1922

1922

The war is over. The war will never be over.

Four years after, walking down the High Street with Maureen on a sunny day, Tom saw Jack Boyle walking towards them, a broad grin of recognition on his face. Tom froze, waiting for Jack to embrace him, clap him on the back, say ‘Where’ve you been Tommy Boy?’ but then it happened, as it always happened.

Jack was struck in the side of his head, pushing him sideways. The flesh and bone that had been a thinking man a moment before smashed and sprayed into the cold mud of the trench, the smile gone, the light gone, Jack gone.

Maureen tugged on Tom’s arm.

‘Are you all right, Love?’ she asked.

He said he was and they walked on, but he could feel the memory of the lice crawling over his skin underneath his uniform. The lice that had made Jack pull off his helmet to scratch at his scalp, exposing his skull to the sniper’s bullet.

Another one gone.

Tom wore his medals today, heavy and meaningless on his chest. They spoke of bravery to others, to him only of survival. He had followed orders, kept his head down, taken cover, been wounded once and got a sweet few months’ reprieve, missing a big, futile, push at the Front. Sent back, stood up straight, went through the motions, survived to the end. Came back to Maureen.

Something came back to Maureen, but not Tom whom she had married. Another presence had moved into the limping shell of his body.

They entered St. Mary’s Church and he and Maureen sat in the front pews with other survivors of the war, and their medals. The vicar made a long sermon out of sacrifice until Tom felt he was being compared to Jesus. He felt more like Lazarus. Pale Lazarus, dragged back to life whether he wanted to come or not.

After the service, the congregation walked in procession down to the park where the draped form of the new memorial stood. The Mayor made a speech. More ‘sacrifice’, ‘will not be forgotten’, ‘corner of a foreign field’, and so on.

Tom could see the dim, smoky forms of the many men, some he’d known since school, aimlessly wandering the paths of the park they had once played in, unnoticed now.

The drapes fell away to reveal a stark white marble statue of a handsome, well-fed, louse-free, but slightly mournful soldier, hands resting on his rifle butt, looking into the far distance. He stood on a rectangular block of marble around which were inlaid in brass the names of all the local men who were lost. The Fallen, they were called now, as if death were just a fainting. No blood, no torn flesh and bone.

Tom and Maureen moved to view the memorial closer, to read the names. He felt her stiffen suddenly and gasp, then try to pull him away. Tom stood firm and looked. There, in shining brass, set in marble, he saw his own name: Corporal Thomas Marsh.

‘It’s a horrible mistake,’ she said. ‘They’ll have to change it.’

He looked for a long time, reading all the other names, too. The crowd around them became transparent, even Maureen clinging to his arm, their voices indistinct. They were all ghosts to him, the living and the dead.

‘No,’ he said, ‘they can leave it.’

Tom was fallen, too.

The war would never be over.

The Door

The Door

I almost ran into it the first time.

Almost every morning, about five forty-five, I get up, drag on my running gear and go out into the nearly empty streets. Running so early has two advantages. My resistance to exercise has not built up yet, because I’m hardly awake, and there are not too many people about to witness my un-athletic, red-faced, panting attempts to grasp at that elusive thing, fitness.

It was February, cold and dark. I was running at my top speed, which is not too fast, and suddenly there was something right in front of me. I pulled to a stop, nearly falling over, right in front of a door standing in the middle of the pavement, facing me.

First I thought who left this here? I could have hurt myself. Then I thought, how is is standing up? I walked around to the other side and it was not there any more. I could see back the way I came, all along to the end of the street. No door.

I stepped back, and there it was again — a black-painted solid wood door with a brass doorknob and an elaborate knocker in the form of grim face looking out at me, such as you might find on a grand Georgian townhouse. It was very substantial and real, but from the other side it simply was not there. I checked two or three times. There, and not there.

I laid the palm of my hand flat against its real, hard surface. The black paint felt warm against my skin, and I was suddenly terrified. I turned and ran all the way home at a speed I had never before achieved.

You don’t like to tell people about things like that, do you? They won’t understand, and they might think you’re suffering from the onset of schizophrenia. I did tell Janice, who works in the office next to mine, but I said it was a dream.

‘What do you think it means?’ I asked.

She shrugged.

‘Maybe you should have knocked?’

‘Would you have knocked?’

‘Probably,’ she said, and laughed. ‘Knocked and run away.’

