This is a modern ghost story that happened a week ago to a friend of mine who works in a nursing home. There was one patient, an old lady in her eighties who she was particularly fond of and would spend hours chatting with her during the night shift. This went on for many years. Each night the old lady would come in to the common room and sit in her favourite chair. Anne, my friend, knew she was on her way, as her arrival was preceded by a racking cough. The old lady suffered from her chest and the cough was a distressing and painful one. One night, last week, the old lady failed to turn up, so Anne went to check on her. Sadly, she had passed away. The following night, Anne sat reading in the common room. Every now and then she glanced over at the old lady’s empty chair and felt her heart ache with sadness. Around 4 a.m., when the wards were all silent, Anne was roused from her reading by a racking cough coming from the empty chair. In that instant her nose started to bleed for no reason. You can imagine her fright, as she rushed from the room. She has never suffered from nose bleeds, her blood pressure is normal and there was no one else around with a cough. Strange, of course, and something that makes one stop and think.
Some months ago I took a break from writing my usual Gothic ghost stories and missed them terribly. I was in the middle of writing the history of a haunted house, it’s titled An Undesirable Property and am taking up where I left off with this. I’ve missed the suspense and the creeping terrors the dark nights bring with them and I know from your emails, that some of you have missed them too. So back to work I go, along dark, deserted corridors with creaking floorboards and darting shadows. The chill in the air warns that the house is a place of unrest, but there are those not sensitive enough to feel it. I’ll keep you undated as the house comes to life and bring you with me as we enter its ancient door, past peeling paint and rotting wood. Stay warm, my friends.
Twilight seems the favorite time for ghosts. In those last few minutes, as day surrenders to night, they are allowed to roam. It’s understandable, when you think about it, as the sun sets and shadows deepen. They belong to this place, the land of shadow, caught between light and dark, in a world of endless night. We must pity these poor soul and leave them be. Nothing could be worse than their timeless wandering, and we must pray that our own fate never mirrors theirs.
It will soon be that magical time of year again, Halloween. The shops are filled with costumes, giant spider webs and broomsticks, though they have to vie with the early addition of Christmas goodies. Still, we welcome any reason to celebrate as the dark night come ever closer. The air has changed too. It now smells of wood smoke and at night, the first hint of frost makes its clean and fresh. The weathermen predict the onset of winter this weekend and the crying of its wind always brings to mind ghostly tales. Don’t worry about that tiny glimpse you catch from the corner of your eye. It’s nothing more than the scurrying of nocturnal creatures or the way the shadows fall. Or is it?
There was nothing beautiful about the house, but it obsessed her from the moment she saw it. Its fascination had nothing to do with anything strange or otherworldly; it was just that she had never had anything of her own before; not a house, a room, not even a bed. Everything had been leant to her; as though the giver warned “this will be yours for a while or for as long as I say.” Well, all that was at an end and she was now the proud owner of Bracken House, a Gothic monstrosity set in a remote location and lacking any of the charm that such buildings can sometimes have. The front of the house was a mismatch of tower rooms and angles, as though the builder, uncaring of where he placed each brick, let the house rise from the foundations of its own accord. This gave it a rather simple, moronic look and were it to vie for place among other buildings of its era, it would, in all honesty, be thought of as the court jester, it’s misshapen limbs a joke among the majesty of finer houses. Still, its new owner saw none of this and after the bare cells and cold stones of the convent; she saw only her new home and the start of a new life.
It had come as quiet a shock to the Mother Superior and her other sisters when she told them she was leaving. The look of outrage and disbelief on each face still sent her in to giggles of delight and she relished the upset she had caused by abandoning what was a depleting calling.
“But, you’re sixty eight years old,” Mother Superior gasped.
“It’s never too late or so they tell me,” Sister Anne, as she was then known, replied.
“Where will you go; what will you do?” The Mother asked.
“As you know, my mother recently died and it seems she has left me her whole estate, “Sister Anne said. “I intend to use the money before it is too late.”
“We are always short of funds, Could you not stay here? It had been your home for over fifty two years after all, and it seems only fair that the other sisters should share in your wealth.”
“I have no intention of sharing one penny with any of you,” Sister Anne replied, before getting to her feet.
