the lane in the evening sunlight, playing where the doors of the cottages stood open.
Glancing in at one, I saw a family of eight gathered near a table not large enough to accommodate them all. The younger children played on the floor, eating what was handed down to them, the woman sat aside in an easy chair, making room for her husband and mother-in-law. They shared a pot between them, and each dipped a fork or a spoon, helping one another to eat. A scene of squalid contentment, if I can put it like that.
They, I suppose, were used to over-crowding. They slept at night in a tangle of bodies, some beside the fire, others in the box-bed behind a curtain. Brothers and sisters could only sleep when they felt the sigh of their siblings’ breath in their faces. Their bodies warmed each other, like pups in a litter.
There was no privacy. How they managed to bear so many children is beyond me, a quick unobserved fumble in the darkness, when the only illumination came from the dying hearth. They had to muffle their movements accordingly. Not too much shuffling. No grunts or moans, although the children were used to the antics of the farmyard animals, and knew about the beasts of the field, how they copulated with brief grunts, and gave birth with a deep sighing moan as the offspring dropped into the straw. So if the family guessed at the noises in the night, they made no comment and thought nothing of it. It was life.
It was how they lived their lives, close to nature, part of it, wrestling a living from its soil.
As I observed the family in the calm honied glow of the early evening, their lives seemed so untouched yet by grief. They knew want and hunger and hard work and worry, but in a few weeks’ time Mrs Riley would look back upon this evening as a time of rare paradise, like Adam and Eve before the Fall. This – did she but know it – was bliss, to have all of her family around her, her children aged between seventeen and three years old, living and breathing.
In a few months’ time – by April of next year to be exact – she will bury them all herself on a plot of land not far from this cottage, which will become known as the Riley graves. She will dig the seven graves herself, as instructed by the curate, and all seven of them, including her husband, will be laid in the deep earth by her own hand, and then the soil shovelled back over their bodies, all within the course of a seven day period. One after the other they will fall, and one after the other Mrs Riley will bury them. Then she, the only surviving member of her family, will leave this village and her house behind, never to return again.
It sometimes astounds me, the capacity you have to endure so much suffering and yet to rise up again and live, dragging your burden of pain behind you.
Your human resilience amazes me.
I, sadly, do not know what it is to love, to lose, to grieve.
But I often grieve for you and with you as I observe your manifold sufferings.
I lament what must be done.
In April I will stand on the green sward beside Mrs Riley and watch her shovel earth onto the bodies of her children, and I will be there with her, whether she knows it or not.
Contrary to popular belief I am not the dark hooded figure who lures you to your grave. I am the one who stands with you and beside you in your hour of grief as you must face the inevitable. I am everything all rolled into one. There is no life but for me. I am woven into the fabric of existence so that the pattern of the weave is indistinguishable one from the other.
Life and Death.
It is all one to me.
And to you, in the end.
That evening, after a peaceful stroll in the waning sunlight, I returned to the home of the tailor.
It was late August, and the harvest had yet to be brought in. It was a time of plenty and abundance.
There was laughter in the air. Children played, chickens scratched in the earth and chattered to one another. Wood pigeons burbled in the treetops. In those days of course, your forests and lanes were full of birdsong, an infinite variety of beautiful melody, trilling, burbling, rising and falling. Even the corncrake added its musical note to the orchestra, and was such a common and familiar sound that nobody then remarked upon it.
Nowadays, of course, bird-watchers with binoculars trample wheat-fields and stake out beside meadows in the Hebrides in order to hear their cry – like a nail being dragged through the teeth of a steel comb – or even more rare, to catch a glimpse of the unprepossessing bird itself, which is in fact a drab, brown, nondescript creature, tall, thin, plain.
The village of Eyam went about its business that evening, and those who glimpsed me passing the open door of their cottage wondered briefly who the visitor might be, but when they observed me turning in at the door of the tailor’s cottage, assumed I must be a traveller come to do business, a yarn merchant perhaps.
For my sex is not always apparent, as I have said, and my androgynous appearance can deceive.
Many of you catch a brief glimpse, and then I am gone, before you have had time to assess my age, sex, defining characteristics.
I came in at the door of the Hadfields, and there he was, young George Vicars the apprentice, measuring out and cutting the cloth.
Only a faint stale aroma hung about the cloth now, and he sweetened it by sprinkling a little rosewater onto it, then Mrs Hadfield applied a hot iron to soothe out the creases and make the material easier to work with.
