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Whore’s Folly

We were lured to the house on the promise of free beer and cheap women.

Even in the current year among supposedly enlightened twenty-something tech bros, that was a tempting offer. The house was one of those old country piles just about maintained by the faded aristocracy, the sons of families that had once been rich enough to never see a poor person even while being served by them. The current lord now lived in what had been the gamekeeper’s cottage and rented out Edwin Hall for people to hold events.

It looked like the house in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories that my granddad read to me as a kid, about a mad old stepfather who filled the grounds of his late wife’s estate with exotic animals and let large chunks of it fall into disrepair. Scaffolding clung to one wing. It was a gloomy and wintry day when we arrived, the grey sky lowering over the damp leaves of the forest. I half-expected a jaguar to come running out and leap on Tony and crush his skull in its powerful jaws.

It would have been no great loss, I reflected, remembering the scene that we’d witnessed between him and his missus on their doorstep. She was obviously anorexic and couldn’t have followed him down their expansive drive without trembling, so she stayed in the doorway, screaming at him about his selfishness in leaving for a weekend-long Christmas party on their son’s birthday. ‘We could have rescheduled’ I said.

He laughed. ‘You think I care what that skinny bitch thinks? I paid for the kid’s birthday bash, it’s not like I need to be there.’ The previous week he’d appeared in a promotional video about supporting women and girls to get tech roles, wearing a THE FUTURE IS FEMALE t-shirt.

Our other friend Steve had told his girlfriend God knows what. He’d met her when she was 17 and been christened Paedo Steve by Tony ever since Steve picked her up, with Tony in the passenger seat, while she was wearing her sixth-form blazer. ‘We must have looked like her two gay dads’ joked Tony.

I was the only single one among us, having never had a serious girlfriend, which sometimes got me called Homo Mikey. How did I end up with these walking advertisements for toxic masculinity as my friends, I thought as we entered the lobby of Edwin Hall through an open front door and Tony got on the phone with the event organiser, demanding to know if there’d be “plentiful gash”.

‘Mikey’s a homo and Stevie likes them with no grass on the pitch, but some of us are still normal.’ I glanced at him. Beneath his puffer jacket, he wore the white dress shirt and charcoal trousers of your average Lombard Street money-grubber. He had a jet-black beard cut close to his jaw. Steve had one of those ridiculous handlebar moustaches that have become fashionable again, among hipsters. Both of them could have walked out of a Gillette advert.

So why was I here? I looked around the draughty hall, a circular chamber with a winding staircase and cobwebs in the rafters, a gigantic Christmas tree decked out with tinsel and baubles. Partly because the event had been sold to me as a team-building exercise, and I knew that if I valued my job, I’d maintain the friendships that had guided me from school to work. The only close friend I’d had that I liked was Reece, who should have been the fourth of our group...

The other reason I’d come was that, as a history buff, I was intrigued by Edwin Hall. It had been the seat of a family which in the 19th century generated a scandal which had curdled into legend before becoming a minor historical footnote. It concerned the lord’s son, who according to the legend was haunted by his mother’s ghost and seen wandering the grounds in her clothes. What had happened to him was a little obscure, but it was likely nothing good.

We heard a clattering upstairs. A large man dressed like a gentleman farmer descended the stairs carrying a crate of beer. Steve ran to help him while Tony held the door to the living room, whither he was bound. ‘Cheers, lads.’

He plonked it on a table which looked antique. I winced a little as it complained about the rough treatment. This party was going to be like a rave in an art gallery, I thought. Or an orgy in a Renaissance church.

‘Name’s Danny, Danny Roscoe’ said our new friend, shaking hands with Tony. ‘Come with me and I’ll show you where you’re kipping. Lord and Lady Muck gave me the grand tour yesterday. They seemed keen on making sure we don’t rough up the place, but I wouldn’t take that seriously. Any damage we can pay for, especially since they’ve had to sell anything that’s worth a shit.’

As he said this, we were passing walls where white oblongs marked the spots where paintings used to hang. The place looked, I thought, like a mocked-up haunted house.