The Mother Superior’s face was ashen in the fading light, her lips drawn in to a thin line of anger and Janet; she had reclaimed her old name, wonder if it were not for the large, mahogany desk that divided them, would the woman have struck her? How glad she was to leave the office that day and know that she would never return. The image of that room was imprinted on her retinas and the smell of trapped heat and old books seemed to have lodged itself in her nose. The idea that she would share her new found wealth with others! But then, Janet had never been one to share anything. Truth be known, she would not be missed by those she lived and worked beside and she knew that there was those who had breathe a sigh of relief when she walked out through the gates of the convent. There was nothing wrong with her; she decided many years ago, it was other people who had the problem. She had no time for the fake friendships they offered and the harlots who were placed in her care were a burden to be endured. She was a strong woman with even stronger principles and if they thought of her as cruel in her treatment of others, that just showed their weakness in both morals and spirit. It was time to go anyway, as the years changed and the unmarried mother was no longer an outcast and therefore of no value to her order. The other sister had become fat and lazy from decades of inactivity, while she stayed lean and unbending in all, especially her beliefs.
The rather stupid young man in the estate agents office had tried to dissuade her when she picked out the house from a stack of leaflets. It was very remote; he said and had the audacity to add, for a lady of her age and should she need help it was miles away from a hospital.
“I have never known a day’s sickness in my life,” she snatched the leaflet from his hand. “And I don’t intend to start now, even at my great age,” she added.
He had the grace to blush then and agreed to take her to view the house. Even as they drove, he pointed out, what he believed were more suitable properties, but she had ignored him, refusing to turn her head to look.
She loved the house on sight.
“Your photograph does not do it justice,” she told him.
“Really?” He stared from the leaflet to the house and scratched his head in wonder as she drank in the mottled brickwork, trailing ivy and peeling wood. “It has quite a reputation round here.”
“In what way?” She thought this just another ploy to put her off buying.
He shuffled from foot to foot and kept his eyes on the ground.
“Come along, young man. I have no time for dawdlers.”
“They say it’s haunted,” he mumbled. “That’s why no one wants to buy it.”
“How ridiculous,” Janet huffed. “Haunted indeed!”
One of the former sister’s downfalls was, like all salesmen familiar with a particular product, she knew all its faults and so it was when it came to spirits and religion. She feared nothing and no one and if that young upstart thought he could frighten her away with his tales of hauntings, he had quite another thing coming.
“I would like to see the interior now,” she said, her lips drawn in to their usual line of disapproval, her eyes thin slits in her skeletal face.
There was no arguing with someone like his present client and the young man took a large, rust-stained key from the glove compartment of his car and led her towards the house. Whatever Janet’s beliefs, the house did have a bad reputation. It was well known that it was haunted. In fact, it was the glue that held most ghost stories together. It was included in most tales of terror and one told by the old women of the surrounding area, round winter fires they whispered its name and crossed themselves with fear, to add substance and terror to the telling.
Janet felt a delicious thrill when he opened the creaking front door. The hallway smelt mouldy and clouds of dust rose from the threadbare carpets and muffled their footsteps as they descended further in to the house. She scanned each of the downstairs rooms, making a shrewd assessment of what it would cost to repair and what she might knock off the asking price.
The rustling ivy outside the windows sent darting shadows across the bare walls and their grotesque shapes made her shiver. It was all that young man’s fault; she glared at him for putting such thoughts in to her mind. The noises in the wainscoting were nothing more sinister that the scuttling of mice and the creaking floorboards overhead signalled that other wildlife had made there home within the house. She was right; there was a life of sorts within the house, but it was not one that could be easily explained away.
Revenge is Sweet part Three
Lights flickered in the trees and Nora heard the cries of pain even at a distance. It was pitch black in the back garden and the biting wind sent the last of the leaves swirling about her feet. But Nora did not need a light to guide her way. No, the potion ensured she had perfect night vision and she traced the darting movement in the trees as she walked to the edge of the wood. The dog and cat stalked beside her, their padding steps making no sound on the soft ground. They, like their mistress, were feeling the rejuvenating effects of the potion. The crisp, night air overrode the stench of the rubbish dumped at the base of the trees. The wood was such a melancholy place now that the children were all gone and the tree trunks scarred with initials and crude carvings. She placed a hand on the tree nearest to her and felt its pain.
