Sitting room. Fifth floor. White afternoon light through soot-crusted windows. The hum of traffic on the Finchley Road below. A single strip of woodchip wallpaper curls over to reveal bare plaster. Marks have been left by a thick, soft pencil – the increasing heights of two children: Judith 7.3.38, Julius 28.4.38… Spaces in black dust where pictures once hung. Stains on the carpet next to the small fireplace, marking the boundaries of a long-gone armchair. There are three doors, two closed, one open onto the unlit hallway. The darkness there is unstill. The shadows shift. Something waits, shy of the light. On the floor below, someone plays a tentative note on a violin. In the empty flat there is a sigh only one degree louder than silence.
Stock room. Basement. Dim orange streetlight glow warped through glass bricks set into the pavement above, on Back Turner Street. Bare brick walls. Ceiling of boards and beams. Stone floor, unevenly patched. There are three items in the room. First, a warped, mould-blackened glamour calendar displaying August 1987– ‘Jeanette’. Second, a scrap of pink carbon paper faded to blankness, smeared with oil. And, third, a broken picture frame leaning against the wall. Its glass is cracked. The photograph has been ruined by damp and spores but five faces can just be made out. Somewhere beyond the room, a guard dog barks. In the basement, a fingernail scrapes weakly against concrete.
Faraday Ward. First floor. Polystyrene ceiling tiles scattered and shattered on the linoleum. Bindweed grows through the window frames and across the yellow-painted walls. No beds, no visitors’ chairs, no bedside tables. The built-in clock above the swing doors stopped many years ago. Water has come in through the roof and knocks insistently on the floor. Over the course of years it has formed a ring – yellow-green on the outside, bruise black at the centre. Hours pass until daylight begins to fade. There is a squeal. The doors swing open, swing back, screech, slowed by their own decaying springs. They judder back into their resting position.
Kitchen. Ground floor. Overlooking a garden overtaken by brambles, enveloping the rotten remains of a summer house and a set of rusting swings. The doors of the fitted cabinets and drawers, lined with scraps of wallpaper, hang open. Tiles that were once white, now grey, are stained with cat food in the corner by the back door. Dark lines mark the absent fridge, table, dresser and washing machine. The only sound is of mice chewing and running behind the skirting boards. A dead lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. It moves slowly from side to side as if caught in a breeze, though the air is stale and still.
Studio flat. Third floor. Perfectly clean, newly painted, flat white walls and pristine mushroom-grey carpet. One large space with a minimal kitchen at the deep end. Only the bathroom has its own door. Hard sunlight through a skylight sketches a bright square on the floor. Over the course of the afternoon it slides along and up the wall. Then moonlight repeats the performance, this time in blue. From the corner where the shadow is most dense comes a sound like cotton brushing bare skin. Then something less than a whisper, close but far away, then something less than laughter, then fragile silence.
Warehouse number two. Stripped bare, ready for demolition. Dirty yellow daylight through the corrugated PVC roof, which replaced a Victorian original after the Blitz. Pigeons flutter against the ceiling. Rats run through the tide of scraps and cigarette ends around the edges of the space. As the building rots, every small sound triggers an answering echo: plaster falls from the walls, pipes drip, fittings shrink and swell. Sometimes, there are footsteps, too, or something like them, or maybe nothing like them, although if you knew Gerry Mills when he was foreman, you might think you recognised the sound.
Public toilet. Far side of the park. Bricked up. Frosted windows with frames painted council green. Fired tiles, their surfaces crazed and chipped, cover the walls and floor. Scraps of a poster offer a ten pound reward for reports of vandalism. Another, high on the wall, says: ‘Did you know V.D. can be cured?’ Outside, there are the sounds of traffic, dance music, children playing, birdsong and barking dogs. Inside, only the creak of ceiling beams as they expand in midday summer heat. There are three cubicles, two without doors. The third door is still there and almost closed. Through the gap, perhaps the wet glint of an eye.
Office. Sixth floor. Painted on the frosted glass of the door is the name of a company whose owner comes here once a week to collect post and check the answerphone. No desk, no filing cabinets, no stock – just a telephone balanced on the windowsill over an ancient radiator and a single plastic school chair. Every time the wind gusts across the moor, the plastic vent set into the window flaps its louvres and the frame whines or whistles. Once or twice a year, the telephone gets thrown to the floor or, like now, the chair suddenly judders and scrapes a metre across the floorboards, with painful effort.
Classroom. Second floor. Windows covered with steel to keep out squatters. Thin beams of white light through pencil-hole perforations casting constellations on the far wall. That’s the wall with scraps of drawings and projects – blue ink faded to brown, felt tip pen colours washed away to near nothing. No chairs, no tables and only screw holes where bookcases were once fixed in place. The blackboard is blank, not black, scuffed to grey. From certain angles, chalk marks can be seen in the dust. Digit-thick, clumsy, but unmistakable: words, a name, some feeble attempt to reach across.
Room twelve. First floor. Notices on yellowing plastic ask guests to reuse their towels and notify them of the fire drill. No bed. No chair. Just a plush headboard in mustard-coloured Velveteen screwed to the wall and a single lace curtain dangling from a rod. The curtain ripples in the razor-sharp breeze that seeps through a crack in the window. Through the window, a blank wall on the other side of the alley, wet with black-green slime. The carpet has more stains than pure colour and grooves where furniture sat for thirty years. In the low, cold light, something flickers into being and, for the length of a blink, the room isn’t empty at all.
The newspapers had promised ‘apocalyptic snow’ but Alice Li ignored them. They were always predicting blizzards and gales when the sky delivered only drizzle and damp breeze. But as the afternoon wore on she was forced to concede that, this time, they were right. The flakes fell in sheets and driving became impossible.
‘…being advised to stay indoors and only travel if essential…’ said a voice on the radio.
She wasn’t going to make Manchester, not today. Even if she could get there, the Mayor’s office would be shut and the meetings she had scheduled would certainly be cancelled. When she saw a lorry that had skidded into the verge, its trailer tipped, surrounded by blue lights and high-visibility jackets, she decided there was no other choice but to find a hotel.
Of course Nina wouldn’t be happy, even though it was she who had told Alice not to cancel the trip, pointing to the swimlane chart and the scheduled deliverables. ‘There are too many dependencies,’ she’d said. ‘Or do you want to tell Stephen that he’ll have to tell the Minister that we’re going to have to cancel the announcement in February?’ Alice certainly didn’t want to do that. It would be severely career limiting, as Nina liked to put it. Alice hadn’t worked flat out, from school to college to university to Fast Stream without a pause, only to let the weather get in the way.
