Gone Forever

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When my wife died I was lost. We’d been married for thirty years, and when I retired we spent most of our time together.

Over the past few years we hadn’t bothered with friends much, just did our own thing, went away for weekends, pottered around the house and the garden. She was so much a part of my life that when she died unexpectedly, after a very short illness, I felt more alone that I’ve ever felt in my life.

We never had children, so I didn’t really have any kind of family support.

You read all this stuff about a loved one’s spirit coming back to give you comfort, to say they’re in a happy place and not to worry about them, but nothing like that had happened to me. I even went to church for the first time in years, I prayed over and over, asking for some kind of message from Linda, just to know that she was still somewhere around, that she wasn’t gone forever. But there was nothing. Not a vestige of anything in the house, in the bedroom, even in her beloved garden, where she spent so many happy hours.

Reluctantly I had to face the fact that all that stuff about an afterlife was so much hogwash.

Depression is as bad as you’ve been told, and worse. It drains away your life and leaves you hollow. I used to like messing about doing up old cars, but I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I used to play golf, but now my clubs just gathered dust. I was no longer interested in watching football or anything else on the telly, I couldn’t be enthusiastic about food, in fact I had hardly any appetite. I couldn’t sleep for longer than a couple of hours, and the more tired I got, the worse my insomnia became. And one morning I woke up and thought what’s the point of any of it? Why force myself on? Who would care if I wasn’t here?

So I drove out to the motorway and I parked nearby. Got out of the car, and walked over towards the barrier. I began to climb over, planning to run out in front of the biggest, fastest truck. But just as I was about to jump down I thought about the poor truck driver. How would he feel, having my death on his conscience? Regretfully, I trudged back to my car.

Out of sheer desperation I went down to the doctors’ surgery. Surely someone there could help me? Maybe they could give me some pills to help me to sleep. Or what was that stuff, Prozac, that cured depression? Neither Linda or I had had much to do with doctors – we’d luckily both been pretty healthy up until her final illness.

The receptionist was very nice, but she explained that there was no chance of seeing anyone. But as I walked away, I think she must have somehow sensed how I was feeling, so she said, “Look Mr Henderson, no promises, but if you’d like to wait, I’ll try and have a word with one of the doctors and see if they can fit you in.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “I’m sorry, it’s just I don’t know where else to turn.”

For a couple of hours I watched the miserable procession of people getting up and striding off to the different rooms. I was tempted just to give up and go home. But something stopped me – maybe I just couldn’t face going back to that empty lonely house. Or maybe I was afraid of being tempted back to the motorway for my appointment with a speeding truck.

“Mr Henderson?” A woman doctor came out of one of the rooms and walked across to me. “I’m Dr Rogers, please come through.”

She had a lovely face. I don’t mean I fancied her, nothing like that. Truth to tell it was months since I’d even noticed women in that way. No, I mean she had one of those smiles that cheers you up deep inside, and you don’t quite know why.

In her room, I told her everything: how I was feeling, how I was afraid I might do something silly, how I didn’t know what to do.

“You say you want to believe that Linda is still surviving somehow,” she said at last, “that her spirit lives on?”

“Yes. It’s ridiculous of course.”

“It’s not ridiculous at all,” she told me seriously. “And why are you so convinced that your Linda has gone forever?”

“Because it’s true,” I said to her. “I tried and tried to contact her. I’d have given the world to have some kind of sign or message from Linda’s soul, her spirit or whatever, but nothing ever happened. When I looked down at her in the coffin, I remember thinking that all this belief in life after death, is nothing but wishful thinking. I could see that her body was just a shell. That Linda had gone. Gone forever.”

“Well, Mr Henderson, you’re right, her body was a shell, but that was because her spirit had left it. Personally I passionately believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that your Linda is probably with you right now, even though you don’t realise it.”

“Life after death?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “You really believe in such a thing?”

She nodded. “Believe me, Mr Henderson, I believe in life after death as much as I believe that you’re sitting there in front of me. Oh yes, just because you can’t communicate with Linda doesn’t mean to say she’s not trying to communicate with you. It’s like a TV tuned to the wrong channel.”

“Really?” I was bemused at her serious expression. “But you’re a doctor! How can you believe something that isn’t proved scientifically?”

“A great many doctors are religious. We see a lot of miracle cures that can’t be explained scientifically. And we see so many people die, many of us believe that the earthly life isn’t the end. I’m certain of it myself. Absolutely certain.”

“Thank you doctor. You’ve been very kind. I appreciate your help.”

While I’d been talking to her I’d felt fine. But when I got out of the room, away from her kind face and sympathetic words, my legs went to jelly, and my depression came back with a vengeance. Dr Rogers had undoubtedly been a very special person, so nice and kind, and she’d offered me comforting platitudes. But she hadn’t given me any pills.

In reality, it had been an utter waste of time.

Believing in an afterlife? Admittedly she had been infinitely kind and well meaning, and she had obviously chosen her words to try and bamboozle me into some kind of contentment, in an attempt to lift my depression.

But you know what?

It hadn’t worked.

Life after death? What nonsense.

She must have taken me for some simple minded moron, an idiot, someone who’d readily fall for her fairy tales.

The disappointment of everything, and the sheer tidal wave of misery, came over me all at once, so that I had to sit down in the waiting room again, and suddenly I found I just couldn’t stop myself crying. Not wanting to draw attention to myself I fought against it, struggling to regain control, hoping no one had noticed me.

No such luck. The receptionist I’d spoken to earlier came across with a box of tissues and sat beside me, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“I am so sorry, Mr Henderson,” she told me. “I’ve tried and tried to help you, but none of the doctors have had a second to spare and surgery’s closing in ten minutes. I know you lost your wife, but the fact is we’ve had a terrible tragedy here too. One of our doctors died yesterday, suddenly, with no warning, and everyone’s had to rally round and cover her appointments. Frankly we’re all stunned, we can’t take it in.” Her voice became hoarse and a tear appeared at the corner of her eye. She pointed towards the room I’d just come out of, with the name ‘Dr Marian Rogers’ on the door. “We haven’t even been able to bear to clear her drawers or even lock up her room. You see we all really loved Dr Rogers. She was the most popular doctor here. I’ve had patients say they only had to look at her face and feel her kindness and warmth and they’d feel better immediately.”

The Murderer

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Stephen, a quiet man who popped into our Dark and Light store one day, told me this very interesting story:

Stephen’s Story

“I killed my wife,” said the man sitting opposite me in the cable car.

“Excuse me?” I answered, bemused, thinking I’d misheard him.

“She was sitting where you’re sitting now, and we were passing over the valley, just as we are at the moment. What a splendid view, isn’t it?

“I’m not quite with you.” I tried to make sense of what he was saying.

“Perfectly simple. I killed her. The thing is we’d been arguing all day, and she was going on about how much money she’d screw out of me in a divorce settlement. So I couldn’t stop myself. Just looked at her smug self-satisfied face as she went whining on and on, opened the door and pushed her out.”

“Really?” I was barely listening to this madman. I was terrified of travelling to the top of the mountains in this cable car and had been dreading making the trip. Now we were halfway up, getting higher and higher, and I’d kept my eyes tight shut so as not to have to look out of the window. I just longed to reach the mountain peak and get out and sit down on firm land, and not to have to look down to a view thousands of feet below me.

Nor did I want to have to talk to this maniac, who was sitting opposite me.