“Poor thing,” she whispered.
“I have to hear,” she patted his head.
The light in the trees was becoming brighter and the scent of burning wood told her it was a fire and not a torch. Such a dangerous thing to do, here among the trees, but she knew those who lit it were not thinking about danger, which was just as well.
She moved closer, but stayed hidden in the shadows. Someone had formed a circle of rocks so at least the fire would not get out of control. The flames were low and her eyes widened when she saw the reason for the cries of pain. Someone was tied to one of the trees, his arms strapped behind the trunk, his face stained crimson. Mark Jones blocked her vision for a moment, but when he moved aside she saw to her horror, that it was his former right hand man who was being held captive.
“I’ll fuckin teach you to mess with my woman,” she heard Jones sneer. “We’ll see how much she likes you when I’m through.”
There were two other with Jones. Nora recognised them from seeing them around the estate and she knew they were trouble. She watched as Jones reached down and pulled a knife from a sheath inside his boot. It’s sharp, serrated edge glittered in the light from the fire.
“Pull down his pants,” Jones ordered one of his men.
The boy screamed and tried to wrestle free from his bonds, but it was useless.
“Please, Mark,” he sobbed. “You’re making a mistake.”
“I’m through listening to you, you cunt,” Jones nodded to the man to do as he ordered.
The boy cried louder as he felt the cold night air on his exposed scrotum.
“Mark, don’t,” he sobbed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“You’ll never be able to screw anyone again,” Jones sneered, waving the knife in the terrified boy’s face.
Nora knew that the boy was the least vicious of the four who stood before her and his cries for mercy tore at her heart and brought with them visions of the burning times. Her sister had begged in the same way as the boy and their cries went unheard. He certainly did not deserve what Jones intended doing to him.
She moved out of the shelter of the trees and stood on the opposite side of the fire.
“What the fuck!” she heard one of the men say and her hackles bristled at his vulgarity.
Mark Jones followed the man’s gaze and turned round.
“What are you doing here, old woman?” He pointed the knife at her.
“I, like you, am here for revenge.”
The men looked at one another and laughed.
“You injured me,” she touched the scar above her eye.
“And I’ll do it again,” he warned.
“No, you will not,” Nora felt the dog and cat move up beside her.
“Oh, what,” he swirled the knife around. “They are going to stop me?”
“You’ll find that they will,” Nora reached down and rubbed the dog’s head.
“You better fuck off,” Jones grew tired of her. “When I’m finished here, I’m coming for you next, you old witch.”
Nora began to chant, her words echoing in the silent air.
“What the fuck is she up to now,” Jones shook his head at the other men.
“She’s mad,” one of them muttered. “Nutty as a fruit cake.”
But even the boy had stopped crying and was watching as the flames caused the shape of the animals to swell and grow. Seth, the old dog, arched his back as his rib cage expanded. His mouth grew wider as his teeth grew in to sharp, vicious points. The cat leapt in to a tree, her nails stretching through the pads of her feet and her eyes glowed red among the dark leaves.
“Let the boy go,” Nora said.
“Go fuck yourself,” Jones swallowed hard, his eyes darting from the dog to the cat overhead.
“I’ll give you one last chance,” Nora said. “One chance to prove that you are human.”
“I’m going to slit your throat,” Jones hand shook as he pointed the knife at her. “Grab her, lads.”
The two men rushed forward. Seth sprang more wolf than dog and his teeth sank in to the throat of the first man. The cat flew from the tree, her talons tearing through the flesh on the other man’s throat, ripping veins and sending a fountain of blood spraying through the air. The leaves dripped crimson as they fell and lay dying at her feet.
Jones licked his lips and tried to swallow. What he had just witnessed seemed impossible; he wouldn’t have believed it, if he’d not seen it with his own eyes. The dog growled and the sound made the hairs on his head rise.
He didn’t wait to hear her reply, but took off running through the trees. He would do as he said and she could not allow that to happen. She bent and whispered in the dog’s ear. It took off in pursuit and it was obvious from the screams echoing back that he had found his target. Mark Jones would never trouble anyone again.