We’d requested our rooms via email. I’d chosen the room of the young Victor Edwin, according to the legend. The one that looked out over a stretch of the garden and a folly which looked like marble in the moonlight. The folly where his mother had collapsed and died. I’d brought with me a book of English folklore, which in recounting the haunting of Edwin Hall claimed that the lord had subsequently referred to the site of his wife’s death as Whore’s Folly, the name in later years sanitised to Horse’s Folly. Lady Edwin, in a fit of madness on Christmas Eve, had crept out of the house to the folly in darkness, wearing just a thin negligee. 

She was found by the gamekeeper the next morning, and carried over the threshold stone dead, her body red and bitten by the frost almost as if she’d been toyed with by an animal. As I lay in bed reading the book, I tried to imagine how her husband and son must have reacted on learning what happened. What did Lord Edwin say, just over 200 years ago, seeing his wife carried newlywed-style by a gamekeeper, her frostbitten corpse almost nude?

Tony and Steve had driven to a pub in the local village. (‘The women are probably inbred, but a lack of teeth has its advantages.’) That night I dreamt of Reece, who’d died before we were all due to go to university together. We’d set up our own app development business, us four, in high school, and been interviewed by local television. Reece’s death was viewed as a tragedy of what can happen when great pressure is placed on young men. In my dream, I saw him step down from a chair below a tree, from one of whose branches swung a noose in the gentle twilight wind. He smiled at me, his neck purple and bruised. ‘You know why, don’t you?’ he said.

Before I could answer the dream changed, and I found myself watching helplessly as Lord Edwin berated his teenage son. We were in the parlour where Danny had dumped his crate of beer, only now it was decorated and furnished in the style of the Regency era. An enormous Christmas tree laden with glass and paper angels, nuts, fruit, and ribbons slouched beside a roaring fire, the only light in the room.

‘She should have died in childbirth...’ Lord Edwin ranted, sloshing a glass of brandy as he paced back and forth. ‘The money I spent, bringing that doctor here, all because I loved her and you were supposed to be my heir... Some blasted heir you turned out to be... My own son, a depraved molly, an insane faggot...’ The boy sat by a window. He was wearing, I saw, a woman’s furs and brooch. He was pale, but not with fear. His eyes were filled with tears and he seemed to be cut loose from reality, having long given up on any hope of redemption. ‘Well?!’ yelled his father, suddenly. ‘Have you nothing to say about the disgrace you’ve become?!’

The boy raised his head, and it was then that I saw that he wore Reece’s face. He was Reece, right down to the purple bruises around his neck. ‘This is who I am. I don’t know how to be...’ His speech was cut off when his father launched himself at him. I tried to run towards them, to drag Lord Edwin off him. But, of course, that isn’t how it works in dreams, and all I could do was struggle against the air as the shards of Lord Edwin’s glass reflected firelight in a lake of brandy speckled with blood.

The next morning, I sat in Whore’s Folly smoking a cigarette. Only Steve had gotten lucky the previous night, and as I’d come downstairs, I’d seen his prize adjusting her dress as she left to await her Uber, on the phone with her friend and bragging that she’d copped off in Edwin Hall. (‘Remember when we were kids and Lady Edwin told our mums that we were trespassing on her property? Well, I spent last night in the old cow’s bed!’)

Tony sought me out so that I could commiserate with him about his lesser fortunes, or at least provide an ear. ‘At least this one didn’t have to rush home to make curfew’ I said, which cheered him up. I’m not quite sure what made me bring up Reece. Perhaps just a need to exorcise the nightmare that I’d had. ‘Did you see Mrs Blakeman on telly last week?’ was how I approached the topic. Mrs Blakeman was Reece’s mother. She’d gone on to front a campaign about depression in teenagers.

Tony shifted a little on the bench, as if only just aware of the frost and dew that overlay the wrought-iron folly, nature having shouldered the responsibility of both cleaning and dissembling it. It needed, I saw, a fresh coat of paint. Patches of rust lent a necrotic quality to the white iron flowers of the folly’s design. For some reason those diseased flowers made me think of the old Lady Edwin and how if she’d been alive today her malady, whatever it was, would have probably been treated with counselling and mild antidepressants. And her son, perhaps, would have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, his cross-dressing ascribed to a healthy exploration of his gender identity. Just a fresh coat of paint.