The next junction was for Wolverhampton. Alice came off the motorway, struggling up the off-ramp in low gear, wheels slipping in the thickening snow. After following a loop and curl of two-lane road thick with grey sludge, Alice saw the neon light of the Sleeping Beauty Motel – a concrete slab standing proud in a whited-out car park. She pulled in and crawled across the blank space, windscreen wipers scooping gobs of snow back and forth, and parked as close to the front door as possible.
She turned off the engine and the radio faded away. She breathed out with relief, uncomfortably aware of the pumping of her heart.
Fortunately, she’d brought an overnight bag with a change of blouse, socks and underwear, because local authority types sometimes changed the times of meetings at the last minute. She took the bag from the passenger seat, along with her quilted coat, and stepped out into the blizzard.
The gale fluttered and snapped across the empty retail park, hurling snow around and over her. It whooped in her ears and instantly petrified her hands, lips and cheeks. The few steps to the concrete canopy felt like half a mile.
She rushed through the automatic doors and into the warm yellow of the hotel reception. Her body convulsed with shivering as the doors snapped shut and silence fell, except for the royalty-free ambient music drifting, bassless, from hidden speakers. Everything was beige. ‘We regret that our restaurant is closed due to staff shortages’ read a sign on a metal stand in front of a darkened dining hall.
There was nobody at the desk.
Alice stood on the spot and waited. She sighed. The space was blandly peaceful and, for a moment at least, there was nothing she could or should be doing. Then she frowned: except, of course, she ought to call Nina to confess, and call Manchester to let them know, and call Sue in central services to authorise the payment for a hotel not on the approved supplier’s list and…
A movement in her peripheral vision caused her to spin to the left, towards the lifts. There was nobody there but she thought she caught a glimpse of a sliding shadow reflected in the polished steel of the lift doors.
Alice started at the sudden sound of a voice from her right, at the reception desk.
‘Do you have a reservation with us today?’
He was a tall, lean young man with very black skin and a name badge that read EMMANUEL next to English and Italian flags. He wasn’t smiling and before she could answer, he spoke again with a mournful note in his voice.
‘Terrible weather, innit? I can’t go home tonight. I gotta stay here.’
Alice smiled tightly, humping the bag back onto her shoulder.
‘I had to come off the motorway,’ she said. ‘It was getting dangerous out there.’
Emmanuel waited, staring, then repeated his question: ‘Do you have a reservation?’
‘Oh, uh, no. I’d like a single room for one night, please, if that’s at all possible,’ she said.
This prompted Emmanuel to move to the next section of the script. He took her name, address, asked to see ID, and took credit card details. He then made a keycard for room 804, sliding it across the counter.
‘Top floor, good view, very quiet.’
‘Many guests today?’
Emmanuel shook his head like a doctor sharing bad news about a terminal patient.
She took the lift up eight floors. Synthesised jazz-funk played. She stepped out onto a long corridor lined with doors. There was a window at the far end, plastered with snow and glowing white. She found her room easily enough and let herself in, dumping the bag on the bed.
The room smelled of cigarettes, despite the multiple warning signs forbidding smoking, and everything was scuffed, chipped or discoloured. The bed was soft, though, and the duvet heavy. There were thick white towels, a desk, a kettle and a TV. She didn’t need much else. She even had a couple of packets of instant ramen and a plastic bowl in her emergency overnight bag so she wouldn’t need to order room service.
Emmanuel had no doubt oversold the view but there was no way to be sure. All she could see from the window was a shifting, warping wall of white. If she peered hard, she thought she could just discern the edge of the car park as a thumb-smear of pale grey across the canvas. She watched a figure move through the blizzard and was struck by how little this person seemed to be hampered by the wind or cold. A dark, dogged speck almost gliding towards the hotel.
Her phone rang. Rushing to her bag, fumbling, fingers still numb, she answered. It was Nina.
‘How are you, Alice? Safe, I hope? I’ve been watching the news.’
‘Yes, thank you. I didn’t make it to Manchester, I’m afraid. I’ve had to pull off the M6 and find a hotel.’
‘Oh, right – what a shame.’
Nina was clever. She never said or wrote anything that could possibly sting her during an union intervention or employment tribunal. Alice had worked with her long enough, however, to tell that she was furious.
‘I don’t want to add to your burden when no doubt you’re no doubt already feeling at least a little stressed–’ She gave her dusty, mummified laugh.
‘Oh, no, I’m fine, but–’
‘– with end-user outcomes in mind, it would be good if you could arrange a video conference or phone call so we can get this squared away on schedule.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Alice.
Nina left a silence just long enough let Alice know how disappointed she was with this weak response and then said: ‘Great, thanks, do keep me in the loop.’
Alice called Sue who tried to convince Alice to drive to another hotel five miles away, because it was on the Department’s approved list. Alice explained that it was impossible and Sue said: ‘Fine, right, so, um, if you could just put that in writing, for the record…’ To cover your arse, thought Alice, but agreed to do as Sue had asked.
She set up her laptop on the scratched desk and then realised there was no wi-fi in the hotel. She checked her phone and realised she had no data connection there, either, perhaps because of the storm. No video-conference with Manchester, then, and no emails to Sue or anyone else. It was only two o’clock and she ought to do some kind of work, but what? There was a paper for the board due, perhaps she could work on that, offline.
She glanced at the bed. The drive had been exhausting and it couldn’t hurt to sit for two minutes. Then, once she’d sat down, she couldn’t resist the temptation to lie down – just for a moment. Kicking off her low-heeled shoes, she reclined and knitted her fingers over her belly. It was a long time since she’d found herself anywhere near a bed during the day. Even at weekends, she usually ended up working, or worrying about work, with no time for naps. But there, in the muffled gale and the soft blue snow light, she released a thirty-year-long sigh.
* * *
Arms flinging out in terror, a numb-tongued shout into complete darkness.
Alice thrashed until she woke herself up. She rubbed gum from her eyes and saliva from her cheek. She remembered where she was and groaned. She held a hand to her aching head. Did she have Paracetamol in her bag? Or maybe some water would do the job.
She listened to the room for a moment. It seemed to hold the echo of a sound, the scene of someone recently departed. She would have to remember to double lock the door and maybe put a chair in front of it.
The window was yellow, now – fluorescent retail park lighting diffused by snow emulsified in the swirling air. Alice lowered her feet to the floor and stumbled stiffly to the bathroom. She couldn’t find the light switch at first and then, when she did, it didn’t seem to work, so she drank lukewarm water from the tap, feeling her way with her fingers.
She hoped Nina hadn’t called while she was sleeping. She wondered if she ought to work now, until late, to make up the time.
There was a knock at the door.
What was this? Emmanuel, perhaps, coming to tell her the hotel was closing? Or bringing an extra blanket, maybe – the room did feel cold.
