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.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

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.

September 06, 2013

The Haunting of Alistair Thackthwaite.

Although my involvement with the Christian faith ceased at around age fourteen, I’ve never lost my fascination with mediaeval churches. I’ve also been a fan of the short stories of MR James for a long time. What follows is an expression of one, and owes an unashamed debt to the other.

It’s never been published, largely, I think, because modern editors generally dislike extended exposition, and the modern taste for things Gothic requires an element of the darkly glamorous. Fear, frosty nights and bad smells alone won’t do any more.

Approximate reading time: 20-30 minutes.

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Alistair Thackthwaite fitted the image of the classic North Yorkshireman well, being tall, lean, dark complexioned and steely eyed. Even though he had lived in the East Midlands for most of his adult life, his accent still carried the flat vowels and glottal stops of his native county. The tone of his speech was typical too: blunt and forthright, with rarely a hint of uncertainty. His mind was the same, and I never knew him to shirk a challenge or hesitate to proceed with whatever he felt was required of him.

Some people found him difficult; they disliked his bluff manner. They said he should be more diplomatic, but I didn’t agree. Even though we were sometimes at odds over a few issues that we both felt strongly about, I liked his directness. You always knew exactly where you stood with Alistair, and that was something that couldn’t be said for most of those who complained about him.

We lived in a village in Bedfordshire, not far from the border with Northamptonshire. I still live there, but Alistair has moved on, and without him, the place has little to commend itself to me. A cloud of dark and disturbing memory hangs over it now, and I shall probably move away myself before too long.

I call it a village and that’s how the locals like to think of it, but it’s really more of a remote suburb. The older buildings in the centre are mostly Victorian and Edwardian replacements for what stood there in earlier times, and the pub has been extended and established as a popular restaurant. Three large housing estates form a semi-circle around one side, and where there were once meadows, trees and hedgerows, there is now a forest of inert brick, tarmac and satellite dishes.

At night the village streets are busy with outsider traffic, visiting either the pub or the local late shop that makes most of its profit as an off licence and rental store. Groups of idle teenagers hang pointlessly around it from about six o’clock onwards, swilling the cans of lager they have bought, or sometimes stolen, from the nervous proprietor. By seven they imagine themselves to be drunk and entitled to behave in a manner calculated to annoy the rest of the community.

The word “community” is also something of a misnomer, since there is little community spirit left. Nearly everyone who lives in the village commutes long distances to work, and the old sense of social cohesion has effectively gone. The true locals are a dwindling breed and mostly retired. They tend to form their own small clique and remain apart from the outsiders who pay high prices for their properties in order to say that they live in the country. Mostly they don’t; they just sleep there. They travel to the towns for everything else.

Alistair was a notable exception. He had no car and his needs were simple, so trips beyond the parish boundary were infrequent. Although retired, he gave the equivalent of a working week to his duties as the verger of the local church, and that was how I came to know him in the first place.

There are only two structures of any antiquity left in the village. One is a Saxon cross, the inscriptions on which have been all but obliterated by the passage of time. Sadly, they have been usurped by a few choice examples of the Anglo-Saxon tongue that still remain in the modern, colloquial vocabulary. They have been scrawled in gaudy spray paint by the local youth, attempting to manifest its creative aspiration in the only way it knows how.

The other is the church. The present building is late medieval, but is known to have much older origins. It stands mercifully apart from the busy centre of the village at the top of a narrow lane that runs onto a rise overlooking farmland to the west.

The lane is bordered by a few Victorian cottages, mostly occupied by more elderly villagers, and a couple of small businesses. And since it bends quite considerably on its progress up the hill, the noise of the busy street that runs across the bottom of it is almost impossible to hear. Consequently, the location of the church enjoys a sense of peace and serenity that belies its proximity to the bustling thoroughfare a mere two hundred yards away.

The view from the roof of the crenellated tower carries for many miles over a patchwork vista of farmland towards the Northamptonshire border and the Nene valley beyond. I had the pleasure of looking out on it one fine day last November. That was the day on which Alistair told me what had been troubling him. The story didn’t begin there, though. It began ten years earlier when I first moved into the village.

During the first week I lived there I made a point of visiting the church. I had long been interested in medieval architecture and it seemed a fine example of the Early Gothic style. As I was admiring the sturdy tower and musing on the reason for crenellating such structures, the vestry door opened and a tall, saturnine-looking man stepped out. I greeted him politely and remarked on the age and quality of the building.