“Please, missus,” the captive boy whispered, when Nora picked up the fallen knife.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Nora walked to the back of the tree and sawed through the ropes.
He fell, overcome from the pain of his beating. Nora knelt and helped him to pull up his pants. He was crying from shock and she pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her coat and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he wiped his face.
“I’ll help you to walk back to the houses and then you are on your own,” she held out her hand. “You will need to call an ambulance. You need hospital care.”
“He took my phone,” the boy nodded towards a pile of beer cans.
Nora pushed them aside and found the phone.
“Call them now,” she said and waited while he dialled with trembling fingers.
He gave the address of her road and leant on her as they started back through the trees.
“You will never speak to anyone about what happened here tonight,” she looked at him from the corner of her eye.
“Who would believe me?” He asked.
“I mean it,” she stopped and turned towards him. “If you breathe a word to anyone, you will suffer the same fate. They might take me away, but my pets will see you are punished.”
“I hear you,” she saw by his face that he understood. “I won’t tell a soul.”
“Good,” she led him in through the back door of her house and out on to the road.
They walked to the end of the street and she left him sitting against a wall. The shrill moan of a siren was drawing closer and she knew he would soon be taken care of.
She stopped and tutted her displeasure at the front of her house where the white of egg glowed like silver snails trails. Little terrors, she shook her head as shells crunched beneath her feet. The estate was quiet for once, as thought those who lived in the nocturnal world sensed danger and had scurried away to their hiding places. Somewhere a dog barked, its sound joining that of the ambulance siren. Nora went inside and closed the door. The dog and cat sat waiting in the kitchen. Both were back to normal, but showing signs of the battle.
“What a mess,” Nora wet a cloth and wiped the blood from the dog’s face.
The cat sat on the draining board and lifted each paw as her mistress cleared away the last of the blood.
The savage attack, as the papers describe it, was the talking point for days, but interest soon trickled off. Jones and the men were known to the police and no one was surprised that they had come to a bad end. A pack of dogs was blamed for the injuries, the nice policeman who called to ask questions told Nora.
“Probably some vicious breed trained to kill,” he patted old Seth on the head. “Not like you, old fellow, eh?”
Some good did come of it though as since that night little old ladies can now walk the streets without fear of harm and the feral cats and dogs are given a wide berth. Nora saw the boy a few times since, but he rushed by and refused to make eye contact with her. He, no doubt, had hinted to others that he knows something about what happened that night, but there are none interested enough to press him on the subject. Tales have grown around the killings and fear and superstition are rife even in these enlightened times. And there is always next year!
Copyright © Gemma Mawdsley 2012
The air in the attic smelt musty, mould hung from the rafters, trailing green tendrils that touched her face. Nora brushed them aside and shone her torch around the room. The trunk she was looking for was in the farthest corner and she chose her step with care, picking her way across the joists. If she put one foot wrong it meant plunging through the ceiling. Placing the torch on a box, she fumbled with the ancient lock and nodded in satisfaction as the lid groaned open. The smell from the interior was more pungent than the one surrounding her and she wafted her hand in front of her face. She knelt down, the wood as rough as glass on her tender knees, but she had to find the things she needed. They were all there, just as she’d left them many years ago; the herbs and dried roots, the potions still safe in the bottles and most importantly the grimoire, the book of power that would show her what to do. She stuffed the small bottles and herbs in to the pockets of her cardigan and tucked the book under her arm.
Her eyes travelled to the old suitcase beside the trunk, but she willed herself not to look. It held the few baby clothes she kept and she couldn’t bear to view them, not now. Her daughter, like many of the women in her family, had died before her time.
“Six months,” Nora muttered. “That’s all the time we had together, child.”
No, she could not think about it. She tore her eyes away. There was work to be done.
She was panting as she navigated the joists and relieved when she reached the top of the wooden ladder.
“Move, Seth,” she called to the dog, who was standing sentry at the bottom.
He got out of the way just in time, as the huge book flew down and landed with a thump on the floor. Nora didn’t bother to close the attic door. She would put everything back when she was finished. Seth followed at her heels as she made her way down in to the kitchen. She sat at the table and started to leaf through the book’s yellow and brittle pages.
