This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.
Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.
June 26, 2010
Melanie Goodchild was watching eagerly from her bedroom window when the Parcelforce van drew up outside. It was her seventh birthday and the van was what she had been waiting for with mounting impatience for the past hour. She ran down the stairs and threw open the front door. The driver was approaching with a large parcel wrapped in brown paper.
“I’ve got a parcel for a Melanie Goodchild,” he said.
“That’s me,” shrieked the little girl, clapping her hands.
“Suppose I’d better give it you then,” offered the driver with a hint of doubt. “I’m not supposed to, you know.”
Melanie snatched the parcel from his outstretched hands.
“I’m only supposed to give parcels to grown ups.”
“Oh,” replied Melanie dismissively as she pushed the door shut with her knee.
The object was heavy for a seven-year-old, but she managed well enough to hurry into the living room where she placed it on the sofa and began the job of tearing away the brown paper.
It didn’t take long for a sturdy cardboard box about a foot square to be revealed. The adhesive tape securing the lid was soon despatched and joined the growing pile of detritus littering the living room carpet. Melanie lifted the lid and looked inside. Straw! Whatever secret the box was holding had been carefully packed with straw. Tutting loudly, the little girl proceeded to tear at it, casting handfuls indiscriminately over her shoulders.
Within seconds her fingers touched something hard. She pulled away the remaining bits of straw more carefully and saw that what lay beneath it appeared to be hair - well groomed, slightly shiny, black hair, parted neatly in the middle. She took a clump of it in each hand and lifted. She looked puzzled as she silently regarded the man’s head she was now holding.
She turned it both ways to get a better look at it. The hair was neatly cut in a collar length style, the skin was pale with a waxy appearance, the nose was aquiline, and both its eyes and mouth were firmly shut. Melanie was at a loss to know what to do with it. She sniffed it. The smell was familiar and not entirely unpleasant. It reminded her of something she’d smelt at the doctor’s once. She tucked it under one arm and walked through to the kitchen where her mother was filling the kettle.
“Who was the parcel from dear?” asked her mother.
“What was in it?”
“That’s interesting. What sort of a head?”
“A real head, I think. Look.”
Melanie’s mother turned around and looked.
“Good heavens. It does look real, doesn’t it?”
Melanie frowned. She had been hoping for an explanation. Her mother walked over and knelt down while Melanie thrust the head further forward.
“It’s very realistic underneath,” said her mother, clearly impressed. “It reminds me of that joint of pork I bought on Saturday. It’s even got a hole at the front and a piece of bone showing through at the back, just where you’d expect them to be. Amazing what they can do with technology these days. Who sent it?”
“Don’t know. It might be from my dad.”
She had always been told that her father had been press-ganged into the French Foreign Legion the day before she was born. She had believed it too, until recently when contact with some older girls at school had led her to have serious doubts.
“Good gracious, dear. Whatever made you say that? No, I’m sure it wasn’t. Your dad had blond hair. At least... Oh, never mind.”
“What should I do with it?” asked Melanie.
“I really don’t know. I suppose you could play with it like a doll.”
“But it isn’t a doll,” protested Melanie. “It hasn’t got any arms or legs or anything. And it doesn’t cry when you tilt it. See!”
Melanie moved the head aggressively in all directions.
“Its stupid eyes don’t even open. It’s crap!”
“Now, now Melanie. Don’t be petulant. You should be grateful that somebody has sent you a very unusual present.”
“But you can’t do anything with it. It’s bloody crap.”
“Melanie! Language! Where did you pick that word up?”
“No you didn’t.”
”Yes I did. You say it all the time. This head’s bloody stupid and I don’t bloody like it.”
Melanie tossed the offending object onto the nearest work surface and stormed out of the door.
Her mother walked over and took a better look at it. She reached out to touch the waxy skin, but had second thoughts. It looked disturbingly real and a hint of suspicion nudged her.
“No, can’t be,” she said.
She regarded it from as many angles as its recumbent position would allow. She sniffed it at a safe distance. She frowned a lot. And then she saw a pair of small hands reach out and take hold of the mysterious article. Melanie was back. She snatched up the head, cradled it to her chest and walked back out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
“Watcha got there, Mel?” asked her older brother.
“What sort of a head?”
“Don’t know,” retorted the girl petulantly. “Just a head. A man’s head.”
“Let’s have a look.”
Melanie held it out to him.
“Cor, that’s good. Looks real. Does it do anything?”
Melanie shook her own head and allowed Ian to take the disembodied one off her. He looked at the underneath and was sufficiently impressed to let out a low whistle. He poked one finger up a nostril to assess whether there was anything to pick. There wasn’t. He parted the hair behind one ear, looking for head lice. None of those either. He shook it to see whether it rattled. Nothing. He tried to prise open the mouth, but found the lips tightly sealed.
“Must be rigor mortis,” he said.
“Something dead people get. We did it at school.”
“What, like measles?”
“Nah. You can’t catch it or anything.”
Melanie looked relieved. Ian had more luck with an eyelid. It slipped back easily, revealing a very realistic looking eye.
“Brown eyes,” he said. He pressed it and uttered an exclamation of disgust.
“It’s squidgy, like a real eye,” he said. “I thought it would be glass or something.”
“Well, if it’s got real eyes, it must be a real head,” said Melanie enthusiastically.
“S’ppose so. What are you going to do with it?”
“Don’t know. Hang it from the ceiling?”
“That’s stupid. You only hang aeroplanes from the ceiling.”
“No you don’t!” cried Melanie. “It’s my head. I can do what I want with it.”
“Tell you what!” said Ian, “let’s stick it on a spike, like they used to do to axe murderers in the old days.”
“What’s an axe murderer?”
“Well, in the old days, if somebody did something wrong they used to chop their heads off with an axe. So I suppose that’s what an axe murderer must be. Then they stuck the heads on spikes, on the battlements or somewhere.”
“Yerck! That’s gross,” said Melanie, wrinkling her nose. “Where would we get a spike?”
“I could make one,” he announced brightly, “with a knitting needle and some old wood.”
Melanie was pleased and the two of them tripped downstairs, leaving the head lying on the bed.
“Mum, have you got any knitting needles?” asked Ian.
“I want to stick Melanie’s head on a spike.”
“What?” asked his mother with a puzzled frown.
Ian breathed out a puff of frustration and rolled his eyes.
“Not Melanie’s real head, of course, the one she got for her birthday.”
“Oh, I see. There are some meat skewers in the kitchen drawer. Use one of those. But be careful.”
The two children went into the kitchen where Ian availed himself of a meat skewer, and then they made their way to the garden shed. Driving a meat skewer through the middle of a two-foot-square piece of plywood wasn’t easy, but Ian managed it eventually. The problem was that the head of the skewer stood proud from the base.
“It’s going to tilt,” he said.
Melanie tutted again.
Driving the head down onto the spike wasn’t easy either when they took the apparatus back to Melanie’s bedroom, and the liquid, squeaking sound turned Ian’s stomach slightly. Melanie found it funny. Eventually, however, the head was set up proudly on Melanie’s dressing table, albeit at a slight angle. Melanie fitted one of her woolly hats and giggled again.
“Lunch is ready,” called their mother from the bottom of the stairs.
“Better wash our hands,” said Ian. “You don’t know where that head’s been.”
“On top of somebody’s neck,” replied his sister, who was very bright for her age.
It was Ian’s turn to giggle. They washed their hands.
After lunch Ian went out to play with his friends. Melanie stayed downstairs and busied herself with the rest of her birthday gifts. She didn’t return to her bedroom until around 4.30, just as the daylight was beginning to fade.
The first thing she noticed was a smell very different from the one she had experienced earlier. It wasn’t pleasant. She switched on the light and looked at the head. A stream of yellowish, viscous liquid was oozing slowly across the plywood base and spreading across her dressing table. It appeared to be coming mostly from the base of the neck, but a small amount was running from the nose too. And it was getting perilously close to dripping onto the carpet. She tripped lightly down the stairs.
“Mum,” she said quietly, wondering whether she should feel guilty, “it’s dripping.”
“The head. Come and look.”
Melanie’s mother followed her daughter up the stairs and into the bedroom. Her stomach wasn’t as resilient as Melanie’s, and she felt an immediate urge to wretch.
“Oh, my God. The skewer must have released... whatever’s in there,” she said, holding onto the doorpost. “It’s got to go out. Take it into the garden, please – now!”
“But it’s my birthday present,” cried the indignant Melanie.
“Do you want to go to bed with that smell in the room?”
Melanie thought for a moment, and then picked up the head and walked out of her bedroom.
“And mind you hold it straight,” called her mother, “so none of that disgusting whatever-it-is drips onto the carpet.”
