The Gift

The Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But something followed him out of there.

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

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

‘What was that?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two-Face

Two-Face

We thought we were lucky to find this house. It is small for a family of four, but the rent is very low. We moved in about a year ago. There are only two bedrooms upstairs so our nine year old daughter, Sally, had a room on the ground floor, while our son Paul who is eight, has the tiny second bedroom upstairs.

It was working well for a few weeks after we moved in, but then one night about 2pm our daughter came running into our bedroom and shook me and my wife awake. There was someone in the house, she said, walking around downstairs and looking into her room.

Confronting burglars is in the job description for a dad, isn’t it? I had hoped never to have to do it, but I was out of bed and on my way down there before I had time to think about it. Alison, my wife, started to come too, but I told her to stay upstairs and be ready to phone the police.

Putting all the lights on as I went, I searched the whole ground floor, kitchen, sitting room, Sally’s room, even under her bed. It didn’t take long. All the doors and windows were locked and secure and there was no-one down there.

Just a nightmare, we told her, but we let her sleep in our bed because she was so scared.

The next night, same thing. I searched again, not expecting to find anything. I didn’t. I even took her with me and showed her that there was nothing there. She slept with us again.

The third night she refused to sleep in her own room at all. We put her to bed in our room and I told her that I would sleep downstairs to prove that there was nothing to be afraid of.

The bed was way too small for me, but I got to sleep okay.

I don’t know what time it was, but I woke up suddenly, hearing what sounded like footsteps. Just the creaking of an old house, I told myself. Then the bedroom door opened slowly. I couldn’t move. I watched the door open and someone looked into the room. It was an old man, with a very miserable expression on his face. Lying still, I pretended I couldn’t see him, that I was still asleep. The door closed slowly.

I pulled the covers up over my head, but that uncovered my feet, so I curled up into a ball. Then I realised that I was reacting like a nine year-old child, so I forced myself out of bed and out of the room.

The old man was at the far end of the hallway, near the kitchen, looking right at me, but there was something all wrong about him. He started to walk towards me and I panicked and ran upstairs. I was heading for my bedroom, for my wife, running like I was my own child.

‘Just a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m a grown man, not a little boy.’

I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to get some control over myself. Dragging footsteps sounded in the hall, and then the miserable-looking old man was there at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at me.

‘Who the hell are you?’ I asked. ‘What’re you doing in my house?’

Then — well, then he turned his head right round and on the back of his head there was a different face looking at me. Not the same man at all. This one smiled, but not in a friendly way, and his eyes had a sharp glint in them. There was a smell, too, sweet and rotten.

I lost the ability to breathe.

He stood there looking at me for what must have been only a few seconds, but seemed much longer. Then he began to fade away. The last to go were the eyes. They hung in the air, looking at me, blinked and vanished.

When I could breathe again, I was shaking all over. I went and got in bed with Alison and Sally.

Sally said, ‘Did you see the man, Daddy?’

‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘it’s okay.’

But it wasn’t, and we both knew it.

Really, why was I so afraid? He did nothing to me. It seems like he can’t even climb the stairs — but I only have to remember his head turning like that, the eyes, then I can’t breathe and I start to shake.

We moved Sally’s bed up into our room. Most of the day, the house is ours, but during the hours of sleep, the ground floor belongs to him. I hear him walking most nights, and when I hear him, I see his first face turning to show me his second. He is a piece of wrongness in the world, and if he was to touch me, I think the wrong might get into me. I might do harm.

It is me he wants. I know it.

In The Darkness of the Well

In The Darkness of the Well

There are several old wells in Shuckleigh, every one with a story.

In the garden of the vicarage of St Mary’s Church there is a brick-lined well that was capped over in the 18th century with a thick oak lid bound down to the well wall with iron bands. The old wood looks very weatherbeaten now and the iron bands are pockmarked under several coats of black paint, but the structure is strong and solid. If there is perfect quiet in the garden sometimes the swishing of water can be heard, as if there is something down there, imprisoned in the dank darkness.

This well used to be the primary source of water for the vicarage, but the water turned bad, they said.

The vicar at that time was the Rev. Eldridge Manners, a man who could not bear the presence of women about him. His only servants were a man called George who did general housework and cooking, and a boy who came in daily to help out.

In church of a Sunday, Manners would glare at any woman who caught his eye during his sermon, and direct all his general ire concerning the sinfulness of humanity at her and her alone. It was soon the case that all the women preferred to sit as far from the pulpit as they could.

