The Wicker Woman

The Wicker Woman

Beth was afraid of shop window dummies. Their fixed distant gaze, their frozen attitudes their almost-but-not-quite humanness, all these made her shudder. What she hated most was the shock on releasing that what she thought was a person, was not.

This only became a real problem when she opened her own dress shop.

It was a tiny shop, just off the High Street, and everything in it was her own work, from original designs to reworked vintage pieces. She needed a window display. Starting with a couple of pieces on hangers suspended from the ceiling was okay, but looked amateurish. Then a friend told her about a sculptor working in basketry.

Ella was a magician with wickerwork, and she made a beautiful, tightly-woven, figure of a woman for Beth. The mannequin stood a little taller than Beth, in a graceful pose with its arms by its sides as if they were just about to be raised to the world. The wickerwork was smooth enough not to snag on clothing, and the arms were detachable for easy dressing. Importantly, the face had no features. it was a perfect womanly form without being too human.

Beth was very happy, and quite comfortable with this solution. She dressed the figure in a red dress and black velvet coat. They both sold very quickly, and people kept on coming in. Everything was going better than she had hoped.

There were times when no customers were in the shop, and Beth would go back into the little sewing room to work on new pieces. She would hear the occasional creaking sound from the shop, but when she looked out nothing was amiss.

One day, changing the clothes on the mannequin, she noticed that one arm did not fit back into its place quite as it should. It had raised a little, as if reaching for something. Just the basketwork drying in the sun, Beth supposed. She finished dressing the window and went back towards the sewing room. a loud creak sounded behind her. Turning around, she saw that the mannequin’s arm had raised a bit more. The early morning sun must be warming it, she reasoned, hoping that it would not warp too much, thinking about phoning Ella to ask for advice.

Beth forgot all about it during her busy day of selling and making, pleased by the success of her venture. At the end of the day, she was reaching for the door on her way out when there was another creak from the mannequin, and she thought its head had moved, just a little, to look in her direction.

‘It doesn’t have eyes. It can’t look,’ she told herself. ‘It’s just cooling down now the sun isn’t shining on it any more.’

She got out of the place as fast as possible, though.

In the morning as she came in, she could not help looking over at the mannequin and saw at once that its head had turned far enough to appear to be looking directly at her. She shut the door and moved quickly to the back of the shop, to turn on the lights.

Her heart was pounding, but she calmed down quickly. The wicker was drying, that was all, or the shop was too humid. Some change in the atmosphere had caused the warp and weft of the woven structure to twist.

Beth went back to the shop door, changed the sign to ‘Open’ and looked directly at the mannequin. Nothing to be afraid of.

Later on she phoned Ella to describe what had happened and to ask if there was anything she should do. Ella laughed.

‘It’s no problem,’ she said. ‘I like to weave a little life into my sculptures, that’s all.’

Afterwards, Beth wondered exactly what Ella meant — and that odd laugh — but set it aside and got on with her work.

Clearing up in the sewing room at the end of the day, she thought she heard something in the shop, but paid no attention. Then she heard it again, a noise like something dry being dragged across the floor.

Picking up a large pair of scissors, trembling, she edged into the shop.

The mannequin was no longer in the window, but stood in the middle of the floor, between Beth and the door. She sucked in a quick panic breath and held it, frozen, looking at the thing. It reached out towards her with both arms. She let the breath out in a ragged scream and ran forwards, stabbing at the mannequin over and over. It fell, crumpled and crumbling, at her feet and she took hold of it, dragging it to the tiny back yard space where the bins were kept, pausing only to grab some matches she used for testing fabrics.

Dropping the broken mannequin on the concrete, Beth struck match after match, letting them fall onto the dry basketwork figure. It did not take long to catch fire. She watched it crackle and burn, its head twisting in simulated agony, flames giving the face a mouth and eyes at last, the arms reaching out, trying to touch her.

Beth stood until nothing remained but a drift of smouldering ashes. Amazing how fire could make something seem alive, she thought, but it was only movement caused by combustion, wasn’t it?

A piece of singed fabric fluttered in the hot air, and she briefly regretted the fate of the dress the mannequin wore. Then she turned away, went inside, shut the door and carefully forgot that the thing had ever existed.

