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.
August 01, 2010
The Charlie Club
There was a house further along Victoria Street with a blue plaque, recording the fact that HG Wells had stayed there once. Some time after I’d written this story, I was told that he had written a novel while he was there. It told of dark goings on at the Shelton Iron and Steel Works, apparently. Great minds? Maybe not.
Approximate reading time: 40-45 minutes.
It was the reference to the missing arms that did it. The local newspaper said that the two bags of body parts found in the canal amounted to one whole human being – except that the arms were missing. That’s what finally completed the picture and brought a hideous, repressed memory surging back into my conscious mind.
It was the last of three things that I’d read over the space of two months - three bits of unconnected reading matter that, together, pushed open the floodgates of my guarded mind and let through a torrent of horrific knowledge that I should have preferred to keep bottled up. And they finally explained that curious episode seven months earlier when I had walked in my sleep, or so I had always believed, to a piece of industrial wasteland a mile and a half from my home on a bitterly cold night in January.
I had read the first of them one evening in late June. The local newspaper reported that the remaining part of the nearby, disused steelworks had been acquired by a large development company and was to be rebuilt as a business park. My reaction was not quite what I would have expected. Being naturally cynical about the materialistic obsessions of modern times, it was inevitable that “Oh no, not another business park” should pass momentarily through my mind.
But it was heavily clouded by something darker; something that I didn’t understand. Images of grey mist and flickering fires came to me, and I felt an inner sense of deep dismay. The mist seemed to conceal something mysterious and malevolent. I felt an odd sense of fear and a desire to push the report and its unpleasant associations away from me.
And then, a few days later, I’d been to the local library looking for some light reading matter. I chanced upon a cheerful little tome called Murder Mysteries of Old Staffordshire. It was a lightweight, slightly tongue-in-cheek anthology of true stories, and I read the first three of them with fleeting interest and mild amusement. It was the fourth story that set my pulse racing and, as with the steelworks report, I failed to understand why at the time.
Its cheaply alliterative title was The Cannibal of the Canal Bank. It told how, during the 1860s, there had been a spate of disappearances from what was then called The Shelton Bar Iron Company. Five men had gone missing over the space of three years and the Staffordshire Constabulary had come under heavy pressure from the works management, the employees and the local population to get to the bottom of the mystery. Officers from Scotland Yard had been called in and diligent questioning in the area had produced a tentative witness whose testimony had given them their first lead.
Suspicion fell on one Charles Morgan, a bargee who plied his trade between the Potteries and the Liverpool docks. The dates of the disappearances matched the known visits to the area of Morgan’s barge, and a search discovered him somewhere in Cheshire. His vessel was boarded and enough evidence was found to arrest him on a charge of murder.
During his trial at Stafford Assizes he admitted using a young girl of his acquaintance as a decoy prostitute, and cheerfully confessed that he had killed the men and eaten parts of them. He told the astonished judge that human flesh was the best of all meats and that eating it endowed him with a power that ordinary men could only marvel at. Contemporary newspaper articles reported that his manner throughout the trial suggested a total absence of remorse, as well as contempt for the legal system and its ability to visit retribution on him.
He was convicted and condemned to execution, but the sentence was never carried out. When the escort vehicle failed to arrive back at the gaol a frantic search was made, and it was eventually found on a lonely country road a couple of miles outside the town. The officers who had been escorting him were discovered unconscious and Charles Morgan was gone.
When questioned, the prison guards claimed amnesia. They remembered leaving the court house, they said, but nothing after that. Their superiors disbelieved them, assuming their story to be a fictional conspiracy to cover their incompetence, and they were dismissed. A major manhunt was instigated and a watch was put on the canal and the docks at Liverpool, but Charles Morgan was never found.
As I was reading the story I felt a reaction even stronger than the one that I had experienced on reading the newspaper article. If I might be excused the irony in the expression, this one put a little more flesh on the bones. I kept getting fleeting and unclear glimpses of something coming for me out of the mist, something that I knew was hideous and meant me harm. I saw axes chopping at human limbs, and heard something like a frenzied football crowd chanting a two syllable word that could have been a person’s name. I couldn’t tell; it wasn’t clear enough.
But what I did see with disturbing clarity were eyes; human eyes, from which the customary expression of civilised values had been removed and replaced with a frantic blood lust. It was as though I were recalling small fragments of a nightmare without being able to fit the pieces into a coherent narrative. And the sense of depravity, darkness and disgust weighed heavily on me. I put the book aside and returned it to the library the next day. I had lost my interest in murder mysteries.
In the days that followed I’d had an almost constant, nagging sense that there was something I needed to remember. I also had the feeling that I would prefer not to. We sometimes have half remembered dreams that stay with us during the following day, calling from the dark recesses of our memory but remaining elusive. This was similar, but it did not pass as the days did. For several weeks the images and the dark feelings kept on presenting themselves, uninvited and unwanted, but persistent as a vengeful ghost demanding justice.