She peered through the peephole. The fish-eye showed an empty corridor – though only just vacated, Alice knew, somehow. An oddly familiar sweet tobacco tang caught at the edge of her senses. She sniffed but couldn’t catch it again.
Alice snapped the door open and stepped out. Left, nothing, but to the right, disappearing around the corner, the last glimpse of a shape in black.
‘Hello? Did you knock on my door?’ Alice called into the empty hall. There was no reply. ‘Did you… did you want something? Hello?’
Breaking into an ungainly half-jog, she made it to the corner but all she found was a hundred metres of mottled carpet, thirty brown doors and the green glow of a fire exit sign.
* * *
The next morning, she could hear the silence of the snow. It had stopped falling but not before covering her car, the car park, and most of the details of the landscape for miles around. She checked her phone and found it had no connection at all.
‘Morning, madam,’ said a weary Emmanuel when she went down for breakfast. ‘I’m so sorry to say that we are snowed in completely.’
She glanced towards the sliding doors. They had been locked off and presented a wall of grey-blue. There was a slit of sunlight at the top.
‘There are very much worse places to be, however,’ said Emmanuel. ‘Plenty of food, good emergency generator if, God forbid it, the electricity lines come down, and of course more than fifty TV channels.’
‘Got any books?’
Emmanuel gave a nod-shake-bow.
‘Oh, yes, plenty of books. People leave them behind. I will bring out a box for you to take your pick after breakfast.’
He gestured towards the dining room and Alice followed the line indicated by his long fingers.
The dining room was as big as a school hall and the five other guests had arranged themselves, as British people always will, so as to leave the maximum possible space between themselves.
A man with a bald brown head and a wrinkled shirt; a muscular builder with a slogan in Polish on his T-shirt and paint-spattered boots; a miserable middle-aged couple staring at their phones; and, finally, what looked like an old lady dressed in black – a hump of dark, dusty cotton, a curl of grey hair. She was in a corner facing the wall, pouring green tea from an iron pot into a dainty cup with no handles.
Alice looked for a seat. The necessary distancing calculations ran in her head and she deposited her key on a table away from the window, near the toasters, and went to fetch coffee and juice.
A radio murmured. ‘…since the winter of 1963, according to the Met Office. Further snowfall is expected later today with storms clearing by midnight, leaving a bright, clear day across the country from tomorrow morning. Now, let’s see if these lads can get those motorways moving – it’s Mike and the Mechanics.’
Emmanuel came through the dining room stopping at each occupied table – one, two, three, four, then Alice.
‘No cooked breakfast today, I’m afraid – no cooks! But we have toast, pastries, cereals and if you like, I can boil an egg.’ He gritted his yellow teeth in a tense smile and she knew that having to boil an egg would make him very unhappy, so she shook her head.
‘Toast is fine.’
As he began to move away, she grabbed at his sleeve.
He stopped, looked panicked, and rubbed his arm where the fabric had been pinched.
‘Can I have a pot of green tea?’
Emmanuel shook his head and stuck out his bottom lip.
‘We don’t have green tea, sorry – only summer berry, fresh peppermint, soothing camomile and traditional English breakfast.’
He drifted away.
Alice, irritated, looked towards the old woman’s table. She was gone and the table was clear. There was no teapot, no teacup, no sign that she had ever existed.
After breakfast, Alice looked through the box of paperbacks in reception for something to read once the board paper was drafted – the only piece of work she could do. She actually wanted to read a thriller but a voice in her head tutted at her, told her it would be a waste of precious time, so she took a copy of Bleak House instead.
Throughout the whole of the day, she didn’t read a single page. She didn’t write anything worthwhile, either, only moving around the words she’d already produced for the executive summary. At first, she reproached herself for her idleness, until logic won out: what could she do? Nothing. It wasn’t her fault. So, slowly, she began to think about starting to consider the vague possibility of relaxing.
She watched the window turn from white to blue to orange. She ate a limp room service pizza that Emmanuel microwaved. Finally, she did something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl: she turned on the TV and watched nothing in particular, for hours, until she began to drowse.
She didn’t sleep that night, not exactly. Hotel rooms are never really dark, even with the lights off and curtains drawn, because there’s always a glow leaking from somewhere – under the door, the air-conditioning control panel, the gap at the top of the curtains – so she lay in the almost-blackness, at turns fretting and fantasising.
After a series of short, disturbing nightmares, none of which she could quite remember even though they left her heart knocking, she got up to check the time. Three thirty three.
Then a memory came, or a memory of a dream: the veined hands of an old woman setting and then winding a bedside alarm clock – one of those clamshell clocks designed for travel.
‘Three-thirty three, all the threes, very lucky,’ Alice muttered to herself. She frowned. She didn’t believe in any of that stuff. Neither did her parents.
She got up and walked, stretching and yawning, to the window. Pulling back the curtain, she looked over the car park. The snow had stopped and the air was clear so that distant lights picked out hillsides and suburbs.
Squinting, she peered at the off-white sheet through which a stripe had been ploughed, right up the front door of the hotel.
There was somebody down there, waiting, in the middle of the channel in the snow.
A black shape, small and crooked – a figure that, for the first time, she recognised without doubt.
Alice let the curtain fall back and stood in the almost-darkness listening to the hum of the heating and her own short, fast breaths.
She dressed quickly, pulling on her quilted coat and unsuitable shoes, and slipped out of the room, letting the door close with a whisper of insulation on wood.
The corridor was cold and smelled stale. The lights were on but flickered sickly in her periphery. She took the stairs, not the lift, and entered reception through a fire door beside a set of vending machines. The sliding doors had been cleared of snow, now, and had become murky mirrors with the night behind them. She punched a green button and, after a moment, the doors opened.
She stepped into the cold. Her breath condensed, creating a wavering veil that came and went. Brown grit ground beneath her feet as she stepped slowly, reluctantly, towards the old woman.
Yes, it was definitely her. She was wearing the clothes she always had one when she visited or when they went out for dinner – a two-piece suit with thick seams, as stiff as cardboard. The polished black handbag gleamed. Her tights sagged around her bony knees. The black pumps she always wore pointed inward.
Alice didn’t want to look at her face. She was afraid it would be decayed or distorted. As she came within a few steps, she felt her eyes being pulled upward. Her heart thumped. Her face was perfect, exactly as it had been when Alice last saw it twenty-five years before. Her eyes weren’t filmed or fogged but wet and glowing. She looked at Alice with a severe expression, expectant.
The air seemed heavy with static and sweet with perfume – Yardley English Lavender mixed with a background note of clove.
Alice wondered what she was supposed to do. Then she heard her own voice, dead against the surrounding snow.
‘Are you proud of me, Grandma?’