Old Eyes

Old Eyes

Many weathered faces look down on the passerby, some of them almost human. Gargoyles, green men, Venus reclining on a shell, and a dragon carved into the wood of the only remaining half-timbered building on the High Street, the oldest face of all.

When Peter was new to the town, a year or so ago, he noticed all these architectural flights of fancy with interest. Then he forgot they existed and only saw the shopfronts and the people walking, and on some days nothing but his own thoughts or the messages on his phone.

The dragon was carved just above head height. It was about a metre long and appeared to be crawling down the facade. When Peter first saw it he took a photo, thinking it looked more like a bored iguana. He shared the photo on Instagram, had a laugh, moved on.

Walking to the pub one evening, just at twilight, the street lights only beginning to warm up, the sky was deep blue, darkening by the minute. There was no-one else around, which was unusual, but Peter did not notice because he was absorbed in the music piped into his ears from his phone, and his own internal obsessions. Then the music stopped, and so did he.

His phone was dead. He stared down into its blank black face and saw only his own reflection. This was a mystery. Half an hour ago the phone was fully charged. He shook it, banged it against the palm of his left hand, swore. None of that made any difference. He swore some more, pulled out his earbuds, then swore again.

That was when he noticed that there was no-one else in the street, not even a passing car. For a fleeting moment he wondered if the Apocalypse had happened and he’d missed it.

A street light flickered into almost full brightness a few metres further along and he dismissed the fancy. He shook his phone again, though he knew it would do no good.

Behind him there was a loud creak like a ship’s timbers flexing in a heavy sea. Startled, he turned towards the sound and saw the carved dragon looking directly at him. He flinched, and was glad there was no-one to see his reaction. He laughed, but then it seemed to him that the dragon’s head used to look downwards, not to the left as it did now. He thought of the photo on his phone and went to check it, but of course —

The creaking sound came again and he looked up quickly to see the carved dragon actually shifting on its front legs the better to stare him in the eye.

He yelped and backed off. Automatically, he held up his phone to try to film what he was seeing, but of course —

Above him there was now the sound of stone grinding on stone. He looked up to see that all along the street every bit of architectural decoration that had a face was turning to look at him. Gargoyles, green men, some weird snake things that he’d previously thought were vines, even Venus, every one of them turned to look at him. Then, slowly, they began to creep across the facades of the buildings in his direction.

He yelped again and started to run, convinced that he heard the clatter of stony feet hitting the ground behind him. If only he could record any of it, but of course —

The sun finally dropped below the horizon and all the street lights came on. Peter cannoned into someone waiting to cross the road. There were cars going by and the normal number of people everywhere. After he apologised at length to the offended person, Peter looked back along the street. Illuminated by the mercury lights, each and every one of the statues and carvings was frozen in its usual place and attitude, although the body of one of the snakes did seem to droop a bit further down than the other.

He stared for a while, wondering if he had been dreaming while awake.

The phone buzzed in his hand and he almost dropped it. Just a notification, but the screen was lit up, and when he put his earbuds back in, the music was playing where it left off.

Afterwards, he never failed to look at the populace of the building fronts, to nod to the dragon, smile at Venus, recognise that they were there, and hope that they would never move again.

Swallowed by Night

Swallowed by Night

Out go the lights. At one pm all the side streets of the town are flicked into darkness. Few people are about, and fewer still as the night bears down. Even the town’s homeless population take refuge in the shelter which closes its doors at midnight. All the town’s doors are closed by midnight.

An occasional car drives by. No-one else is out except for the shadows.

On this particular night a woman was walking alone in the dark streets, head down, shoulders hunched, footsteps firm and rapid. She seemed wrapped about in something darker than the night, and not concerned with whatever might be watching her. And there was something watching her.

As she walked, movement sensitive porch lights flashed on here and there. The follower avoided these pools of light. He stalked her through the streets, getting closer as they walked. She was so small a morsel, so slight, and so tempting.

The follower made no sound. He wondered where this woman was going at this hour of the night. The night folded around them. A cat crossed the pavement in front of the woman, froze, then fled.

