I was eleven when I saw my first ghost on the night we crossed the bottomless bridge. I can still picture that dull, silver oval in the trees, obscured by rain, reflecting shaking torch light, suddenly materialise into a headless-rider on his galloping horse charging us.
To this day I swear this is what I saw. Ask any boy who was there and they’ll tell you. They’ll tell you that one of us screamed ‘It’s Headless Harry! Run!’ and next we were all screaming ‘Run! It’s Headless Harry! Run!’
I scrambled up the hill towards our camp, torrential rain smacking my face, slick mud slowing me. Turning back to look again, I saw the headless rider and horse bearing down on me. I ran harder up that hill to my supposed safety. I am sure I was screaming for help. We all were.
Some of us ran up the hill. Some ran down the hill. Some ran directly away along the ghostly pair’s path, which made no sense. They would be the first to get it. Then I realised, knowing the story of Headless Harry, that we would all get it very soon. We were prey.
It was my first night away from my family. I was the eldest of five children and upon reaching eleven it was suggested I join the local scout troop. It all happened very fast. Dad and I visited the troop’s leader and I was booked into a camping trip the following weekend. No time to learn how to tie a knot or light a fire or build a shelter out of twigs. Within days, without explanation, I was in a mini-bus with a troop of boys I had never met before, being driven out to the woods of Powerscourt.
My old army rucksack contained a torch, a jumper and a sleeping bag. That was it. I didn’t think of packing necessities like chocolate, crisps or anything useful. I wore a scout shirt which I thought was cool. It was dark green with loads of pockets and made me feel like a solider.
The other boys were friendly and some of them were asked to ‘Look after the new kid.’ Soon our mini-bus reached the old estate in Co Wicklow and I was following the troop through a forest to the where we would make camp.
It was a flat open space, surrounded by looming trees, on the top of a small, steep hill. After the tents were erected I could easily stand inside and had to jump to touch the roof with my outstretched arm.
My first day camping was also my first without an adult to tell me what to do. The troop leader was to join us later and in the meantime the older boys were in charge. They could not have been much older than sixteen and our troop leader, they called him Skipper, was in his early twenties.
I can recall no names but an older boy was a little friendlier to me than his counterparts and he took me under his wing. This involved ordering me to go get firewood. I was getting hungry, it was way past lunchtime and he was going to cook us up a feast. Each time I returned with firewood I was quickly sent back for more. ‘Keep it coming Peter’ he ordered. And I did. Bundling dry wood from the forest floor in my arms, returning to camp and then out again.
After I threw another bundle to the ground, breathing in the sunny forest air I heard him call me ‘Hey! Do you want a drag of this?’ he asked. He was smoking! In fact they were all puffing away on cigarettes and I was shocked at their daring. I was not allowed to smoke. I had been warned about it before and had made a solemn promise to never smoke again.
‘Sure.’ I said and took the cigarette from him. Thankfully I did not start coughing because I had not learned to inhale tobacco smoke. Smoking that cigarette made me feel all the more free and grown up. Here I was in the wilds of Ireland, in the middle of nowhere with a troop of lads I didn’t know. Adventurers all, cooking on open fires, sleeping in tents. It was true freedom. ‘No more Mum or Dad to tell me what to do.’
As the day passed there seemed to be almost as endless a supply of cigarettes as wood for me to collect. Whenever I returned I noticed the older boys laughing but they would quickly hush as I neared and as I left, they laughed again.
Such was my first day and by the time the food was ready it was early evening and the sun was beginning to set. I asked them what time the troop leader would arrive.
‘Well he has to finish work first and then he’ll be out to us.’
‘That’s if his banjaxed scooter doesn’t break down.’
‘Oh yeh! Remember that time we were left on our tod in Wexford? That was classic!’
‘And if he doesn’t make it tonight we get to cross the bottomless bridge without him barking his orders at us.’
I found this conversation unhelpful. I was pretending to enjoy myself but I was scared of the thoughts of spending a night in a tent without a nearby adult to box the ears of some imaginary bully who might be pick on me. I was muttering something along these lines to myself, stooping to pick up a branch, when I stopped and whispered ‘Bottomless Bridge?’
I had never heard of a bottomless bridge before. I imagined a narrow, rickety bridge over a deep, deeper than deep chasm with skeletons at the bottom. The decaying remnants of foolish humans and animals who had tried crossing at night. I was definitely not going to leave the camp on some mad adventure with these strangers. No way.
Finally, it was time to eat and I was starving due to the fresh air and hard work. A line formed behind a boy brandishing a large spoon over a steaming pot and I joined it. When I got to him he asked me for my bowl.
‘Bowl?’ I asked.
‘Yep. Your bowl. Don’t tell me you didn’t pack a bowl! What about a plate? Or a mug?’
‘I didn’t know I had to.’ I replied.
‘Your parents are right feckin’eejits. Aren’t they?’