She didn’t know what had made her ask that question but she knew the answer was important.
Grandma’s face opened in a smile as warm as midday sun.
‘Of course I am.’
The electricity intensified, the perfume bloomed, and somehow Alice Li both passed out and woke up at the same moment.
Sally was collecting a trolley from the far corner of the supermarket car park, where the shadows were deepest, when the black dog appeared and told her she was the firstborn child of one in the line of Thomas Fletcher of Crediton and would die before harvest was over.
‘But I’ve never been to Crediton,’ she said.
The dog, which seemed at times to meld with the night, at others to glow, licked its teeth and yawned.
‘A Fletcher you be and ever shall I hunt your kind, be you ever so far from the hills where Thomas brought about the curse which marks you as surely as Cain was marked.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said with an awkward, honking laugh. ‘There’s no such thing as curses.’
The dog growled.
‘Am I not proof of what weird things may be?’
A white van passed and its headlights multiplied in the spots of rain on Sally’s glasses, dazzling her for a moment. When her sight cleared, the dog was gone.
She chewed her lip and stared at the bounding hedge with its green plastic rat traps and rotting pizza boxes. It would be difficult to concentrate on anything else, now, but her shift wouldn’t be over until ten.
She stacked shelves smiling weakly and repeating the names over and over under her breath: ‘Fletcher? Crediton?’ It had the sound of the West Country about it. As had the dog, she realised – a warm rumble, nothing like her own London Basin whine.
Her family had nothing to do with the West Country and weren’t big on moving about. It had taken them two centuries to move from Kent into London and then back again.
She was a Dawes. Her mother was a Holdstock. She’d heard Paylis, Whiffin, Ovenden, but never Fletcher.
Driving home in her yellow hatchback, with the murmur of late night radio and the flat white of retail park light all around, she spoke aloud.
‘Well, what does a silly dog know about anything anyway?’
The next morning, Sally put on her unicorn slippers and a towelling robe and went down to breakfast. Her mother, Ruth, was standing at the counter, busy with a knife on the chopping board.
‘Morning, love. A bit of compote and some Greek yoghurt? Do wonders for your complexion, your regularity and your weight.’
Ruth was pale-skinned, blonde-haired and so slim she barely had hips.
Sally fell into her seat like an emergency sandbag.
‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.
‘Even better,’ said Ruth.
Sally, blinking behind smeared lenses, looked at her mother.
‘Have we ever been to Crediton?’
Ruth froze, first, then chopped with renewed intensity. Her face reddened, then drained of colour. She laughed, then frowned.
‘Crediton? Never heard of it.’
Though Sally didn’t rate herself a great reader of emotions – most faces looked as distinct to her as dinner plates – even she could tell that her mother did know Crediton and wasn’t pleased that Sally had brought it up.
Sally fidgeted with the head of a plastic flower, stroking a gaudy, striped petal. She liked the texture.
Ruth continued chopping, dumping raw green pepper into the salad she was making.
Ruth didn’t respond.
‘Do we know anyone called Fletcher?’
‘No we bloody don’t!’ said Ruth, spinning to face Sally, holding the knife across her chest as if in self defence. ‘What the bloody hell is this? Who’ve you been talking to?’
Sally blinked and chewed her lip.
‘Nobody. It’s nothing.’
‘Look, I’ve got to go to work. When’s your shift today?’
‘Midday to nine,’ said Sally.
‘Well, do something useful with your morning, eh? The bathroom could do with a wipe-down for starters.’
‘I was going to go to the library.’
‘To look up Crediton.’
Ruth pretended she hadn’t heard. She made a fuss about packing her handbag, attached her name badge to her blazer, and gave Sally an uncharacteristically intense kiss on the forehead as she swept out. The front door slammed and Sally sat alone in the house listening to its humming and ticking, heating and clocks.
From somewhere outside came the sound of a terrier yapping.
The black dog made its second appearance in Sally’s own bedroom. She awoke to flickering blue light and the odour of sulphur, the air full of static.
Sitting upright in her single bed, she clawed around the bedside table until she found her glasses, which she put on with both hands. She stared into the hound’s red eyes and yawned.
The dog whined and pulled itself into the shadows but said nothing.
‘I know where Crediton is now. It’s in Devon. Population 8,000. Main industries: dairy farming and tourism. Named after the River Creedy.’
She switched on the lamp.
The dog disappeared.
With a sigh, she turned the light off.
The dog, back, ran its dripping tongue around its teeth and gave a satisfied whine.
Sally picked up a book.
‘I also got this. Can’t read it in the dark but it’s called Devon Ghosts and you’re in it.’
The dog took a step closer and broke its silence.
‘My tale is often told, rarely well, and never truthfully.’
‘It says in this book that you haunt unbaptised babies.’
The dog gave a low growl that Sally felt more than heard.
‘I am servant to neither God nor Satan. My master, long absent, came from the far north, long before Christ, and cared not for church rituals.’
Sally sniffed and rubbed a finger under her cold, wet nose.
‘What’s this business about Fletcher, then?’
The dog seemed to expand in size, pulling shadow into itself to form new muscle.
‘You are Fletcher’s child and you will die,’ it said, its breath hot and with the stink of burning peat.
‘Yeah, I got that the first time. I’m not, though, that’s the thing. But say if I was – how long would I have?’
‘The days of ripening barley and the sharpening of scythes are upon us.’
‘Can I do anything about it?’
‘The law is the law. Foreknowledge is fear and fear is punishment.’
The dog snapped its teeth together, bone on bone, and began to dissolve.
‘One more question,’ Sally said, swinging her feet over the edge of the bed.
Hovering between being and absence, the dog waited.
‘What’s his full name, this so-called Fletcher? His first name?’
The dog hesitated, fading further into nothing, and then as it crossed the threshold, half-spoke, half-howled the most prosaic name imaginable.
This time when Sally spoke to her mother, Ruth cracked. She let the melon baller fall to the counter with a clatter and flopped into a dining chair.
Sally polished her glasses on her pyjama top and waited.
‘Your father and I tried very hard to have children.’
Nobody held a blank stare as solidly as Sally.
‘But for some reason, it didn’t work out.’
‘He took many hot baths, I expect. We looked into adopting–’
‘Are you telling me I’m adopted?’
Ruth shook her head and winced.
‘No. We looked into it, as I say, but your grandparents, both lots… Well, we just didn’t think they’d accept an adopted kid. But someone told us about this clinic, see, where a very kind lady…’ She began to cry, clasping bony hands over her quivering mouth.
Sally thought she ought to reach out and comfort her mother but that was a trick she’d never learned, somehow, so, instead, she waited, blinking, with her head tilted to one side – a gesture she understood sometimes conveyed sympathy.
