Unknown

Unknown

It is dark here, with only a weak glimmer of light in the distance, reflecting off water. Where am I? Why is it so cold?

I begin to walk towards the light, the sound of my footsteps echoing off narrow walls. Reaching out, I touch damp stone either side of me. Some sort of tunnel, but where, and how did I get here? More important — who am I?

A human, certainly, with two arms, two legs, shoes. But — why should I think I might be anything else? There are too many questions here, and no answers.

After some minutes of walking I find the source of the light. It is a torch lying on the floor of the tunnel. Is it mine? Did I drop it? But who even owns a torch any more when you can just use your phone?

Phone. I pat myself down, but find no phone. It must be in my bag. I had a bag, though I cannot remember what it looked like or where I might have left it, but just remembering that such a thing exists is something. A start.

Picking up the torch, I don’t recognise it. If the torch is not mine, then someone else must be down here. I feel a surge of hope and think of calling out, but a sudden fear of what might be in the dark stops me. I also stop trying to explain my situation. I don’t need explanations. I need a way out.

Shining the torch one way and then the other, all I can see are the damp walls of a dark tunnel. Should I continue to walk the way I was facing, or go back in the direction I, perhaps, came from before the moment I woke up here? I do not choose to think about what happened before that moment.

The tunnel seems to be going slightly uphill in the direction I was walking, so I carry on in that direction, not wanting to descend further underground.

To conserve batteries I turn off the torch, flicking it on now and then only to find more tunnel ahead. I have the impression that the tunnel is curved, and I hope it is not circular.

Something is coming. It squeaks as I flick on the torch. A rat. It runs right by me, running scared, but not of me.

Torch off, I listen. There is a faint gritty sliding noise, growing louder, growing closer. I want to run, like the rat, but there is nowhere to run to, no safe haven. Instead, I press myself against the tunnel wall, making myself as small and silent as I can be.

Closer, closer, bit by bit it slides. Then something hot and bulky is right there. An exhalation of sewer-smelling breath makes me gag, but fear damps my reflexes. I am as rigid as the cold wall against my back. The thing pauses as if it knows I am there and I close my eyes, as dark behind my eyelids as it is with my eyes open, but still I hang onto the comfort of an irrational hope — that if I can’t see it, it won’t see me.

Then I realise that if it lives down here in the dark, it does not need to see me. There are other senses. I open my eyes and hold my breath, ready to bolt, but it either fails to detect me or finds me uninteresting, and starts to move again, sliding away along the tunnel.

When the sound of it fades to silence I unfreeze and walk as fast as I can in the other direction. I do not dare to run in the dark, which proves to be wise.

Afraid to turn on the torch, but afraid also of what I might bump into, I continue to flick it on and off every now and then. In one flash, I see something that stops me short.

It looked like a person, but ghostly white. There is no sound. No breathing, no movement. My heart beats so hard that my whole body shakes. I do the only thing I can, and turn the torch back on.

It is a man, standing quite still. As I approach I see that he is covered in pale webs.

‘Hello?’ I whisper.

His eyes are open but he is frozen and I do not think that he can see me. He does not seem to be conscious. I hope he isn’t.

What should I do?

Far away, but not far enough, I hear the thing sliding back towards us. I try to pull on the man’s arm, to shake him awake, but I cannot move him. He might as well be a statue, and now there are webs all over my hands. I try to rub them off, and then I have to run, or I will end up a web-covered statue lost down here forever.

This time I do run, and I keep the torch on. Even so, I almost miss it. There’s a door. I go through it without thinking and close it behind me, then run up stone steps to another door, and then I am through it and standing in a mahogany-panelled hallway. I can see a front door at the end of the hall and I walk towards it, almost more confused by this house than by the dark tunnel.

‘There you are,’ someone says. ‘We really prefer our clients not to wander the house. It can be hazardous.’

The speaker is a dark-haired androgynous person in dark clothing. Their eyes are quite mesmerising, and I am afraid again, but a whisper of memory comes back to me.

‘Someone called me,’ I say.

‘Well, never mind. Madame Nina will see you now,’ they say. ‘She apologises for the delay.’

‘I’m sorry, I can’t — I have to go,’ I say as I move towards the door into the outside world.

They shrug, looking at the torch in my hand.

‘Very well, but if you choose to come again, you will remember not to stray, even if called by name.’

They pick up a bag from the hall table and hand it to me. It’s mine. I know it. I am so relieved that I clutch it to my chest, stumbling through the door and out into the street.

With my first breath of fresh air I inhale the knowledge of who I am, and simultaneously realise that I have blown an appointment it took me weeks to get.

I don’t care. The way out of my problems that I was seeking seems both cheap and dangerous now. I will just have to stand up to it all and take the consequences. Nothing will get me back into that house again. I am haunted by the web-covered face of the man in the tunnel and the sound of the unknown sliding towards us.

Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek

A laugh like birdsong among the trees.

‘April, is that you?’

He thinks he sees her, a bright flutter of flowery fabric out of the corner of his eye, vanishing into the undergrowth. Further along the path, the scuff of a shoe in the leaf litter.

Not a human path, but a narrow fox’s path in the woods. The breeze twisting up a few dry leaves. Is that her again — a fleeting impression of golden hair — or only sunlight on wet foliage?

April lost in the woods, or is it himself lost in the woods without her, following a mirage.

Giving up, he sits down on the rotting trunk of a fallen tree. A laugh like birdsong mocks him.

Midnight under a full moon, the dust in the gutters, the crisp packets and discarded receipts flying up into the air on a hidden breeze, swirling together to give the impression of a person — a hand — two feet skimming along the pavement — the swish of long hair. April again. He does not run after her, knowing he will never catch up.