“Yes, it wasn’t that hard really, She was so surprised she hardly realised what was happening. And when she went, she fell through the air just like a sky diver, quite extraordinary. It was quite beautiful to watch her fall really. I had my binoculars and was able to see what happened. She crashed through a greenhouse roof and landed headfirst in a crop of tomatoes.” He paused. “Funny that. She always liked tomatoes.”

I didn’t reply.

“So young man,” he went on. “Are you scared of heights?”

“Yes, terrified.”

“So why are you travelling in a glass-sided cable car above a valley that’s 2,000 feet below us?”

I flinched at the thought. “I write for a travel magazine and I have to describe the view and this cable-car experience for an article I’m writing.”

I looked at him properly for the first time. He didn’t look mad at all. He appeared to be perfectly ordinary: a man in his late sixties, chubby, mostly bald with some white hair, wearing a light coloured suit. Beside him was a thin, bored looking man of about my own age, who was absorbed in looking out of the window at the view below us, and taking no part in our conversation.

“Have you always been afraid of heights?” the ‘murderer’ persevered.

“Yes. Ever since I was small.”

“Well, what I’d suggest you need to do now is bite the bullet. Step over to the door and lean out over the drop. If you can do that you’ll have faced your fear. Then you’ll never be afraid of heights again.”

“No, I couldn’t do that,” I replied. “It’s bad enough just being here.”

“One step at a time, eh? Well there’s no need to worry. This car is as safe as houses. I should know – been using it for years, ever since we retired to this area. It’s perfectly safe. And it really is a beautiful view down there.”

He was behaving so matter-of-factly that I wondered if I’d misheard what he’d been saying earlier on.

“Excuse me,” I began hesitantly, “but didn’t you just tell me that you had recently murdered your wife?”

“Yes I did,” he replied equably. “And now my problem is what to do next. Do I go to the police? We were alone in this cable car, no witnesses, so I could pretend she just jumped. But it’s a risk. If they don’t believe me I’d face years in prison.”

“Yes.”

“Alternatively I could go on the run, but I really don’t fancy that at my age. Or I could kill myself. Hmm. Quite a range of options really. What would you do?”

“Well, to be quite honest, I don’t think I’d have murdered my wife in the first place.”

“Point taken. At the time it seemed such a good idea. But now I really am in rather a fix.”

The journey continued, and when we arrived at our destination, it was such an incredible relief to step out onto land. I wondered if there was any other way to get back to the town I’d just left, so as not to have to go in the cable car again? I really didn’t want to face a return journey in the wretched horrible claustrophobic cable car.

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My new friend bustled off quickly and strode away out of sight.

As I began my walk into town, the man who’d been sitting opposite me, and beside the murderer, was staring at me, frowning to himself.

“Absolutely astonishing,” he said, coming closer and staring at my face. “I really can’t see a thing. They can do miracles these days, can’t they?”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well, the earpiece and the mic for your phone. It’s so tiny I can’t even see it. All through our journey just now you were chatting away to yourself, obviously talking to someone on the phone, and yet your microphone and your earpiece must be so tiny as to be virtually invisible.”

“Wait a minute,” I told him. “I haven’t been talking on the phone. I was talking to the man beside you. The old man who was sitting opposite me.”

“What old man?” he said in surprise, smiling at me. “We were alone in that cable car. There was no one else there but the two of us.” He ignored my amazed expression.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your business, clearly your phone call was private, I promise you I wasn’t listening.” He moved closer to me, talking in a quieter voice. “Hope you didn’t mind me chatting to you, but between you and me I’m a bit nervous, as I’ve got a pretty grim job in front of me. I’m a reporter for the local paper, for the Brits who live out here. A fortnight ago some English bloke who’d retired out here apparently went mad, pushed his wife out of the cable car, then went home and shot himself. It’s up to muggins here to find out the facts. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about it, have you?”

 

Gone with the Wind

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Knowing that I’m interested in the supernatural, very often people tell me their stories.  This is Ray’s very strange tale that really got me thinking. . .

“Thing is Jamie, when my wife died, my little girl took it hard.”

Ray Tomkins was verging on drunk, chattering away almost to himself, even though he kept leaning towards me, to make sure I was still listening.

“How do you explain to a three-year-old that her mummy has gone for ever?”

Ray was a pleasant fortyish character I’d got talking to in the pub. I liked him a lot. As he downed his third pint and leaned closer to me, his friendly smile whisked me into his realm of cheerful contentment.

“It was a hard time for me, as you can imagine. Had to give up my job and I signed on the dole to look after her. But it was the best decision I ever made. They say that being a dad is the most important job you can ever do in your life, don’t they? And by golly it’s true.”

“Can’t have been easy on your own,” I commented.

“But strangely enough I wouldn’t have missed those years for all the riches in the world. Having my little Ellie meant that somehow my Sally wasn’t gone, do you see? Because they were so alike in lots of ways. And when children are that age, every day is exciting. Watching a little person grow and change, learn to speak and see things and find out about life. And now that Ellie’s grown up, she tells me how she remembers those years when we were alone, and how happy she was, in spite of mussing her mum of course. See, I had to be a mum and dad all rolled into one. With a bit of help from my mum and sister of course.”

He gazed into space for a moment. “But the thing I wanted to tell you about, Jamie, was my ghostly experience, because I know you’re keen on that sort of thing. Well it was 2003, and we used to go for walks in Coulsdon, Surrey. There was this old derelict mental hospital – Netherne – that they’d mostly knocked down, out in the fields it was, where the village of Netherne-on-the-hill is built now. But the chapel of the old mental hospital was still there, and Ellie used to like looking over at the place you know? Nice old red-brick building, You couldn’t get close, but you could see it from the path through the metal fence, and it was where we’d always sit down on the grass for a bit of a rest before the walk back home.

“Well, one day, she looked up at one of the broken windows and started waving. I looked across to where she was waving, but there was no one there. Who are you waving to, love? I asked her. She just smiled, and pointed and said ‘Pretty lady! Daddy, look at the pretty lady! Can’t you see her there? In window. Looking down. Smiling at me!’

“I was worried that she’d started seeing things, was losing her mind. And next day she looked up to see if the pretty lady was there at the window, but she wasn’t. Nor was she there the day after, or ever again, even though little Ellie looked up expectantly, longing to see her. She was always disappointed.”

“And it was just a derelict empty building?”

Ray nodded. “It was fenced off from the public, so if anyone had been inside it could only have been a building worker, and if someone had broken in, they’d not have been in the mood to stare out of the window smiling down at a child. Well I tell you, I was a bit worried, and asked our doctor about it, but he said that is wasn’t so unusual for youngsters of that age to make up ‘pretend’ people, and in Ellie’s case, she was obviously missing her mother, so inventing a ‘mysterious pretty lady’ was a natural thing, because she was missing a female influence in her life. That seemed to make sense, and I didn’t make a big deal of it, and, as I said, Ellie never saw her again. So no harm done. Soon she forgot all about it.”

I got us some more drinks, thinking that was the end of his story.

“But you know what was odd?” he went on, “Not long ago Ellie and her boyfriend Mark and I went to see that film Gone with the Wind, and after it, Ellie was quiet like, she seemed shaken, you know? I asked her what was wrong, and she said ‘Did I remember the ‘pretty lady’ she saw at the window of the chapel at the mental hospital, all those years ago?’ I told her yes, I remembered her talking about it, that she’d imagined it. ‘Well,’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure I didn’t imagine it. And that was her, in the film! Scarlett O’Hara! I can distinctly remember her looking down at me and smiling, the actress in the film. I’d forgotten all about seeing her until I saw Scarlett O’Hara  there on the plantation gazing out at Rhett Butler. She was gazing down at me in just the same way.’”

