Broken Strings

Broken Strings

I dreamt of tapping on my bedroom window. Little fingers tap, tap, tap, wanting to come in. I woke up and the tapping continued, but i had not risen far out of sleep, and I turned over and sank back down into the dark.

The dream was forgotten, as most dreams are, until I noticed small oval smudges on the window pane when I pulled up the blind. I stared at them for a while, then decided that it must have been something blown by the wind. I opened the window and looked down into the garden, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary. It is twelve feet or so to the ground so I could have missed something small.

Later, I cleaned the marks off, though they were already fading.

This carried on for three more nights and it was really starting to get on my nerves. I tried to work out what was causing it, and finally decided that it must be bats. There are a fair few flitting about here on the edge of town and I thought they might be after spiders or something around the window frames.

I didn’t — I did not think of anything unnatural. Nor did I think of anything human. There were never signs of a ladder under the window, and why would anyone want to do that anyway? There was no reason.

None of this disturbed me too much. A few peculiar dreams, I’m used to them; waking in the night; a few marks on the window. Just a puzzle, nothing more. The worst of it was that it disturbed my sleep.

I make puppets, all kinds, but mainly marionettes, carving them from wood. At that time, I was working on a difficult commission, and the sleeplessness was making it impossible for me to get on with carving the face of the main character. One slip and I could ruin a whole piece of wood, and wood is much more expensive than it used to be.

On the fourth night I dreamt that someone was banging on the widow frame, as if they had lost patience with me. I woke up and lay there listening to the banging for a while. Should I get up and see what it was? Did I want to see? I told myself off for being so cowardly and started to get out of bed.

The banging stopped.

I got up anyway, and pulled up the blind. There was nothing there, and nothing in the garden that I could see. Back in bed, it took me a very long time to get to sleep.

In the morning I pulled up the blind again, and an electric jolt of fear went through me at the sight of small handprints all over the lower part of the window pane. I may even have emitted a tiny scream. Bats most definitely had not left such marks.

I tried to take photographs, but the prints would not show up. I even called the police, but they were not impressed enough to come to my house. They filed a report, I think, but there was no break-in, nothing stolen, so I came very low down on the list of priorities.

These things were happening around one o’clock in the morning, so I decided to catch whoever was playing tricks on me. I went to bed as usual, but sat up waiting, clutching a torch. It was a long wait and I did not make it, dozing off to sleep sitting up. Banging on the window pane woke me suddenly. It was so loud I thought the glass would break. The whole window rattled.

I jumped up, dropped my torch, fumbled on the floor for it. The blind rolled up of its own accord and I saw that the window was open. All that rattling must have loosened the catch.

The banging had stopped. I got to the window without the torch and could not see anything outside. As I shut the window and pulled the blind down, I thought I heard something behind me. Slowly I let the blind back up so that a little moonlight would shine in, and turned around. I didn’t want to see, but I also didn’t want something unknown jumping on me.

There was something in the room, something small, coming towards me with odd, jerky movements. I stayed very still until it moved into the moonlight and looked up at me with beseeching eyes.

‘Pablo?’

He was one of my favourite marionettes. I put my soul, and some blood, into carving that appealing face and always regretted that I had to sell him — but here he was in my bedroom, walking towards me, his face broken, half his mouth missing, one hand smashed. Some kind of crazy dream.

I dived for the bedside light. Pablo was no longer there. I called for him, but got no answer.

In the morning, as early as was reasonable, I phoned the director of the puppet theatre that owned Pablo.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘a few days ago there was an accident. Our metal storage shelves collapsed and quite a few of the puppets were broken. We’re going to have to get rid of them and claim insurance.’

‘Pablo?’

‘Well, yes, he was one. How did you hear about it?’

‘A friend told me. I’ll come and get Pablo. I’ll repair him for you, free of charge.’

‘He’s quite smashed up.’

‘I know, but I can repair him.’

I carved Pablo a new lower jaw and a replacement hand, and glued in and received some fresh wood on the side of his face. the puppet theatre took him back with gratitude, and he has not come calling since.

I remember all of the other characters I have made, putting something of myself into their faces, their hands. They don’t belong to me any more, but I cannot help feeling that I belong to them.

I leave my window open at night.

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The estate agent was quite open about the double murder.

‘It was right here in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Dave was over there and Kevin by the door. Kevin shot Dave through the head and Kevin shot Dave through the heart. Very messy.’

I looked at Mike and he raised his eyebrows.