A certain familiar shadow cast across the woman’s path but, like the cat, it did not stay to trouble her.

The follower lost patience with his curiosity. Hunger overrode his interest in the destination of his prey and he became less cautious in his pursuit, speeding up and not concerning himself about the few intermittent light sources.

She heard him. He saw that she did by the slight stiffening of her shoulders and the way that she, too, quickened her pace. Feeling his own power and the greater length of his stride, he easily closed the distance between them. Now he could tell that she was wearing a dark hooded garment.

He was almost on her when she stopped and turned halfway towards him. This was unexpected. Prey usually tried to run for it, that was half the pleasure. He stopped too, hesitating.

‘Go away,’ she said.

Her voice was clear, but small, almost as if it came from very far away — perhaps from the other end of a long, silent tunnel.

He laughed, and took a step closer.

‘I am warning you, go away,’ she said.

‘You’re warning me are you?’ I am so scared,’ he hissed.

She should have started to run, then he would be on her in a moment, but instead she began to turn slowly all the way towards him. He felt an unaccustomed sense of unease. Her face was invisible in the cover of the dark hood.

Against the urging of a primal fear, he stood his ground, sure that he was the one to be feared. He laughed again, and came on towards her.

He was far too close when he realised that she had no face, that she was not a woman at all.

Beneath the hood there was a pit of the most profound darkness. If he had shone a torch into it, all the light would have been swallowed up, never to escape.

Now it was too late. He stretched like a string of melted cheese, pulled long and taut, sucked forward into that inexorable darkness. There was a screech, then silence.

The woman pulled the hood closer about her, turned, and walked on, resuming her endless journey, always ahead of the dawn.

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.

The Relic

The Relic

‘And this, my friend, is a real treasure.’

He handed me an oblong rosewood box inlaid with mother of pearl.

‘It’s a nice enough box,’ I said, not particularly wanting to be talked into overpaying for something I did not really desire. That has happened once too often and i honestly did try not to come in to Mosse’s Antiques and Vintage, not more than once a month, anyway.

‘Not the box,’ said Mosse with an impatient wave of the hand.

I opened the box and inside there lay a nice, but not rare, pearl-handled dip pen with a gold nib, old ink still crusted at its tip.

‘Erm, well, it’s a nice enough pen—‘

‘That, my friend, is the pen of Aesop Allen.’

My stomach gave a little twist, but he might as well have been trying to sell me a yeti tooth.

‘Oh yes?’ I said with as much scepticism as I could express. ‘No-one knows anything about Aesop Allen.’

‘Not true. The one thing known for sure is that he came from Shuckleigh.’

‘Well, that much, yes, but—‘

‘This pen has an impeccable provenance. I purchased it from a member of the Hollister family, and it is accompanied by a contemporary note.’

Mosse flipped open a velvet-covered flap in the lid of the box and an old piece of paper slid into his hand. I unfolded it and read what was written on it in black ink in a clear, but undoubtedly Victorian hand.

‘This pen was given to me by Aesop Allen as a token of our deep friendship. With this pen, Aesop Allen wrote Harrow Hall and other famous books. H. Hollister.’

‘Harrow Hall,’ I said, that terrifying work about primeval fear ripping apart the rational veneer of Victorian country life.

My fingers trembled as I refolded the paper and presumed to pick up the pen.

‘It looks quite ladylike,’ I said. ‘Some people say that Aesop Allen was a woman.’

‘Feminist piffle!’ snapped Mosse. ‘The muscularity of the prose completely rules that out.’

I did not judge it wise to pursue the point, and I forgot about it as I felt the pen vibrate with possibility in my hand.

‘H. Hollister was Hester Hollister, wife of the Rev. Mordechai Hollister of St Marys.’

‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘I have heard of him, and the dates would be right, but can you be sure of the attribution?’

‘It is absolutely authentic. The family have shown me other documents which attest to that. Hester Hollister evidently knew Aesop Allen very well. Indeed, she may have been the only person who knew his true identity.’

Mosse knew me too well, I realised.

‘What are you asking for it?’

He named a sum that caused my vision to blur at the edges. Then he prised the pen from my fingers and returned it to the box with the note. Smiling, he placed it back in the locked cabinet.

