The Well

The well

It’s Halloween again and as usual it is unsettling me more than somewhat.  Although the events that I am about to relate happened forty odd years ago, the horror of them haunts me to this day.  I’ve kept this to myself for all these years; maybe sharing it now will enable me to find some closure.

Back in the day, the telephone company was awash with managers who got to be in charge because they’d been around a long time.  All they wanted was a quiet life; they did no more than they had to do and then went home.  A management team with this level of motivation was unlikely to inspire their workforce and working in this environment was an unfulfilling experience.  Luckily though, very occasionally, a manager with drive would come along; Doug was in this category.

When I met Doug I’d been working in a planning office for a couple of years; I missed field work, but the only hope of promotion was in an office, so I grudgingly stuck it out.  By now my once calloused workman’s hands had returned to those of a choirboy, my motivation was at rock-bottom and I needed a firm kick-up-the-arse; Doug was happy to oblige.  He drove me like a (I’m stuck for PC words here, but you know what I mean).  And, luckily enough, I hadn’t spent so long in a torpor that I wasn’t able to respond to some useful ‘counselling’ and come to realise that the alternative to laziness and endlessly long days could be engagement and fulfilment.  Suffice it to say that once flinty-eyed Doug had kicked me into shape, we got along fine.

Although I didn’t know much about Doug, what I did know was that he enjoyed a pint in his local.  We were chatting over a coffee one day and he put a proposition to me.  Doug said that the landlord of his local was in the process of building an extension and a few days ago they had uncovered a deep well.  This well had been covered by a concrete patio, and was only unearthed because they needed to break the patio up to install footings for the extension.  They knew the well was deep, because when they threw rocks down it, it took some while before they heard bonk, bonk splosh.  The ‘bonk, bonk’ indicated that there was some kind of obstruction somewhere near the bottom of the well and the ‘splosh’, yep you guessed it, water!  Doug became very enthusiastic as he told me that the landlord and the locals were mightily intrigued by this find and were hoping for an opportunity to discover if the well held some treasures.  I guess it was a reasonable thought; people must have thrown all kinds of things down old wells.  Anyway, Doug knew that I scuba-dived, so his proposal was that I’d strap on the gear, they’d tie a rope around me and lower me down.

At this point I must ask you to consider my position; I was in my early twenties with the possibility of a successful career stretching out in front of me and my guv’nor was asking me for a favour, so without any consideration for personal safety, while my brain was thinking “here’s a chance to ingratiate myself with the boss”, my mouth said “what’s in it for me?”.  Anyway, Doug replied with “free beer, and, if you’re lucky, pie and chips”.  “Done” said I.  And I had been!

Luckily though, Doug wasn’t quite so gung-ho.  The next day he came to work via the phone company stores (he once managed proper ‘hairy-arsed’ engineers, so he had all the right contacts) with a miners’ safety lamp, overalls and a hard hat.  He explained that as the well was just “another bloody-great hole in the ground”, it could collect gas or foul air, so to be safe, we ought to test it with the Davy-lamp before venturing down, especially as we’d worked out that lowering me in with full diving kit would be too heavy and probably prevent me from negotiating the obstructions, therefore I would be breathing ‘well air’ on the way down.  And the hard hat; obviously to protect me from the rocks accidentally kicked down the well by the inevitable drunk(s) staggering about above.

After a couple of days, Doug also hatched a safer plan to get me down to the water.  The landlord had asked his regulars to supply ladders, so now the plan was to tie a load of ladders together and lower them into the well as far as the obstruction, hoping that I would be able to negotiate whatever it was that was causing the obstruction and manoeuvre my way into the water.  Doug was confident that all this would be in place by the time that I arrived on the evening of the 31st October… Halloween!

I wasn’t exactly getting cold feet, but I was feeling in need of reliable back up.  Pete Two (you may read about Pete One and Pete Three elsewhere, but in an effort to safeguard his identity this Pete is to be known as Pete Two) was an obvious choice.  Pete Two had one of the best senses of humour I’ve come across – ever; and my god could that boy drink.  So, I explained the need for a backup diver and Doug confirmed that if the landlord wouldn’t settle the bar bill, for all this fun, then he certainly would.  Game on!

It was getting dark by the time we arrived, with our wives at the pub.  The locals had the drinking element of the adventure well in hand and there was an air of anticipation.  The landlord offered us a pint, but the rule is that you don’t drink and dive, so we declined the offer, pointing out that we would more than make up for it later.