‘They must have shot each other simultaneously,’ I said.

‘What? Oh, yes. Some people thought differently though. They thought Norman, the third brother, he did it. The police didn’t think so in the end, but some around here still do. He cleaned it all up himself and carried on living here. It was their family farm. But then he hung himself from that beam two years ago.’

She pointed up to a black oak beam at the back of the kitchen with big meat hooks hanging from it. I admit I shuddered a little.

‘The land was sold off, but the house and gardens had to go separately. The property has been on the market a while now. The price is very good, but I think if you make an offer there will be a willingness to negotiate. Oh, and I almost forgot.’ She pulled out a sheet of paper from her briefcase and handed it to me. ‘This kept coming up as an area of concern, so we advised an exorcism. The place is certified ghost-free.’

The house was old and squat. No architectural finesse had been used in its design, if it had been designed at all. There were two stories and a steeply gabled roof which was out of balance with the blocky grey walls under it — but the house with its baggage of violence was very cheap and it had large gardens.

Mike and I took half an hour to wander the house alone, and finished back in the gloomy kitchen.

‘Could we use this kitchen without being reminded of that nasty picture we were painted just now?’ he asked.

‘It won’t be the same kitchen. We’ll remodel it completely, wipe away its past. Besides,’ I said waving the paper, signed and dated by the exorcist, ‘certified ghost-free.’

We laughed.

Neither of us were sensitive to that sort of thing anyway. There might have been a hundred ghosts dancing about us, but we would not notice, we thought. We made a ridiculous offer. It was accepted immediately.

Our builders were locals, and they did not like the place, but I framed the certificate of exorcism and hung it in the hall where they could see it. They worked far quicker than any builders I’ve ever had dealings with, and there was only one hold-up.

Removing cupboards in the kitchen, they found a large brown stain on the wall and downed tools immediately. Mike went in and convinced them that it was a rust stain from some old nails in the plasterboard. They came back, and our kitchen was installed in record time. it looked as if the reputation of the house was working in our favour.

We had the grey exterior painted a cheerful pale yellow, and inside made the place as colourful as possible. I hung large mirrors in the dining room and lounge to make the rooms lighter, but somehow they seemed to suck in light instead, and the reflections in them were dark and dull.

The kitchen was a bright, airy space with clean lines and modern fittings. The old beams were still there, of course, but the meat hooks were gone. Even so, I always felt a sense of profound emptiness if I spent much time in there. A bleak, cold feeling even on a sunny summer’s day. Mike felt the same, and one evening, he took all the knives out of the knife block and put them in a drawer out of sight. He said he kept thinking of cutting into his own flesh if he could see them.

Things were going well for us. We had a beautiful home, our work lives were great, Mike got a promotion, we should have been happy. We were not.

Day by day, hope and happiness drained away from us until everything seemed as dark and dull as the reflections in the mirrors. I took the mirrors down, but nothing improved.

The only thing I could think of was to call the exorcist back in, his name, Charlie Moore, and number being handily supplied on the certificate which still hung in the hall. When I opened the door for him he smiled, but hung back.

‘I’ve already done this house,’ he said.

‘I know.’

I pointed at the framed certificate.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘That’s what I hope you will tell me.’

He came in then, carrying a canvas messenger bag that I supposed contained his exorcism kit. I had sort of expected a priest, but he was just an ordinary-looking middle-aged man. He went from room to room, performing some sort of ritual chant and meditation.

‘I’m not finding anything,’ said Charlie. ‘when I came before, there was nothing then either, in spite of…’ He waved a hand vaguely, not wanting to refer directly to the unpleasantness in the house’s history.

I took him into the kitchen.

‘Oh, you’ve made it really nice,’ he said, but he shivered.

‘Cold?’

‘No, not at all.’

There was a cake, and I made coffee to go with it and we sat down at the kitchen table. While he made headway into the cake, I explained the general baseless feeling of depression that was gaining on us day by day, and Mike’s problem with the knives. The cake knife lay on a plate between us and there was a silence as we both stared at it. I thought how ineffective it would be if I tried to stab myself with it. I pulled my attention away to find Charlie looking around the room, wide eyed. He shook his head.

‘There must be something here,’ he said. ‘I’m feeling something, but it’s not a presence, it’s…’

‘An absence,’ I said.

‘A void,’ he said.

He stood up and got dowsing rods out of his bag. I was glad that Mike was out at work. He would have hated this.

