The Spiral Path

The Spiral Path

In a small field near Shuckleigh there is a symbolic labyrinth. It consists of a spiral of grey stones, and a few white ones, sunk into the earth to make a pathway. Labyrinths similar to this one were used in churches for people to walk and pray, instead of undertaking long and difficult pilgrimages to holy shrines — but the labyrinth in the field is no Christian thing. No-one knows who made it, and it has been there for at least three hundred years.

The stones have a little growth of pale green and yellow lichen, but the grass has not overwhelmed them, even though the landowner says he does nothing to keep them free of weeds.

Sometimes local children come to play the game of ‘Beat the Devil’ here, running as fast as they can around the spiral from start to centre avoiding all the paler coloured stones. The game originates in the story associated with the stones. It goes like this:

A girl stepped onto the spiral stones one day, intending to walk the whole thing. She stood on the first stone, looking ahead and seeing how some of the stones shone white, unlike all the others. She assumed that these were the sacred stops on the route to whatever destination lay at the centre.
As she approached the first white stone she saw a small, ugly man, dressed in ragged clothing, standing on the stone.

“Could you stand aside, please?’ she asked.

‘What will you give me?’

‘What do you want?’

‘I want one hair from your head.’

The girl had very beautiful long hair that she was proud of.

‘Why?’ she asked, not happy with the request.

The tiny man gave a strange, angry smile and jumped up to pluck one long hair from her head, and she squealed. He tied the hair in a knot, and threw it onto the white stone at his feet, where it turned into a fat, juicy, pink worm. Tied in a knot.

The little man disappeared.

The girl had to pick up the worm to stand on the stone. She held it in her hands, where it wriggled slowly, trying to untie itself.

A little afraid, she carried on over the stones along the spiral.

The next white stone had a large grey toad squatting on it, which, when she asked it to move, just looked at her and smacked its jaws together.

She threw the fat worm onto the stone in front of the toad. He snapped it up and moved aside.
When she stepped onto the toad’s stone, the girl was sorry for throwing the worm to be eaten. Perhaps she should have tried to un-knot it and let it go into the grass, but then the toad would not have been fed.

Oh, well. Too difficult to work out the right of that. She moved on, and as she did, the stones rose into a staircase ahead of her. One step after another, steeper and steeper, up and up, like a mountain, into the clouds.

When she got to the next white stone, a big black raven stood on it, with a beak like a shining axe.
Afraid of the bird, but unable to go back because the stones behind had vanished, she was forced to approach.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, spreading her hands to show that she had nothing.

The raven leaned forward, and with one quick lunge snipped off her little finger and flew away with it.

The girl screamed and cried, wrapping her wounded hand in her handkerchief. After a few minutes, she gathered enough strength to carry on, trembling and still crying.

Once she stepped onto the raven’s stone, the stones before her began to descend back to the ground as she set foot on them.

She was not happy to see the little man once more, standing on the next white stone, but she took a deep breath and walked on, holding her wounded hand against her chest.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, afraid of what he might want.

‘The Raven is greedy, but I am not,’ he said. ‘All I want is one hair from your head.’

This time the girl did not argue, but plucked a nice long hair for him. He took it, twisted it about as if he was knotting it. The hair turned into a fine gold chain which he wound about the girl’s wrist. He stepped aside, and she proceeded to the next white stone, the last, at the centre of the spiral.

She stood on that last white stone, and her tears and her blood dripped down onto the stone in front of her. There was a hissing sound, and a great white bird rose up from the stone, the blood and the tears.
The bird looked down at the girl with its golden eyes, curved its neck and coughed, one, two, three times. Three large, perfectly white pearls fell from its beak.

The ugly little man ran up and leapt onto the bird’s back, laughing.

‘You have your thanks,’ he called as the bird beat its vast wings and rose into the air.

They were gone in a moment, and the girl was alone in the field, a gold chain about her wrist and three pearls at her feet.

To this day there is a hole where the central stone should be. The locals say it leads straight to hell, and the little man was the Devil.

The Missing Room

The Missing Room

Some houses can be a difficult sell. This one ought to have been easy enough, even though it hadn’t been lived in for years, maybe decades. The garden was an overgrown mess, but it was large, and the house was surprisingly sound, even its windows were unbroken. It was filled with dark old furniture, and many spiderwebs, but if he talked up its potential once renovated, Chris was sure he could sell it pretty quickly.

