Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming

The Shuckleigh Women’s Wild Swimmers were rebels, lawbreakers. You could deny them permission to swim in your bit of water, but they would do it anyway.

This lovely lake was part of the old Mosse estate, and was strictly off limits to all swimmers. Sure, there had been past drownings, but what stretch of water has never had someone drown in it? The women of the club swam everywhere, and always had an eye to safety, knew what they were doing, and were all strong swimmers — and were very buoyant, too, most of them. Something to do with cake, no doubt.

Maureen was the treasurer, a post which required no more than collecting a small contribution from each member towards the cost of the apres-swim cakes, and the purchase thereof. It was she who had suggested this lake for their next swim. They asked permission, of course, but received only a simple refusal without explanation, except that the lake was dangerous.

‘How can it be dangerous?’ said Elly, the club secretary. ‘It’s not that deep, there’s no outflow to cause currents. I don’t know what he means.’

‘It’ll be the mere-maid,’ said Nelly, the oldest member, tiny, white-haired, and with a headful of local stories.

‘Mermaid?’

‘Mere-maid, like the pub. She’s supposed to guard a treasure in the lake, and sometimes appears to young men, luring them to a watery death with the promise of her beauty.’

There was general hilarity, laughter spreading in waves through the cafe where they were meeting, breaking over the heads of the other, disconcerted customers, along with cries of ‘She won’t be interested in us then!’, and ‘Unless she likes ladies too!’, followed by many dirty jokes about the sexual leanings of mermaids. Several customers drank their coffee and left.

Now, with the waters of the lake lapping at her ankles, Maureen felt an unfamiliar sense of unease. the lake looked far deeper than it was supposed to be, the waters black in the early morning light.

Elly and Nelly and half a dozen others were already up to their waists in water, chatting and giggling, but quietly, since they were here without permission, trespassing with intent to swim.

Maureen watched the others plunging into the water, striking out towards the centre of the lake. It did look good, but there was something else she could feel, creeping up from her chilling feet through her bloodstream to her heart.

‘I’m not brave enough,’ she thought, and then wondered where that had come from. ‘Buck up,’ she told herself. Pushing aside all anxiety, she waded in, feeling the silty, slimy mud oozing between her toes. Stretching forward, she plunged into the water and breast-stroked her way towards the others.

In the middle of the lake she paused, resting in the water, sweeping her arms gently around her, feeling the silky liquid passing through her fingers. The others were swimming nearby, breaststroke, backstroke, crawl. Maureen’s thoughts drifted away into nothingness and she found the great peace of an empty mind for a moment.

Then something brushed against her leg. It felt like a hand. One of the gang playing tricks. She scanned about to see who was missing, but they were all in sight, and besides, not one of them was noted for their underwater swimming skills. Probably just a fish. Or the mere-maid. She laughed, and began to swim. Again, a hand brushed her leg. She stopped and pulled herself into a ball, which caused her to tip face-forwards into the water. Floundering, she opened her eyes and saw, down in the dark brown water below, a pale face looking up at her. She thought it was a corpse floating there, suspended below the surface somehow, dark eyes open — but the face smiled at her, the eyes widened.

It is not advisable to scream underwater, but she tried it. Tannic liquid in her mouth advised her otherwise and she reared back to the surface, gasping in air.

She was not sure that she had seen what she imagined, and nobody was close enough to speak to. Maureen began to swim towards the shore, afraid of what might be below. For speed, she was doing the crawl, not her best stroke. She had not gone far when, on the downstroke, her left arm was grabbed and she was pulled to a stop. This time she screamed in the air, and then managed to pull in one last deep breath as she was dragged under.

Down, down, how deep was this lake? She thought of the cake and flasks of hot tea waiting in her car, she thought of home, then she forgot all of that.

The mere-maid was leading her down, the grip on Maureen’s arm strong and unrelenting, but it was not dark down there. Black streams of the mere-maid’s hair obscured Maureen’s vision, but would drift aside to show wonderful things, all ablaze with light.

She forgot about the bother of not being able to breathe underwater, filled with elation at the great blooming of truth she saw below.