The very front rows were reserved for a few notable families, and it came to be that the women of these families would often become unwell on Sundays and stay at home – all except one young woman, daughter of a local landowner, Sarah Burns. Soon she was the focus of Rev. Manners’ fury, but she met his eyes with a cool gaze that only enraged him more. She never blushed or looked away at all.

Manners called upon her father, and told that gentleman that his daughter was showing all the signs of being a dangerous sinner, but her father denied the accusation.

‘My daughter is the sweetest, most virtuous of girls,’ he said

‘Sin often clothes itself with the outer appearance of great virtue,’ The Reverend told him, and would not be swayed by any argument to the contrary.

Mr Burns left, declaring that he would no longer attend St Mary’s. His daughter, however, insisted on taking her place every Sunday, sitting alone in her family’s pew while the vicar poured vitriol and the blame for all the sins of the world in her direction.

The rest of the congregation were eager to see how this would end, and some of the other women were emboldened to sit a little nearer to the pulpit, since all the vicar’s anger was directed at Sarah and he had forgotten about the rest of them.

As Manners grew more and more furious, Sarah grew more serene. Those who could observe her closely said that there was always the slightest hint of a smile on her lips, even as the vicar predicted eternal damnation for her and all her sex.

One day she arrived at the vicarage, asking to see the Rev. Manners. He would not have her in the house, but came to meet her in the garden, his manservant George with him.

‘Have you come to repent?’ Manners asked.

‘I have little of consequence to repent of,’ Sarah said. ‘I was only concerned for you, Sir. You seem to be making yourself ill with your hatred of womankind.’

The Reverend was taken aback.

‘You presumptuous hussy,’ he said. ‘I am a man of God, and I preach his truth.’

‘No,’ Sarah said, ‘you do not. You preach the word of a different kind of being. I can see him hiding behind your eyes.’

This was the last straw for Manners. He lost control of himself and lunged at Sarah, taking her by the throat. His manservant stepped forward quickly and laid a hand on his arm.

‘Sir-,’

Manners lashed out and struck George so hard that he fell to the ground.

For a moment it seemed that he would kill Sarah, but she remained calm, and he suddenly gained control of himself and let go of her throat.

‘I have a friend,’ said Sarah, her voice shaky and hoarse from the manhandling, ‘who lives with me. She has seen that you have an enemy who lives with you. She is going to stay with you for a while.’

Sarah walked quickly away from that place, but where she had stood, Manners could see a silvery wraith, indistinct and transparent, but with a female form. He backed away, but the wraith approached. He ran past his manservant, who was just picking himself up off the ground, and into the house. The wraith followed.

For days afterwards the wraith, which no-one else could see, was always with him, whispering things that he could not properly hear. He felt as if his soul was being torn from his flesh, and could not eat and would not sleep. Night and day he talked to the invisible being, and George began to think that perhaps Sarah Burns was a witch after all.

Sunday was coming around again, but there was not likely to be any sermon that week.

‘I see,’ shrieked Manners, ‘I see!’

He ran into the garden, pursued by George, and threw himself into the well. While George was frantically running about getting a rope strong enough to lower himself down to retrieve his master, terrible noises were coming from the well – screaming and raging, and the sounds of a torrent of water, like a mighty wave crashing against rocks.

George finally descended, afraid of what he might find. In the darkness at the bottom of the well, he thought he saw three people entwined in a furious fight. He grasped the one he recognised as his master, threw the man over his shoulder and, strengthened by terror, climbed out of the well as fast as he was able.

‘Cover the well,’ Manners gasped as George lowered him to the dry earth.

George needed no more prompting. The well had an oak cover which he pushed into place. Just before the cover slid home, a soft breeze and a silvery mist issued from the well.

Once the cover was on, George weighted it down with half a millstone that was used as decoration in the garden. He said later that he didn’t know how he lifted it.

Manners was weak for a month after that, but not unwell. He looked younger, people said. He would not, however, preach in St Mary’s again, but he was able thereafter to look upon women as people, rather than as vessels for the sins of the world.

Of Sarah Burns, he was terrified. No-one understood why. Gone mad, they said.

He had the iron bands put on the well cover, and soon after left Shuckleigh forever, leaving something behind in the well. No-one has ever tried to find out what it is.

The Spiral Path

The Spiral Path

In a small field near Shuckleigh there is a symbolic labyrinth. It consists of a spiral of grey stones, and a few white ones, sunk into the earth to make a pathway. Labyrinths similar to this one were used in churches for people to walk and pray, instead of undertaking long and difficult pilgrimages to holy shrines — but the labyrinth in the field is no Christian thing. No-one knows who made it, and it has been there for at least three hundred years.

