Madam Phantasmagoria


Joey loved to wear pink since the age of three. When he was seven, he wanted to be called Peony. Despite being an engaging and exceptionally intelligent boy, at school he was teased by pupils and teachers alike.

He learnt at a young age that jealousy and intolerance are a lethal mix.

Joey’s parents were no more enlightened and told him to stop pretending to be a girl. Most others with a child this talented would have taken him to a consultant in transgender matters instead. But they lived in a village community where gossip dictated a person’s status on the community ladder and his parents had aspirations beyond their bank balance.

So Joey was bullied into cross-country runs and football training after school to toughen him up. Because his parents were too occupied with their social life to keep an eye on their son, the football coach allowed him to spend the time he should have been training with Robyn, the local herbalist. A reluctant, uncompetitive player was of little use to the team, and the young boy’s much older friend was locally regarded with respect verging on awe. She was happy to discuss with Joey matters which were beyond others in his age group, while they sipped her delicious cordials.

Rumour had it that Robyn was a witch with mysterious powers. Nobody was sure what they were, any more than they knew where her heavy European accent came from. The herbalist had lived in her cottage for as long as the oldest inhabitant, Aggie, could remember. Though, as she spent most of her time in the Fox and Falcon drinking gin and tonic, anything she recalled was taken with a pinch of salt. Her claim that the herbalist had belonged to a French travelling circus whose performers sometimes dropped by to visit her cottage was also dismissed as alcoholic rambling. And then there were the potions: as these were more effective than most medicines the doctor prescribed, coupled with her supposed supernatural abilities, no one questioned Robyn’s friendship with Joey.

That didn’t stop the teasing, though.

When he joined the senior school it became worse. However much Joey now tried to conceal his past innocent desire to be a girl, it pursued him. He was taunted mercilessly and called Peony by everyone from the moment he got on the bus in the morning until he left it in the afternoon. Three boys in particular, Will, Stuart and John, teamed up to make his life a misery. The only relief from that and the disapproval of his parents were the secret visits to Robyn.
She had a remarkable wardrobe of luxurious costumes in her spare bedroom. With these and a few minor adjustments, Joey enjoyed being transformed into an astonishing young woman, truly an attractive adolescent about to blossom into a Peony.

These secret visits would have continued if Will, the leader of the gang who bullied him, had not discovered what was happening. He managed to snap a couple of pictures of Joey dressed as a woman. These he posted online to ensure they spread like wildfire. Joey’s parents, believing they had dealt with their son’s delusion about his gender, were furious.   

After several weeks of increasing abuse, Joey, aged 12, disappeared.

The farmland and woods surrounding the village were searched.

No trace of him was ever found.

Parents, police and teachers all thought the same thing, though few dare admit that it was hardly surprising the boy had run away.

To escape the embarrassment, his parents moved to the small villa they had bought in Spain. Two years later its foundations shifted and the property collapsed. Being the one thing they had not thought to insure against, they ended up living in a block of flats where no one spoke English.

Without the distraction of Joey to torment, Will, Stuart and John focussed their attentions on a business course. Financial acumen presented far more opportunities to persecute people out there in the big, wide world.

After the three qualified and left university, Will’s father raised the capital to enable them to form a property company, Wolf Enterprises. He had not expected his son to return to their home village with Stuart and John and start buying it up to sell as second homes for wealthy city dwellers. Matters were made even worse when the family house had to be sold to cover the father’s rash investment in a son he had not recognised to be a greedy bully until it was too late.

Many local residents had their rents tripled by Wolf Enterprises, which had bought their leases, and they could no longer afford to live in their picturesque corner of the countryside. The village school was closed for lack of pupils and the small high street became virtually deserted until the weekends when the expensive new restaurant and specialist shops opened for the wealthy newcomers.  After effectively destroying the community, this group of enterprising young men went on to buy the common from the impoverished parish council to create a golf course. The manor house once owned by the squire became an exclusive hotel, and even the ducks were evicted from the village pond, which was relegated to a hazard on the fifteenth hole of the golf course.

Those remaining locals found themselves second class citizens living in an elite community of bankers and businessman who used it as a retreat from the city treadmill of making exorbitant amounts of money. Many who had mocked Joey, along with Will, Stuart and John, saw it as a judgement for tormenting the boy. Will's father regretted his son's behaviour most of all and with the few resources he had left, tried to find out what had happened to the pupil everyone called Peony, though without success. The only person who might have been able to answer that was the herbalist.