Someone grabbed her trailing hand. There was a short tug of war for possession of Maureen, then the mere-maid let go, gazing after her with sorrow in her eyes. ‘No,’ said Maureen as the vision faded.

Choking up water, lying on the grass with towels thrown over her and Elly pumping away at her chest, she gasped back into the ordinary world. All the women in bathing costumes and one angry man were standing around, looking down at her.

‘I informed you that this lake was dangerous,’ the man was saying, but no-one was listening to him.

Maureen wondered if he knew why the lake was dangerous. She closed her eyes and remembered and began to cry.

‘It’s all right, Maureen, you’re okay now,’ said Elly, not understanding when Maureen shook her head.

They sat her up and gave her hot tea, and then an ambulance arrived and a nice young paramedic took her pulse and listened to her watery lungs and insisted she go to hospital.

‘I don’t want to see any of you here ever again,’ said the angry man.

Just before the ambulance doors closed, Maureen thought she saw a pale arm rise from the centre of the lake, and she imagined swimming with the mere-maid again.

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Noises in the house walls has to be rats, right? Or mice? Or maybe beetles?

I mentioned to our neighbour that we were calling in pest control, and she gave me one of her looks.

‘Might not be living things,’ she said.

“What?’ I struggled to think what she might mean by that. Crumbling mortar?

‘No,’ she said, looking at me as though I was some kind of fool. (I’m sure she thinks exactly that, she looks at me this way every time we have a conversation.) ‘Elementals, or poltergeists, something like that.’

I did not give her the ‘you’re clearly a fool’ look back, but some of it may have leaked through my attempt to appear politely surprised.

‘You’ll see,’ she said in a doom-laden voice. ‘You’ll find out.’

She turned away with a dismissive wave and went back to dead-heading her roses.

‘I’ll let you know what we find,’ I said, hoping that it would not be beetles. Rodents I can cope with, but little scuttling things freak me out, and the gulls. They were getting particularly noisy. We are nowhere near the sea, but like everyone these days we have gulls, and a whole flock of them had taken to sitting on our roof.

I told Danny, ‘Mrs Watson think we have poltergeists.’

‘That would be a poltergeist. I don’t think you can have more than one of those,’ he said, but he didn’t take it seriously. Neither did the pest control man. He went about the house, lifting floorboards, examining skirting boards, listening at the walls. Finally he went into the attic. I went up there with him and watched while he poked around in all the dusty corners.

‘No,’ he said.

‘No what?’

‘No sign of rats, mice, beetles, wasps, bees or ants. Not even any spiders. Cleanest house I’ve ever been in.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘There should be something. This isn’t a new house. There should be something. It’s not normal for there to be nothing.’

‘But what is causing the noise in the walls?’

He shrugged.

‘Maybe the water pipes? Never heard anything like it myself.’

Danny and I lay in bed at night listening to the sound in the walls. It had a sighing quality to it, and was like a thin stream of sand running over a rough surface.

In the morning I came into the living room and found Danny with his ear pressed to the wall.

‘It’s louder here,’ he said.

I put my ear to the wall and heard what sounded like waves pulsing onto a shingle beach.
That night I had a dream. It seemed very real, but it must have been a dream.

I woke to the sound of waves, louder, closer, and the cries of the gulls overhead. The gulls were so noisy that I could not get back to sleep. I wondered what was upsetting them so much in the middle of the night, the one time when they were usually quiet. I got up to get a drink of water to relieve the dryness in my mouth. The sound of waves had grown much louder, as if it was coming from outside, not in the walls. I opened the bathroom window to look out.

A great sea stretched to the horizon, and waves broke against the stony bank on which our house was perched. Cold moonlight illuminated the waves. A gull cried once and swooped away into the far distance.

Not understanding what I was seeing, I went downstairs and opened the front door. The street was gone. The town was gone. The house stood by itself on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by shingle, surrounded by sea. I walked all around the house. Rocks and sea were all I found.

Far on the horizon, in every direction, dark shapes moved. It was impossible to make out what they were, but they were coming closer, and I was afraid. I ran into the house and got back into bed.