She shook her head in resignation at the peals of laughter descending the stairs. Melanie returned a couple of minutes later to find her mother frowning painfully as she cleaned up the mess with large quantities of kitchen roll and disinfectant.
“Do birds eat heads?”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Well, they eat bread and porridge and peanuts. They might eat my head.”
Her mother looked nonplussed.
“Well, I don’t suppose the small ones would, but crows might.”
“Oh good,” said Melanie brightly. “They can have it as a birthday present.”
* * *
Five thousand miles away, in a small town buried deep in the Brazilian jungle, the local mortician was preparing his latest customer. He’d been doing the job for the past five years, ever since he’d gone AWOL from that bunch of lunatics in the Legion and worked his passage across the Atlantic. He’d learned to speak Portuguese fluently during an assignment in North Africa, and his skill with bodies had enabled him to set up a modest business.
His latest charge was an old Indian woman who had no family. That was handy, he thought. He wouldn’t have to wait until after the funeral this time. He brushed some strands of blond hair out of his eyes as he prepared to sever the head with the skill of a master surgeon. The preserving treatment could wait. He put the article in a polythene bag and placed it in the freezer for safe keeping. Christmas was, after all, still ten months away.
June 12, 2010
Send it to them I did. It was accepted and published by an American print magazine called The Willows in December 2008.
Approximate reading time: 25 minutes.
Gary Jarman wondered what people found so intimidating about graveyards. He liked them. The one he was standing in lay some way removed from the small Highland community which it served and he felt quite at peace there. It was situated, along with the small church to which it was attached, on an isolated patch of moorland to the side of a narrow lane that climbed gently out of the village, having first crossed a deep ravine by way of an ancient stone bridge.
It was late afternoon in mid-October and the heavy grey sky had brought the onset of an early twilight. A profound sense of stillness held him enthralled. The Highland air was damp and unmoving. It carried the subtle and seductive scent that is peculiar to the mountains, where purity reigns and the paraphernalia of people pales into insignificance. He looked up at those mountains, forbidding in their scale and the harshness of their edges, yet somehow welcoming to the spirit that understands them.
He looked around at the scattered gravestones. He knew that each little plot held at least one body that was once a human life, but now lay as cold and impassive as the stone monument that carried its name. He recalled the dry, paper-thin husks of pupa cases. The butterflies they once imprisoned have long since flown to freedom in some spiritual sky, he thought.
And yet there was more. He took comfort from sharing this little piece of ground with so many people of the past, people whose energies had long since moved on but who were still there, in body if not in spirit. He decided that there was an atmosphere about graveyards that was essentially friendly. It might be only a community of empty husks, but that was a community of sorts and he felt content to be welcomed into their midst. He moved among the plots, reading the headstones and trying to piece together the relationships and the human dramas they hinted at.
The light fell further and he decided it was time to make his way back to the hotel in the village. As he approached the gate he noticed a small grave standing apart from the others. It looked lonely. The occupant, it seemed, was not welcome here. It had no headstone, just a small wooden cross like the kind you might find on a new grave; and yet the tangle of weeds colonising the plot testified to the fact that there was nothing new about it. Closer inspection revealed that there was no inscription either. And, oddest of all, it was aligned north-south. The other plots were all arranged unerringly in the traditional east-west manner, with the headstone at the western end so that the rising souls might face the coming Christ on Judgment Day. The occupant of this grave had been afforded no such hope.
He left and walked back down the lane towards the bridge. The premature twilight had already given way to deep dusk and a growing sense of sadness sank into his mind as he approached the old stone structure. He shivered, and another sensation entered at the same moment. There was somebody behind him. He turned to face the narrow lane winding its way up to the remote little graveyard. There was still enough light to be sure that he was quite alone on the road.
He turned again and walked onto the bridge. The water sang out loudly in the darkness of the gorge below, splashing and spluttering among the boulders. He looked over the parapet but could see little. His sadness deepened. He began to feel empty, his sense of self draining into the cold, clammy air. He became slightly dizzy, and the song of the water seemed to call to him. He felt an impulse to be down among it, dancing with it on its frenzied course among the rocks. He shook the feeling off, marvelling at the power that the elements and our brief encounters have to drive our moods to unusual extremes.
His spirits lifted as he moved among the lights of the village, and the walk into the warm and welcoming lobby of the hotel completed the transition to normality. He bathed, changed his clothes, read for a while and then went down to the bar for a meal and a drink.
He sat talking to the barman while he waited for his food to be prepared. The barman was a young Australian. He was working at the hotel for a couple of months to help pay for his backpacking trip around Europe. Among the plethora of idle chit chat, Gary mentioned the graveyard and the unmarked grave.
“Yeah, I noticed that,” offered the barman with some passing enthusiasm. “They reckon it’s a young woman. Used to work in this place ’til the stock-take didn’t add up, then she got fired. They found her body down by the river one day. The older folks reckoned she was a witch; that’s why they buried her the wrong way round. Old superstitions, eh?”
“How long ago was that?”
“Dunno mate. Few years, I think.”
Gary felt troubled as he ate his meal, but shrugged it off and had an undisturbed night’s sleep.
The following morning he set off for a planned hike over the mountain that rose to the west of the village. The weather was very different from the day before. The sky was partly clear, but a constant stream of grey and white clouds scudded busily across it. The wind had risen to a brisk north easterly and it was noticeably colder. It was dry, however, and he was well prepared in warm clothing.
He didn’t enjoy the day as much as he had hoped. The views were spectacular in places, and yet his heart wasn’t in it. Maybe it was due to the stinging wind, several degrees colder at the higher levels, which made his right ear ache for most of the walk. He felt relieved when his boots set foot on the lane about a mile north of the village. There was still some daylight left and the final fifteen minutes or so would see him settled in the warmth of the hotel before nightfall.
He quickened his step, only slowing it as he approached the churchyard. He stopped for a few minutes and wondered whether to pay another visit to the mysterious grave. He decided against it and hurried on.
As he approached the bridge he felt again the onset of a deep sadness. He was surprised, since there was nothing to explain it this time. The sense of being followed came with it too, sending a prickly sensation up his spine. He swung around to face the empty road. It brought the wind full into his face, and he thought he heard an incongruous sound carried on it. It was the sound of gentle sobbing. A woman’s voice, it seemed, although he knew it could have no human source. It was just some odd acoustic illusion.
Nevertheless, he felt even more disturbed than the day before and was reluctant to set foot on the bridge. He looked along its length and could see no hazard of any kind. He told himself he was just being fanciful. The wind seemed to be offering him encouragement; it was at his back now and was trying to push him gently onwards. He took a deep breath and strode forward.
He started walking quickly, but found his pace slowing as the sadness deepened to something approaching desolation. He stopped and listened to the rushing water again. Such a song it sang: incessant, tuneless, and yet profoundly beautiful. He walked over to the parapet and looked down into the gorge. He could see the tumbling river clearly in the daylight. The way the greys and greens of the static rocks contrasted with the white foam of the ever-moving water filled him with a deep understanding. How permanent is the state of being, and yet how temporal the life that constantly moves through it. And does that life ever die? Of course it doesn’t; it simply changes into a different form before returning to run the cycle all over again. How terrible it must be, he thought, to be the water in a stagnant pool.
The longing to fall down into the abyss grew stronger and he stood there for several minutes, wracked with conflict. More dizziness came with it and he felt himself growing weak. The wind began to rise and fall, rhythmically it seemed, and each time it rose he thought he heard an airy voice whispering in his ear. “Jump, jump, jump,” it commanded.
A car came down the road and hooted a loud warning, since the way was narrow and there was no footpath. The sound jerked him abruptly out of his dark reverie. He looked at the blue Land Rover as it drove slowly past. The instinct for survival gained ground and he followed the vehicle quickly off the bridge.
His mood in the bar that night was sombre. Any thought of leaping headlong into the gorge had gone, but the bridge itself was ever in his mind. He’d heard that folk tales from Scandinavia told of creatures that lived under bridges and lured travellers to their deaths; and this one was in the Scottish Highlands where elemental forces seem to have closer communion with the physical world than they do elsewhere. He wondered whether the place might be haunted by some dark, destructive spirit. Maybe that was what had lured the young woman to her death. Maybe now it wanted another victim. The thought ran constantly through his mind as he sipped his drink.
There was a young couple on the other side of the room, appearing relaxed in one another’s company. He glanced in their direction a few times, but paid them scant attention. Apart from them, he was the only occupant of the bar.
His metaphysical speculations stopped abruptly when the woman shrieked with laughter at something her companion had said. Gary laughed inwardly at himself. Such fanciful notions could be nothing more than a source of amusement in the modern world. He made a vow to himself, too: he would cross the bridge again tomorrow to lay this troublesome ghost stirred up by his own imagination. He would even go into the graveyard to make the job complete.