“Aye,” he said without smiling. “Seen a bit of life, has that. Stuff you and me might be shocked at as well, some of it.”

He strode on his way without engaging in further conversation and I continued my inspection alone.

A week or so later I decided to acquaint myself with the local pub. I was sitting on a bar stool, engaged in forced and trivial conversation with a reluctant barman whose only real interest lay with the clock ticking away the hours to closing time, when the man from the vestry strode up and ordered a pint. Even though our first meeting had been brief, I’d already taken a liking to his solid and direct manner and offered to buy the drink. He looked at me with a stern eye and an enquiring manner.

“Aye, OK,” he said, when he had completed his rapid assessment. “My name’s Alistair - Alistair Thackthwaite. What’s yours?”

From that uncompromising start grew a friendship of more depth and substance than most in my life. Having a naturally enquiring mind and a ready need for self-expression, I tended to do most of the talking as we got to know one another. Alistair was more reticent, but it soon became clear that we had much in common as well as a few stark differences. It was principally our mutual respect for honesty and forthright expression that cemented the friendship.

I learned that Alistair had moved to the village thirty years earlier when he had left the army. Although his wife had connections in the area, he had never felt fully accepted there. His north country origins and blunt manner had ensured that he was politely tolerated, but never entirely welcomed. It didn’t bother him a jot. Alistair was his own man, and even when his wife had died suddenly in middle age, he was content to live in his self-contained world and felt no need to move back to his native county.

He had been a self employed carpenter and joiner during his working life, but had also taken on the part time job of verger when the previous incumbent had gone to his own permanent rest in the churchyard. Alistair was a devoted churchgoer and had welcomed the opportunity to make his contribution to what he saw as a traditional and worthy cause. As soon as he reached retirement age, he had given up his business and devoted himself to doing greater justice to his church work. He liked to “keep a tidy ship,” and took an honest pride in the quality of his labour.

He gave me a guided tour of the church on one occasion. There wasn’t much to see, since it was only a small church, but he did his best as always. He gave me a comprehensive appraisal of the history of the building, full details of the pair of tombs close to the altar screen that contained the remains of some medieval gentleman and his beloved wife, and a privileged look at the dark, mouldy crypt under the nave.

He took me up the tower too, but only as far as the level on which the clock was situated. It was one of his jobs to set it right every so often. He offered to take me up to the roof, but I declined. It was a cold, wet day and I suggested that it would be better to leave that treat until the view was worth looking at.

The church and the Christian faith in general were among the very few subjects that loosened his tongue, and occasionally gave rise to heated debate between us. In lighter moments he would tell me amusing stories about odd happenings at funerals and weddings. On one occasion, he told me the story of the haunting.

There was a local legend that a Mercian warrior had been killed fighting the Danish Great Army some time in the ninth century. After his death, his ghost had been seen patrolling the land around the church, a duty he had continued to perform even after the small Saxon structure had been rebuilt four hundred years later. There were several accounts of sightings right up to the previous century, and it was assumed that he was there to protect the spot from the ravages of any pagan Viking who dared to set foot on the hallowed ground. I asked him if he had ever seen or heard anything.

“’Course not lad, it’s just a fairy story,” was his dismissive reply.

People like Alistair don’t generally believe in ghosts, at least not without good evidence, and good evidence rarely seems to fall the way of people like him. But then he continued after a moment’s thought.

“Besides, it’s not time yet. According to the stories I’ve heard, he’s always been seen at the end of the century - 1698, 1797, 1899. He’s not due for a year or two yet.” Then he chuckled. “If I do see him, I’ll send him down to the village to put paid to a few of these yobs we get hanging around these days.”

It was about two years ago that he told me the story, and although I was more inclined to believe Hamlet’s assertion that there are more things in heaven and earth than Alistair was, I didn’t take it too seriously myself. There are countless similar stories all over the country, and hardly any of the alleged spectres make substantiated appearances these days. It resurfaced with a vengeance, however, last November.

I’d noticed for a couple of weeks that Alistair had been lacking his usual taciturn but unshakeably confident air. At first I’d assumed him to be a little under the weather. He had no family or close friends to speak of, so it was unlikely that he had worries along those lines; and his situation held nothing to suggest the likelihood of financial difficulty.

I’d resisted asking the obvious question since he was not much given to expressing his feelings, or even discussing any problems save the mundane and practical. I wondered whether he might have some serious illness, but saw no evidence that he was in anything but robust physical health.