And the content became more varied. I saw a dark and empty building, a bony finger pointing at me, and a ghostly figure standing in a glass cage. One day, just after the summer bank holiday at the end of August, I picked up a copy of the local paper and read about the armless remains.
A young man and his fiancée had been coming to the end of their holiday, sailing a narrowboat down the Trent and Mersey Canal. They had stopped for the day at a mooring near Stone and the young woman had accidentally dropped something over the side. Whatever it was, it was evidently important enough for her companion to don his swimming goggles and go over the side to retrieve it.
He had emerged with a plastic bin liner, and had been horrified to discover that it contained decomposing human body parts. The police had been called in and a comprehensive search of the canal undertaken. A second bag had been found and, together, they had contained the almost complete body of an elderly male. Only the arms were missing. The state of the remains suggested that they were several months old and had probably been dumped some way further north, then carried down the canal through the movement of the water caused by the opening of the lock gates. The identity of the victim had not yet been established, but a murder investigation had begun.
As I said, it was the mention of the missing arms that did it. It was as though their ghostly remains reached out and switched on a light to illuminate the hideous jigsaw that my fumbling fingers had been trying to piece together in the dark for the past two months. The events of that freezing, foggy night in January came rushing back and filled me with a horror that I knew I would never be rid of.
My instinct had been correct: it would have been better to remain ignorant. For, apart from shaking my belief in humanity, it also placed upon me the burden of decision. What should I do about it? Nothing, I concluded reluctantly, except write down the story. I’d heard that writing down the details of a bad experience can be cathartic. I thought it might help.
But where to start? By setting the scene I suppose. I should take anyone who cares to read this account back to the disused steelworks, for that was the theatre in which the dreadful drama was played out. But, unlike any normal theatre which merely provides a stage for the actors to strut their stuff, this one was a star performer in its own right, and so it must have star billing as befits its status.
In the gritty industrial history of The Potteries, one mighty paragon of manufacturing power holds centre stage. Through all its many changes of ownership and official title, The Shelton Iron and Steel Company has always been known locally as “Shelton Bar,” and it still commands a treasured place in the hearts of those old enough to remember it in its heyday.
It was one of the three dark pillars on which the sprawling industrial conurbation was founded: the pottery industry, the coal mines, and steel making. The first two threw up countless ugly structures of red brick and black iron to announce their presence. A grimy, man made forest of bottle kilns and pit heads grew rapidly to smother the landscape. Rows of back-to-back houses were crammed into the spaces between them and the colour green became a distant memory.
Shelton Bar was different. It stood on a single, massive site almost a mile square. The “potbanks” and the coal mines had the advantage of numbers, but The Bar had a majesty to which they could never have aspired. For a century and a half it turned out the massive skeletons of iron and steel on which the bodies of the industrial revolution and post war reconstructions were built.
The site stretched from the western edge of the town of Hanley, now the city centre of modern-day Stoke on Trent, to the most incongruously named Etruria Vale. Its domain was flanked and crossed by the twin arteries of nineteenth century transport: the canal that was built to provide more secure passage to the Liverpool docks, and the railway line giving access to the main junctions at Crewe and Stafford.
The canal and railway are still there and remain operational, although the former is used for recreational purposes only these days. A third artery has been added in recent years: a major road that connects the city with the M6 motorway. A constant stream of traffic drives past the benighted buildings of the once-proud steelworks, ignoring its faded grandeur in the rush to get to some anaemic retail park, post-modern enterprise development or other bloodless bastion of the modern world. But progress has been unkind to Shelton Bar. It has suffered terminally from the winds of change, and what is left of it now stands empty.
In the 1970s the British Steel Corporation announced that it was to close. Major protests were mounted and one section of the operation, the rolling mill where the massive girders were made, was allowed to continue. It was, at least, a partial victory, although the redundant areas of the site later became earmarked for commercial regeneration and the people of The Potteries would never again see the night sky turn blood red as the river of molten metal ran spitting from its massive furnace.
Twenty years later, its owners declared that its days were finally done. There was little significant protest that time. The workforce accepted the inevitable and the grand old giant became devoid of people, power and pride. It was left indecently denuded and subject to the insidious forces of dereliction and decay.
I used to be a regular visitor to the site when it was still fully functional. I was an auditor then, and occasionally had to visit the various processing centres to talk facts and figures with the staff who originated them. I never ceased to be in awe of the massive sheds.
I remember telling a colleague that they reminded me of cathedrals, and it was an apt description. For never, except in those great gothic structures, have I witnessed interior space on such a massive scale. They were cathedrals without the artifice of architectural self-consciousness. No grand columns, vaulted ceilings or flying buttresses; just black and featureless walls rising to dizzy heights where they met with black and functional roofs. God might need fine form, mammon merely function; but scale, it seems, carries equal weight with both.
