According to contemporary wisdom, the definition of an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less.
Hannah’s brother Thomas certainly believed it for he was reduced to quoting it every time he lost an argument with his twin sister, which was frequently.
He couldn’t understand why she preferred to visit a museum rather than watch him play football. She seemed satisfied in research for its own sake whereas he liked the public adulation that came from demonstrating his sporting prowess. In fairness, he was a half decent footballer for his age.
“Because it opens the mind to all manner of exciting possibilities” she once told him out of sheer exasperation. “It helps to explain the human condition! And learning from history gives modern man the knowledge to negotiate the future. Besides, football is boring; every match looks the same to me; the players might just as well be robots for all the variation on display.”
In an attempt to reconcile their different personalities Thomas once tried invoking ancient Rome. He told her he would have been a gladiator and surely she would have been in the auditorium cheering him on. Hannah had laughed, pointing out that he would therefore have been a slave, and she a prominent member of Roman aristocracy. As the conversation took place over Sunday lunch both their parents had enjoyed the badinage.
Thomas and Hannah’s verbal jousting was never taken too seriously. It was seen as normal good natured sibling rivalry. Their mother was a gifted musician who played cello professionally; their father was an architect. Neither had the slightest interest in football, or ancient history for that matter, but both went out of their way, like all doting middle class parents, to support their offspring. They cheered on Thomas from the touchline or arranged frequent trips to the V&A or the Science Museum as required by either or both of them.
As Halloween approached, the twins were looking forward to a break from their academic studies. For all their differences in character they had one thing in common – both were studying geography at A level as a make-weight subject before progressing to university. Hannah was hoping to do a science degree at Cambridge whereas Thomas was targeting Loughborough.
“Tell you what, Sis” announced Thomas one morning at breakfast “I see the creation of oxbow lakes is on the geography syllabus. What about popping down to see Uncle Dennis for Halloween?”
“That’s a great idea Tom” said Hannah. “Nothing like a site visit to impress the examiners. I’ve done a little research already!”
“I was hoping you might – counting on it if the truth be known!” he replied laughing.
There was only one oxbow lake that Hannah had ever heard of and that was in England near where their father’s brother Dennis lived. It was at Cuckmere Haven, an idyllic inlet on the Sussex coastline flanked from the sea by spectacular chalky cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. Seen from a passing cruiser a tourist could be fooled into thinking these were the famous white cliffs of Dover.
Hannah discovered that In Australia they are called billabongs but in Texas USA resacas although they all had identical geological explanations; a river meanders over thousands of years until eventually turning on itself to form a lake.
Meanwhile, brother Thomas was working on an idea for a Halloween prank which he planned to spring on his sister during their visit to Uncle Dennis who Thomas judged would have recently returned from his annual holiday in Rochefort; so he ought to be in relaxed playful mode.
To Thomas’ delight, Uncle Dennis was not only reinvigorated from his French vacation, but he had recently developed a brand new hobby which was completely out of character for him.
His main pre-occupation since retiring from HM Customs & Excise was centred on DIY. He had acquired a number of properties in the Eastbourne area through Buy to Let schemes over the years all of which required regular maintenance. His DIY skills were second to none, but it seemed his recent holiday had sparked an unexpected interest in history.
So, apart from acquiring a set of garden furniture for his new main residence, he felt he now had time for more cerebral pursuits.
“Do you know” he said on the evening of their arrival, as they all tucked in to fish & chips, his favourite take a way meal, “Halloween was originally a marketing ploy by Pope Gregory 1V to attract more Celtic pagans to the Christian faith in the 9th century?”
Thomas nearly choked on a fat chip in surprise at this revelatory pearl of wisdom.
Hannah was marginally more circumspect having researched the subject of Halloween herself but equally astonished at her Uncle’s unexpected observation.
“Yes” continued Uncle Dennis, encouraged by the response his opening gambit had produced “It’s all derived from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter, a time often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the New Year the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead simply returned to earth.”
“But how was that a marketing opportunity for Pope Gregory?” asked Thomas, intrigued.
“Well, from the 4th century onwards the early Christian Church developed a variety of feast days in which they celebrated different Christian martyrs. They tended to pick days that coincided with similar pagan festivals in order that converts felt comfortable with the concept of Christianity. Pope Gregory decreed that all saints would be venerated on 1st November. Ipso facto, as they say in Rome, Halloween becomes the eve of hallows or saints and quickly merged in the minds of the Celts with Samhain. Sales job done!”
Uncle Dennis took a swig of his favourite cider and sat back with a smile on his face, as if to say, “Any questions?”
Hannah and Thomas were momentarily lost for words. This was a side to Uncle Dennis that they had never seen before but both were keen to learn more although both, as ever, had different motives.
“I once read that the tradition of bobbing for apples came from a similar route” said Hannah.
“That’s right” replied Uncle Dennis. “The Romans conquered most of Celtic territory over 400 years but incorporated two of their own festivals into Samhain; Feralia which commemorated the passing of the dead and Pomona which honoured the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple of course. I think we can thank the Americans for finally taking the whole Halloween experience well away from any connection to serious religious belief, don’t you?”
Thomas now seized the initiative he had hoped might arise from the conversation.
