Gripping Yarns

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“Well, the nymphomaniac daughter pairs up with the vicar who believes in ghosts.”

“What about her husband?”

“Didn’t I tell you? He’s going to fall off the top of a mountain to his death while he’s having sex with the trapeze artist.”

Ralph and I would spend hours bouncing around the threads of plots for his novels. Eventually the story would come through, it always did. Because Ralph Neverchance was in most people’s opinion one of the most successful storytellers in recent times, regularly earning awards for a ‘thumping good read’, bestseller of bestsellers and goodness knows what else.

But unfortunately, Ralph was dying. A horrible illness had him in its grip and at the age of eighty-nine, it looked as if he wasn’t long for this world. He’d said to me just this morning, “Well I’ve had a good life, all I’ll really miss is thinking up stories. I love it so much, I always have.” He looked pensive, chewing his lower lip. “I only wish I could go on doing it. Maybe there are books in heaven, eh? Perhaps God will give me a typewriter. You know, Hecci, it’s never really mattered to me that my books are so tremendously successful. I’d go on writing them even if they sold as badly as yours do.”

“Thanks very much!”

“Sorry old boy, but let’s face facts. Your novels are all so bloody boring, aren’t they?”

Since he was so ill, I knew I had to make allowances for his tactlessness. What’s more, to my chagrin I knew he was right.

Amanuensis is a funny old word, but it describes what I do pretty well. I wrote to Ralph twenty-eight years ago, when I’d just graduated from university, and was trying to become ‘a writer’. Ralph wrote back enthusiastically, offering me every encouragement, telling me that you should never try to be writer so as to be rich, because it rarely ever happened, you just had to have the ‘urge to tell a story’. Twists in the plot, sexy bits, gore and violence, fiendishly cunning storylines, they were all very well he’d told me, but enjoying telling a tale was all that really ever mattered. Ralph had invited me to come and see him, and we’d got on well. Since he was then in his late sixties, he told me that the ‘nuts and bolts’, of typing up, editing and proofreading his books was something which bored him, he just liked getting the ideas down, so on the spot he offered me a job of being his general dogsbody, and I’ve done it happily ever since. He always typed everything on an ancient manual typewriter, using two fingers. When he was inspired those fingers would fly like lightning, the clattering and clacking sound almost deafening. And afterwards I would type it up properly, and do the edits and so on.

Alongside helping Ralph with his novels, I carried on writing my own books, and I like to think I’ve improved a bit over the years. Maybe Hector Goodbody isn’t quite such a catchy name for an author, but at least it’s memorable. I thought gloomily of a recent review on Amazon: ‘Hector Goodbody’s story was so dull it helped me get to sleep. His characters have about as much life as a game of dominoes between octogenarian bores and I didn’t care what happened to any of them’.

Ralph made an awful lot of money, but he gave most of it away. Guide Dogs for the Blind (Because it must be so awful not to be able to see, old boy), water infrastructure projects in the third world (Think of it, Hecci, those poor little children having to drink filthy contaminated water), donkey sanctuaries, cancer research, you name it, and Ralph gave money to it. He reiterated what he’d said to me when we’d first met: ‘You should never write to try and make money old boy, because it just won’t work. I’m just the exception that proves the rule. And as you know I give most of it away. I regard it as a kind of bargain. I’m sure that if I stopped giving away most of my income the old muse would dry up.”

When Ralph died it was worse than terrible. Especially as he’d been getting towards the end of a fantastic trilogy – a family saga full of trials and tribulations, with a nymphomaniac daughter, a gambling-addict son and a mother who led a secret life as a striptease artist and a father who, after having six children, had decided to have a sex change. Sounds bizarre? Yes of course it does, it sounds utterly ridiculous. And yet Ralph could get away with it and get away with it with panache. The reason was he had this knack of making you care about his characters, of somehow bringing them to life.

So when Ralph died it was the end of a job I’d thoroughly enjoyed, and the end of a very close friendship.

Ralph had very firm views about the afterlife. Recently we had gone together to a spiritualist meeting to do research for one of his books, and Ralph had listened to the service for a time. But after a while, he stood up and yelled at the leader: “Do you think we’re all idiots? The dead can’t talk to the living!  It just can’t happen!

“How dare you?” shouted back the tall, rather attractive lady, whose long blonde hair was tied up in a large bun on top of her head. “If you care to stay I’ll prove to you that there is life after death.”

“Bollocks!” he’d replied, leading us out of the room, not caring that all eyes were upon us.

All through the funeral service I was thinking about the last discussion Ralph and I had had about his latest novel, the final book in the trilogy Hopkins Drift. He’d wanted to discuss a problem with the plot and I hadn’t been able to help him at all. I rarely could, even though he liked to use me as a kind of sounding board.