I watched him carefully, if surreptitiously, in an effort to define the nature of the change in him. I decided that he looked edgy. When we talked, his concentration wandered, and he would sometimes stare into space and look preoccupied. I still avoided asking him what was wrong. Whatever it was, I felt he would come through it eventually; that was his way.

And then, one dark November evening, he appeared to gather himself to do something objectionable. We were sitting in front of the open fire in his living room. The loud ticking of his grandfather clock had been rhythmically interrupting the silence between us for some time and his sudden question took me by surprise. He asked me, in an unusually apologetic tone, if I would do him a favour. He had never asked a favour before, and he appeared to be making an effort to hide a sense of embarrassment.

“Of course,” I replied eagerly. “What’s the problem?”

I thought his request might throw some light on what was troubling him. It didn’t. He told me that the vicar wanted the flag staff on the church tower replacing. The old one was cracked and he feared that his beloved Union flag might get carried away in a winter storm. Alistair’s skill with wood made him the obvious candidate for the job and he had already produced the article ready for installation. He wanted me to help him fit it.

“When?” I asked.

“Tomorrow?”

“OK, what time?”

“Morning,” said Alistair, “so we’ve got plenty of daylight to work with.”  

I agreed readily and knocked on his door at ten the next morning. We trudged off to the church carrying the pristine white pole between us, and walked in single file up the narrow lane leading to the church. I was behind him and noticed that he looked constantly at the top of the tower. So complete was his attention that he almost stepped on a cat basking in the weak November sunshine.

At the time I thought it no more than professional commitment, but I was more concerned when I saw his hand shaking as he unlocked the church door. As usual, I said nothing.

We climbed the stone steps, passing through the clock level and on up to the bell room. Access to the roof was gained through a trap door at the top of a short ladder and I saw that Alistair was breathing heavily. So was I for that matter; it was a steep climb. But his breathing was different. It seemed to match a look in his eyes that suggested some sort of concern or even fear. As he slid back the two bolts securing the door, I asked him

“Are you all right?”

“Perfectly,” he replied with a hint of impatience, and we were soon setting about the job in hand.

I began to wonder what I was doing there. Alistair took a spanner out of his pocket and unscrewed the bolts on the bracket that held the pole. The old one was removed in seconds and the new one put in its place. I did hold it steady while he put the bolts back in their runners, but there was no need; the pole would have stood easily in position without my help.

I noticed that he looked furtively around a couple of times, and that he was working quickly and clumsily. Once the first bolt was tightened, I left him to it and strolled over to look at the view. After some minutes of admiring the beauty of the landscape, I said

“Some view, eh?”

“Aye, it’s grand enough,” he replied. “Are you ready?”

I turned back to see that he had finished the job and was already walking towards the trap door. I followed and we were soon out of the church and walking back down the lane. He was striding so quickly that I had trouble keeping up with him. I decided that enough was enough.

“Look, Alistair,” I said, as I tripped along like a faithful spaniel at his side, “something’s got into you lately. I wish you’d tell me what it is. I’m getting a bit fed up with it.”

“What sort of something?” he asked, not breaking his stride one jot.

“Wish I knew,” I said. “You’re edgy, uncommunicative, distracted. And then there’s this business with the flag pole. You didn’t need me there. You could’ve managed the whole thing on your own quite easily. It only took ten minutes, so what’s this ‘favour’ business all about? And why did we need to have plenty of daylight to work with?”

“If you didn’t want to do it, you should have bloody well said,” he replied angrily.

“Oh come on. We’ve known each other for ten years. That’s not the point and you know it.”

He strode on in silence until we reached the junction with the main street. Then a change came over him. He began to look deflated. He turned to me and asked

“You didn’t see anything up there, did you?”

“On the tower?” He nodded. “No, only a fine view of the landscape and you looking bothered about something. Did you?”

He shook his head.

“Not saw, no.”

“What then?”

We were standing on the edge of the pavement with the traffic and the shoppers going noisily about their business on all sides of us. He began looking around with the air of a hunted man, and I swear that he was trembling. Even at the age of seventy, he was sturdy and upright. His present demeanour was most uncharacteristic. He turned his face towards me again.

“Let’s go to the pub,” he said quietly. “I’m buying.”

The pub had only just opened when we got there, and the busy lunchtime trade was still but a storm on the horizon. Alistair nodded to a couple of elderly acquaintances sitting by the door. We were the only other occupants of the main bar and I was glad that there would be no prying ears close by to discourage my troubled friend from telling his story. We ordered our drinks and took them to the corner furthest from the bar counter.