“So do you think that Ellie had seen Gone with the Wind as an infant on TV, and not remembered it?”

“No. I thought of that. I’d have remembered seeing it on TV with her – she only ever watched cartoons on her own.”

“Very odd.”

“When we got home, her boyfriend googled the actress Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the film. We found the following entry:

The actress Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, and after a particularly bad breakdown in 1952, her husband, Laurence Olivier, brought her back to England in 1953, where she was treated by the relatively innovative method known as Electro Convulsive Therapy, in the exclusive Fairdene wing of the pioneering Netherne Hospital in Coulsdon. .

So I dug around a bit and checked the date she was admitted. It was the evening of 21 March 1953. Fifty years to the day when Ellie saw the ‘pretty lady’ in that chapel window. . .”

 

Flight 409

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Have you ever done something on the spur of the moment that’s totally unlike how you usually behave?  For instance have you ever made love to someone you’ve only just met, taken a smoke of cannabis for a dare, or given a beggar a shed-load of money, just because he had a nice friendly smile?

This is Michael’s story, about his rash act of kindness that more or less ruined his life.  But you know what?  The spooky thing about this story is that he didn’t know why he did it.

As he told me, his hands shaking, something just Made him do it.

MICHAEL STORY

Everyone hates me.

I’m an inspector for Accountancy Solutions. I’m the guy who swoops into your place of work when your boss thinks someone’s nicking money or goods, and goes through the accounts to make sure things are in order.  And if they’re not, it’s muggins here who points the finger at the likely culprit.

I do pretty well at it. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we adore each other, in fact we’ve got the perfect marriage. My boss Colin is also my best and oldest friend. Elizabeth and I have got a beautiful big house. On the whole I enjoy my work.

Born lucky I suppose you could say.

So why do you think I risked everything I’ve ever worked for to help a perfect stranger out of trouble?

My strange experience happened in Edinburgh.  My company had sent me up to Frigid Foods, a large distribution centre for supermarket produce, where the boss suspected that money was going missing.

And I’d done the job to a tee.

Which was what was upsetting me so much.

I was waiting at the airport for Flight 409 that was leaving shortly, to take me back to London.

I was brooding and unhappy, remembering the ‘criminal’ Mary McCarthy, the extremely attractive middle-aged lady in the accounts department, who’d asked me into her office as I was leaving.

Tearfully she’d confessed to being the one who’d taken the money, something which I already knew.  She explained about her daughter’s drug addiction, her desperate attempts to find her counselling and therapy, and the huge cost of treatment at the addiction clinic.  This was the reason, she told me, that she’d ‘borrowed’ money from the company’s account, intending to pay it all l back before anyone noticed.  Indeed, she told me, she’d got a loan that very day, and had already paid back all that she’d taken, but it would only show in the books tomorrow, too late for her to cover up what she’d done, particularly as I had now completed my audit.  For obvious reasons we inspectors arrive out of the blue, so that no potential crook has the opportunity to cover their tracks.

Of course she knew there was nothing I could do to help her, she didn’t even ask.  Just sat there, telling me about her depression and misery, how she was divorced, and had been prepared to pay literally anything to find help for her daughter, who’d ‘fallen apart in front of her eyes’, but thankfully at long last had found a boyfriend and was on the road to recovery.

All I could do was advise her to tell her boss the truth next day, before they got my company report, and to throw herself on his mercy.

She replied, grimly telling me what I already knew: that as soon as he found out the company would be obliged to prosecute her, she might even go to prison, and she’d certainly never get another decent job.

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FLIGHT 409, LONDON. ARRIVED

Was the notice that flipped up on the huge announcement board, that broke into my gloomy thoughts.

But just as I stood up to go through to the departure lounge, I knew that I couldn’t go.

I just couldn’t go!

I pictured Elizabeth, my wonderful wife, getting ready to drive out to meet me at Heathrow in a couple of hours’ time.

But I still couldn’t go.

For some weird reason I knew that there was no way that I could leave Edinburgh.

Next thing I knew I was running out of the airport and leaping into a taxi.

When I arrived back at Frigid Foods, the man on the reception desk was surprised to see me.

“Thought you’d finished, Mr Cook,” he said.

“Something I forgot,” I told him.  “Is it all locked up upstairs then?”

“No, the offices stay open until eight in case anyone wants to work late.”

“Thanks.”

As I climbed up to the third floor I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, a gut-churning fear of I don’t know what.  I raced hell-for-leather up the last flight, and reached the accounts office door, crashing through, to hear the sound of furniture falling.

And I arrived to see Mary McCarthy dangling by the neck from a noose that was fixed to the ceiling.

I made it in time to lift her legs, and eventually managed to reach up and disentangle the noose, so that she fell down into my arms.

She was slack and almost comatose, but it was merely drunkenness that was affecting her: I could smell alcohol on her breath, but she was breathing fine, panting in fact. It looked as if I’d arrived in time to stop the noose doing any damage at all.

And, unsettlingly, I realised how attractive I found her to be.  I longed to kiss her, and hold her in my arms.

When I’d settled her on the chair, I found another one and sat in front of her.

“Why did you come back?”  she demanded, aggressive in her drunkenness.  “Why did you stop me?”

I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “Because I’ve had an idea.”

“An idea?”

“I can make it go away.”

“What?”

“I haven’t emailed my report yet.  The money’s going to be in the company account tomorrow. I’m going to fudge the figures. I can pull some wangles, make the missing money ‘appear’ where it shouldn’t, at dates it didn’t.  I’ll tell your boss there are no discrepancies, that everything’s fine.”

“But why? ” She stared at me in amazement.  “If anyone found out—”

“—My career would be toast.”

“So?”

How could I answer her?  I hadn’t got a clue myself.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck. I’m in love with my wife, I enjoy my work, I’ve got money, and I simply can’t face going back to my lovely happy life at home and leaving you in the shit. I like you Mary. And I’ve seen enough criminals to tell when someone’s straight and decent.”

“You feel sorry for me.”

“Anyone would feel sorry for you. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have a problem daughter to cope with.”

“Oh God, Michael, I don’t know what to say. Thanking you doesn’t even begin to cut it,” she said quietly after a while.  “You know I simply can’t believe this is happening. I mean what do you get out of it?”

“Nothing. Please Mary, I don’t want anything, I just want to put things right. Forget this mess ever happened.”

“But—”

“—Come on. Let’s get out of here and find a decent place to eat. I’m starving.”

We found a nice pub and had a good meal. And Mary relaxed more as she ate, and the drunkenness wore off.

And with a sinking heart I suddenly realised how utterly stupid I was being.

For in the last half hour I’d done something I’d never ever done before in my professional life, and I was going to live to regret it. I’d fallen for a pretty face, and stupidly risked everything I’d worked for, for the last twenty years: my well-paid job, my lifestyle. And if I lost my job my wonderful wife Elizabeth would suffer too.

Oh God, Elizabeth. We’d never had any secrets from each other, and I knew I’d have to tell her what I’d done. That’s the kind of marriage we had, we could tell each other virtually everything. I could tell her what a bloody fool I was to have done this rash act of kindness and she would understand.

Or could I?

Was I betraying her?

But for the next hour Mary chatted away about her life, her family, her daughter’s troubles and so on until I suddenly realised guiltily that I hadn’t phoned Elizabeth to tell her I’d be on the later flight.

While Mary went to the toilet, I dialled my home’s number on my mobile, then cursed as I remembered that the phone people had been tinkering with the wires in the road outside our house, and the landline phone was behaving erratically.

