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.”