Halloween is on the approach! Always a time for fun, mystery and imagination. In honour of the Eve of All Hallows I thought I’d try my hand at a ghost story. I’m reading an exerpt from it at tonight’s ‘Spotlight’ open mic night. The full story is published below. Enjoy…if you dare! Mwahaha
Matthew snapped his gaze back round, tried to slow his breathing. “Nothing Dad. It’s nothing,” he said, trying not to look back over his shoulder again.
“I thought getting you away from home would be what you needed. But it seems you’re tenser than ever.”
Matt rubbed his eyes. “Honestly, Dad, I’m fine.” His voice in his ears seemed small and dead, like it was freezing as it left his mouth.
His dad moved himself in the folding chair so he could look directly at his son. In the half-light of the low, bloated moon his face turned into a mass of shifting holes and polished bone. Matt resisted the temptation to look away. “This is because of that stupid story from the pub, isn’t it? Honestly, I don’t understand what’s happened to you recently. You’re supposed to be going to university next year, you’re old enough to know better. This old ruin’s no more haunted than your bedroom back home.”
Matt didn’t move but his father held up a hand, skeletal in the darkness. “I know what you think you’ve been seeing but it’s only dreams. You used to get them a lot when you were younger. It’s a shame they’ve come back, but not entirely surprising with what’s happened.”
Matt shrugged his face further down into his scarf and swallowed the useless words as the rose to his lips. He stared at the moon as it crawled slowly, slowly into the sky, large, hollow craters of eye sockets fixed on him.
“Besides, just think about it,” his dad continued, lifting his binoculars to the sky. “Even if there were such things, why on earth would Ben want to come back to frighten you? You were friends, remember?” Matt was grateful for the night masking the blood he felt draining from his face. “Good friends. That’s all you should remember about him.”
…all I remember is the look on his face as I pushed him… Matt shook the thought away.
His dad was referring to his light-up watch. “Ok, be ready with the stopwatch and the camera. It’ll be any minute now…”
Matt looked sharply over his shoulder, but there was nothing there again. Despite the chill air sweat collected a in the palms of his hands. He stood up to disguise the shaking that had suddenly taken hold of his limbs.
“Where are you going? It’ll start any minute…” His dad’s question fluttered at the corners of his awareness.
“I’m just going for a slash Dad, I’ll be back in a minute.” He staggered off behind one of the great shoulders of stone that jutted from the hilltop like teeth. Huddling down in the shadows to get away from the stare of the moon, he held his head in his hands and tried once again to slow his breathing. Even with his eyes closed, it was still there. Everyone said it was all in his mind. Even when he’d opened his eyes to see it bent over his bed, its blurry face a mass of crumpled flesh and bone, inches from his own…it was all in his head…
Forcing his eyes open he tried to ignore the thing that wasn’t really over his shoulder by looking at anything else.
The crooked finger of a ruined bell tower loomed on his left. It had been impressive when he’d seen it earlier that day, in the watery winter sunshine, but now in the frosty moonlight shadows pooled in the cracked stonework and distorted the angles and height, making it look like it was leaning over him. The last time the bell was rung by the living, the landlord of The Old Bell had said, was to call for help that never came. The last holy man to serve at this place had been pushed to his death from the tower as he vainly rang the bell to summon the villagers to his aid. Matt had felt a shiver run through his flesh at the story, Ben’s scream suddenly loud again in his ears.
The bell is still heard, sometimes, someone else in the pub had whispered to them. It was a call to judgement, a call to atone. The villagers had left the Catholic priest to his fate to appease the forces of the Reformation. The soldiers left the place in peace but the priest is still waiting for the village of Cenwick to admit to what it did.
Someone had asked what Matt and his dad were doing there this time of year. There had been an odd silence when they’d explained. The county was famous for its lack of light pollution. Amateur astrologers like his dad flocked to the village all year round to observe and photograph the night skies from the top of Priory Hill. There was always a distinct lack of them at this time if the year, his father had said. He assumed it was just too cold even for the most passionate of them. But this year on this night there was to be a lunar eclipse, and when the moon was passing closer to the earth than it had done in a generations. His father had thought it would be a welcome distraction.
