The Gift

The Gift

I have told you of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse and his fairy wife. After his passing his lands were split between a number of cousins and this story concerns a descendent of one of these branches of the family, one Henry Elkin.

Henry is a poor name for a passionate man, but Henry Elkin was determined to be passionate. He inherited his portion of the former Mosse estate when he was still a young man of twenty-six. This was in the eighteen-thirties when Romanticism was washing across the land and Henry took it up with enthusiasm. He married for love, so he thought, a beautiful girl of only seventeen who was as willing to give herself up to passion as was Henry. Her name was Letitia, and she was unafraid to wear her hair loose and a little wild. There is a portrait of her still hanging in Old Elkin Hall even today. She is standing on a hillside with an idealised landscape behind her and her hair flowing loose in the wind. How slender she is, how fragile. The wind might blow her away like the seeds from a dandelion clock.

So it proved. They had been married less than a year when Letitia died of a fever. Henry was distraught. As she lay in her coffin he placed into her hands a valuable family heirloom; a large gold cross studded with very fine emeralds and pearls, a jewel that had been in the family for at least two hundred years. Letitia was laid to rest in the family vault, her hands clasped around this precious jewel. A fine gesture of love.

Henry went to pieces, as a passionate Romantic ought. He began to drink. He neglected the estate. Worst of all, he began to gamble.

After a couple of years, he began to find this conduct very tiring. He also noticed that he was in financial peril.

His gambling had been satisfactorily unsuccessful, but now that he no longer felt the need to demonstrate the turmoil of his tortured soul, he began to think more fondly of money, and to cast about for some way to restore his fortune, without which he would not be able to get another wife, and he did have his eye on a particular lady.

There was one obvious solution, which gradually grew into the only solution in his mind.

He took a manservant and, for good measure and respectability, the reluctant vicar of his parish, and opened the family vault.

The vicar prayed and the servant opened the coffin. Due to the good construction of the vault repelling the damp, the body of Letitia had mummified rather than rotted and she lay, somewhat wizened, surrounded by the mass of her lovely hair, still clasping the cross.

Neither the servant nor the vicar would do what was required, so Henry was forced to retrieve the cross himself.

Letitia’s hands had dried, the tendons shrinking so that she had a firm grasp on the cross, and Henry had to use some force to take it from her. There was a loud snap as her fingers broke. Henry felt sick, but did not show it. The vicar prayed louder and the manservant winced and backed away. The cross came loose into Henry’s hands, and he had the coffin and the vault resealed.

But something followed him out of there.

Henry Elkin sent the jewelled cross to a respectable auctioneers in London where it was listed as ‘Property of a Gentleman’ and sold for a large sum — more than enough to clear his debts and restore the estate to comfortable profitability.

He was at breakfast, contemplating the letter which brought him this satisfactory news, when he heard a most uncomfortably familiar snapping sound.

‘What was that?’ he asked.

The butler, the only other person present in the room, had not heard anything at all. Henry shrugged and put the incident to the back of his mind, though he had seen, as the snap sounded, the vision of Letitia’s delicate mummified fingers breaking as he took back the symbol of his devotion from them.

Henry invested his money wisely and rebuilt his estate. He asked the suitable young lady to marry him and she said yes, but she was momentarily disconcerted by his flinch and look of alarm at her answer. It was nothing, he said, just a momentary twinge of pain from an old injury. He knew she would not have heard the snapping sound.

Each time a blessing happened to him, Henry heard that sound and saw that vision. When his wife told him that she was with child, when that child was safely born, whenever his wife said she loved him, when news of a good investment, or any other happy event occurred — snap, and he saw broken bones and flakes of dried flesh falling onto the bodice of a once-lovely gown.

His wife noticed the coincidence of these convulsions of pain and the delivery of good news. She became wary of telling him anything positive. His estate manager and butler also noticed. Gradually, all those around him withdrew from telling him good things, and thus the blight spread from him to them, all joy marred by a sound that only he could hear.

The trouble intensified until, if Henry so much as smiled, the noise sounded in his ears and the vision flooded his mind. He removed the family to London for a spell, but the trouble followed him.