The stones have a little growth of pale green and yellow lichen, but the grass has not overwhelmed them, even though the landowner says he does nothing to keep them free of weeds.

Sometimes local children come to play the game of ‘Beat the Devil’ here, running as fast as they can around the spiral from start to centre avoiding all the paler coloured stones. The game originates in the story associated with the stones. It goes like this:

A girl stepped onto the spiral stones one day, intending to walk the whole thing. She stood on the first stone, looking ahead and seeing how some of the stones shone white, unlike all the others. She assumed that these were the sacred stops on the route to whatever destination lay at the centre.
As she approached the first white stone she saw a small, ugly man, dressed in ragged clothing, standing on the stone.

“Could you stand aside, please?’ she asked.

‘What will you give me?’

‘What do you want?’

‘I want one hair from your head.’

The girl had very beautiful long hair that she was proud of.

‘Why?’ she asked, not happy with the request.

The tiny man gave a strange, angry smile and jumped up to pluck one long hair from her head, and she squealed. He tied the hair in a knot, and threw it onto the white stone at his feet, where it turned into a fat, juicy, pink worm. Tied in a knot.

The little man disappeared.

The girl had to pick up the worm to stand on the stone. She held it in her hands, where it wriggled slowly, trying to untie itself.

A little afraid, she carried on over the stones along the spiral.

The next white stone had a large grey toad squatting on it, which, when she asked it to move, just looked at her and smacked its jaws together.

She threw the fat worm onto the stone in front of the toad. He snapped it up and moved aside.
When she stepped onto the toad’s stone, the girl was sorry for throwing the worm to be eaten. Perhaps she should have tried to un-knot it and let it go into the grass, but then the toad would not have been fed.

Oh, well. Too difficult to work out the right of that. She moved on, and as she did, the stones rose into a staircase ahead of her. One step after another, steeper and steeper, up and up, like a mountain, into the clouds.

When she got to the next white stone, a big black raven stood on it, with a beak like a shining axe.
Afraid of the bird, but unable to go back because the stones behind had vanished, she was forced to approach.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, spreading her hands to show that she had nothing.

The raven leaned forward, and with one quick lunge snipped off her little finger and flew away with it.

The girl screamed and cried, wrapping her wounded hand in her handkerchief. After a few minutes, she gathered enough strength to carry on, trembling and still crying.

Once she stepped onto the raven’s stone, the stones before her began to descend back to the ground as she set foot on them.

She was not happy to see the little man once more, standing on the next white stone, but she took a deep breath and walked on, holding her wounded hand against her chest.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, afraid of what he might want.

‘The Raven is greedy, but I am not,’ he said. ‘All I want is one hair from your head.’

This time the girl did not argue, but plucked a nice long hair for him. He took it, twisted it about as if he was knotting it. The hair turned into a fine gold chain which he wound about the girl’s wrist. He stepped aside, and she proceeded to the next white stone, the last, at the centre of the spiral.

She stood on that last white stone, and her tears and her blood dripped down onto the stone in front of her. There was a hissing sound, and a great white bird rose up from the stone, the blood and the tears.
The bird looked down at the girl with its golden eyes, curved its neck and coughed, one, two, three times. Three large, perfectly white pearls fell from its beak.

The ugly little man ran up and leapt onto the bird’s back, laughing.

‘You have your thanks,’ he called as the bird beat its vast wings and rose into the air.

They were gone in a moment, and the girl was alone in the field, a gold chain about her wrist and three pearls at her feet.

To this day there is a hole where the central stone should be. The locals say it leads straight to hell, and the little man was the Devil.

The Strange Dancer

The Strange Dancer

This is a story told to me by a very old lady, who wished to be anonymous.

When I was a young girl, back in the 1930s, our family lived in a very old house. It was big and rambling, and because my parents didn’t have much money, the house was in a poor state of repair. They were ‘doing it up’ bit by bit.

There was a whole upper floor that we children were not supposed to go anywhere near. They said it was dangerous, but they went up there sometimes, because they used it for storage.

When you are a child, of course, the forbidden looks very attractive.

Our bedrooms were on the first floor, and the forbidden floor was right above us. I shared a room with two of my younger sisters, and lying in bed at night when they were both asleep, I would sometimes hear the quick patter of footsteps across the floor above my head.

I told my parents about it, and they said it was mice, but the footsteps were too distinct to be little scurrying creatures. It sounded more like a small person running across the floor.

I used to lie awake in the dark, listening to the sound of little feet above my head. Whatever it was used to run from the side where the door was in our bedroom over to the window. In the daytime I looked from the garden at the little window above my own bedroom window, expecting, hoping, to see a face looking back at me, but there was never anyone there.

