The air was already shimmering with heat by the time we started out on our day’s hike after having lingered, full, after our English breakfast.
Mike, Edmund and myself had planned a leisurely walk along the stretch of coast between the village of Warnham and the next night’s B&B.
At the first turn of the road Mike stopped, resting his rucksack on a stone wall to consult the map. We were hoping to visit the Old Cemetery that Edmund had been reading about, and we needed to make sure we took the right path out of the village, to avoid having to cross a marshy section the locals had told us about.
Edmund leant over Mike’s shoulder and they argued briefly over the best route. At last they agreed and we set off.
We strolled along, boots crunching on the gravel. Our conversation ambled from one thing to another. The scent of warm grass was in the air, and there was an occasional drone of bees. We let our discussion of poetry lapse to listen to the quacking of ducks, and meandered on towards the distant glint of water.
Having expounded my views on a certain modern novelist I wandered on ahead, watching the water’s surface glitter in the sun. After a while I noticed that the others were loitering further up the path. I looked back and saw that Edmund had taken out his notebook and was writing something.
‘Ah! Observe! The writer at work!’ Mike said, with a sweeping gesture of his arm towards Edmund. ‘When we stop for the night you’ll be able to keep us entertained with the first chapter of the Tale of the Shaggy Dog, or whatever that is you’re writing!’
‘This is no hirsute canine fiction!’ snapped Edmund, 'This is a true story of an unearthly phantom! I have it on the highest authority – that chap in the pub told me last night. Of course I’ll have to change the names.’
‘Oh, come on’ said Mike, ‘we haven’t got all day!’ He paused, ‘Well, actually, now I come to think of it, I suppose we have! But if you want to go poking around that cemetery later we’d better get a move on.’
‘Alright, alright, give me a minute. I’m just making some notes for the background, you know, setting the scene. There’s nothing like walking the territory to really catch the atmosphere of a place.’
A lark began to sing and we shaded our eyes to look up into the bright blue. Edmund made another note.
By late afternoon we’d come to the gates of the Old Cemetery. We were greeted with birdsong, long and loud. Edmund pointed out the wren, in a curl of ivy twined around a fallen stone angel’s wing.
‘Nosiy little devil, isn’t she?’ he grinned.
With a flick of a wing the bird was gone. We walked on in companiable silence among the graves. The headstones were all askew, overgrown and bright with buttercups. I pointed out an inscription, ‘Not Here, Gone On’
‘And here we are still loitering around!’ was Mike’s response. ‘Have you found what you’re after here yet, Edmund?’
‘Yes, here it is’ He stopped to copy down some words and a date from one of the graves. ‘If only I could have met him...’
Mike gave an exasperated sigh and strode on.
‘Met who?’ I ask.
‘Jack.’ said Edmund. ‘Jack O’Leary, the Lantern Man they called him. That guy back at Warnham was telling me about him. Sounds like a real old character, just the kind you need for a good story.’
Edmund was unusually quiet in the pub that night, not rising to Mike’s frequent attempts to get him to talk about what he’d been writing. As the night wore on and darkness fell he seemed restless, and finally announced he was going for a stroll. Half an hour later Mike stood up and stretched.
‘Well, I suppose I’d better go and see if the lad’s wandered off and got himself lost in that graveyard!’ he said and chuckled.
A bearded man turned from the bar. ‘You don’t want to go near there, not tonight, haven’t you heard? It’s the Lantern Man’s night!’
‘I’ll be fine’ said Mike. ‘I’ve got a map, and a torch…’
‘No!’ The man said loudly, and the pub fell silent. ‘Don’t go carrying a light. Not on the Lantern Man’s ground. He’ll come at you if you do. Knock you down and kick your light out. Often enough it’s not just the light he’ll give a kicking either. If you must go, then go without a light, he may let you pass then - if you’re lucky!’
Just then Edmund appeared at the door, Mike’s torch in his hand. He was dusty, bruised and disheveled, but with an odd gleam in his eye.