We checked out the preparation.  Give Doug and the landlord their due, it was all there.  The ladders disappeared into the gloom, there was a bucket with holes drilled in it for collecting the spoils and plenty of rope for lowering the aqualung, bucket and a safety rope for the diver.

Four of us stood atop the well.  Although it was forty years ago, I can remember this as if it were yesterday.  My wife Glenys was standing next to me, and just a few feet away, on the other side of the well stood Pete and Geraldine.  We were all staring down as I shone a powerful underwater torch into the hole.  The torchlight penetrated no more than six feet or so and I was slightly unnerved that the well was full of mist, but it had been a mild October day and now that the temperature had dropped, it seemed reasonable that a mist would form, especially in low lying areas… and this was certainly low lying.  The plan was that we’d lower the Davy lamp into the well on a pre-marked length of polypropylene line that Doug had also liberated from the stores.  Doug and the landlord had worked out the length of line needed based on the number of ladders that were lashed together.  As I held the torch, with Pete, Geraldine and Glen watching, Doug appeared from the gloom with the lighted lamp.  He lowered the lamp down to the mark, made the rope off to the top rung of the ladder and then returned to the pub to finish his pint in the warm, leaving the four of us with our thoughts.  The plan was that we’d leave the lamp for a few minutes and then haul it back up.  If the lamp was still alight, then the air was good and we could dive in relative safety.

As I turned away from the well, I thought I noticed a slight swirling in the mist and at the same time, Glen gasped and took a big step back from the hole… “did you see that?”.  Her voice was a strained whisper.  “See what?” I responded, somewhat taken aback.  “I’m sure I saw a face, there was a swirl of mist and for a second these hollow eyes stared back at me… I’m certain I saw something, you can’t go down there Graham… you can’t”.  I laughed… “nice one Glen, you got us going for a minute with that one… “.  Glen didn’t look at all amused and Pete wasn’t looking too happy either.

Personally, at that time I had absolutely no belief in the paranormal so as far as I was concerned, what my wife had observed was just a trick of the mist in the torchlight… absolutely nothing to worry about.  However, at this point the pub landlord put in another appearance and once again offered us a ‘stiffener’ before we ventured forth.  I looked at Pete and the four of us said in unison “yes please”.

I still couldn’t be certain if Glen was just winding us up, but one thing I did know was that she never ever touched spirits, so I was a bit alarmed when she asked for a double brandy.

Pete and I knew that only the first person into the well would be able to see anything, because as soon as someone touched bottom, the silt debris would reduce visibility to zero.  Our agreement was that as it would be great to actually see what the underwater vista looked like before disturbing the silt, we would toss a coin for the honour of who went first.  Things had changed though.  Pete was staring at Glen as Glen sat quietly in the corner gently shuddering and taking gulps from her large brandy.  She’d definitely seen something, and while I was certain that it was just a trick of the light, I was equally certain that Pete didn’t see it that way at all.  At this point I need to explain something about Pete.

Pete was a strapping lad and at over six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he was well able to look after himself.  And, added to this Pete boxed and had the scars to prove it.  Bear in mind that as a couple of likely lads in our early twenties, on a good night out, we had on occasions come up against some dodgy characters.  On one occasion Pete parked his Cortina outside a Chinese takeaway and I jumped out to sort out the order.  I was into the premises before I’d noticed the three skinheads waiting impatiently for their grub.  These lads were being rude to the chap behind the counter and when I came through the door, all flowing locks down to my shoulders and flared trousers, their attention turned fairly rapidly to me.

Parked outside, Pete must have seen what was about to happen and quick as a flash he was out of the car and through the restaurant door with a big grin on his face.  He stepped in front of me and turned to the direction of aggravation… “hello lads, how’s it going then?”  I looked gingerly out from behind my big mate.  The mouthy leader had stopped walking forward and looked a bit uncertain.  Pete pressed on “ok lads, this is how it’s going to play out, you three are going to wait patiently for your “chinky” [colloquialism, perfectly acceptable to the Chinese person serving us forty odd years ago] and then you’ll go home and enjoy your grub… deal?”  The three of them sat down.  My point is that Pete was bloody fearless.  Whereas I needed a change of underwear, my mate couldn’t have cared less if a fight had broken out; his only disappointment would have been that there was only three of them!  Having said all this however, Pete was also the biggest ‘scaredy-cat’ I had ever met.