If only leaving home could have let him get away from what had happened. When night fell the familiar cold was at his back again. It didn’t need to whisper in his ear any more for Matt to know what it wanted to say. He stared hard at the bell tower, refusing to focus on something cold and pale that was hovering at the corner of his vision.
His heart clutched in his chest like a fist as the low, dead voice of a bell echoed out into the night. One, two…three times. A high, human voice rang out with it, distorted and weak like it was from far, far away. It dissolved into a sickening scream, clawing at his ears and his head and his heart for what seemed like forever until he was swamped by the silence that followed. The light started to dim. Even though his rational mind knew it must be the eclipse, his heart jerked. Silence and darkness swallowed everything around him and he closed his eyes and ears against it, afraid of what might show itself. He wondered if this was what death was like, sight, sound and smell all fading like existence was being leeched away.
A whole forever later he dared to crack an eye. The moonlight had started to return, bleaching the broken rock bones that were scattered around him. He shook himself, got shakily to his feet. Nothing moved or made a noise.
“Dad,” he called. “Dad, are you there?” He started to pick his way back to his father when something caught his eye. At first it looked like another pile of stones hunched against the bottom of the bell tower. Then, as he passed closer, it looked more like crumpled linen. He found himself edging still closer. It took on the shape of a bent and broken body, awkwardly angled, pale as the moon and utterly still. He choked back the bile that rose in his throat but something behind him wouldn’t let him step back. He found himself bending over the cracked and splintered thing, made even more hideous in the sickly light, only identifiable as something once human by the complete but bloody hands, stretched as if still trying to seize something.
Control returned to his feet and he stumbled backwards, staggered back round the wall. Their chairs were there, illuminated in the moonlight, torches, blankets and bags were all neatly piled where they’d put them. But his dad was nowhere to be seen. He opened his mouth to call but stopped as he got the hideous impression that something that was getting to its feet behind him.
He ran, calling out as he went. No one answered. He raced blindly down the side of the hill, not daring to look back, hardly daring to look ahead, staggering and stumbling on the uneven ground. Trying to stop his ears, he ran down the path into the village. The Old Bell was still well lit on the other side of the village square and he could hear music and laughter from inside.
He paused to catch his breath but then something was breathing, staggering, bleeding close behind him. He took off across the square, nearly tripping over the steps into the pub. He leaned hard against the door after slamming it behind him. The same half-dozen people from before were scattered around the room, staring at him. Cold sweat pooling at the base of his back as he searched for his voice.
“Help, please,” he gasped. “You have to help me.”
“Easy lad,” the landlord said. “Calm down. Where’s your dad?”
“I don’t know,” he sputtered, glancing back at the door. “I don’t know, we were up at the ruins…I couldn’t find him after the eclipse…”
“Now slow down. He can’t have just disappeared. What exactly happened?”
He looked right into the landlord’s eyes. Everyone in the room was quiet. The music had stopped.
“I saw it…” Matt could hardly raise his voice above a choked whisper. “I saw him fall. I saw him get pushed…”
“Told you we shouldn’t have let them go up there, not tonight.”
“Quiet!” The landlord snapped at whoever had spoken. The faces were tense. Knuckles were white around pint glasses. He thought he saw a pale shape beyond the glass of the window, one hand raised to knock, but he blinked and it was gone.
“You need to atone.” The voice wasn’t loud but it hushed everyone. A finger of chill crawled up Matt’s spine as he saw a sullen heavy-browed man staring directly at him. “This is judgement. You must own up…all of you. There’s blood on your hands.”
“Out, William,” the landlord bellowed. “Out now, you’ve been warned before. I won’t have this nonsense in my pub.”
The man left, his gaze falling once more on Matt before the door closed behind him.