Alistair had ordered two double scotches for himself and drained the first one in an instant. He sat looking at the table for a few moments while I waited patiently. He took a sip from the second and then gathered himself to speak.

“You know me,” he said. “I’m not one for complaining or talking about problems.” He looked at me with an uncharacteristic hint of resignation. “Aye, well, this one’s getting under my skin a bit, and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t even know where to start.”

“At the beginning?” I suggested.

“Aye; where else?” he began. “Two weeks ago, the vicar asked me to look at the flagpole. He’d seen it bending in the wind and thought it might be broken. He was right, it was. I got my tape out to measure it up ‘cos I knew he’d get me to make another one. Just as I was finishing – I don’t really know how to put this – I, sort of, felt something. Not physical, like. Here, inside.” He tapped the centre of his chest, then paused.

“Felt what?” I asked eventually.

“Fear, lad. Bloody stark, cold fear. But not like any fear I’ve ever felt before. You know I used to be in the army? Well, I felt fear then, but it was a different kind of fear - the proper kind. Fear of something real. I was in Kenya during the Mau Mau business and we were all frightened witless most of the time. It was only natural, nothing to be ashamed of. It was, how can I put it, a fear of - well - consequences I suppose. You meet a big black man in the jungle and he sticks a spear in your guts. You know it’s going to hurt like bloody hell and you’ll probably die from it. Simple. This was different.”

He took another sip of scotch and looked thoughtful. He was obviously beginning to warm to the task and I thought him remarkably eloquent for one of such little practice. It got better.

“You know how you can go out on a cold, crisp day and the cold makes your fingers and nose tingle, but you’ve got a good coat on so you stay warm inside? But on one of them damp, dreary days in autumn, the cold chills you to the bone and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, you still feel cold inside? That’s how this was. The fear was on the inside, gripping me like a vice, and I had no bloody idea where it was coming from. There was definitely nobody else on the roof and yet it felt as though there was. It felt as though something dark and evil was close by - sniffing me, eying me up.

“I don’t like to admit this, but I started feeling panicky. The fear was getting worse. And then I smelt something - horrible it was, like old sweat and toilets. That was it. I was off the roof and down the ladder bloody quick. I nearly fell off it; my legs were like jelly.”

He paused again and took another drink. I was just about to launch into some tentative rubbish about psychology and panic attacks, when he resumed.

“Anyway, that was two weeks ago and I haven’t been on the roof again ‘till today. But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve been into the church every day - have to, it’s my job - and I felt it in there too. Not as strong, like, but it was there all right.

“And I’ve heard things. One day it was something like breathing, up near the ceiling. Slow and deliberate, like it wanted me to hear it. Another time, I could have sworn I heard footfalls on the steps that go up the tower. I went and looked of course, but there was nothing there. Then, two days ago, I heard a scraping on the back of the door that leads to the tower steps. I felt like it was watching me, waiting for me to go up to the roof again. And I’ve smelt that horrible smell again, always at that end of the church. The vicar smelt it one day. Said the drains must be blocked. There’s no drains anywhere near there.”

Another drink pause ensued and I felt that I ought to offer something to ease his fears.

“You know what I think? I think your subconscious is aware of the fact that it’s the end of the century and that the ghost you told me about is due to make another appearance. Put that together with some natural hormonal change brought on by age and, Bob’s your uncle. You had a simple panic attack on the roof and your imagination did the rest.”

It was a paltry effort and I didn’t really believe it. It didn’t sit well with his nature; Alistair was not the imaginative type. He didn’t believe it either.

“Doesn’t explain seeing him though, plain as day, does it?”

The change of pronoun startled and chilled me.

“Seeing who?” I asked. “You said ‘him’.”

“Yesterday. You know how misty it was yesterday morning? Well, I went to the church at nine o’clock to unlock the door as usual, and as I walked around the bend I looked up at the tower - always do these days. He were stood there, watching me.”

There was a tense pause until I asked the obvious question.

“Who was?”

“You tell me, lad.”

Alistair fell silent and looked embarrassed. He was returning to his customary reticence. It was apparent that he had seen, or thought he had seen, a person - a person who shouldn’t, or couldn’t, have been there. But I judged that he was struggling to admit the possibility of a paranormal explanation. I made the predictable attempt to apply reason.

