Blogvent Calendar Day 23: John Barleycorn’s Vengeance

…Or to put it another way, here’s the blood-curdling conclusion to the tale of terror I’ve been serialising in this Blogvent Calendar, ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’.

If you enjoyed this story, you may like to read the collection it’s from: Last Stop Wellsbourne (Omnium Gatherum Books, 2019). Although you can read ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’ as a stand-alone story, you may notice references to others in the collection, such as ‘Little Match Stick Girl’ and ‘The Wakeman Recreation’.

As those who read the previous two episodes One and Two will already be aware, Wellsbourne Council gardener, Sam Jordan’s work mates keep dying in horrific gardening accidents, and the works transit van is now stuck in a waterlogged playing field with something unpleasant moving towards him…

Something that whistles.

Jim Bloom’s Van, Part Three

He couldn’t see the face, shrouded in fog and shaded by a battered straw hat with some kind of garland around its wide brim, but he could hear the whistling more distinctly now. It had a hissing, distorted quality, as if the whistler were struggling to force air through a misshapen mouth full of broken teeth.

But he recognised the tune as “John Barleycorn.”

J.B. Jim Bloom. Same initials.

Shivering, Sam put aside all thoughts of asking the stranger for help. It suddenly occurred to him that the figure was coming from the direction of the woods. “He’s after us,” the foreman had said. Had he really meant Bloom? It was impossible. As the figure drew closer to the van, Sam saw the wild flowers adorning the hat brim. The face was now just about visible beneath. He fixed his eyes on the spidery remnants of dried stems, avoiding lowering his gaze to the caved-in mess he’d glimpsed under the hat.

The crazy thought came to him: If it was really Bloom, maybe he just wanted his van back! In that case, he was welcome to the mud-bound vehicle. Opening the door, he breathed in an earthy stench, then leapt from the driving seat and began running, the mud sucking at his boots. He turned, hoping to see the figure climb into the cab in his place.

But it had continued its staggering progress past the van, and was heading slowly, haphazardly, almost drunkenly, towards him, its hand brandishing a pointed implement. With all the fog, he wasn’t sure what it was, only that it was sharp.

But surely it wasn’t Sam he wanted. He’d always tried to be a friend to Bloom, when he felt able. And the song, whose softly whistled melody still drifted over the field, specified three men. Simple Simon had died, then Paul Flock. Surely the other target must be Fred Bone, the ringleader. Not Sam.

Still the figure kept shambling towards him, hat at a jaunty angle.

“But I didn’t do anything!” he called.

Maybe that was the problem.

Dimly, through the alcoholic haze of the Christmas work drink, he remembered seeing the other three, Fred, Paul and Simon, leaving the club together, not long after Bloom. Sam had been standing at the bar trying to pull, so hadn’t taken much notice. It hadn’t gone well. His heart wasn’t really in it, the thought of Rosie’s sweet and trusting face making him falter in his advances, until eventually the woman made her excuses and went back to her friends. Feeling ashamed and dejected and seeing the rest of his group were all gone, he too bumbled out of the place.

The figure was coming closer, the object clutched in its blackened hand looking more and more like the scalpel it was with every step.

“I tried to stop them!” he said, his voice a weak cry.

His recollections from there on were as difficult to picture as the woods through this dank fog. A darkened alley… Three men jumping on a trampoline, playing football… Fred, Paul and Simon, grinning like maniacs… But it wasn’t a trampoline and what they were kicking wasn’t a football… Too much blood for that…

Him calling out to them to stop, but not loud enough for them to hear… It would have taken a lot more force for them even to know he was there, and he didn’t really want them to, fearing they were so fired up they might use any unspent aggression on him… Looking at the broken body under their feet, he told himself it was probably too late now… So he didn’t raise his voice, didn’t repeat his pleas…

He just slunk away, hoping they hadn’t seen him.

“I was scared!” he told the figure, which was now so close the blade almost touched him, but his eyes still couldn’t meet those of his pursuer, probably because there weren’t any, or if there were, they were lost in a mass of fractured bone and swollen flesh, or perhaps just rotted away. Whatever the reason, Sam kept his eyes lowered, barely registering the deep, distant booming noise from behind him. His pleadings hadn’t stopped the figure, perhaps because there wasn’t enough truth in them, apart from the last one, and by then it was too late to sway the thing.

Time to make a break for it if he was going to, but the smell of wild flowers and corpse flesh and freshly disturbed soil was in his nostrils, the sound of whistling from a broken mouth lulling his ears, his eyes closed as he felt a thin hand pinning him against the field’s fence whose barbs dug into his back.