Charlie walked the room with his rods and they waved about a bit, but when he passed them over the table, they swivelled together violently.

‘It’s the cake,’ I said, trying for levity.

He ignored me and began dragging the table away. I helped, and then he got down on his knees, examining the floorboards.

‘Look,’ he said.

I knelt down and looked. it took a moment, but then I saw it — a fine seam between the boards, a square separate from the rest. Charlie went to look in the knife drawer. The Chinese cleaver he came back with was worrying enough, but then he started to hack at the floorboards.

‘We just paid to have this floor sanded and varnished!’ I said, but he was not listening.

Once he had cut out a notch one side of the seam he stopped.

‘Feel that,’ he said.

I put my hand over the little hole and felt cold air. Charlie pushed his fingers into the notch and pulled. The floorboards moved. I helped and soon we pulled away a square of boards. Underneath was a flat stone with rune-like markings on it. The stone was crumbling, almost half of it gone, revealing a deep pit underneath. I leaned forward to look down into the darkness. Far way down there, I thought I heard a voice calling to me. The cold sucked at my body, my mind. I thought I could dive in and fly down forever.

Charlie pulled me back and shoved me across the room. He struggled to push the floorboard cover back into place, muttering something all the while. I was no help, rigid with fear, pressed against the cooker. All I did was watch him scribble something on a page from his notebook and use the folded page to block up the notch he had cut. Then he got me out of there and called for emergency occult help.

When Mike got home, he didn’t believe a word of it, and marched right into the kitchen saying he would get the builders in. I stood at the door and watched him pull out the folded paper from the notch, cursing about the damage.

I could feel it from where I stood. Mike went pale, shoved the paper back and ran out.

It cost us a lot of money. Occultists do not come cheap. We had to get a new capstone cut, engraved with appropriate sigils and laid down in a ritual carried out by some very peculiar people. For extra protection we had the floorboards stripped out and a thick layer of specially formulated concrete laid down.

We were told that the pit was probably cut as a well originally and then stopped up when people came to understand that there was more than water down there. After the house was built over it, people preferred to forget. The brothers probably never knew.

The house is fine now. I put the mirrors back up, and they do make the rooms brighter. We are reasonably happy, but we are stuck, aren’t we? How can we sell a house with a lethal structural fault?

It is fine now, but how long will it take the corrosion from below to eat through the new defences? We have become unwilling guardians of a deadly secret.

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

Lost in the woods —but how could he be? This wood was not big enough to lose anything in. Just walk straight in any direction and you would be out of it in five minutes. He had been walking straight for half an hour now, or at least he thought so. Perhaps he was walking in circles. No matter how hard he tried to keep an eye on where the sun was behind the canopy, he was being deflected. That must be it.

Keep the sun to the right, he thought, and wasn’t there something about the side of the tree the moss grows on? The north side. Or the south side. Trying to remember, he noticed a dog standing a few metres away, looking at him.

He stopped and assessed the problem. The dog did not look aggressive, but it was not wagging its tail either. Those stories about the spectral black dog came to mind, but this dog was a dusty grey colour. It looked like a wolf, but there had been no wolves in these woods for four centuries or more. Just a big grey dog.

‘Hey boy,’ he said.

The dog turned and walked away. Jacob followed, convinced that it would show him the way out. Dogs rescued people. This one would rescue him — though he was in very little actual peril, lost in a small wood.

‘It’s just that the trees all look the same,’ he said out loud.

Then everything changed.

There was a clearing filled with bright sunlight. The dog stopped at the centre of it and looked back at him. Jacob stepped into the light.

The clearing was roughly rectangular without any small trees or bushes. Grass grew in the sunlight. Jacob stood at one of the short sides of the rectangle and at the other, directly opposite him, stood what appeared to be the trunk of a massive dead tree. He looked up into the sky, but could not see the top of it.

He looked down again, and the dog was gone without a sound. Alone in the clearing, he felt compelled to approach the tree trunk. Laying his hands on the warm reddish wood, he felt vibration. Pressing his face and then his right ear to the tree, he heard a rushing sound inside, as of sap pumping upwards to an invisible canopy. The tree was not dead at all. It was enormous and he — he was tiny, insignificant.

Pressing himself close to the tree, he wanted to be absorbed into it, to live here forever, feeling the sap rushing through his veins.

He kicked off his shoes and began to climb. The wood was smooth and shiny, but Jacob was no longer human. His body became supple and sinous, his hands and feet stuck to the wood and allowed him to climb, to go on climbing, up and up until he reached the branches and leaves and fruit that were somewhere far above.