“Yes, this is the one,” she read aloud words written in an ancient language and the dog cocked his ear at the strange sounds.
Nora spent the next few hours grinding and cooking the things she needed for the spells. She had been a child when she last seen the book put to use and her husband had forbid her to practise any of her strange arts, as he referred to them. She was descended from women of power, a power that lay dormant within her until now.
Dusk was falling by the time she was finished. The few streetlights that still had unbroken bulbs came on and a cold mist descended. Nora picked up the animals feeding bowls and scraped food from a tin in to each one. Next she poured some of the potion and mixed it with the food. Before placing it on the floor, she filled a small glass with the same potion and swallowed the lot in one quick gulp. It ran like fire through her body until it reached her stomach where it lay for a moment before spreading its warmth until her senses swam. She gripped the cold sink until the room steadied itself once more.
“It’s all right,” she looked down at the worried faces of the cat and dog.
Placing their bowls on the floor, she urged them to eat.
“Finish it all, my pets,” she smiled as they tucked in.
She felt better than she had in years, empowered, she thought. The hand that stroked the dog’s head was no longer veined and spotted with age. She held it up to the light and wondered at this. There was only one mirror in the house and that hung in the dark hallway. Nora turned on the light and gazed at her reflection. She was seventy-four-years-old and up to a few minutes ago looked every one of her years. Now, she looked younger, not girl young, but the fire within her had knocked at least twenty years off her age. She brought a hand to her face and felt the smoothness of the skin. She had never been a beauty and no one would call her such now, but she looked better. Turning off all the lights, she picked her way through the dark shapes of the furniture in the sitting room and stood at the window. So far no one had called at her house looking for treats, which was just as well, as the yob had taken her meagre few. She dreaded to think what those who were refused would do if they did call. There were childish screams as a small vampire, witch and mummy ran past her gate. They looked like wraiths scampering through the white mist. She sighed and waited for the night to deepen. It was cold in the house, cold and damp. There was no central heating and other than a coal fire nothing to banish the icy fingers creeping along her skin. It was too early in the year to spend money on fuel, so she put on more layers and went to bed earlier when the nights were longer.
She sat on the threadbare couch and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The cat came in and leapt up beside her and the dog huddled down at her feet.
“There’s nothing to do but wait for them to come,” she patted the cat. “And they will come. Why wouldn’t they? The street vermin need to have there blood-lust fed and picking on an old women is the easiest way they know.”
The curtains were left open so the blaze from the nearest oil barrel reflected off the glass. Dark shapes circled the flames and cars drew up from time to time, their occupants in need of the poisons that fed their cravings. The chimes on the mantle clocked counted out the hour. It was cold on the stroke of midnight when she heard them outside her door.
“Wait here, my pets,” she stood up straighter than she had in years and went to answer the fist that was beating on the wood.
“Yes,” she was looking straight in to the face of the yob who had scarred her.
He drew back a little, not sure for a moment if it was her. He was with his friend, his right hand man, as she’d heard him referred too and behind him stood his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, a tight top proudly displaying her swollen belly.
Mark Jones, the yob, could not lose face, so rolling his shoulders back; he started his usual tirade of filth. It began in the usual way.
“Your dog nearly bit my little brother,” he jabbed an accusing finger at her. “You better keep the fuckin thing under control, do you hear me, you old witch or I’ll cut its throat.”
I must say I’m surprised,” Nora caught the look between Mark’s girlfriend and his right hand man.
“I’ll give you surprised, you old cow,” he made his fist in to a ball.
Before he could strike, Nora words stopped him.
“I think you words belie your true natural, after all you are willing to raise another man’s child as your own.”
“What?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he struggled to speak.
“Am I the bearer of bad news?” Nora smiled. “So sorry, but the truth must out.”
“Forget her,” his girlfriend pulled at his jacket. “She’s mad, everyone says so.”
“Fuck off,” he shook her off. “What do you mean?” He asked Nora.
“Ask her,” Nora nodded to the girl, who was retreating down the path.
“Hey, come back here,” all thoughts of Nora were forgotten as he took off after her.
She watched as the girl placed both hands beneath her bump and tried to run.
“There’s going to be fuckin murder,” Mark’s right hand man muttered, as he took off after them.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nora smiled.