By Brian Robinson.
There are a thousand and one ways in which a boy could be naughty and Nigel was well practised in all of them. He could throw tantrums; be rude to people; he could cause havoc; and he rarely did what he was told. In fact, Nigel was so naughty that one of two things was bound to happen: either he would come to a ‘sticky end’: or a ‘sticky end’ would come come to him.
Nobody knew why Nigel behaved so badly. No doctor had ever found out why and no psychologist knew what went on in his mind. He came from a good home, he did not mix with rough or unruly boys, but nonetheless, there was an unruly aggression within him which frequently ran out of control. To be fair, however, he did not behave badly all the time. There were moments, albeit it fleeting moments, when he could be as nice as pie.
Without exaggeration, Nigel’s parents were twenty first century saints. They spent their lives trying to understand him, tolerating his naughtiness and making excuses for his bad behaviour. And in the nine years since his birth, they were never nasty or unkind to him regardless of the way he behaved. He was their son, they loved him, and they always did their best for him.
Today was Nigel’s ninth birthday and his parents had taken him out for a treat to one of their favourite restaurants. They didn’t hold birthday parties as such, mainly because Nigel usually behaved very badly when he was with a lot of other boys. However, he usually enjoyed being at this particular restaurant, all the waiters knew him, and they seemed willing to put up with his naughtiness. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he began to play up. When the waiter came to serve them, he told him his breath smelt like the devil’s underpants. Fortunately, Nigel was well known to that particular waiter. “Hello Nigel,” the waiter said. I see you are on your usual form today! Come on now, why not be nice for once. Be happy. It’s your birthday!”
“I hate birthdays?” Nigel said trying to get a reaction.
“I know what might make you happy,” the waiter said. “If you behave yourself during the meal, how would you like to go on a tour of the wine cellars?”
“Can’t we go now?” Nigel asked excitedly.
“No, You’ll have to finish your meal first, and if your mum and dad don’t mind, I’ll take you on a little tour afterwards. Did you know that this building used to be an old prison and our wine cellars are actually old prison cells?” This last piece of information seemed to capture Nigel’s imagination for some reason. Perhaps the idea of prison had some appeal. After all, that’s where you can be with other naughty people.
When the food came Nigel began to bolt it down as fast as he could. And the second he finished his pudding he shoved his plate to the centre of the table and told his parents he was off to find the waiter. His mum and dad didn’t try to stop him. Firstly, because they knew they couldn’t, and secondly, because they knew he was in safe hands in a safe place.
Nigel soon tracked down the waiter and demanded his tour of the cellars. The waiter told him to be patient and the next time he had to go and get wine he could come with him. “You promised to take me as soon as I finished my food,” Nigel reminded the waiter.
“Yes, but I have a job to do. I can’t just drop everything to amuse you,” the waiter said.
Nigel wasn’t a boy you could reason with. If someone stood in the way of what he wanted that would make him angry. It was as simple as that. However, he wasn’t stupid either. He was very good at calculating the odds of getting what he wanted. He decided not to push things, and before very long, Nigel was following the waiter down the steep steps to the cellar.
As it happened, the waiter was still very busy so he told Nigel to have a good look around on his own while he took the wine back to the table. The cellar consisted of quite a large number of dimly lit rooms some of which which still had the old steel prison doors. On the walls that were not lined with wine racks, Nigel could make out various writings that had been scratched into the stonework, presumably by the prisoners who had previously occupied the cells. These fascinated Nigel and he began to study them carefully. Some simply counted the passing days as a way of recording time; some were just peoples names recording there presence; and some were just rude comments.
As he wandered from cell to cell looking at these writings he noticed that there were quite a few arrows scratched into the stonework. The arrows in the cells always pointed to the door, and the arrows in the hallways always pointed in a certain direction. Nigel began to follow these arrows and they led him deeper and deeper down the passageways. As he moved forward the light became dimmer and dimmer and he soon found himself walking in almost total darkness. Suddenly, he began to hear a tapping noise. He was curious so he followed the noise which eventually led him down some more steps and along a dead end passage. At the end he felt around the walls with his hands and he realised he was standing in front of another cell door. He began to feel for a door handle and in doing so he felt one of those sight holes you usually find in prison cell doors. He pulled back the cover to see if he could see anything inside. When he did so the tapping noise suddenly stopped. Nigel peered in but he could see only blackness. As he turned to go back he heard a voice which made his heart jump into his mouth. The voice said “How would you like to be trapped in a place like this for over a hundred and fifty years?”
Nigel didn’t know what to say. He squinted through the hole in the door again and he thought he could make out a vague shape sitting in the far corner of the cell. “Well?” the voice asked. “Has the cat got your tongue?”