The fleas had stopped biting; the dry husks of their little bodies had fallen into the cracks between the flags after their brief existence on this earth, to be swept up later. They had served their purpose. They had carried the disease from far-away London, and had left their calling-card within the bloodstream of George Vicars, as he quietly worked away in the light from the open doorway.
The last of the evening sunlight slanted onto the flags, and dust motes danced in the air.
Mrs Hadfield placed a jug of cider at his elbow.
There was another hour left of good working light, then it would be too dim to sew. He was making a new coat for the rector and already had the measurements to hand.
Dusk fell, the lantern was lit, and darkness fell across the fields.
Next morning George felt a little strange in his mood, light-headed. He wiped his brow and thought nothing of it.
“It’s close today,” Mrs Hadfield observed.
And that explained it.
The heat of late summer.
“Perhaps we shall have a hard winter of it, then,” Mr Hadfield added. “Snow and blizzards.”
“And how do you work that one out?” Mrs Hadfield asked her husband, the tailor.
He nodded his head towards the lane beyond their cottage.
“I took a walk yesterday and observed the mistletoe already had thousands of red berries upon it. And the rowan tree, too. God’s way of providing for the birds. Nature’s larder!”
“Perhaps,” Mrs Hadfield his wife replied. “But I wonder that you can find time for a stroll in the woods when the new bolt of cloth has arrived, ready to be worked.”
“George has it in hand, have you not? He is learning the trade.”
George said nothing.
Six days later, when George did not rise from his truckle bed in the corner of the room, Mrs Hadfield inspected his sweating brow, noticed the purple contusions under his armpits and at his throat, and her face went pale.
“William,” she cried. “We need the doctor.”
They both stared down at the young apprentice.
“It is too late for the doctor,” Mr Hadfield murmured sadly. “We need the rector.”
Forty-eight hours later, George was dead, the first to fall victim to the plague in the quiet little village in the Derbyshire dales, where a deadly bolt of cloth had arrived only days before.
And so I picked my way down the country lanes from cottage to cottage, visiting them in their beds where they lay, picking off eight one week, seven the next, until the mounds of the dead rose higher.
The curate met with the last incumbent of the parish and together they drew up a plan of action.
They met in the church, and I slid in beside them on the bare wooden pew, interested to hear what they might decide.
“It is God’s visitation upon us, William,” the old incumbent said.
“Well, whatever it is, there are measures we must take,” said the new rector. “We have a duty to prevent the contagion from spreading to other villages.”
William Mompesson, the new curate, had taken over from Thomas Stanley a couple of years ago. What he did not know was that his young wife would lie beneath the sod too, before the winter was over. She would die valiantly battling the disease which ravaged her husband’s parishioners, helping to nurse the sick until her own time came.
I watched the amber sunlight spearing through the high glass window onto the bare flagged floor of the church – everywhere was oak and stone and dust motes – and felt a sigh of relief.
I prefer it when you endeavour to take matters into your own hands, when you attempt to stop me in my tracks.
So they drew up three conditions.
There must be no more burials in the churchyard: from now on, families must bury their dead on their own land or in their own garden.
There must be no gatherings of people: the Sunday service must take place out in the open air, at Cucklett Delf instead of the enclosed space of the church building.
And lastly, no one must be allowed to enter or leave the village.
“We will need to obtain the villagers’ consent for this,” the curate said.
“It will be a hard thing to ask of them,” Stanley observed. “To stay here – and die,” he added quietly.
A meeting was called. I heard the bell tolling, which would gather them on the green. Many looked frightened, their faces terrified but stoical beneath their shawls and caps.
They agreed to the quarantine and went quietly back to their homes to await their fate. Again, I marvelled at human resilience.
The lanes of the village became habitually deserted. No one went abroad or from house to house to find out who was ailing or well. Each household kept to itself.
The Rileys thought they had been spared because their cottage was a little distance from the rest, in a field all on its own. This gave Mrs Riley reason to hope as the winter wore on.
Fragments of snow drifted on the air. Mr Hadfield had been right about the winter, although he was no longer here to see it. The bright berries were stripped by the birds and the snow fell, and sickness visited each cottage in turn.
They read their Bibles if they could read, muttered about the Angel of Death passing over, and had no idea I looked in at the window and watched them reading by the light of a single candle, the heavy book lying open on the table before them, too heavy to hold, as the father read to his family, and the children listened.
I am no Angel. I do not boast wings, although my journey through time is swift.
I blinked my eyes and watched and wondered – just like them – who would be next.