In the morning, there was no sea, but I remembered the smell of it, and the cold breeze on my skin, and my lips tasted salty.

Mr Watson was out in the garden again, and she asked what the pest control man had found.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

She nodded wisely, ‘You mark my words—’ she began.

‘It’s the sea,’ I said.

She frowned at me and shook her head.

‘There’s no sea.’

‘It’s in the walls,’ I said.

She backed away from me, and went into her house. We don’t have conversations any more.

I often wake to hear the sea at night, and a low, loud, booming, far away but getting closer. I never go to look because there is nothing I can do. They are inexorably approaching. What will happen when they arrive? I try not to think about it. It’s only a dream. Isn’t it?

Night Terrors

Night Terrors

It is never dark in my dreams. The world is bright and filled with light. But this time — I was walking down a street that I was familiar with (in the dream world), though I had not been there for some years. There were shops, and I was walking downhill. As I came closer to the bottom of the hill everything got darker. There was one shop, selling antiquities, that was well-lit inside, but most of the other shops were shut and dark, possibly closed down. There were no street lights. I could hardly see. A dimly-lit cafe seemed to be open, but was barely visible in the misty darkness all around me. I wondered what had happened. It never used to be like this.

I didn’t hear them coming.

Suddenly someone put an arm around my throat. I choked and struggled, and woke up.

My memory of the dream is vivid because of the darkness, and because it seemed to me that I did know that street, and whoever or whatever attacked me, I knew them too.

We say these things are only dreams, but they are as real as life itself. They are life itself, or part of it.

This dream did not leave my waking life alone. I could not shake off the disquiet and the sensation of not being able to see properly, of being alone in a strangely altered place, at the mercy of someone who wanted to do me harm.

The dream darkness was not clean — it was as if there was a dirty mist over the world, or perhaps the darkness was not only from a lack of light, but also from a dimming of my own vision. I became increasingly convinced that there were things around me that I was not seeing. Something was stalking me. Each night I went to bed, hoping for another dream to show me the truth.

Again, I was walking in a dark place, but not one I knew. There was the same quality of murkiness, of a lack of light and a dimming of sight. The ground was hard underfoot and gritty. The air felt damp. There was a little light, as much as might be given by a slender moon behind thin cloud, but not enough to see by. I held my hands out in front of me as I went, but felt nothing but a fine cold mist.

A shadow moved to my right, but when I turned, there was nothing there. On my left side some darker patch of darkness moved. I turned towards it and saw something else behind me. They were all around.

I ran. Pale hands reached for me out of the grainy air. I screamed and fell, and woke.

The darkness loomed at my back through my waking days, but it did not come into my dreams for many nights. The days filled with gloom were worse than the nights of disturbing dreams. I was dragging a great burden behind me, one that might at any moment waken and destroy me. It made me so uneasy that I began to wonder why these dream people were hunting me? Had I done something to deserve it? Was some transgression of mine causing these nightmares?

No matter how hard I looked at myself, I could not find anything other than mundane failings such as any human being commits, yet I felt as much uneasiness as I would have if I was a murderer, and the body was buried in my garden.

I reasoned that perhaps, since my persecutors lived in dreams, the sin might have been committed in the dream world. Of course, I remembered only a tiny fraction of my dreams. In that world I might be a monster, and would never know on waking.

The third time I dreamed of that dark place, I was aware that I was dreaming. This had never happened to me before. I had spent so much time thinking about the dreams that I recognised what it was. Now, I thought, since I was fully here in the dream I was in control. I could steer the dream in the direction I wanted it to go.

The ground under my feet was wet and muddy this time and I had a sense that all around there were trees, crowding close. I told myself that there was a torch in my pocket. I was wearing an old blue coat of mine with deep pockets and, feeling among all the inexplicable bits and pieces in there, I did find a torch. Pulling it out, I pointed it ahead and turned it on. It flashed and died, but not before it had illuminated a terrible face, dark grey and so deeply wrinkled as to look melted. Purple lips curled back to reveal many yellowing teeth in a bright red mouth. The eyes — they were not human, ochre irises with vertical slits for pupils.