Some of the sheds had developed cracks and holes, through which the daylight streamed dramatically in dusty shafts. When I look out now across Etruria Vale at the decaying sheds that are still left, it is the sense of scale and the singular atmosphere that I ought to remember most. Unfortunately, it isn’t. My new memory looms infinitely larger, burying the old under a black blanket of disgust and soiling my view of Shelton Bar forever.
Some years ago I moved to a Potteries suburb, situated on the hill that rises to the west of Etruria Vale. It is an unprepossessing mixture of terraced streets, Edwardian villas and more modern developments of detached and semi detached houses. Being long-established, it has something of a community feel to it and includes a row of well used shops including an off licence, a post office and a newsagent. It was on an evening visit to the off licence that I first heard a group of young teenagers talking about The Charlie Club.
It was early November and they were gathered around a pathetic bundle of rags topped with a badly drawn representation of a face. I looked disdainfully at it, considering the quality of bonfire night guys to be yet another sad casualty of modern times. As I approached them I heard one of their number telling the others that there was to be a Charlie Club the following night at nine o’clock. His companions seemed excited at the prospect, but then they saw me approaching and started to beg for money.
Having some idea of the use to which it would be put, I resisted their whining pleas for “a penny for the guy, mister” and asked them what the Charlie Club was. They looked at each other and a couple of the girls giggled. It was apparent that they had no intention of telling me and I had no reason to press them. I continued into the shop to get my supplies. When I came out again they had gone. At the time I was no more than mildly curious and thought no more about it.
Two months later I was returning home by bus late one afternoon. The seat in front of mine was occupied by two girls of about twelve or thirteen. On the other side of the aisle a young lad of similar age was sprawled across two seats and, for a good fifteen minutes or more, the three youngsters talked loudly of films, fashions and rock music.
I tried to ignore them, but the sheer volume precluded any attempt at detachment and I was forced against my will to engage mentally with a conversation that was at best uninteresting and at worst indecent. My sense of irritation grew to uncomfortable proportions and I was glad to see the boy rise to get off the bus at the stop before mine. As he rose to his feet he said:
“Don’t forget tonight.”
“Sound,” said one of the girls.
The linguistic idioms of post millennium youth were sometimes a mystery to me, but I took her reply to be affirmative. I understood her companion’s statement too, as the bus pulled off and I prepared to rise for the next stop.
“The last one was dead bad, wasn’t it?”
Clearly, she was talking of some regular event and was obviously enthusiastic. The other girl nodded.
“Yeah. Did you see that bloke’s face when Charlie jumped in the pit with him?”
“Yeah. Where d’you reckon Charlie comes from?”
“Nobody knows. Dan says he’s a ghost.”
“Dan’s a prat.”
They both giggled and got up to follow me down the aisle as we approached my stop. We alighted and I started to walk down the main road towards home. I heard one girl say:
“See you at nine then, outside the offie.”
“Safe. See ya.”
I half turned to see that one girl was making her way along a side street while the other was following me down the main road. I know now that I should have paid more attention to their faces, but I had no reason at the time to think that I might need to identify them one day.
The latter part of their conversation had been as intriguing as the earlier part had been tiresome. I presumed Charlie to be the eponymous leader of the club that I had heard the others mention, and the talk of him jumping into some pit, and maybe even being a ghost, suggested something dark and disreputable.
It came as no surprise. I’d lived in an inner city neighbourhood long enough to have lost most of my sense of shock at the sort of dark and disreputable things that young people get up to. Whatever nefarious practices took place at the Charlie Club, I decided that it was probably nothing unusual for modern times. Seeing it in those terms, I felt little interest in knowing more and had no intention of finding out.
Fate, however, is no respecter of intentions and it was to deal me a different hand later that evening. I turned along the street that led to my house and saw no more of the girl. I assumed that she had continued down the main road towards the shops.
I spent the evening on some routine chores; then read a bit, had my dinner, washed the dishes and read a bit more. I decided that I wanted some chocolate. I knew that there was none in the house and that the only place to get some was the local off licence. I put my shoes on, donned a coat and scarf, and went out to walk the four hundred yards to the shops on the main road.
It was a cold night with a heavy mist forming and I gave the zip on my coat an extra tug as I hurried along the narrow pavement. The damp air was heavy with the aroma of a nearby fish and chip shop and my breath steamed as I walked, mingling with the clammy vapour. I noticed that the traffic was lighter than usual. It was normally a busy road with an almost permanent queue at the end where it joined the main thoroughfare. The junction was empty and there was nobody walking along the pavement either. I looked at my watch, wondering whether it was later than I thought. It was five to nine.
Up to that point I had given no thought to the mystery of The Charlie Club, but the time reminded me of the conversation between the two girls. As I turned the corner to walk the final few yards to the off licence, I saw a group of youngsters ranging from about ten up to mid teens. They were standing just beyond the shop, on the corner of another street that ran parallel with mine. They were huddled together but saying nothing and I assumed that they were waiting for the appointed hour. They ignored my approach and I went into the shop to buy a selection of chocolate.