I was never afraid, only curious to know what it was.

One Saturday in July my parents, my brother and sisters were all out in the garden having tea and playing games. My Mother was busy deadheading the roses, which were very beautiful that year. I went inside to fetch a ball from my bedroom. It was right at the bottom of my toybox. Just as I found it, the footsteps ran across the floor above, to the window.

I suppose that I thought that this was my chance to catch whatever it was, so I ran as quietly as I could up the stairs to the forbidden floor. I turned left towards the room above mine, and I remember that the door was open just a crack. Pulling it all the way open, I went in, and found that the room was filled with boxes. There was a narrow, winding path between the boxes, but it was difficult even for a small girl to squeeze through. There was no way that anything, not even a mouse, could quickly and directly run from the door to the window – but I could see a dark shape in front of the window, looking out.

I shouted ‘Hey’ and it turned around. The sun was behind it, very bright, and I couldn’t make out anything but a dark silhouette, like a small person, no taller than me.

Just as I was about to go into the room, I was grabbed from behind and I squealed. The shape at the window disappeared, and my Father, who had stopped me from going in, started to tell me off for being up there at all. I told him what I had heard and seen, but he thought I was making it all up.

He sent me downstairs. Back in the garden, I looked up to see him at the little window. That seemed wrong to me somehow, and I called to him to come down. A couple of minutes later he was in the garden with us again. I asked if he had seen anything, and he told me not to be silly, but there was an odd look in his eyes.

My parents took me aside before bedtime and very seriously told me not to go up to that floor because the boxes might fall on me, and some of the floorboards were old and rotten and might break under my weight.

I did stay away, but the footsteps would sound every might, waking me up. They became odd little prancing noises.

One night I woke to hear pattering on the floor above. For a few days I had been feeling strange and light-headed, and then in the middle of the night, waking like that, I was dizzy and everything felt unreal.

I got up out of bed and went upstairs. The door to the room was shut. When I opened it, I saw that all the boxes were gone. Moonlight was streaming through the little window and someone was twirling around in the middle of the floor, across a carpet patterned with flowers.

I stepped into the room this time and saw that the person dancing was a large cat, as tall as I was, upright on its two back legs. The cat danced towards me, put its paws into my outstretched hands and danced me across the room. I remember now the feel of its warm furry paws and the slight pricking of partly extended claws.

The cat’s eyes were large and glowed amber in the moonlight. Though I could not hear any music, I could feel music in my bones as we spun and danced together across the carpet of flowers.

The next time I woke, I was in a hospital bed. They told me I was unconscious for days with a high temperature, and everyone had expected me to die. I was dancing all that time, but could not tell anyone. There were five tiny prick marks in each of my palms from the cat’s claws.

Back at home again, my sisters were moved into another room while I stayed in bed to recover. I was very weak for a long time and could hardly stand, except when the cat visited me at night and we danced together.

When I recovered my health he stopped coming and I have never seen him since, but I would love to dance with him again. Perhaps I will.

My parents repaired the floorboards on the top floor and took all the boxes out of that room. When I was allowed to go up there, they had laid a new carpet, like a flowery meadow. Exactly the carpet I danced over with the cat. Even today you can see the little pinpricks on my palms where his claws bit into me.

The Long Way Round

The Long Way Round

On Friday and Saturday nights the pizza delivery bikes in Shuckleigh are always busy. Even after midnight, there are still people who want greasy, cheesy toppings on a deep pan base. With or without pineapple.

Jamey was working late one Friday night. He rode a Honda scooter, with a cubic insulated bag on the back. Being a pizza delivery guy on minimum wage in the gig economy was not the height of his ambitions, but he saw it as a temporary thing, and better than being shut up in a hot kitchen for hours, slathering dough with tomato sauce and random dodgy bits and pieces.

That night an order came in around midnight. Another driver was ahead of Jamey for the next delivery, but he took a look at the address, shuddered, and decided to finish for the night, so the job went to Jamey.

Shuckleigh is a small market town in a very rural setting, and this order was for somewhere just a bit out of town. Jamey put the postcode into his phone and set off to find the place before the pizzas got cold.

He had to turn off onto a tiny unclassified road, about the width of one car with occasional passing places, which is not unusual around here. Jamey’s phone told him that he would pass a farmhouse and then go on half a mile to the very end of the road, where his destination lay. He could not miss it, because the road did actually end, with no further to go and no turn offs, so when, just after the farmhouse, he lost phone signal, he was not too bothered. Outside the town coverage is patchy, nothing strange about that.

