This week’s prompt for Quill Shiv’s Flash Fiction Faction was close to home for me.
The Shambles was quiet now, the tourists back in their hotels, and the young people of York making their way home from the pubs and discos lining the River Ouse.
It was now safe for Tommo to slip from the shadows of the Minster to find his shelter for the night. Since the fire that had badly damaged the Minster, overnight security around the cathedral had been tight, and these days his overnight haunt was the shop doorway opposite the antique booksellers. at the far end of the cobbled, overhung medieval street.
Patch followed on behind, tail wagging as he sniffed the gutters, excitedly following scents undetectable to man. Tommo chuckled, “Don’t you go pretending you can smell history, Patch, the markets are long gone.”
When he reached his doorway he laid out his meagre possessions, unrolled his grimy sleeping bag, and pulled out a meat pie he’d rescued from the bins close to the Minster. Patch immediately transferred his interest to his master, and having shared the still warm pie between them, they settled down, Patch dozing with his chin across Tommo’s neck.
It was Patch’s low growl that woke Tommo, and he immediately noticed how cold it was. He followed Patch’s gaze, to see a woman in a long cloak bending over him.
“You must go,” she whispered, “go now.”
“I’m going nowhere, Ma’am,” said Tommo, with more chivalry than he was feeling, whilst Patch continued to growl, the hair on his neck rising.
“You must go, it isn’t safe here,” she hissed, looking round, before she suddenly disappeared from view.
Tommo shook his head, and settled down again. But Patch was up and alert, struggling out of Tommo’s arms to look down the winding cobbled street. There was a noise, Tommo thought, but it seemed a long way off, the sound of hooves ringing on cobbles. Then he thought he heard the whinnying of horses, lowing of cattle and sheep bleating. He must be dreaming, he decided.
The noise became louder, and Patch began to tremble as the ground beneath them began to shake. Tommo struggled out of his bed and looked down the street, not believing what he saw.
Heading towards him were hundreds of animals, cows, horses, sheep, pigs, deer, all running as though the hounds of hell were after them. As they approached he saw their rolling eyes, the foam flecking around their mouths, and blood running down their bodies. He grabbed at Patch and hauled him into the safety of the doorway as the animals went thundering by, their stench causing his nostrils to quiver.
As he watched, a lamb faltered in the chase, and was knocked down close to the doorway. Tommo reached out and hooked it round the neck with his walking stick, dragging it to safety.
Several minutes passed before the street was quiet again. It was as though nothing had happened, but once again Patch, who’d shown little curiosity towards the lamb was excitedly sniffing the gutters that ran along the sides of the narrow street. It was a while before Tommo stopped trembling. Patch had disappeared up the street, but the lamb, which appeared to be dozing peacefully, offered some warmth as he settled down again.
“What am I going to do with this lamb tomorrow?” he wondered as he finally drifted off to sleep.
But for Tommo there was no tomorrow.
The bookseller watched as the tramp’s body was taken from the doorway opposite and carried into the mortuary vehicle. A black and white dog was whining and getting under the feet of the paramedics.
“I’ll call the dog warden,” said the policeman attending the scene, reaching for his radio.
The bookseller hurried out onto the street. “I’ll look after the dog,” he said, “he’ll be safe with me.”
The policeman was relieved, and the bookseller carried the little terrier back into his shop, going through to the back room where he placed it on the rug in front of the radiator with two other dogs.
A shadow moved at his side, and he smiled.
“The animals ran again last night, Margaret,” he said softly, “and claimed another soul, I fear.”
“It is almost over now,” she said, and he saw that the air was shimmering around her, the outline of the bookshelves emerging through the spectral form of the woman in medieval dress. Soon she would be gone.
“I warned him,” she said, and he felt her icy breath on his cheek, “but he stayed. And the lamb took him; as it did with the others.”
“I shall be glad when All Hallows is past,” thought the book-seller, bending down to stroke this year’s addition to the dogs under his care.
York is said to be the most haunted city in England.
The Shambles was the centre of the city’s meat markets; as late as 1872 there were 25 butcher’s shops housed in this street, displaying their wares from hooks above the windows, or shelves beneath.
The Shambles today has a shrine to Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife, staunch defender of the catholic faith who was condemned to death by ‘pressing’, for harbouring priests, and canonized in 1970.