Stoke up the fire, light those candles, find that warm armchair and hunker down for a Yuletide tale which thankfully has nothing to do with Christmas, Tiny Tim or the State of the Nation..
The Last Swing- a Ghost Story
At the corner on Grange Road, there is a large cherry-tree that comes into blossom at unexpected times of the year. When that happens, people often cross the road to the other side, even if that means taking an extra few minutes to walk along Low Stobhill. Perhaps they find that making that small detour seems to be somehow, slightly less disturbing. Hanging from one branch of the tree is a rope swing that strangely, is never used by the local children. It is sometimes referred to as the place of the McDougals, for reasons often left unexplained. Some researches in Morpeth Library have finally yielded the sad truth, which I set before you now.
Mitsibushi McDougal was a star acrobat in the Rothbury Rover Circus, performing her high-wire act in the Big Tent that travelled the length and breadth of Northumberland in the 1890s. Villagers would gasp as she performed a running drop-kick on a rugby football whilst balancing on a rope 30 feet above the ground. And of course, the ball always landed exactly where she wanted – into the waiting hands of her beau, the ringmaster popularly known as The Amazing Andrew. There was gossip at the difference in their ages, Andrew being a modest 25 years, and Mitsibushi a slightly more advanced 64. But she didn’t care. ‘Love knows no barriers’, she was apt to say with a smile, especially on a Saturday night when the gin was flowing and the lemons were wantonly sliced.
Mitsibushi (known to her friends and amours as ‘Mitzy’), actually hailed from Sunderland, her mother having spent a long dalliance with a Japanese executive engaged in the building of the Emperor’s Navy on Tyneside, whilst staying at Lord Armstrong’s country retreat at Cragside. Her name was a gift from her father, who perished whilst fighting the Russians near Port Arthur. He left Mitsibushi a generous legacy that included the finest private education available to a girl of that time. But for Mitsibushi, it was not enough. Once in her youth, she had seen an acrobat perform a pas-de-deux with lithe Lithuanian on the high-wire at the Sunderland Empire, and the courage of the deed inspired her to run away to the circus, which she did at the tender age of 13.
Circus life was tough, but she was a willing learner, graduating from cleaning out the elephants, feeding the lions and worming the llama, to the day when she was first allowed to hold a burning hoop through which one of the lions would leap, to great applause and the redolent smell of singed fur. From then, she rose rapidly in the ranks until Mitsibushi joined the Flying Albertos, a high-wire act specialising in death-defying stunts on the flying trapeze. She took to her new calling with enthusiasm, exercising hard and practising her somersaults long into the night.
In time, the act was renamed Mitsibushi and the Flying Albertos in deference both to her skills and daring décolletage, as she had never been one to hide her assets. The number of young men paying for admission had noticeably doubled in a year. There was much gossip, but her first love was always the high-wire- until the day that ‘Cameron’ appeared. The son of a Scottish crofter, Cameron had become a member of the circus dance ensemble from a similarly tender age, and Mitsibushi, at 22, thought the slightly younger Cameron a highly appealing ‘catch.’ Unfortunately, Cameron’s eyes were always for his mother for reasons best unexplained. Furious at his rebuttal, Mitsibushi threw herself into a long series of torrid affairs, many of which made the pages of the Northumberland Gazette much more interesting and resulted in a modest upturn in sales.
By the age of 47, she was still performing the high-wire act that made her famous, but the drop-kick stunt brought her again to the public eye, after being demonstrated in front of an amazed crowd at St James’ Park as part of a pre-match warm-up. To be fair, the average age of her audience had risen along with her own- but their loyalty was genuine. When she reached the age of 63, there were whispers that the drop-kick wasn’t quite as accurate as it had once been, and a county-wide petition succeeded in persuading her to abandon the costume of her teenage years for something more demure- but the act was still an act, and the owners of the Rothbury Rover Circus were still willing to keep her on. But then appeared the Amazing Andrew, a capable ringmaster from South Shields with a dab hand for lion-taming on the side. He paid Mitsibushi some interest, sent her flowers, and soon, she had falling for his long, twirly moustache. The day was set for their marriage at Morpeth Parish Church, in the autumn of 1912. The invitations were sent out, the town hall booked for the Reception, and Mitsibushi was prepared for the greatest leap of her life into the unknown, the state of matrimony- but Andrew never appeared, for reasons never explained.
She stormed out of the church, angrily striding her way towards the railway station, when suddenly, a strange urge overtook her and she turned right, up Shields road, until finally she was standing by a large cherry-tree on which hung a swing. With no further ado, she sat herself down and began swinging wildly, forward and backward, rising ever higher.
There is some dispute as to what happened next. Did her wedding veil become ensnared in a low-hanging branch? Did the swing itself become entangled? A strong wind had suddenly blown up, shortly after she left the church. Was that breeze a factor? Suffice to say, that when a passing milkman found her in the late afternoon, Mitsibushi was dead, her long veil entangled in a high branch. She had swung her last swing.
And so the tree in Grange Road maintains its air of mystery. Moves by the local council to have it removed, somehow, never quite come to fruition. When playing football on the grass lawn below, goalposts are never placed under its branches. And most tellingly and frighteningly of all, when the wind is seen to blow from the direction of Rothbury, the swing moves back and forth, of its own accord.