“It was probably one of the finials on the corners of the tower,” I offered. “Mist can play tricks on the eyes, you should know that.”

“He wasn’t in the corner though, was he?” said Alistair. “He was standing in the middle, shorter than the finials. Besides, he wasn’t the shape of a bloody finial. He was the shape of a man. I couldn’t see him as clear as I see you now, of course; the mist was too thick. But I saw him clear enough, right up ’til I got to the church door.”

“What did you see exactly?”

“A man with some kind of a tunic on. It seemed to glint like it was made of metal. Chain mail, I suppose. He had a helmet on his head, with one of them nose guards, and his long hair stuck out from underneath it. And he had a bloody great big axe slung across his shoulder. I couldn’t see his face clearly, it was too misty; but I could tell from the set of his head that he was watching me all the way up the road.

“I know it’s him – that Saxon bloke. I just know it. And he’s out to get me for some reason. God knows why. I’m not a bloody Viking, am I?”

Alistair had finally admitted his suspicion, and with remarkable certainty. That was typical of his nature. Once he had made up his mind, he didn’t easily change it. I was prepared to admit the possibility too, and was inclined to agree that only Vikings should have anything to fear from the spectral guardian. Since the Viking age had ended a thousand years ago, it seemed probable that the worst injury likely to be suffered would be the assault on his nostrils from the warrior’s unwashed body. But then I remembered something.

I had attended a lecture some years earlier, given by an expert in Dark Age history. The subject of the talk was Britain during the Viking period, from the late eighth century to the middle of the tenth.

He related how the early sporadic raids had turned into a full scale invasion by the Great Army, and how they had swept all before them until they were stopped by Alfred and the men of Wessex at Edington. He regaled us with details of the “blood eagle” ritual, in which the conscious victim’s ribcage was split and pulled out to his side, followed by his lungs, so that they looked like a hideous representation of an eagle’s wings.

He told us of the discovery of a Viking mass grave, in which the skeletons bore the marks of excessively gratuitous injuries. They were taken as testimony to the Saxons’ hatred of the brutal invader and their desire to exact a fitting revenge whenever they could.

He spoke of the heroism of Alfred, and of the great victory that had turned the tide and restricted the Danes to possession of only half the country; and how that possession had been diminished further by Alfred’s heirs who had driven them back until only the kingdom of York was left. He explained that the kingdom of York equated roughly to the modern-day county of Yorkshire.

He told us of a second wave of Norse invaders who had come in from the western side, bringing names like Thwaite, Beck and Force with them, and how such names now filled the landscapes of Cumbria and North Yorkshire.

And he finished with a joke. He told us that he was a Yorkshireman himself, and claimed that all of his breed had large quantities of Viking blood flowing through their veins. That, he said with a smug expression, was what made them so special.

It seemed that Alistair was probably a sort of Viking after all. At least, his origins and his name made it likely that he had a strong genetic connection with the Dark Age invader.

I was about to explain this fact to him, but thought better of it. The poor man felt hunted enough already, without giving him reason to believe it all the more. But I began to feel nervous on his behalf. I had neither seen nor heard anything myself, but Alistair was just too prosaic an individual to warrant dismissing his stories as nothing more than imagination.

I wondered whether a ghost would be capable of inflicting bodily harm on a living person. I had no idea; but it seemed likely that, were the spectre to be a conscious entity seeking vengeance, it might well be capable of turning a person’s mind or forcing him into some sort of action resulting in harm. I broke the silence.

“Look,” I said, trying to sound concerned for his welfare without being seen to give credence to his fears. “I think it might be better if you didn’t go into the church alone for a while - just until your mind has settled a bit.”

“You think I’ve imagined it all then?”

“Well, actually, no; not necessarily.”

“So you think it might be real?”

His logic was impeccable and I was struggling.

“Oh God, Alistair, I don’t know. Perhaps there’s something there, perhaps there isn’t. If there is, it’s probably harmless. It can’t be flesh and blood, can it? The axe can’t be physical. But it could get you into a state of panic and make you fall off the ladder or have a heart attack or something. I really don’t know. I’m not an expert in these matters. I just think we should err on the safe side. I think I should come to work with you for a while. I could even help out a bit. I’m not doing much else at the moment.”

He thought for a moment, shaking his head.

“Oh, I don’t know lad. I don’t like the idea of going round holding somebody’s hand just because of some bloody ghost. I didn’t even believe in the damn things until this happened.”