The following day dawned wet. Gary ate his breakfast at a table placed by the window in the upstairs dining room. He watched the dull mass of unbroken grey drift slowly across the sky. He looked at the tiny, jewelled raindrops standing precariously on the outside of the glass. Occasionally one of them would capitulate under its own weight and slither downwards, expending itself before it reached the bottom of the frame. He thought of the cycles of life again, of permanence, mutability and finality. He decided not to walk that day, but to drive instead to a craft centre he had heard about. Before he did anything else, though, he intended to deal with his ghost.
He took his time over breakfast. He felt relaxed and in true holiday mood. Nothing needed to be hurried and he finished his meal with two cups of rich coffee. He collected his anorak and went out to make the short walk up the hill.
The rain was modest, but manageable. He zipped the coat up to his chest, pulled on the capacious hood and began the shallow climb. He crossed the bridge without breaking his stride. The singing of the river was deeper and more powerful than the previous day. He knew it would be in spate from the water running off the hills. No doubt its course would be faster and more aggressive than usual. He didn’t bother to look; the urge to do so had disappeared. The bridge had lost its power it seemed, now that he had decided to exorcise it.
He arrived at the graveyard and pushed open the rusty, wrought iron gate. He was surprised to see that somebody else was in there, tending a plot over to his left. He stood and watched her for a few seconds, and she turned to look at him. A woman in her mid forties, he judged, dressed in an all-enveloping sou’wester like the sort he associated with fishermen. The shiny black cowl framed her face, but failed to hide the few strands of red hair that hung down her forehead. And, even at the ten yards of distance that separated them, he could see that her eyes were coloured the light blue of an early morning sky. She turned back to her work, and Gary walked over to the solitary, unmarked grave.
It looked even more desolate in the rain. Not only was the plot itself soiled by the browning detritus of summer weed growth, but the area around it was less well husbanded than the rest of the graveyard. The boundaries of this final resting place were becoming lost in the general babble of untended ground. Who was this young woman, he thought. What had she done that the locals continued to shun her even now, when she was clearly beyond being able to cause them any concern? He looked closely at the wooden cross, seeking some indication that somebody cared. There was none, and he stood back to gaze in sadness at the sorry sight.
“Her name is Glenda McMurdo.”
Gary swung around to face the red haired woman. She was standing almost at his shoulder, her blue Highland eyes burning into his and her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her coat. Her head was set at a slight angle.
“You should be careful not to tarry here too long. She is watching you.”
“Yes, watching you. She is The Watcher, you see. She was the last one to be buried in this graveyard, and the last one buried has to be The Watcher until someone else is brought in to take over.”
“Oh, right.” Gary struggled to know what the proper reaction to such a statement might be, but at least he would be able to get some answers to his questions. “I was told she was a witch.”
The woman’s eyes continued to hold his for what seemed like a long time. There was power in them, but it was an honest power; he felt no threat or malice.
“No, she was not a witch. If she had been, she would have been a very good witch. She had a level of psychic energy that I have never encountered before, not even here in the Highlands. That is why you shouldn’t tarry too long. She might – what should we say – take an interest in you.”
The final sentence made Gary’s skin creep. Ordinarily he would have found such a statement mildly amusing. But there was something about the woman’s sincerity, and something about the power of her eyes, that persuaded him to take her seriously.
“What sort of an interest?”
The woman regarded him intensely again for several long seconds. Her brow furrowed slightly, as though she were questioning the rightness of something. She looked around the graveyard, and then said suddenly
“There is an old sheiling a few steps across the moor. We can shelter from the rain there and I’ll tell you a story.”
“Why not the church? It’s closer.”
“That’s the problem. Come with me.”
Gary felt that no option was being offered. The woman walked quickly to the gate and he followed. She crossed the road and struck out across the moor which sloped downwards, before rising again to meet the side of a majestic mountain. They strode briskly, and soon the ramshackle roof of a stone building came into view. It was only a hundred yards ahead and his companion made straight for the opening where a door had once hung.
“Come into the body of the kirk,” she joked as she crossed to the far corner.
A little of the roof remained intact there and provided some shelter from the rain. She removed her hood and Gary followed suit. Then she reached inside her coat and pulled a thermos flask from an inner pocket.
“Would you like some tea? There is no sugar, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, thanks. I don’t take sugar.”
They sat on the damp ground and the woman poured two cups of steaming tea, handing the larger of the plastic receptacles to Gary. They both sipped their brew enthusiastically. Gary felt surprisingly comfortable, despite the smell of damp earth that assailed his nostrils and the chill air that made his fingers tingle. The hot tea helped.
“I thought it better that I shouldn’t tell you this story in front of Glenda,” the woman began.
“You really believe she’s there then, in the graveyard?”
His companion gave him that look again. Of course she was sure. Gary nodded apologetically. The woman began the tale.
“Glenda McMurdo was born twenty years ago, the daughter of an honest farmer and a mother whose reputation was nothing to be proud of. When she was three years old her father died in an accident. Her mother took the child to her brother, Glenda’s uncle you understand, and then disappeared. It was said that she’d gone to seek her ‘fortune,’ if you’ll excuse the euphemism, in one of the cities down south.
“Glenda was such a bonny child. Long black hair that hung like a horse’s main, clear complexion, beautiful, haunting, dark blue eyes... There was some talk of her not being her father’s daughter at all, but the child of an Irish labourer who had worked on the farm during the appropriate spring. And she had spirit. She was proud and independent, even at that age.
“Her upbringing at the hands of her uncle does not bear description. No one knew what was going on at the time. Or, if they did, they kept it quiet. Such is the way in close communities.
“Glenda was forever running away from home, forever having to be taken back, kicking and screaming, to that torture chamber and that appalling man whose depravity knew no bounds. I only came to know the truth many years later.
“All through her childhood she used to come into my shop – I have kept the newsagents by the crossroads for seventeen years now. She seemed to trust me and tell me things, even though she had a reputation for being quiet and withdrawn. She used to tell me about the conversations she had with the kelpies out on the moor, and down by the old bridge. She was often found under the bridge when she ran away from home. She said that she had a friend there, of whom she was very fond.
“And I believed her. I couldn’t disbelieve her. The power of her presence forced it upon me. Besides, she never told lies. She was forever taking punishments at school because she always told the truth when questioned about her misdemeanours. And there were plenty of those. The older she got, the more rebellious and mischievous she became.
“She left school at sixteen without a piece of paper to her name. She was bright enough, of course. She had natural intelligence in abundance. She’d just never bothered. The view of life that the education system teaches is all about conforming. Glenda was not a conformist. And there was no way she could subscribe to the rigid and mundane attitudes they tried to foist upon her. She had no time for the treadmill that convention says we should walk. She wanted to know why she was here, what her dreams meant, where the dead go. She wanted to be out among the wind, the wild heather and the denizens of the deeper places. She wanted to know about the things that have no place in the school curriculum.
“One afternoon, about a week after she left school, she walked into my shop carrying a large bag. She asked if she could move into my spare room. I was doubtful at first, until she told me a few things about her uncle. She’d never mentioned such things before. That clinched it; I had a lodger. The problem was that I could only offer to house and feed her, she would need to get an income for everything else. I couldn’t give her a job because that would have meant sacking my part time assistant, which wouldn’t have been fair.
“She didn’t mind that. She wanted to be independent anyway, she said. She was proficient enough in the three R’s and felt she’d be able to get something, somewhere. The following day she announced that she’d been to see Hamish at the hotel and he’d given her some bar work, at least until the tourist season wound down at the end of October.
“I think that was her undoing. I said she was a bonny child, didn’t I? By the age of sixteen she’d grown into a woman to be reckoned with. She was tall, graceful, ethereal, and had the kind of beauty that draws men like bears to a honey pot. She had a wonderful singing voice too. I suggested once that she might try using it to make a living. She declined, saying that her voice had been given to her by nature and she would only ever sing to herself and the natural world. And her eyes! There’s an expression the Irish have: ‘her eyes would tickle a daisy.’ Glenda’s eyes could tickle a daisy one minute and blow the moon out of its orbit the next.
“Within a month she was gaining a reputation. Nobody spoke openly to me about it; they knew how close to her I was – just lots of hints, sly glances and tutting. But the impression I got was that several men were thought to have been the recipients of Glenda’s favours – itinerant barmen, tourists, possibly even Hamish himself, heaven forbid! There was no proof, of course, and Glenda said nothing.
“And I heard that there was talk of her being a witch. Only the most diehard of sceptics – and there are not many of those in this part of the world – could fail to recognise her psychic gifts. Combine that with her independent spirit, her enviable physical attributes, and her presumed ability to seduce men effortlessly, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that the local puritans would draw the darkest of conclusions.
