by Tony Earnshaw
Yorkshire, 1963. A boy and his grandfather settle down for a day’s fishing. Close by is fellow angler ‘Painter’ Jack, who baits his hook with maggots… and eats them by the fistful…
I still buy my local newspaper, though in truth there’s not much in its pages anymore. It is, as the saying goes, a shadow of what it once was. Much diminished. I guess I get it for the nostalgia of looking at old photographs and reliving days gone by. There’s always a chance of seeing a familiar face.
Some time back there was a column listing notable dates from the past. It included, somewhat inexplicably I thought, a mention of the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years earlier on November 22, 1963. I guess that was an example of world news that rocked everybody to their core, no matter where they lived. And I lived in a small Yorkshire town called Brighouse. Still do, come to that.
But it was the final item, tucked away at the bottom of the column that caught my eye. It read “On November 22, 1963 ‘Painter’ Jack Lund vanished without trace from beside the River Calder at Cromwell Bottom leaving behind his clothes and fishing tackle. The mystery made headlines all over the world and led to a spate of documentaries and books that delved into the case. His disappearance remains unsolved and unexplained.”
Painter Jack. A name from my youth.
I put down the newspaper and cast my mind back half a century.
November 22, 1963.
I turned 10 in November 1963 and as part of my birthday treat my grandfather had invited me to join him when he went fishing on the local river, the Calder. We had been fishing together for around a year and our trips took us from the top of Rastrick, down a steeply sloping woodland track and across the railway line to a spot by the river at Cromwell Bottom. There we would sit together, quite happily, for a full day fishing, talking, drinking sweet tea from a flask, and eating sandwiches and biscuits as we watched the river flow past and the world go by.
We became friendly with some of the other anglers and familiar with all of them. They each had their own spots – or swims – and as well as the exchange of banter, football stories and complaints about their wives, they would swap hooks and line and floats and all the other things that made fishing such fun.
The river was teeming with brown trout, and we used maggots on our lines. I can’t remember ever coming home without at least one fish, which grandma would clean and gut and cook. It was the ultimate treat: fish all day, come home triumphant, and eat like champions.
November 22 was a Friday. Overnight there’d been a fire at my school and, as we arrived at the gates we were told the headmaster had decided to send everyone home. That presented my mum with a problem. She had to go to work and with dad already at work she only had one option: take me to grandma and granddad’s house.
Granddad was delighted when we turned up. “Fishing?” was how he greeted us. I grinned. We’d planned to go on Saturday as part of my birthday treat. An unexpected day off school moved the moment forward. As grandma rustled up some sandwiches we dragged the rods, tackle box and nets out of the shed. Twenty minutes later we had loaded up the car and were off.
It took ten minutes to drive to the top of Stransty Woods. We parked the car and slogged down through the jumble of oaks, sycamores, and beech to the railway line, where we listened for the tell-tale hum of the rails to signify the approach of a train. With nothing coming we scurried across the tracks, clambered over a stile and headed for our regular spot by the river.
Granddad was particularly pleased because it was a Friday. The river wouldn’t be overwhelmed with anglers. “No annoying kids,” he said with a wink. I adored him.
We split our labours between us. I set out the chairs, the box, and the nets. Granddad took care of the rods. There was only one other angler around.
About 50 yards down from our swim sat Painter Jack. A man of indeterminate age, he was known as a rag ’n’ bone man who would tour the area with a horse and cart collecting scrap metal and other unwanted items from people’s homes, which he would sell on. He sat, stock still, in a frayed wicker chair.
Granddad used to say that Painter Jack’s clothes were so old that they were only held together by ingrained grime. He always wore a donkey jacket, some kind of tweed-like trousers, much patched over, and hobnailed army boots. On his head perched a flat cap. He looked like a tinker from days of old.
I never knew where he got his name. Neither did granddad, who was 66 in 1963 and he reckoned that Painter Jack was older than him. He was never seen without a roll-up cigarette either clamped between his lips or between the first two fingers of his left hand, which were yellow from nicotine. The whiskery beard that clad his face was similarly discoloured with brown tobacco flecks from his roll-ups. He was an odd-looking man and I was nervous of him.
It wasn’t that I was frightened by the way he looked or the body odour that wafted downwind. He even had an old mongrel dog that would lie next to him on the bank and barely move except to wag its tail when someone approached. It was friendly, just as he was friendly in his way. He was harmless but there was something about him that was just a little… off.
He ate maggots.
Jack could spit out maggots with gleeful accuracy – firing them from between his teeth like living projectiles to land, wet with saliva and glistening, in children’s hair, including mine. He liked to hear us scream.
Or he would scoop up a handful and load them into his open mouth, chewing and crunching them like a heaving snack. Some he kept secreted under his tongue for the fish.
As I watched, he flipped the lid from an old biscuit tin to reveal a writhing mass of creamy white maggots. With practised dexterity, he tipped back his head and sprinkled some into his mouth. He looked at me, cackled jubilantly, and uttered one word: “Protein!” It made me gip. When I disgustedly told Granddad he muttered, “Dirty old sod.” Then he smiled and said, “But, you know the Italians eat maggoty cheese? I saw them do it in the war. They call it casu marzu.”