He tried to discover who had bought the cross, but had no luck. Finally, his wife confronted him and forced him to explain the source of his affliction. Convinced that it was the result of a bad conscience, she commissioned a replacement cross, not as costly as the original, but quite as pretty. When it was ready, she persuaded her husband that he should open the family vault and place the facsimile into his first wife’s hands.

As Henry, his wife, the vicar and a manservant approached the vault, Henry cried out and fell to his knees, hands over his ears. He heard issuing from the family tomb the continuous sound of snapping dry bones, which did not cease, even when they took him back to the Hall.

For three days he suffered this constant torment, and at the end of the third, he evaded his watchers and hanged himself from an oak tree in the garden.

As he lay in his coffin, his wife laid the facsimile cross in his hands. She thought she saw a dark shadow as she turned away, something drifting into the coffin with her husband, and she heard a faint dry snapping sound.

One Out Of Ten

One Out Of Ten

‘Footstep for footstep, it follows me around. Everywhere I go I can hear my own footsteps doubled. Someone is behind me marking every step in time.’

The Barman looked at John sceptically. It was the middle of the afternoon and there were no other customers, so there was no escape from this story. He sighed and took up his designated role. Listener in Chief.

‘On a busy street, I don’t hear it,” said John, ‘but if I turn onto a quieter road, it is still there. If I look back, I don’t see anything or anyone, and it’s been getting closer behind me. I don’t want to know what happens if it catches me up.’

‘Do you think it’s something trying to scare you?’ asked the Barman. He had heard weirder stories in his time.

‘Yeah, I feel persecuted. You know – if there’s something you can’t see following you around, stalking you – it can’t be good. It wants me to hear it. I know it does.’

‘When did all this start?’

‘I was walking past St. Mary’s graveyard — it was only about seven thirty in the evening — and I heard someone call my name, ‘John Jenkins’, just like that. I looked to see who it was, but there was no-one there, so I thought I’d misheard something. Nothing more. I walked away, and that’s when it started following me.’

John paused, and took in a deep breath.

‘You don’t think it’s Death following me, do you?’ he asked.

‘Does Death wear shoes?’ asked the Barman.

‘Pardon?’

‘You hear footsteps, so it would be someone wearing shoes, wouldn’t it?’

‘Oh, yes, I…”

‘Death personified is a literary and artistic convention,” opined the Barman.

‘Oh, yes, so… not that then? A ghost?’

‘A ghost who knows your name.’

John shivered convulsively.

‘Do you know anyone who is buried in that graveyard?’ the Barman asked.

‘No, I don’t think…oh…only one…Mr Jones, my old Maths teacher.’

‘Is there any reason he might want to haunt you?’

John swallowed to relieve the sudden constriction of his throat, and whispered his answer.

‘I cheated on my GCSE. I never was any good at Maths, so I had to — I wrote stuff on the inside of my shirt cuffs in pencil. Mr Jones knew what sort of grade I deserved, so when I did a lot better than I should’ve, he congratulated me, but in that way that means “I know what you did”.’

The Barman went to a small pile of business cards that were kept in a basket on the counter, sorted through, and pulled one out, handing it to John.

‘Exorcist,’ he said. ‘I’m told he gets results.’

‘Thanks,’ said John, ‘thanks.’

Clutching the card, he left the pub, and half of his pint of beer. The Barman listened carefully and thought he could just hear that second set of footsteps.

John put the exorcist’s postcode into his phone as he got into the car, and set it up to direct him there.

The car bounced slightly and there was a creak in the back seat.

He tried to drive carefully all the way, feeling that there was someone behind him, and afraid to look in the rearview mirror. By the time his phone told him that he had reached his destination he was on the verge of total panic.

Banging on the door, ringing the bell, he was faint with fear and desperation. A woman opened the door.

‘Please,’ he begged, ‘you’ve got to help me. I need you to make it go away. Tell it I’m sorry. I never cheated at anything else. Send it back where it came from.’

‘Is it in your house?’