‘It is a unique item directly associated with one of the greatest gothic novelists of the nineteenth century,’ he said. ‘I am afraid the price is non-negotiable.’

The pen that had written Harrow Hall. I went home and reached for my first edition of the book, a modest small octavo bound in green cloth, its exterior not hinting at the dreadful events recounted in its pages, unlike the editions of the 1890s with their vulgar illustrated boards. I did not open it. I have never opened it since the day I finished reading it. I do not need to.

The next day I got in touch with every Hollister still living in Shuckleigh, and they all confirmed the provenance of the pen.

I bought it, of course, as Mosse had known I would.

For months I investigated the life of Hester Hollister, but alas, there was little to be discovered. She was the wife of a clergyman who evidently discharged her duties and left no mark on the records of the town, other than her mere existence. The local records office and the museum held a number of local Victorian diaries, but though I spent a full month reading them I found only a few innocuous references to the lady, and no hints at all about her close friendships.

The pen itself I kept locked in my desk drawer and hardly dared to look at it. All the demons of Harrow Hall rose up in my mind when I thought of it. So pretty and slight a thing to be responsible for bringing such nightmares into the world.

If you have read the book itself, you will recognise that in writing this account I have fallen into using the language of the story. Decorous, formal and precise — but I am unable to conjure up such horrors as Allen did, when writing with a biro purchased from W.H. Smith.

I bought a bottle of real ink and a pad of good paper and sat down at my desk to try my hand at writing a ghost story. I had a little idea and thought that, if I got the atmosphere right, I might be able to make something of it.

Taking up Aesop Allen’s pen, I dipped it into the ink and sat a while, pen poised over the top sheet of paper, trying to compose my first sentence.

I came back to consciousness an hour later by the clock above my desk, my right hand stained with ink and four pages of closely-written text before me, the ink still wet in places.

I could not remember writing a single word of it, and worse, the writing was not my own. It was a story called ‘The Relic’, and the central character was myself. I read how I became obsessed with a haunted pen, trying to wring unearned talent from beyond the grave, until the dead turned on me. I was found murdered, and the instrument of my death was the very pen I still held.

Hastily folding the hand-written sheets, I pushed them into the desk drawer along with the pen, and locked it.

No matter how hard I scrub my hand, I cannot get the ink stains out. Every night I dream the events of the story and see myself dead on the floor of my study, a pearl-handled pen stuck in my neck, the pool of blood growing around me blackened with ink.

I would burn the story and the pen, but first I would have to unlock the drawer and let it out, and I am too afraid to do that.

Dust and Shadows

Dust and Shadows

There was such a thing as too much peace and quiet. It was making him jumpy.

At first the move from London to the countryside was great. Life was slower, you could hear the birds singing, no constant traffic noise, it was like a holiday. After a while, though, the feeling fell away. This was everyday life now, and the birds were really loud, especially first thing in the morning when you were trying to sleep.

The house was Victorian and it made a lot of noise for something so solid-looking. It creaked in the sunshine and whistled whenever the wind blew. There were all kinds of thumps and ticking noises that Neil could not find the source of.

Laurie had a job in the town, Shuckleigh, and brought back stories of all kinds of spooky goings-on that the locals apparently took seriously. They laughed about it at first, but alone in the house all day working at the computer, Neil started to have weird feelings.

A floorboard would creak behind him and all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He felt he was being watched. Sheer paranoia, of course. It was a big house for just the two of them and he was alone in it for so many hours.

The house was set quite far back from the road, which led to a tiny village a mile further on, so there was little traffic. There was another house within sight, but Neil had no idea who lived there. Shuckleigh was two miles away. For someone used to living in London, this was the middle of nowhere. No other person in sight. Nothing but trees and fields, wildlife and cows.

And inside the house? Who knew?

Once Laurie came home from work the atmosphere brightened. the house didn’t make so many odd noises, or perhaps Neil didn’t hear them any more. The thought passed through his mind that the house liked Laurie, but was not so keen on him — but that was ridiculous. Houses have no feelings.

