Falling Out, Falling In

Falling Out, Falling In

Lori reached out to touch the raven’s beak. Pressing it was rewarded by the sonorous tones of a bell inside the house. She knew that it was nothing more than a digital recording, but the group behind her did not, and they got quite a frisson of pleasure from the Edgar Allan Poe resonances of this somewhat over the top doorbell. A good way to start a special tour.

Arthur Enoch opened the door, applying little bit of downward pressure on the handle to ensure a loud creak from the hinges. He was dressed all in black and was quite hollow-eyed. Those hollow eyes he used to survey his visitors with a pinch of disdain.

‘Welcome,’ he said, and stood aside for them to enter.

Lori stepped through first, feeling as if she was passing through a cold waterfall. Since she had visited this house numerous times she was expecting this, and she turned to watch the group behind her. They all shivered a little but only two showed any greater reaction; Vince Smalls, a local chaos magician, and an older woman who had applied by post to come on the tour.

Vince gasped and shook himself, and the woman (Lori looked at her list, her name was Olivia Grange. The surname rang a faint bell in Lori’s mind) widened her eyes and glanced behind her. They had both been forced to leave something outside.

The door swung closed of its own accord behind the last one through. Just another bit of theatre arranged by Enoch.

‘Welcome,’ he said again, ‘to my grandfather’s house. Maxwell Enoch was definitely wickeder than Aleister Crowley, but he preferred to stay out of the newspapers.’

Arthur Enoch smiled, which had a chilling effect on all present. Lori wished he would not do it, but the sight of his very large white teeth (possibly dentures) and the twisted curve of his lips did add to the sinister atmosphere — which was what the special group had paid their large fee for.

The Enoch house was only open to visitors once or twice a year and Lori was the only guide allowed to select visitors for the privilege of the tour. Arthur Enoch had the last word on who would be allowed in from her list. She never knew what criteria he used to reject visitors. Some perfectly innocuous people applied year after year, only to be struck out by Arthur’s red pen. Why Vince Smalls had passed scrutiny, Lori could not imagine. Arthur made no secret of his contempt for Chaos Magic.

‘This is my home,’ said Arthur, ‘so I ask you to respect the rules set out in your letter pf acceptance, and not to stray from the group. It would be hazardous for you to do so. Please recall that you have all signed the disclaimer and that any physical or psychic harm you suffer on these premises is your responsibility alone.’

The group nodded their heads in solemn agreement, except for Vince, who gave a short laugh. Arthur flashed him a sharp look, then smiled again, which wiped any amusement from Vince’s face. He replaced it with a tentative sneer. Old fashioned ritual magic was just a curiosity to him, he had told Lori. She looked forward to seeing how this clash of cultures would turn out, and hoped there would be no collateral damage.

Arthur led them about the ground floor of the house, which was set up as a kind of museum to his grandfather’s occult life, all the rooms kept just as they were when he was alive, down to the last book he was reading, left open and unfinished on a side table. Marginalia scribbled in green ink were visible on the open pages. Lori knew that it was a first edition of Yeats’ ‘Celtic Twilight’ and that Maxwell Enoch did not think much of it. He was a man given to despising the work of others.

Between them Arthur and Lori kept up a commentary on the rooms and the man himself. Arthur was, of course, the expert on the man, having lived in this house when Maxwell was still alive in the early 1960s, but he never gave much personal detail away. The visitors did not seem to notice, captivated as they were by the eccentric decor and the genuine relics of the master of ritual magic. There were two who were not so taken up by the experience. Vince Smalls curled his lip at the books in the library, at the stuffed chimera in the corner of the living room and at the regalia and robes in a glass display case in the hall. Olivia Grange merely looked at everything with mild interest. Lori noticed, though, how often Arthur looked at Olivia with a sharp suspicious glint in his eyes.

She noticed this too much, however, and failed to notice something else until it was too late.

They were standing before the door to the inner sanctum of Maxwell Enoch’s temple. Over the door a motto in Gothic script read ‘And The Night Shall Outlast The Day’. Arthur was describing the kind of ritual that took place behind the door — a place he refused to open up to visitors. Lori scanned the group for reactions and saw that Vince Smalls was no longer with them. She was both alarmed and furious. Arthur might never allow her to bring a group into his house again, and Vince — who knew what might happen to him?

Someone in the group asked what the meaning of the motto was and Arthur turned to look up at it. At that moment Vince appeared from a side room and joined the group, standing at the back as if he had always been there. He saw Lori glaring at him and flashed her a smile and a shrug.

‘I believe,’ Arthur was saying, ‘that it means that the time will come when the world of the imagination will rise up and conquer the dead hand of the purely rational.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Olivia Grange.

‘Oh?’ said Arthur, ‘Do you think you have a better understanding?’

Olivia smiled at him but did not answer. Arthur narrowed his eyes.

‘Come this way, everyone. There’s coffee and cakes in the conservatory,’ he said.

He led everyone away, effectively ending the tour. Lori moved to follow the group, but Olivia laid a hand on her arm to stop her.

‘We should go with them,” Lori said.

‘Wait here with me.’ Olivia insisted, with a gentle smile.

Lori felt the protective sigil on the back of her neck begin to tingle, but she did as she was asked. A minute, a long minute, later, Arthur came back. He stared at Olivia and she smiled at him. Something clicked in Lori’s mind.

‘You aren’t related to Ruthin Grange are you?’ she asked Olivia. Maxwell Enoch and Ruthin Grange had been magical collaborators until an unexplained rift made them into implacable enemies.

‘She’s his granddaughter — are you not?’ said Arthur.

‘Yes and no,’ said Olivia, still smiling her by now infuriating smile.

‘I should go and see what the group is doing —‘ said Lori.

Arthur and Olivia each grasped one of her wrists.

‘Stay with us,’ said Arthur.

‘I should see what Vince is up to,’ said Lori, hoping to get away. She had begun to worry about sacrificial victims and the like.

‘There’s no need for concern. Smalls is the entertainment,’ said Arthur, and he smiled, and it was not benign.

Arthur and Olivia dropped their grip on Lori’s wrists and she thought that if she had any sense she ought to run for it — but curiosity made her stay.

Arthur took out a key and unlocked the inner sanctum’s door. Lori felt a little spike of excitement. No-one was ever allowed in there, but now they were all stepping through into a medium-sized pentagonal room. The floor was plain white with a small drain hole at its centre, which Lori wondered about and decided not to regard as sinister.

On each of the five walls were painted symbols. Some she recognised, others were entirely new to her, and she could make no meaning out of it at all.

Olivia looked around the room with grave interest.

‘This is where the exchange happened,’ she said, and nodded as if something was clear to her now.

‘What are you talking about?’ Arthur growled.

‘They didn’t tell you? No, I suppose Maxwell would keep it a secret.’

‘I should go,’ said Lori. Her sigil was starting to burn, never a good sign.

‘No, my dear,’ said Olivia, ‘so long as there is a witness, and a magically protected one, there will be no harm done here today. Will there, Arthur?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not in this place, anyway.’

‘It was,’ said Olivia, ‘an exchange of powers and of blood, or DNA, I suppose we’d call it today.”