When I came out I saw that they were moving off downhill towards Etruria Vale and it was on a momentary whim that I decided to follow them. I had no intention of gatecrashing their party. I simply had nothing else to do that evening and was curious to see where they went.
I walked slowly at first, so as to put a reasonable distance between us. They appeared oblivious to what was behind them anyway. None of them looked back as they walked in silence down to the flyover that passed over the dual carriageway. They crossed it and I followed a few minutes later.
We continued along the road that ran towards the city centre, passing over the railway bridge with the old gasworks down to our right and what remained of the Shelton Bar site across the road to our left. Shortly after the bridge the pavement passed over a culvert where a narrow brook ran under the road. The group in front of me turned right a few yards beyond it and I knew that they were following a footpath that curved back on itself and ran under the road alongside the brook.
Its course took it through a dark passage and I was unhappy about following them. I had always thought it unsavoury even in daylight, let alone on a foggy night in January. My curiosity, however, was still aroused and I gathered the courage to walk through the dark tunnel as soon as I was certain that they had cleared the far end.
I emerged with a sense of relief and could see them about a hundred yards ahead of me, crossing the empty ground that led to the old sheds of Shelton Bar. The site was unlit, but there was enough light coming from the main road to see them slowly disappearing into the misty gloom. Spiked iron railings surrounded the perimeter, but I followed a well worn path through some twisted briars to find that a couple of the uprights had been removed. The resultant gap was big enough for me to slip through easily and I continued to keep the group in sight.
The darkness became almost palpable as we trudged across several acres of overgrown wasteland, heading deeper into the derelict territory of the old steelworks. I could see that a couple of the group had torches to help them find their way. I had no such benefit and could only hope that, by following their route as closely as possible, I would avoid stumbling on some discarded piece of equipment or chunk of masonry. At one point I heard one of them kick a bottle and made a mental note to look out for it when I reached the same spot.
I was feeling cold and losing interest in my covert escapade. I started to wonder why I had bothered to undertake it in the first place. But I decided to continue my surveillance for just a few minutes more and then turn back if there was no end in sight. How I regret the allowance of those few minutes. The end was, almost literally, in sight.
We had already passed several of the old buildings, standing black and neglected in the cold night air, when I saw a massive shed looming out of the darkness. Despite not having been there for several years, I recognised it as the old rolling mill. It had always been one of my favourite places to visit during my work there, and I had always found an excuse to do so.
The staff had known of my fondness for the place and had always allowed me to spend some time standing in the cockpit on the high gantry, watching the operator manipulate his bank of levers. Below us, in a gigantic rectangular pit, huge lengths of red hot iron – “blooms”, I believe they were called - were being lifted and flipped back and forth between the rolling wheels to form industrial girders. I had never ceased to be fascinated by the heat, power and scale of the operation, nor by the consummate skill of the operator. Seeing it now in these very different circumstances, I was struck by a mixture of nostalgia and intrigue.
The huge sliding doors were shut but the wicket door within one of them stood open, and I saw a glow coming from the inside. Two figures stood silhouetted in the gap as the group approached. I heard some indeterminate conversation before those I had been following passed through it and the two figures resumed their watch. Clearly we had reached the end of the line. Whatever the Charlie Club was, it evidently lay within.
I was too far away to see the silhouetted figures clearly, but I judged them to be a little bigger than the members of the group and assumed that they were older teenagers. They also appeared to be male and I had little doubt that they were lookouts. If I was to find out more about the activities going on inside, I would have to get past them somehow.
I considered the possibility of making some diversionary noise to draw them away from the door, but that seemed too risky. They might still see me and I would have no idea what I would be walking into. The solution was simple enough, if only it was still available. I remembered that the manager’s office was situated on a high platform adjacent to one end of the gantry, and had two means of access: one from a flight of stairs inside the building, and one from a set of iron steps that ran up the outside.
I maintained a safe distance from the shed as I skirted slowly around the building, being careful to watch where I was treading. The fact that the Charlie Club needed lookouts indicated that they did not want to be discovered, and the prospect of giving my presence away was alarming.
Eventually, I was safely out of sight around the other side of the shed and was able to approach it more quickly. The steps were still in place and I began the climb as quietly as I could. There was still the question of whether the door at the top would be locked and I was surprised and relieved to see it standing open. Others had clearly been there before me and I wondered whether the state of the floor inside would be sufficiently free of debris to enable me to enter silently. As I approached it I heard voices and turned around in alarm. I thought I was about to be discovered and felt my skin tingle.
I looked down to see a group of figures walking towards the shed from the direction of the city centre. They had obviously crossed the site by a different route than that taken by my group, and I was relieved that I hadn’t encountered them on the ground a few minutes earlier. It was too dark to make out any detail, but a combination of the voices and what little I could see suggested a group of two girls walking with an older man.
I stood still, hoping they wouldn’t look up. They didn’t. They passed within a few yards of the bottom of the steps on their way to the entrance on the other side, and I saw the group a little more clearly.