‘She was a pioneer in what they call donor insemination.’
Ruth tutted reflexively, then nodded.
‘Well, yes, that.’
‘Dad wasn’t really my dad, then?’
‘He was your father in every meaningful sense. He… We… You were very badly wanted.’ Ruth sniffed and looked up at the ceiling, letting tears make tracks through the pale foundation that had barely dried on her cheeks.
‘Is that why he left? Because I wasn’t his?’
‘He found it difficult. He didn’t bond with you the way he was supposed to. I suppose I pushed him into it a bit. The clock was ticking, love – you know how it is.’ She looked at Sally and almost rolled her eyes. ‘Or maybe you don’t.’
Sally tried to picture her father or, rather, Ruth’s ex-husband. She didn’t remember him but there were pictures – a lean, sharp-featured man with hair like Luke Skywalker.
‘We didn’t look much alike, now I think of it.’
‘And you certainly don’t get this from me,’ said Ruth, gesturing at Sally’s body.
‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘Well, what good would it have done? It would only have upset you when you were young – remember what you were like? Such a bloody crybaby. And now you’ve made it this far…’
‘Medical stuff, for starters,’ said Sally, coming as close to raising her voice as she ever got. ‘What if he’s diabetic or, you know, I’ve… uh… Inherited something else.’
‘Don’t be such a drama queen. Have you got diabetes?’
‘What do you know about him?’
‘We know his name was Fletcher. He looked a bit like your dad because they tried to find a good match. No ginger babies for blonde parents or anything like that. And we know he did… Well, he did his business, with the–’ She silently mouthed the word ‘sperm’ – ‘in 1988.’
‘That’s ten years before I was born.’
‘They keep it refrigerated, don’t they? Like Häagen-Dazs. It lasts for ages.’
Her eyes narrowed and she brought her thin lips together into a wrinkled pout.
‘Here, how did you find out? Who told you? Your Dad’s not been in touch has he?’
Sally let her face settle back into blandness and just stared. Silence had always been her secret weapon.
After a few seconds, Ruth clapped her hands on her slim thighs, wiped a finger under each eye, and said, ‘Fine. Whatever. Anyway, now you know, and I’d best get off to work.’
The third time, Sally summoned the dog herself. Somehow, she just knew how to do it: find a dark place – the basement was perfect – and whistle.
‘Why have you brought me here?’ the dog rumbled, bringing its own spectral light. It patrolled with soundless steps the edges of the room, sniffing where mice had been running.
‘Do you have a name? It would be easier if I could call you something.’
‘My master called me Old Rag.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Rag. I know what’s going on,’ said Sally.
She pushed her plump hands into the pockets of her high-waisted jeans and shivered. The basement was cold and damp at the best of times but the dog seemed to suck up the last of the warmth.
‘I’m technically this Fletcher bloke’s daughter, but not really.’
‘Tech-nic-ally?’ Old Rag slavered over the new word as if it were a marrow-rich bone.
‘He was a sperm donor. He donated his sperm, the clinic gave it to Mum and Dad so they could have me.’
At this, Old Rag fell to the ground and lowered his head upon his forelegs, like settling smoke. A deep whine came from his gut.
‘Tell me more.’
‘It’s not complicated: they took his sperm, kept it cold for years, and put it inside my mother. Then I was born.’
‘Not complicated?’ said the dog with quiet astonishment. ‘In older days, people were inventive in ways to nullify such curses. One Fletcher of old dressed the firstborn daughter of his line as a boy, and named her for a boy, but it mattered not: still I tore out her throat among the haystacks at Yeocombe in her twentieth year. Another rode to a far town where he seduced an idiot woman of low birth and left her there with child. Still, when the stars commanded it, I came for the girl and feasted on the meat of her lungs.’
Sally frowned and shifted the weight on her hips in such a way that she seemed almost to stamp a foot at the hound.
‘Well, that hardly seems fair.’
Rag’s red eyes dimmed.
‘If the curse is punishment, how does killing some young woman this bloke’s never met, and doesn’t care about, hurt him? I think he did you there, mate.’
The dog stood and began to prowl, circling Sally, more thoughtful than menacing.
‘It is how it has always been done. A curse is a curse,’ he said, though his voice had a distant, uncertain quality. He had lost his snarl.
‘Well, it’s a bloody stupid curse, then. Someone should have gone over the contract.’ She stamped her foot again. ‘Like I said, you’ve been done.’
Rag barked, full-throated, foul-breathed, gut-deep, and shook himself out of existence.
On her first break, after the lunchtime rush, Sally wandered out past the smoking area, beyond the bins and recycling skips, to the grassy slope between the store and the petrol station. As she sat in the sun eating a discounted egg and cress sandwich, she dialled a number she’d saved to her phone at the breakfast table that morning.
‘Fletcher and Sons Heritage Builders, Angela speaking, how may I help you?’
The woman had a buttery country accent with soft, round vowels.
Sally, who avoided speaking on the telephone as much as possible, had to clear her throat before she could say at an audible volume, ‘Can I speak to Nigel Fletcher, please?’
‘May I ask who’s calling?’
Tempted as she was to say, ‘His firstborn child,’ Sally simply gave her name.
‘And what’s the call regarding?’
‘I’m calling about a dog.’
‘Thank you, please hold,’ said the receptionist.
Sally watched a seagull strutting nearby, pecking at cigarette ends in the stubble. After two bars of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ and two rings, a man’s voice snapped in Sally’s ear. It wasn’t buttery at all, more like coffee grounds and broken eggshells.
‘What kind of bloody joke is this? I’m not selling or buying a bloody dog.’
‘I don’t suppose you like dogs much, do you?’ said Sally, not meaning to be arch.
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I’ve been talking to a big black dog, or a sort of dog, called Old Rag.’
Nigel Fletcher switched the receiver from one hand to the other to buy a moment and then spoke in a strangulated whisper.
‘Very fucking funny. Fucking hilarious. Who put you up to this? Jerry, I suppose? Well you can tell him this from me: he can harass me all he likes, he ain’t getting one penny from the sale of that house.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who Jerry is, or anything about a house.’
‘Mum’s house – Mum’s bloody house!’
‘I really have met Rag and he says I’m going to die because you’re my… Because you… Because we’re related.’
The breath whistled down Nigel Fletcher’s nose and Sally heard the wet, wordless working of his mouth. The seagull, she noticed, was getting nearer.
‘I told him I’m not your daughter, not really, so it doesn’t count.’
‘Of course you’re not my–’ he said in a near shout before stopping back down to a subdued growl. ‘Of course you’re not my fucking daughter. What are you after? Because you’re not getting a penny from the bloody house either.’