Arthur was still angry, but he kept quiet for now.

‘Maxwell and his wife Marie, and Ruthin and his wife Gwen met here to perform a ritual that was supposed to bind their magical abilities, which would have the effect of making them the most powerful practitioners of their day. Something went wrong, of course. Being men of their time, they had failed to account for the female elements of power. Part of the ritual involved each man having sex with the wife of the other. I am not au fait with the details of the ritual, but it was at this point it came undone.’

‘Ruthin betrayed Maxwell to gain his power,’ said Arthur.

‘No, Arthur, not at all. That was what Maxwell said to explain the rift, but what actually happened that each man’s power was transferred to the other’s wife. Marie and Gwen were transformed, and also became pregnant.’

‘No,’ said Arthur.

‘Yes. Two sons were born, your father and mine. Neither was much good as a magician, though, in spite of the circumstances of their conception. Ruthin gave up occultism to write novels and Maxwell continued — but Marie was the actual force in the family. So you see Arthur, I am Maxwell’s grandchild and you are Ruthin’s, not I.’

‘I won’t let you claim my heritage,’ said Arthur, taking up a defensive stance.

‘I don’t want it. I came here to clear away the negative forces between our families. We should do it now, and free ourselves.’

She began to take off her clothes. Arthur was transfixed for a moment, then he too began to strip.

‘Oh no,’ said Lori,’ I should go.’

They were not listening. Off came Arthur’s trousers. Lori made for the door and tried to leave, but it would not open. The key was probably in Arthur’s trousers, but they were on the other side of the room and she was unable to bring herself to turn around and witness what was happening in between.

Instead, she spent the longest eight minutes of her life examining the carvings on the door, a twisted border that she had taken for vines, but now saw that it was a hundred or more entwined naked people. The sigil on the back of her neck burned painfully as if an electric current was passing through it and she was acting as some sort of conduit. It reached a crescendo of pain, and then it was over. After that there was a brief interlude of mumbled incantations, followed by the sound of two people getting dressed. Lori only relaxed a little when Arthur came to unlock the door.

‘My grandfather carved this door,’ he said, as if he were giving the tour still.

‘Ruthin?’ said Lori, not wanting to spare his feelings.

‘Er, no. the other one.’

Arthur pursed his lips and blushed. Olivia joined them, flushed, hair tangled, beaming a radiant smile. Lori tried her very best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had happened and that she had not been used in a way that she did not want to examine too closely. The back of her neck was very sore and she wanted to get away from here as soon as possible. Striding ahead of Arthur and Olivia, she went straight to the conservatory to gather the group.

They were standing in a circle, looking down at someone writhing on the floor. Oh, it was Vince, of course. The others were very relieved to see her.

Vince appeared to be trying to fight something off — something quite invisible. He was making quiet noises filled with fear.

‘Arthur,’ Lori called.

Arthur came, and had a good laugh.

‘He went off by himself, didn’t he? I said it was dangerous.’

He leaned over the twisted form on the floor.

‘Give it to me,’ said Arthur.

Vince could hardly breathe, but he managed to indicate his left inside pocket. Arthur reached in and retrieved a small green talisman, slipping it into his own pocket before Lori could get a good look at it.

Whatever was attacking Vince lifted away and he slumped, breathing deeply. Lori helped him to his feet and started to walk him to the front door. Though he was shaky, he was as eager as she was to leave.

Lori counted her group out, anxious not to lose anyone. Olivia, though, was staying. She stood at the door holding hands with Arthur who looked both pleased and puzzled, like a man who had been taken up by a whirlwind and deposited on a strange shore.

Lori wished him luck, sure that he was going to need it.

An Inheritance

An Inheritance

‘I’m here to chop off your head’ the bloody butcher said.

Elaine Edgeworthy did not know who the middle-aged man she allowed into her office, but she was mildly intrigued. A few minutes ago he had arrived at he entrance to the museum, which was the gift shop, of course, and said he had a donation for the museum. It was a very irregular way to donate, but his surname got him through to her office.

‘Mr Bird,’ she said, ‘do come in.’

He did so with difficulty, as he was carrying a large cardboard box, which he deposited on her desk, scattering paperwork.

‘Ms Edgeworthy,’ he said, ‘good of you to see me.’

‘Forgive me for asking,’ she said, ‘but are you related to Anthony Bird?’

‘My grandfather.’

The smile that came with his answer was not filled with pride, but was ambiguous and with a hint of pain as it faded, probably due to the family history, thought Elaine, but she regarded the box with hungry curiosity. Whatever was in there, if it was in any way connected with Anthony Bird, Shuckleigh’s only respectable famous person, a painter of international repute, then it would be of real importance.

‘You won’t survive the night,’ said the dame by candlelight.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘These are some…toys my grandfather made for my father. I want the museum to have them, but only on the condition that they stay here, and aren’t lent out anywhere.’

Though she was quivering with excitement, Elaine tried to retain an appearance of calm and grace.

‘May I?’ she said, indicating the box.

‘Of course.’

Elaine pulled away the tape holding the top flaps of the box together. Mr Bird, she noticed, took a step backwards, as if he was afraid that something might jump out at him.

‘Oh,’ she said, surprised at the jumble of things in the box. They were glove puppets with papier mache heads and fabric bodies. She reached in and took out the topmost one.

‘Be careful,’ said Mr Bird. ‘That blade is quite sharp.’

The puppet had a lumpy red face. He wore a striped apron spattered with red paint and, stitched to one hand, a cleaver cut from a piece of metal and liberally painted red along its blade.

‘Um,’ said Elaine.

‘That’s the butcher,’ said Mr Bird. ‘My grandfather didn’t believe in childish children’s toys — but you know, when you’re a boy, you do like horrors.’

Elaine laid the butcher on her desk, not sure she liked the look on his face, and finding it hard to reconcile this somewhat barbaric object with the cool, tightly controlled elegance of Anthony Bird’s abstract paintings. Something else was at work here.

The next puppet was an evil-faced woman. In her hand was a candlestick, complete with a wax candle that had a flame made from a bit of yellow foil.

Bird had taken another step back.

‘Are you sure you want to part with these?’ asked Elaine. They were a real win for the museum, but she felt uneasy. ‘They must have been an important part of your childhood, and your father’s.’

‘No, no. They’ve been in the attic for years, but then they started talking to me, and I just don’t want them around any more.’

‘Talking?’

He shook his head and laughed, a jagged sound.

‘You must think — no — memories and all that, I suppose. There was a rhyme went with them. I could hear it in my head. Memories and all that.’

He had taken another step backwards as he spoke, and avoided looking at the puppets laid on Elaine’s desk. She peered into the box and reached for the next.

‘Well, I’ll be going,’ he said. ‘Must rush, and all that.’

Elaine parted her lips to offer him coffee so that they could talk about the donation and any ideas he might have for display, but he was out of the door before she could form a single syllable.

‘Your nightmare’s come to play,’ said the devil of the day.

Bird could still hear them, even as he walked away.