“Glenda didn’t quite make it to the end of October. She came home one day and said that Hamish had fired her. He’d accused her of stealing from the till. She denied it and that was good enough for me. I wanted to go and confront him, but she forbade it vehemently. I knew there was something else going on, but she stayed silent when I questioned her. I never did find out – not for certain, anyway.
“And she never got another job. She spent the days walking in the hills - pretty much whatever the weather - and the nights sitting by my old range talking to me about life and the never-ending questions it throws up. And she still claimed she had friends among the fairy folk up on the moor. It was during those couple of months that I really came to understand just how powerful a spirit she was. Sometimes the look in her eyes was so far away that she could have been on another planet.
“In the middle of December, shortly after her seventeenth birthday, she said she was going to make the trip to Inverness. She hadn’t spent much of the money she’d earned at the hotel and said she needed to get a few things. I never saw her alive again.
“When she didn’t come home that night I naturally felt anxious, but not unduly concerned. Expecting the unexpected was the norm with Glenda. Over the next few days I scoured the hills myself, half expecting to find her talking to an empty piece of ground. I didn’t. I asked my regulars whether anybody had seen her. They shook their heads. I think they were hoping they’d seen the last of her.
“After a week I called the police. They put their routines into operation and I just had to wait. It was a tough time, and yet I was never as worried as I felt I should have been. I just knew, somehow, that she was still alive and fending for herself somewhere. The police drew a blank and there were no reported sightings, but that didn’t surprise me. I swear Glenda could have made herself literally invisible if she’d wanted to.
“The winter passed, the spring came on, and then summer arrived. The place was full of tourists as usual and Glenda began to feel like a distant memory. Until one night in July.
“I woke up suddenly in the early hours of the morning. The sky was just beginning to lighten and I was sure I’d heard her calling my name. I got up and looked out of the window, expecting her to be looking up at me, wanting to be let in. My heart was pounding, but the street was empty. And this is the bit that’s difficult to explain. I realised that she wasn’t out in the street. I could feel her standing behind me, putting her hands on my shoulders. I felt a deep sense of sorrow and knew that something was terribly wrong. I turned around and, needless to say, I was alone in the room. At least, there was nothing to see or touch physically.
“I didn’t even try to go back to sleep. I was so full of sadness and anxiety that I was at a loss to know what to do with myself. A few hours later there was a knock at the door. I knew before I opened it what I was going to be told. A policewoman was standing there. She asked if she could come in. ‘Do you need to?’ I asked her. ‘You’ve found a body, haven’t you?’
“She told me that the body of a young woman had been spotted by an early walker that morning, lying at the foot of the bridge. The description fitted Glenda and they wanted me to go and identify her.
“She was lying under a sheet by the side of the river. They pulled it back and I nodded. They didn’t show me anything else, but the policewoman came back to the house and told me the fuller story.
“They’d found her with no apparent injuries. It seems she hadn’t jumped or fallen. But she had a newborn baby cradled in her arms, with the placenta still attached. He was dead too. The pathologist later said he’d been born alive.”
The woman halted her tale and brought the tea up to her lips. The pain of remembering showed in the red rims around her damp eyes. Gary said nothing. He understood that the moment needed silence. And then she continued.
“The post mortem revealed that the baby had died of asphyxiation – naturally, it seems, from a blockage of mucous in his windpipe. But they were unable to positively identify the cause of Glenda’s death. It seems she’d just stopped living. Some of the locals made much of that fact, of course. They said she’d been struck down by the wrath of God. My theory is that the baby died first and her spirit just wanted to go with him. If that is the case, it was a terrible mistake to make.
“But there it was. Glenda was gone and there was a funeral to be taken care of. I could have left it to the state to give her a pauper’s burial, but I felt it only right that somebody should take proper responsibility for her. I rifled my own savings and paid for everything.
“When I got to the church for the funeral I was shocked. Apart from the undertakers’ staff, there were only three people in attendance: the minister and the two gravediggers. What really astonished me, though, was that they had dug the plot north-south. I asked the minister why he would do such a thing. He looked embarrassed and told me he’d been approached by some of the local dignitaries – good Presbyterians all - who had insisted that Glenda was a witch and it was only proper that she be buried that way. Having less backbone than an earthworm, he had approached his superiors and been granted the necessary sanction. ‘But the baby is to be buried in the same plot,’ I pointed out. ‘Is he to be treated as a witch too?’ What did the minister do? He shrugged.
“And then I saw the irony in it, and laughed. Glenda had always been out of step with the world anyway, and she had never believed in any day of judgment. She would probably have been more than content to be buried a different way round to everybody else. I asked the minister to lay her head at the southern end, so she could sit up and watch the Aurora when it splashed the northern sky. At least he agreed to do that for her.
“He and I went into the church and the service was performed quickly. The undertakers’ men did their job, and then I left to allow the gravediggers to do theirs. I walked home and felt very lonely sitting on my own that night. I hoped I would feel Glenda’s presence again, but of course that was no longer possible. She had become The Watcher. Local tradition has it that The Watcher can only walk abroad as far as the bridge. They say the water is a barrier to keep the village folk safe from the lonely spirit’s desire to be among them.
“So that is the story of Glenda McMurdo.”
The woman sipped her tea again. Gary had finished his. He felt the need to say something, but could only muster “poor girl” by way of a meagre attempt to demonstrate understanding. They sat in silence for a few minutes, and then Gary asked a question.
“Why is there no headstone?”
“She wouldn’t have wanted one. It smacks too much of a sense of belonging. Glenda never belonged to any place or anybody.”
“So who put the cross there?”
“I don’t know. It appeared mysteriously a couple of weeks after the funeral. I have my suspicions. I think it might have something to do with the reason Hamish fired her.”
“I see.” Gary nodded knowingly. “Presumably, the verger doesn’t tend the plot because of Glenda’s reputation.”
“No one but me will go near the plot. They’re afraid of her.”
“Couldn’t you tend it?”
“I could, but therein lies another irony. Glenda wouldn’t want her plot tending. She’d be happier lying among the tangle of wild growth, gradually becoming one with nature. Her grave will disappear altogether one day.”
There was more silence as they both regarded the damp ground surrounding them. Gary had a final question.
“You said she might show an interest in me. What sort of an interest did you mean?”
A troubled expression came into the woman’s eyes. She leaned forward and looked earnestly into his.
“Glenda has been bound to the earth for three years now. I see her sometimes, when the light is low in the evening and the mist hugs the moor around the graveyard. She is always indistinct, of course, but it’s her all right. Sometimes she is pacing to and fro, wringing her hands. Sometimes she is sitting on the ground, sobbing. She is desperate to be set free, and there is only one way that can happen. Someone else must die and be buried in the graveyard. I told you how powerful she was, psychically I mean. I have little doubt that she still has that power, possibly even more so. She won’t do anything to me, I’m almost family, but she might work her power on a stranger’s mind. Scoff if you like. You didn’t know Glenda.”
Gary wasn’t scoffing. He was remembering his experiences on the bridge.
“Would she really do such a thing? She doesn’t sound like a vindictive sort.”
“Ordinarily, probably not; but there is one fact that could make all the difference. Glenda and her baby were buried together, but not in the same coffin. The minister insisted that they had separate ones. He also insisted that the child be buried first. He might pretend not to believe in the old superstitions, but he paid due heed to that one. He made sure that Glenda was the last one buried. And so, you see, she doesn’t only have the earth to escape, she has her son to go to as well. How strong do you think such a need is to a young mother?”
“But even if I – or any other stranger – died here, I wouldn’t be buried in the churchyard. They’d take my body home.”
“I doubt she would know that. Such procedures are not something she would ever have thought about.”
Gary decided he should tell his companion about his experiences on the bridge. She listened with mounting interest. When he finished, she looked away for a few seconds and shook her head.
“Then you must not visit Glenda’s grave again. And you must not walk over the bridge alone. I’ve done all I need to do for today. I’ll walk back to the village with you.”
They retraced their steps across the moor, deviating slightly to arrive at the road a little way below the graveyard. The rain had turned to a heavy drizzle, and the mist that covered the moor obscured the peaks of the surrounding mountains. As they began to walk towards the village, Gary felt the familiar tingle and looked back. His companion folded her arm into his.
“I know,” she said. “Come on.”
They walked steadily and silently down the wet road. Gary felt nervous, and the woman glanced at him a couple of times. And then, as they were within yards of setting foot on the bridge, they both stopped and turned. Whatever there was to be felt had entered both of them.
“Do you see her?” whispered the woman. Gary nodded.
The outline of the church was but a grey facsimile in the mist, and the landscape beyond it faded into emptiness. But there, standing proud among the bland canvas, was a glowing, golden shimmer. The woman half raised her hand and waved. There was no response. She turned to Gary.
“You’re safe now,” she said.