The four of us were great mates, to the extent that we actually went on holiday together.  On one occasion we’d hired a cruiser on the Norfolk Broads.  It was a big old boat with a lot of timbered features and in the half-light, it was easy to imagine that you were on an old galleon; and Pete had a vivid imagination.

The ‘facilities’ were of the pump-out variety.  The bloke in the boatyard said that the holding tank was more than big enough for four of us for a week, so there was no need to get the toilet emptied; clearly though he had no notion of the amount of beer that was about to be consumed.  Anyway, it was agreed that where possible Pete and I would pee over the side, so as to avoid filling the bog too quickly.  On this particular evening we had decided to get the beers in, moor up in the ‘wilds’, do our own cooking and then play scrabble (Geraldine reckoned she was good at scrabble; we reckoned she was bloody cheating!).  Anyway, while the girls sipped delicately on glasses of Chardonnay, Pete and I shovelled the beer down like our lives depended on it.  When necessary, I’d take a trip to the rail and when Pete needed to go he’d use the ‘ladies’ toilet.  After several trips I retorted “oi Pete, where do you think you’re going?  Go outside mate!”  Pete glared at me and went in the ladies.  Once he was out of earshot, Geraldine explained that her brave husband was, in fact, scared of the dark.  Oh boy was I going to have some fun!

I’d been reading a book called ‘Ghosts of the Norfolk Broads’, so when Pete came back in, I started to recount one of the short stories.  He didn’t want to hear.  Part of the problem was that a slight breeze had got up and this was causing the boat to rock on its moorings which in turn caused a ghostly creaking sound as rope strained against bollard.  Coupled with this, as each gust of wind blew, the ornately panelled doors would ease open slightly against their catches; Pete had his back to the doors, so he couldn’t see this.  “What’s up Pete old mate? you look a bit uneasy”.  “Nothing, nothing at all, now come on you lot concentrate on the game”.  The doors eased, the ropes creaked… “crikey mate, this is a spooky old boat isn’t it?  With all this creaking and tapping going on, I’m half expecting the headless ghost of Blackbeard to burst in through those doors”.  Pete couldn’t help himself and he looked over his shoulder just as a strong gust of wind lifted the catches and blew the door open.  Pete let out a blood curdling scream as he leapt to his feet knocking all the scrabble paraphernalia onto the floor.  The three of us nearly wet ourselves laughing; not quite true, I actually did wet myself… I should’ve gone to the rail before winding up poor old Pete.

Back to the plot.  You can see my predicament.  I knew that there was no way that Pete was going to face whatever it was that had frightened Glen and so I needed to apply some psychology.

“OK Pete, I know I said we’d toss a coin to decide who goes first, but let’s face it mate, you’re a big fxxxxr and as you’re always pointing out to me, I’m a short-arse, so, if there is an obstruction down there we don’t want to risk you getting stuck, so why don’t I go first?  After all, they’ll be sod-all to see down there anyway”.  “Mmmm…” Pete took his time “…s’pose you’ve got a point” …he paused some more… “OK then, I’ll man the rope topside”.  Then Glen said “you’re not actually going down there are you?  You must be crazy”.  And I replied “look around you; these locals are half drunk and they are expecting some kind of show.  The way I see it is that I either go down the well of my own accord, or this lot are going to throw me down there”.  Glen could see the logic of the argument and took another large gulp of brandy… “you’d better get me another one of these then!”.

Glen armed herself with another double and the four of us went outside.  We recovered the Davy-lamp which sadly was still alight and then Pete and I changed into wetsuits, donned the overalls and hard hats and then readied the aqualungs.

Pete lowered my kit down to the obstruction, Geraldine lowered the bucket and I clambered onto the ladder.  It was a long way down.  I held my torch so that it pointed down into the gloom, but I avoided looking down to where it shone.  I worked my way carefully down and down.

By the time I’d reached the first obstruction I was bloody terrified.  My mind was in a turmoil; what had Glen seen?  Was it real?  Had I married an alcoholic?  The first obstruction was a huge wooden beam that went from side to side across the well.  Shining the torch down I could see that the aqualung was resting on a second beam roughly three feet below, with the handle of the bucket caught around the first stage of the demand valve.