He looked at me and winked. “Even tried some meself.”
I blanched. Granddad chuckled contentedly as he placed a maggot on a hook. Glancing downstream at Painter Jack he murmured, “If the wind changes he’ll turn into a bloody maggot.”
When Painter Jack smiled he revealed yellowed teeth and a stained tongue that flicked almost lasciviously. Beneath it were clustered maggots that wriggled and squirmed in the brown juices of his mouth. Pursing his lips, he spat one a good 10 feet out into the passing river. Then, in rapid succession, he did the same with half a dozen more. As he focused on casting his line maggots spilled from his mouth, bumping off his filthy coat and onto the muddy bank. In the river, a trout broke the surface and gobbled up a maggot.
It was getting late. The afternoon had already turned to dusk. Granddad wanted to get going and be up and out of the woods before dusk turned to darkness. In amongst the talking and the eating we had caught precisely zero fish. That was a first. I persuaded him to hang on; I wanted that elusive trout – anything to present to grandma. Alas, over the next two hours, there was nary a nibble.
We packed up and divided the load evenly, him carrying the tackle box and the long rod with me carrying the smaller rod and the landing net. We each lugged our own chair. Halfway up the woods’ winding path, guided by torchlight, granddad stopped suddenly. “Where’s the keep net?” he asked.
Neither one of us had thought to go down to the water’s edge and retrieve it. Granddad turned to walk back down the path.
“I’ll get it,” I said. He knew it would take me a matter of minutes to run down, cross the tracks and cut along the riverside to get the net. He nodded, set down the wooden tackle box and I took off like a jackrabbit, clutching the torch and pelting 500 yards to the railway line. Behind me, through the bare trees, I heard him shout, “Be careful on the track.”
There were no trains coming when I got to the line so I dashed across, over the stile and down to our swim. The beam of the torch bounced before me, partnering the illumination from the waxing crescent moon.
I began clambering down the slope to the water’s edge and saw Painter Jack’s old dog darting through the long grass towards me, its eyes caught in torchlight. The animal was agitated, its scraggy tail tucked between its legs. It ran to and then past me, racing towards the railway line. I went to grab it but the dog, despite its age, was too quick for me.
I shouted to Painter Jack but he didn’t move. Figuring he was probably the only one that could call the dog back I sprinted down the bank to tell him.
I called three times as I approached but Painter Jack, slumped in his chair, didn’t react. I wondered if he was asleep and then became overwhelmed with the fear that he might have died.
I stopped running and slowed to a walk, approaching him rather more cautiously than I realised. I shone the torch directly at him. He seemed to be breathing heavily, his chest expanding out and back in regular rhythmic movements.
The old man’s eyes and mouth were open, and the stub of an extinguished cigarette hung from the first two fingers of his left hand. As I watched his hand appeared to twitch. The cigarette fell onto the bank and immediately was joined by half a dozen maggots, which seemed to tumble from his sleeve.
The rhythmic swelling of his chest became more pronounced. Painter Jack didn’t appear to be breathing; instead, something was pushing from within.
Unconsciously I stepped closer. Painter Jack’s jaw clicked rhythmically as if he was trying to speak but no words sounded. Instead, his neck bulged and his mouth widened as something began to emerge.
Slowly, over his tongue and past the gateway of his yellow teeth, the conical head of a huge maggot appeared, completely filling his mouth. Heaving and pulsating, it squirmed from his throat, straining to elongate its form to escape the prison of Jack’s body.
Every fibre of my being screamed at me to turn and run but my legs wouldn’t move. Instead, I felt vomit building in my guts and rising within me. That feeling ended when, in sheer terror, I wet myself.
The giant maggot flopped onto Jack’s chest and fell between his knees onto the bank, where it lay momentarily still before wriggling in limbless locomotion up the muddy slope. More tiny maggots fell from his hand and I realised they were erupting through the skin of his fingers.
I wanted to scream but there was no room for noise past the panting of a terrified boy.
Maggots cascaded from Jack’s open mouth like a waterfall. Hundreds of them. Scattering across his jacket and falling all around. Agog and aghast, I tried to force myself to move but I was transfixed. My hand, knuckles white, gripped the torch, which caught it all.
Then something happened. A single tear rolled down Jack’s cheek followed by a maggot that telescoped from his tear duct. Another came after and I saw as if in a nightmare that his eyes were bulging, too.
A rip opened up in Jack’s neck and maggots spewed out, as if his body was forcibly ejecting these alien invaders. But there was no blood. Just an unceasing flood of maggots.
Another rupture appeared on his face, a gash that split the forehead down to the nose. More maggots. They poured from his mouth, from his fingers and hands, from his nostrils, and from the deep rent beneath his cap.
Quite suddenly, his left eyeball exploded. What should have been a hole filled with gel-like liquid was instead packed with the struggling forms of maggots.