Even before they reached the front door of the hotel, Gary had decided to check out and move on. He offered his earnest thanks to the woman and asked whether she would do him a favour. Would she take a note of his address and let him know when the graveyard received a new arrival? Having heard the story of Glenda, he felt that the knowledge of her terrible predicament would always haunt him until he learned of her release. The woman agreed and promised to keep the scrap of paper safe.
* * *
Gary’s release was to come quickly. Only a month after his trip to Scotland he received a letter. It sought to inform him that a funeral had taken place in the village graveyard. The deceased was none other than Hamish, the hotel owner. Further, his informant thought he might be interested to hear the circumstances of the man’s death, as reported by his wife in the days that followed.
It seems he had sat up in bed one night, sweating and babbling incoherently. His eyes had carried a look of stark terror and all attempts by his wife to calm him had failed. Eventually he had gripped his chest, emitted the most terrible roar of pain and fallen back onto his pillow, dead. The post mortem had revealed evidence of a massive coronary thrombosis.
The letter continued with the opinion that Glenda might finally have got her priorities right, and it seemed she might have overcome the barrier that was meant to keep her safely beyond the pale. Glenda had never been the sort to be constrained by barriers, it concluded.
June 01, 2010
It was first published by a horror writers’ website called ‘Inclinations’ in 2006.
Reading time: approximately 30 minutes.
It was approaching midnight on an airless, sultry night in June when I first met Mr Grimshaw.
I had been working in my office for several hours and my weary eyes had done enough for one day. I went downstairs to get the first of my late night scotches. They were a regular habit of mine - very regular. Daily, in fact. Whether it was a bad habit or not is a matter of opinion. I lived alone, so the only opinion that counted was mine, and I looked forward to spending the last two hours of the day – or the first two of the next if you want to be pedantic – closeted comfortably in my sparsely lit house, sipping three or four double Bells with just a splash of water.
It was like being in the womb again, separate and aloof from a self-serving and insensitive world that always wants to put some weight unwontedly onto your shoulders. The night was always fully dark between midnight and 2 am, even at the height of summer, and the world beyond the walls was quiet and invisible. The scotch and a spot of late night TV, or maybe a browse around the internet with some stress-melting music floating out of my headphones, put a satisfying full stop to the day.
It had been full daylight when I’d gone up to the office earlier to do some work, so there were no downstairs lights on when I reached the foot of the stairs. I flicked on the hall light and went to the front door to check that it was locked. It wasn’t, and I realised that it must have been that way since I’d last come into the house at about six. I wasn’t concerned. The village was a self-contained little community in which strangers, apart from the odd workman or delivery driver, were rare. Having the door unlocked carried little risk. I turned the key, performed the unnecessary but oddly obligatory action of trying the handle, and then sauntered towards the kitchen where the scotch was kept.
I passed close to the foot of the stairs again, and beyond them the door to the living room stood half open. It was dark in there but a little light entered from the hall and something unfamiliar caught my eye. I turned to look fully at it and came to an abrupt and startled halt. The gap in the door gave a clear view to my favourite armchair placed at the side of the fireplace. The light was dim, but there was no doubting what I saw. Somebody was sitting in it.
A brief paralysis gripped me – part fearful, part confused, and part indignant at this unwelcome invasion of my hallowed space. I stared for several seconds, maybe longer. I could tell that the intruder was a man. I saw his pale face in profile as he sat motionless and looked straight ahead. He might have been watching the television, had it been switched on. I felt nervous about challenging him. Who knows what sort of strange and possibly dangerous notions might be infecting the mind of someone who would walk uninvited into a person’s house at the dead of night and sit in his armchair? I realised soon enough that I had no alternative.
A heavy weight of apprehension settled in my stomach as I walked to the living room door and pushed it open. It creaked on the old hinges, but the figure made no move. I put my hand out and pressed down the two switches that turned on the ceiling lights. I saw him more clearly now, but still he sat motionless, apparently oblivious to my presence or the sudden exposure to the comprehensive illumination of two 100 watt light bulbs.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked loudly, trying to sound authoritative.
He ignored me and continued to sit impassively, his arms resting easily along the arms of the chair and his hands hanging limply over the ends. He sat upright, but his head was leaning forward slightly, as though it were just a little too heavy to be kept erect. I walked around the back of the sofa and approached him full on, taking in every aspect of his appearance.
The bright light showed him to be an elderly man, late seventies or early eighties perhaps. His face was exceedingly pale, as though it hadn’t seen the light of the sun in a long time, and his skin had an unreal, wax-like quality about it. It reminded me of the off-white piano keys made of ivory that you still see on old uprights in church halls. It was a long, gaunt sort of a face, and wisps of fine, grey hair hung untidily down each side of his head from a bald crown. Pale grey stubble stood out from his jaw line, and there was an ugly blue scar, about an inch in length, above the corner of his right eye. The eyes themselves showed nothing by way of emotion or awareness, and yet they were not dead eyes. There was life there, just discernible behind the wetness of the flecked whites. And they were a curious colour; the palest, washed out blue that made them look almost artificial.
His clothes reminded me of what my grandfather had worn when I was a child: heavy black shoes, grey woollen socks, and dark brown trousers made of some thick, worsted material, held in place by a broad leather belt with the tongue hanging down. What I could see of his collarless white shirt looked dirty, and was covered by an old grey cardigan with holes here and there. I spoke to him again.
“Look, you shouldn’t be here you know. Where do you come from?”
I assumed he must be suffering some form of dementia, and that he had probably wandered out of his house or a geriatric rest home somewhere in the vicinity. He continued to ignore me. I considered shaking his shoulder, but thought better of it. That sort of thing should be left to the experts, I decided. Physical contact can ignite the most vigorous of fires in the most unlikely of people. His presence unnerved me and I just wanted to be rid of him. I made a mental note never to leave the front door unlocked again and decided that I should call the police. I walked the few feet over to the phone, picked it up and turned back to keep a wary eye on the strange interloper.
He was gone. The chair was empty. I made all haste back to the hall and checked every room in the house. There was no sign of anybody and the door was still locked from the inside.
The chilling realisation soon settled uneasily in my mind. I had a ghost. There could be no doubting the fact. I was fully awake, untouched by the demon drink, and in total command of my faculties. I’d seen him as plainly as it’s possible to see anything. I wondered why he had never put in an appearance before in the two years that I’d lived in the house. I wasn’t qualified to answer the question, and it was a pointless one anyway. Whatever the reason, he was here now.
Or was he? I considered that he might have been some sort of one-off apparition. Perhaps I would never see him again. I wasn’t qualified to answer that one either, but I made some attempt to take heart from the possibility.
But what if the hope was misplaced? There are two problems with resident ghosts. Firstly, the very mystery of their existence is enough to put the wind up even the most rational person. They just shouldn’t be there. They are the ultimate unknown quantity and we humans are congenitally terrified of the unknown. Secondly, they are beyond our control and we don’t like that either. We don’t know where or when they are going to turn up next.
It was the second point that was most occupying my troubled brain as I resumed my excursion to the scotch bottle. I was more in need of it now than I had been ten minutes earlier, and it was no surprise that my hand was shaking slightly as I poured rather more than a double. I broke my habit and left the water out. I stood and drank it in the kitchen, pondering the worst of the questions. How was I supposed to go to bed, turn off the light and try to go to sleep, not knowing whether I would wake up in the darkness of the small hours to find a gaunt, ivory-white face looking back at me?
Logic came to my aid as I remembered the received wisdom regarding ghosts. They don’t have any objective reality, we’re told, they’re just phantasms - some sort of residual energy playing the same routine over and over again when some unknown condition is right. If a ghost appears sitting in a chair at midnight, that’s how it is always likely to appear. It’s how grey ladies, hooded monks and headless aristocrats always behave, isn’t it?
Could I rely on that, I asked myself. Not entirely. I’d read of other sorts too, ghosts that follow people about and engage with them in disturbingly objective ways. My ghost had neither followed nor engaged with me and I was encouraged by the fact. I drained the first scotch and poured another. Then I peered around the kitchen door and looked into the living room again. My armchair was still empty.
I took myself and my libation back to the scene of the strange encounter. I felt nervous and decided that I wouldn’t be comfortable sitting in my favourite chair, so recently occupied and then vacated in such an extraordinary manner. I wondered whether non-objective phantasms would be capable of materialising in the same place as a living person. The thought was disturbing and disagreeable. I turned on the TV and started to watch it from the safety of the sofa.
I heard a noise behind me and turned around in alarm. It was only the night storage meter switching over and I smiled a nervous, relieved smile. This situation was going to take some getting used to, even if my house guest never appeared again. If he did – well, I supposed I would have to start looking for an exorcist.