Nigel wasn’t familiar with this expression so he asked, “What cat? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I’ve been waiting for someone to come and I understand you normally have a lot to say for yourself. Am I right?” Nigel still didn’t say a word.
“Destiny has brought us together. And now you are about to set me free.”
“I don’t understand,” Nigel said.
“Well I’ll spell it out for you then,” the man said. “I have sat in this cell for over a hundred and fifty years being punished for a crime I didn’t commit. Does that seem fair to you? And here you are, a naughty boy for all your short life and yet you’ve never been punished. Now that doesn’t seem fair either.”
As the man spoke the cell door swung open and Nigel was somehow drawn in. Then, the door slammed shut behind him. Nigel could see the man more clearly now. He was painfully thin and dressed in shabby clothes that hung on him as if there was only a skeleton underneath. He had a long beard and moustache which served to hid a broad grin. “I’m sorry you’ve been stuck here, but I really need to get back to my mum and dad now. It’s my birthday today,” Nigel said.
“I’m sorry too, but I’m afraid you’re going nowhere. My destiny now is to walk free: your destiny is to remain here,” the man said.
“You can’t make me stay,” Nigel said.
“It’s not down to me. This is a fate you have created for yourself.” Nigel turned back to the door and tried to leave. His heart was pounding and he could feel emotions welling up inside him.
“You cannot leave,” the man said. “The door of fate has closed and you are now sealed in here. I can walk free through these prison walls whenever I wish.”
“My mum and dad will come and find me,” Nigel said.
“No they won’t. This cell isn’t accessible to a living soul. Only you and I know it exists.”
Nigel’s spirits began to drop even further and he felt really miserable. He knew deep down that he probably had brought this upon himself through his naughtiness. “There must be some way I can get out of here. You must help me,” Nigel begged.
“Why should I ?” the man asked. “What have you ever done to deserve help?”
“Well, nothing I suppose,” said Nigel. “But I promise I will change. I promise to be good and never be naughty again.”
“I’m afraid that’s not the way destiny works young man. The only way out is to somehow undo your past and we both know that’s impossible. What’s done is done. If I could have undone the past I would have done so a long time ago.” The man then stroked his beard as if in thought. “There might be a way,” he said. “But quite honestly, I don’t think you deserve it.”
“I’ll do anything to put things right. Please give me a chance. Just tell me what I have to do,” Nigel pleaded.
Nigel’s begging seemed to soften the bearded man’s attitude and he went into a more reflective mood. “Well, we can never undo your past. That’s fixed. However, you might be able to do something about mine. It would involve great danger though. When you mess with the past there is always a danger that you might be trapped there. Look, why don’t I tell you my story and we’ll see what you think.”
The man then went on to tell his sorry tale. It turned out that he had been born in the year eighteen hundred and twenty four and his parents had named him John after the apostle John. He never went to school as there were none, but he was quite a bright and willing boy. As a young man he had managed to get an apprenticeship as a stone mason. All tradesmen at that time were well respected and made reasonable livings. Later, he had met a nice young lady and they had settled down and had two children together. Generally speaking, life was good for him and his family.
Most of the work he did involved working on old large buildings mainly doing restoration work. One of his jobs involved working on St Paul’s Cathedral which lies in the heart of London. Some of the masonry in the crypt that lay under the cathedral had begun to crumble and he had been working there for several weeks. The crypt is where all the dead bodies are buried.
One fateful day, John had been working on a particularly bad section of wall when it collapsed on his feet leaving a gaping hole where the wall had once been. Unbeknown to him, this was in fact a burial and a whole clump of bones had fallen out amongst the debris. He noticed that a piece of parchment was amongst these bones and he picked it up and read it in the candlelight. It turned out to be a curse and contained the following words: ‘IF YOU DISTURB MY BONES I WILL MAKE YOU PAY. IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE YOU SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY’.
John didn’t take much notice as he was not in the least bit superstitious. However, from that moment on, his life took a turn for the worse. Because a burial had been disturbed the Archbishop had to be informed. He blamed the incident on John personally and he was sacked from his job for not being careful. In those days, if you get the sack it was almost impossible to get another job. He had to sell his house to get money and eventually his wife left him. After that he lost contact with his two children. He ended up begging on the streets of London and he lived like this for some years.
Every night he used to find shelter in shop doorways but this was frowned upon by the shop owners. One day, the owner of a jewellers shop found him sleeping and he sent for the police. The shop owner accused him of stealing and John was carted off to prison. He eventually stood trial and was convicted of robbery which was a hanging offence at that time. John managed to avoid being hung because the judge felt sorry for him, but nonetheless, he spent many a long year in prison. Eventually, he was going to be transported to Australia as many convicts were, but unfortunately, he died before this could happen. He died in the year eighteen hundred and sixty in the very cell where Nigel now stood.