Elaine reached into the box for the next puppet, and almost dropped it in surprise. The face of an angry red devil grinned at her, his face twisted and misshapen. A red heart was stitched to one of his hands — not a sweet symbol of love, but a small anatomically correct bodily organ, painted blood still dripping from its arteries.

Bird said that boys like horrors, but Elaine wondered what sort of father would supply horrors like these to his son.

There was a sheet of paper in the box, yellow with age. Elaine picked it out between finger and thumb and turned it over. On it was written the rhyme that Mr Bird had mentioned. Whose handwriting, Elaine wondered. If it was Anthony Bird’s then this was quite a valuable piece of paper. Research would have to be done. In fact, there might be a book in this — a reappraisal of the artist in the light of these disturbing pieces. Both Anthony Bird and his son had committed suicide at the age of fifty-one. A disturbing light shone on these ‘toys’.

She thought she heard a noise from within the box, a thin whimper. Imagination, surely. Inside was one remaining puppet, lying face down.

Bird drove to the east, away from the town and his obligations, with nothing in his car that was not his and his alone. He could still hear them but the further away he drove, the fainter their voices became. The family house and all its contents were sold to some crazy people who wanted to make a museum of it, the home of the great artist. The money, he wouldn’t keep it, going to a suitable charity. He wanted nothing to link him back to that place.

Elaine noticed a tremour in her hand as she reached for the last puppet. It had the face of a boy, not misshapen like the others, but almost a portrait. He was wide-eyed, his mouth open in a silent scream, and in the middle of his chest there was a painted gaping wound as if his heart had been torn out.

The demon puppet seemed to laugh and wave its bloody trophy, and then the boy really did scream and Elaine heard the final piece of the rhyme.

‘The boy will not grow old, his heart is dead and cold
And once it stops a-beating, will make for finest eating.’

The puppet twisted in her hand. She felt a black tunnel closing in on her and for the first time in her life she almost fainted. The piece of paper crumbled into a hundred pieces.

‘No, no, no,’ she murmured, dropping the puppet and scrabbling to gather the bits of paper together, to salvage a valuable document.

Crossing the border into the next county, Bird felt peace fall upon him, and knew he was free to enjoy life beyond his next birthday.

Sleep Walker

Sleep Walker

He walked through the front door, out of the house. That he did not open the door before passing through it should have surprised him, but he thought he was dreaming, so he accepted it as normal.

It was night, and few street lights were still on. The only other person walking the streets at that hour did not even glance at him, even though he was wearing his paisley pyjamas. He paused to think. Where was he going? To her place, of course, where else?

He walked through that front door, too, and upstairs to her flat. For a minute he stood in front of the door, thinking that he should knock, but then stepped in.

It was quiet and dark and smelt of cooking, a familiar savoury odour. She must have made a curry, the lamb one he liked so much. That hurt, that she could serve up his favourite meal to someone else.

He walked to the bedroom, not wanting to go there but unable to resist the pull.

There they were, tangled up together, sleeping in quiet contentment. The red rage came down on him then and the need to do damage. Swearing at them he tried to pull the duvet off. Nothing moved and they slept on. Gathering all his anger he hurled it towards them in one roar.

She woke up then, suddenly sitting up. She saw him, she screamed. Afraid of the humiliating scene, him in their bedroom dressed only in pyjamas and fury, he turned and ran, pulled back through the streets and into his bed.

Only a dream, he told himself, but there was no more sleep that night. He was a roiling ball of emotions, misery and rage twisted up together.

Walking through the streets in the morning felt more dreamlike than the dream. Once he even checked to make sure that he was not wearing pyjamas. Nobody noticed him, but that was normal — they were all caught up in their own lives and he was nothing out of the ordinary.

Someone saw him. He felt it and looked in the direction of the feeling. It was her. She stood quite still on the other side of the road, glaring at him. Afraid that she really had seen him in her bedroom last night, that it was no dream, he turned and hurried on his way, muttering to himself ‘It was a dream. Just a dream.’

That evening he stifled all thought with hours of television, trying his best not to dwell on personal things. Even so, once asleep he got out of bed and walked into the street again. It was raining heavily but the rain did not soak him, passing right through him as he had passed through closed doors.

So there he was again, staring down at them waiting for the rage to build up and explode, but it did not come. There was nothing but a bleak, cold emptiness where the anger had been. It really was over, he was alone and there was nothing he could do about it. But inside the cold was a small, hard thing, icier and stronger than anger. Hate.

She did this to him. She would pay. He left that place and went out to walk the streets, planning how to make her pay.

‘She shouldn’t have left me,’ he muttered to himself. ‘She was mine, she betrayed me.’

‘Are you sure?’ said someone behind him, and indistinct darkness in the shape of a man.

‘Of course I’m sure,’ he yelled.

‘Did you ever tell her how much you liked that curry? Didn’t you always tell her nothing but how worthless she was?’

‘Turns out I was right, wasn’t I?’

He moved away from the questioner, walking, walking.

‘What do you want to do now?’ it asked.

He stopped, turned his head.

‘You know, I’d really like to kill her. Maybe I’ll kill you, too.’

There was a deep laugh, like a bell chiming at the bottom of the ocean.

‘You’re at a crossroads,’ said the questioner. ‘Which way will you go?’

He was at a crossroads. Straight on or to the left led to the bridges over the River Lost. To the right or back the way he came led into town, but the questioner stood in that direction. He turned and walked straight on, towards the old bridge. It was a dream, it did not matter which way he went.

That was when he noticed that the town was exactly the same as it would have been in reality, with none of the strangenesses that appeared in dreams. Except, of course, for the questioner following a few paces behind.

‘Have you ever thought of blaming yourself?’ that creature asked.

‘No I have not. This isn’t about me.’

‘You don’t think so?’

‘I know so.’

That sounded weak. These questions were starting to chip away at his carefully cradled hatred. He kept on walking faster, faster, down to the river, but the questioner kept pace with him.

‘Didn’t you say you loved her?’

‘Once I did, but you can’t love someone who leaves you, sneaking out while you’re away, not even facing you.’

‘And why did she leave you?’

‘Because she’s a selfish bitch.’

‘Because she was afraid of you.’

They were on the bridge now, and he could take no more of this. He swung around and lunged forward, grabbing his pursuer by the throat with both hands, choking as though it was her throat. A cloud drew away from the moon and he saw the questioner’s face. His own face.

Still he wrung and crushed until his other self grew limp and fell into a dead heap at his feet.

His anger was not sated. There was a woman on the bridge, looking right at him. She saw what he had done. Now he had to kill her, too.

She did not run away from him, nor seem afraid of him. He wanted to make her afraid.

As he took her throat in his hands, she wrapped her arms around him and fell backwards from the bridge, taking him with her, down, down, into the cold waters of the River Lost.

HIs cleaning lady found him the next day, in bed, asleep forever. Drowned, his lungs filled with river water.

Spot

Spot

There was something slithering around my bedroom in the dark, a fragment of nothingness whispering across the walls. I sat up. There it was again — darker darkness on the periphery of my vision, sliding away. I clicked on the bedside light and it was gone.

For a couple of weeks now I had been half seeing this thing. A black spider running across a surface near my hand, a mouse shadow running into a corner, something falling from the ceiling — and always nothing there when I turned to look.