By the end of the day the whole thing had faded out, been leached of its reality by the mundanity of the actual world, and I was convinced it must have been some sort of waking dream. I was up too early, still sleepy, not quite awake. Somehow I had seen a door propped up on the pavement and my sleepy brain added a layer of weirdness onto something a bit out of the ordinary and unexpected, but ordinary really. Just a door.

On my way home I walked down that street, a quiet one with houses on one side and the park on the other, looking for the door, but there was no sign of any door not attached to a house. Even the house doors were nothing like the rather grand one I had seen.

Oh well, I thought, they took it away. No-one would leave it like that all day, would they? Blocking the pavement. There would be complaints.

The next morning I did not go running. I woke up with the alarm, but the idea of going out there gave me the shivers. It was too cold, I decided, and too dark.

March blew by, and then April came, with lighter warmer mornings. I started to wheeze going upstairs, and, though I have never liked running, I like breathlessness much less, so I got out my kit and one sunny morning I was on the streets before six.

When I came to the street by the park I almost changed my route, but I like running down there, with the trees overhead and birds singing. Some of the trees were full of blossom, and it almost felt like running in the countryside. No door blocked my way and I relaxed and almost started to enjoy myself.

I was nearly three-quarters of my way round my circuit when I saw it ahead of me.

This time I was not taken by surprise. Slowing to a walk, I came right up to it.

It was the same door. Glossy black paint, no number, just the brass knocker and doorknob. I looked around for the joker, the one who was watching me and having a good laugh, but there were no signs of life anywhere about. Everything was very quiet, very still.

Walking around the door, it was the same as before, solid from one side, real and substantial, but from the other side it did not exist. I put my hand out to touch where it should have been. Nothing. I walked forward, through where it should have been. Nothing. Then I turned around and found it standing behind me.

I got scared, and that made me very angry. Without thinking, I grabbed the knocker and gave it two hard raps. The sound echoed as if there was a great, resonant space behind the door. After the sound died away I thought I heard sounds of movement coming closer from within, shuffling, sliding.

Got you, I thought and jumped to one side to see who was there. There was no-one, but the sounds were getting closer, then they stopped. Movement caught my eye. The doorknob began to turn.

I may have squealed. I certainly ran away. I did look back as I ran, and saw the door starting to open.

These days if I go running I go at lunchtime in the crowded park, like everyone else. Sometimes, early in the morning, I look out of my window and I can see the black door sitting on the pavement, waiting for me. It is standing just slightly ajar, a thin sliver of darkness behind it.

Homeless

Homeless

Lori adjusted her bustle, raised her spook-on-a-stick and waited for her ‘guests’ to roll up. She liked to dress in Victorian style for the ghost tour, and the spook-on-a-stick was a cut out of a classic white sheet ghost stuck to the top of a six foot long pole. It helped the audience to follow her and marked her rallying point.

She had ten pre-booked guests, but there were always a few who just turned up at the appointed hour, and sometimes passersby decided to join the tour. She took money from those who had not already paid online, and at the start time, began her tour.

‘First,’ she said, ‘let me remind you that I won’t be talking about the Shuckleigh Horror. There is a separate tour for that on Saturday evenings, hosted by my friend Maxwell, who is a real expert on the subject, so I do recommend you give it a go.’

‘Well, let’s begin. We are outside Shuckleigh railway station which was rebuilt in this beautiful Art Deco style in 1936. While the station was being rebuilt workmen often heard a guard’s whistle, when there were no trains due, followed by the sound of a fast locomotive and the screaming of brakes. This is thought to be an echo of the rail crash of 1897 when a speeding loco overshot the station and crashed on a bend a quarter of a mile down the line. Only the driver was killed, and no-one knows why he failed to slow and stop. Perhaps he now relives the crash over and over again. This still happens today, whenever there are any kind of works or disturbance at the station.’

She elaborated for a while on the possibilities of why the train did not stop, and while she did, noticed someone at the back of the crowd behind the paying customers. She recognised the homeless man who always hung around at the station. Sometimes she had bought him a coffee or slipped him a couple of pounds, though that had not helped, of course. How pale he looked.

She led her audience away from the station, down the hill, past the shops, and came to a halt outside the town’s only cinema.

‘The famous Bjiou Cinema, which also dates from the 1930s and still miraculously survives, probably because this town isn’t big enough for a chain cinema. If you have been to see a film here, you may have noticed that the aisle seat in the right hand back row is always reserved. That was the preferred seat of Roger Wright, who came to the cinema every week from the day it opened until the day he died of a heart attack while watching Lawrence of Arabia. That didn’t stop him though. At least once a week, part way through the evening showing, there will be a creak as Roger’s seat folds down and he takes his place.’