“But it would be a practical solution to a practical problem, wouldn’t it?”

I emphasised the word “practical”, hoping it might win the day. It did. He thought for a while and then said

“OK, I suppose you’re right. I must admit, I don’t much fancy being in there by myself at the moment. But we can’t keep it up forever, can we? You won’t always be around. Play it by ear I suppose. How d’you fancy starting tomorrow? I told the vicar I’d re-varnish the choir pews and I was going to start sanding them down tomorrow. I did it ten years ago when I was still working, and it took all bloody week doing it on my own at nights.”

I nodded my assent.

“Have you got to go back there again today?” I asked.

“Only to lock up.” He frowned. “That’s a thought. I’ve got to go in to check the place is clear.”

“What time?”

“Half past five.”

“OK, I’ll come round to your house at five o’clock and we can go up together.”

He nodded and I fetched another round of drinks. We changed the subject after that and spent a convivial couple of hours putting the world to rights before going our separate ways for lunch.

Being late November, it was dark when I called for him, and cold, too. He opened the door and plucked his coat from the hook. We walked together through the village and entered the lane that ran up to the church.

The street lighting there was poor and most of the buildings were in darkness. There was no moon and no wind. The mist that was beginning to form in the crisp, still air painted lurid halos around the widely spaced sodium lamps, and the feeling that we were leaving the bright, modern world behind and walking back through time to a darker, quieter place had never been more marked.

I would normally have revelled in such a sense, but Alistair’s tale had left me wary of the church and its possible ghostly inhabitant. I felt a sudden fondness for the warm evenings of mid summer, and looked around in the hope of finding some human company to remind us that the bustle of civilisation was only a short walk away. The street was empty, and our footsteps were the only sounds breaking the eerie silence. They seemed unnaturally loud as they echoed from the walls of the buildings that crowded the narrow street.

Alistair stopped suddenly and I heard a short but definite gasp. I stopped too, and turned back to look at him. My skin quivered as I saw him looking towards the top of the church tower, his eyes narrowing as though they were straining to see something. His mouth was open slightly but nothing came out of it, neither sound nor the pale vapour that should have been spreading out into the frosty air. I realised that he was holding his breath. I followed his gaze and then looked back at him. There was silence for a few seconds.

“What?” I said eventually. “Are you trying to put the wind up me or something, ‘cos you’re doing a bloody good job?”

“I could have sworn I saw something move up there. It’s gone now.”

“I don’t see how,” I said, putting a brave face on my own fear. “It’s too dark. The street lighting doesn’t reach that far up.”

“No, suppose not. Just my imagination I expect. Come on. The sooner we check there’s nobody in there and get the doors locked, the sooner we can go and have a couple of malts at my place.”

We continued our walk to the church with renewed haste. Alistair turned the iron ring on the heavy old door and pushed it open. I could just make out a bank of switches on the opposite wall and he pressed them all to flood the whole building with welcome light.

We walked through the quiet, ice-cold nave and entered the vestry. It had that musty smell, typical of church ante-rooms and old fashioned village halls. It reminded me of why I was there. Alistair tried the outside door to check that it was locked and bolted. Duly satisfied, we made our way back down the aisle towards the door that led into the tower.

“There’s not going to be anybody in there, is there?” I said.

“Who knows?” he replied. “Got to check.”

We went through and stood at the bottom of the stone steps.

“Anybody up there?” he called loudly. “I’m locking up.”

We listened for a few seconds and were about to walk out again when we heard a noise from somewhere above us. It was brief and indistinct, but definitely there. We looked at each other. I certainly didn’t want to go up those steps and I judged that Alistair felt the same way. I began to shiver, and told myself that it was due entirely to the icy, barren air in the old stone building. I knew that the heating was turned off during the week and that the intense chill creeping into the very core of me was only to be expected.  

“Oh bloody hell,” I exclaimed. “It’s probably just a rat or something.”

“I’ve never seen a rat in this place in all the years I’ve worked here,” he said. He looked worried.

“Well I don’t think it’s a good idea to go up there at night.”

Taking a rational view had been easy in the pub at lunchtime. Standing at the bottom of the tower steps among the cold, impassive medieval masonry was different. I felt truly detached from the outside world; and the deathly quiet seemed to have a weight of its own, pressing down and closing in on me. Alistair’s story seemed all too credible and my instinct was telling me to leave. But Alistair was nothing if not conscientious.

“Got to, lad. It’s my job.”