“Fascinating stuff Uncle Dennis – Dad will be mightily impressed when I update him. He has always been blown away by your DIY skills, but he will be completely knocked out when I tell him about your latest hobby.”
Uncle Dennis took another swig of his Strongbow cider as Thomas then set about telling him and Hannah about some research that he had been doing on the Seven Sisters.
“As you know Uncle, Hannah and I have to write up a piece on ox bow lakes and I discovered a connection with the Seven Sisters which oddly enough kind of ties in with what you were saying about using pagan myths to sell Christianity.”
Hannah was immediately suspicious, but Uncle Dennis encouraged him to continue.
“They are called Sisters because, from a distance, they look like an order of nuns wearing habits. Science tells us they were created in prehistoric times over millions of years, but pagans venerated their grandeur. They saw them as symbolic of virtuous living. Whenever a section crumbled and fell into the sea they believed time might be running out. The comparison to nuns came later when early Christian missionaries suggested they symbolised martyrs who sacrificed their lives keeping the locals free from pirate invaders. There was even a time around 900 AD when it was thought that each sister had access to a subterranean tunnel that went into the sea and came up in the middle of the oxbow lake”
“A likely story … nice try Thomas … but I prefer Uncle Dennis’ version of history” said Hannah nervously.
“And when do the Sisters slip down into the tunnel and emerge from the oxbow lake?” asked Uncle Dennis trying hard not to laugh at Thomas’ outrageous scenario.
“Mock me at your peril” continued Thomas imperiously, “But we are dealing here with the occult which you should never dismiss lightly.”
“So what do you have in mind young Thomas?” Asked Uncle Dennis who was beginning to fear that his new found hobby might be moving out of his comfort zone.
“Well, according to local legend, one or more of the Sisters emerges from the lake at midnight on 31st October. She then returns to the cliff top to take her normal place via the footpaths used by tourists during the day.”
Hannah was beginning to feel distinctly unsettled at Thomas’ assured performance. She knew deep down that it was all mumbo jumbo but it was time to call his bluff.
“OK” she said. “If you really believe there is something in this, let’s all camp out on 31st October next to the lake and watch for ourselves!”
At 11.30 pm on Sunday 31st October 2021, a reluctant Uncle Dennis tapped in the last of the guy ropes and stepped back to check his work. He couldn’t believe that he had been persuaded to go along with the twins’ proposition for a midnight camp out as he looked at the instant quick-pitch tent on which he had deployed his DIY skills. He found himself admiring the design.
A long, coiled, sprung frame is permanently fitted into the fabric of the tent. By twisting the frame, the tent becomes a circular package. Unleashing the spring frame turns the fabric bag into a remarkably elegant and practical shelter, complete with inner tents and sleeping space for as many as five people. “Enough for three humans and two of the seven sisters” he thought to himself; “or all of the sisters if we are forced into doing a runner!”
As the wind and rain lashed the tent, Uncle Dennis poured three Strongbows before proposing a toast to the ghosts of Halloween. It was now 11.59 as they huddled together peering through a side window on to the lake, which was now engulfed by a swirling mist being whipped up by a whirlwind of increasing velocity before their very eyes. All three held their breath as they struggled to keep their individual emotions in check.
On the stroke of midnight there was an almighty great crack as forked lightning pierced the whirlwind and entered the centre of the lake illuminating an area of about 50 square metres and showering the tent with a fine warm spray. All three incumbents froze. Uncle Dennis put his arms around his nephew and niece both of whom were shaking with fear.
Thomas and Hannah both screamed as two hooded figures emerged from the lake and made their way towards the tent. A skeleton dressed in a nun’s habit sat upright in a wheelchair which was being pushed along by another skeletal figure draped in Papal regalia including a triple tiara favoured by 9th century Popes, with an embroidered pallium over a deep royal blue chasuble.
Uncle Dennis steadied his nerves and continued holding his sobbing charges close to his chest.
The apparition glided towards the tent’s opening flaps as if on a cushion of air before veering away towards the footpath and on to the grass slopes of the Seven Sisters Country Park. Uncle Dennis watched as it disappeared in the direction of the clifftop before releasing his nephew and niece who slowly recovered their composure.
Halloween 2021 was never ever mentioned again. The three campers were too traumatised by the events. Thomas’s intended prank was feeble compared with what he had witnessed. Hannah knew there had to be an explanation but clung to the certain knowledge that no amount of research would reveal it. Uncle Dennis sought solace by concentrating full time on DIY. He decided that he would design and make his own garden furniture rather that order readymade equipment on line.
Six months later Hannah and Thomas received their exam results which showed they were both on course for Cambridge and Loughborough respectively, but both had failed Geography A level which surprised their parents who decided, wisely, not to pursue an inquest although their father did make a passing comment which caused the twins to look furtively at each other across the breakfast table.
“That’s a shame” he said. “ Mind you, I can talk, I failed the same subject at school whereas Uncle Dennis passed with a distinction. It bugged the hell out of me at the time”
It would seem that Sibling rivalry is never far from the surface in this family.
This Decamot inspired by the followed items:
cello, gladiator, oxbow lake, garden furniture, Hannah, Rochefort, wheelchair, robot, museum, cruiser