I was terrified, but told myself that this was only a dream and that I could be the monster here if I willed it — if only I knew how to be a monster.

Taking a deep breath, I prepared to roar my monstrousness, but the now unseen thing took one squelching step towards me and grasped me by the throat with a scaly clawed hand. I tried to scream. I should wake now, the fright should wake me. Stinking hot breath blew foul against my face, teeth sank into my flesh. I screamed once, briefly, then all was pain and silence.

I did wake up, of course, but what am I now? My sleep is a black empty void. I am not even a ghost in the world of dreams. I feel like a ghost in this place that we call the real world, broken and empty. The dark mist is inside me, and that is all there is.

Broken Strings

Broken Strings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The banging stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pablo?’

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

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

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

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

‘Pablo?’

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

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

‘He’s quite smashed up.’

‘I know, but I can repair him.’

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

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

I leave my window open at night.

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The estate agent was quite open about the double murder.

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

I looked at Mike and he raised his eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I know.’

I pointed at the framed certificate.

‘Is there a problem?’

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

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

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

I took him into the kitchen.

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

‘Cold?’

‘No, not at all.’

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

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

‘An absence,’ I said.

‘A void,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

‘Look,’ he said.

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

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

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

‘Feel that,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey boy,’ he said.

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

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

Then everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

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

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

‘You’ve been gone so long!’

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

‘You’ve been gone three days.’

‘Three days?’

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

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

Realities lurched and crashed together.

‘I climbed a tree,’ he said.

Lost

Lost

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

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

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

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

‘But how did you get in here?’

‘You’re lost too.’

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

‘I live here.’

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

‘You lost me.’

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

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

But the boy was gone.

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

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

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

‘You’re lost too.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why are you coming here?’

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

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

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

‘What—?’

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

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

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

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

Inheritance

Inheritance

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

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

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

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

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

‘Here,’ I said, ‘where I’m standing.’

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

She laughed.

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

‘Where is it? Ah, this is the one.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head, but doubtfully.

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

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

‘Dad got a job up there.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

Dark night, dark clothes, dark wall, small window overhead open just a crack. he found the handholds, footholds, enjoying the climb, taking pleasure in his silent skill.

At the window he braced himself enough to free one hand and nudge the frame. It swung open a bit further without a sound. Perfect.

Grasping the frame, he pulled himself up, looked inside. A store-room of some kind with shelves along the walls. His dark-adapted eyes could make out no threatening shapes, so he nudged the window further open and slipped through into the house.

They would be at home, all asleep now, just the way he liked it. Padding softly about the house, Jase would lift all the small valuables, even right from their bedside tables. They never woke. it was his great talent. No breaking, no vandalism, just a quiet, professional job.

Jars. Rows of them. Shading his pencil torch, he turned it on, and started back in surprise.

Tentacles. Jar upon jar of tentacles, with pink or blue or pale white suckers, suspended in clear fluid, each jar labelled in what he supposed must be Latin, though he did not really know.

Turning off the torch, he stood a while in the dark, trying to shake off the mild shock, listening to the house for any hint of danger.

As he always did, Jase spent some days watching the property. No-one ever came out, and a lot of things were delivered. Old people or invalids lived here, he concluded, and a carer who opened the door to deliveries and the occasional visitor. Rich old people, since the house was so large and very well-kept. Now he could add strange old people. Maybe one of them used to be a biologist or something.

He glanced back at the window, a faint rectangle of less intense darkness, his means of escape should anything go wrong. Turning away to look for a door out of this storeroom, he became aware that in all the jars, the tentacles were emitting a faint glow. Had they been doing that before? Perhaps he just had not noticed.

With a soft, cautious tread, he moved along the shelves towards the far wall where a door ought to be located. The room proved to be much bigger than expected. Unreasonably so.

After five minutes, Jase started to breathe faster. Years of life as a professional intruder — his own definition of his work — gave him the ability to stay calm in very challenging circumstances, but now some ripples appeared on the surface of that calm — an awareness that something was not right.