There was a little light from a gibbous moon, but otherwise Jamey had to depend on his scooter’s headlight. For that reason, and the narrowness of the road, he had to go slowly. A hedgehog santered across the road in front of him, gave him a dirty look as he just missed it, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Then a badger crossed his path in a hurry, so he slowed even more. Even so, the road went on far longer than half a mile. He saw two miles tick over on the milometer, but still had not come to the end of the road.

It was so dark, and he was so alone, that he grew increasingly uneasy.

Instead of open farmland, he was now surrounded by tall trees, the thin moonlight just filtering down through the almost leafless branches.

He had to keep his eyes on the narrow strip of road, but a sudden movement between the trees registered in the corner of his eye, and he glanced that way.

There was something there, darting from tree to tree. Something large. Not a deer, because it was on two legs, but it did not move like a person, either. Jamey speeded up. He did not want to know what might be out there, but he could tell that it was following him, keeping pace with his speed. On that narrow dark road, he did not dare go faster. He told himself that it was just shadows seen from the corner of his eye, nothing more.

Jamey preferred rationalism, it being so much pleasanter to believe in a simple, normal explanation for all things, so he did what most people would not do. He stopped, and looked directly into the woods to assure himself of the thing’s non-existence.

As he stopped, the following thing also stopped. He looked into the trees, and in the moonlight all he could see were shadows, and because there was no wind, the shadows were all perfectly still.

Then one of them moved.

A shock of fear went through Jamey, but he still told himself that it was nothing. He turned the scooter so that its headlight shone into the trees. Everything within its beam was illuminated, except for one shadow, blacker than the night, in the shape of a huge man-like creature. There were no features, only a blank shadow shape that did not give way to the light. It stepped towards him, one, two strides.

Jamey’s reassuring rationalism fled into the night. Without thinking he accelerated away down the road as fast as he could, forgetting to care about wandering hedgehogs, or anything else. He did not dare look anywhere but at the road, even though he was convinced that the shadow was still following him.

Suddenly the road came to an end at a small red-brick house. Trembling, he took out the pizzas and rang the doorbell.

An ordinary-looking man opened the door and accepted the pizzas.

‘You took your time,’ he said.

‘The road was longer than I thought.’

‘Did you come through the woods?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go back the other way.’

‘How–?’

But the man had shut the door.

Jamey looked out into the night along the only road, and shivered. Knowing that he could not stand on a stranger’s porch all night, he summoned up all of his disbelief in spooky things, started up his scooter and set off back to town.

Riding along, he looked for possible side roads, but finding none, dreaded the approach of the woods. It was only a few minutes before he saw the lights of the farmhouse, and a couple of minutes after that he came to the main road. He had travelled a little over half a mile and there were no woods.

His relief was mixed with puzzlement and even a little touch of disappointment. He looked back the way he had come, and he swears that he saw the shadow standing in the middle of the road, looking at him with invisible eyes.

He broke the speed limit on the way back to the comforting lights of the town.

The Legend of the Mirror

The Legend of the Mirror

In the Shuckleigh Museum there is an exhibit labelled ‘Eve’s Mirror’. No-one seems to know where the name originated.

The object in question is a solid silver disc about twelve inches, or thirty centimetres, in diameter with a patterned rim and an elaborate twisted handle across it, terminating in stylised flowers. It is a mirror, but the plain polished surface faces away from the viewer in the museum for display purposes, or perhaps for other reasons.

It has the local reputation of being a fairy mirror, but the museum curators assure us that it is, in fact, Roman.

The first known record of this beautiful object in in the 15th century when it was in the possession of Eleanor Mosse, wife of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse.

Sir Thomas went away from his lands for two years and returned with a wife, Eleanor. By all accounts she was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, and she often wore green. She was tiny and most delicate looking, but with a fearsome glint in those dark eyes when she had cause for anger. The rumour spread that she was a fairy woman.

She brought with her a number of remarkable things which reinforced this idea, the mirror being prominent among them, and her pure white horse which only her own groom, himself an odd, taciturn fellow, was allowed to tend.

Having the reputation of fairy origins was probably an advantage to the lady. No-one would have been eager to anger her in any way, for then they would not only have had her to deal with, but also all of her kind.

Sir Thomas had a young niece, who came to stay in his household under the protection of his wife until the time came for her marriage. A rich baron had taken a great fancy to the girl, who was lovely in that pink-cheeked way of young girls, and the marriage was a significant step up for the Mosse family.

Eleanor showed every sign of fondness for the girl, and would allow her to sit in her rooms as she was dressed and her mirror was brought to her, covered in a silk cloth. The maid held up the mirror by the twisted handle and drew away the cloth so that only Eleanor could look into its reflective face. One day the girl asked to see herself in the mirror. Eleanor refused.