Neil learned to ignore the noises and the odd sensations, and learned to tolerate the aloneness, immersing himself in his daily work.

Laurie was happy, doing well in her new job, and she was invited to a weekend conference. When he kissed her goodbye on Friday night and watched her drive away in her car, he thought he felt the house grow stern and cold and dark around him.

It’s only my imagination, he thought. It isn’t the house that misses her, it’s me.

He ate a meal, going to some trouble to make a really good lasagne and a salad with everything in it, and opened a bottle of wine, but only drank one glass, because getting drunk alone was no fun.

Okay, so he poured another glass and settled down to watch a film, something stupid with plenty of fighting for no good reason. It was a loud film, so he was only vaguely aware of the storm that was rolling in, until the winds hit gale force and rain started to pelt against the window. He paused the film and made the rounds of the house to make sure that all the windows were secure and the doors locked and bolted, then he settled back down again.

Fifteen minutes later the flash of lightning and roll of thunder started. Neil turned up the sound on the TV and ignored the weather — but the power went out and he was suddenly in complete darkness except for occasional lightning flashes.

He fumbled for his phone and stood up. There was a flash and he thought he saw something in the corner of the room. Just shadows, he told himself, but he could not move for the sudden fear.

Another flash, and a brief glimpse of a figure standing there, looking at him. Just shadows, nothing but shadows.

Another flash and he saw, quite clearly, an old woman looking at him. He couldn’t breathe.

A third flash. The figure had grown, was now a man, angry-looking, dark and bulky. This is not real.

A bang and flash of lightning bolt striking very close by — in its light he saw a child, an arm’s length away, dark eyed, reaching for him.

He shrieked and ran — out of the room up the stairs and into the bedroom. He pulled a small chest of drawers in front of the door and got into bed, pulling the duvet up to his chin. By reflex he was still holding his phone and he tried to call Laurie, but there was no service.

His reasoning mind tried to take control by assuring him that the people he saw were just the effects of shadows and his imagination, but then it failed him by pointing out that if they were ghosts a closed and blocked door would do nothing to keep them out.

There was a recording of Laurie singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on his phone and in self-defence, he played it as loud as it would go. It was not as good as having her there, but the house did seem to become less fearsome as long as it lasted. He played it over and over until he finally fell asleep.

In the morning he was still alive, but there was no power, and his phone was quite dead. Neil grabbed his toothbrush and a change of clothes, and drove into town. The Has Bean coffee shop let him charge up his phone while he ate a croissant and drank a large cappuccino, one benefit of the small town. On finding out from the power company that the house would not be reconnected before Sunday, he went to find a hotel room.

It was holiday season, and everywhere was fully booked, so he ended up as a last resort walking in to the Black Dog Inn. Only the barman was around.

‘Do you have a room free?’ Neil asked.

‘You’re in luck if you don’t mind paying for a double. We had a couple leave early.’

‘No, that’s fine,’ said Neil, relieved, looking forward to getting a shower and some more peaceful sleep.

‘I’ll get the key. It’s one of the haunted rooms so it’s only available for one night. They’re always popular, and usually booked out.’

‘No thanks,’ said Neil. ‘No thanks.’

He walked out, got in his car and drove to the next county where he found a Travelodge to spend the rest of the weekend ghost free, happily listening to other people banging doors and playing the TV too loud at all hours of the night.

The Sight of an Angel

The Sight of an Angel

Sophie first saw an angel when she was five. She knew what it was, because it had great white wings and it glowed with some internal fire.

‘Look,’ she said, but no-one did.

They did not all have wings, but they were all different from ordinary people. She would see them in the street, on a rooftop, and one one occasion, hovering above a boat on the river. That one did have wings, but was not bothering to use them.

She never did see any of the winged angels flying like a bird, and as she grew up, she began to think that their wings were only metaphors.

As she grew up, she also became more aware that no-one else saw them, and she wondered why she did. Sometimes, she tested people. ‘Who’s that on the roof,’ she would ask, but never got any answers except ‘Where?’ or ‘I can’t see anyone.’

Could the angels see her? They never looked at her. Each one was intent on something, a frown of concentration on their glowing features, but they never spared her a glance.