Two provocatively dressed girls, teenagers as far as I could tell, flanked a man walking unsteadily between them. Each held one of his arms and the talk was of the rare delights that were in store for him. I had grave doubts that I wanted to witness such delights, but then I had come this far and decided that I might as well see it through. I continued up the final couple of steps and rounded the half open door.
It was lighter than I expected in the old office. The far wall contained a range of windows that looked into the shed, and the glow that I’d seen earlier gave sufficient illumination to pick my way through the old lager cans, newspapers and bundles of rags lying on the floor. Apart from the debris, the office was empty.
I approached the windows carefully and slowly, and saw that the old gantry was still in place. The glass cockpit still stood in the middle of it, although it was empty too; the equipment had obviously been removed for scrap or alternative use when the site had closed. I looked down at the scene below where the massive rolling pit was now just a bare concrete basin. Beyond the far end of it a small bonfire was burning, the smoke rising steadily and finding exit through the numerous holes in the black roof. A young boy was putting more fuel on, and the lurid glow threw dancing shadows on the walls.
I made a rough count of the youngsters standing around in small groups. Twenty eight was my best estimate. I wondered where they had all come from, and whether their parents had any idea where they were. I wondered whether they cared very much. It struck me that today’s culture presents many distractions, and that the old parental imperative of protection and guidance is becoming dangerously sidelined.
And then I saw the group that had walked close to the steps. The two girls were leading the man across the concrete floor towards the pit, while the others looked on. Although he was too far away to get a clear view of his face - they all were - his rough dress and shambling gate suggested someone elderly, someone homeless and anonymous perhaps, someone drawn from the sad and seedy fringes of inner city culture.
He was clearly taken aback by the strange scene and the crowd watching him. He began to resist, but his manner changed when the two girls removed their tops and skirts and led him down the concrete steps that descended into the pit. It was a sad sight to see a man, even one whom I judged to have been dehumanised by the effects of alcohol and rough sleeping, to be so easily manipulated. As soon as they had got him in the centre, they skipped quickly away and ran back up the steps.
He tried to follow, muttering garbled expletives, but two of the older youths barred his way. As he tried to climb out they pushed him roughly back with steel rods. He made feeble grabs at them but they were vicious in return, hitting him cruelly about the head and body until he gave up the struggle and resorted to shouting and fist waving. Then a cry went up from the back of the group. A young man’s voice called out loudly. The words were indistinct, but it was obviously a call to action.
The groups split up as the middle-sized youngsters, those whom I judged to be about eleven to thirteen, moved to the edge of the pit and knelt down. It occurred to me that they were around the age of puberty, and I knew that puberty was said to be accompanied by the heightening of psychic power. The sheer strangeness of the unfolding scene made me wonder whether that supposition might be significant. They formed a line and placed their fists on the concrete floor either side of their knees. The older and younger members of the crowd stayed back and a second announcement rang out:
“One – Two – Three – Four.”
Immediately the kneeling figures took up the slow rhythm with the reciting of a curious, childlike rhyme.
Charlie Farley, pudding and pie
Eat ’im all up in the wink of an eye
I watched and listened in fascination, wondering what its purpose could possibly be. They chanted it over and over again, beating the rhythm on the concrete with their knuckles. Before long, it took on an almost hypnotic quality as the simple, persistent rhythm pressed itself into my brain.
Charlie Farley, pudding and pie
Eat ’im all up in the wink of an eye
I had no idea what to make of the bizarre ritual being played out below me. Neither, it seemed, did the man in the pit. He stopped his ranting and stared at them in disbelief. It must have gone on for fifteen minutes as I watched and waited to see what would happen next.
And then my eye was caught by a movement on the gantry. I looked across to see that the cockpit was no longer empty. A figure stood inside, moving his arms like an orchestra conductor. I failed to see how he could have got there without my seeing him climb the steps from the ground floor.
I stared at him with a sense of fascination. He looked tall and gaunt, and was dressed in a long black coat of some heavy looking fabric. A battered black cap, like those I had seen depicted in illustrations to Dickens novels, sat jauntily on his head and a long clay pipe stood out from his mouth.
But it was his face that held my attention. It was grey – truly grey – despite the deep yellow glow coming from the fire. There was an unnatural hollowness about his eyes, and his cheekbones stood out from sunken cheeks. He looked like a month-dead corpse, but confounded the impression by opening the door on the far side of the cockpit and swaggering along the gantry walkway.
The chanting stopped as he made his way down the steps. His slow and measured tread was that of a star act making his entrance. The man in the pit had seen him too and stood motionless as the cadaverous figure descended. For a few seconds the silence was intense. And then one of the youngsters began to chant again and the rest joined in like some frenzied football crowd. This time, the words were not those of the juvenile mantra that had apparently summoned the wraith-like being out of thin air, but a simple expression of triumph and veneration.