‘But why?’

‘The mirror tells only the truth, and the human is rare who can look upon the truth without harm. People must live in their lies in order to make life possible.’

The girl was indignant.

‘I do not live in lies! I want only the truth.’

‘That may be what you believe, but you are very young and have dreams and a world in your head that is not like the world that is.’

She put away the mirror and ceased to allow the girl into her rooms when she was dressing.

The girl was disappointed and angry, believing that she would see the truth of her own great beauty in the mirror, and that Eleanor did not want this. She kept her counsel and waited for an opportunity.

One day she was left unattended for a while, and Sir Thomas and Lady Eleanor were out riding. The girl took her chance and slipped into Eleanor’s chambers. Taking the mirror out from the box in which it was kept, she slipped off the silk cloth and gazed upon her own beautiful face in its reflective surface.

They found her there, the weight of the mirror dragging on her arms, her face haggard, eyes wide, unable to look away until the cloth was thrown over the mirror once again.

The girl spoke only nonsense afterwards, and she cried a great deal. when she was not crying or babbling, she fell silent and stared into the far distance at things only she could see.

She was quite unfit for marriage.

Sir Thomas was furious. He burst into his wife’s rooms and demanded the mirror.

‘It is not the fault of the mirror, but of the girl,’ the lady said, but Sir Thomas was in a high fury. He took the mirror, rode to the lake, and threw it in.

Eleanor called for her white horse and rode away from Sir Thomas’s house, along with her groom and the few things she had brought with her. When she did not soon return, Sir Thomas set off to find her. He came back five years later, a broken man.

He had the lake dragged and the mirror retrieved, polishing it clean himself. For the rest of his life, which was not long, he sat in his library staring into the mirror, weeping, and begging whatever he saw there to bring back his wife.

She never returned, for a fairy once offended can never forgive.

Sir Thomas’s line ended, and the mirror, boxed up safely and locked away, passed into the hands of his brother, and then down the generations until the last of the Mosse line donated it to the museum.

Did the curator who polished it for display wear a blindfold, or did they take a look at themselves and see the truth? The museum label does not say.

The image with this post is of the Wroxeter mirror, which is on display in Shrewsbury Museum. If you ever get a chance to visit this museum, I can recommend it highly.

Offerings

Offerings

Back in the 1950s a hole opened up in the garden of a suburban house in Shuckleigh. It appeared overnight. Not a very wide hole, about a metre in diameter, and almost perfectly circular, like a giant’s drill-hole, very deep.

The people who lived in the house were Harry and Lucie Morgan and their children James and Daisy. Naturally alarmed, they called in a builder who said it must be a sinkhole, but he knew of no mining or underground cave that might have caused it.

They fenced off the hole and a geologist came to look at it, said it must be a sinkhole and tried to measure its depth, but his line was not long enough, which he found remarkable.

Since their house did not appear to be in any danger, the Morgans got used to the hole and started to ignore it. Daisy began to throw things into it, a crust of bread, a pebble, a doll that she was now too old for.

When the doll went down, the hole rumbled.

Daisy, who was thirteen and had never really liked dolls anyway, went and got all her others and threw them into the hole one by one. The hole rumbled every time.

The last one went down to a very satisfied-sounding rumble and Daisy got scared in case she was setting off some kind of vibration that would make the sinkhole get bigger and swallow the whole garden. She went back into the house and pretended that nothing had happened. Nothing did happen.

The geologist came back with a colleague and he descended into the hole on a rope. Daisy watched, for two reasons: The geologist was young and good-looking, and she was waiting to see if the hole would rumble when a real live person went down there.

The rope paid out for a long time before he called to be pulled back. Up he came, holding a dirty and battered doll in one hand.

‘Is this yours?’ he asked Daisy. ‘It was caught on a root.’

Embarassed, she took the doll. He smiled at her and she blushed bright red, which only made him smile more.

To her father he said, ‘The hole goes right into the bedrock, but it gets too narrow for me to get to the bottom of it. I’ve never seen anything like it before. No idea what caused it, but it seems stable.’

They went inside to discuss practical matters and Daisy stayed by the hole, mortified, clutching the dirty doll. As she stood there, she heard a whistle from the hole.

‘What?’ she said.

It whistled again, a few brief notes, like someone calling a sheepdog.

Very annoyed with everything, Daisy threw the dirty doll. It bounced off the edge and fell into the darkness. The hole made a low rumble.