He stopped. He did not want to throw away so many days’ careful preparation, but what kept him out of jail was a willingness to recognise when a situation was too hazardous.

True, nothing had happened, The house was silent, but all his instincts told him that there was considerable risk in going any further. the darkness was deep around him, in spite of the glow from the jars. He took two more steps forward, his arms stretched out in front of him, and touched something soft and warm, something that moved gently under his fingers, as if it was breathing.

He pulled away and backed off a few steps, stopping to listen. Nothing. No sound at all. Even the quietest, most empty house still makes small noises — the creak of cooling masonry, the wind whistling through windows or across chimneys. Here, it was as silent as a soundproofed room.

Jase backed away further, then turned and retraced his path towards the window as fast as he could while still being cautious. He wanted to run, but that would have been stupid.

Ten minutes later, he still had not reached the window, and his customary calm was nearly gone. he clung to the shreds of it, reasoning that he must have got lost — but how could he be lost when the path he took from the window was straight and the path he took back was also straight? He must, he thought, have somehow turned a corner in the dark without realising, and at that moment he saw an opening between the shelves and their glowing jars.

After only a moment’s pause he turned between the shelves. A few paces later, he knew that it was a mistake. The glow was gone and he was in complete darkness. He turned to go back, but the way he came in was no longer there.

The torch — he got out his torch and turned it on, not bothering to shade it. He was in a corridor, narrow enough that he could touch both walls at once with this outstretched hands. In both directions, he could see no end to it. On either side there were doors at regular intervals, all closed. The floor was of bare wooden boards, shiny in the torchlight as if they were very old and well-used.

Doors were hopeful. There might be good pickings behind them or, more importantly, a way out.

He listened at the nearest door. There was a faint rumbling sound. He turned the handle and opened it. Moist stone steps led down and down. The rumbling was louder. Wisely, he thought, he chose not to go there, and closed the door.

Behind the next door was silence, but it opened onto a corridor just like the one he was in. No.

Behind the third door there was nothing. It was a blank black space which swallowed up the small light of his torch and reflected no light back. He closed the door slowly and looked up and down the corridor. So many, many doors. Perhaps he should have gone down the stairs behind the first one. At least stairs were normal. He walked back to that door and tried to open it again, but it was locked.

The house was playing with him, and he started to understand that here, you could never go back to where you’d already been. Everything changed behind you.

Choose a door at random and go through, he decided. One, two, three, this one. A set of stairs going up this time, wooden stairs. Afraid of the noise, he climbed shifting his weight gradually step by step, only making the quietest of creaks. The stairs turned and twelve steps further up he came to a door. He opened it a crack, not daring to shine his torch through, and listened. Nothing. He stepped through and the door closed behind him.

Now he used the torch, turning it on and then off again when he saw where he was. He didn’t want to see that.

A room full of shelves, and on the shelves, jars, and in the jars, eyes.

He stood with his back against the closed door, pulling on the handle, willing it to open, but it was locked.

The jars began to glow, and all the eyes were looking at him. He screamed and ran, and ran and screamed, not caring if anyone heard him, wanting to be heard. No-one was listening, and the room went on forever.

The Follower

The Follower

Gabriel knew that someone was watching him. He was well past the prickling on the back of his neck phase. Now it was a constant awareness.

Since Lori found him — tunnels she said, but he did not remember any tunnels — something had been wrong. What happened to him that he was hospitalised, and then off work for a week because he could hardly stand up? What happened to him that was so bad he could not remember three days of his life, and some things before, too. There were blank spaces in his memories stretching back for months.

At first he tried to recall, but then wondered whether he was withholding something from himself for good reason. That was even more disturbing than mere loss of memory. Gabriel considered the problem and reasoned that, if it was so bad, suppression might be the best option. He surrendered to it.

A month later his body was almost recovered, though sometimes he felt a deep upwelling of fatigue. His mind, though, was far from normal. Never before was he afraid of the dark, but now he was compelled to buy one of those plug-in night-lights for kids because he could not sleep in complete darkness. There were happy little bunnies on it which he found comforting (and that was disturbing too).