“Charlie – Charlie – Charlie”.
The grey-faced figure lifted one hand in acknowledgement. Clearly this was Charlie, and the purpose of his Club was about to be revealed.
When he reached the bottom of the steps he lifted both hands and the chanting stopped. An air of expectation took over as the youngsters crowded to the edge of the pit, jostling for position. Charlie walked serenely over to it and jumped in. The word “jumped” does not, however, adequately convey what I saw. His descent seemed slower than it should have been and his landing was soft and silent. I might almost say “floated.” But the light was dim at that end of the pit and the flickering shadows could have manufactured the strange effect.
He turned to face the old man who was still standing at the other end, and then began to walk slowly towards him. I couldn’t see Charlie’s face since he had his back to me, but the sight of it coming close must have been terrifying to the hapless captive. He certainly looked severely discomfited as he began to look around at the slavering audience, shouting imprecations at them and the approaching figure.
Charlie made a motion and the two boys who had wielded the rods descended the steps and moved swiftly towards the old man. They took hold of his arms, easily overcoming his weak struggles, and forced him down onto his back. He began to mumble and blubber pathetically as Charlie approached. The black clad figure walked bolt upright with a slow but purposeful stride towards the group. The old man found fresh energy. He began to squirm with growing vigour and to kick his legs about in an increasingly frantic manner. Fear was giving him a surge of new strength and the two boys were having trouble containing it.
And then, quite suddenly, he stopped and lay still. Charlie was some two or three yards from the old man’s feet and he stopped too. He lifted his arms and swept them out, as though he were pushing two curtains apart. The boys understood the message and retired, joining their companions on the edge of the pit.
For a minute or more everyone was still, and the eerie silence was broken only by the crackling of the wood on the fire. Charlie stared at the helpless figure and the old man stared back. Even at that distance I could see that his eyes were wide and frightened. But he was obviously paralysed. His terrified expression was the main object of my attention and I never saw him blink.
Charlie moved forward and knelt on one knee at the side of the old man. He lifted an arm and turned the palm of his hand down towards the victim’s chest. The old man began to shake, and the shaking became stronger as Charlie’s hand descended. When it was still some inches off the juddering form, he stopped and held it there. The shaking continued unabated and a frightful, wavering moan broke the silence, echoing around the vastness of the shed. Charlie was evidently enjoying the moment and continued to exert his fiendish influence for several minutes.
And then he pulled his hand away. The old man’s muscles relaxed and he became still and silent again. Charlie looked up towards the assembled youngsters and nodded. Several of them cried “now” and Charlie nodded again. With a sudden movement he brought the palm of his hand down onto the centre of the old man’s chest.
It had an effect like that of a defibrillator, producing a violent spasm in the victim and lifting his torso high off the ground. Then he fell back and lay still. Charlie stood up and lifted the same hand to the watching crowd of youngsters, who cheered wildly. I saw the tell-tale wet stain spread across the old man’s trousers and knew that he was dead.
It would be hard to find adequate words to describe my reaction. The whole episode had probably taken about ten minutes, but it had seemed like an eternity. I had been mesmerised throughout, but now my senses returned. I had watched a human sacrifice and my head was swimming. I felt sick, horrified, frightened and desperate to be away from the scene. But, even in the midst of such overwhelming disgust and disbelief, I was intrigued too. How could one man dispatch another in that manner? As far as I could tell, Charlie had used no weapon. His hand had been clearly open the whole time. Was it a conjuring trick, or did he possess some power that is unknown to the rest of us?
I had little time to consider the question as the activity in the pit took a new turn. The two youths returned to the victim and stripped off his upper garments while Charlie strutted slowly, and with an air of casual triumph, back towards the other end.
I watched as the clothes were passed up to waiting helpers who carried them to the fire and dumped them in the flames. I looked back to see what Charlie was doing and was surprised to see that he was already out of the pit and walking back to the iron staircase leading up to the gantry. How he had got out so quickly and easily when there were no steps at that end was yet another mystery to be added to the list.
Whatever the explanation, it occurred to me that he would shortly be walking back along the gantry towards the cockpit. He would be walking towards me and might catch sight of my face beyond the glass. I moved carefully over to the wall at the side of the run of windows, out of the sight line from the gantry. From there I could still see what was happening at the far end of the pit. I soon wished that I hadn’t looked.
The two youths had wrapped themselves in blankets, presumably to protect their clothes from blood splashes, and I could see that they were equipped with a saw and an axe each. They were engaged in sawing and hacking off the old man’s arms while two others were removing his lower garments. I also saw that two pieces of makeshift metal framework had been placed either side of the fire, with a metal rod running between them over the flames. Its intended use was obvious enough and I decided that I could watch no more of this hellish spectacle. It was time to get out of the shed and make my way home to report the whole horror to the police.
I moved carefully across the office to the door at the far side. Being safely in dark shadow again, I stole one quick look back at the gaunt figure of Charlie standing in the cockpit, evidently enjoying the festivities, then made my exit quietly and descended the outer steps on shaking legs.