Strangely, the next time the dialling tone gave way immediately to a conversation, and I recognised Elizabeth’s voice on what had to be a crossed line. Then I heard who she was talking to:

“Shut up Lizzie and listen!” said the male voice I recognised as Colin, my best friend and boss at Accountancy Solutions.  “I tell you there were no survivors at all on flight 409. Yes, yes, poor old Michael, I know, it’s terrible, but face it darling, he was killed on take-off, everyone was.  At least it makes things simpler for us.  Now you don’t need to divorce him.  And knowing Michael, I bet his life was insured to the hilt.”

“But Colin darling, it’s all so sudden, I can’t get used to it…”

In a daze I looked up at the large flatscreen TV on the wall of the pub.  There in front of me was the wreckage of the aircraft I should have been on, with the words underneath reiterating that all the passengers on Flight 409 were killed in the crash.

Black Shuck

Jamie’s note for readers:

Tales of a large black ghostly hound have been reported for centuries from all around the British Isles. However ‘Black Shuck’, also known as the ‘Spectre Hound’ or the ‘Hound of Hell’, the huge wild dog that portends disaster to anyone who sees it, is specific to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially in coastal villages, where sightings have been reported for more than a thousand years. There’s even talk of links to the Vikings’ superstitions, suggesting that the hound was actually the god Odin’s ‘dog of war’. Black Shuck is said to be one of the oldest ‘phantoms’ of Great Britain, its name deriving from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Scucca’ meaning demon.

This unnerving experience happened to me a while ago now, and it still makes me shiver to remember it.

BLACK SHUCK

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“He was the biggest dog I ever saw, more like a horse. Black, vicious eyes like saucers. I was terrified, so I was.”

“And you saw it last night? On the building site?” I asked Pat O’Reilly, who was sitting across the pub table from me with his two friends.

He crossed himself before replying. “As God’s my witness, so I did, sir. And I don’t mind telling you that I ran. I ran for my life! Sure that dog was massive, I’ve never seen anything like it. When I stopped running and turned round it had gone. Just vanished into thin air.”

“And it was floating around on a sea of mist?”

“Something like mist,” Pat blustered, half closing his eyes to remember. “Twas all swirling like a misty lake, you couldn’t see its legs properly.”

I waited for the almost twitching upper lip, the glint in someone’s eye, the incipient smirk of ridicule aching for release.

But Pat and his friends were obviously very good actors.

Phantom dogs with slavering lips and wild eyes, chasing him for his life? For goodness sake! Should I fall in with the joke, I wondered, or front them up?

Because I don’t like being ridiculed.

And I could easily see why this big unimaginative building worker was making fun of me, and why. The previous week the national newspapers had carried a story with the headline The architect who believes in ghosts!, proceeding to mock my latest investigation into a haunted manor house, making me out to be a naïve crank. I’d already taken a lot of stick from friends and acquaintances, but meeting ridicule from men I was employing on a job was another matter.

Apart from me, Pat O’Reilly and a couple of the other members of his gang of building workers, The Pheasants Game pub, in the village of Dunster, on the Norfolk coast was almost empty on that freezing cold winter’s night. The big house I’d been commissioned to design and supervise the build on the nearby clifftop was in its early stages, and I’d come up to see how far the excavation crew had come—their job was to dig the trenches to the various specified depths prior to the pouring of concrete foundations. I’d never met any of the Irish building workers before, but it seems they’d heard of me, and were obviously amused about my seemingly naïve interest in the supernatural.

“And its eyes, Mr Dark,” Pat was going on, “Sure they was as big as saucers! It’s terrified I was, I’ve never seen a dog that size running free, and it looked as if it was going to tear me to shreds. What in all that’s holy could it have been?”

“All right Pat, this had gone far enough.” I got up, stepping around the table. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, my face inches from his. “The world and his wife has heard about the ‘phantom hound of Norfolk’, and you thought I was stupid enough to fall for your story because you’ve read in the papers that I’m some patsy who believes in ghosts,” I snapped angrily. “You’ve had your joke, so now you can just bloody well shut up and remember that it’s me who’s paying your wages!”

As I released him to collapse back into his seat, I stormed out of the pub and marched down the road.

Upset and lonely, I reflected that it had been a humiliating end to a gruelling day: driving up from Kent, meeting this tough gang of Irish building workers before I’d even had a chance to snatch a meal, and then discovering that they were all laughing at me. Truth was, that even before Pat O’Reilly had tried to make a fool of me I was upset and worried about this job, which had been a hassle from the start.

I wanted to go straight to the hotel and to bed, but I was worried about the progress of the excavations, and if Pat and his gang of jokers were as stupid as they appeared to be, they were probably lying about their progress on site, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d taken a look for myself. I had a powerful flashlight, plus there was plenty of moonlight, so I took the opportunity to stroll back to the building site to take another look at the trenches that Pat and his boys were supposed to have dug.

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It was easy to see why my client had wanted a house on this beautiful clifftop location. There was a panoramic view out to sea, and it was a delight to see the ‘footprint’ of what was going to be a four-bedroom house laid out on the ground, the six-foot-deep trenches following the lines of what would eventually be its outer walls.

Suddenly I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.

Scared, I turned around, to see Pat, standing behind.

“Thought I might find you here, Mr Dark,” he began, moving to stand beside me.

I decided not to refer to my outburst in the pub. “I’ve been driving all day to get here, and this is the first chance I’ve had to see how it’s looking. I’ll have to make measurements in daylight, but it looks as if you’ve done well.”

Pat nodded, and I noticed how tall and Celtic he looked, with his clear blue eyes and silver hair and cool gaze—the kind of man you feel you could trust—making me realise that idiots come in all shapes and sizes.

“Listen, Mr Dark, I’m sorry for upsetting you. I can see how it must have sounded back there,” he said quietly.

“All right Pat, let’s just forget it. I can take a joke.”

“I don’t doubt it, sir.” He paused, looking serious. “But the fact is, Mr Dark, none us have read that newspaper article about you. Didn’t even know your name until our gaffer told us you were coming earlier today. And everyone in England might have heard about this ghost dog, Black Shuck, but I’ve lived on the Emerald Isle and the States for most of my life, and it’s all news to me.”

I looked at him, expecting to see the twinkle in his eye before he laughed, having tried to ridicule me for a second time.

That was when I noticed that my flashlight was still on, pointing out into the darkness. Without a word, we both at the same time were drawn to the twin reflections of something like red sparkling jewels, picked out in its lonely yellow beam that stretched out into the darkness.

“Switch it off, for Christ’s sake!” Pat yelled, knocking the flashlight out of my hand. “The light’s attracting it!”

A primeval terror took over. I swear I felt the earth underfoot tremble as the shape in the distance thundered closer. All around the thing there was a swirling mist.

And then we heard the wild howling sound, that set the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up.

Closer now. It was a huge vicious snapping dog, a killing machine on four flailing legs, running hell-for-leather towards us.

“Get down!” Pat snarled in terror, grabbing my coat and pulling me down after him into the trench.

Just before I sprawled down on my face in the mud at the bottom of the grave-like space I saw the huge beast running towards us, its teeth bared, wide saucer-like eyes.

They blazed bright red…

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The Lady in the Glass

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“WOOOAH!”

“STOP!”

“GETOUTOFITT YOU RAVING PILLOCK!”

The huge jaws of the truck’s grab stopped moving an inch from my hard-hat as I dived down underneath them.