My interest in the TV programmes was perfunctory at best. The problem with sitting on the sofa was that its back faced the door into the hall, and the fear of being approached from behind was too strong to ignore. I had to sit in a sideways position from which I could keep an eye of sorts on both the door and the armchair. The TV had little chance of holding my attention, but I left it on anyway as a distraction. And I did make some attempt to watch it in between frequent, furtive glances either side to ensure that I was still alone.
Another scotch followed and I began to yawn. I looked at the clock which told me that it was ten past two. I usually went to bed at around 2 am and I pondered the obvious question. How did I feel about going to bed tonight after my unnerving encounter with the old man? I reasoned that I would probably feel more comfortable upstairs. Whatever the wraith was, I could reasonably hope that he belonged to the living room, or at least the lower floor.
I double checked that the front door was locked and bolted. I knew that ghosts were not subject to physical constraints, but the thought of an unlocked door had become a source of some concern. I turned all the downstairs lights off, making sure that the landing light was on first so as not to be in the dark even for a second, and went upstairs. Again, the turning on of the bedroom light preceded the turning off of the landing one. I shut my bedroom door and, uncharacteristically, slid the bolt across. I lay in bed with my eyes open and the light on until sleep overcame me. I woke up in the morning feeling apprehensive, but lacking the chilling weight of fear that had sat heavily on me the previous night.
I went about my normal business throughout the day and tried to avoid the compulsion to look through the living room door every time I passed it. But I made sure that the front door was locked and the living room lights were switched on as soon as the dusk began to gather. I worked in the office again that evening, drank my usual nightcaps, and saw no more of my ghostly visitor. As the weeks passed he faded into the background. Bedtime soon resumed its normal routine and I came to assume that the phenomenon had indeed been an isolated one. And then, about a month later, I saw him again.
If anything, the second sighting was more shocking than the first. An unprecedented event has a novelty value that makes it easier to deal with. Repetition brings with it a desperate, sinking feeling. It indicates that the problem is perennial, or at least persistent, and won’t go away on its own.
I went to bed one night and followed my usual routine of getting undressed, turning the light off and drawing back the curtains. I liked to go to sleep with the curtains open. I found it peaceful to settle beneath the sheets in a world illuminated by moonlight; it somehow put me in touch with the spirit of the night. “Spirit” is an unfortunate, though entirely apposite, term in the circumstances. There was a low wall bordering the front of my short garden. As I drew back the curtains I saw that someone was sitting on it; and the moonlight was bright enough to be sure who that someone was.
His pose was different that time, no doubt dictated by the different mode of seating to which his ghostly form needed to adjust. But he looked just as relaxed as before. His right hand was pressed firmly on his right knee with his elbow cocked out slightly. His other elbow rested easily on his left thigh and his head was turned away to the right. He looked almost like a Rodin sculpture until he moved. I’d never seen him move before, and the tingle that was already gripping the nape of my neck became suddenly sharper. He only moved his head, but he turned it upwards to look directly at me.
I stepped back instinctively. Seeing a ghost is bad enough; but when its eyes look directly into yours, even at that distance, the sense of horror gets raised to a most uncomfortable level. I realised that I was hiding from him and, even though my jangling nerves were holding my faculty for logic at bay, the idea was preposterous. I inched back towards the side of the window and peered around the curtain. He was gone.
On that occasion he could, of course, simply have walked away. But I already knew that he was a ghost and didn’t need to. He could disappear at will; that’s what ghosts do. I had the sudden notion that he might have come into the house again, but I resisted it since that would have placed upon me a burden of decision that I had no desire to face. I had no intention of going downstairs to check.
So much for my theories, I thought. The ghost had now looked at me, deliberately it seemed, and that was some form of engagement. Unless, of course, his non-objective routine just happened to require that he look in that general direction at that point in its perpetual cycle. I doubted it somehow. I got into bed feeling profoundly troubled and nervous. The bedroom was well lit by the nearly-full moon and I was brave enough not to turn any lights on. I lay thinking for a while until a troubled sleep came over me and the night passed without further incident.
And so did the next few weeks. Until that day in August when I made the mistake of going out and leaving the door unlocked. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, still fully light, and I was only going as far as the post box. It never occurred to me that there was any reason to lock the front door.
The post box was a short walk of about fifty yards up the hill from my house. I posted my letters, exchanged a greeting with a neighbour, and walked back again. The rear of my house came directly onto the lane and had a large window set into it. As I passed it, I stopped. Momentarily, I thought I’d seen a face looking out at me. I glanced sharply at it, convinced that it was only a trick of the light. It wasn’t. The face was still looking at me. The same pale blue eyes, the same stubbly chin, the same blue scar, the same everything. But there was something different about the eyes this time. They looked interested in me, as though he were questioning my existence as much as I questioned his. I looked away in amazement and then looked back. Predictably, the window was empty.
The latest encounter brought a couple of new and disturbing thoughts tumbling into my head. Firstly, it was clear that my ghost was not exclusively nocturnal. That meant I could have no respite from the possibility of his making an appearance at any time. What bothered me more, however, was that he was in my house when I wasn’t. Feeling invaded is difficult to come to terms with, but this made me feel displaced and that was even worse.
I was nervous about going into the house, even though I felt sure that it would be empty. My ghost made only very brief appearances, and I suppose I was getting used to the pattern. And I was right; the house was empty. I hardly felt reassured. Three appearances were enough to make me feel that the problem really did need to be dealt with. I wasn’t sure how I would go about finding an exorcist, but I couldn’t think of any other option.
The following day I rang the vicar whom our parish shared with three others. I felt slightly awkward as I introduced myself and told him where I lived. I was not a churchgoer and had never spoken with him before. I felt embarrassed at the thought that people like me were the reason why four parishes had to share one vicar these days. But where else do you go to seek an exorcist?
He gave no indication that he begrudged my call. His manner was polite and friendly, but I had the impression that he was something of a modern rationalist in his views. He never actually said that he didn’t believe me, nor even claim openly that ghosts were just the stuff of imagination, but there was something in the tone of his voice that seemed dismissive. Nevertheless, he offered the welcome information that the diocese had a resident, trained exorcist and said that he would contact him and call me back in a day or two. I offered my thanks and privately hoped that it wouldn’t take any longer than that.
It was lunchtime and I had little work on at the time. The late August day was dull, but mild and dry. I decided to have something to eat and then go for a long ramble around the lanes that circuited the village. I hadn’t done that for some time and it seemed like a way of celebrating the fact that the business of laying my troublesome ghost was finally being given due attention.
A pleasant lunch concluded, I donned my walking shoes and went out, making sure that the door was securely locked behind me. I had come to the view, rather prematurely I suppose given the limited evidence available, that my visitor somehow needed the door to be unlocked in order to gain entrance. It seemed illogical but there was no harm in taking the precaution. And, as another precautionary measure, I decided to walk down the hill in the opposite direction to the post box. I might have been wrong about the door and felt uneasy at the prospect of walking past the living room window. I had the fanciful notion that the old man might have heard my telephone call to the vicar, and imagined him scowling at me through the glass. I decided not to take the risk.
About a hundred yards down the hill the Church of St Mary The Virgin stood on a large plot of land opposite a road junction. It was a typical example of Victorian gothic revival, pleasant and sturdy but generally unremarkable; and the graveyard was not as full as those of the old medieval churches. The headstones were huddled together in a small area around the church, leaving a large tract of well-mown ground waiting to be filled over the coming centuries.
The church and its grounds came into view shortly after I left the house and I saw that it contained a solitary figure, apparently standing in front of one of the graves. I assumed it to be one of the villagers paying respect to a lost relative and gave it little attention. But then I got closer and the figure became better defined.
It was clearly that of an elderly man, standing still and with his head bowed. He appeared to be looking at the headstone of a grave that was last in line at the eastern end of the church and close to the edge of the path. As I got closer still, the detail became clearer. He was wearing heavyweight, dark coloured trousers and a grey cardigan. And the top of his head was bald with wisps of fine grey hair hanging down each side.
I stood by the railings and watched him for a few minutes. He didn’t move but continued to stand with his hands clasped together in front of his chest, as though he were praying. His face was in profile and he was too far away to see the features clearly. Could it just be coincidence? I told myself that it was more than likely, and was reassured that he didn’t turn and look at me. No doubt there were plenty of elderly men who wore similar dress, I thought. But I knew everybody in the village, at least by sight, and I was sure that he wasn’t a local man. Perhaps he was an outsider paying a visit to the grave of someone who had lived there once. That seemed unlikely since there was no car parked on the road.
The pressure to go and investigate was irresistible. I walked on towards the gate, feeling a thrill of nervousness as I approached it and the figure became obscured by the corner of the church. The clatter of the heavy iron latch seemed uncommonly loud when I lifted it, and managed to startle me again when I closed the gate behind me. I made my way up the steps to the base of the tower and walked around to the south side of the church. I suppose I should have expected it, but the shock still made my heart pound when I saw that the figure had gone.