‘Did you know about the curse when you donated?’
Sally heard a beep in her ear and knew the call had ended.
‘Not had much luck with dads, have I?’ she said to the seagull which pretended not to hear as it side-eyed her half-eaten sandwich.
That night, Sally sat up in silence, in darkness, waiting for Rag.
He materialised slowly this time, as if his battery was running low, and his blackness seemed less black than before. His eyes were dim, too.
‘Firstborn, you have delivered the message of the curse to Fletcher.’
‘You took your time. I was nodding off.’
Rag whimper-growled and slunk beneath the desk, among the cables and wires, beside the pink wastepaper bin.
‘It was simple, once. Bloodlines were bloodlines. Must you children of mud, you offspring of ash and vine, always make such obstacles?’
‘Sorry,’ said Sally, ‘but it wasn’t my bloody fault, was it? I just got born.’
Rag licked and breathed his butcher’s bonfire stink.
‘I call forth Black Edwin.’
‘What?’ said Sally, even as she became aware that there was now a large, musky goat in the room, regarding her with milky, dead eyes. Her room was narrow with only a few inches between the bed and desk and this creature occupied most of the remaining space.
‘This is the child?’ it said in a voice neither male nor female, glancing down at Rag, now trapped beneath the desk. He faded away and then, weightless, reappeared on the bed, standing over Sally, panting wisps of cold light.
‘It is – the firstborn in the line of Fletcher.’
‘But not his daughter, by his own declaration,’ said the goat, like a barrister.
‘How did you know that?’ said Sally, pushing herself back against the headboard and grimacing. Her room smelled like a barn on fire.
‘I attend always once I have found the scent,’ said Old Rag. ‘In other forms. In shadow. Invisible.’
‘Fletcher has another child?’ asked the goat.
‘The second-born, a boy, his heir – Tyler Fletcher, of the city of Exeter.’
‘I’ve got a brother?’ said Sally. A smile broke across her face, then faded, then returned. She laughed and then laughed at herself laughing. ‘I always wanted a brother.’
Then another thought occurred to her.
‘When was Tyler born?’
The dog answered too quickly, ‘It matters not.’
‘No, seriously – when was he born?’
The curtains rippled in the breeze through the half-open window.
The goat answered.
‘Nineteen-hundred and eighty-two.’
‘So he was the first-born?’
‘Your seed was first,’ said Rag with a snort.
‘But he was born first, right?’ Sally laughed. ‘We are complicated, aren’t we, humans?’
Four eyes, two red, two pearl-white, stared at Sally. The goat kicked a heel. The dog panted.
‘My decision is made,’ said the goat at last. ‘The days of the bough and pasture are behind us. We must adapt.’
Tyler Fletcher was vaping outside a bar on the edge of Cathedral Green when the lights went out. He watched the black lamp-posts flicker, dim and die one after another, and the shopfronts fall black, as if a wave had washed through.
He turned to go back into the bar and found it dark, too, and the door locked.
‘What the fuck?’
He looked at the glowing face of his Swiss watch. It was suddenly, somehow, three in the morning. He exhaled one last, long mouthful of cinnamon-flavoured smoke and slipped the device into the pocket of his quilted jacket. A shiver took him over, from jowl to ankle.
Then a voice echoed across the cathedral square or, rather, a howl with words in it: ‘Son of Fletcher! The curse is enacted this night!’
Who was that? Chidgey? Snegs? One of the lads. A wind up, of course. They’d probably dosed his drink or something – that would explain the missing hours and the headache. Massive, massive banter. Epic. It probably explained the dog, too – the thing as big as a horse that was running towards him quickly but slowly, heavy as stone but light as mist, across the green where, as a child, he’d danced around the maypole in beret and tunic.
Old Rag pounced, knocked him down, and for just long enough took corporeal form. Real fangs. Real claws. A tongue as rough as sandstone.
As the beast clamped onto his windpipe and carotid artery, Tyler Fletcher thought, ‘Oh, so this is why Dad wouldn’t let me have a dog.’
When Rag appeared to Sally the final time, his jaws seemed to sparkle with rubies or pomegranate seeds. He woke her by crying like a wolf from the back garden with its patio furniture and compost bin, threading her name into the infinite vowel. She opened the window and leaned out into the late summer air.
‘Shush,’ she hissed. ‘People will hear you.’
‘Not tonight, daughter of Fletcher. I am powerful now. I command light and sound and time and space.’
‘Oh, that’s good, isn’t it?’
‘Tyler Fletcher has been taken.’
‘I never did get to meet him – my little brother! Or big brother, was it? I don’t know.’
With that, she felt herself lift on the breeze and levitate from the window. She drifted, frictionless, out above the garden, until a soft, unseen wall stopped her above the dog. Its red eyes shone beneath her.
‘But a curse is a curse, child of ash and vine, and now the second-born, first-seed child must die before the harvest is complete.’
She began to fall slowly towards the dog, like a drifting leaf.
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The high pines on either side shed silver dust and show black against a cloudy sky slipping from grey to blue. Then, as the road curves, a warm glow – the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. What does the sign say? It isn’t clear, even when you squint. If you can just…
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes as it slips and resists. The car’s heater exhales warm, dusty air from a slot on the dash. The high pines on either side shed silver dust, quiver with the weight of snow on their branches, and show black and razor-backed against a cloudy sky slipping from winter grey to night-time blue. Then, beyond the curve of the road, a glimpse of red – the warm glow of the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. The sign says ‘Red Hill Diner’. Just a hundred more yards. Almost there.
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The car’s heater exhales dusty air. The pines shed silver, and quiver. They show black against the winter dusk. Then, beyond the curve, a red neon sign: Red Hill Diner. Just a hundred more yards, if the car will allow it. Come on, baby, come on. Off the road, into the small parking lot, salted and snowless. Park between two pickup trucks, neither old but both well-used. Switch off the engine, kill the heater, feel the cold at once.
The car labours up the snow-covered road between black pines until, beyond the curve, you see the red neon sign of the Red Hill Diner, two pick-ups in its parking lot and windows bright. You coax the car into the parking lot and switch off the engine. The heater dies. The cold begins to bite. You sit for a moment, looking out, beyond the faded red flank of the Ford truck to the yellow light of the diner window and the hot sizzle of the sign. Gloves on, hat on – time to leave the safety of the car and go inside, eat something, drink some coffee.
The car labours up the snow-covered road between the pines, towards the neon of the Red Hill Diner. You coax the car into the lot and kill the engine. You sit in the cold for a moment, looking at the light from the diner, before putting on gloves and your hat and opening the car door. It’s only a few steps to the door and as you get near, the sound of country music drifts on the air. You reach for the handle.