As the world about Robyn was reduced to a playground for the rich, she continued to potter around her smallholding growing herbs, grinding potions, and chuckling to herself. Only one or two people knew what amused her, including the vicar, who in the past had needed to fend off the insistence of parishioners that he denounce her as a witch. Those who didn't know, believed it was because Wolf Enterprises could not buy her out. The intimidating letters they sent Robyn were responded to by an expensive lawyer by return of post. So they left her alone, secure in her cottage and smallholding of fruit trees, vegetable plots and herbs, not realising how much things were about to change.

Just as the property company’s investments were on the cusp of paying dividends to its shareholders, the phantoms began to appear.

The first one was benign; a graceful woman in white magically gliding across the golf course fairway at the dead of night, only observed by the local poacher and groundsmen coming home from the Fox and Falcon. The sightings were put down to inebriation, one of the myths the late, much-missed Aggie would have dreamt up in the pub’s snug.

But then the monster arrived. No imagination, however addled or senile, could have conjured up this nightmarish creature.

Just as the light was fading and the last golfers were making their ways back to the clubhouse, the terrifying apparition loomed out of the trees and bore down on the men. (It was always men, as women were not welcome on the sacrosanct fairways, despite their exclusion being against the law. Wolf Enterprises had ensured that it remained one of the club’s best selling points.) One moment nebulous, the next horrifyingly real, the shape-shifting bugaboo insinuated its malevolent way through carefully arranged copses and over immaculately manicured fairways like a hideous amoeba. One moment it was a hideous dragon in front of them, the next a monstrous serpent uncoiling from deep bunkers.

One of the golfers had a minor stroke, and another fell into a fit of hysteria that could only be calmed by a powerful sedative from paramedics.

Understandably no one thought to record the creature on their mobile - they were running too fast - which didn’t stop the news of its appearance travelling like wildfire.

The village was invaded by ghost hunters, dragon slayers, and odd cults formed on the spur of the moment in Facebook. Will, Stuart, and John’s company was obliged to launch an expensive campaign to counter the rumours and pay a security company to stop the monster hunters from gatecrashing their precious real estate. However many felt the need to be frightened out of their wits by a hideous phantom - it was more exhilarating than pursuing Pokemon - the city well-to-do who had ruined the heart of the village were not so keen. The value of their property began to plummet.

The golf course’s groundsmen were ordered out with guns, ready for the bugaboo's next appearance. But this wasn’t in their job description and only Wolf Enterprises’ threats of instant dismissal persuaded them to confront the monster. Few of them were local and as soon as the evil-eyed fire-breathing serpent lunged out of the trees towards them, they regretted ever coming to the village. Some stood their ground and discharged round after round. But the bullets went straight through the creature. Not even a steady wage could convince the men that it was worth confronting this every evening. Enough was enough. They also fled in terror to find golf courses without resident monsters.

The police were not interested. There was nothing unusual about inebriated, overweight men having medical emergencies during a game of golf. Resources were not going to be wasted on what was most likely a practical joke when farm machinery was being stolen and there were the dens of cannabis growers to raid. Given the social standing of the members of the golf club who had encountered the terrifying creatures, they resented the offhand way the local constabulary dismissed their complaints. Not only did the apparition trigger heart attacks, it had disrupted their golf and lowered the value of their properties.

Then the phantoms started to appear in the new cul-de-sacs where Wolf Enterprises had sunk some of the capital Will's father had raised to build mansions for the wealthy. These spectres were even more horrific.

The workmen immediately downed tools on construction work. There was plenty of employment in other parts of the country, and as the company's shares begun to plummet the builders knew the mansions would never be completed.

Will, Stuart and John had to do something. But how could they get rid of a phantom?

The local vicar, having had most of his original flock replaced by weekend Christians more interested in being seen in Church than following the teachings of Jesus, had no intention of exorcising the spectres. Also, by the way he held secret meetings with Robyn and several other villagers in his vestry, he probably knew more about the hauntings than he was prepared to admit. The comings and goings through the cemetery at the dead of night would have gone unnoticed if the suspicions of Ray, the community constable, had not become suspicious.

One evening, before watching his favourite cooking competition on TV, he hid behind a Victorian tombstone to see what was going on. 