It went along like this for many years, and she became quite used to seeing them, as if they were birds or butterflies. An alien species going about its business in the midst of human life.

Then one day she came home to find an angel in her living room. It was an awkward situation. Should she acknowledge its presence or pretend it was not there? And then, it was a worrying situation, too. Had it come because she was going to need it? She really hoped not.

The creature was a monumental presence, standing in the corner, head bowed under the low ceiling of the room, the curve of its wings compressed in the tiny space. This one was dressed in a featureless cream-coloured robe of some fine fabric, and it glowed as they all did, illuminating the room softly with its presence. It did not move or speak.

Sophie chose to ignore it. She had never been quite sure that interacting with them was allowed, and this one was so close that she was a little afraid of it.

She just went about her evening as she would if the angel had not been there. She prepared and ate her dinner, watched TV, had a shower, went to bed. All the while the angel loomed motionless in the corner of the living room.

She did not sleep much, waking constantly throughout the night to check if it had come into her bedroom to stand in the corner, watching her.

When she woke in the morning she was fairly sure that she had dreamt the whole thing — but there, in the living room, the angel still stood, as if it had not moved the whole night.

Sophie tried to pretend she could not see it, but the looming presence weighed on her. At last she cracked.

‘Just what do you want?’ she asked.

The angel raised its head and looked directly into her eyes, and she knew she had made a terrible mistake. It crossed the room in a single step, raised its hands and laid them over her face. The weight of them was immense, and they burned. When those hands withdrew from her eyes she could no longer see the angel, though she knew it was still there. Then it left, taking a part of her with it.

‘It’s like I’m blind,’ she told me. ‘Of course, I can still see the way other people do, but it’s like living in a fog. I know there are so many things that I can’t see.
‘Sometimes they brush against me, or there will be a change in the light, and I know one of them is there, but I can’t see any more. I don’t understand why they would take that away from me.’

I shivered.

‘Do you think there’s one here now?’ I asked.

‘I think so. I heard feathers. It came in with you.’

I looked around, but there was nothing for me to see or hear beyond the ordinary world.

Questions That Should Have Been Asked

Questions That Should Have Been Asked

There was a vacant stool at the bar in the black dog. Eddie slid onto it and caught Dave the barman’s eye.

‘Glenmorangie, please. Double.’

Dave nodded and turned away to grab a glass. Eddie caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the spirit bottles. Grey-faced, hollow-eyed, gaunt. Not a great look. He saw how the other patrons at the bar were leaning away from him, edging their stools further along. He probably smelled bad, he thought. The company he was keeping, it was inevitable.

Dave brought the whisky and took his money without the slightest hint of revulsion — but he was a professional, and the Black Dog having the history that it did, there were probably stranger folk than Eddie turning up on a daily basis.

‘You’re looking tired, Eddie,’ he said.

‘Tired isn’t really the word,’ said Eddie with a twisted smile he saw reflected in the mirror.

Dave moved down the bar to serve someone else, and Eddie downed the whisky in one gulp, savouring the artificial heat that lit him up for a moment or two, easing the deep chill that lay next to his bones. The effect began to dissipate, and he felt the longing for some real warmth. He looked around the bar, but he knew he would get nothing unless he tried to look more like the living.

It was not a long walk home, back to the High street to his flat above the bakery. Stripping off his clothes, he got into the shower. The water was hot, but it only warmed his skin. They really pulled it out of you, and gave so little back.

He threw on some clean clothes, and thought he looked almost normal, maybe like someone who had been really ill, but that was normal these days, wasn’t it?

There was a club that opened at nine. He went there for some more alcohol and the possibility of contact with a warm body.

There was dancing. Eddie was a good dancer, and not pushy like so many men, so women liked to dance with him. Eventually there would be a slow number, and he would get to hold a partner, and suck in a little life. He only ever got one slow dance, though. They would start to feel unwell, blame the drink, and that would be it — but just that little top-up of vitality would be enough to keep him going.

A little before midnight he would climb up the hill, ready for another night without sleep. As he went uphill in the real world, he was fully aware that in every other way he was going downhill. If he had been able to take a bit of sleep in the daytime things might be better, but the dreams that crowded in on him when his eyes closed would not allow him that peace, being so vivid that he might as well be awake.