After hearing John’s story Nigel felt very sad for him, after all, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had simply been the victim of circumstance and a cruel curse. John could see that Nigel actually had a kind heart and so he felt sad for him too. “There might just be a way we can fix this,” he said. “If we can go back in time and change the events of the past, then my life would surely have taken a different course.”
“How can we do that?” Nigel asked.
“Well, I can go back in time because I am a ghost, and I can take you with me so that’s not a problem. All I have to do is to make sure I keep well away from the events of the past. That means I can’t actually do anything myself, but if you could go to St Paul’s Cathedral before the time I worked there, and if you could then find the place where I worked and find the curse and destroy it, then perhaps things will work out differently. Would you be willing to give it a try?” John asked.
“Yes, yes, I’ll do anything,” Nigel replied.
“Very well, if you’re sure. In a moment I’ll take your hand and we will go back to a time about a week before I came across those cursed bones. I want you to uncover the burial and find the note where the curse is written. Then I want you to destroy it. If you do that, then we both might get a second chance. I’ll tell you exactly how and where to find it.”
The man took Nigel’s hand and they both walked towards the cell wall and disappeared through it. Going back in time wasn’t as frightening as Nigel thought. In a flash almost, they both found themselves back in London. John explained that he had gone back to the places he had lived in countless times before. This is what ghosts do apparently. They become trapped in an in-between world and can’t move on to the next dimension. They spend their time wandering back and forth through space wishing and hoping that things could be different. It wasn’t a very nice way to exist.
John led Nigel down a small alley and rearranged his clothing so he wouldn’t stand out quite so much in the crowd. He also made him look a bit grubby as this was normal for the time. When all this was done he gave him directions to St Paul’s Cathedral and explained exactly how to find the entrance to the crypt.
Nigel set off but he didn’t feel comfortable as he was sure everybody would be looking at him. The streets were incredibly busy and incredibly smelly for that matter. There were horses and carriages everywhere so you had to be very careful not to get run over. The people looked so different too. It was like being in a different world. As it happened, nobody seemed to pay much attention and so his confidence grew as he made his way towards St Paul’s.
When he entered the Cathedral he found that it was also very busy with people milling around everywhere. Nigel headed straight for the door that led to the crypt and when he was sure no body was watching, he slipped through the door. His way was lit by candlelight and this was just enough for him to find the place in the wall where John would soon be working. Luckily, the place on the wall had been marked out ready for the stonemasons. Nigel only had to remove one loose stone to reveal the hollow space behind. He stretched in his hand and felt for the note. To his surprise, he hit upon it straight away and he withdrew his hand and started to read. To his amazement, the note did not read as John had said, instead, he read the following: EXTREME NAUGHTINESS CAN NEVER GO UNPUNISHED. NOW MAKE YOUR CHOICE BETWEEN NAUGHTINESS AND NICENESS. IF YOU CHOOSE TO CHANGE, THEN THIS CURSE WILL TURN TO DUST. YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS.
Nigel knew that he could not pretend to change. He had to really mean it. However, having heard John’s story, and because of the things that had happened to him, Nigel was more than ready to change. As these thoughts ran through his mind and he decided to be good once and for all, the lettering on the note changed. It now read: YOU HAVE MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE. YOU NOW HAVE ONE HOUR TO RETURN TO YOUR TIME BEFORE JOHN CEASES TO BE A GHOST. Then, the note crumbled into dust.
Nigel put the stone back into the wall carefully, but as he did so, he noticed that the marking out of the wall had moved quite a bit to the right so he knew that when John came to work there he would now not disturb the burial. Time was of the essence, so he quickly made his way out of the crypt and back through the streets towards where he knew John was waiting for him in the alley. John was so pleased to hear what had happened. He took Nigel’s hand and they both made their way forward in time. When they reached the prison cell beneath the restaurant, Nigel began to worry that his parents would be wondering where he had got to. “Don’t worry,” John reassured him. “Time always stands still for such important matters.
The cell door was now open so Nigel said goodbye to John and quickly made his way back down the passage to where the wine was stored. He found the waiter who was just about to come looking for him. “Well what do you think of our wine cellars young man?” the waiter asked.
“I think they are very interesting,” Nigel said.
“Good,” said the waiter, “We had better go back upstairs now before your parents think we’ve got lost.”
When Nigel returned to the table and sat down with his parents he very politely thanked the waiter for taking the trouble to show him the cellars. His parents looked at one another other in disbelief. Nigel had never thanked anybody for a kindness in his life. The waiter rolled his eyes and made a ‘thumbs up’ sign to his parents. Nigel looked at his parents and asked, “How many ways are there to say sorry?”
Nigel’s mum said “There must be thousands.”
“Good,” said Nigel. “I’m going to have to learn to say them all.”