‘What happens if you sit in his spot?’ asked a young man, who may have been considering just that.

‘I’m told that he sits down anyway, right where you are. I am also told that it is a very unpleasant sensation.’

Everybody laughed, and shivered too. The homeless man was still there, but not laughing. This was the first time he had ever followed her tour, and he did not seem to be enjoying himself. She set off for the next location, followed by her crowd.

‘Here we are at the Black Dog Inn, great for a pint of real ale, but also home to at least four ghosts. Of the Shuckleigh Horror we will not speak, as I have said, but there were many other events in this pub’s long history. Back in the sixteenth century an argument turned very nasty, knives were drawn, and within a few moments William Bennett and Andrew Morgan were both dead or dying from their mutually inflicted wounds. There was no winner in that fight. No-one knows what started it, but sometimes they can be heard fighting in the main bar even today. On several occasions, bar stools have been thrown across the room and glasses broken. Still they can’t resolve their argument.

‘A gentler ghost haunts the Snug Bar. You may be quietly enjoying your drink when a light touch brushes your cheek or ruffles your hair. Staff at the Black Dog think that it is Marian, a barmaid who died thirty years ago when a beer keg fell on her in the basement.

‘Room four upstairs is also said to be haunted. Guests are woken at three in the morning by something jumping onto the bed. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Ginger the pub cat, who lived here for nine years. He died peacefully, but maybe he doesn’t want to leave.

‘After the tour, why don’t you come back and see if Marian will brush your cheek or ruffle your hair? She’d be glad to see you, I’m sure.’

Lori led on, noticing that the homeless man was still there at the back of the crowd. He looked as unhappy as before, so she began to direct her performance at him, trying to get a smile or any kind of reaction. She knew he had a surprisingly bright smile, because she had seen it once, when, after a particularly profitable tour, she gave him five pounds. It would be nice to see it again.

They went past St. Mary’s Church, where she talked at some length about the haunted well, and also about the many occasions on which occultists had broken into the crypt to perform their ceremonies. Those stories always went down very well.

They walked back to the centre of the town with brief stops to mention poltergeists and other domestic hauntings. The tour took an hour around the town, returning to the start point, and everyone seemed well pleased. Quite a few bought copies of her ‘Haunted Shuckleigh’ booklet. The crown dispersed, Lori lowered her ghost stick and began to walk home, eager to get out of the tight-fitting Victorian gown. As she walked, she became aware that someone was following her. It was still early evening, but there were not too many people about, so she sped up her pace and arranged her house keys in her fist so that if she had to hit anyone she would do some damage. Also, maybe she could beat them off with the spook-on-a-stick.

Lori did not look back until she reached her front door, next to the Floating Heaven restaurant. She lived in the flat upstairs. As she put her key in the door, she looked over her shoulder and saw that her follower was the homeless man. He came closer, hesitantly, and she could see how insubstantial he was, really quite transparent. So sad he looked, and cold.

She opened the door, and did what she never would have done while he was alive.

‘Do you want to come in?’ she asked. ‘The whole place smells of Chinese food in the evening, but if you don’t mind that…’

The homeless ghost drifted up the stairs ahead of her. By the time they reached the top his form had dissipated like smoke a windy day, but the sense of a presence remained, and the impression of a smile.

Wolf Dreams

Wolf Dreams

I should have reburied it without a word to anyone.

Now my garden was filled with archaeologists, and nobody needs that.

When we moved in, Louis and I, the garden was overgrown and had not been touched in years, so we started to tidy it up. I say we, but it was me. Louis is a pianist, and doesn’t want to get his hands injured, or even dirty, so I always do the hands-on work, or we get someone in. I wanted to do the garden myself though, to make it mine. I have never had a garden before and I drew up a plan for a little paradise.

Then I started having the dreams.

I was in the garden digging the ground, not with a spade or a trowel, but with a dagger, plunging it into the soil as if I was killing something, someone. Stab, stab, stab. Fresh red blood gushed out of the earth, I woke up in a sweat.

Of course, in the daytime I mostly forgot about all that and went on cutting back the old shrubs and pulling up a lot of weeds. I admit I was hesitant to dig, though, because every night — that dream.