Jack’s body, twitching and throbbing as it was ruined from within, pitched forward from the wicker chair and toppled down the slope to the river. It carried with it the giant maggot, which had been attempting to drag itself up the slope and onto the grassy bank. It rolled towards the water.
The river began to thresh as fish became aware of the free meal and gorged on the thousands of maggots that exploded from Jack’s body. I turned and ran finally but not before I saw the giant maggot purposefully attempt to save itself by squirming onto Jack’s corpse. It failed, slipping into the fast-flowing waters of the Calder to be swept away.
I ran without stopping all the way back to granddad, who, in the gloom, had started retracing his steps, concerned that I was taking so long. He took the torch and shone it at my face.
One look at me clearly indicated I’d had a fright, but was it more than that? I was crying, panting, incoherent. I managed to gasp the words “Painter Jack” and then collapsed against him, clinging on and sobbing. Granddad made to go further down the path; he wanted to investigate. I grabbed his hands and pulled him back, crying, “No, no! Please, no!”
He regarded me for a second and then, with deliberate tenderness, embraced me in the kind of hug only a grandfather can give. He looked back, futilely straining to see through the trees to the river. Then, without a word, he gathered up the fishing tackle box, the rods, the chairs, and the landing net and led me up through the woods to the car. All the way back, neither of us spoke.
When we got home I hung back. Mindful of my state and my embarrassment at having wet myself, granddad told me to put the fishing tackle in the shed.
When he went into the house Grandma was in tears. News had reached England from America that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. The news sent shockwaves through our neighbourhood, even though it was thousands of miles away from the scene of the crime in Texas.
Grandma threw her arms around him and cried on his shoulder. Like so many others, her grief was immense. She couldn’t quite explain it; just that something good had been snuffed out. It was a moment like no other.
When I stepped into the kitchen grandma was too caught up in her own trauma to detect mine. Granddad told me to run a bath, so I took myself off and out of the place of tears. Afterwards, in the dining room, grandma said the news had clearly affected me, too. Or maybe I was just reacting to her sadness. She gave me a kiss and asked if I wanted a piece of cake. I nodded because it’s what she needed me to do. She busied herself cutting the cake and making a pot of tea for granddad and herself. He looked at me, nodded his head and gave a knowing smile. Nothing more was said.
The vanishing of Painter Jack became one of the great if not the greatest mystery in the history of our small town. His clothing was discovered the following day by Saturday anglers but of the man himself, there was no trace whatsoever. Some thought he had carried off the ultimate prank, but there was no evidence in his ramshackle house that he had left or gone off on a secret journey. His dog was found in the hovel, having somehow wandered home. And, in various places around his tiny dwelling, police uncovered hidden money, and a lot of it. Who would walk away from their life’s savings? It made no sense.
The story made headlines beyond Brighouse, beyond Yorkshire. It became something of a cause célèbre with all sorts of famous people – mediums and the like – offering solutions as to what may have occurred. There was talk of murder. Others suggested he had been the victim of an extra-terrestrial abduction. And over the years his strange episode became a chapter in multiple books, was featured in television
documentaries, and periodically would be exhumed as a conundrum for amateur sleuths to explore anew.
People like my grandfather were often invited to recall the events of those times. He always turned down those requests, as I did. In recent years they’ve all but dried up. And that’s the way I like it.
Granddad died in 1969. We didn’t go fishing together after that event five years before. I found new hobbies. It was sad; never again were we quite as close as we had been when we would sit in peaceful contentment side-by-side at the edge of the river. I simply couldn’t. I was absolutely repulsed by the sight, feel, smell, and contracting movement of maggots.
At no time did we speak of that day. Inevitably there was a flurry of interest from newspapers, both local and national, but the enormity of the question of what happened to Painter Jack was not one that anyone could answer. There was no evidence of foul play, just clothes and boots and fishing tackle… and a tin of maggots with the lid still on it.
The present day.
Over the years I’ve built up a collection of cuttings about Painter Jack. The stories range from the factual to the bizarre, and all of them seem to be accompanied by the same picture, which shows Jack on his cart as he did his rounds of local streets.
I don’t remember the rag ’n’ bone man. I remember instead the grimy character hunched in his chair, eyes scouring the river, with his faithful dog by his side.
And I remember that day when the maggots burst from his body to provide a feeding frenzy for the fish. I remember with revulsion the giant thing flailing on the bank, seeking to escape the water and to find safety and security by burrowing into the grass.
I remember granddad’s reaction to the news of Painter Jack’s disappearance and the perceptive look he gave to me, recognising that within my terror I had seen something that no human being should ever have to witness. He never asked me to describe what I had seen. The pleading panic in my eyes was enough.
And so writers and paranormal investigators continue to ponder the peculiarly permanent phenomenon of Painter Jack. Over the years the theorists have offered up
ever more absurd, bizarre, and crackpot conjectures. The simple fact is that they don’t have a clue what transpired.
But I know. Before I die, I want the world to learn what I witnessed that day: a ghastly scene that, despite a lifetime’s reluctant contemplation, remains utterly incomprehensible to me.
‘Protein’ originally appeared in The Fourth BHF Book of Horror Stories