It was a dare. And a very scary one. St Tibulus’s church with its crumbling stone walls was fenced off and signposted:
Most people haven’t heard of St Tibulus — except for an episode of Father Ted — and he’s widely believed to be fiction. But the old church had existed since medieval times, becoming a ruin a century ago. ‘Tibulus’ is a strange name. It translates from Latin as ‘bits’ which doesn’t help. But at least no one can claim the name had a pagan origin, can they? These recondite matters were not in my nine year old head as I stumbled and weaved through the neck-high grass around the ruin. I wasn’t even worried about tripping over a hidden rock. I was more concerned about the stories I’d heard of children going missing; ‘dragged down into the earth” — so the story goes. Of course, I didn’t really believe that, did I? Not believing didn’t remove the fear. But I so wanted to join Pete’s gang. There was honour at stake. The first girl member of ‘The Skeletons’! All I had to do was go into that ruin and bring back the proof that I’d been there. The grass grew even taller near the church. I couldn’t see over it. Mummy’s voice rang in my ears: “Don’t go there — ever!” The grass sprang back in my eyes, bringing tears, and I panted for breath, nervously fingering my inhaler in my pocket. And “Don’t go there! Don’t go there!” rang in my head, over and over. But then at last, I was through the long grass looking at the ruin; horrible in the gloom of the setting sun. I took out my inhaler for a quick hit just in case.
“What are you doing, young lady?”
An old man was sitting on a broken bit of wall, wearing a kind of black smock over his clothes: probably from the council; a caretaker or something.
“Er, I’m lost,” I lied. Best I could come up with.
“You certainly are if you’re here,” he said. “What’s your name?” ”
“Sweet. Well, my name is Brother Robin. I’m a monk of the order of Viribonus; one of the titles of St Tibulus. I’ll show you around, if you like.”
I was amazed to find this kindly man with a jolly manner and a big smile in such a fearful place. I liked him.
He led me inside the ruin. I was amazed to find it was nowhere near as derelict inside. Indeed, it was a well appointed little parlour. “If I’d known you were coming,” said Robin, “I would have made tea for you. You should have rung up the office.”
“Office?” I said, uncomfortable. “What office?”
“Well, it hardly matters now. I have some honey cake that I can give you later. This is my little living space. The really magical place is the crypt. I’ll show you.” He smiled, and I saw that like most old people his gums had shrunken so that his eyeteeth seemed quite long and pointed. “It’s where I keep the honey cake.”
“Don’t go there, Candice! Don’t go there, don’t go there, don’t speak to strange men,” Mummy’s voice went round and round in my head. But I needed a souvenir; if I was going to join The Skeletons. On the chimneypiece, I saw a silver framed photograph of Brother Robin. It was even engraved: “Brother Robin Goodman of the Order of St Tibulus Viribonus”.
“Come along, my dear! The cake’s downstairs, in the crypt!”
I snatched the picture and legged it to the door, the monk’s angry howl echoing in my ears.
I was crying as I fought my way through the long grass. I tried to keep to the path I had trampled before. It was still a struggle. Any second I would feel his hand on my shoulder, his breath in my ear.
But for some unknown reason, he did not follow me.
Mummy sighed, then said: “I shall not punish you. I think you have been punished enough. Just show me the picture. I only hope this club is worth the misery they put you through.”
She told me there was no such Order of St Tibulus Viribonus and no record of a ‘Brother Robin Goodman’. But children have gone missing in our area. And ‘Viribonus’ means ‘good fellow’. Mummy knew a thing or two about folklore and told me that ‘Robin Goodfellow’ was an old name for that evil sprite — ‘Puck’. She also told me that St Tibulus was indeed not a real saint, but one adopted from a pagan figure — ‘Cobalus’, Latin for ‘Goblin’.
And when I held up the picture frame, my blood ran cold. It was old, battered and with no sign of a picture ever having been there.