The Strange case of Agnes Oldman by Pat Cox
I thought I would introduce the new man to old Agnes and see if we could persuade her not to be silly tonight, I hoped that perhaps Newman being still innocent and wet behind the ears could exert his boyish charm and that we wouldn’t have to have a repeat of previous years.
It was October 31st and hopefully we could gently warn her off so that she wouldn’t go and smash a window, a car headlamp or some other object so that we would arrest her and lock her up for the night.
I drew up outside her house, it was a little bungalow at the end of the road, more or less the last one before the start of the countryside started and opened my car door, Newman didn’t move, I know he was young and all that – but you would have thought he would be willing to learn. He just sat there, staring at the gate and I ended up ordering him out of the car, which annoyed me, I must admit.
I walked up the path to the tatty front door and turned the handle – no matter how many times I told her, she never locked her front door; yet she had never been burgled. I called out to her as I poked my head inside, she replied and I went in – the place was always clean but was in desperate need of decorating. Newman stood behind me as I spoke to Agnes, I noticed he didn’t come any further than the front door mat.
Agnes looked up at me from her armchair by the fire, one of those old fashioned fireplaces it was, with a hob to boil a kettle which was just starting to come to the boil; “Hello Sergeant” she mumbled, “What can I do for you?”
She always asked that, as if she could do me a favour or help me in some way, I always thought that the way she said it was peculiar. I told her why I was there and tried to extract a promise from her that she wouldn’t get up to her old tricks – and what she said struck me as somewhat ambiguous at the time – but I wonder now as I’m writing this down….
Anyway, I digress, she said that tonight was her time and that she wouldn’t be any trouble to me ever again. Then she stood up slowly and picked up a peg that she had carved into a sort of star and put it in my hand, I heard Newman move back behind me and Agnes looked at him, smiled, nodded and said “Tell Joan it’s passed to her now”.
She sat back down and seemed to nod off, so I walked out of the house to find Newman, as white as a sheet standing out by the car. I put the piece of wood in my pocket and thought no more about it because Newman was worrying me – he really looked quite ill.
I offered to take him home, but he shook his head, I knew that he and his Mum lived with his Nan and I thought perhaps they molly coddled him too much, but he certainly wasn’t himself. When asked what old Agnes had meant, he just shook his head and withdrew further into himself; however, there was no time to question him as we were called to sort out some shoplifters.
The evening started quietly, but as time went on the trick or treaters became noisier and had begun to do silly things like turning dustbins upside down; and this was before the drinkers and partygoers had started and all six of us who were on duty found that we were rushed off our feet.
It wasn’t until next morning that I had time to consider what old Agnes had said, but that was after sorting out Newman who I was informed had refused to go home after shift and had kipped in a spare office. I say morning, but I wasn’t on shift until lunch and it turned out that he hadn’t gone home at all. I didn’t know what to make of it, but as he wasn’t with me that day, I put it to the back of my mind.
It seemed that there had been more trouble than usual the night before; vandalism had happened all over the place, windows smashed, cars wrecked and a chimney stack had been damaged; had Agnes been involved?
I decided that I would pop over and see her because custody had not been graced by her regular visitation, they told me that although they had been rushed off their feet, her regular “accommodation” had been occupied by a man who had attacked two friends, swearing and swinging his fists as if possessed. His friends had been so badly attacked that they ended up in casualty and although drink had been involved, none were over the limit and the arrestee had passed the drugs test.
It had certainly been a busy old night, but first I wanted to see what Agnes had been up to, but when I drew up outside her cottage, I noticed a red van parked outside and a television carried in. I let the two men take it in first and then followed them in. Two women were busy painting the walls and generally brightening the place up.
I stood watching them and realised that they were Newman’s Mother and Grandmother and when I spoke to them to enquire after Agnes, they shook their heads and turned back to finish the wall. They had obviously been busy as this was the last wall to be painted; the two men had put the television down on the table and gone quite quickly, which left me alone with the two.
I felt uneasy, I don’t know why but I put my hand in my pocket and fingered the little wooden star that Agnes had given me; the women turned round and smiled at me. Newman’s mother took the paint tin and brushes out of the room and the older woman sat in Agnes’ old chair and smiled at me.
“Did young Adam sleep at the station?” she queried, I nodded and she seemed satisfied.
I asked about Agnes and Gran smiled happily, telling me she had gone.
“Back to her ancestors”
“What, has she died?”
“Oh no, she had lived her life well and now she has gone to join the others of her kind”
Now this was beginning to freak me out, had she died – had she been murdered?
“So, what are you doing here, are you moving in – why?”
“It’s my inheritance, Agnes Oldman is my mother”
“But how can you inherit it if, as you say, she’s not dead”
“Easily”, she went to a drawer in the sideboard and produced a very old looking document and handed it to me.
I took it, it was a very old looking thick paper or was it parchment, I’m not really sure – but the date on the top shook me to the core – it was 31st October 1436. Underneath it stated that Web Cottage would be automatically passed to the eldest daughter of the family when the previous occupant had no further need for it.