‘No, following me everywhere. Behind me right now.’

‘Charlie!’ she called over her shoulder.

A small, slight, bald-headed man emerged from the dim recesses of the hall.

‘Man’s got a follower. Needs your expertise,’ the woman said, then she wandered away back into the house.

John took a step forward, but Charlie stopped him.

‘Don’t bring it inside,’ he said. ‘This is a clean house.’

They walked around the house through a side gate into the garden and into a small summerhouse that was set up as an office, John telling his story as they went.

‘Mr Jones?’ said Charlie. ‘He was my Maths teacher, too. I can’t tell you how many times I pretended to be ill on the days we had double maths.’ He laughed. ‘Even the kids who were good at maths were terrified of him.’

Once inside the office, Charlie had John sit on a meditation cushion, and sat down on another, facing him. Charlie rang a little bell, closed his eyes and began to chant, but the bell was plucked from his hand and thrown across the room. Charlie sprang to his feet.

‘Look,” he said, ‘John’s obviously sorry for what he did. Leave him alone now, go to your rest.’

A small vase flew through the air, just missing Charlie’s head.

As the exorcist continued to remonstrate, then plead with the furious presence, John got up, left the office and the premises and hurried to his car. In the street, he experimentally walked a few paces up and down. There were no following footsteps.

A crash and a scream issued from the exorcist’s house.

John got in his car and drove away, relief winning out over the feeling that he ought to be sorry.

The Driver

The Driver

I see her hands first, twisted fingers pushing through the gap in my wardrobe doors. Then comes the creak of the hinges. No matter how I oil them, they always creak, but I am awake before the noise, eyes open, unable to move.

She pushes out into the room, walks to the end of my bed and stands there howling at me.

‘Dead for a dog, and the dog is you!’

I know, you’ll say it is only sleep paralysis and night terrors, but the thing is, I know this old woman. She is my Aunt Enid.

No, it is not the ghost of my aunt. She is alive, living in a nursing home five miles away. And no, it isn’t really her, hiding in my wardrobe, waiting to scream at me, night after night. That would be crazy.

She might do it if she could, but she is too frail these days, in her body, if not her mind. Yet she does come, holding on to her hatred, dishing it out to me night after night, ruining my sleep, poisoning my days.

It wasn’t my fault, not really, but she never saw it that way.

Once I tried to go to the nursing home to talk to her about it, but as soon as she saw me she started screaming and throwing things, and my cousins barred me from ever seeing her again. But I do see her, every night.

I moved house, but that made no difference. I burned my wardrobe in the back garden and got a new one from Ikea, but she did not stop coming, and the hinges make the same creaking noise.

Last night she came again. This time I forced some words from my near-paralysed mouth, croaking the truth at her.

‘He made me go too fast — the road was straight — he said I was a stupid pussy, driving like an old lady — no traffic at that time of night — I floored it just to show him — but then the dog — he yelled at me to kill it — I braked — the skid — I don’t remember much then — his fault not mine. His fault, not mine.’

The noise that came out of her mouth was awful, a scream that cut through my bones. She came and put her cold hands around my throat. I blacked out.

That is why I have to do something. There are only two choices. Either I kill myself or I kill her. This knife is very sharp.

Whichever I choose. I hope you will forgive me, but maybe no-one ever will.

The Evolution of a Ghost

The Evolution of a Ghost

First it was a scratching at my door. It left claw marks. I thought it was the cat.

Then it shuffled along the hall. I thought it was the cat, then realised that she was under the sofa, hissing.

It started moving things about in the kitchen. I blamed the cat, until the day I saw my favourite mug shoot from one end of the work surface to the other and smash against the wall. the cat was watching too, from outside the kitchen window.

Next, as I walked downstairs, it ran up. I felt the cold wind of it passing right through me. There was no blaming the cat for that. She sat at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me with her head tilted to one side, as if she was thinking.

One night, about midnight, the covers were pulled right off my bed. The cat yowled. She’d been sleeping peacefully. So had I. I yowled too, and turned on the light. Nothing there but a cat with all her fur standing on end and her tail straight up.