I looked up and saw the ladder disappearing up into a foggy yellow mist, lit by the torchlight shining down from above.  I shouted up… “Pete, I’m standing on a beam – give me some rope”.   My voice had a muffled dead sound to it, but Pete’s “OK mate” sounded like an ethereal whisper; I was spooked!  Nevertheless, Pete payed out more rope and I clambered down to my diving kit.  “OK mate, I’ve reached the kit; take its weight and I’ll get it clear”.  Pete pulled on the rope that was securing the aqualung and lifted it clear of the second beam.  I pulled the kit sideways, clear of the beam and then shouted back to my support diver to lower away.  I shone the torch down to the limpid water below as the aqualung touched the surface.  “OK mate – hold it there”.  I sat on the lower beam, with my legs dangling in the water, then I spat in my diving mask, rinsed it in the water to stop it from misting up and then fitted the mask to my face.  I tucked the aqualung under my arm and shouted up to Pete “OK mate, I’m going in, give me slack on the ropes”.  I felt the bowline loop around me slacken and I took the weight of the dive kit as Pete gave me more rope.  With one final glance into the mist above, I stuffed the demand valve into my mouth and slid off of the beam into the water.

The well water was crystal clear.  I could see the shape of the chamber; it was onion shaped, cut into the chalk away from the well shaft.  I had decided in advance that if I was the first to venture into this hole, I would take plenty of time to orientate myself before disturbing the visibility.  Also, as I was stressed, my breathing was erratic, so I needed time to sort myself out before venturing down.  I estimated the depth at no more than ten feet to the silt.  Looking down from just under the surface, there were no specific features of note, apart from a slight hollow in one place where the curve of the chamber reached the silt.

After a while my breathing settled.  For me the underwater world, be it in lake, sea or river held no fears, only adventure and now I could add well-diving to the list.  Common sense and excitement were starting to reassert themselves and fear began to abate.  I resurfaced… “Geraldine – let the bucket go”.  The rope on the bucket slackened, I tipped the bucket off of the beam and then ducked under again to watch the bucket settle in a cloud of silt.  Then the work started.

Topsides we had a system.  Pete managed the aqualung and diver rope when I was working below and I did likewise for him.  Glen and Geraldine took it in turns to manage the bucket and sort through the debris.  And we had a signalling system.  Once the bucket was full, steady pulls from the diver on the bucket rope would result in the bucket being pulled up, emptied and then returned as far as the first obstruction.  Two pulls on the diver rope from above signalled “are you OK?” and two pulls from below signalled “yes”.  Continuous rapid pulls on the diver rope indicated that everything was far from OK!

What followed was for the most part straightforward.  By the time Pete took his turn underwater he could see nothing; the job was done through touch alone.  Indeed, once I’d taken the first scoop of debris from the bottom the visibility instantly turned to zero.

We had been at it for about an hour and the system was working well.  During one of my stints I felt something longish with knobbly ends.  I stuffed it in the bucket and carried on working.  Once the bucket was full I signalled for it to be taken up and decided to take a break myself, so once the bucket was clear I started on up the ladder.

As my head cleared the edge of the well-head, the first thing I saw was Doug with a bone; he had a quizzical look on his face.  When Doug saw me, he said “look what you’ve found; an animal bone – too big for a sheep, must be a cow I guess”.  I’m no forensic anthropologist, but it looked human enough to me.

Pete didn’t see or hear any of this as he’d gone for a pee (I’d specifically instructed him not to piss in his wetsuit).  Doug secreted the bone away and placed it in a plastic carrier bag.  As the girls sifted through the mud and debris, several more bits and pieces came to light.  Doug kept on referring to bovine body parts and I kept on recognising fingers and toes.  Pete was down the well, grafting away, sending the bucket up at regular intervals.  Whenever a bone appeared, Doug took it away.

When Pete appeared at the top of the ladder he said that he’d had enough.  We had cleared most of the well-bed of debris, so my next trip down was to be my last.

Back at the bottom, I was scrabbling about with the bucket; there wasn’t much left.  But, as my hand shuffled along the edge, it came to the indentation that I had seen before the visibility turned to zero.  As my hand rummaged about, the bed of the well gave way to reveal a small tunnel.  The tunnel was too small to get much more than my hand through, but as I tried to clear what I thought was rock away to enlarge the hole a lump came away in my hand.  I cleared the mud away from what felt like some sort of curved symmetrical object, which I then placed on top of the rest of the debris in the bucket.  I signalled steadily on the bucket line and it was whisked away.

I sat back and waited.  The first pull on the diver rope jogged me from my respite; the continuous hard steady pulls shook me into action.  I surfaced, spat out the demand valve and shouted up… “OK, OK, I’m coming, what’s the rush?”.  The next voice I heard was Doug’s… “Graham, get up here NOW!”.