I was on site there with my client, American actor Hardy Nicolls, who was having this house demolished, so as to rebuild another one according to his own design, for which I was preparing the plans. When I noticed the sun’s rays reflected off a glass item in amongst the broken bricks, smashed timbers and rubble, I knew instinctively it was something precious that shouldn’t be destroyed.

“Oh boy, Jamie, you sure like taking risks,” Hardy joked as the truck driver who’d been operating the grab called me a “blanking blanker, who deserved to have his blanketty-blank head smashed in” because I’d inadvisably ducked under the dangerous machinery.

“I had to,” I explained to Hardy, carefully sifting through the rubble to locate the object that had drawn my attention, finally extracting it carefully.

It was a piece of glass, about a foot square, on which there was what appeared to be a photograph. The lady in the portrait was in Victorian clothing, that I estimated to make the date around 1850. A small crowd of the building workers had gathered round to see what I held.

 

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Joe Weston, the amiable chief demolition contractor, was craning closer to look. “That’s quite a find, Jamie,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve never seen such a thing before, but I’ve read that in the very earliest days of photography, they used all kinds of mediums to print their pictures on. I think they’re called Colloidal photographs, and I know that a Serbian man called Johann Pucher invented a method of printing photographs on glass plates. I’d say we’re looking at one of the very earliest photographs.”

“Is it worth anything?” asked jug-eared Toby, one of the demolition crew, sniffing a dewdrop of snot back up his nose.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Joe. “It’s obviously got rarity value. I bet a museum of photography would love it.”

“Trouble is,” I went on, “my guess is that the photo was in the loft of the house—obviously some previous owner forgot to take it. So the chances are it’s a picture of someone’s ancestor. The right thing is to try and return it to them.”

“Yeah?” jeered Toby, the sharp-eyed demolition worker. “So how on earth are you going to do that, mate?” He glared around with a smirk. “And if it’s worth a few quid, why bother?”

“Anyway,” I ignored him, looking at Hardy. “This belongs to you, it was on your property.”

“The heck it is!” Hardy beamed at me, clapping me on the back and laughing. “Jamie, if you hadn’t risked your neck just now, that thing would be in a million pieces. You have it with my blessing—if it’s worth a few dollars I guess you’ve earned it, and if you want to find its rightful owner you go right ahead. How would you do it anyway?”

“Land Registry records I suppose,” I thought aloud. “Get a list of previous owners of the house.”

“Blimey, you’d have more chance of finding a needle in a knocking shop!” declared Toby, belching and kicking a broken brick a few yards, and thrusting out his lower lip. “All right for some. You wouldn’t catch me turning my nose up at a few quid.”

Clearly the chances of finding the descendant of the lady in the glass was a longshot, but, as I looked down at her, something in her kind, eloquent expression moved me. She was middle aged, with long dark hair, and an elaborate looking dress. I felt an instinctive affection for her, whoever she was, as if she’d wanted me to find her.

Tony, the grab operator who’d abused me earlier, apologised for his outburst as I was leaving the site: “Sorry for mouthing off at you Jamie, mate, my nerves is right on edge. On the way in I saw this terrible car crash on the road—this young girl on a stretcher, she looked in a bad way, same age as my daughter she was, it really upset me. . .”

Next day I asked a private detective friend, Peter, to do the research for me. He found me five names to follow up, each of whom had at some stage in the last forty years lived in the house which we’d just demolished.

So over the next days I phoned the people and after the usual delays and left-messages, four of them got back to me, and all were certain that the lady in the glass was no relation to them, nor had they put such an item in the loft of their erstwhile home.

The fifth names, Mr and Mrs Chambers, appeared to be impossible to contact by phone or email. A few days later, as I was driving home, I realised I wasn’t too far from their address, so decided, as a last ditch attempt, I’d try knocking on the door.

There was a long wait after I heard the door chime. Just as I turned to leave it opened, and a small lady peered back at me through the narrow crack. “Yes?” she snapped angrily. “What do you want?”

My heart skipped a beat! There in front of me was the same expression as I could see in the eyes of the lady in the glass. Same eyes, even though this lady’s expression was anxious and wary. She looked as if she’d been crying.

I gabbled on with my explanations, and, since she seemed keen to get rid of me, I immediately unwrapped the photograph and showed it to her.

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She gaped at it as if mesmerised. “Gracious,” she stared at it, blinking her reddened, strained eyes. “I think that’s my great great grandmother, Phillippa Subatov. We lost this lovely photo of her when we moved! She was Serbian you know, she was supposed to be a white witch or something, she could heal people, my father once said. Oh this is amazing!”

She was crying. I didn’t know what to do, or why she was so upset, but I followed as she stepped back into the hallway, still staring at it.

“Please, I’m sorry, do excuse me.” She couldn’t stop her tears, dabbing her nose and eyes with a handkerchief. “You see my daughter’s in hospital. She was in a terrible car accident last week and she’s been in a coma ever since. My husband’s still there, we take it in turns to sit with her. We’ve hardly been at home at all. It’s amazing you caught me. Ordinarily I’d be over the moon to have found this portrait, but as you can imagine nothing matters but—”

I heard the sound of a ringing phone and she rushed away to answer it.

Since Mrs Chambers obviously wanted to be left alone, I carefully knelt down and propped the glass photograph against the wall and left by the front door, regretting having intruded at such a terrible time.

I’d got halfway down the front drive when I heard her footsteps behind me, her hand on my arm, clutching the photograph in the other.

“Please, please, I haven’t thanked you!” She was smiling for the first time, a real smile, gloriously shining through her tears. “That was my husband on the phone. Our daughter’s woken up, and they say she’ll make a full recovery! It’s silly, but it’s almost as if seeing that photograph of great great grandmother Philippa made the difference. As if she was actually trying to tell me that everything was going to be all right! As I told you she was supposed to be a witch.”

We both looked down at the photograph. And I swear it looked as if the lady’s expression had fractionally changed, as if her quiet smile had somehow become wider.

Haunting of Bassett Hall

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As the huge oak door swung inwards, I stumbled and fell flat on my face in the hallway. The lovely aroma of freshly applied paint and new wood shavings didn’t alleviate the pain of my bruised shoulder and leg.

I’d driven down from Scotland to Bassett Hall, the big manor house on the Norfolk Coast, and was suffering the worst bout of flu I could remember, alternately shivering with cold and feeling boiling hot, all the time fighting an agonising ache in my shoulders and a thundering headache and sore throat.

As I stumbled to my feet and switched on the light, the mobile in my pocket vibrated, and I managed to hold it up to my throbbing head.

“Is all the work done?” pestered the anxious voice of movie director Paul. “’Cos we’re coming down to Bassett Hall in the morning with all the props and some of the actors, and we’ll probably start shooting later in the day.”

“I promised it would be ready, didn’t I?” I answered wearily.

“If I had a quid for every broken promise I’d be a rich man. Honestly Jamie, if there’s still work to do on the house I’ll be in big trouble—”

“Don’t worry Paul, the lads have finished everything,” I managed to croak, my throat on fire. “I’ve just this moment arrived here to check that it’s all hunky dory. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry? There’s a heck of a lot of money riding on this, and it’s my neck on the line…”

I let him ramble on, scarcely caring. In fact I don’t mind admitting to you that I wasn’t as confident as I was saying, but as the architect in charge of the renovations, it was all part of my job to sweet-talk my temperamental scaredy-cat employer, who’d pestered me constantly ever since I’d started this wretched job.