The car labours between pines, drawn towards the neon light of the Red Hill Diner and the promise of hot coffee and fatty food. Into the lot, kill the engine, gloves, hat, and out. Just a few steps in the cold to the door. You reach for the handle and pull. A bell rings as you enter. The lights are off, suddenly, and nobody is here. A voice on the radio sings ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. You wait for a moment, listening, watching the shadows for movement. Everything abrades.
Up the hill between the pines, as fast as the car will go in the snow, desperate to reach the neon sign of the Red Hill Diner and drink a cup of hot coffee. Into the lot. The car radio is playing ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’ and you leave the engine running so you can listen to the final verse and the sob in Vern Gosdin’s voice as he realises his wife is leaving for good. The song ends, a jingle begins, you kill the engine. The cold hits at once. You glance towards the door of the diner and its warm light and will yourself to move.
The car struggles along Red Hill Road as it curves towards the sign of the Red Hill Diner, beneath tall pines and covered with snow that looks blue in the twilight. You park between two Ford pick-ups and don’t hesitate – you need a cup of coffee and something to eat, and it’s cold in the car. You slam the car door, lock it, and dash across the salted asphalt which crunches beneath your leather soled boots. You grab the handle and enter. A bell rings as you slip into the heat and light. The smell of used coffee grounds drying on the griddle give the air a black tang. On the radio, ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. There is a woman behind the counter. She has dirty-blonde hair and a blue uniform that needs pressing. She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes. Time holds, space distorts.
Red Hill Road seems to go on forever. You push the car over the snow, riding the brakes and accelerator. Every now and then, the tires fail to bite and the car slips backward. Your hands, in the leather gloves Sherry bought you the Christmas before she left, grip the wheel too tight. You need a break – you need a coffee and something to eat. As if you’ve summoned it with that thought, you see a glow ahead beneath the black pines with their silvered branches: a diner in an aluminium box with a neon sign. Just a hundred yards more and then, under a blueing sky, you glide onto the salted parking lot and take a spot between two Ford pickup trucks, one blue, one faded red. You kill the engine and brace yourself for the cold. It’s only a couple of steps to the door but you know it’s going to bite. After a moment, like somebody jumping into the frozen sea, you launch yourself out of the car, slam the door, and head for the entrance. A bell rings when you enter and you hear country music, smell burning coffee grounds, and see a woman who looks a little like Sherry at the same age. Before you can utter a greeting she says, in a quivering whisper, “Go! Get help. Get. Help.” But you can’t – you are stone and the air is heavy electricity.
You sit in the car with the engine off. Your hands are on the wheel, warm in the leather gloves Sherry bought you before she left, and the neon light of the diner washes you red. The Red Hill Diner, Red Hill Road, Davisburg – you’ve been here before, though you can’t remember when. Perhaps you drove through this way back in ‘76 when head office was pushing those new livestock insurance policies. You need a coffee but you’re too tired to move and you know it will be even colder outside the car. You sigh. You make a move. A few steps across the salt-strewn asphalt, up two steps, and in through the door of the aluminium box. A bell rings. “I call your name and hear a deafening silence and the closing of a door,” sings Vern Gosdin from a radio. The waitress behind the counter looks afraid. Her eyes lead yours to the floor: at the end of the counter, a pair of legs and feet in heavy work boots. A shadow moves across the back wall – someone is coming from the kitchen, whistling along with the music on the radio: “…a violent rush of teardrops from my eyes…” Somehow, his very tread is mean.
The car labours up the snow-covered road beneath dark pines that disappear into mist. Night is falling and the world is turning blue. You see a neon sign up ahead – Red Hill Diner. You could really use a cup of coffee, you’ve been driving in this god awful weather all day, but as you draw near, something tells you not to stop. As you pass, the car floating soundlessly, now, you watch shadows move beyond the condensation on the window – slow, submerged ghosts. People you will never know.
Rod was a regular in the George. He had his own special pint glass and a place reserved at the bar. I knew he’d been an actor but didn’t recognise him from any film I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen nearly every film ever made in Britain. That’s my special area of expertise; I’ve written two books on it.
Maybe he knew that.
Maybe that’s why, one Thursday night during the interval in the film quiz, when Wayne was playing his usual selection of Barry Gray TV themes, Rod spoke to me.
‘Like films, do you?’ His voice was wet and his breath smelled of lager.
‘Like films? Your, er, whatsit. T-Shirt.’
I looked down. I was wearing a tacky print of Michael Caine in Get Carter I’d bought at the Vintage Magazine Co twenty years before.
‘Oh. Yeah. I write about them.’ I picked up the three pints from the bar, and made to move away.
‘Ahh. Well, then. I’ve worked with Mike Caine, of course. Lovely bloke. Horse Under Water, back in seventy-eight.’ Rod, wheezed, and turned away. I slowly lowered the pints back onto the bar top.
‘Did you say Horse Under Water?’
He looked over his shoulder, evidently pleased to have grabbed my attention.
‘That’s a Harry Palmer novel, right? Len Deighton. A sequel to the Ipcress File.’
‘You do know it, then? Not a bad film. Tremendous fun to work on. I played a naval officer in that one, all decked out with the proper kit, scrambled egg on the hat and what have you.’
‘I didn’t know they’d filmed it, actually. I thought the last one they made was The Billion Dollar Brain. And those two TV movies recently, but they don’t count.’
‘Well, they did. Pinewood, summer of seventy-seven.’
‘Why haven’t I heard about it, then?’
‘You learn something new everyday.’
He raised his glass and downed two thirds of a pint of Stella as if it were Tizer.
That night, after dinner, I picked up Halliwell while I was watching TV, and flicked carelessly to where Horse Under Water would have been, if it existed. I grunted to myself – it wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Just to be sure, though, I shuffled over to the computer to check IMDB. Nothing there either. I smiled, and shrugged; I had been worried for a moment that an important item of trivia had passed me by, but I had obviously been the victim of an imaginative old pisshead prankster.
The next time I went into the George, Rod greeted me with a wave. I waved back, but purposely ordered my drink at the other end of the bar. He slid down from his stool and, leaning on the bar the whole way, made his way along to stand at my side.
‘Hello again.’ He raised his glass in a salute. ‘I’ve got something to show you.’ He reached for his inside pocket – the jacket didn’t have one – and then into his trouser pocket. He pulled out a dog-eared Polaroid and slapped it onto the bar, into a ring of spilled beer.
The picture showed the water tank at Pinewood with a half-formed fibre-glass submarine floating in it. In the foreground stood middle-period Michael Caine – a little doughy, thick wavy hair. He was wearing his Harry Palmer glasses and a toothy smile, alongside a younger version of my drinking companion. Caine was holding a clapperboard: HORSE UNDER WATER, 03/08/77.