The knowledge that he was being watched crept up on him. At first a faint paranoia, rising to a certain knowledge. On a lonely street he might hear something slithering behind him, or catch a glimpse of an odd shadow. In his own flat he had a sense of being overlooked, even when he closed the curtains and locked the door. He avoided other people, looked over his shoulder constantly, but the fact that there was no-one there did not make the feeling go away.

Shaving with a slightly shaky hand, he heard a faint intake of breath behind him and felt the light breeze of and out-breath on the back of his neck. He paused mid-stroke and stared at his own wide-open eyes in the mirror. The breathing came again, He leaned a bit to his right, but the only thing reflected in the mirror was the bathroom door. A swift turn — nothing there. Nothing there. Yet he felt warm breath tickling his wet face. There was a faint foul smell about it. Trembling even more, he turned back and finished his shave, rinsed and dried his face and left the bathroom. the breathing followed him.

He didn’t know what to do. Standing a while in front of the bookcase, he tried to think. Running his gaze across the familiar spines, he noticed an old notebook that he did not remember, maybe belonging to one of the blanked-out memories. As he reached out for it the breather seemed interested, its breath quickening, so Gabriel reached further and picked out an old copy of ‘Frankenstein’ instead.

He made coffee and sat down to pretend to read the book, using the time to think what to do. He decided to go to see Lori, whom he’d been avoiding for weeks because she might ask questions he could not answer.

Before he left he returned Frankenstein to the shelf and palmed the notebook, shoving it into the waistband of his jeans, hoping that whatever was watching him had not seen. It followed him. he could feel it closer than ever before.

Lori was just finishing her early-evening ghost tour when he caught up with her. She was surprised by the warmth of his greeting and alarmed as he leaned too close to her.

‘Can you see anything behind me?’ he whispered. ‘I’m being followed.’

‘Person, or…’

‘Or.’

She gave him a hug, then drew back with a slight shake of the head.

‘Come on,’ she said, ‘there’s someone you should meet.’

He followed past Lori’s flat and down a narrow side alley. She stopped at a nondescript black door and knocked twice.

‘Lori! And friend. Come in,’ said the tiny white-haired old woman who answered.

Gabriel felt a pressure on his shoulder, as if something was trying to hold him back. he wanted to obey the restraint, but managed to pull away and through the door. Inside, he felt lighter, a burden lifted.

‘This is Mildred,’ said Lori. ‘Mildred, meet Gabriel. He’s being followed by something nearly invisible.’

‘Nearly?’ said Gabriel.

‘I got a sort of shimmer in the air behind you.’

‘Come and sit down,’ said Mildred. ‘I’ll make tea. Don’t look so worried, dear. It can’t follow in here. We’re well defended.’

Over tea, Lori told Mildred all about the tunnels and how she’d found Gabriel with the help of the people in the dark house. Gabriel listened in astonishment.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise. I don’t remember any of it.’

‘I think they gave you something to make you forget.’

Gabriel pulled the notebook out and leafed through it. Pages and pages about the tunnels under Shuckleigh, with diagrams. All his tunnel research was there in his own handwriting, but he was reading it for the first time.

‘Well,” said Mildred. ‘I wouldn’t put it past those people to be following you, but I would say you brought something up to the surface with you. Something that wants you back.’

Gabriel fell the stirring of an awful memory. He did not want to look at it. Ever.

‘What can I do?’

‘Leave your notebook with me,’ said Mildred, ‘and stay here. I will clean your mind and put you out of its reach.’

‘Make me forget again?’

She shook her head.

‘You have some sort of attachment. I can feel it pulling on you, even here. It’s getting something from you, feeding, I think.’

Gabriel shuddered.

‘Do whatever you can. Please.’

‘It isn’t an easy process. It will hurt, and might damage you.’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it in my head any more.’

Two days later, Lori came back to take him home. He was hollow-eyed and pale. Stepping out through the door he took a breath, waiting to see what would happen. There was a sense of something touching him, but sliding away, unable to find any holding place.

‘Lori,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid. I never was before, but now I think I’m always going to be afraid.’

‘You get used to it,’ she said.