Walking back home in the late evening sunlight, Jacob felt the joy of life in his bones. He was smiling, thinking what a beautiful day, what a strange dream.

As he put his key into the lock, the door was pulled open and his wife was there, crying. His brother and sister were behind her. They were talking all at once, pulling him into the house, touching him.

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ they asked.

‘I went for a walk. I climbed a tree.’

‘You’ve been gone so long!’

‘I did stay out a couple of hours longer than I meant to, but—‘

‘You’ve been gone three days.’

‘Three days?’

He caught sight of himself in the hall mirror, hair sticking straight up, face sunburned, eyes wide and crazy.

He could smell the scent of the tree, feel the warm smooth wood under his alien hands, hear far away overhead the promising rustle of foliage and the cry of a strange bird.

Realities lurched and crashed together.

‘I climbed a tree,’ he said.

Lost

Lost

A small, cold hand pushed into his. He tried to pull away, but, small though it was, it gripped him tightly. Looking down he saw, indistinct in the darkness, the face of a boy looking up at him.

‘Was it you crying?’ he asked. ‘How did you get in here?’

He glanced around the garden, at the shadows of the high wall, the dense prickly hedge and the locked gate, then back down at the boy. He tried to pull his hand away again, but the child was not letting go.

‘I’m lost,’ said the boy in a high, distressed voice.

‘But how did you get in here?’

‘You’re lost too.’

‘No I’m not. This is my house, my garden. Where do you live?’

‘I live here.’

‘No, I live here. If you lived here, you wouldn’t be lost.’

‘You lost me.’

‘Me? I don’t even know you,’ though the boy did look familiar, he couldn’t think why.

‘You’d better come inside,’ he said. ‘I’ll phone the police and they’ll find out where you live.’

But the boy was gone.

Tom could still hear him crying. It sounded a long way off down a dark tunnel. There were no tunnels. He went to find his phone and shone the torchlight into the garden, almost expecting to see something strange out there, but it was just his garden, leaves shivering in a light breeze, the lawn empty. No boy at all. The gate still locked.

He wondered if he should phone the police anyway. He did not, because what would he say to them, and would they even be interested in a boy who was not there?

The crying faded away, but he could still feel the pressure of those small fingers on his hand.

‘You’re lost too.’

Tom felt tears in his eyes. He shook his head, took a deep breath, shut the patio door and pulled down the blinds.

The following evening he pulled down the blinds early and made sure the windows were closed. Still he heard the thin wail of a child. Couldn’t the neighbours hear that? Why didn’t they do something? Tom went back to the cost/benefit analysis he was compiling for a client and ignored the noise until it stopped, when he felt no relief, only emptiness.

On the third evening, he played music loud enough to cover any noise, yet still he heard the child’s wailing. He turned off the music in anger and pulled up the blinds. In the middle of the lawn stood the boy’s pale figure, illuminated by moonlight. Opening the patio door, Tom stepped out.

“What are you doing here?’ he asked. ‘How are you getting into my garden?’

‘I’m in the hole you dug,’ said the boy, snuffling.

‘What? I don’t dig. I pay a gardener. Go away.’

He moved towards the boy in what he hoped was a threatening manner. There had to be an end to this. Now.

‘Why are you coming here?’

The boy stood there, silently sobbing, and Tom started to feel like a brute.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Is someone making you do this?’

‘You,’ whispered the boy. He held something up to his face, hiding behind it.

‘What—?’

Tom reached out and took the toy, a ragged grey rabbit, its fur worn thin, one ear flopping down.

‘Where did you get this? I threw it away years ago.’

He recalled a faded photo of a tiny boy alone in a garden, holding a brand new and already beloved toy rabbit. Then he knew why the boy looked so familiar.

He was alone in the dark garden, a grown man and a little boy all in one, sobbing, and holding a toy rabbit to his face as if it could soak up all the tears and bring back all the lost dreams.

Inheritance

Inheritance

A ghost passed through me. An icy mist shivering through the spaces between the atoms of my body. With it came the fleeting image of a garden, like a memory, but not mine. Someone else’s.

I was visiting my Aunt Julie and this happened just as we were stepping into her garden. I hesitated for a moment, and she asked if I was all right. I told her I was, and dismissed the sensation.