The trouble was that no-one was listening to him. They all seemed to be listening to something in the house instead, but it was something that he could not hear.

Elaine Cook was the first of only two viewers that day, and following company policy, he could not be alone in the house with a single female viewer.

‘It’s all open,’ he said, ‘except the attic. Don’t try to go up there because we aren’t sure if the floorboards are sound.’

‘You aren’t coming in?’

He explained company policy, safeguarding and so on.

‘Aren’t there any women working at your agency?’

‘I’m afraid they aren’t available today.’

He smiled and ushered her in, saying he would be outside in his car, parked next to hers, if she needed to ask anything. He did not tell her that none of the other agents wanted to come anywhere near the house, calling it disturbing to be around. Chris was not disturbed. It was a really nice house, he thought, or it would be, once its potential was realised.

He sat in his car, working on his laptop while he waited. An hour went by. The next viewers pulled up in their car. Chris went to the front door and called, ‘Ms Cook?’ There was no reply. He asked the waiting couple to be patient for a moment, and he went in calling her name over and over. Every room was empty, except for the furniture. Desperate, he started to look inside the cupboards and wardrobes. He looked in the out-of-bounds attic. Then he looked everywhere again.

The couple waiting were looking at the house in a very doubtful way, even before he explained the problem. They could go in, he said, while he continued to search, but they were not keen.

Once Chris had combed through the garden, he lost hope and called the office, then the police.

Ms Cook had vanished, and his other potential buyers disappeared, but in a more normal way, in their car.

The police made an even more thorough search, and they questioned poor Chris very closely, suspicion in their eyes.

Three days later, a neighbour saw an exhausted and shoeless woman walking down the driveway of the old house. Elaine Cook had returned.

She told the police a very odd story, and word got about that she had been subject to some sort of fugue episode. Intrigued, I asked her for an interview.

This is what she told me.

‘I loved the house at first sight, even though it was so run down. I wandered around, looking at all the old furniture, thinking if there was any I might want to keep. There wasn’t much, to be honest, and everything was covered in old spider webs, like grey sagging lace. It was going to be a lot of work, but I could just feel that I wanted to buy the place, if I could get it at the right price.

‘I took measurements and made notes, then I thought I would go outside and see if I could get a view of the roof. If that was sound, I would pay a surveyor to look at the place.

‘Coming back downstairs, I noticed a door I had missed before, I don’t know how. It was just along from the front lounge.

‘Opening the door, bright sunlight blinded me for a moment. When I could see, the room was full of people, as if a party was going on.

‘You can imagine that I was puzzled. No-one had mentioned to me that there was anyone else in the house. They were all looking at me. I apologised and turned to leave, but the door was shut and seemed to be jammed.

‘”Do come in,” someone said.

I turned around, and they were all smiling at me. It was really disconcerting, but I didn’t want to upset anyone.

‘”Do come in.”

‘The woman who spoke offered me a cup of tea. I felt unable to refuse, so I took the cup, and sat down when others moved along the sofa to make room for me. I remember noticing that the furniture was much nicer in this room, and not dusty at all. There was a smell of lavender and everyone was dressed in costume, like some sort of Victorian re-enactment society.

‘It gets a bit blurry after that. Maybe there was something in the tea.

‘Later, we were all in the garden and they kept asking, do you like the house, do you like the garden?

‘It was a beautiful garden, filled with flowers, not at all what I had expected from the front of the house.

‘I started to think that I should go and find the estate agent, but they pulled me this way and that, look at the apples, the pears. They showed me the house, and it wasn’t at all the way it had been, dark and dusty. It was bright and colourful, just the way it had been in my imagination.

‘After a long time, maybe a couple of hours, I was really tired, and they all said “goodbye, come again” and they were gone.

‘I’d lost my shoes, I don’t know where or when. The house was dark again. The front door was locked, so I had to get out through a window, and then I found that my car was gone.

‘They said I was missing for three days, but that doesn’t seem right. Nobody believes what happened to me, but I have decided not to care any more.’

‘Even after all that, you decided to buy the house.’

‘Yes. The renovations are coming along well, don’t you think?’

I looked around at the bright, airy sitting room

‘Is this the room you saw all the mysterious people in?’ I asked.

‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘That room doesn’t exist.’

The Strange Dancer

The Strange Dancer

This is a story told to me by a very old lady, who wished to be anonymous.

When I was a young girl, back in the 1930s, our family lived in a very old house. It was big and rambling, and because my parents didn’t have much money, the house was in a poor state of repair. They were ‘doing it up’ bit by bit.

There was a whole upper floor that we children were not supposed to go anywhere near. They said it was dangerous, but they went up there sometimes, because they used it for storage.

When you are a child, of course, the forbidden looks very attractive.

Our bedrooms were on the first floor, and the forbidden floor was right above us. I shared a room with two of my younger sisters, and lying in bed at night when they were both asleep, I would sometimes hear the quick patter of footsteps across the floor above my head.

I told my parents about it, and they said it was mice, but the footsteps were too distinct to be little scurrying creatures. It sounded more like a small person running across the floor.

I used to lie awake in the dark, listening to the sound of little feet above my head. Whatever it was used to run from the side where the door was in our bedroom over to the window. In the daytime I looked from the garden at the little window above my own bedroom window, expecting, hoping, to see a face looking back at me, but there was never anyone there.

I was never afraid, only curious to know what it was.

One Saturday in July my parents, my brother and sisters were all out in the garden having tea and playing games. My Mother was busy deadheading the roses, which were very beautiful that year. I went inside to fetch a ball from my bedroom. It was right at the bottom of my toybox. Just as I found it, the footsteps ran across the floor above, to the window.

I suppose that I thought that this was my chance to catch whatever it was, so I ran as quietly as I could up the stairs to the forbidden floor. I turned left towards the room above mine, and I remember that the door was open just a crack. Pulling it all the way open, I went in, and found that the room was filled with boxes. There was a narrow, winding path between the boxes, but it was difficult even for a small girl to squeeze through. There was no way that anything, not even a mouse, could quickly and directly run from the door to the window – but I could see a dark shape in front of the window, looking out.

I shouted ‘Hey’ and it turned around. The sun was behind it, very bright, and I couldn’t make out anything but a dark silhouette, like a small person, no taller than me.

Just as I was about to go into the room, I was grabbed from behind and I squealed. The shape at the window disappeared, and my Father, who had stopped me from going in, started to tell me off for being up there at all. I told him what I had heard and seen, but he thought I was making it all up.

He sent me downstairs. Back in the garden, I looked up to see him at the little window. That seemed wrong to me somehow, and I called to him to come down. A couple of minutes later he was in the garden with us again. I asked if he had seen anything, and he told me not to be silly, but there was an odd look in his eyes.

My parents took me aside before bedtime and very seriously told me not to go up to that floor because the boxes might fall on me, and some of the floorboards were old and rotten and might break under my weight.

I did stay away, but the footsteps would sound every might, waking me up. They became odd little prancing noises.

One night I woke to hear pattering on the floor above. For a few days I had been feeling strange and light-headed, and then in the middle of the night, waking like that, I was dizzy and everything felt unreal.

I got up out of bed and went upstairs. The door to the room was shut. When I opened it, I saw that all the boxes were gone. Moonlight was streaming through the little window and someone was twirling around in the middle of the floor, across a carpet patterned with flowers.

I stepped into the room this time and saw that the person dancing was a large cat, as tall as I was, upright on its two back legs. The cat danced towards me, put its paws into my outstretched hands and danced me across the room. I remember now the feel of its warm furry paws and the slight pricking of partly extended claws.

The cat’s eyes were large and glowed amber in the moonlight. Though I could not hear any music, I could feel music in my bones as we spun and danced together across the carpet of flowers.

The next time I woke, I was in a hospital bed. They told me I was unconscious for days with a high temperature, and everyone had expected me to die. I was dancing all that time, but could not tell anyone. There were five tiny prick marks in each of my palms from the cat’s claws.

Back at home again, my sisters were moved into another room while I stayed in bed to recover. I was very weak for a long time and could hardly stand, except when the cat visited me at night and we danced together.

When I recovered my health he stopped coming and I have never seen him since, but I would love to dance with him again. Perhaps I will.

My parents repaired the floorboards on the top floor and took all the boxes out of that room. When I was allowed to go up there, they had laid a new carpet, like a flowery meadow. Exactly the carpet I danced over with the cat. Even today you can see the little pinpricks on my palms where his claws bit into me.