It took me a couple of minutes to climb the ladder.  When I got to the surface, Doug was holding a human pelvis.

The landlord was beside himself.  “What am I going to do; the building inspector is coming on Wednesday and I need my builders to get this lot capped before he arrives.  My business depends on getting the restaurant open for the summer… oh god, the police, the bad publicity, the newspaper headlines… I’m finished”.

At that time, some forty years ago, the phone company didn’t send people on management courses, so none of them had even heard of ‘action centred leadership’.  Luckily though, some people have an innate knack of managing the task, team and individual.  Doug flew into action…

He barked at the landlord “shut the xxxx up!  Take the girls into the bar and make them a cup of tea”.  Doug grabbed the landlord by the shoulders and shoved him back towards the pub.  Then he walked over to Glen and Geraldine gently put his arms around their shoulders and shepherded them away.  As he did so he prised the brandy glass from glens shaking hand and threw the contents down the well.  I stood rooted to the top of the ladder, staring at Pete, who was staring back at me with eyes the size of saucers.  Glen told me afterwards that Doug had pressed on with the animal bones theory, reasoning that everyone was tired and overwrought and not thinking or even seeing clearly.

When Doug returned to the well-head he was clutching the bag of bones.  He reached out and handed them to me.  Having seen it many times before, I recognised the ‘you are going to do what I tell you and you are going to do it now’ look so I took the bag from him.  “Now then Graham, you are going back down the ladder and you are going to put these bones back where you found them.  In the week, the builders will cap the well and none of us will ever refer to this night again… understood?”.  I nodded.

Through the laboured descent, I felt no fear.  I was physically and emotionally drained.

I took the bag of bones to the hole that I had uncovered with the intention of placing them safely into the cavity.  Before doing so I reached into the hole and had one final feel about; who knows, money, jewellery, gold watch?  My hand rested on something roundish.

By now I was very tired, but in what a psychiatrist would describe as ‘a high state of arousal’, so I guess what happened next could have been some kind of hallucination; that’s how I’ve tried to reconcile it to myself anyway.  But, from where I was, kneeling with my arm outstretched into an unseen hole, breathing rapidly through my demand valve, I swear that something wrapped itself around my wrist and dragged me into the hole, up to my armpit.

I recoiled in horror, gasped and spat out my demand valve.  As I pushed backwards my outstretched hand slipped along the spherical object, turning it as my fingers slipped into it.

I shot to the surface like a missile, banging my head on the low beam.  As I gasped for air, my hand came out of the water with the human skull.  My ring and forefinger were stuffed into the eye sockets and my thumb was through the nose hole.  I screamed, dropped the skull and clung onto the beam panting.

Somehow Doug had convinced the others that the bones were from an animal.  Only I had seen the skull and this has been my problem.  You see, I never told anyone.  Doug was waiting for me as I reached the top of the ladder.  He saw the horror on my face, but as I opened my mouth to speak, he fixed me with those flinty grey eyes and put his finger to his lips.  An understanding flashed between us and until today, nothing more was said.

And of the expected treasures, what did we actually find…

winky lamp

…yep, nothing but a wee willy winkie lamp, not dissimilar to the one in the picture.  Oh, and one new penny, probably tossed in by one of the locals.  The landlord kept the lamp and Doug tossed the coin back down the well.

I had hoped that telling this story would finally lay the ghost to rest, but to be honest I’m no more settled about my actions.  Who was it? Were they murdered? Was it a dreadful accident?  I’ll never know.

There is an island, it’s only just an island, you can drive onto it without even noticing that you are leaving the mainland.  Nevertheless, an island it is.  And on this island stands a Victorian pub.  Today, a casual visitor can enjoy a well-kept pint and good food, totally unaware of the dark secret that lurks beneath them.  So if you should venture onto such an island and stop for refreshment at a comfortable Victorian pub, take a look about you.  If you spy a dusty shelf and see, lurking towards the back of it a chipped enamelled winkie lamp, then spare a thought for the lonely soul resting in a watery grave beneath your feet.

If this story has affected you in any way.  Or, maybe you’ve identified the pub.  Or, then again, maybe you are just a well-wisher.  Either way, do please let me know…

One thought on “The Well

  1. What a story, you are sooooo brave. Still considering ‘what would I have done in that situation’ well, the same as you BUT think probably the wrong decision. Glen sure needed the brandy just hope she has stopped now.


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