Fortunately he had set his programme to record, because it was well past ten before members of the clandestine meeting began to arrive. Some of them were villagers and others complete strangers. One was Will’s father, the man who had committed himself to penury to fund his son’s business. On arrival they all entered the outside door to the crypt which had historically been used as the village’s storage space. Everything from home-made jam for summer bazaars to cement mixers used to repair the crumbling foundations had been down there at some time or another. Ray could just make out projectors and other electronic equipment being taken in. He thought that it was an odd time and place to have a film show, but that was because he would never be detective, otherwise he might have worked out what was really going on. But a comfortable armchair and cholesterol rich dinner waited in his warm sitting room. If the professional coppers weren’t interested, why should he be bothered? So, curiosity satisfied, he went home.

If he had waited a little longer he might have seen that huge, coffin-sized box being eased through the crypt’s narrow entrance.

Within a few weeks most of the wealthy newcomers had decided their weekend retreats were anything but restful and flocked back to the relative peace and quiet of the City and its suburbs. There at least, most horrors were generated on stock market screens. And for the weird and wonderful they were more inclined to visit the spectacular performances of the new phenomenon, a French illusionist who could create exquisite visions able to confound the most hardened disbelievers in magic. Watching her was preferable to being pursued across a golf course by nightmare creatures more usually conjured up by drug abuse. At least that brief experience in the village had persuaded many of them to give up the habit. It was far more liberating to drool over the tall, elegant woman who could fill the stage with bubbles that burst into glittering confetti, which in turn became a cloud of iridescent butterflies. Even other seasoned magicians had no idea how she did it, though many held secret debates to try and work it out. Just as amazing was, that only a few years before, this remarkable woman would not have been allowed to join the magic circle. Her talent could have only come from a deep heritage of experience, most likely circus in origin. But everything about Madame Phantasmagoria remained a mystery, as befitted the creator of astonishing delights.


The village was now free of expensive cars arriving so their owners could luxuriate in the hotel sauna, eat cordon bleu meals in its pretentious restaurant, and sunbathe round its marble-lined swimming pool. Wolf Enterprises’ aspiration to attract celebrities dwindled into the realms of wishful thinking as the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Will, Stuart and John had no choice but to accept the offer of a French business to buy them out. It didn’t matter that the purchaser’s portfolio was in entertainment. No one else was going to invest in the failed venture to make the village a playground for the rich and famous.

The signing of the agreement should have been a private affair, but the buyer insisted that it should be public, in the parish hall.

The floor and gallery were packed with past and present villagers determined to see the local boys who had ruined their community suitably humiliated. When a stunningly attractive young woman representing the French company entered it made revenge even sweeter. Her clothes were elegant enough for an haute couture catwalk and beauty classical. Despite that, underneath it all, many of the locals thought that there was something familiar about those fine-looking features.

The young men facing financial ruin and investigation by the business regulator before their mid twenties were also unsettled by her presence. It was not only because they were about to sign their company over for a fraction of what it had cost to set up. When Will’s father took the young woman’s arm and escorted her to the desk where the contract was to be signed, it seemed like betrayal.

The woman was magnanimous as she took ownership of their failed aspirations, showing no sign of triumph or smug satisfaction. It was enough that they knew her company managed many of the wealthy stars and VIPs they had aspired to attract.

After Will, Stuart and John drove away from the village to plot their next crooked business venture there was a celebration in the crypt of the parish church. At its centre were Robyn and the elegant French woman who now held the future of the village in her immaculately manicured hands. No one, from vicar to the last surviving shopkeeper, seemed unduly bothered by this prospect and Ray, the community constable, had pieced together what had been going on. As soon he saw what had been stored down in the crypt, he knew for sure. Should he leave now before he became implicated in something he would be honour bound to report, or give in to terrible curiosity and discover how monstrous apparitions had undermined Wolf Enterprises?

The vicar blocked his retreat. “Meet the monsters of the fairway.”

“But they’re just marionettes..?” protested Ray. “Bloody good ones, but just puppets all the same.”

“Something my old circus excels at,” Robyn explained. “They could paralyse audiences with fright, or send them floating away in sheer delight. It’s all smoke and mirrors, Ray. Or, in this case, lasers and projectors.”

“But that can’t be legal!”

“And who will prove it? Tomorrow the magician who breathed life into them will be on the other side of the Channel, spellbinding audiences with her astounding illusions.”

“So what happens to the village now then? Who owns us this time?”

“We do, dear fellow,” said Will’s father, “Which is more than any of us deserve. All the land my son’s company bought and everything on it now belongs to the people of the parish.”


“Let’s say that a bounteous angel invested wisely for us when she realised what was happening.”

All eyes turned to the tall, elegant illusionist.

“Her stage name is Madame Phantasmagoria,” announced Robyn, “but you may best remember her as Peony.”