I suppose I am a bit of a Peter Pan at times. I have no shadow, no sex; I am timeless, but fixed in time. I do not age or grow weary.
I fly in at the window when you least expect it, and fly out again, taking your children with me.
But I mean no harm.
I bear no ill will.
I do not mean to be sinister.
I simply do what must be done.
The villagers observed the strict quarantine. Outlying communities left food or goods at the boundary stones, but they never saw a soul. Coins would be deposited in vinegar, or in a hollow of the rock filled with water. There were no transactions or communication from those inside the village, with those outside. No one knew what was really going on in the village of Eyam, who lived, who died, who perished, who was spared.
I used to follow a young woman called Emmott, as she was of particular interest to me.
She appeared to have survived the bleak winter months surprisingly well so far, but she was sad at heart. She had a sweetheart in nearby Stony Middleton whom she longed to see, but the pair were not allowed to meet. Emmott pined.
But Emmott also had a secret.
I had had occasion to observe her before now, slipping out from the village at odd times, and wandering up to the green sward of the Delf, high above the houses. She would look back at the clustered rooftops tucked beneath, and sit on the grass, and wait.
Something was afoot here, I was certain.
Sure enough, a thin whistle penetrated the air, and Emmott sat up, alert.
Her face was pale with fright, and she glanced over her shoulder fearfully, but no one had followed her – so she thought, except yours truly, of course.
But of myself, thankfully, she had gathered no inkling. She knew Death stalked the village, picking off its residents one by one, arriving willy-nilly at a particular household before moving on to the next, but she was not one of those who had seen the dark visitor passing by an open doorway, or glancing in at a low window. She was fortunate in not being gifted with the Sight… ah, so fortunate.
She felt guilty, I could see at a glance. She shouldn’t be here.
She did not dare speak, or cry out, but she glanced across the rocks and saw him standing there. I pursed my lips and tutted, but who was I to judge?
He was here: Rowland Torre, her young sweetheart from the neighbouring village.
They stood in silence regarding each other across the space which divided them.
Such a look of longing in their eyes, on their faces, and they spoke not one word. They knew this much, to keep a good distance, and though they were breaking the rules, they knew where to draw the line. They could look, but not touch. They dare not even speak, but stood gazing at a distance of several yards, with the rocks as a barrier between.
Rowland did not speak. He just gazed at the girl he loved, and she gazed back.
They did not draw any closer, and they made no noise for fear of discovery.
And I watched them from Emmott’s side of the rocky barrier.
So this was where she had been vanishing to, slipping away between the trees, up into the hills, to Cucklett Delf above the village.
Every day they met like this – often without words or language.
“When this quarantine is over,” he called across to her once, “then we will marry in the spring, and this terrible winter will be forever behind us.”
“We will tell our children about it,” Emmott replied, “and our grandchildren,” andshe imagined a warm hearth and a swept floor and a dresser full of winking pewter dishes and a chest full of linen, and her sweetheart beside her at night in the warm nest of the box-bed, with no barrier of rocks between.
Never again would they be parted, even for a single night, and this dreadful ordeal would become part of their family folklore, told to future generations as the seasons changed and the year turned full-circle.
Do you remember the time…?
The human mind is a fascinating entity. You are capable of so much in times of extreme danger and trauma. Loved ones appear to read one another’s minds. I have seen it so many times before.
I heard the unspoken longing flying through the air between the two lovers at the top of the Delf, and although you think I am heartless, I mourned for them.
I hoped, oh how I hoped that my assignment would not lead me anywhere near the door of the Sydoll’s cottage.
Snow fell, and still Emmott continued to beat a path from the village at the same time every day, and Rowland would be there, waiting for her.
And so it continued well into the spring.
Surely, now, we will be spared, the remaining villagers thought. We have endured the cruellest winter of our lives. The pestilence will move on, and leave us alone, unless of course it intends to make sure that not one of us is left standing.
The village of Eyam was eerily quiet. When traders brought food and left it at the boundary stone, they half-expected to see the last parcel of food still rotting there, disturbed by crows and hunting foxes, but instead it was gone, and there – as usual – would be the few coins soaking in vinegar, as payment.
But the village itself was so still. The dale in which it rested gave off no sounds at all of occupation or industry. No tapping of the blacksmith’s tools, or barking of dogs; no clack of the homemade loom. Nothing. Not a voice. Not a child’s cry.
Even the birds were silent.
And although it was so cold, no smoke drifted on the air.