Julie had made a beautiful garden, filled with roses now in late June, but in my mind I saw a darker garden with heavy evergreen trees and—

‘Was there ever a sundial?’ I asked, moving towards the end of the garden.

‘A sundial? No. Oh, there was one once.’

‘Here,’ I said, ‘where I’m standing.’

‘Yes, I think it was about there, before you were born.’

She laughed.

‘It was rather ugly, and no use because—‘

‘Because it was always overshadowed by a big holly bush,’ I said.

‘Yes, but how do you know? Have you seen some old photos?’

I shook my head.

‘I must have done, I suppose. You’ve made it much more beautiful.’

‘Thank you. Decades of work from me and the plants, that’s all it took.’

We went back into the house. My parents had moved to Scotland before I was born, so I hardly ever saw my aunt or cousins. Now Mum and Dad were gone, i felt the need of other relatives.

We were drinking tea and chatting about the past when Julie got up and brought out a stack of old photo albums.

‘Where is it? Ah, this is the one.’

She opened a small brown album, the cover crumbling at the hinge.

‘There,’ she said, laying it on my knees, ‘that’s the garden as it was when your Uncle Phil and I moved in here.’

The photo was black and white, of dark looming trees, the white shape of a sundial just visible in the shadows, but the memory I had was in colour. Dark greens and browns, and a stormy sky above. Yet I had never before visited this house, or this town, even.

When I looked up from the photo, another false memory smeared itself across the sunny room with its bright furniture and flowers on the window ledge. The remembered room was all shades of brown and dark maroon, heavy furniture, ornaments on every surface, an aspidistra gathering dust in a dark corner, an upright piano against one wall with a row of fat plaster cherubs lounging on top.

‘What is it?’ said Julie, then she snatched back the photo album and closed it with a snap.

I came back to the present and dusted fragments of the album’s binding off my lap, then thought better of it and began to pick them up from Julie’s clean red carpet.

‘It’s not old photos you remember, is it?’ she said.

I shook my head, but doubtfully.

‘It couldn’t be anything else, could it?’ I said. ‘Were there photos of the inside of the house, too?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘there weren’t. Your mother never told you why they moved to Scotland, did she?’

‘Dad got a job up there.’

‘No. Well, yes. He got the job because they had to move away from Shuckleigh.’

I felt a twisting nausea in my stomach. Had to move. Some horrible family secret was coming.

‘You should go back to Scotland now, and not come back here. We’ll come up and visit you, the way we always have.’

‘What is it Aunt Julie? I would like to know why we never came to visit you when there’s so much family here.’

Julie stood up and walked across the room to put away the album. I looked down at the little crumbs of leather cupped in my hand, and waited.

‘Our family have been here a long time. Probably since before there was a town. Well, you know the place is known for odd goings on? No? She didn’t even tell you that. Perhaps she thought it would interest you too much.’

She stopped, contemplating whether she ought to go on. I could see the hesitancy in her eyes. She took a breath.

‘Some of us have always been a bit sensitive. I see things myself from time to time, but I ignore them. Your mother, Angie, saw things almost all the time. There were days when she couldn’t tell the present apart from the past in front of her. We tried to hide it, make excuses, but once she was at the doctor’s for her swollen tonsils and she saw an angry black cat in the consulting room. It wasn’t there, or at least not then, but the doctor started talking about hallucinations, schizophrenia, medication.

‘Your Dad, Jack, he understood the family history. They’d go on trips away and she’d be fine. It was something about this place. That was when they decided to move, and he got the job in Glasgow.

‘Now look at you. You’ve been in town an hour and you’re already seeing things. Stay here and drown under the weight of it like Angie almost did, or go back to Scotland and live a normal life. That’s your choice.’

‘There’s a woman in the corner,’ I said. ‘She’s wearing a long white dress, and I think she’s trying to say something.’

Julie followed my gaze, then stood between me and the vision.

‘Ignore her. Whatever she’s trying to say is something long gone and of no importance any more.’

Julie hustled me out of the room, and called for a taxi. Within half an hour I was standing, holding my overnight bag, outside the station. Everything looked normal, but if I tried to really see, other shadows came into focus. The past, or stray thoughts? I did not know, but if I left, I never would.

I turned away from the station. Across the road, I saw the woman in white reaching towards me, mouthing words I could not hear. I started to walk towards her, stepped into the road, leapt back to the kerb just in time as a bus bore down on me.

The adrenaline of the near miss cleared my mind. There was a train in five minutes, and I was going to be on it.