Then, as I was looking at his coffin, something slipped into place in my mind. I suddenly remembered a few things he’d said the day before he’d died, and I realised that he’d been able to convey to me what he wanted to do with the novel. The answer was for the nymphomaniac daughter to meet a sex-addicted man, the gambler son to fall in love with a female croupier at the casino, and the father who wanted to change sex to get struck by lighting, after which all his desires for living as a woman would magically disappear.

That was it!

Then I had that ‘golden glow’ moment as Ralph always called it, that time when the bits and pieces of your story, or in this case Ralph’s final story, all seem to slot into place.

Ralph’s publishers had hoped that he’d finish the book before he died, and Maureen, his wife, and I were going to have to have the sad task of telling them that it hadn’t been completed. Now, with Maureen’s permission, I thought where would be the harm, if I finished the book in the way I was convinced Ralph would have wanted it to be done?

So that’s what I did. We told the publishers that Rap[h had ‘more or less’ finished the novel, and I had successfully tidied up the manuscript.

A month later I regretfully stopped going to Ralph’s ivy-covered big detached house, and settled down in the living room of my tiny bedsit, staring at the computer screen. This was it. I was on my own, and I was going to have to try and earn more money from my own writing, and also would need to get another income somehow. I’d already looked in the local paper and discovered that the only way to pay some of my bills would be to apply to do early morning cleaning in a local pub or try to be accepted on a team of telephone salespeople. For want of inspiration I’d even gone back to the spiritualist meeting that Ralph and I had attended. Was I hoping to contact Ralph? Of course I was, but I knew the idea was ridiculous, and so it proved. I travelled home in the pouring rain, feeling more wretched than I’d ever felt in my life before.

When I got home, I desultorily looked through my latest novel: a tale of the trials and tribulations of a Victorian family in rural England.

It was bollocks. All of it. I realised that the novel I’d spent so much time slaving over, had no redeeming qualities at all, and it was rubbish. Worse that than, it was boring rubbish.

Then a very strange thing happened.

Maureen had let me have Ralph’s old typewriter, and suddenly I saw a few of the keys flying up and down. There was the familiar clatter clack I’d grown used to hearing in Ralphs’s study.

Then in a bizarre flash of insight, I thought of another story altogether. Something completely new, and it seemed to me, completing gripping. I immediately sat down at the computer, and started work on it. After ten days of feverish typing, I had written an entirely original one-hundred-thousand word novel. When I reread the first draft, for the first time ever, I felt that ‘Golden Glow’, that Ralph used to talk about.

I phoned Edna, the editor at my publishers and outlined my new storey. And, for once, she seemed enthusiastic, telling me that a nuclear physicist with a foot fetish and a transsexual mind reader who wanted to assassinate the Queen, sounded in the zeitgeist of recent literary trends, and she was looking forward to seeing it.

Six months on, and my novel was published, and, to my amazement, it was well received. Reviews such as ‘Hector Goodbody has at last found his voice, and it’s really worth listening to’ and ‘Forget his previous turgid nonsense, this author had finally hit on a gripping yarn.’

After a year, that book had become a bestseller, and I’d been commissioned to write two more.

As I’d begun to write the second, with the usual ‘blank page nightmare’, sure enough I saw Ralph’s typewriter spring to life, and simultaneously the ideas flowed into my brain.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. As soon as I found that sales of my novel were substantial, I arranged a regular donation to all the charities that Ralph had donated to, plus a few of my own, making a mental note to increase them if sales got any better.

And I added another one to the list: the local spiritualist church.

 

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The Night has a Thousand Eyes

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“She wouldn’t just go—she isn’t like that!”

“But you said you had a row and told you she was leaving you.”

“I know that, but. . .”

The trouble with being a senior police officer is that while you have masses of experience to draw on, you also grow a strange instinct for when things don’t smell right.

That was the case with Michael. He was convinced that his girlfriend had disappeared against her will, and no one would believe him, including me. But something told me there was more.

On the face of it, Helen Bailey had done everything you would expect someone to do if they wanted to take a solo trip around the world, as she’d told everyone she was going to do. She’d left her job at the bookshop, having given notice, she’d arranged to leave her rented flat, and she’d withdrawn a large sum of money from her bank account. All her belongings, including her passport, had gone with her on the appointed day of leaving her erstwhile home. She had no immediate family, but she’d told her boyfriend, Michael Hastings, that she wanted to break up with him and get away from her old life, ‘once and for all’ and discover new things and a whole new life that didn’t include him. And so she had apparently done so.

No amount of explaining that anyone over the age of eighteen (Helen was twenty-six) was free to do anything, go anywhere, live as they wanted, would dissuade Michael from believing that she had either come to a bad end or was currently in some kind of danger.

“I’m very sorry,” I told him firmly. “I wish there was something I could do. But if Helen didn’t want to keep in touch with you, then it’s her decision.”