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You’ve probably heard of Bassett Hall. It’s a large Victorian-built stately home on the Norfolk coast, and during the Second World War it was used for the secret meetings of a band of aristocrats nicknamed the ‘Bassett Set’. Owner of Bassett, Sir Alistair Josling, and his well-to-do friends were Nazi sympathisers, and met regularly to discuss ways of making England capitulate to Nazi Germany, and the glittering rewards for them personally in a Hitler-run England. Some of his fellow traitors and co-conspirators were in high positions in the civil service and the military, and there was even one member of parliament. All had attended the meeting amid utter secrecy.

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But by a delightful twist of fate, Bassett Hall had been bombed by a German aircraft on that one fateful night in 1942 when all the traitors were assembled there. The pilot, who had been searching for a likely target on which to ‘unload’ the bombs he hadn’t been able to drop on London, happened to notice the large house near the coast and let fly.

I’m glad to say that Sir Alistair and his co-conspirators were all killed.

Only part of the building had been lost, and after the war, the Hall was rebuilt, and its current owner had recently rented it out to my employers, a movie production company, who wanted to make a film about the events of that night at the actual location. I’d been hired to make a few structural changes to the building so that it looked as close as possible to how it must have done on the night it had been bombed.

The last clear memory I have of that night of my arrival was staggering up the stairs, getting into bed and falling asleep.

When I next woke up it was night-time again—presumably I’d slept all through the following day. I looked out of the window to see the back of the house lit up, and several extremely well preserved vintage cars were parked in the rear courtyard.

I got up and put on my dressing gown and walked out onto the landing. Down below I could see a lot of 1940s-style furniture in place, what’s more, most of the actors seemed to have arrived: men in period evening dress, and ladies with wartime evening wear, dripping diamonds and sporting the hair fashions of those Spartan days, reminding me of those old films with Rita Hayworth and Bing Crosby. I heard snatches of conversation, and it was hard to tell if the actors were just mooching around the set or were actually taking part in filming. The good thing from my viewpoint was that Paul obviously hadn’t felt the need to seek me out to complain about anything.

My attention was caught by a very young actress with black hair cut in a bob, who was dressed as a maid. Even from above I could see the large dark birthmark on her wrist which seemed to be heart-shaped, as she held the tray of drinks, pointedly ignored by all the other actors. She looked up at me and gave me a huge smile, then she glanced disparagingly at the actors who weren’t taking any notice of her. She scowled, then, for my benefit, she stuck her tongue out at the other rude thespians. I smiled back, responding to the mischief in her eyes, the lovely dimples in her cheeks and her contagious sense of fun.

The next moment I felt myself shivering so badly that my teeth were chattering, so, rather than getting dressed and going down to find Paul, I tiptoed back to bedroom and locked the door, hoping that no one but the young actress had noticed me, and that she wouldn’t tell anyone. The pernickety bugger would assume I’d found everything okay and had gone home sometime yesterday.

The next time I got up I felt much better. It was daylight at last. The fever had abated, and I felt tremendously hungry, realising I hadn’t eaten for over a day.

But oddly enough, after I’d dressed and stepped out onto the landing, it seemed as if I was completely alone in the house. I found my phone, and noticed the new text message from Paul, apologising for not meeting me there the day before, but saying that there had been an unexpected problem, and he was planning to come the next day, meaning by my reckoning, any time now.

Just as I was reading it I looked out of the landing window to see the first vehicles came onto the front drive—practically an army of cars, vans and trailers and caravans. Doors were slamming. I could hear loud conversations, laughter, coughing, footsteps on gravel. The rattle of the front door swinging open.

I met Paul in the hallway, wondering quite what was happening to me.

Where were all the people I’d seen in the house the night before? In that moment I realised that my fevered brain must have concocted a very realistic dream, based on my knowledge of the dark end of the notorious Bassett Set. I’d heard that if you have a high fever this kind of thing can happen. Presumably I had walked in my sleep and then had some bizarre kind of waking dream.

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“This is Rose,” Paul said, as a very old lady in a wheelchair was being pushed in our direction. Paul introduced me to her, and she smiled up at me. As I looked into her bright eyes there was something that triggered a memory, but I couldn’t work out what it was, or where I’d seen her before.

“We’re very lucky,” Paul explained, hovering above the old lady, and indeed treating her with great kindness and respect. “Rose here is an absolute treasure. She was a parlourmaid here in this actual house on the night it was bombed—she’s advising us on all the period detail.”

“Yes, I still remember the night it happened as if it was yesterday,” the old lady took up her story, preening in Paul’s flattery. “I was taken on temporary like, just for the one evening, and what a horrible lot they were, treated me like dirt—I wasn’t surprised afterwards when it turned out they were all ruddy traitors. They sent me down to the cellar to get a special bottle of wine, just before the bomb hit, and I reckon that fancy bottle of wine saved my life. It’s a funny thing, young man,” she changed tack, turning towards me and leaning forwards to stare at my face. “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“Yes, you look familiar to me too.”

It was true. However, the familiarity seemed ephemeral, utterly elusive. There for a second, and then gone in a flash, like a part-remembered dream.

“Funny, I never forget a face,” Rose went on, “It’ll come back to me, where I saw you, it always does in the end. Because I distinctly remember seeing you, clear as day.”

As Rose went on, I noticed her smile, and, despite the wrinkles in her cheeks, there were sudden dimples that seemed strangely familiar too. And then she lifted her skeletal, liver-spotted hand from her knees.

And as the limp material of her sleeve fell away I saw a birthmark there on the back of her wrist.

It was in the shape of a heart.

 

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Time after Time

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Have you ever forgotten where you parked your car after shopping in the supermarket?

This is an interesting story from a friend of mine, Tim, who had a very strange experience when he worked in a supermarket.

Tim’s story:
When I saw the old lady wandering around the top-storey car park of the supermarket where I’d only been working for a month, I wondered just what I should do.

It was 6 o’clock on a freezing cold winter’s afternoon, my shift about to finish. I was worrying about the scaffolding and building work going on at the neighbouring office block above us that seemed to be threatening the safety of our customers. Just this morning a bricklayer had accidentally dropped his trowel from 20 feet above, and it could easily have hit a customer or damaged a car.

The wandering lady appeared to be mid 80s, perhaps, shy, bespectacled, wistful looking, hardly aware of the supermarket bag she was carrying.

“Excuse me madam,” I said, walking up to her. “Can I help you?”

“Oh yes please,” she looked up at me with eyes that were moist with tears. “I’ve lost my car. I think it’s been stolen. I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, “I really—”

“—Come down to our office,” I coaxed, taking the carrier bag from her. “We can take a look at the CCTV of the car park.

“It’s very valuable, you see,” her voice was anxious. “A Mercedes. My husband bought it new, not long ago. A month before he died, in fact.” The smoke from our breath funnelled up into the sky, and I noticed she was shivering as well as on the brink of tears.

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“That’s why I came here this afternoon,” she concluded, wiping her eyes with a tissue as we sat in the office, watching the screen. “We used to come here every Saturday, my husband Clive and I. And we would always buy a bottle of your own brand Celebration Champagne. That’s the only thing I bought today. I wanted to take it home and drink it all on my own. And think about Clive and try to remember what our life was like. Just for tonight I wanted to try and recapture the past.”

She was crying so much that I didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered the whisky bottle in the bottom drawer of my desk, left there by my predecessor. When she was sitting there oppostie me, I found a glass and poured her a drink. She took it without a word, and sipped. “You’re kind,” she said to me.  “And I think you’ve got problems of your own, haven’t you?”