At the top of the hill was a house with no light in any window, but the side door was unlocked for him as usual. He stepped inside and found his way to the basement door by the light of his phone. The basement itself was lit by a multitude of ritual candles. In the middle of the space, the circle was set up for him, ready charged, tonight’s subject lying on the stone slab at its centre — a middle aged man, cold and still, looking quite peaceful. Well, that would not last.

A sheet of paper lay at the man’s feet. Eddie picked it up and read through the questions before beginning the ritual. As the incantations progressed the man began to twitch and moan. Eddie always hated this part. He tried to remember the warmth of his dancing partner’s body, even as that warmth was sucked out of him.

At last the man shuddered and sat up, puzzled, unhappy, with no control over his limbs, as if he had forgotten what they were for.

‘Hello, Arthur,’ said Eddie, ‘just a few questions and then you can go back again. Where did you hide the life insurance policy?’

Arthur scowled, his eyes swivelled in their sockets.

‘Don’t be awkward,’ said Eddie, ‘or you’ll be stuck here, and you wouldn’t want that.’

He uttered the few words that threw the body into an agonising spasm, then asked the question again.

‘Garage, toolbox,’ croaked Arthur through dry, barely usable vocal chords.

Eddie noted that and moved on.

‘Account number and passwords for your secret bank account?’

With the occasional nudge, Arthur provided all that was asked for, but with increasing reluctance and as much anger as he could muster.

‘Any other stashes?’

Arthur screamed his safety deposit box number.

‘Last one. Billy would like to know why you never loved him?’

‘Not my son,’ growled Arthur.

‘Okay, back you go, begone.’

He made the gestures of dismissal, and the body flopped back onto the slab. Next to the last question, Eddie wrote, ‘Emotional inadequacy.’

Once the final candle was extinguished he laid the paper in the niche at the back of the room and took his fee.

Dawn was breaking. He stepped out into the morning, drained, shivering, and longing again for some human warmth.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

‘Can you see the pattern?’

‘Not really.’

He joined the dots on the map with his pencil.

‘Is that better?’

Radiant arms stretched out across the map.

‘All coming from here,’ he said, stabbing the centre of the pattern. ‘And what is there?’

‘The museum,’ I said.

‘Exactly.’

‘You drew some dots on a map,’ I said, ‘and then you joined them up. What does that prove?’

He waved the Haunted Shuckleigh booklet at me.

‘The dots are all the hauntings in this book. Don’t you see what it means?’

‘First,” I said, ‘I doubt if that book contains all of the so-called hauntings in this town. If it did, you’d just end up with a map that looked like it had caught measles. Second, you sound like someone from Ghostbusters. But not Bill Murray, which is a shame.’

In spite of my disbelief in his diagrams and theories, I allowed Maxwell to talk me into persuading the museum, where I work as a junior curator, to allow a ghost hunting night in the building. It was a paid event and there were a surprising number of people willing to pay to spend the night in sleeping bags on a hard floor, hoping to be scared.

I took them all down to the renovated basement, one of the oldest parts of the building. They shivered deliciously when I told them all about the skeletons discovered under their very feet, at least two of which had died by violence.

Maxwell turned out the lights and we stood in silence until a rash of squealing broke out, several people in the crowd claiming to have been touched or heard whispering. No more than the scares in a cheap ghost train, I thought. Maxwell probably had an accomplice in among the paying punters. this was how he made his living, after all, telling ghost stories.

He propounded his theories about the museum as a nexus for occult energies.

‘This building, founded on the burials of seven murder victims,’ he exaggerated, ‘has, over the years, accumulated objects of occult power from the town and its surroundings. We do thank Sally Jamieson,’ he smiled at me, ‘for having the courage to spend the night here with us, when no other member of the museum staff I have asked would even contemplate staying here after dark.’

They gave me a round of applause, but I felt slightly used. I did not know that he had ever asked anyone else, and my colleagues’ sympathetic looks and murmurs as they left for the night took on a different shade of meaning. I had assumed that they just understood how much of a pain it would be to spend the night with a crowd of crazy ghost hunters, but now it looked as though they, too, thought something stalked the museum halls at night.