The Long Way Round

The Long Way Round

On Friday and Saturday nights the pizza delivery bikes in Shuckleigh are always busy. Even after midnight, there are still people who want greasy, cheesy toppings on a deep pan base. With or without pineapple.

Jamey was working late one Friday night. He rode a Honda scooter, with a cubic insulated bag on the back. Being a pizza delivery guy on minimum wage in the gig economy was not the height of his ambitions, but he saw it as a temporary thing, and better than being shut up in a hot kitchen for hours, slathering dough with tomato sauce and random dodgy bits and pieces.

That night an order came in around midnight. Another driver was ahead of Jamey for the next delivery, but he took a look at the address, shuddered, and decided to finish for the night, so the job went to Jamey.

Shuckleigh is a small market town in a very rural setting, and this order was for somewhere just a bit out of town. Jamey put the postcode into his phone and set off to find the place before the pizzas got cold.

He had to turn off onto a tiny unclassified road, about the width of one car with occasional passing places, which is not unusual around here. Jamey’s phone told him that he would pass a farmhouse and then go on half a mile to the very end of the road, where his destination lay. He could not miss it, because the road did actually end, with no further to go and no turn offs, so when, just after the farmhouse, he lost phone signal, he was not too bothered. Outside the town coverage is patchy, nothing strange about that.

There was a little light from a gibbous moon, but otherwise Jamey had to depend on his scooter’s headlight. For that reason, and the narrowness of the road, he had to go slowly. A hedgehog santered across the road in front of him, gave him a dirty look as he just missed it, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Then a badger crossed his path in a hurry, so he slowed even more. Even so, the road went on far longer than half a mile. He saw two miles tick over on the milometer, but still had not come to the end of the road.

It was so dark, and he was so alone, that he grew increasingly uneasy.

Instead of open farmland, he was now surrounded by tall trees, the thin moonlight just filtering down through the almost leafless branches.

He had to keep his eyes on the narrow strip of road, but a sudden movement between the trees registered in the corner of his eye, and he glanced that way.

There was something there, darting from tree to tree. Something large. Not a deer, because it was on two legs, but it did not move like a person, either. Jamey speeded up. He did not want to know what might be out there, but he could tell that it was following him, keeping pace with his speed. On that narrow dark road, he did not dare go faster. He told himself that it was just shadows seen from the corner of his eye, nothing more.

Jamey preferred rationalism, it being so much pleasanter to believe in a simple, normal explanation for all things, so he did what most people would not do. He stopped, and looked directly into the woods to assure himself of the thing’s non-existence.

As he stopped, the following thing also stopped. He looked into the trees, and in the moonlight all he could see were shadows, and because there was no wind, the shadows were all perfectly still.

Then one of them moved.

A shock of fear went through Jamey, but he still told himself that it was nothing. He turned the scooter so that its headlight shone into the trees. Everything within its beam was illuminated, except for one shadow, blacker than the night, in the shape of a huge man-like creature. There were no features, only a blank shadow shape that did not give way to the light. It stepped towards him, one, two strides.

Jamey’s reassuring rationalism fled into the night. Without thinking he accelerated away down the road as fast as he could, forgetting to care about wandering hedgehogs, or anything else. He did not dare look anywhere but at the road, even though he was convinced that the shadow was still following him.

Suddenly the road came to an end at a small red-brick house. Trembling, he took out the pizzas and rang the doorbell.

An ordinary-looking man opened the door and accepted the pizzas.

‘You took your time,’ he said.

‘The road was longer than I thought.’

‘Did you come through the woods?’


‘Go back the other way.’


But the man had shut the door.

Jamey looked out into the night along the only road, and shivered. Knowing that he could not stand on a stranger’s porch all night, he summoned up all of his disbelief in spooky things, started up his scooter and set off back to town.

Riding along, he looked for possible side roads, but finding none, dreaded the approach of the woods. It was only a few minutes before he saw the lights of the farmhouse, and a couple of minutes after that he came to the main road. He had travelled a little over half a mile and there were no woods.

His relief was mixed with puzzlement and even a little touch of disappointment. He looked back the way he had come, and he swears that he saw the shadow standing in the middle of the road, looking at him with invisible eyes.

He broke the speed limit on the way back to the comforting lights of the town.