I was insulted. My Mum and Dad were not eejits and if they were, that was not my fault. I was hungry and I’d collected all the wood to fuel the fire to cook the food for everyone. I said ‘Yeh. Feckin’ eejits.’
I was reassured that a bowl would be free soon and I could wash it in the stream below before eating. I was having a roller coaster of a day. Wood; Cigarettes; Fire; Hunger; Strangers; Tents; Night-time; Alone and a BOTTOMLESS BRIDGE!
I was in the middle of a darkening forest and couldn’t just run to call my Mum to beg her to take me to safety. I was stuck here wanting to weep, wishing this night was over.
As it darkened we sat around the fire. It was reassuring and one of the lads had packed two mugs so he loaned me one. It was one of those white enamel mugs with a blue rim, a real camping mug. I filled it with sweet, milky tea, waited for the troop leader’s arrival. A few boys had hunting knives and they whittled sticks as the fire lit their faces. I didn’t even have a penknife.
Then it started to rain so we were all ordered into the tent.
‘Great idea! All in and I’m first with the ghost story!’
‘Oh no.’ I thought
‘Hey! Just remember some of us aren’t as experienced as you so go handy OK?
‘Yeh right! Hah!’
We were told to keep our torches off during the story. I got into my sleeping bag, fully clothed, shivering. I buried my head, lighting my torch inside the bag; I did not want to hear anything. But I did. And I first heard of Headless Harry, enclosed in a sleeping bag, torch lit, begging not to hear.
Headless Harry was one of the many ghosts in these woods. ‘Many?’ I thought. Harry rides through these woods at night hunting for heads to cut off. He had been a local farmer who resorted to highway robberies for extra cash.
‘He should have got a packing job in Williams’s!’ someone said but they were quickly cuffed and hushed.
‘This is a serious ghost story so shut up or you can get out into the rain!’
Harry had robbed enough to appear rich to a local lord, who introduced his only daughter to Harry and of course they fell in love. ‘Typical, all the good stories are spoiled by the hero kissing a girl!’ I thought. They planned to marry at the end of that summer and Harry decided to do one more robbery before retiring with his wealthy new wife.
One night he rode his black stallion to the forest path, hiding and waiting for the coach he knew would come. ‘It was dark, just like tonight. It was raining, just like tonight.’ He was a good story-teller and I couldn’t stop listening. The tent was silent but for his story, the rain on the tent and the crackling, hissing fire outside. I was praying for the tale to end.
Harry drew out his pistols ordering the coach to stop. The driver pulled the horses to a stop and leapt from the coach, running away into the woods. ‘These very woods. He was never seen again.’ Harry approached the coach-door, threw in a sack through its window, demanding the occupants to fill it with all they had.
But one of the passengers was a constable from Dublin and he decided to make a stand. He shouted his refusal out to Harry and Harry responded by firing both pistols into the carriage.
‘It’s as easy to take your money whether you’re dead or alive.’ Harry said.
He dismounted and walked towards the silent coach. He unsheathed his sword, using it to lift up the ragged curtain of the window, peeking inside. There was enough light to see two dead bodies resting against each other as they were napping. One, a man, had the sack and a pistol. The woman had her purse tightly grasped to her chest. He saw and recognised her dark long hair, the curve of her still lips and the engagement ring he had given to her.
She was the woman he loved and he had murdered her.
Harry screamed his despair and fury into the night. In a rage he mounted his horse, digging his spurs into its haunches. The horse lunged forward as Harry’s eyes filled with blinding tears; the rain beat down as the horse powered them through the dark forest.
And then Harry’s neck was caught in the fork of a knurled branch hanging from an ancient oak tree, ripping his head from his body as the horse and rider charged on through the night.
‘And the story goes that Headless Harry rides through these woods to this very day. Searching for a head to replace the one he lost.’
I was petrified, wishing I was back home, not here with these strangers in these woods haunted by a headless rider and the many other ghosts.
We all heard a put-put sound in the distance and someone said ‘Hey! That’s Skipper’s bike! He’s here!’ We bailed out of the tent into the rain and stood around the fire to welcome the troop leader.
‘Sorry I’m late lads’ he said ‘Got a puncture just outside Enniskerry.’
After a welcoming mug of tea he suggested we go for a midnight stroll through the woods. He was serious. All that relief, I had briefly felt upon his arrival, vaporised with his words. But I pretended enthusiasm, pulling on my jacket and boots. I joined our troop walking down the hill away from our bright fire to the dark wooded path below.
The rain never stopped. I wished the night to end at every step and then the bottomless bridge was mentioned.
‘Are we crossing the Bottomless Bridge tonight, Skip?’
‘Yes we are. But we must take care and cross one at a time. No rushing in this rain. We are nearly there.’
The absence of detail about this pit fuelled my imagination and stoked my fears. We turned a gentle bend and I finally saw the Bottomless Bridge.