Deep down he’d always known it was no good trying to get away, because Bloom had him already, had done for a long time. He remembered the way his hand seemed to belong to someone else the time he’d accidentally reversed the van, almost hitting the car behind. Now other memories came back to him, like the ones from outside the club he’d buried under layers of dope and alcohol, but different. These recollections weren’t of him watching helplessly as Bone and the others kicked Bloom to death. In these, he watched his own hands, directed by another mind, tampering with the dead man’s handle on the aerator, meddling with the safety features on the bark chipping machine, pouring petrol on the Christmas tree pile…



Wellsbourne today woke up to the devastation left by a blaze in one of its municipal parks, in the latest in a series of horrific freak accidents that have deprived the town of five gardeners. Fire investigators are still sifting through the wreckage for clues as to its origin, though arson hasn’t been ruled out. The inferno ripped through a Christmas tree dump by the grounds maintenance team’s mess room and storage facilities, piled up on top of an underground gas installation.

The explosion, which killed foreman Fred Bone, was the latest in a series of tragedies to befall his team at Wickham Park, which began last year with the brutal murder of senior gardener Jim Bloom, kicked to death by a gang of thugs after becoming separated from his colleagues on a Christmas work night out. Police are still hunting his killers and have released an appeal for information below.

Jim’s death was closely followed by those of Simon Rugby, killed apparently by a faulty aerating machine, and Paul Flock, who became caught in a bark chipper.

Shortly after the gas explosion, a dog walker found the skinned corpse of Sam Jordan on a barbed wire fence at Wakeman Recreation Ground.



By Troy Adamson, the Wise Man of Wellsbourne

Wellsbourne is still reeling from the quintuple tragedy that has left Wickham Park without a grounds maintenance crew. The charred wreckage of the gardeners’ hut, surrounded by blackened vegetation, stands as a poignant memorial to Fred Bone and his team, whose efforts to keep our green spaces that colour will not go unremembered. I for one take my hat off to these mighty men of the mower. No one could ever replace them, and, thanks to the Council’s policy of natural wastage, no one ever will.

Questions still remain about the cause of the fire, which has disturbing echoes of the blaze that killed the Harrow family last November, itself thought to be a copycat of the so-called ‘Little Match Stick Girl’ legend of Wakeman Woods. Far be it from me to impute any blame on Mr Bone, who I’m sure carried out his duties with the utmost care and dedication. But I do wonder about the wisdom of placing a giant tinderbox, in the form of a Christmas tree dump, on top of a system of high pressure gas regulators. Perhaps the foreman was unaware they were concealed under the concrete surface outside his yard.

This week, fire teams investigating the blaze discovered the remains of a petrol jerry can in the wreckage—one missing a lid no less. Again, far be it from me to cast aspersions, but when the disaster struck, it came hot on the heels of his colleague’s death in the most gruesome manner. Anyone in his situation would be greatly distressed, perhaps enough to forget to replace the lid on a jerry can if interrupted in the middle of mixing up fuel. Fred Bone was a smoker too and may well have felt his craving most keenly when under the stress of such an event. One stray spark could have started the conflagration…

But this is all speculation, until the inquest concludes its deliberations on Thursday. And the coroner certainly has his work cut out with these five unfortunates. In the absence of those conclusions, some benighted souls have begun to seek answers in the paranormal. After all, ‘Wickham’ was originally ‘Wicca Ham’ or ‘Witch Ham’, the hill where religious authorities put those found guilty of sorcery to death.

Is Wickham Park cursed then?

Anyone who knows me will know what I think the answer to that one is!

Nevertheless, my own instinctual scepticism aside, it does seem strange that five men from the same workplace all died horribly. The odd one out is of course Bloom. All the others perished at work, three of them due to what appeared to be terrible accidents in the park itself.

Apart from Sam Jordan, apparently stabbed then skinned, up at the Wakeman Recreation Ground, another place with an evil reputation.

And what are we to make of the victim’s missing skin in this case? And what of the story told by a “friend” of the deceased: that she saw him wandering around town, days after the police found his corpse, but he was walking “very strangely.”

And that when she got closer she found she didn’t want to speak to him after all, believing it was someone else wearing a “mask” of Jordan’s face, stretched like a second skin over the imposter’s lumpy, misshapen head.

Well, I don’t deal in ghost stories, so I’ll leave explanations for this peculiar tale to those more credulous than I!

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