‘You know what he was like’ said Tony, intruding on my thoughts. He’d apparently been speaking for a minute or so, so I murmured assent. ‘He was always going after straight boys. It makes sense that he’d get beaten up.’

Suddenly I regretted faking comprehension and assent, not that I would have countered Tony’s lies even if I had paid them my full attention. He was always absolving himself, just as I was, I suppose. He was just better at self-deceit. Reese didn’t “go after” anyone. He was too shy. That’s why he ended up making the stupid decision to visit the heath that night, out of loneliness and need, and why he then made the stupid decision to kill himself... 

I was the only one of us who’d visited him in the hospital after he was beaten up, and I couldn’t even pat myself on the back for that, since like everyone else, like his own mother even, I hadn’t been there to comfort him through his last humiliation and make him see that life was worth continuing with. Even now, Mrs Blakeman didn’t discuss her son’s sexuality. How her husband, a frothing right-wing basket case, had drilled it into their son that “queers” were latent perverts. He was always absent from their television appearances. 

Mrs Blakeman said only that her son had been a victim of bullying, and been set on by a gang of yobs while walking home one night. After all, it’s the 21st century. Gay bashing doesn’t happen in Britain anymore. I recalled that he’d killed himself in the one or two weeks before Christmas. The holiday season appeared to be unlucky for both the Edwins and my social circle. 

I looked at Tony as he yammered on about something or other, trying to change the subject from Reece Blakeman, and suddenly hated him with an intensity generated partly by self-hatred. I pictured stubbing out my cigarette in one of his eyes, of beating him to death the way a certain wicked lord had killed his only son. Reece was as much a part of why we were successful as me, Tony, or Steve, probably more so. 

He was the one whose animations had given a human quality to our enterprise. Only Steve was anything like as creatively minded, and even then, he was more a businessman, like Tony, like me. We designed gaming apps and had a team of Reece Blakemans on staff now. I imagined the three of us as vultures squatting on his grave.

That night the rest of the business arrived, or at least those who were either single and with nothing better to do like me or had palmed off their loved ones. The getaway had been the brainchild of an executive who'd invited "movers and shakers" from across the industry, describing it as a networking opportunity when, judging by the amount of booze stacking up, we'd all be too sozzled to schmooze.

A group of lads who ran a fantasy football app arrived with some fashion vloggers from London, bringing their own booze to top up our supply. The lower rooms of the house with their simple and old-fashioned furniture filled up with singing, dancing, drinking idiots. Computers were set up to play music videos and communicate with fans. Many of our number were celebrities of a sort, influencers and lifestyle gurus and Let’s Players. I saw girls posting pictures to their Instagram accounts and even a few doing TikTok dances up and down the immense staircase.

I began to realise that our app development company was probably in the minority here. Most of these people were general internet flotsam, the socialites of the digital age, probably snorting coke in Lord and Lady Muck’s elegant bathrooms, or powder rooms, or whatever it is that aristocrats call their toilets.

Feeling more and more miserable as the night dragged on, pop music blasting and people doing God knows what in every nook and cranny, I sat on a couch in the living-room and swigged from a bottle of wine.

For a second I thought that I saw Lord Edwin’s son outside a window, staring blankly at our revels in his mother’s fur coat, his pale face and collarbone gleaming pearlescent in the darkness. Then it seemed that Reese stood beside him, wearing his sixth-form blazer. I started to cry. ‘I’m sorry’ I croaked. ‘I’m so sorry, dude. I didn’t care you were gay. You were the nicest guy in school and... and...’

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I looked up and saw Steve looming over me. ‘Who are you talking to?’

I wiped my eyes. ‘No-one’ I said. ‘It’s fine, I’m just pissed.’

Steve plonked down beside me. ‘Look, man, I love you, but you’re getting everyone down, sitting here crying and mumbling like a fucking sad sack.’

‘Tony doesn’t seem to care.’ I’d seen him go upstairs with a woman who couldn’t have been older than 21. Steve snorted. ‘You know what he’s like. But the rest of us are trying to have a good time down here. Why don’t you go to bed if you’re not feeling it.’