We stood for a moment. Alistair was looking up the staircase, obviously steeling himself to do his duty.

“Anyway,” he said with an ironic smirk, “there’s two of us. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

It was indeed, but I felt rather less brave than when I’d made the offer.

“Thanks for reminding me,” I said, resigning myself to my duty. “I’d better go first then, hadn’t I? Can’t have you being hacked to pieces by a psychopathic Saxon, can we?”

It’s odd how we react to fear with ironic humour. I felt anything but humorous at that moment.

“The steps are wide enough to go two abreast,” he said gallantly. “I expect it’s just a bird got in anyway.”

We walked up the steps side by side and entered the clock room. It was empty. We continued to the bell room. That was empty too, but the trapdoor to the roof was open. We saw it simultaneously and looked at each other again.

“You must have left it open earlier,” I suggested.

He shook his head and the gravity of his expression set my nerves on edge. I continued my attempt to keep the possibilities comfortably rational.

“Well somebody else must have been up here then. Local kids probably, or some inquisitive visitor.”

“Aye, maybe. Better go and see if they’re still here then.” He moved towards the ladder.

“I’ll go first,” I said

“No you won’t lad,” he replied. “My job, my responsibility.”

Then he reached into the inside pocket of his old duffle coat and took out a vicious-looking claw hammer. He had obviously come prepared.

“What the hell are you going to do with that?” I asked.

He started to climb the ladder.

“Nothing I expect. It makes me feel better.”

He stopped momentarily, once his head and shoulders were through the opening.

“See anything?” I called.

He made no reply, but continued until he was out on the roof. I followed immediately and joined him.

There was enough light coming up through the trapdoor for us to see one another, but its influence was limited to a small area around the opening and the rest of the roof was in darkness. The western sky still retained a hint of brightness, however, and the regular blocks of the crenellations were dimly silhouetted against it.

Our breath steamed as we stood there, straining our eyes to try and see some detail in the blackness. I realised that we needed a torch and cursed myself for not thinking of it earlier. I also realised that we should have been striking out on a walk around the walls to satisfy ourselves that the roof was empty. Neither of us wanted to leave the comfort of the light coming up through the trapdoor, and so we stood looking pointlessly into the impenetrable darkness for some time. I was about to suggest that we go home when the back of my neck prickled with the sudden touch of fear.

I saw a movement on the far side. A dark shape began to rise up above the level of the wall. It was the shape of a person. The top of its head was rounded and the sides were smooth as far down as the level of the ears. Below that, the shape spread out unevenly, like long hair released from the confines of some tight piece of headwear. The figure continued to rise until the shoulders, chest and arms were also clearly silhouetted against the sky. Its right hand held something long and narrow, with a wider piece at the far end.

I stood transfixed by fear, and detected no movement from Alistair either. We both stared at the horrible black shape that faced us across the roof. The tension, the silence and the darkness combined to form a cowl of prickly energy that held me rigid. And the figure appeared to stare back at us, equally still. It had us completely in its power.

Suddenly, it sprang forward and made straight for us, raising the implement in its hand in a menacing fashion. I found my legs again and moved instinctively to one side. As it came within the spread of the light from the trapdoor, it seemed to hesitate slightly and I saw it for what it was.

The potential for an impending tragedy rose quickly in me, but not quickly enough. It was heading straight for Alistair, whose mind was obviously set on defence. There was no time to stop him striking the assailant a cracking blow with the hammer. The figure dropped its own weapon and staggered for a few seconds before collapsing forwards, close to the trapdoor.

We looked down at the body of a young man lying on the floor between us. He had long, curly hair and was wearing a simple, grey woollen hat. I was struck by the sudden, poignant thought that his mother had probably knitted it for him. The “weapon” lying close by was the shaft of the church’s weather vane, a simple metal pole with a copper fish stuck on the end, a design not uncommon on church roofs. I was the first to come to my senses and felt for a pulse. There was none.

“I’m going to call an ambulance,” I said.

Alistair was still rigid, staring at the body with an expression of shock and disbelief. I climbed hurriedly down the ladder and rushed back to the vestry where I knew there was a phone. My hand was shaking so violently that it took some effort of concentration to manage the simple task of dialling, and I heard my voice trembling as I gave the necessary details to the operator.

Once that was done, my concern was for Alistair. I could only guess at the level of anguish he must have been feeling, and hated to think of him sitting on that God-forsaken roof with only the result of his involuntary handiwork for company.