Well, there was a clump of bear’s britches that was all set for world domination, so there was nothing for it but to dig, and go deep, because if you don’t get all the roots that stuff just keeps coming back.

One thick root kept going down and I followed it, determined not to let it get away. About a metre down I came to a lump of something, caked in dirt, stuck firmly in the ground. I scraped some mud off it and it turned out to be a pot, buried upside-down. Louis took a look and said we should call in the museum people to see if it was interesting to them. I was all for just pulling it out, but he said we’d spoil the context or something. I thought I had probably already done that, but he insisted. He loves all those archaeology programmes.

They came, they dug out the pot, and it turned out to be filled with silver coins. Then they found other bits and pieces down there and the next thing, Louis is saying of course they can investigate.

He was so excited about the ground penetrating radar. There was a ‘feature’, a dark rectangle, surrounded by small dark spots. It did look interesting, and I thought that if they dug up the garden, then I would not have to.

That night I dreamt I was stabbing the earth once more. The blood flowed like a river. Even in my dream I could smell earth and blood mixed together. Then the ground began to heave up under my feet. As I backed away a great black wolf leapt out of the bloody soil, teeth bared, coming for me.

I screamed and woke up. I’m sure I really did scream, but Louis slept on through, peacefully untroubled.

It was early, but already light, so I got up and made coffee. The smell of the coffee helped to take away the memory of the dream, and the heat of the mug in my hands was comforting. I took it out into the garden and stood looking at the pegs and string the archaeologists had laid out over their feature of interest.

On the other side of the garden fence, my neighbour was also up. I said good morning and she came to lean on the fence.

‘I’m not sure it’s wise,’ she said, ‘to go digging down there. No-one who ever lived in your house has been comfortable with digging in that part of the garden. Mrs Sanders who lived here before you said that if she ever put a spade in the ground she got the most awful dreams.’

‘What kind of dreams?’

‘Wolf dreams, she said. And you know, this morning, I got woken up by howling myself. In my dream, I mean. That’s why I’m up so early.’

I tried to talk to Louis about it, but he was eager to see what they would find, and any mention of weird dreams sent him right into mocking mode.

The archaeologists were out there bright and early too. I overheard them talking outside while I was dressing. They mentioned dreams and my ears pricked up.

‘…couldn’t sleep at all after that,’ one of them said.

‘Yeah,’ said another, ‘we excavated a graveyard a couple of years ago and I dreamt of nothing but bones for weeks. It comes with the job.’

They seemed to find it normal, so I shrugged my shoulders and tried not to be bothered.

Archaeologists dig at the flow rate of cold treacle. It hardly deserves to be called digging most of the time. Scraping is what it is, with occasional exclamations of delight over some old broken thing they have found. There were flurries of excitement when they uncovered the source of the dark spots. More upside-down pots, another six, with mostly unidentified contents. Except for one.

‘There’s a little skull in there. It looks like a cat.’

‘A kitten?’

‘Yeah, maybe. Kitten sacrifice, eh? That’s a new one on me. Well, the lab will tell us more.’

Two days of scraping, divided by another night of horrible dreams for me, but not for Louis, who never remembers his dreams. At the end of the second day they uncovered a large rectangular stone slab. My heart beat very fast as I looked down into that hole, and I felt that I knew what was down there.

I said, ‘Maybe we should leave it alone,’ but no-one took any notice.

That night there was no dream, but also not much sleep for me. I kept waking throughout the night to listen to the darkness.

While they lifted the slab I stayed indoors. There was a commotion when they first lifted it, but as the morning went on, a silence fell.

Louis came inside, a strange look on his face.

‘You have to come and see this,’ he said.

One of the archaeologists was brushing away at something down in the hole but when I approached she stood aside for me to see. The others were standing on the edge, silently looking down.

In the bottom of the hole, in my garden, there was a rectangle of upright stone slabs on which the cover had been laid. Inside this enclosure lay two skeletons, one human and one a huge dog—no, a wolf. The skeletons appeared to be embracing each other face to face, but — the head of the wolf was attached to the human skeleton, and the human skull was attached to the wolf’s bones. Between them the rusted outline of a dagger lay, very like the one in my dream.

‘Cover it up,’ I said. ‘Put everything back and cover it up.’

No-one took me seriously. They were talking again, about how it was a really interesting and important find.

The wolf has entered my house now, and when I sleep she climbs into my body and lives in my dreams. Soon she will live there in the daytime too. Soon I will not know the difference between me and the wolf.