Indeed, Michal struck me as a ‘clingy’ kind of individual, with his unblinking stare, stutter, frown of concern and obsessive obstinacy. Small wonder that Helen had wanted to get away from him. Anyway, since she had evidently gone abroad, as she’d told him she’d planned to do, I had no way of contacting foreign police forces to check up on her whereabouts, for a start, I didn’t even knew which country to contact.

The day’s drama, which had me escorting poor Michael out of the police station, and him begging, in tears, for me to do something, had upset me a lot. Okay, the man was very odd, and also unreasonable, but I felt sorry for him. The loss of his girlfriend Helen, had reminded me of my own loss. After forty years of happy marriage, Jean had died last year, and now all our plans for my imminent retirement made no sense anymore.

We had bought a little cottage on the coast, about an hour’s drive away, and Jean had spent her last few years decorating the place, choosing curtains, and planning our idyllic retirement. Now the place just reminded me of Jean’s hopes and aspirations for the time when we could be together all day, that now could never be. I was planning to sell it, for my few friends were here, in the city, so what was the point in moving away?

That evening I got a phone call from one of the neighbouring cottages.

“Bob? I thought I should tell you, the lights have been coming on and off in your house. I thought it was odd, because your car wasn’t outside, so I knocked on the door, but there was no one at home. Is anyone staying there?”

“Oh hell,” I answered friendly Janet, the lady next door, whom Jean had struck up a firm friendship with. “Well I certainly haven’t been there, no one has. Hope there hasn’t been a break-in. Otherwise it has to be some kind of electrical fault. I’d better come down and take a look.”

But on the drive down, I couldn’t fathom what kind of electrical fault could cause such a phenomenon. And it was odd, since before buying the place it had passed an electrical safety survey.

Sleepy Hollow, the cottage’s nameplate beside the front door, stood out in the pitch dark in my car headlights as I pulled into the drive, parked and went in.

Just for an instant I thought I could smell Jean’s perfume. I switched on the hall light.

And then it went off again. Then on. Three times it happened.

What on earth was happening?

I checked the front and rear doors, all the windows, indeed any possible point of access and everything was secure. No signs of a break-in whatsoever.

In the living room, I noticed a book had fallen from one of the shelves. I walked across and there was The Count of Monte Cristo, one of Jean’s favourite books, she’d read it again and again.

Weird. How come it had fallen down?

The light in the living room went off, then came on again, three times. And then I swear I heard that old Bobby Vee song, ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’. It had been a favourite of ours, a song that I remembered from childhood, and Jean I used to sing along with it when we were at school.

That’s when I remembered that Jean was a much nicer person than me, and had always been taken in by the most blatant liars, considering that some ‘unseen god’ would always unmask a villain, as in the words of the song: that a liar is spied on by the ‘stars in the sky’. But she wasn’t naive in a bad way, she just had no instincts for recognising ‘wrong uns’. She would always help anyone she could. Indeed her innate kindness was one of the reasons why I had loved her.

Next day I thought it couldn’t do any harm to visit the bookshop where Helen Bailey had worked, to see if any of her colleagues could shed any light on her disappearance.

No one seemed to know her very well, but a rather sly young woman with a permanent scowl, April, had whispered to me that “Helen and Oliver had a thing going once,” pointing to a bespectacled balding individual with a drooping moustache who was on a ladder, stacking books on a shelf. “It ended badly. But for goodness sake, don’t tell him I said anything. Oliver is a right weirdo.”

But when I talked to Oliver he seemed a harmless soul. He smiled noncommittally, telling me what all of them had said: that he hadn’t known Helen very well and had no idea where she had gone.

As I was leaving the bookshop something made me pause. When I turned around, Oliver had his back to me, but his shelf stacking had gone into a faster mode, and as he moved sideways I noticed a bead of sweat on his forehead. I was beside the fiction shelves and a book slid off onto the floor, for no apparent reason. I picked it up.

It was ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The story of the man who has been falsely imprisoned and exacts revenge on his captors.

The same book that had fallen from the shelves in my cottage.

That’s when I knew.

After several hours in the police station, Oliver eventually admitted that he had abducted Helen on the day she was leaving work. Passionately in love with her, he’d overpowered her and driven her to his isolated house, where he had chained her up in the cellar, hoping that when she ‘saw the light and admitted her love for him’ he would be able to release her and they’d live happily ever after.

When she came out of hospital and learned that it was Michael’s persistence against the odds that had been the reason for her release she saw him in a new light, and last I heard she’d decided to delay her world trip.

And me? I thought again about selling our cottage by the sea. The electrician never found anything wrong with the lighting.

And as I settled down to watch telly on the following Saturday evening in the living room of Sleepy Hollow I thought I heard ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’ coming from somewhere.

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…

To find on wattpad, here is the embed code: https://embed.wattpad.com/story/61421226

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.

 

to find on wattpad here is the embed code link:  https://embed.wattpad.com/story/61499220

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.