I considered the possibilities. He could have entered the church or he could have walked around the north side. There was no other way that an ordinary mortal could have left without me seeing him. I tried the church door first. It was locked. I walked quickly around the north side of the building and completed the circuit until I had a clear view of the gate and road again. There was no sign of anybody. The only occupants of the churchyard were me and the quiet remains of the rude forefathers, lying unseen beneath the green and brown earth. I looked at the spot where the man had been standing and walked over to read the inscription on the simple, limestone monument. It read:
In Memory of
Dearly loved wife of
Who departed this life
August 27th 1947.
Aged 71 years
I realised that today was August 27th. It seemed that my ghost now had a name.
It didn’t make me feel any better about his sudden and unwelcome appearance in my life. I wondered whether I was being selfish. Why had he chosen me? Or did he appear to other people too? Did he want something, need something even? And what should I do about it? Wait for him to appear again and talk to him? I’d already done that once and he’d ignored me. But I hadn’t known he was a ghost then. Did that make a difference? Should I try to find out something about him, presumably from one of the older locals who would have known him?
That seemed like a good idea. Forewarned is forearmed, and I was genuinely interested anyway. And why not start now? I abandoned my walk and went to the local shop instead. The owners were an elderly couple who kept it going out of a sense of duty to the community, even though they were both some way beyond retirement age.
George and Nellie Spencer were together in the shop when I went in. I bought some chocolate by way of providing an excuse to be there and engaged them in conversation, gradually bringing the subject around to old village characters and the Grimshaws in particular.
It seemed that they had been something of a cause celebre in the village at one time and the two elderly shopkeepers took evident delight in relating the old story, especially as there was an unsolved mystery attached to it. They explained that they only knew what they had picked up from conversations between the grown-ups at the time, since they had still been children when Mr Grimshaw had mysteriously disappeared and Mrs Grimshaw had died shortly afterwards.
The Grimshaws, they told me, had lived in one of a pair of tied cottages down the lane that ran to the main road. Edith Grimshaw was considered eccentric. She never socialised, never went to church, and was rarely seen except when she was tending the herb garden at the back of the house. Albert Grimshaw was a farm labourer who worked up at Common Farm on the main road. He was considered unsociable too, and the story in the village was that he beat his wife. He spent nearly every evening in the local pub, communicating as little as possible with the other men and going home drunk at closing time.
The people who lived next door to them reported that the noise of some excessive commotion was commonly heard shortly after his return, and the shouting and banging led them to believe that he was giving his wife a hard time. It was generally taken as the reason for Mrs Grimshaw’s social reticence. They assumed that Mr Grimshaw was highly possessive and kept his wife at home, both to deny her what he saw as unwarranted freedom, and also to keep the outward signs of his brutal handiwork from the eyes of the village. No-one intervened, of course; and the police regarded domestic violence as an entirely personal matter in those days. How a man treated his possessions was his business.
By the time the war started in 1939, Albert had been retired for a few years. But he was still strong and fit, and was able to earn extra money doing work for local farmers in place of the younger men who were away fighting. His drinking continued unabated and so did the nightly commotions. When the war finished the conscripts gradually returned to the village and the local farms. Albert’s temporary work came to an end and it seemed to have an effect on him. He became even more sullen and unsociable. By then the Spencers were old enough to be aware of him themselves. They noticed that he was rarely seen during the day and, when he did appear outdoors, he was so morose, distant and bad tempered that they were afraid of him.
And then, in the summer or autumn of 1946, Albert disappeared. His nightly visits to the pub were still a regular habit and, on the night in question, he had left at closing time but failed to return home. The neighbours were about to go to bed when Mrs Grimshaw knocked on their door saying that her husband hadn’t come back yet. She told them she had searched the lane between the pub and their house but to no avail. The neighbours later testified that they’d heard no shouting or banging that night.
The following day the villagers conducted a search of the lanes and fields but found nothing. The police were called in and they were unsuccessful too. The case remained open and Albert Grimshaw was never seen again. About a year later, Edith died suddenly of a heart attack. One of the local gentleman farmers paid for a simple funeral, and a collection among the sympathetic villagers provided the headstone.
It was an interesting story and I had listened to it intently. But I failed to see any clues as to why Mr Grimshaw was plaguing me with his unearthly presence, or what it was that he wanted of me. I assumed that it must have something to do with the mystery of his disappearance. I left the shop and walked home, wondering all the way what I should do about the situation.
Briefly, I considered leaving the door unlocked as an invitation to Albert to come in and tell me what his problem was. But no; I wasn’t that brave, and things probably didn’t work like that anyway. I decided to take the more discretionary option and see what the exorcist could achieve.
It was still early and I decided to resume my ramble. It only took a little over an hour to walk the two mile circuit, even allowing for the odd few minutes spent here and there leaning on gateposts and admiring the view. And I was glad of the chocolate that I’d bought at the shop.
I thought of Mr and Mrs Grimshaw constantly. I imagined Albert sitting alone in the pub with only a pint for company. I imagined him staggering home, and the fearful look in Edith’s eyes when he walked through the door. I didn’t know what she looked like, of course; I hadn’t seen her. I constructed a picture of some sad, nervous, bird-like little woman, and the imagined view of Albert’s abusive behaviour wasn’t pleasant.
The conclusion of the walk brought me back to the village at the junction that faced the churchyard. I looked over at Edith’s headstone again and was relieved that there was no mysterious figure in attendance. For some reason though, I felt drawn to take another look at it. I knew it wouldn’t help with my problem, but there was something fascinating about being in the company of Mrs Grimshaw’s mortal remains. I went around the south side of the church and stood at the end of Edith’s plot, looking at the inscription on the headstone. I even muttered something like “I wish you could tell me what Albert’s problem is.”
At that point I felt a tingling sensation. It was the feeling you get when you can’t see or hear anything, but you know you are being watched. I knew with all certainty that someone was standing behind me. I turned around in alarm. That someone was Albert Grimshaw, dressed as I had become used to seeing him. He stood with his hands clasped in front of his stomach and his intense stare left me in no doubt that he was aware of my presence.
You might think that seeing a ghost outside in broad daylight is preferable to seeing it in your house at night. I’m not so sure. It’s different, but it still makes your skin creep. My first impression was that there was something unreal about the figure and it didn’t take me long to realise what it was. The sun had come out. There were shadows everywhere. But Albert cast no shadow; neither were there shadows under his forehead, his prominent cheekbones or his stubbly chin. He looked like a hologram.
It was the expression on his face, though, that made me feel weak and inclined to flee. He was grinning at me, and it was a most unpleasant grin. His lips were parted to reveal a set of clenched, yellow teeth that looked too big for his emaciated face. And the grin seemed to contradict the look in his eyes that was helpless and imploring. His face looked like the mask of some sad and hideous clown and it disgusted me.
But there he stood, motionless; and I didn’t flee. It seemed the moment of truth had arrived and it was clear that I would have to face it. I gathered the courage to ask him if he could speak. He looked away for a second. He seemed uncertain. Then he looked back at me and nodded. I told him that I knew who he was and that I’d heard the story of his disappearance. I asked him if he could tell me what had happened and what he wanted from me now. His grin faded and his eyes looked sadder. He seemed to swallow and I felt that speaking was something he hadn’t done for a long time.
He began hesitatingly and I almost wished I hadn’t encouraged him. The fact that he could speak at all was unbelievable enough, but his voice added another level of repulsion to the horror that was already gripping me. It was thin, weak and rasping, as though he had a sore throat. But it was the hissing sound accompanying each syllable that I found really unpleasant. It seemed that air was escaping from somewhere as he spoke. It sounded unhealthy, menacing, repugnant.
“Hard to talk,” he rasped. “Not used to it. Ask questions please.”
Logic told me that I should be sympathetic, but I didn’t feel that way. My gut reaction was to put considerable distance between us as soon as possible. I wanted to be rid of the responsibility of dealing with Mr Grimshaw. But I realised that if I didn’t face the situation now I would probably have to deal with it at some other time and in circumstances that might be even more unpleasant. I didn’t want him in my house again. So questions it would have to be. But what should I ask him? I started with the obvious.
“Did you die that night, the night you left the pub and disappeared?”
He shook his head, but his melancholy eyes never left mine.
“When did you die then?”
“Never died,” he croaked. “Not dead.”
That threw me, and I stood looking at him for a few seconds.
“What do you mean, you’re not dead? What did happen?”
He sighed visibly and looked even more deflated. He roused himself to make the effort. His subsequent speech was broken and hesitant. It seemed he needed to keep his words to a minimum.
“Went home from pub. Expected Edith to shout and beat me. Always did. See...” He pointed to the scar above his right eye. “Gave me cup of tea instead. Never done that in years. Tasted strange. Edith watched me drink it. Eyes looked evil. Mouth moving but no sound. Felt frightened.”