Now I had a decision to make: whether to retrace my route back to the culvert or to strike out in the direction of the city centre. The former would be the quickest way home, but it would mean putting myself in line with the guarded door again. I would be cloaked from view by the darkness and the mist, but there was a danger that I might stumble or kick something accidentally. No doubt the lookouts had torches and I would be unable to match their speed if they heard me.
The other way was safer. I knew that the canal lay in that direction and couldn’t be too far away. The towpath would allow easy access to the road and I judged that it would only cost me an extra fifteen minutes or so of time. I chose that option and began the slow and careful walk away from the shed.
At first I felt a fear of detection, but it was mingled with the relief of putting increasing space between me and the members of The Charlie Club. The prospect of smelling roasting meat as they prepared their unspeakable supper was repugnant and gave me another reason to move as quickly as I could across the treacherous ground.
I grew in confidence as the minutes passed and was further encouraged by the fact that the mist was getting gradually brighter. I realised that I was moving towards the lights of the city centre where there would be people and traffic. My nervousness subsided with each yard covered and I began to feel safe and relaxed. I told myself that the canal must be nearby and that I would soon be walking up the main road towards the safety of home and the infinitely more wholesome smell of fish and chips.
But then I began to feel uneasy. I had the sense that I was being followed. I reasoned that it was unlikely, since any pursuers would be coming at me quickly and with torches to light their way. I turned around just to be sure. Behind me was only cold, dark, silent mist. No voices, no footsteps and no torch lights. Nothing to fear, I thought, just imagination. But there was noise inside my head. I heard that awful rhyme repeating in my brain and refusing to stop.
Charlie Farley, pudding and pie...
It was so insistent that I half fancied I really could hear it, drifting across the space between me and the now invisible shed. I forced myself to imagine the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, sure that it would be powerful enough to defeat any childish rhyme. It was a struggle and an unsuccessful one. The two disparate rhythms competed for supremacy, each performing a surreal counterpoint to the other. The effect was confusing and only served to increase my sense of unease. I decided to press on and turned to continue my trek towards the canal. I stopped dead. An icy chill coursed up my spine as I saw that my way was blocked.
A black shape stood only yards in front of me, hideously silhouetted by the bright mist behind it. I recognised it only too well. The same long coat, the same battered cap, the same lean and upright stance. His arms were by his side and his hands placed in the pockets of his greatcoat. He stood still, with a terrifyingly inscrutable air. I was equally still, but for a different reason. I was petrified and frozen to the spot. I could see the vapour of my breath pulsing out in short, shallow bursts, but nothing came out of his mouth. The horrible shape was as silent and unmoving as a monument on an old grave.
I wanted to flee but my legs had no movement in them. Some rational part of my brain remained functional and wanted to ask him who the hell he was. But fear held centre stage and refused to allow so much as a murmur to escape from my lips. I stood rooted to the frozen earth and stared at the figure.
And then it moved towards me, growing in size as it closed the few paces between us. Charlie’s gaunt and ghostly face was now only a foot from mine and, despite the darkness, I could see it clearly. I saw his eyes glinting in their deep sockets and regarding me with an icy menace. I saw light skimming off his bony cheeks. And I thought I saw the brown stains on his teeth as his mouth opened in a leering grin.
I sank to my knees, whether from the debilitating effect of my own fear or some power in him, I really don’t know. He leaned forward to bring his face close to mine again. He made no sound, but fixed my eyes with his terrible, unblinking stare for several minutes more. Then he stood upright. He took one hand out of his coat pocket and pointed a bony finger at my head.
I felt something strike me, like a steel bolt piercing my forehead and burying itself deep in my brain. I heard it too. My eardrums shook with the sudden bang and the shock knocked me backwards. I was paralyzed and lay there in abject fear, waiting for Charlie to finish me off.
He didn’t, and I never saw him again. At eight o’clock the next morning I woke up, frozen to the core, and found myself lying on the waste ground of the old Shelton Bar, close to the canal. I had no idea what I was doing there. The last thing I remembered was going off to get some chocolate the night before. The rest was a blank.
The sense of shock and confusion was profound. I got up, trembling uncontrollably from the cold, and tried to make sense of it. As a child, I had twice woken in unfamiliar places and known that I had walked in my sleep. But that had been forty years earlier and I had still been in the house on both occasions. Waking up a mile and a half away from home on a frosty morning in January was altogether different.
I walked back with difficulty, weak and shivering from my sleep in the winter air. I felt dizzy and debilitated, and decided that I should call my doctor when I got home. In the event, I never did. My strength returned quickly with a hot drink and some breakfast, and I put the affair down to one of those strange occurrences that occasionally happen in life. Concern for my welfare soon passed and the experience retreated into that part of my brain reserved for life’s little anecdotes.
