(The following is a mixture of fact and fiction… mostly fact)
It was the darkest of nights and the cold rain pounded the pavement… Oh fuck it! Whom am I kidding? Mangalore never has the Arctic darkness nor the chill of the British moors. So here goes.
The Cheshire Home Road near Kankanady now lies in the midst of the hustle and bustle of traffic crossing from Valencia and Jeppu to the Falnir. With cars occupying every inch of tar on the road and beyond there is no way that one would imagine the Cheshire Home to be what it was 30 and more years back. Some say there are remnants from that past. Here is a true tale I have to get off my chest.
1986 was a lonely year. For some reason that year had the most holidays and school was scarce, at least for me. My health too added to my school woes as I missed a lot of classes, but there was hope. Aunt Tina had this membership of a cul-de-sac of a library that had some of the most amazing books on the planet – at least they were amazing for this 9 year-old. Every week, she would religiously take me down to the library. It was just three stops away by bus. The Standard Circulating Library near Vas Bakery was a treasure-house of fables of some of the most popular and exotic authors. I stuck to popular, picking out Tintin and Asterix and the latest Commando comic consignments. We would then pack some meat puffs from Vas Bakery and take the bus back to Valencia. All this in good time.
Now it so happened that one evening we were down at the library later than usual and by the time we checked out it was 7 PM. In those days Mangalore shut down by 7 PM, latest 7:30 PM. We hurried down to the bus stop. I clutched my set of comics and had to run to catch up with Aunt Tina. Bus No. 5 was our bus and fortunately we got to the Balmatta bus stop in time to grab one of the last buses down to our part of the city. The evening humid air and the quick run along with the buzzing malarial mosquitoes made it quite a challenge to sit still in the still night air.
No. 5 buses are notorious. One – they are notorious for knocking down all and sundry in their path. Two – they had a reputation for breaking down. Probably some bones or ligaments of those they ran over may have got stuck somewhere between the axle and the brake liners. Whatever it was, they weren’t the most reliable modes of transport in this part of the world. But they happened to be the only one.
As we approached Bendoorwell Circle and Kankanady market, we all heard the first strains of something going wrong in the bus. There were creaks, then jerks, then a shudder till the bus stopped short of Kankanady market. The final shudder made me bump my head against the metal headrest in front of me. Damn! that hurt. The peeved conductor began running around like a headless chicken while people tried to collect back their fare from the stalled bus. Aunt and I slipped off. Our home was around a kilometre from where the bus stalled. It would be hard in this weather, but we could walk back and survive this ordeal.
And so we walked. Walked past the Kankanady post office – a tiny landmark whom the next door hospital authorities were trying to evict as it was their property. We passed the Fr. Muller Hospital – Mangalore’s pride in healthcare and the joint where all those of unsound mind found solace in (I am not being rude, but that was how the hospital was considered in those days). There used to be horror stories coming out of the psychiatric ward there. Tales of possession – incurable even with the most modern methods in the field, clashes between the exorcists and the psychiatrists and tales of blood curdling experiments ran through the Mangalorean grapevine. We never knew what was true, but we sure as hell avoided the hospital except for the inoculations.
The hospital premises was followed by a dark stretch of road with gloomy, leafy trees lying still like crouching giants ready to pounce. And there to the left of this stretch was the Cheshire Home lane. This narrow stretch of road was to the left of the main road. Leonard Cheshire had visited this place some time in the past and the home was a silent place for the aged at the end of the road. The Cheshire Home lane sloped downwards and with no streetlights it was dark as hell. Actually the K.E.B. (Karnataka Electricity Board for the uninitiated, now MESCOM) did install a light pole somewhere in the middle of the road, but the tube light had long fused into oblivion.
As we passed this lane the quietness of the main road was even more pronounced. There was no traffic, the only soul was someone in the distance but he/she too faded into the night as we walked on. The Cloistered Carmel convent was on the other side of teh road, home to the Cloistered nuns who never stepped out of the premises. The Gothic structure remained hidden in the darkness with only the spires piercing the sky that shone the last light from the sun. It was now well past 7:30 and darkness had fallen. We had nearly passed the lane when we heard an anguished cry from the depths of the lane. It was a sort of wail, loud, blood curdling and angry at the same time. It hurt, it raised the hairs on our skin and it sure as hell was unnatural. We have heard cries from the horror classics, be it Bram Stoker or Edgar Allen Poe, but the reality of horror struck home here in the darkness. We froze.
My one hand clutched the comics tightly while my other hand held Aunt Tina’s. She was shivering and you can imagine my plight. We were now at the top of the lane and even though the main road beckoned us, fearful curiosity made us peer down the road. We looked and we looked through the darkness. Nothing.
And then we heard it – a scuffling as if something was making it’s way to the top of the lane. It stopped and then it began again, faster this time. We couldn’t move. And then through the darkness we could make out a silhouette. It wasn’t even a silhouette, it was like a piece of the darkness moving around. As it moved towards the top of the lane, it began screaming a string of obscenities. To my young mind I could pick out only a couple of words that I could interpret, the rest was just a high pitched stream. Aunt Tina finally found here feet, she grabbed my hand tightly and ran as we heard the whoosh of the movements of that unholy body moving towards us.
We ran on the main road, ran till we reached the front gate of grandma’s house. Ran into the verandah and collapsed on the rattan chairs there. “That was Miriam”, Aunt Tina finally gasped. “Who?” I was not in a position to gauge anything from this encounter. All I had was gratefulness that we managed to evade the monster down that lane. “Miriam, she used to be an inmate of the hospital adjacent to the lane.” And then I learnt about the closed ward in Fr. Muller hospital. A ward that was home to some of the most violent patients under psychiatric care. You could hear their cries and screams throughout the day and Miriam was the most troubled of the lot. One night she managed to pry open the window bars using the metal headrest from her bed and jumped from the 5th floor ward. Some say she fell into the adjacent Cheshire Home Lane from where her room faced. However, no one found her. There was no doubt that her survival was left to the imagination. The only trace of her existence to this day remains the silhouette of that creature screaming after dark down that lane. No one ever knows where she goes during the day time nor how she sustains herself, but people swear it’s her out there in the night.
These days, the area is crowded with hawkers and traffic. The hustle and bustle continues well into the night. And the psychiatric wards no more face the lane. But people who have made the lane their home do say that on some summer nights you can hear the anguished scream and the scampering around of something desperate. It claws through their gardens and destroys fences. And no one has seen this entity.