Midday under a bright sun in the High Street. He looks into a shop window and sees her reflected in the glass, standing behind him, peeping out from behind his back. When he turns to look, she is no longer there. A thin column of grit spirals into the hot air.

April, always there, never there.

He’s sleeping and she ruffles his hair, waking him. He’s cooking and she knocks all the wooden spoons into the sink, turns the cold tap on full and drenches him. He knows it’s her, making trouble as she always did.

He waits for her to pinch him, like she used to, hard and with a twist, a little torture for her other self. But she does not do that.

She has lain at St. Jude’s Hospice for almost a decade, inert but still breathing. In and out, day after day, uselessly breathing, too alive to die, not alive enough to live.

‘I didn’t let go,’ he says again. ‘You were too heavy, I was too weak. My fingers gave way.’

No-one had ever blamed him for what happened. She danced on that wall of her own accord. He tried to hold on to her when she slipped, and the fall was not so far, but she landed badly and her skull cracked.

He looks at the shrivelled woman lying on the bed and knows she is not the same person as the girl who is behind him now, making the air shiver with her presence. Not his twin sister who had been with him his whole life. He knows what she wants.

This time he uncurls his fingers deliberately and lets her go.

She exhales, a long breeze. He feels a pinch on his arm, and a twist. He waits for the automatic in-breath, but it does not come. Everything is quiet.

Alone now for the first time. He cries.

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.

Dream Door

Dream Door

It took a good few minutes of staring at the blank wall for Ben to realised that he must have dreamed the door. This was a plain red brick wall, probably Victorian, mortar crumbling in places, but with no sign of any door, or even any previous opening, now blocked up, at any point along its length. Yet the image of an old weathered door, marked with traces of blue paint, but most flaked off down to the bare wood, now silvered with age — that image was vivid in his mind. He remembered an old iron latch with a twisted ring for a handle. It should have been about here in the wall, just where he stood — except that it was not, and apparently never had been.

It was not common for him to confuse dreams and memories, and his dreams were not usually so detailed and realistic. The discovery that the door did not exist knocked him off balance for the rest of the day, but by the next morning he had forgotten it all.

A week later, about two in the morning, he woke suddenly from a dream. A moment before he had been standing in front of that door again. He’d reached out and scraped off one of the few remaining flakes of blue paint with his thumbnail, then reached down for the latch handle and twisted it up to open the door.

The act of opening the door woke him, and he could still feel the cold iron of the twisted ring in his right hand. The sensation faded, but he could not get back to sleep.

In the morning he took a detour on his way to work, but the door still did not exist.

This time he accepted the non-existence of the door completely. He dismissed the whole thing as just a stupid dream and thought no more about it. In the following weeks he walked past the wall quite often without even looking at it.

He was with a group of friends walking to the pub on Friday night, talking and laughing. Ben half noticed that they were walking past the notorious wall on the other side of the road, but he paid it no attention. Chaz said something stupid and funny, and Ben turned to answer, but behind Chaz, across the road, he saw the door. It was there in the wall, real and solid. Ben stopped walking and stared at it.

‘What?’ said Chaz.

‘That door. Have you ever seen it before?’

‘What door?’

“That one.’ Ben pointed at the door, but it had gone. There was only a blank brick wall.

He had to suffer quite a bit of ridicule for five minutes, but the incident made him feel strange and he could not enjoy the drinking or the chat at all.

Leaving early, he walked back the same way, but on the wall side of the road. He dragged his fingertips along the brickwork, which was real enough. It was still fairly light and he thought he saw a familiar shape in the wall as he approached the halfway point.

There it was again. The door, looking as if it had always been there.

‘You bastard,’ he said, and stopped in front of it, daring it to disappear.

He reached out and scraped off a flake of blue paint with his thumbnail.

‘Am I dreaming?’ he wondered. ‘Was I dreaming earlier on? Does the door only exist in my dreams, or does it exist in reality and when I’m dreaming there is no door?’

That line of thought led nowhere he wanted to go. He reached out and took hold of the twisted iron handle, turned it, and the latch lifted.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

He woke up. He was in the pub with his friends, his hand on a half-full pint of bitter. Everyone was laughing except him. Trying hard not to show how confused he was, he tried to join in the laughter, though he had no idea what was so funny.

‘Something wrong?’ asked Chaz.

‘No. No. Yes. I’m feeling a bit ill,’ said Ben. ‘I think I’ll have to go home.’

He thought of asking Chaz to come with him, but that seemed a bit weak. By the time he was walking the length of the wall, he regretted that decision.

Taking a deep breath he carried on walking, certain that there would be no door.

There was a door.

He really did try to walk past it, but he couldn’t. The only illumination now was a nearby street lamp. He reached out and flaked off a scrap of paint with his thumbnail. It might have been blue, it was hard to tell. He took hold of the cold iron ring and turned it, lifting the latch.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

Welcome to Shuckleigh

Welcome to Shuckleigh

In Shuckleigh, the Old Gods still walk, it seems, and some new ones too. there is no such thing as an unusual experience here, no matter how it might seem to an outsider.

Shuckleigh natives take most phemomena in their stride. Indeed, a casual obsever might think that they ignore anything out of the ordinary, unless it directly affects them. They treat it as they would the weather, in other words.

Occult rituals in the crypt of St. Mary’s Church? A fairly ordinary occurrence in any rural town, and some not so rural. A spectral black dog running down the High Street? Not so usual. The many groups practising occult rituals and holding strange beliefs? Unique to Shuckleigh, perhaps.

In this town, a haunting is an ordinary, quite banal event.

Through this portal, Shuckleigh Chronicles, we hope to show you a town twisted and formed by its interface with other worlds, even as it goes about the ordinary daily life of a small rural town.

Welcome to Shuckleigh