She was a sweet kind old lady, so sympathetic that I found myself telling her about the job I had as a publisher’s editor that I’d lost, and how I’d taken the job in the supermarket, thinking I’d get used to it, but couldn’t seem to get on top of the work, no matter how hard I tried. And how my wife had left me and I’d lost my flat and how lonely I sometimes felt.

“I think things will work out for you, young man,” she told me.  “I’ve got a feeling your luck is going to change for the better. Something good is just around the corner.”

And do you know what?  I had the feeling that she was right, and in her kind eyes I could see compassion, and felt that I might have a bright future after all.

Then, it was the weirdest feeling. As I looked up again at the cars on the CCTV screen, in all the different parts of the car park, I suddenly realised that they were different cars to the ones I’d seen just now, when we were walking around up there.

I asked her to wait a moment, then dashed back upstairs.

It was just like before!

No new Datsun in the far corner, as it had been on the CCTV. The elderly Vauxhall I remembered from earlier on was there now in its place.

And then, to my amazement, I saw it! The Mercedes, the car the lady had been looking for! I walked up to it, stood beside the passenger’s side door and looked inside.

Then, reflected in the window glass, I saw the lady herself, standing beside the car park’s parapet wall twenty yards away. Her arms were held out to the night sky. I ran headlong towards her, and it was right then that I heard the crash of the collapsing masonry wall above. The landslide of bricks and rubble was everywhere, knocking me flat, sending me sprawling, a vast cloud of debris rising up and swallowing up everything in sight.

I remember a lot of shouting, people running everywhere, and assuring Sean, my young assistant, that I was okay, that I’d moved out of the way just in time to avoid being killed by the vast heap of broken masonry.

The first thing I did when I could walk was make my way over to the parapet wall where I’d seen her about to jump, aiming to haul myself up to look over the top. But I couldn’t do it.

No one could.

The wall rose up sheer for 12 feet, and it would have been impossible for even a professional climber to scale it without a rope. And the Mercedes? It wasn’t there either.

I assumed that both the car and the jumping lady, even the different cars I thought I’d seen, must have been some kind of a hallucination, bought on by stress and worry. That was the only possible explanation.

However, as I joined the men sifting through the rubbish, just before we were all told by the emergency services to keep back, I found a carrier bag. I took it away and shook off the dust and debris, then looked inside at the shards of glass that had once been a bottle. One section of the gold coloured label said Celebration Champagne. And underneath that it said Safeway’s own brand.

Safeways? That had been the name of the original store here, yet for 10 years now, it had been named Morrisons, as were all the erstwhile Safeways stores around the country. I looked at the carrier bag. It was a Safeways bag – the familiar red logo on clear plastic that was no more.

Next day I talked to my boss about what had happened.

“Funny, it was ten years ago to the day that this old lady jumped off the roof,” he told me. “Really weird, you know I saw her just before she jumped, but I couldn’t get to her in time. And I swear she wasn’t on her own. There was a man with her. Man of about her own age.”

“What happened to him?”

“Who knows mate? Must have been a hallucination.”

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A week later I went for an interview for a car sales job – a Mercedes dealership as it happens – and the moment I met the owner I knew I’d landed on my feet. It was a small family firm, and I liked them all. I got the job and loved it, not only that but I fell in love with the secretary who worked there – we were like one big happy family.

And I often think about that old lady.

And the day my luck changed.

The Gallows Tree

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“What’s wrong with living in a house called Hangman’s Cottage?” demanded Connor O’Sullivan.

His wife Maureen, tired of constantly arguing with him, gave in, as she always did eventually.

“Okay, but don’t expect me to like it,” she grumbled in her mouse-like nervous whisper. “It’s d-downright creepy—that’s why it’s in such a hell of a mess, and been unoccupied for so many years. And w-what about the ‘Gallows Tree’ in the front garden?”

“So it’s been used to hang people a couple of hundred years ago. Who cares? Are you expecting a pack of ghosts to swarm in through the window?” he jeered at her, sniggering at her expense as he so often did. “Don’t be so bloody daft, woman! I’m going to have the damned thing cut down anyway—it cuts out all the daylight.”

I was sitting in Maureen’s kitchen in the old cottage, as she outlined to me how they’d come to buy the semi-derelict building that she wanted me to organise the renovations for. Maureen was a dark-haired attractive woman in her thirties, whose nervous manner and scared eyes suggested deep unhappiness and years of domestic abuse. I noticed big bruises on her arms, and a hunted, wary look in her eyes, and felt very sorry for her.

“The thing is, Jamie, now you’ve explained what we can do, I can see it could be a nice house,” Maureen admitted in her timid, child-like voice. “I just hate the thought that a hangman lived here. And that so many people died on the Gallows Tree outside.”

“But the council will let you cut it down, won’t they?”

“I hope so. Jamie?” She stared at me imploringly. “You’re so kind and easy to talk to, I want to tell you something. The fact is, I’m scared of my husband—I suppose I always have been. When we were first married, I loved his macho, dominating ways until I found out what he was really like. You know, he puts me down all the time, and sometimes he hits me.” She hiccupped and covered her mouth with her hand. I’d seen her drink four glasses of whisky in the short time I’d been there, and she was clearly on the wrong side of sobriety, which was obviously why she was sharing her secrets with a total stranger. “We’ve been on the point of divorce more than once, and him insisting on buying this damned place is the last straw for me. I’m determined to leave him, but I’m terrified of what he might do.”

Connor O’Sullivan owns a string of betting shops, and he’s known for his shady business practices, and barely legal moneylending operations. There’s some mystery about how he got the money for his first ‘Betwad’ branch in London. Someone told me that his first wife had been very rich, and she’d died in distinctly strange circumstances. Presumably the fact that he’d inherited so much money after a particularly short marriage, had been why the police suspected him of arranging her very convenient death, and had even arrested him, but had been forced to release him for lack of evidence.

“Trouble is,” Maureen went on, “he refuses to divorce me. I’ve tried to leave him before, but he always catches up with me. He says that if I leave him again, he’ll deal with me in the same way as he dealt with his first wife. Make of that what you will!” She hiccupped again. “Knowing him as I do now, I reckon he killed her, the bastard! If there was any justice in the world he’d be in prison … I’m so afraid sometimes, Jamie. One day I’m sure he’s going to kill me too.”

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As if to emphasize Maureen’s gloom, the large tree outside the window waved its branches miserably in the wind. In addition to its grizzly associations, the Gallows Tree was indeed a large, ugly monstrosity.

Of course I wanted to help her, but what could I do? The fact is that she was drunk, and so could have been lying or exaggerating her situation. And you can never know what goes on between a husband and wife, for which reason you can never interfere. All I could hope was that if he really was abusing her, she’d go to the police, as I advised her to do.

At the pub the following evening I was discussing the Gallows Tree with my friend Mike, a reporter on the local paper.

“That old oak tree used to be at the crossroads as tradition dictates for a gallows, before the new road was built, and the old highways became disused,” he explained. “It’s funny, it’s all very well to view that tree as a ghastly terrible instrument of death, but you could always look at it another way. Sure, people were hanged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for what we’d consider minor offences, but in fact most of those petty criminals were given lesser punishments. In those days, the vast majority of people who were hanged actually deserved it, I reckon. They were mostly murderers, cutthroats, men who would kill and rape without conscience. What’s wrong with protecting society from scum like that? Getting rid of a killer, so he can never kill again, makes a lot of sense in my book.”

“So you reckon the Gallows Tree did a good job?” I asked in amazement.