It looked just like a normal bridge. It was iron and familiar, it looked sturdy enough to carry a truck let alone an eleven year old boy. But as we neared it became clear why it was so named. The bridge had no floor. It was bottomless. How were we to cross?
There was no skeleton filled chasm to cross; just a stream now heavy and fast with the rain. But the bridge had no floor to walk upon. I watched the first scout cross. He held onto the side wall, carefully placing his feet on a narrow ledge, and edged across.
I was last in line, Skipper encouraged me, telling me the path back to camp was on the other side of the Bottomless Bridge. So I held on tightly and edged my way over in the dark, soaked by rain. I was delighted to reach the other side and to be heading back to camp. Soon I would be sipping warm tea from a borrowed cup and I’d be home safely tomorrow.
We trudged through the rain, someone started to sing but no one joined in. I would have but I didn’t know the song. The only sounds were our breathing, our tramping boots, the rain and the wind in the trees. Our torches were useless against such enveloping darkness, only lighting our feet on the path. Shining them into the woods through the downpour only made that night more menacing.
We were near the camp when someone asked ‘What’s that?’ and I looked up. I saw a dim silver shape in the rain reflecting our erratic torchlights. I wiped the rain from my face then I heard the screams ‘Its Headless Harry! Run! Run!’ and I saw the headless rider on a galloping horse thundering toward me.
I ran up that hill as fast as I could, whimpering for safety. My breath was heavy with tears as I forced myself to climb harder until I reached the campfire’s glowing embers. I could see that I was in terrible danger. That we all were. I gave up and slumped onto a log by the fire, listening to the rain hiss in the fire, waiting for my doom. Goodbye Mum and Dad.
Then there was a piercing, high screeching sound filling the air. I closed my eyes and stayed perfectly still. The sound came nearer and nearer, filling the air around me and I sensed it approaching the fire. Its sharpness hurt my ears and I felt a shadow darken my face, and although I ordered my eyes never to open again, they disobeyed me.
Skipper stood in the weak light of the fire feverishly blowing on his whistle. I could see he was frightened too.
‘At least you had some sense.’ he said. He shouted out into the night to the others and blew his whistle again.
‘Throw more wood on that fire!’ he ordered. The fire began to brighten and those of us that had run to the camp appeared first. As each scout approached Skipper ordered them to stand near the fire and he counted us over and over until we were all accounted for. Finally, we were all standing around the fire and Skipper, ordering water to be boiled, took a cigarette from an older scout.
‘What the fuck was that all about?’ he asked as he lit it up.
‘Headless Harry, Skip. We all saw him.’
‘Headless Harry. He’s at the bottom of the hill, looking for us.’ Panic once again shivered throughout us all.
‘Hold on a second. Calm down.’ Skipper said. ‘There is no one there. Come and look. All of you!’
We followed him to the brow of the hill and he told us to point our torches towards the shape. We did and we saw that dull, silver shape shine out from the night. It was true! It was a ghost!
‘Look!’ he shouted. ‘See? It’s only my Honda with a cover over it! Do you see? Do you all see? There is nothing to be scared of.’
We suddenly recognised the shape of his scooter under its silver rain cover and our relief was instant. We’d all been fools. Even the big boys had scattered in fear and some had run even further than me. I wasn’t that bad. At least I had made it to the fire.
The rain never stopped that night. Our fire fought on, hissing for as long as we fuelled it with wood but that didn’t last long. When we threw the last of it onto the fire we were ordered to our tents.
We shared one more cigarette before turning in for the night and I was happy that in the morning I would be going home to safety. Finally, I got into in my sleeping bag, smelling of wood smoke, and, feeling safe for the first time that day, I fell asleep.
The next morning was dry and the sky was blue. The camp slowly woke up and Skipper was up cooking breakfast. I yawned and stretched, happy to know I was going home that day. I smiled, put my boots on and headed over to Skipper.
‘That was some night last night. I thought I’d lost you all.’ he said.
‘I thought we were goners…that Headless…’
‘The only headless things out there last night were all you kids. I don’t know, someday you’ll know the difference between fear of the real and fear of the imaginary.’
‘Wha?’ I replied.
‘Never mind; here’s some breakfast. Wash that plate afterwards.’
I took the food from him and after eating I walked down the hill to the stream to wash up. The shining sun warmed me as I dipped the plate into the water, rubbing it with my fingers to loosen the remains of the food. As I pulled the plate from the peat yellow stream I saw its colour remain on my fingers.
I looked closer. I’d seen those stains before on my grandfather’s fingers after his years of smoking. Now mine were stained too, the yellow, nicotine stained fingers would betray me to Mum and Dad. I frantically tried washing them in the stream. No use. I used a stone to sand the skin off. It hurt. I bit at the skin to take it off. It hurt too but I didn’t care. No way was I going home with nicotine stained fingers. No way.
It is true. Fear of the real is much, much worse.