The Grasshopper: A Cambridge Ghost Story for Christmas Eve
Cambridge author Christopher Pressler has penned this short story exclusively for the Cambridge Independent.
This is the wind that wakes them.
Shielded by its library behind and glass before, the grasshopper turned its head and blinked its gold eyelids. Only one man saw it happen. The jaws of the monster were fully open, its tongue extended and at the turn of the hour the mouth snapped shut. Another hour devoured. It was Christmas Eve.
Not long before, the world’s most famous physicist had revealed the Corpus Clock, the clock of death; the time eater. He had prepared the crowd outside the college for a shock. This clock was like no other. It did not record time in the manner to which they had become accustomed. It was volatile. Indeed, it was more expressive of the real behaviour of time than any watch worn by his audience. This clock, the grasshopper, was alive.
The man who had made this clock stood still in the snow. The grasshopper’s head had returned to face forward. He knew that the relentless tugging of its thin metal legs on the great gilded wheel were part of a mechanism designed to force time forward. He knew that the grasshopper was made to blink by the release of an endlessly rewound spring pulled tight by the pendulum. He knew the hour was hammered out by the fall of a chain into a wooden coffin behind the gold sphere. He knew the ripples on the sphere were a swell from those at the beginning of time. He knew the blue lights acting as hands were only partially precise. He knew that time was not a thing to be measured inevitably across all of space.
He knew many things but he did not know that the grasshopper could turn its head and see his soul.
Elizabeth Spencer’s heart beat faster. Her skin felt icy, as no fire would fully warm the ancient walls. She was anxiously thrilled at the thought of her young student admirer descending his stairs, crossing the court to the Master’s lodge and knocking at the door. The Master: her father who could not be allowed knowledge of their affection.
James Betts had established his winter routine. It was only 30 or so years after the plague of 1630 had taken Cambridge and so many of its citizens. Its shadow still cast fear over the city and James, although young and strong, wrapped himself well in thick clothes before walking through the snow to see the girl he believed himself to love. Elizabeth was waiting.
He could hear the clocks in the supervision rooms chiming. Corpus Christi was quiet save for their unrelenting music. James had always had a strange fear of clocks. Their constant ticking and pendulums swinging like full nooses appeared to him as preemptive of death, of the executioner. As a child he had once woken from a dream of asphyxiation to the sound of the clock ticking beside him. Ever since, as if that sound were following him, his ears alerted to the movement of clocks and the small cracks they made in the neck of time.
James looked back along the path to see his footprints in the snow already filling with the heavy fall. He thought about his immediate present, cast as it was in Elizabeth’s smile. She was the first girl he had loved. He thought of the past and how he had been enabled to go up to Cambridge by his father’s dedication to the avoidance of penury. He thought of his future, much less bleak than this cold evening, with a sure easing into a pretty parish. He looked back at his footprints and saw in them the embodiment of his life so far. His person had imprinted those uniquely spread shapes into the snow. He alone could see their past depth being gently brought into the future by the fall. As is the case with any young man he thought nothing of the disappearance of his footprints. His future did not seem caught by their fading. He caressed immortality.
Another hour devoured.
The grasshopper was aware of who stood near to it. Its maker stared through the glass in anticipation of his creation’s eye returning to meet his gaze. This was a night of extraordinary things.
Christmas Eve in Cambridge is always the most startling of nights. The ancient city now strewn with modernity aches in its growing. All those who have lived here are restless on the night before Christmas. The Leper Chapel is responsible for many of them but the most aged colleges also open their souls to the crisp air. Chapels large and small appear empty in the early dark but if you look charily, every seat is filled by every kind of person. They come here from all ages and are of all ages. As is the case in antique places, Cambridge is a city of ghosts.
The clockmaker grew taut in the wind’s bite.
Even the shops now had grown tired of combating the winter’s incessant intrusion on the heels of rushing people. Their doors were closed and lights were dimmed until Christmas had eaten its fill. Cambridge was lowering its guard and slowly emptying of the living. They gave farewells to friends and went to their homes.
Houses that stood open for the warmth of summer were now closed against the Russian wind that rushes across the East Anglian fields, flat and with only reeds to slow it. From Siberia the wind gathers pace, pushing over the Scandinavian snows and wild over the waves of the northern seas. It meets no obstacle at Suffolk and does not notice the commonly imagined cries of drowned fisher-boys at Aldeburgh.