She went indoors, and passing the living-room door, she heard, ‘…fill it with concrete…’

Serve it right, she thought.

That night the hole started whistling again.

Daisy’s brother, James, heard it too. It woke him in the dark small hours and he looked out of his window. Daisy was standing in the moonlight, looking down into the hole as if she was listening. James opened the window to call to her to come in, but in the moment he took his eyes off her to find the window latch in the dark, and then looked back, she had vanished. He thought he had dreamed it. There was no more whistling and no-one in the garden. He closed the window and went back to bed.

In the morning, Daisy was nowhere to be found.

James told his parents what he had seen and they called the Fire Brigade to go down into the hole in case Daisy had fallen in. There was no sign of her.

For two days the neighbourhood was searched. Every shed, every garden, the countryside all around.

On the third night there was a tremendous rumble that rocked the whole house and the whole neighbourhood.

Fearing subsidence, the family ran into the garden to find that the fence around the hole had fallen, and where the hole once was, their daughter lay curled up on the earth, as dirty as if she had been dug from the ground.

Daisy did not speak for six months, and when she did, she claimed to have no memory of anything that had happened.

Of the hole there was no sign but a circular patch of bare earth on which nothing would grow for many years.

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

One of the tales told of Sleetswood is that of the Old Lady. She must always be addressed as a lady, or she might take offence.

It is said that she lives in a house made of the bones of every animal that has ever died in the woods, and that includes people. It is also said that if you find her house then it will not be long before your whitened bones are added to its walls.

There are several explanations of who she is. One is that she is a witch, wrongly accused of blighting a farmer’s cattle and condemned to be burned, but the Devil himself came down and pulled her out of the flames, casting her into the woods where she remains to this day, bearing a fierce grudge against the rest of humanity. Especially men.

Others maintain that this is untrue, that no witches were ever burned in Shuckleigh. They say that the Old Lady is the spirit of the wood, one of the fairy folk left behind when the great forests were felled and her wood became an island surrounded by people. The wood is her home, her domain, and whoever strays into it is subject to her desires. She might leave you alone if the mood strikes her and you are attuned to the ways of the wood, but if you behave like a human – take without repaying, cast off your unwanted litter without thought, crash through the woods disturbing those who belong there – then she will make you pay.

There is one curious account from the 1920s of an encounter with the Old Lady.

A young man was visiting relatives in Shuckleigh, and having nothing to do one day, he went for a walk. The woods looked cool and inviting on a hot summer’s day, and, never having heard the stories, he decided to go in, looking for birds’ nests. In those days. collecting eggs from nests was considered a healthy hobby for a young person.

He climbed through the thorny undergrowth and began to wander about the woods, searching the trees for promising signs. After a while he found a few different eggs and stowed them carefully in a cotton-wool lined box he carried for the purpose in his knapsack.

Not long after his third or fourth depredation on the bird life of the woods, he became aware that there was someone else nearby. He heard a lovely song being sung, but could not make out the words. Following the sound, he soon found a sweet-looking old lady with long silver hair and old-fashioned green clothes sitting on a fallen tree trunk. She stopped singing and smiled at him.

He said hello and asked if she needed any help, because he was a well brought-up youth.

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘someone has stolen my eggs.’

Thinking she was talking about hens’ eggs, he sympathised with her and said how sorry he was to hear that.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you will be sorry.’

She stood up and stepped towards him, opening her mouth wide and letting out a wild and frightful scream. The young man should have been scared, but he was mesmerised by the strange scene, and she was only a tiny old lady. He stood there, wondering if she was perhaps a bit mad.

As she moved towards him, her mouth kept opening wider and wider. he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Closer and closer she got, and her mouth became a dark cave bearing down on him. Then he thought he saw in that cave darker creatures, with red eyes like hot coals, coming towards him.

He watched in puzzlement and fascination as the cave grew larger and nearer and the creatures within it approached and reached out for him.

All at once it occurred to him to be frightened. He still did not understand what he was seeing, but he understood that it was dangerous and that it was coming for him.

He screamed and ran, lashed by branches, slashed by brambles, but managing to break out of the wood at last.

He got away with his life and most of his sanity, but the Old Lady kept his knapsack and the stolen eggs.

What We See In The Woods

What We See In The Woods

In the woods, we come face to face with our primal fears. On a bright summers’ day, alone among the trees we may feel watched, stalked by something that means to do us harm.

Even on this island, shorn of its once great forests, there are still wooded places that harbour things to hunt us. No more wolves or bears, but stranger things. Spirits of the wild.