I returned to the stairs and began to climb them as quickly as my weakened legs would allow. Before I reached the clock room, I heard a voice cry out from the direction of the roof, followed by a clatter and a muffled thump. I stopped for a second, then redoubled my efforts. All thoughts of the supernatural had disappeared during the last few minutes of frantic activity, but they returned like a blast of cold air on hearing the noise. I felt myself suddenly gripped by the hand of irrational fear that Alistair had described earlier.

I arrived, panting hard, in the bell room to find Alistair lying at the foot of the ladder. I stared at him and my head began to swim. There was a glazed look in his eyes and he was turning pale. I needed no medical training to see that the life had gone from him.

It was my turn to stand in shock and disbelief, and my feelings were compounded by a sense of nausea caused by a sickening stench that hung in the air. Alistair’s phrase “stale sweat and toilets” had been well chosen. I stood for some time, awash with the horror of what had happened and still gripped by an intense sense of irrational fear. I took little persuading that there was nothing I could do for either victim, and went back down the stairs to wait for the ambulance and the police.

The ambulance arrived first and I conducted the two paramedics to the scene of the incident. One examined Alistair while the other went up to the body on the roof. They confirmed what I already knew: both men were dead. I remarked on the smell that was fainter now, but still nauseating.

“It’s the smell of death, mate,” said the paramedic. “Bodily functions, and all that.”

I allowed him his pragmatic explanation, but felt certain that the truth was altogether stranger.

Over the next few days the police conducted their enquiry and I was interviewed at some length. I told our side of the story in full detail and was cleared of blame. They looked askance at the mention of a ghostly guardian, but shrugged their shoulders and put the whole thing down to tricks of the light and Alistair’s frame of mind.

I felt annoyed by that. They hadn’t known Alistair, and I saw their attitude as an insult to my old friend. But argument would have been pointless and I let it go. When they had completed their investigations they told me what they had discovered about the young man.

He was a Danish student studying at some English university, and he had come to the village to stay with a colleague’s family over the Christmas holiday. He had been walking around the streets with his host and some other local lads when they had dared him to climb up the church tower alone. To prove that he had completed his task, he had been required to take the weather vane out of its bracket and bring it back with him. Not wishing to lose face and bring shame on his nationality, he had reluctantly agreed.

Shortly after he had entered the church, his companions had seen Alistair and me coming up the lane and had slipped behind the nearest building to be out of sight. They had waited anxiously for him to emerge from the church and had still been there when the ambulance arrived.

The police could only guess at the reasons for the young man’s behaviour. They assumed that he had crouched in front of the wall to avoid his silhouette being visible, but had changed his mind. Perhaps he had thought we could see him, or perhaps he had simply panicked.  No doubt his sudden rush towards us had been merely bravado, meant to frighten us out of the way so that he could make his escape. He couldn’t have guessed that our nerves were already close to breaking point and that his action would produce such a desperate riposte.

Subsequent post mortems showed that he had died from the single blow to his head, and that Alistair had suffered a heart attack. That was what had killed him, not the fall.

Having heard the full facts, including the story of the ghost, the coroner showed due sympathy to both players in the appalling tragedy. He made reference to Alistair’s “unfortunate state of mind” and gave full allowance of mitigation with regard to his action.

He recorded a verdict of “death by misadventure” in the case of the young man. His reasoning was logical and predictable, and I was relieved that he had not held Alistair legally culpable in the student’s untimely death. That would have been an unjustified blot on the good name of my old friend. But I still have my doubts that the full truth is known.

I shall always wonder whether the young man’s behaviour was triggered by the influence of some malicious entity, and that the same influence was responsible for Alistair’s heart attack and fall through the trap door. It seems to me that there is a hint of something more than mere coincidence that both victims had Scandinavian connections. I wonder whether the Saxon warrior will be content now, and rest in peace for another hundred years.

On the other hand, he might be shaking his battleaxe in anguish at the knowledge that he has consigned two valiant men to an eternity of feasting in Valhalla, while he remains condemned to the loneliness of his endless vigil. I feel that someone should explain to him that there are no Saxons and Vikings any more, and that the smell of Scandinavian blood is no longer a call to arms.

If I believe in him at all, I am inclined to feel sorry for him. Despite my sense of anger at the possibility that he might have been responsible for the death of a dear friend and an innocent young man, I know that the real tragedy is his. Everyone else is moving on.

About Me

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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.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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