There was something wrong with my vision.

The optician said everything was fine.

So. There was something wrong with my mind.

I could have sought help, but it seemed a trivial matter, the illusion of small shadows. I chose to try to ignore it.

Sometimes I thought it might have been a real spider — one that ran very fast and hid when I looked for it. At other times perhaps it was just a misinterpretation of ordinary shadows moving as I turned my head. After all, the world as we see it only exists inside our minds. What is actually out there — well, I don’t want to think about that.

I began to manage the problem of the moving shadows quite well. When I noticed them, and you can’t not notice movement in the corner of your vision, I trained myself not to look. I hoped to train myself not to see it at all, but it wanted to be noticed, and hated to be ignored. The little black scrap started to scurry across the desk in front of me too fast for me to see what it really was, or to run over my feet and into the corner of the room.

I am not a nervous person, but this was turning me into one. I began to think I saw it even when it was not there. Any little unexpected movement would make me jump. It was like having mice, except that it didn’t eat my biscuits. The only thing for it was to get the exterminator in.

Charlie the exorcist moved around my flat as if looking for the spoor of my infestation.

‘I’m not picking anything up,’ he said. ‘That doesn’t always mean there’s nothing here, though. I’ll give the whole place a good clean out.’

He spent four hours chanting, ringing bells, thrusting smoking bundles of ritual herbs into every corner. The place seemed different when he left, calmer, emptier. I relaxed.

But he had missed a spot.

The shadow was back again that night, flitting past my feet while I was trying to watch TV. The more I ignored it the more often it appeared. This thing meant for me to pay attention to it, which suggested it had thoughts and feelings — a suggestion that I placed firmly out of sight at the back of my mind.

I refused to look at the racing black spot. Then it stopped on the floor in front of my feet. I kept my eyes on the TV screen, but my whole consciousness was focussed on the tiny patch of darkness on the carpet. Even so, when it moved it took me by surprise, darting forward onto the toe of my slipper and up my leg.

I screamed and jumped up, dusting away at my trousers to get the thing off me.

After a minute of noisy panic, I searched for it. I couldn’t see it on me, or on the floor. Running into the bedroom, I pulled off all my clothes and examined myself all over in the mirror, but found no dark marks. I threw my clothes into the bath and ran the cold water until they were drowned. Over the sink I combed my hair through and through and looked in my eyes and mouth for any sign of it. If I had swallowed it what was I to do?

Shivering, naked, my clothes soaked, I stood in the bathroom wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I have never been afraid of spiders or insects yet here I was becoming hysterical over a tiny patch of nothing.

Later that night I was made aware of my mistake. It was not in my drowned clothes or in my hair, but had made its escape into my bedroom when I threw my clothes onto the floor. Now it was running over the walls, mocking me. I slept on the sofa instead, waking every now and then to check whether it had followed me. Whatever it was, inside my head or outside, it was not going to be easy to get rid of it. I could move house, but I suspected that it would be as persistent as bedbugs, hitching a lift in my luggage. Whatever it was, it was mine.

The next evening I sat on the sofa reading a book and watching it out of the corner of my eye, scooting around the room, approaching closer and closer until it stopped by my feet again. Holding my breath and my nerve I waited. I was terrified — a little black dot and it took all my strength not to run away.

It hopped onto my slipper and rested there a moment, then began to climb my trouser leg. I gritted my teeth and did not react. It went out of sight for a second, then popped onto the right hand page of my book. I stared directly at it, a speck of dark awareness focussed on me, nothing but an absence of reflected light.

‘Hello,’ I said.

I held my hand out to it and it zipped across the page, coming to rest in the centre of my palm. There was nothing to feel, no tickle, no tingle of presence, but I swear it curled up a bit tighter and made itself at home there.

Sometimes other people see it on me for a fleeting second. They take it for a spider or other bug.

‘There’s nothing there,’ I say, but there is, always scooting across my skin. My companion. I am still afraid of it. One day it may burrow into my flesh and show its true purpose, but until then I must think of it as a friend. I call it Spot, and try to smile.

Recall, Remember, Forget

Recall, Remember, Forget

Bones of an unusual small animal, a battered fob watch in a fine silver case and a tattered silk handkerchief with a dark stain in one corner. Eddie hated jobs like this.

As soon as he got the text telling him to come to the front door, not the basement entrance, he knew something was wrong. He contemplated not going at all, but the money was double and this was his profession.

A nice fresh corpse meant things would go smoothly. One long gone and nothing but a few personal possessions to work with meant difficulty and danger.

Lamia had let him into the Dark House, and hovered behind him now.

“Can you do it?’ they asked

He sighed.

‘Triple my fee,’ he said. ‘Where’s the question?’

Lamia nodded as if the inflated fee was only to be expected, and handed him a sheet of grubby paper with one line of writing scrawled across it.

The thing on the top floor was screaming again. Lamia looked upwards with a concerned expression, as if a baby was crying not a — whatever it was. Eddie had seen it once, by accident, and it had almost lured him in, sweet as it seemed. Only the amulets he always wore kept him from being consumed.

‘What’s up?’ he asked.

Lamia shook the paper at him.

‘That is what you’re here to find out. I brought your things up from downstairs. If you need anything else, call me.’

Pushing the paper into his hand, Lamia left him in the dimly-lit room. Overhead, the screaming continued.

Smoothing the sheet of paper, Eddie stared at the writing. Baffled, he turned the paper through 180 degrees and tried again. No. The writing was an incomprehensible line of wobbly marks whichever way he looked at it. Eddie had some grasp of quite a few obscure and ancient scripts, but this was nothing he recognised. It hardly looked like writing at all, but more like something an illiterate person might produce if forced to ‘write’ something.

Eddie left the room and went to the bottom of the stairs. (He knew better than to climb them.)

‘Hello?’ he called, several times. At last Lamia appeared to the top of the stairs, paler even than usual. Eddie waved the paper. ‘If this is the question, I can’t read it. How can I ask an unreadable question?’

‘Show it,’ said Lamia, and turned away, running back up out of sight.

Show it. The Recalled were not generally in the mood for reading, but he was being paid triple rates, so he shrugged and went back to make his preparations.

From his box of necessaries he took a human skull complete with lower jaw hinged in place with silver wire, and arranged the possessions of the one to be recalled around it, along with other items which it would not be prudent to mention here.

After an hour’s worth of incantations and deep concentration Eddie was sweating and exhausted with the effort, but the skull began to vibrate. It started to chatter its teeth together like a wind-up toy, leapt into the air and flew across the room, bouncing off a red velvet chaise longue and onto the floor.

It appeared that this Recalled One did not wish to fit itself into someone else’s skull.

Eddie considered his options. Resistance called for a more direct approach. He thought of that triple fee. He thought of taking a holiday somewhere warm. Somewhere hot.

There was a little bottle of oil in the box of necessaries, which he he seldom used. The tools of the trade were, of course, only vehicles for the trained practitioner, but this was a particularly powerful tool.

He took the handkerchief and laid the silver watch and the collection of small animal bones on it. The tiny skull was peculiar, with huge eye sockets and many pointed teeth, all black and shiny. Eddie drew up the corners of the handkerchief and tied it all into a small bundle.