Shuckleigh, of course, has its own haunted wood. Behind the derelict shoe factory there is a large area of woodland called Sleetswood after the family who own both the long defunct shoe factory and the wood.

Although there is no prohibition on walking in these woods, very few people ever go there. So close to town, it would appear to be the perfect location for a picnic or a day communing with nature, but there are many stories associated with the woods and local people know them and cannot help at least half-believing them.

From the outside the wood looks impenetrable. The remains of a fence lie against the edge nearest the road, but a fence is unnecessary in the face of the dense thorny barrier of hawthorn, sloe, and bramble that borders the larger trees. Foragers do collect the fruits of this vegetable barrier, paying for their bounty in blood, as every bush and vine is armed with miniature daggers.

One person has given us his account of going further into the dark woodland. Here it is, in his own words.

‘My Grandma used to tell me all the old Shuckleigh stories, you know, the Black Dog and all that, and she told me all about Sleetswood and the things that were supposed to live in it. I loved those stories, the way I loved Hammer Horror films.

‘This was the 1960s, I was 14, and some of us, all boys, thought it would be clever to spend Hallowe’en in Sleetswood. There was me, Alan, Bill, Francis and Davy. We all told our parents we were staying with Francis, and he said he was staying with me. Hallowe’en wasn’t a big fun thing in those days. In Shuckleigh, everyone kept their doors closed and stayed home, just in case.

‘Everyone brought some food, a blanket and a torch, and we planned to have a campfire. It was a big dare really.

‘We got fairly cut up on the way in, but we made it and eventually found a bit of a clearing. Alan started to set up the fire. He was a boy scout and he got it going really well, which was great because it was pitch black in there. You couldn’t see the sky, and there was a big moon that night, but none of the light made it down through the trees.

‘We sat around that fire with our backs to the darkness, telling spooky stories and pretending not to be afraid. I don’t know about the others, but I was scared and cold and I would’ve liked to go home. I stayed because I didn’t want to be laughed at, and I wouldn’t have been able to find my way out by myself. Nothing had happened, but I felt the woods, the trees, something, leaning in, pressing down on me. I just kept looking at the flames, as if the light would keep me safe.

‘Alan was sitting next to me, sometimes feeding the fire with sticks. Bill had just finished telling a ghost story about the woods we were sitting in, the one about the old lady. We were all laughing louder than usual, but maybe loud enough to push the night away from us. Suddenly Alan grabbed my arm.

‘”What’s that?” he whispered, pointing across the fire into the darkness.

‘I couldn’t see anything, because of looking into the bright fire, and I thought he was trying to wind me up.

‘”Nothing,” I said and gave him a shove. Then the fire went out, like someone had poured a bucket of water on it, and it was a good fire, not just a couple of twigs burning.

‘”Hey,” I shouted, jumping to my feet, ready for a fight. “Who did that?” I was angry and fed up with being frightened.

‘I couldn’t see a thing, so I got my torch out of my pocket and turned it on.

‘There was no-one there. I thought they were ganging up on me because they knew I was scared, but the more I looked, I knew it was all wrong. This wasn’t the same place. There was no clearing, no sign of a fire, no blankets, chocolate wrappers, crisp packets or anything. Just trees. All around and close by, crowding around me.

‘Then my torch went out and I couldn’t get it to come back on again.

‘Something touched my back. I screamed and jumped away, banging into a tree that I swear hadn’t been so close a moment before.

‘Turning around, I threw out my hands to keep away whatever was coming up on me, and touched only rough bark. There was a creak and the tree leaned towards me, pushing me back against the trunk of the other.

‘I know that I screamed. Twisting and wriggling, I got free, pushing my way through, crashing into tree after tree. Hands like twigs, or twigs like hands, grabbed and clawed at me and every tree put itself in my way.

‘Running in the dark, what I imagined and what was real, I don’t know. I fell and landed in wet rotting leaves, smelling of earth and decay. More and more leaves started piling down, like someone was shovelling them over me. I struggled, drowning, trying to fight my way out, but sinking deep down instead, damp leaves in my mouth and my eyes. I must have fainted.

‘Bright light in my eyes. Someone spoke my name. It was Bill, filthy, with wide scared eyes in his dirty face. I must have looked the same. We were lying at the edge of the wood, as if it had thrown us out. The others were there too, except for Alan.

‘We got in big trouble from our parents. We had to tell them, because of Alan. It took a day of searching to find him, in the little clearing, sitting by the ashes of the fire, smiling like a crazy person and talking to someone who wasn’t there.

‘After that he never spoke to real people again, and he was always going back to the wood. Someone told me he’d gone into the wood one day and never come back out again. I don’t know if that’s true.’