It was hard to read, but I found that it became clearer when I held on to the little wooden star in my pocket; there were several conditions attached, one was to do no harm and another said no male consort to live there. Finally it said that between the hundredth year and the hundred and tenth year of the anniversary of their birth, the occupant must depart and join her Mother in the next life.
I’d had enough, this was all too much for me and I called for backup and two other cars came roaring up the road, with scenes of crimes people and the whole cottage was turned upside down in the search for any trace of Agnes, but none was found.
The parchment taken away for examination and both women questioned, but no sign of Agnes was ever found. She had lived in that house for ninety-four years, having moved in just as the first world war had ended; she had lived alone and during the last forty odd years had not received many visitors, but a series of books that were found showed that before that, many people had come to see her.
The books read a bit like a cross between a doctor’s diary, with cures for warts, infertility and whooping cough being discussed along with names of problems that I don’t dare write here; but that wasn’t all – there was also a list of people who had lost things or had personal problems in another book.
The health stuff had slowed down after the coming of the NHS, but the personal problems had gone on for much longer and a cupboard hidden behind a mirror was full of little wooden boxes with people’s names on them.
Was this witchcraft? I laughed at myself over the thought, but others who had been in attendance during the search of the place and the examination of the two women seemed to come down with minor ailments such as bad colds, flu and even bunions – yet I had no health problems at all – neither did Newman.
Ah yes, Newman – time to ask him a few questions, after all Old Agnes must have been his great grandmother, but Newman was avoiding me and it was several days later, after I’d finished putting out all the “Missing” posters that I was able to corner him in a local cafe, he had stopped using the canteen.
He looked up as I put my mug of tea on the table and sighed, he realised that this time he couldn’t get out of it and had to finally tell me the story. It went like this:
The Newman family had lived in the town since medieval times and the women had always been wise women, helping people with herbs and good luck charms – they had never ever issued curses, he said, it was against their creed.
There was one curse on them and it was that the wise woman had to live alone and the menfolk met horrible death on the night of All Souls Day, just before it turned into All Saints Day and nothing anyone could do would stop it. So it was decided that the wise woman would have to live by herself in a separate dwelling, that way the rest of them could marry and carry forward the generations – but sometimes the men still died and it was only Joan’s husband who had lived until he was nearly seventy. They thought that it was possibly because he was so much older than Joan was when they married that the ancestors had allowed him to die naturally in his own bed of a stroke. Newman’s own father had died in a motorbike crash when he was just five years old. He had been the same age as his mother, he had only been thirty when he had died – his head severed from his body.
Newman looked pensive for a moment and then carried on with his story, when it was time for the wise woman to leave and join her ancestors, she was allowed to cause mayhem in the town for that one night before she went and for the last few years, Agnes had felt the urge to cause trouble – but she hadn’t been ready to leave – after all she had only become one hundred on the first of January nine years ago.
So to stop herself from going, she had deliberately caused damage and asked to be arrested, she hadn’t asked – had she?
Newman nodded, he pointed out that she had stood by whatever damage she had caused until we came along and admitted to us that she had done it, so that we would take her in – plus if we were thinking about taking her home she would plant the thought in our head to arrest her. The station was built over a ley line and she knew that once locked up in that particular cell she could resist the urge to go.
He had stayed in the station that night because it was time for Agnes to go and he was frightened that with Joan now becoming the wise woman, he might be killed – so he had kept out of the way, hoping that the ley line would keep him safe.
One further thing puzzled me, why did the women all keep their maiden name of Newman, his father’s name had been Brown; tradition, was his explanation – but when they moved into Web Cottage, the name changed to Oldman and no one had ever questioned it.
I walked out of that cafe feeling as if I had been sucked into some type of alternate universe and determined to solve this problem.
I started researching the family in between searching woodlands and outlying places for Agnes, was she really one hundred and nine, she was certainly old – but that old? Yes she was, I found her in the census records and her age corresponded with what Newman had said, she really was one hundred and nine and at the time of the census, there were no men living at the address.
The age of the parchment was verified, as were the crosses or signatures showing the agreement of the occupiers to the conditions and was duly to returned to Joan who refused the offer of publicity that would come if it was made public and by the time she had her say, no one disagreed with her.
We never did find Agnes, but local folklore revealed that her mother had disappeared in exactly the same way and the older folk all thought that it had been a witch’s house. Newman transferred out of the town to a neighbouring county and seems to be doing well, I’ve never left – I’m an inspector now and due to retire soon and I’m looking forward to it and the time it will give me to research the history of the Oldman/Newman story. Joan is still in the cottage and it doesn’t look like she’s in any rush to move out, her one luxury being the television which Agnes had never had.
One final thing, as we were searching the woods for Agnes, a group of us came across an old stone – a standing stone, someone said – and on it were some form of script that we couldn’t read, but as soon as I touched that little wooden star, I saw it was a list of women’s names and the last one was Agnes.
There has been a new face in town, Joan’s second daughter who was recently widowed moved in with Newman’s mum and brought her young daughter with her – you’ve got it, her name was Newman too!
You can read more stories by Pat Cox at http://madkentdragonstories.wordpress.com/
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