Unscrewing the top of the oil bottle, he let two drops fall onto the carpet in front of him, then, with the bundle of possessions in his left hand and the unreadable question in the other, he began a long, repetitive incantation. Concentrating on the air in front of him, the objects in his hands and the sound of his own voice, he continued the rhythmic chant on and on, never pausing, never allowing his mind to drift. At last a small spot of mist appeared, widening into a circle like a dissipating smoke ring, opening a dark hole in reality. The hole grew to about the height of a man. Eddie continued to chant until he was sure it was stable, then he began his recall.

‘Come forth by night. Here are your treasures, here is a question for you. Come forth.’

There was no response. It would have been easier if he had a name for the target, but he suspected that he was calling on one with a dangerous name, or no name at all. Again and again he demanded the presence of the owner of the handkerchief and its contents, insisting on his right to call them to answer.

The eventual response was not exactly what he expected. a violent groan carried on foul air emitted from the hole. Eddie held his nerve and continued his demands. Suddenly something long, dark and flexible reached out of the hole, grabbed him by the neck and pulled him through into the darkness.

This was a new experience, but he had to hold his concentration or everything would be lost. Eddie demanded his answer, holding out the paper with the unreadable squiggles on it. Something stumbled towards him. Its breath was cold and it stank of putrefaction. For a brief moment, Eddie questioned his choice of profession. That moment was just long enough for his attacker to take the paper away from him, and almost succeed in taking the handkerchief bundle, too. Eddie managed to keep hold of that just because he had taken care to tangle his fingers around the knot.

The Recalled One was angry. It howled and treated him to another blast of icy stinking air. Eddie could hardly breathe, but he was a professional and he held his ground, and the bundle that enabled him to control the recalling. Again he demanded an answer. What he got was a ferocious blow into middle of his chest. He lost both control and consciousness. The world was black inside and out.

His neck was twisted to the right, his cheek pressed into a fuzzy surface. A skull, someone else’s, he hoped, lay close by, mouth open wide. It took a few moments for Eddie to realise where he was. He pushed himself into a sitting position and found his fingers still entangled in the knotted handkerchief, which had a few more unpleasant stains on it now, still moist.

Up near the ceiling a dusty, half-seen, feathered creature shifted.

‘Yeah,’ he said to it, ‘not quite, not this time. My lucky day, not yours,’

It shifted again, and was gone.

The screaming from upstairs continued, but at a different pitch. Lamia entered the room, flustered and distressed.

‘I heard you yell,’ they said.

‘I yelled? That’s possible.’

Eddie pushed himself to his knees, intending to get up. Something dripped onto the floor. Oh yes, his nose was bleeding. He almost used the hanky bundle to stem the flow but stopped himself in time, disentangled his fingers and set it onto the chaise longue. Then he got up and sat next to it, found a tissue in his pocket and held it to his nose.

‘I didn’t—,’ he began, but Lamia gave a cry and swooped down to pick a ball of something off the floor. Fingering it open, Lamia spread it out on the table next to Eddie’s box and smoothed it down. It was the question.

Eddie got up to look. The paper was well-chewed, damp and sticky, but under the original line of squiggles, there was another burned into the paper, as if someone had written it with a sharp smouldering stick.

‘What does it say?’ he asked

‘I have no idea.’

Lamia grasped the paper and ran from the room and Eddie heard them dashing upstairs. After a minute or two, the screaming stopped.

With a sigh he picked up the skull and put it back in the box. Then he untied the handkerchief, laid it on the table and opened it out. The battered fob watch was ticking, and the animal skeleton was covered in flesh with scales in many shades of blue. The creature opened one large eye and looked at him. Eddie took a step backwards out of caution, but it showed no inclination to do anything but lie there on its back twitching its tiny paws.

He left the room, closing the door, and waited in the hall, holding a sodden tissue to his still dripping nose. After a while, Lamia came down, smiling (though he wished they wouldn’t). They offered him a clean linen handkerchief, and he took it, feeling that losing too much blood in this house was a bad idea.

‘It seems the answer was satisfactory,’ said Lamia.

‘Good,’ said Eddie. ‘Who was it I recalled?’

‘Best not to think about it.’

Ah, not a someone then, more of a something, that had once had need of a timepiece, or — but no, best not to think about it.

‘I’m going on holiday for a month.’

‘Thank you for letting me know. Your fee has been sent direct to your bank account.’

He nodded and stepped out of the front door. Dawn was just breaking, the eastern horizon brightening to a pale lemon which to Eddie was the most beautiful colour he had ever seen.

Up On The Roof

Up On The Roof

‘Forget about the tunnels,’ Lori said.

Gabriel rubbed his face with both hands.

‘I can’t. I can feel them under my feet all the time.’

‘That’s your imagination. For all you know, there aren’t any more than the one you went down into.’

‘There are more. I can’t prove it, but I can feel it.’

‘Then you need to feel something else. Drink up and come with me.’

The were in the Has Bean Cafe on a Saturday morning in June. At just after nine, the place was quiet, only a couple of other customers. Gabriel drank the last of his cappuccino and ate the remaining chocolate-sprinkled froth with the coffee spoon, not hurrying because he was a little afraid of whatever Lori had in mind.

‘This isn’t another of your weird friends, is it?’ he asked, scraping the bottom of the cup with his spoon, not looking at her.

‘You are one of my weird friends,’ said Lori, ‘and don’t you forget it.’

Gabriel smiled and got up, ready to follow wherever she took him.

They headed up the hill, and the Dark House loomed at the top. Gabriel became less enthusiastic — he did not want to go there again. Lori turned left at the top of the hill and they walked away from that house. For a while Gabriel felt as though it was watching him. He looked back, but saw no-one at its windows. His preoccupation meant that he did not recognise their destination until it was too late.

Lori stopped at a big old house that was divided into flats and rang the bell for number 6. After a couple of minutes the door was opened by a pale man in his early thirties. He looked pleased to see Lori, but when he noticed Gabriel a shadow passed over his face.

‘Hello Rob,’ said Gabriel, affecting a cheer he did not feel. ‘How are you?’

Rob did not reply, except for a slight shake of the head. Gabriel had been avoiding him for months. After what had happened there was a deep well of complicated feelings that Gabriel preferred to avoid looking at.

Rob held the door half open for a moment or two, but then made the decision to let them in. They followed him up to the top floor flat and into his living room. He offered them coffee. Gabriel was about to decline, but Lori accepted for both of them, and when Rob was out of the room she started to explain.

‘He’s been having some trouble he thinks is a haunting,’ she said.

‘Why did you bring me? I’m no ghost hunter.’

‘No, but the problem is on the roof, and you are an experienced rooftopper.’

‘So is Rob.’

‘Not any more,’ said Rob, bringing in two mugs of what was clearly instant coffee. ‘Not since…you know.’

Not since Frida’s accident, he meant. Gabriel tried no to think too much about that. There were no photos of her in the flat, but he supposed it might be too painful for Rob to look at images of her when she was full of life and the spirit of adventure.