The air is quick and shocks the dead. Leaving the coast and shadowy shouts of long wrecked villagers it sweeps over fens and ditches on its approach to Cambridge. The small streets funnel the air and push it under the great gates of colleges. On into courts and chapels, it forces the living inside and chases the dead out.
The wind settled around the clock-maker at the end of its long journey. He looked up again at the grasshopper and knew that he had constructed a terror.
This is the wind that wakes them.
This is the wind that allows the grasshopper to move through time. It is well known that the clock understands time to be relative and not of our making or in our control. It is less well known that the beast can move through time just as he keeps it, just as he takes it.
Elizabeth heard the small stone against her window. She pulled aside the curtain, and looking down saw James silent in the snow. They smiled towards one another and signalling her intent, she let the curtain fall back. Elizabeth moved as quietly as possible across the room and pulled her door open, praying it would not groan. Then, aware that her father was in his study at the back of the house, she took silent steps down the stairs and moved to unlock the front door of the Master’s lodge.
James crept in and took her waist. She bore his hands as iron is sensed. James was her reassurance in an unfirm world. To him she was a carriage carrying away his heart. They were certain of their close future.
Elizabeth whispered, ‘Mr. Betts, we must go into my room and be quiet. My father is in the house.’
‘As you wish,’ said James, ‘I will go anywhere.’
‘Shouldn’t you have gone down for Christmas?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I have arranged with the porters to stay a few days.’
‘To see Christmas in college?’ said Elizabeth.
‘To see you,’ he replied.
They moved across the entrance hall and into the drawing room where James immediately kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. She drew away slightly but continued to look into his eyes. It was not possible to contain what she felt for him. They moved closer together.
In the corner of the room there was a stirring, barely detectable, the scrape of metal feet on the floorboards. James had heard it and looked over Elizabeth’s shoulder. He held her still. The fiend flew into the air sending an oil lamp to the floor. They could only think of escape but that too was what it wanted for them.
The noise brought heavy footsteps running from the other end of the house. Elizabeth’s father, the Master of Corpus Christi, would discover them.
With the grasshopper whirring above them Elizabeth pushed James into a cupboard and with the twist of a handle she closed him into it. She ran out to stop her father in the entrance hall. The grasshopper rested against the door of the cupboard. No air would be drawn inside.
This is the wind that silences them.
The explanation of the noise took a great deal of time and for once, time could be measured in James’ final breaths. He closed his eyes in his trap. The grasshopper’s jaws slammed shut. An hour had passed.
Another hour devoured, another soul eaten.
Elizabeth freed herself from her father’s questions and returned to release James from his hiding place. There was no sight of the dreadful flying machine. She placed her hand on the handle and opened the door of the cupboard. James’ airless corpse slid slowly from its cavity. She did not scream. She ran to the roof of the Old Court and caught the wind from the fens before falling still and white on the snow.
Her body was frozen when found. Her past, her present lay in the snow. Her future had been consumed. No one noticed the pinprick prints of metal feet deep in the snow. Time had been and gone.
The clockmaker breathed heavily and walked down Trumpington Street to the gates of Corpus Christi. He was to dine with the Master who was keen to show his gratitude for the gift of the clock to the college. He entered New Court and made his way around the lawn, blended with the path by snow. A wind, stronger than before, almost brought him to the ground.
This is the wind that wakes them.
He looked across the great white space and saw them. Two figures walking hand-in-hand, a man and a woman, both young. They were not corporeal and drifted as snow drifts, trailing the wind.
The grasshopper knew the words cut into the stone beneath his clock. They gave the monster power over his perpetual task. Taken from ancient texts the words read, mundus transit et concupiscentia eius – the world passeth away, and the lust thereof.
It slammed its jaws shut and blinked.
Read Christopher’s Pressler’s short story The White Whale, or How to Write a Novel.
About the author
Christopher Pressler has written two novels, Canning Circus, and 94 Degrees in the Shade. He is writing a third commissioned novel, The Notes, which is the story of Benjamin Britten. Christopher is a member of the Society of Authors and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He lives in Cambridge and Dublin, where he is university librarian of Dublin City University.