I met his eyes, stared at his stupid moustachioed face, and felt bolder than I ever had. ‘Tony called him a dirty queer.’

‘What?’

‘Reece Blakeman.’ Steve seemed to blush, almost. ‘Reece texted him, asking him to visit, thinking that he was his friend, and Tony just fucked him off.’ I stood up, swaying a little. Steve shrank back into the couch, glancing nervously at some people watching nearby. I realised with a thrill of pleasure that he was actually scared of me. ‘You called him names as well, even though he’s the only reason you’ve got ANY of this.’ I lowered my voice. ‘And I’ve still got the texts, Steve.’ Now he went as white as the ghosts I’d seen outside. ‘That’s right’ I said. ‘I could end your fucking career in a minute, and his. So why don’t you get out of my face.’

I didn’t wait for a response, just tossed the bottle aside, picked up another, and wandered outside. I went to Whore’s Folly and sat there drinking, staring off into the woods as the young master and my dead friend laughed and wrestled, purgatorial souls who’d found solace in each other. I was convinced now that I was majorly drunk and hallucinating, but remained lucid enough to decide that come morning, I’d leave early and sever my business relationships with Steve and Tony. I didn’t realise, watching the teenage ghosts, that I’d never see Tony again, and that my entire life would change when he turned up tomorrow.

***

Lord Edwin, of all people, was the one who found Tony the next morning. The Lord had been out for a walk in his gamekeeper's jacket and twills. At first, he thought that Tony was drunk, and had been in a rage planning to have it out with the event organisers, demanding compensation for any damage to his property.

He'd approached Whore's Folly from the rear, crunching through snow that had fallen in the night, and through the railings saw Tony as he lay on his back across the floor, a muscular young man in a houndstooth coat, barber's pole leggings, and little else. His genitals were exposed to the elements and on close inspection, it appeared that he was wearing a blonde wig. 'Done up like a dog's dinner' was Lord Edwin's expression when interviewed by police.

He'd walked up with the intent of giving Tony a kick to wake him up, but then he saw the blood, how it dripped from the folly like sauce drizzled over a Christmas pudding. Approaching more cautiously now, he saw that Tony's face had been all but obliterated as if he'd been held by the scruff of his houndstooth coat and punched repeatedly with a savage intensity.

Moreover, his legs and arms had been broken and were splayed seemingly to show off their condition, bent at unnatural angles. What remained of his face expressed a mixture of pleading, terror, and unimaginable pain. His chest was caved in and, perhaps a coup de grace delivered by an assassin just as methodical as he was sadistic, his neck was snapped.

I got all of this from both Lord Edwin and the police, the latter of whom were eager to know who could have hated him enough to kill him like that. Perhaps trying to shock information out of me, one detective remarked that Tony was slaughtered in a manner that you wouldn’t inflict on cattle, let alone a human.

Still sometimes I dream of a black-gloved killer stalking him at about 01:00 AM, perhaps as he left his conquest sleeping to smoke a cigarette outside, grabbing her coat for warmth on the way out. The man spins him around and sucker punches him, grabs him by the scruff of his neck, and pulverises his face like a martial artist working on a block of wood, not even flinching as the bones crack and it all falls in on itself, losing its humanity. The man lets him fall to the flagstones of the verandah, then bends down, cradles his head in his arms, then snaps his neck with the sudden and expert movement of a farmer killing a chicken.

Afterwards he performs the last humiliation: he removes Tony’s clothes except for the houndstooth coat, puts a blonde wig and a pair of leggings on him, and dumps him in Whore’s Folly. Looking down at his work, maybe he sees a sign of life or just hasn’t spent his rage yet, but either way he stamps on Tony again and again and again, breaking his arms and his legs and caving in his chest.

But who could hate him enough to do all that? To this day his killer has never been caught, although Lord Edwin swore to the police that on that cold December morning seven years ago now, he heard two distinct voices, both young and male, laughing in the woods.
Written by Casted_Runes (Mr Karswell)
Published
All writing remains the property of the author. Don't use it for any purpose without their permission.
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