‘So what’s on you roof?’ Gabriel asked, hoping to head off any awkward moments.

‘The landlord says it’s just pigeons,’ said Rob, glancing out of the window, ‘but it isn’t. I don’t know what it is, but it’s driving me crazy. Help me get rid of it.’

The flat was built into what had been the attic servant’s quarters in the building’s past, and it was directly under the roof with sloping ceilings and small dormer windows.

‘Well,’ said Lori, ‘now we just wait until something happens.’

‘And then I go out to take a look, I suppose.’

Gabriel took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, and walked over to the window to see what the roof was like.

‘There’s a skylight in the bedroom you can use to get out there,’ said Rob. ‘I’ll get the stepladder set up.’

When Rob was out of the room again, Gabriel said, ‘Shouldn’t we be here at midnight or something?’

‘No,” said Lori. ‘This is a daytime manifestation.’

‘It probably is just pigeons, or his imagination. You know what happened to his girlfriend?’

Lori nodded.

‘If it is bird, we can set his mind at rest, don’t you think?’

Gabriel agreed, thinking that the least he could do was to humour everyone. When Rob had the ladder set up, Gabriel climbed it, opened the skylight and assessed the roof for climbing possibilities. He had clambered across worse in the dead of night, so he had no worries. the rest was just waiting. They drank their unpleasant instant coffee, Gabriel suspecting that it was the cheapest off-brand stuff, and made limping attempts at conversation, always avoiding the only things Rob and Gabriel had in common — urban exploration and Frida.

There came a point when the fourth invisible presence in the room became too much for Gabriel and he suddenly rose to his feet and began to pace up and down the small living room. the others stared at him.

‘Too much caffeine,’ he said, shaking his arms and flexing his fingers. Then he sat down again, trying to be still and to feel a little sympathy for this man he now realised he did not like at all.

Why? Rob took Frida away from the Urbex community. They did their own things as a couple, which was theoretically okay, but Gabriel thought that Frida lost some of her sparkle, and she would not even stop for a chat in the street, let alone meet up with her old friends. When he came back to the moment, Gabriel realised that Lori, with her usual fearlessness, was broaching the very topic he had been trying so hard to avoid.

‘I was so sorry about your girlfriend’s accident,’ she said. ‘That must have been hard to bear.’

Rob looked away.

‘Thank you,’ he said, with a little choke in his voice. ‘It was terrible. I had no idea she’d gone out on her own like that’

He looked at Lori mournfully, moisture glistening in his eyes, then he noticed Gabriel watching and his expression turned to irritation. Lori was about to say something more when there was a scrabbling sound above them, outside on the roof. They all looked up, as if they would be able to see through the ceiling.

‘That’s it,’ said Rob.

Something was moving over the roof, pausing here and there to scratch at the tiles. It was nothing like any bird noise Gabriel had ever heard. He got up and went to the bedroom, with Lori following.

‘Be careful,’ she said.

He eased himself out of the window and took a good look around the roof. At first he saw nothing, but then he noticed a dark shadow by the chimney pots.

‘Looks like a bird,’ he called down to Lori. ‘A really big bird. I’ll see if I can get a better look.’

He pulled himself up onto the ridge of the roof and began to move towards the chimneys. The bird did not retreat or fly away, but began to approach him. No — not a bird. What was it? He struggled to make out a proper shape to the thing. Gabriel tried to focus but it was impossible — and then it was on him.

‘Stupid bitch,’ it said, ‘stop whining.’

There was a hand on his face, pushing him. He thought it was a hand. Grabbing at the ridge tiles he tried to hang on, but the force was too strong, and filled with malice. Losing his hold, Gabriel slid down the roof and over the edge, falling through empty air, a long time falling, with someone else’s memories flowing through his mind, ending with a dreadful crack. Then nothing.

He opened his eyes.

He was still clinging to the ridge tiles. Lori was calling to him, ‘Are you all right?’ There was nothing on the roof with him now. It took a minute to begin to understand what had happened, and before he could safely move.

Lori was halfway out of the skylight.

‘Don’t come out,’ he said. ‘I’m okay.’

He was not okay, but he managed a tight smile, and started to make his way back down to the skylight, every muscle in his body trembling. Not until his feet touched the bedroom carpet did he feel any relief.

‘What was it?’ asked Rob, but took a step back when Gabriel turned to answer him.

Gabriel’s fury filled the room.

‘I think you know,’ he said.

Gabriel took a few steps towards Rob and put his hand on the man’s face, pushing.

‘Stupid bitch,’ he said. ‘Stop whining.’

He gave Rob a violent shove that sent him falling backwards onto the floor.

‘You were up there with her that day, weren’t you?’ said Gabriel, trembling with rage now.

Rob shook his head and held his hands up protectively.

‘We’d better leave,’ said Lori, and Gabriel did not argue in the face of his strong desire to beat Rob senseless.

‘It was an accident,’ said Rob, in a pleading tone. ‘I never meant to —‘

He was cut off by the slamming front door.

Later, when Gabriel had calmed down enough to explain what had happened to him, Lori asked ‘What shall we do?’

‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave it to Frida.’

What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

The stories kept most people out of the woods, but for some people, those stories are what draws them in. Isobel was no ghost hunter or folklore enthusiast. For her the stories spoke of a world beyond our own that was calling out to be visited. If the woods were a portal to that world, Isobel intended to step through it.

She chose a warm summer day, and still being of this world, she took a bag with a drink and sandwiches. At first it was a struggle to make a path in, because the undergrowth of brambles and bushes was so dense. Once she got through the outer edges, the undergrowth thinned out beneath the trees, giving way to broken, nettles, and stands of horse tails like miniature primeval forests. Birdsong filled the air. It was all lovely, and very ordinary. As far as she could see, there was nothing sinister here, only an old piece of woodland going about its many lives in peace, happy to be neglected by human beings, left to grow and rot and grow. Everything was as it should be.

Isobel kept on walking, hoping to see spirits, or the Old Lady, but only seeing what anyone would expect to see on a summer walk in a wood near a small town.

Sometimes she had the feeling of being watched, but there was no-one around, and she put that down to her unfamiliarity with being alone in a wild place. Gradually, she got used to it, and began to relax into the idea that she really was alone, no other person nearby. No-one to watch her, judge her or threaten her. She walked slower and slower until she stopped and stood, quiet in the midst of the green.

All around was the pulse of life and death. The crackle of drying leaves, the whisper of stealthy fungal growth, the streaming of sap in the trees and bushes, the hurried rush of mice and insects in the mulch of decaying matter. Sometimes the heavier tread of the fox or badger, and above and among it all, the endless singing, fluttering busyness of birds.

In the town, life was life and death was another thing altogether. Here, in the woods, they were the same, with no dividing line between them, turning hand in hand in the endless dance.

Isobel dropped her bag and, secure in her aloneness, began to take off all her clothes until she stood naked, her toes curling into the leaf litter, her eyes seeing only the green of moss growing on the trunk of a fallen tree.

As she stood all of the chatter in her mind faded away until there was nothing there. Perhaps not even Isobel remained, only quiet being with awareness of the whole world about her. An ant began to climb her leg and she recognised its existence, but she was as still as the sapling ash tree at her left hand.