And so it remained for several months – the little time that was left me to enjoy a state of blissful ignorance. And then that book and those two newspaper articles lifted the veil and I knew that life would never be the same again.
So why did I decide to do nothing about it? Because it would have been pointless and too risky. My first inclination was simply to call the police and tell them the whole story, but then I had second thoughts. I knew that their reaction would be sceptical. A story of cannibalistic children and a ghostly man with apparently paranormal powers would sound pretty outlandish. They would probably put my experience down to a dream or suspect my sanity. They might charge me with wasting police time by making a false declaration.
Even if they decided to investigate my story and examine the shed, that could produce its own problems. Suppose they were to find forensic evidence which established that the man had been murdered there, where would that leave me? It would establish my presence at the murder scene.
Assuming that the police did not believe my story of amnesia induced by the power of the mysterious Charlie, which they almost certainly wouldn’t, it would make me a prime suspect. Why, they would ask, had I waited until the discovery of the body parts before reporting the crime? Was I making a pre-emptive attempt to cover myself in case there was other evidence to link me with the murder? People have been convicted of capital crimes on no less tenuous a basis than that.
And then there was the question of identity. Could I describe Charlie? Well, yes, but only vaguely, and the description would be heavily subjective. Furthermore, I had little doubt that his picture would not appear on any police files.
Could I describe any of the youngsters at the scene? No. I’d been behind the girls on the bus and the group walking down to Shelton Bar that night. I hadn’t seen any of their faces. I had seen the boy on the bus more clearly, but my memory of him was vague and subjective too. I remember that he had that generic look common to today’s inner city youth: arrogant, anarchic and aggressive. It was the impression I remembered, not the detail.
The mass of youngsters in the shed had been far too numerous to remember the faces of individuals, and they had been too far away anyway. What about the kids collecting money for the guy in November? I hadn’t recognised them at the time and, to my knowledge, had not seen them since. Maybe they came from outside the area.
I could only conclude that reporting my experience to the police would merely add another nightmare to the one I was already facing. And what would it achieve? Either I would go, an innocent victim, into a term of life imprisonment, or I would be released for lack of evidence. Neither would stop Charlie pursuing his gruesome activity. I doubted that anything could.
If he is who I think he is, there is more to him than the conventional forces of law and order are capable of dealing with. And as long as the victims are carefully plucked, unseen and unheard, from the anonymous ranks of the homeless, his diabolical Club will probably continue unnoticed. The kids are not likely to give him away, are they?
I wrestled with my conscience for days, arguing with myself until I was desperate and dizzy. I kept on coming to the same conclusion and decided to do nothing. It was a difficult decision to make and is proving even more difficult to live with.
Every night I wonder whether there is a meeting of the Charlie Club, and whether some other poor wretch is having the curtain brought down on a life that has probably become meaningless anyway. I have questioned whether such a swift end might be doing the victims a favour, enabling them to escape their continued descent into degradation and move on. And I have questioned whether Charlie might be working in accordance with some natural law of selection, weeding out the weak for the greater benefit of the species.
I have to dismiss both. Nobody has the right to judge the value of another’s life, for none of us can presume to know the purpose of someone else’s personal road.
Sometimes I am able to shrug off the pressure of my unwanted knowledge, and sometimes it weighs heavily on my conscience. And there are haunting questions that remain unanswered.
Why did Charlie not kill me that night? No doubt it was within his capabilities. What does that tell me of his purpose and his motives? And who, or what, is Charlie anyway? Ghost or superman? It has occurred to me that I never heard him make any sound or saw him commit any direct physical assault. I can’t even be sure that he made actual contact with old man’s chest when he delivered the coup de grace.
Does he have some sort of home somewhere, locating him in this area, or does he float freely in the ether? I suspect it is the latter, and that it will take some benefice of nature or the intervention of a higher agency to put an end to his activities. I take some small comfort from the certainty that it is beyond my power to check his stride.
I generally avoid the off licence these days. I find the sight of youthful gatherings disquieting, and prefer to avoid the risk of hearing any more mention of the Charlie Club. The thought of them engaging in their unspeakable recreation would be unwelcome enough, but it would also remind me of another disturbing question that I have preferred to push aside.
Was Charles Morgan right in his assertion that the eating of human flesh endows the recipient with powers that the rest of us “can only marvel at?” If so, I would hate to imagine what frightening capabilities are being nurtured in the delinquent youth that frequents my neighbourhood. I think it would be better not to know.
And has writing all this down helped in any way? Frankly, no. Recounting the event has only served to cast stronger doubt on my old belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature. I’m confused, horrified and disappointed. I don’t know my fellow man any more.
What I do know is that the stately old sheds of Shelton Bar will soon be demolished and Charlie will, no doubt, move his operation on. I hope he chooses to go far away, but there is no reason to think that he will. The banks of the canal in Stoke on Trent are littered with derelict buildings. I see them often as I drive around the city. I used to think that there was something rather quaint about them, but now they only make me shudder.
- 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.