One solitary thatched roof emitted a trail of smoke, where someone clearly still had the energy to light a fire. It formed a grey silk ribbon which unravelled above the village.
It caught you by surprise.
It didn’t seem right.
Meanwhile, I was kept very busy, going in at the door of one cottage, and out the next, laying a hand on each fevered brow.
The stench was awful, children and the elderly lying in their own filth, unable to tend to themselves, and no one to comfort them or bring a sip of water.
I came in at one door and paused.
The usual desolate scene, bodies lying where they had died.
Then I heard a croak, and saw a faint movement. A young woman lying by the hearth lifted an arm and uttered one word.
She could see me as clear as day, and indeed why would she not?
I glanced frantically around the room, but the bucket was empty. Grabbing it, I went outside to the well.
By the time I came back, carrying the precious water in my arms, the young woman was dead. She had left, and I should have been there to see her on her way.
Her body lay on the floor, an empty husk, but she herself was standing on the threshold watching me, gazing at the room she had just quitted.
She turned out of the door of the cottage and walked away, and it was then I recognized her.
This was the little maiden who climbed in secret to see her sweetheart every day on the hill above the village.
Up at the Delf, I saw the young man waiting by the rocks at the usual time.
When Emmott did not appear, he waited a while longer before sadly abandoning his post.
It was early spring, and the buds were beginning to unfurl on the trees, but in the village of Eyam all was silent. No one celebrated the turn of the season, or looked forward to what the next few months might bring. For those who survived, it was winter in all of their hearts.
The quarantine was not over and would continue for a while yet.
The following day Rowland appeared again at the Delf, on his side of the rocks, and gave out his lonely whistle.
No one came.
I watched him and longed to be able to tell him, but what good would it do to crush his hope now? It would not end his pain.
The next day, and the next, he called across the rocks in hope that Emmott would call back. Perhaps she had sickened, but recovered? Or perhaps she had been helping to nurse the rest of her family struck down by the sickness? Once she was well again, or able to, she would appear beyond the rocks and answer his call.
But a week passed, and another, and still Emmott did not appear.
I stood and watched him.
I was interested to see how the human heart fares under these woeful conditions. It can be useful in my line of work to have all of the facts before me, be able to gauge how you react to loss. I need to be professional in my approach to the role, after all.
After three months, Rowland gave up hoping. Now he arrived at the rocky knoll above the village simply to grieve, to mourn the loss of his love, for he knew by now she would not appear – not this day, or the next, or the one after that.
As I watched Rowland alternately grieving and hoping, it was then I noticed a thin figure standing far-off among the trees. She was unchanged, as clean and bright as the day I first saw the young sweethearts. She gazed and she gazed at Rowland, but – sadly – he did not see her at all.
I caught my breath. How had this one managed to slip through? A rogue spirit drifting where she pleased, back to the place that really mattered, where her hopes and dreams had been crystallized.
She walked out from between the trees, and went steadily forward to the spot where Rowland waited. She stepped over the rocks which had separated them in life, clambering with perfect ease, and hopped down onto the other side.
She stood facing him.
It was to my great sorrow I realised Rowland neither saw nor sensed her presence. Separation means just that: there are no happy endings. His powers of telepathy were not as I had imagined, so that when Emmott stood before him and placed her arms about his neck, he felt nothing, not even the cold kiss she planted on his lips.
Rowland came back to that spot every day for a year, but in the end he stopped coming, and Emmott would stand there alone, waiting for him.
The living cannot grieve forever.
I have observed this.
Years later, when the ravages of the plague had moved on and Eyam was left in peace with its tragic history, an old man climbed up to the Delf and sat there on the rocks.
It was Spring. He had grown-up children now, and a wife.
But on this day he saw the spirit of a young girl in the first bloom of youth, and this time he recognized her.
It is often the way, as you near the end of your journey. The scales fall from your eyes, and suddenly you see what yesterday you were blind to.
By the time the plague left the little village of Eyam and the quarantine was lifted, it had claimed the lives of more than half the population. The Reverend William Mompesson’s young wife was among the dead.
But the measures the two men took prevented the plague from spreading to surrounding villages.
In London, the deadly contagion thrived and multiplied and continued to run its course, clawing its way into the bloodstream of the living.
It was a terrible year for all.
I am no scientist. I perform my job, and I report back my findings. But I have never forgotten the year I spent in that Derbyshire village, watching the people of Eyam die. I walked among them silently, and when I left, they left too.