The sun moved past its zenith and began to travel down towards the western horizon. The skin on Isobel’s legs began to crackle and dry. She had found the portal. From her feet to the tips of her fingers bark covered her soft skin, hardening in the cooling air. She lifted her arms and watched new growth leaves spring from her fingers. Her hair turned to moss and leaves. Bark grew over her eyes, but then she saw everything.

It was many days before anyone thought to search the woods for her. They found her clothes and her bag resting against a small but sturdy tree. She was never found.

At certain special times of the year, a small group of women go into the woods to lay flowers and offerings at the foot of this distinctive tree. They are often overcome by a profound stillness and drift into a trance, hearing a voice whispering to them. One member of the group must always stand back, stay alert, and when she feels a certain danger point she rings a bell to end the communion.

To go there alone would be to risk never being seen again.

Night Dancers

Night Dancers

Lori pressed her fingers to her lips, tried not to move, not to make a sound, not to be. She must not let them know that she was there, these dark things, or they would vanish, and she would never understand what kind of creature they were.

Amoebic blobs of darkness, dancing at the edges of the inadequate illumination from a few well-spaced street lights, it was hard to make out any form in them, and Lori felt a sense of wrongness, but did not know if it was coming from her own uncertainty or from the things themselves.

She had encountered a lot of strangeness, but nothing like this before. Walking home alone at almost one in the morning on a moonless night was worrying enough. Her keys were in hand, their ends projecting between the fingers of her fist, and the self-defence moves learned years ago, but never used in anger, were uppermost in her mind. None of this any use against dancing pieces of some deeper night.

Then the street lights went out.

The council called this their dark skies project, but really it was just a money saving strategy. At one o’clock every night, all of Shuckleigh’s street lighting was turned off.

And Lori could see nothing at all.

She stood still, waiting for her eyes to adapt. Gradually she became aware of movement again, just where they were before, or a bit closer? It was hard to tell. In the sky a multitude of stars glittered. further up the street two windows showed dim, curtain-obstructed, light. None of this was much help. Lori unzipped her bag as quietly as she could and fumbled for her phone. At this slight noise, all the dancing things stopped, drew together, and began to move towards Lori.

She got the phone out and found the torch setting, jabbing at the screen. The street ahead was suddenly illuminated and all the dark things scattered into the gloom at the sides of the beam. Lori swung the patch of light around but they, whatever they were, always stayed just at the edge of the light. Then her phone lost charge and shut down.

She was there in the dark, her night vision ruined by the bright phone light. Ah, well, blobs — who knew what that was all about? She set off to walk the rest of the way home, keeping a hand out in front of her and going slowly until she could see a bit better.

Her cheek was brushed by a soft, velvety something, warm and yielding, and then another, and another. Startled, she swiped at them with her fist, forgetting the keys bristling between her fingers. There was soft pop as one of the blobs burst under the unintended assault. then they came at her all at once, and the world was blacked out by soft, suffocating bubbles of night.

Lori would have yelled for help, but she was afraid of swallowing one of these things, and what might happen if she did. Flailing with desperation, she fought through them, aware that she was popping more of them, but unable to resist the panic, until she could see the faint window lights ahead, when she began to try to run. The things clung to her, dragging on her legs and body, but she managed to make some progress.

A motion-activated security light flashed on and the bubbles were gone at once, but she knew they were waiting just outside the pool of light. If she stayed still, the light would go out at any moment. Lori decided to run for it.

Home was only five minute’s walk away, but she made it in two, with fear at her heels. Up the stairs, in the door, shut it, lock it, turn on all the lights.

Her hands and arms were covered in a fine black powder. When she brushed at it, the dust shivered, fell away, and disappeared. Lori felt a sudden chill of guilt. Were they living things? Had she, in her ignorance and panic, killed some of them without even understanding what they were?

The last of the black dust scattered in the air and vanished. Lori was left remembering the soft impact of the unknown against her face, and wondering what kind of encounter she had allowed fear to destroy.

The Imaginary Passenger

The Imaginary Passenger

‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ he said, glancing at the rearview mirror to make eye contact with the pale young woman in the back seat. ‘I ought to tell him why he’s wrong, you know, but I don’t want to lose my job.’

He had just driven across the old bridge over the River Lost on his way into town, going slow because there were often animals in the road after dark, and he hated running things over. Suddenly all this work related stuff flooded into his mind and he just wanted to tell someone. The passenger gazed back at him and said nothing.

‘No, you’re right,’ he said. ‘I have to keep my mouth shut. I can’t afford to get fired, but I’d just like to tell him what I think of him. When I find a new job, after I’ve got a reference, then I’ll tell him.’

He glanced into the mirror. She gazed back at him.

‘No,’ he said, ‘you’re right. I’m never going to say word. I don’t have the guts.’

He smiled ruefully. The outskirts of town came up. He looked into the rearview mirror, but there was no-one there. After a moment of confusion he realised that of course there was no-one there. He must just have imagined a passenger because he needed to get all that anger and frustration off his chest.

*

As the motorcyclist rode across the bridge over the River Lost, he felt her arms tighten around his waist.

‘I’m glad you’re there,’ he thought. ‘I really missed you.’

She squeezed him a little more and he felt comforted. he could feel her arms around him, her body against his back, her slight weight altering the performance of the bike. Not alone after all.

As the street lights of the town approached the feeling faded until she was no longer there. He choked up.

‘I miss her so much, I imagined her with me,’ he thought. ‘I’ll call her, ask her to forgive me. No— I’ll write her a letter. Better that way, to get down exactly how I feel.’

*

‘I just had to get out,’ said Prim, ‘even if it did mean walking three miles on a dark road to get home. I’m so glad you’re here. It’s better to have someone to walk with.’

The river rushed by under the bridge and the pale woman walking by Prim’s side smiled.

‘I expect you feel the same,’ said Prim. ‘Walking in daylight is one thing, but at night you just think every car has a mad rapist at the wheel, don’t you? And I’ve had enough of creeps for one night. I swear, I’ll never go on a blind date again.’

They walked on in silence. Prim admired the shimmering dress her companion wore, just like flowing water.

‘That’s a beautiful dress. Been to a party, I suppose? Aren’t you cold, though?’

The woman smiled.

‘Well, It’s a warm enough night,’ said Prim.

The first of the street lights were just coming up. ‘Almost there,’ said Prim, but her companion had gone. Prim assumed that she lived in one of the houses they had just passed, but thought a goodbye would have been nice.

*

A woman was in the lorry cab next to him. She appeared as they went over the bridge, and It was all Will could do not to slam on the brakes. She was pale, wearing a thin silky dress and she was dripping wet.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked, though he could not understand where she’d come from. Had she been hiding in the back of the cab?

It seemed to him that she was asking if he was all right.

‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Never better. But what about you —.’

There was no-one there. He pulled over and stopped. There was no-one there. The seat was perfectly dry, too. He sat for a minute or two, his heart racing.

‘There was no-one there. I imagined it,’ he thought. ‘Why?’