Did everyone in this town think that there were spooks around every corner? The museum did have a room dedicated to occult bits and pieces, and that was where we would be spending the night. I had cleared the section that was used for temporary exhibitions to make space for the group. We went in there and Maxwell toured us around, giving highly-coloured accounts of all the exhibits, the poppets, witch bottles, mummified cats and so on. The magical regalia of Augustus Elkin came in for special scrutiny.

‘Augustus Elkin belonged to a prominent local family, as you probably know, with many legends attached to his ancestors. He was involved in the occult movements of the 1890s and 1900s, starting off in the Rosicrucians, which he left after differences with other members, to found his own order, The Brotherhood of the Sacred Fire. In spite of its title, the Brotherhood had a largely female membership. His spiritual partner, Margot Dinsdale, took issue with some of his more misogynistic pronouncements and is supposed to have entered into a magical duel with Augustus. She won, and took the entire female membership with her into her own order, the Daughters of Hecate, which still exists today and which permits no male member.’

At this moment a bell rang. It sounded like a bell. I looked around to see if I could spot Maxwell’s accomplice. Everyone else was looking around, too.

Maxwell laughed nervously.

‘Maybe that’s Margot,’ he said. ‘Or Augustus, registering a protest.’

Everyone laughed. Nervously.

To me, he whispered, ‘What was that?’

‘No idea,’ I said. ‘I thought it was part of your act.’

‘Act?’

He looked genuinely surprised. Oh damn, I thought, he really believes all this stuff.

Maxwell finished his tour of the gallery, and we all settled down with foam mats and sleeping bags, and I turned out the lights. I fully intended to sleep if I could, but the others were readying themselves for the imminent arrival of spirits. They would probably imagine themselves something. I just hoped they would be quiet about it.

I must have gone to sleep quite quickly. I dreamt that I opened my eyes and saw a dark figure stalking the room. It walked upright like a man, but had horns and the hindlegs of a goat. It stopped and saw me, then pointed directly at me. ‘Daisy,’ it said.

I woke up in a sweat. The dream thing knew my real name, which I always hated. That made it certain that this was nothing more than a dream. I have called myself Sally for years, which is possibly an equally stupid name, but I chose it when I was six, and I have stuck with it.

‘Did you hear that?’ said Maxwell.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Someone said my name.’

I was relieved until another person said, ‘someone said mine too.’

‘And mine.’

‘I heard that too.’

Everyone in the group was sure that their name had been spoken.

‘Um, did you see anything?’ I asked.

None of them had and they all said they were awake at the time. Well, they were probably just about to nod off, weren’t they? Hypnogogic hallucinations and a touch of group suggestion after having been wound up by Maxwell’s stories.

Then that bell rang again. People started to squeal.

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’m putting the lights on.’

I headed for the switches, but I bumped into something, someone. Someone hairy and with very rank breath. He grabbed my arm. I swore at him, pushed away and made for the switches.

‘Daisy,’ he said, ‘you’re mine.’

I clicked on the lights and turned to see who it was. The light was dazzling for a moment, but there was no-one there. Of course not. Some bit of business from whoever Maxwell had doing the ghost train act.

There was nothing in the gallery but a bunch of tired, slightly manic would-be ghost hunters.

We left the lights on ‘till morning.

I would say that it was a success. Everyone was good and scared. Only Maxwell was unhappy. He looked pale and frightened, but not in a good way. He hung back until everyone else had left.

‘Don’t go back in there, Daisy,’ he said to me.

‘What did you call me?’

‘I heard him claim you.’

‘My name is Sally,’ I said. ‘I work here, so I am definitely going back in.’

‘He—‘

‘Daisy doesn’t exist. No-one can claim her.’

It was an unpleasant trick, but that sort of thing won’t work on me. I am never doing a Ghost Hunter night again, no matter how much they want me to.

1922

1922

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

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

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

Maureen tugged on Tom’s arm.

‘Are you all right, Love?’ she asked.

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

Another one gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No,’ he said, ‘they can leave it.’

Tom was fallen, too.

The war would never be over.