He stopped and put one hand on his chest. He looked to be in pain. He gathered himself again and continued.
“Fell asleep. Woke up outside. House all dark. Went to door but couldn’t touch it. Knew it was locked. Couldn’t knock. Knew it wasn’t allowed.”
He stopped again and I asked the obvious question.
“Who said it wasn’t allowed?”
He fell silent and I prompted him to continue.
“Got confused. Days all mixed up. Sometimes dark, sometimes light. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold. Sometimes dry, sometimes rain, sometimes snow. Saw people, but didn’t see me. Went into houses when doors not locked. Nobody saw me. Spoke but nobody heard. Walked through me. Horrible. Got frightened all the time. Went home lots. Door always locked. Then, open one day. Went in. Edith saw me. Screamed. Grabbed her arm. Wanted to know what happened. Wanted her to make it right. Fell down dead at my feet. Watched them take her away. Watched them bury her - there...” He pointed to the grave and stood looking sadly at it. “No escape now. Can’t die. Can’t be with people. Lonely.”
I thought he was going to cry, but men of Albert’s generation don’t do that. Feelings of pity and revulsion were battling each other in my brain as I watched his eerie form stand wretched and forlorn in the sunlit churchyard. Being the undead among the dead was a poignant concept. And I had already realised that being the undead among the living must be maddening. I was wondering what it must be like to spend over half a century walking among your fellow creatures without being able to engage with them. I found myself hoping that Albert’s sense of time was different to ours, as his stilted and difficult speech had indicated.
But my curiosity was aroused too. I wanted to know more. The idea of talking to a ghost was becoming interesting, although it seemed that Albert wasn’t quite that – at least not in the conventional sense. I had to ask more questions, partly to confirm that I had understood him correctly.
“You’re sure you’re not dead?”
“You’re sure your body isn’t lying somewhere?”
He nodded again.
“And you think Edith did this to you by putting something in you drink?”
His nod of assent was more pronounced and the look in his eyes said “definitely.”
“Was she a witch or something?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Made things with herbs. Talked to people when nobody there. Psychic.”
“So how do you move about?”
“Sometimes walk; sometimes just appear places, where I want,” he said.
“Can you walk through solid objects – walls and so on?”
He nodded again.
“So you can go into people’s houses without opening the door, but you don’t do it unless the door’s unlocked because you know it’s not allowed?” I really wanted that point left in no doubt. Another nod. “And you’ve been in other houses as well as mine?” A further nod. “But nobody else has ever seen you?” He shook his head. “So why do I see you; why nobody else?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Must be sensitive,” he said, “like Edith. Psychic. Don’t know.”
I asked him how he managed to appear and disappear but he didn’t seem to understand the question. I realised that it probably meant nothing to him. No doubt he was only aware of his own continued existence. The phenomenon of appearance and disappearance was, I assumed, only apparent to the observer. The explanation for that would have to remain a mystery.
“So why did you ignore me that first night, when you were sitting in my armchair?”
“Frightened,” he said. The hissing noise seemed to be getting worse and I wondered whether the effort of speaking was tiring him. “First person to see me. Wanted to hide.”
I stood and pondered the situation for a while, shaking my own head. I felt frustrated. I knew that there must be lots of interesting questions that I could put to him, but only one came to mind.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked.
The look that suddenly appeared on his face surprised me. The sad, lost look disappeared instantly and was replaced with one of hope. For a second I was pleased, but his mouth began to contort as the look turned to one of longing – and it was a loathsome, lascivious sort of longing that seemed to ooze menacingly from his pale, watery eyes.
“Can come with me,” he said, mouthing that awful grin again. “Can be friend.” And he began to walk unsteadily towards me.
I started to back away. My feelings towards the old man had become ambivalent as I had listened to his apparently tragic story. They had even become more inclined towards pity and a genuine desire to help. But now I found him repulsive again. The thought of him coming any closer, let alone touching me, brought waves of panic setting my nerves on edge. I tried the obvious appeal to reason.
“No, I can’t come with you Albert. I can’t come into your world. It’s not possible.”
“Is,” hissed that awful voice. “Know how.”
Did he know how? The thought was appalling, but he seemed certain. Perhaps he did. I held out my hands in a pointless gesture. He continued to walk towards me and I continued to back away.
“Can come. Will come. Need friend.”
His expression changed again. His head fell slightly to one side and his eyes carried a look of manic intent. They still looked sad, but there was a degree of steely determination there too. I stumbled slightly as my foot left the raised verge and landed on the path. I decided to run. No doubt I would be swifter than him and now I knew how to keep him out of the house. I gave no thought to the possibility of being menaced at other times. The urge to flee was uppermost; nothing else mattered.
I turned and began to sprint. I managed only a few paces before he appeared in front of me again, blocking the path. I remembered his words, “sometimes just appear places”. Trying to sidestep him was out of the question. He might grab me as I went past. I had to keep as much distance as possible between us. The fear of capture was paramount and the instinct to avoid it was overriding all capacity for reason. I felt horribly trapped and walked backwards again as he moved towards me.
“I’m not coming with you,” I stuttered in desperation. “You can’t do that to somebody.”
He said nothing that time, just grinned his awful grin and nodded his cadaverous head. His pace quickened and so did my attempt to maintain the gap between us. I was losing. And then I stumbled again. I’d backed into a dustbin which fell over with an almighty clatter and rolled across the tarmac. I fell too and stared up into Mr Grimshaw’s depraved eyes as he stood looking down at me. They looked triumphant, and some power in them sent waves of fear and nausea swimming through my head.
Something snapped and I became angry. I prepared to fight whatever he was about to attack me with. But he didn’t attack me, not physically anyway. He stood there gloating and staring at me with a malevolence that I hope never to see again. It seemed that his power might have had its source in his eyes and I felt the urge to look away or even close mine altogether. But that would have meant being blind to whatever movement he made. I looked at his hands instead and raised my own when he started to reach out towards me.
Suddenly he stopped and drew them back. I looked up at his face again. He seemed alarmed and glanced over to his right. I took the opportunity to scramble to my feet and looked in the same direction. He appeared to be looking at Edith’s grave but I saw nothing. He evidently did, for the eyes that had menaced me were now growing wide and frightened. His mouth opened and emitted such a hideous howl that I covered my ears. His fear transmitted itself to me but I could see nothing to be afraid of, least of all Mr Grimshaw who was sinking to his knees pathetically. The awful howling continued as he raised his head to look at something or someone apparently standing over him.
Whatever it was, something invisible to me was obviously intervening. Whether it was doing so on my behalf or through some interest of its own, I shall never know. Mr Grimshaw stopped howling suddenly and the smile returned to his face. But this was a different smile - peaceful, contented even. He continued to look upwards, ignoring my presence altogether. And then he disappeared.
The graveyard was empty and quiet, and so was the village street beyond the perimeter. I walked away quickly, looking behind me often, and opened the church gate with trembling hands. I continued to keep a curious and nervous eye on the churchyard as I walked up the hill in the direction of home. It remained empty.
Needless to say, my evening was consumed with memories of the afternoon’s events and speculations about the fate of Albert Grimshaw. Waves of some dark sense of loathing continued to wash over me every now and then. I couldn’t be sure that the old man was definitely gone, but I felt hopeful. There had been something final about his disappearance. That last look of contentment on his face had suggested as much.
So who had been responsible for my salvation? Had Edith intervened for my sake, to deliver me from the clutches of her undead husband? What was the truth of their relationship? Who had been abusing whom? And which of them had really been responsible for their relative demises, he into some curious nether world and she into a conventional death? I had only heard Albert’s version of events and had come to distrust him.
Or had some other agency stepped in, for Albert’s sake, to grant him the peace of proper rest that had been cruelly denied him by an evil and scheming wife? Whoever it was, and for whatever reason, I could only be eternally grateful and hope that the Grimshaws were now both resting properly.
I have a feeling that a body will be found one day, the mortal remains of someone long dead and come to dust. Next week maybe, or in a year’s time, or even fifty years from now. They will be unable to identify it with certainty, but there will be speculation as long as any of the locals know the story of Albert Grimshaw’s mysterious disappearance. They will assume that the mystery has finally been solved. I won’t complicate matters, or prejudice my reputation, by telling them my story.
What concerns me most is what Albert said when I asked how it was that only I could see him. What was it? “Must be sensitive. Like Edith. Psychic.”
I don’t think I like that very much. I wonder how many more Mr Grimshaws there might be wandering about, hoping to find a friend. That’s why I keep my front door locked at all times. It’s the only way I can pass my living room without feeling nervous. And, for the time being at least, I’ve stopped opening my curtains at bedtime. The spirit of the night doesn’t have quite the same appeal at the moment.
- JJ Beazley
- I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.