Matt’s hands were shaking. “Please,” Matt whispered again. “Help me find my dad.”
It’s didn’t look like the landlord was really listening to him. The man was looking out the window, mouth hanging open slightly. “Shut those curtains over,” he ordered and someone obeyed. Hushed conversation rose, many furtive glances being thrown toward the door and at Matt. The landlord turned back to him and laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Now my lad, nothing’s happened to your father, ok? He’s probably wandered off and lost himself in the dark and will be back here by morning.”
“Can’t you help me find him tonight? What if he’s hurt? We could search the hilltop – ”
“No.” The landlord’s hand tightened ever so slightly on Matt’s shoulder. “No, I don’t think anyone will help you with that tonight.” He was glancing at the curtained window. “Best sit tight until night blows over. Always best to stay back, sit trouble out, let things take their natural course.”
A foul taste rose in Matt’s mouth. The landlord moved away but he still felt like something was holding his shoulder. He shut his eyes tight, willing there to be only darkness there. But instead he saw it all again, saw Ben on the edge, saw himself pushing, heard the scream that rose and fell and cut off, so like the scream on the hill. Over the whispers in the room he became aware of a tapping noise, like knuckles on glass. Nobody looked up but it got louder. Something pale was stood at his shoulder. He felt the chill on his neck. He saw it start to bend down to look into his face and he shut his eyes tight again.
“It was me, it was me, it was me.” It went round and round in his head. The smell of rain-slicked tarmac roof rose in his nostrils and the feel of the chilling wind goosepimpled his skin. Ben was stood in front of him with that look on his face, that look he got when he knew he’d won.
“It wasn’t and accident…” He couldn’t tell if he spoke out loud or in his mind. He made his mouth move. “It was me…”
“The lad’s gone mad.”
“…shouldn’t have let them go up, not on this night.”
“It’s got the dad, it won’t bother us again, surely?”
“It was me.” Matt tore his eyes open. It was darker in the pub. The lights had been turned down low and all the curtains were drawn. A chair had been dragged in front of the door but the tapping still carried on. “It was me. It wasn’t an accident, it was me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” He kept saying it over and over. Everyone was staring again but there was a fear in their eyes that was nothing to do with him. “I’m sorry…I did it, I killed him.” Vision blurring with hot tears, his words became thick and he swallowed hard. “I’ll go to the police, anything,” he didn’t even know who he was talking to but he was standing and facing the window. “I promise, I’ll tell everyone, I’ll admit it. Just please let Dad be safe…”
The tapping rose to a banging, an angry fist on the thick wood of the door. Matt moved towards it.
“No, lad. Get back, don’t touch it!” The landlord’s voice was high. Someone moved to stop him but he flung himself across the room and pulled the chair back and threw open the door.
“Matt, there you are! Where the hell of you been, you scared the shit out of me.”
Matt flung himself into his father’s arms and cried into his shoulder like he had when he was a boy. “Now, now, son, don’t be daft. What’s all this? I wasn’t that angry…”
“Get in here now and shut that door,” the landlord ordered, all but pulling them inside by their coats. He bolted the door again, pulled another chair in front of it and drew the blind across the little window beside the door that perfectly framed a pale, hooded figure that stood silently in the middle of the village square.
Everyone retreated back to near the fire. The landlord threw on another log, said they’d have to settle in comfy because he wasn’t opening any door until sunrise. There was no word spoken above a whisper for the rest of the night. There were occasional tappings on the glass of the windows and sometime past midnight a bell was heard tolling in the distance.
Matt felt like a tight band had been taken from around his chest, like he’d not breathed properly days. His sight was clear and nothing hung at his back or at flitted at the corners of his vision. Warmth had returned to his bones and he enjoyed the feel of it under his skin. He and his dad sat in a quiet corner and Matt explained what had really happened to Ben. Towards morning Matt dozed off on the table. He was able to sleep knowing that no matter what happened now, unlike Cenwick, nothing would be returning to him that should stay buried.