Something started winding a figure eight around my legs while I was washing up the breakfast things. I thought it was the cat, but it felt a little chilly, and when I looked down, there was nothing to see.

I looked for the cat everywhere, but I couldn’t find her. By the end of the day I was worried enough to start making a ‘Lost Cat’ notice on my laptop.

‘Smuggins’, it said, with a photo of the lady herself, long haired tortoiseshell with green eyes, quite the beauty. My phone number underneath. ‘Lost. Please help me find her.’ I was about to print a few copies, but every time I turned the printer on, it turned off again.

Out in the back garden I called her name over and over, and waved an open can of red salmon. There was no sign of her.

That night at about midnight, something jumped up onto the bed.

‘Smuggins?’ I said.

She curled up in her usual spot. She felt rather cold. Half asleep, I thought she must have been outside for a long time.

In the morning, she was not there, but there was a depression in the duvet where I had felt her.

I called about the house for her, to no response.

I put out her food, but it lay uneaten.

In the evening, an invisible chill curled up on the sofa next to me, and we watched television together. It came to bed and slept in Smuggins’ spot.

Occasionally it knocks things off the shelves, and sometimes brings in a dead bird.

Smuggins, I found out, has moved in with a old lady down the road. I don’t blame her at all.

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror

The mirror was her only friend, she thought. That morning, as always, it would tell her the truth of how far from perfect she had strayed and how much effort she needed to make to get back to acceptability.

That morning, the mirror betrayed her.

She sat down before it, looked up smiling (always smile, it makes you more attractive), and saw a stranger scowling back at her. She screamed.

Mike came in to see what was up.

‘What’s wrong now?’

‘It’s not my face in the mirror.’

‘It looks like you,’ he said, peering over her shoulder.

The stranger’s face looked scared now, but then so did her own face. She could feel the fear on it.

‘Are you going crazy?’ he said.

She froze, laughed nervously.

‘No,’ she said, ‘no. It was just a trick of the light.’

‘Stupid scared herself. What a surprise.’

After he left for work, she found their wedding album, and had no trouble recognising her own face in the photos, though she looked younger and happier. Yet — in the reflections on the glossy surfaces of the prints she could still see that other face.

Trying not to be afraid, she went back to look in the mirror and saw an attractive woman with very dark brown hair, worn long, and light brown, almost amber, eyes. Nothing like herself, with her dyed-blonde hair and grey eyes.

She stared at that other face for several minutes, then turned away, not wanting to know what it meant.

For the next few days she avoided mirrors and reflective surfaces, doing her hair and make-up by feel, pretending that nothing was wrong. Occasionally she took a quick glimpse out of the corner of her eye, hoping that the other one was gone, but she was always still there. It seemed as if the other was trying to say something to her, but she did not want to look.

*
Laura was distracted. She had been for some days now, quite unable to think straight. That was why she did not see it coming. Walking along the street, trying to find a tissue in the bottom of her bag, she heard a gasp and glanced up to see that woman staring at her with wide open grey eyes out of a slightly pudgy face framed by unkempt dyed-blonde hair. The woman from the mirror.

Laura imagined that the look of shock was reflected in her own expression. They could hardly resemble each other less, but here in real life they were mirrors for each other’s reaction.

I have to tell her, Laura thought, now that she can hear me.

‘You have to run away,’ she said. ‘He wants to kill you.’

The woman was even more shocked, but there was no time to explain.

*

‘What’s wrong now?’ said Mike. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Matter of fact, you look like you are a bloody ghost.’

She turned back, but the dark-haired woman had disappeared. She couldn’t tell him anyway, could she? In his eyes, at last she saw the truth of what he was really thinking, and understood that there was no way for her to change it.

*

Laura saw him steer the young woman away. When she saw him coming, she dodged into a shop doorway to hide. All she could do was to hope that this time she had been understood.

The others — the last time she saw their faces was in newspaper reports of disappearances or deaths. This one was the first Laura had encountered in real life.

The reflection in the shop window showed only her own, exhausted face. Laura hoped that she would never again see someone else.