“If someone’s truly evil, and he kills a relative of yours, or a child, and you know he’s going to go on killing innocent people, wouldn’t you like him to be destroyed? Or would you rather he was sent to prison for eight years so he could be released and do it again? I know which I’d prefer. The Gallows Tree probably saved a lot of innocent lives in the long run.”

The work progressed on Hangman’s Cottage slowly, and after a battle, finally the council agreed to let Connor O’Sullivan cut down the Gallows Tree. And sadly, despite what she’d said to me, Maureen never did walk out on her husband.

The morning the tree surgeon arrived was dark and cloudy—evidently a storm was brewing. As the man touched his roaring chainsaw to the main trunk, the chain snapped and flew up, smashing into his face and lacerating his chest—unfortunately, he hadn’t been wearing his safety vest or protective mask.

After he’d departed in the ambulance, Connor returned home. As Maureen told me:

“Bloody hell, what an idiot!” Connor had fumed at his hapless wife, who’d witnessed the incident and was tearful and shaky. “You say he wasn’t wearing his safety equipment? Thank God for that at least.” He smirked to himself. “It means he can’t make any claims against me for the accident.”

“Is that all you care about?” Maureen yelled, still crying. “That poor man’s in hospital, he might lose his sight! He might have been killed!”

“What a confounded nuisance it is,” Connor rejoined, hardly listening to her. “Let’s hope the next ruddy cowboy I employ knows his arse from his elbow.”

Maureen was so furious that she stumbled out of the house in tears, leaving him alone there.

It was very lucky that she did.

For an hour later Connor’s tree problem was solved in a way he could never have imagined.

The storm began and a bolt of lightning struck the Gallows Tree and brought it down, flattening the house in the process. The same surge of electricity apparently passed through the phone line that was being used, and set Connor’s head on fire, just before his body was crushed to a pulp by falling masonry.

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“You know, Jamie, I always used to hate that tree,” Maureen told me afterwards, smiling for the first time since I’d met her, and looking ten years younger. “I’m quite fond of it now.”

 

All Tied Up

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The rain lashed down on the horrible craggy frontage of Ranley Down psychiatric hospital, highlighting the blackened bricks, the peeling paintwork and the sheer desolate gloom of the place.

What had I got myself into?

My friend, architectural salvage dealer Archie Stanhope, was climbing down from his big truck, parked in the front drive of the ghastly Victorian building. He stood beside me, his 83-year-old eyes, more used to staring at distant horizons from onboard a ship, were staring upwards at the unfriendly broken windows, that seemed to be glaring down at us, willing us to leave.

The wretched place had been a derelict and festering eyesore on the edge of town for three years now, since the last patient left its miserable shadow-filled entrance vestibule.

I’d got the call yesterday morning. An excitable Archie Stanhope had said to me, “Can you spare a day to help me Jamie? I’ve just been told on the quiet that Ranley Down’s just been bought by a developer, and they’re bringing it down the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s a bit sudden isn’t it?”

“Way of the world these days—in property development, time is money. They take possession at eight in the morning, when the trucks arrive, and it’s a pile of rubble by teatime.”

“So where do you come in?”

“The demolition guy is a mate of mine. He’s told us when his gang are starting, and he knows I’d love to get my hands on those lovely old fireplaces and floorboards and other bits and pieces. I just need a fella who know how to be discreet to help me strip them out and get them away from there tomorrow—we’ve got to do it all in one day.”

“Is it legal?” I asked.

“Come on, Jamie! Why quibble about details.”

I was intrigued, and of course I trusted dear old Archie, so I agreed, thought I felt a bit wary of doing such a crazy, obviously illegal thing.

And now It was dawn—the time of day I hated most. Coupled with a tiredness headache, the teeming rain and the prospect of backbreaking manual work, I was beginning to regret my rash decision. But Archie was a good friend, and I couldn’t let him down.

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It was a gothic building, straight out of a horror film, with the full works: peculiar little turrets built out at funny angles, carved stonework window cills, and peeling paintwork. Inside the dark hallway the wooden wall panelling looked black, and the sweeping staircase with broken banisters, led up to a cold shadow-filled emptiness beyond the dim natural daylight. The place smelt of dampness, ancient urine and the deep dank hopelessness of human misery.

“Course you know they only sent the really bad patients here, don’t you?” Archie told me matter-of-factly as we unpacked the tools.

“How do you mean ‘the really bad ones’?” I asked him.

“Arsonists, violent schizophrenics, seriously disturbed manic depressives, folks who were one step away from being vicious murderers,” Archie commented cheerfully. “I wouldn’t like to think about the people who’ve been within these walls. Number of them topped themselves, so I heard.”

So all morning we worked hard, dismantling and removing fireplaces, door handles, floorboards and doors. Then, after a quick snack, we investigated the rest of the building.

On an upper floor we crow-barred open a door to a room that looked as if had been locked up for years.

Inside was a large solid-looking leather covered chair, with huge leather straps on the arms and the legs. Beside it were other chairs and a desk, covered in what appeared to be ancient electrical equipment, old wiring and cables crisscrossing everywhere.

Archie sucked breath through his teeth as he picked up a peculiar kind of helmet that had wires attached.

“Electro Convulsive Therapy,” he said, holding the helmet above the head of an invisible inhabitant of the chair. “They used to practise it here in the old days. Strapped the poor bugger to this chair, jammed this helmet on his head, then fried his brain with thousands of volts.”

“Did it ever cure anyone?” I asked in amazement.

“They claimed it did,” he answered, “but in them days the poor patients were just at the doctors’ mercy. If they made mistakes no one knew or cared about it. God, Jamie, think of the misery and suffering there must have been in this room alone.”

“Not to mention the rest of the bloody place. I’m glad they’re knocking it down.”

“Hey Jamie, I’ve just realised this chair is just the job for that conversion you’re doing isn’t it? Why not take it?”

Archie was right. I was in the middle of doing a conversion job of a warehouse in Canterbury for an unpleasant character who was turning out to be the client from hell. In the face of much local opposition, Geoff Parsons was opening up a sex club. There was to be a ‘dungeon’ there for aficionados of bondage and sado masochism, and he had specially asked for a ‘punishment chair’ just like this, to feature in it, and getting this one would save me having one made to order. To my astonishment, he’d told me that the sex club’s clients were prepared to pay lots of money to be strapped down and tortured.

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It was all a mystery to me, and frankly it struck me as about as repulsive as my oily reptile-like client, Geoffrey Parsons. Penny-pinching Parsons, had been a bastard to deal with from the start, and so far had only paid my initial fee, and was threatening to renege on our deal when it came to the final payment.

Ranley Down was demolished next day, and I finished my ill-starred conversion job on the following week, and, the sex club opened a month later, the ‘punishment chair’ in pride of place in the club’s much advertised ‘dungeon’. And, just as I’d expected, that swine Geoff Parsons had refused to pay the final tranche of the money, gloating, and telling me I’d have to sue him to get it.

A few weeks later, I almost missed the article in the local paper:

After much local objections when it opened recently , the ‘Adults Please, Sex Club’ has closed its doors for the last time. Last night it burned to the ground, but fortunately only the owner, Geoff Parsons, was on the premises. It seems he was alone there, strapped to the so-called ‘punishment chair’ to test it out when the fire began in another part of the building. Fire investigators have so far been unable to find what caused the blaze.

After his release Mr Parsons was shouting and screaming incoherently, having apparently lost his senses, and was unable to say who had strapped him there. Since that time he has been incarcerated in a secure psychiatric hospital, unable to communicate with anyone.