Will drove on, but the vision of the pale woman and her silken clothes flowing with water would not leave him for days.

*

Ron gripped the steering wheel of his car and tried not to think, not to remember what had just happened.

It had not happened. He would take the car through the car wash first thing tomorrow and forget all about it. A moment’s distraction, that was all it was. Could have happened to anyone. But it did not happen.

He was just driving across the bridge when he knew he had a passenger. In the rearview mirror she looked at him, blood and water running down her face. Panic took him, and he braked too hard, the car struck the kerb, tipped and rolled over and over. Darkness.

Flashing lights, a policeman looking in at him, the car door opening. He tried to look around, but his neck hurt.

‘Stay still,’ the policeman said. ‘The ambulance will be here soon. You shouldn’t move.’

‘What happened to her?’ Ron said.

‘Who?’

The police spent some time looking. They noticed the blood on the radiator and the bonnet of the car.

‘Could be a deer?’ said the policeman.

His partner took a flashlight and searched the bridge, back to where the skid marks began, but she found nothing. She looked over the bridge, down into the river, and for a moment she saw a woman beneath the water, pale and fluid, dark hair trailing in the current, but when she shone her light into the river, there was only water weed streaming with the flow.

A different ambulance sped past them, and reports of a hit and run incident followed over the radio.

As she walked back to the accident, the police officer saw, from the corner of her eye, a woman standing on the bridge, pale and cold, water streaming from her hair. The officer knew that if she turned to look there would be no-one there, but she also knew that the river woman was watching.

Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes

‘Pretty aren’t they?’ he said.

They were. Soft red leather with a sprig of daisies embroidered on each rounded toe, a heel, but only a small one, nothing to teeter on, beautiful shoes.

‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ she said. The Wednesday market was known for its vegetables, the artisan bread stall, wonderful sausages from Holly Farm, pottery sometimes, but never a shoe stall.

‘Hand stitched by me,’ said the cobbler. ‘Everyone should have one pair of red shoes. Try them on.’

He was bright-eyed, with dark curly hair and slender hands that did look capable of embroidering daisies onto leather — and the shoes were lovely. Jessie tried them on. They were a perfect fit, almost as if they were made for her. The price was ridiculously reasonable. She bought them.

Later, she wondered when she would ever wear them. There was nothing red in her whole wardrobe. They might go with black, she supposed, or navy blue, but her feet would be the most striking thing the whole outfit. It was a pleasure just to look at them, though. Perhaps she would do exciting things in these red shoes. She put them next to the chest of drawers in her bedroom and they were the last thing she looked at before putting out the light.

The next morning she noticed that the toes of the red shoes were a bit scuffed. How could that have happened? She had not even worn them yet, except for trying them on at the market. Had she accidentally kicked them last night? She could not see how, but that must be the answer.

That morning she bought some special red polish which covered scuffs, and in the evening, carefully polished the shoes, avoiding the embroidery, returning them to almost pristine condition. Jessie arranged a place for them in the shoe section of her wardrobe, thinking of saving them for her next special occasion.

She went to the pub with some friends that night. The red shoes definitely weren’t pub shoes. Even though they had not been expensive, they were so pretty that she wanted to keep them perfect, and she found herself thinking of them now and then. Admitting this to her friends started up a whole discussion about shoes. Pinching toes, heels — how high? How much agony to put up with just to look good.

‘None,’ said Beth, who wore Doc Martens with every outfit and in every season.

The talk made Jessie laugh, and when she got home she kicked off her everyday shoes and felt her footwear obsession go into the corner with them.

The night was filled with vivid dreams that faded as soon as the alarm woke her. She was stiff all over — probably too much booze. Dragging her eyelids open with the force of will, she saw, in the early morning light, something red by the closed wardrobe doors. Those shoes.

They stood together neatly, but when Jessie took a good look, she saw that they were scuffed again. Definitely too much booze. Definitely.

Polish the scuffs out again, put them away, promise not to drink so much in the future, and stop thinking about shoes.

She stayed in the following evening, feeling rather tired, watching five episodes of The Oracle, then going to bed and falling asleep right away. There were more dreams. When she woke, Jessie knew that she had been dreaming, but could not hold onto a single moment of it, and she felt more tired than the evening before. So it took her a while to notice that the shoes were out of the wardrobe again, and this time they were spattered with mud.

She stared them for a good long while, and the only explanation she could come up with was sleepwalking. Somehow, her mild obsession with the shoes had turned into a nightly expedition. She was getting up in her sleep, putting on the shoes, and from the mud on them this time it looked as though she was leaving the house. That was a terrifying thought.

People drove cars in their sleep, she’d heard of that, but where did she go in her pyjamas and red shoes?

By sheer good luck and persistence, Jessie managed to get an emergency appointment with her doctor. he was not wildly sympathetic, but she did get him to agree that she might be put in danger by her nocturnal activities. He prescribed some strong sleeping tablets, suggested putting an alarm on her front door that would be bound to wake her if she opened it, and referred her to a sleep clinic. The waiting time for an appointment was three months.

Before going to bed, Jessie put the red shoes downstairs in the kitchen cupboard, along with the saucepans. She had the stupidest feeling that, just before she closed the door on them, the shoes smiled and winked at her. Not possible. No eyes, no mouth, no winking, no smiling. Just another sign that she was suffering from stress, though she could not actually say that she felt stressed by anything other than the sleep walking.

The next morning the shoes were back in her bedroom.

Jessie stopped cleaning them and they became, day by day, more scuffed, muddy and worn on the soles. In desperation, she decided to try to stay awake the whole night. Coffee would do it. She was very sensitive to caffeine. Two cups, no sleep.

Sitting on the bed, watching the shoes, there came a peculiar moment. Something surged through her, and she was in the shoes, dancing out of the room. One look back and she saw herself sitting on the bed still, but she was leaving, too, wearing a red velvet dress. One, two, three steps and she and the shoes were out in the woods, which were all aglow with flying things, and people were dancing through the trees. They looked like people. They danced and she joined in. There was no choice, the shoes took her where they wanted. Someone with dark eyes and bright silver hair grasped her by the hand and they whirled and flew together through the night.

This time, she remembered it all in the morning.

It happened to be a Wednesday, and she was at the market early, shoes in hand. The cobbler’s stall was there and she marched right up to him, an angry tirade rising in her mind.

‘Hello,’ he said, smiling, ‘you’ve worn them out really fast, haven’t you? Need another pair?’

She did not quite know what to say anymore.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s been awful. What did you do to me?’

‘Really? I thought you were a party girl. My mistake. I don’t do refunds, but I can exchange them for you. Here, try these.’

He took the red shoes, and put a green pair into her hands.

‘No!’ she yelped. ‘I don’t want another pair of your cursed shoes!’

Jessie was looking right at him and his smile, but he was no longer there. She was standing in front of a fishmonger’s stall, shrieking and waving a pair of green shoes. Embarrassed, she turned away, noticing that these shoes were embroidered with dragons in glittering purple thread.

The shoes are in her bedroom, but she is afraid to try them on. They are tiptoeing their way into her heart, though, and she wonders where they will take her. Someday soon her feet will slip into them and she will find out.