I thought at first it was a Photoshop job. I picked the picture up and looked closely. If it was a fake, it was beautiful work, printed on genuine Polaroid paper and with just the right amount of fading. All the red had washed away with the years.
‘Mmm.’ I tried not to sound too interested. ‘I couldn’t find any information on this film, though.’
Rod’s face fell. ‘Oh. You looked it up, then? And you didn’t find anything at all? Shame.’ There was something more there – not only disappointment but also… fear? ‘What about these?’ He reached back into his pocket and this time retrieved a small stack of similar polaroids. He dropped the first one onto the bar. Rod and a young Timothy Dalton; in the background, a sub-James Bond set, decorated with tape-banks and steel staircases. On the clapperboard:WHO IS JERRY CORNELIUS?
‘Jerry Cornelius? As in The Final Programme?’
‘Eh?’ Rod smiled absently.
‘The Final Programme. Robert Fuest, 1973.’
‘Ken Russell, 1969. I should know.’
‘Are you sure? With Jenny Runacre…’
‘Marianne Faithful. Here’s another for you.’ He looked excited, and knocked back half a pint or so, before tossing another picture onto the bar. CARRY ON ROCKING. Rod, Kenneth Williams and Freddie Starr.
‘Oh, come off it! Freddie Starr was never in a Carry On film.’
‘He was in Carry On Rocking. I should–’
‘You should know, right.’
‘Look.’ He pointed at the photograph with a thick brown finger. ‘1983. Poor Ken’s last Carry On. I had a speaking part in that one. You must have seen it.’ He looked at me, nodding and gesturing, as if that would help me remember. Pleading.
‘I’ve got to go. Thanks for showing me these. They’re very clever.’ I turned to order at the bar, and did everything I could to signal dismissal.
‘There are a couple more here. This one. Do you like those old Hammer Horror pictures?’
It had to be a set up. My second book was on Hammer. I was well known as an enthusiast. Despite my suspicions, when he proffered the photo, I snatched it from his hand. ’The Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates.’
‘Nearly! That’s Ralph alright. 1972. Read the clapper.’ Rod was triumphant. He knew he had me. I admit that I was excited. The board was a little out of focus, but I held it close, and squinted. FRANKENSTEIN 1980.
I shook my head.
‘I know every Hammer film made. Even the handful I haven’t watched, I’ve seen stills.’
‘Well, if that’s what you think, then I will leave you be. Of course, I’ve got a lot more than just photos, but you wouldn’t be interested in those. I don’t suppose posters and props and things of that sort are in your line.’ He snapped the photo from between my fingers, and scooped up the others from the bar before dropping them back into his pocket. ‘Good luck with the quiz.’
‘Wait, wait, Rod, just wait a moment. I need to know a bit more about your collection. I’d like a copy of that photograph, if nothing else.’ The song Wayne used to open the second half of the quiz, the theme from Timeslip, exploded from the struggling PA system and Rod’s reply was lost in the noise. He returned to his perch, and as I made my way back to my table, raised his glass one more time, and winked at me. There was something in his expression which made me feel I was failing to appreciate a very rich joke.
I was keen to talk again the following week and was disappointed not to see him when I came in from the rain an hour before the quiz began. I had spent the week scanning newspaper review archives, back issues of Sight and Sound, and even ringing a few people I knew through work, but hadn’t come up with a single bit of evidence that any of Rod’s films had ever been made.
I went up to the bar, staring at the empty stool. Eventually, I caught the landlord’s eye, and beckoned him over. He was a glum looking Yorkshireman with a drooping white Teddy Boy hairdo. ‘What can I get yer?’
‘I was wondering if you knew… Where’s Rod tonight?’
He nodded as if I’d said something wise.
‘Did you know him well?’
‘No, not well. We were just chatting last week.’
‘It’s bad news, pal. Ambulance came last weekend. He’s dead.’
My legs seemed to soften in an instant, and I felt blood flood my head.
‘Makes you think.’
I ordered a pint and retreated to a quiet corner. I felt slightly guilty that the first thought to cross my mind had been about his collection. Who would get it? Were there relatives? What if they just threw it all away when they were clearing his flat? I jumped up, leaving my pint, and made my way back to the bar.
‘Do you have a number for Rod’s family? I’d like to send flowers, or a card.’
The landlord held up a finger.
‘Wait one moment.’
He ducked behind the bar, and came up with a sheet of notepaper.
‘Here you go. His daughter. Said to give it to anyone who was a friend of his.’
I scribbled the details into my notebook, thanked the landlord, and left the pub without drinking a drop.
I used a phone box not far from the George, and got an answer on the first ring.
‘I was a friend of… well, I knew your father. Rod.’
There was a silence, followed by throat clearing.
‘I suppose you’re another of his alcoholic friends from that bloody pub.’
She was far better spoken than Rod, but there was still a touch of estuary nasal in her voice.
‘Well, I did meet him there, but I’m not an alcoholic.’
‘People rarely recognise when they are.’
‘No, really. I’m a journalist.’
‘Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist.’
‘I write about films,’ I said, and then found myself improvising. ‘I was interviewing your father for an article.’
‘Oh, really?’ Her voice became warmer.
‘Your father was in some very unusual and interesting films, including some I didn’t even know had been made.’
‘Oh, well, you’re in luck. He has copies of all of them, I think. Used to make me watch them when I was a child. Would you like to see them? A published article would be a lovely memorial to Dad. It’s just a shame that it didn’t come sooner.’
‘I will do my best, Mrs Harwood, to honour your father’s memory in what I write.’ My performance was sentimental enough to make Tom Hanks gag.
We arranged that I would meet her, with her husband, at Rod’s flat on Saturday morning, and said goodnight. My head was throbbing. Those films had not been made. I knew they hadn’t. I shrugged. Saturday morning would settle it.
I arrived early and was standing drinking coffee when they pulled up in a waxed and polished BMW. Mrs Harwood was older than I had expected, with stiffly dyed orange hair and the kind of wide eyed ogling expression that contact lenses encourage. Her husband was shorter than her, completely bald, and wore polarised aviator glasses. When he shook my hand, his palm was cold and smooth.
The flat was above a Halal butcher, and the door was burned black and graffiti covered. There were three locks. I forced myself to stay calm, and resisted the urge to push past Mrs Harwood once the door was open. The flat smelled of antiseptic and urine and there were cat scratches all over the stair carpet. There was another door into Rod’s flat itself, and this seemed to take even longer to crack, even though I suspected that a good push would have done the trick. She gestured grandly, ushering me into the sitting room.
‘Please. Go ahead and have a good rummage.’
I stepped through the doorway, and whistled aloud. One wall was lined with photo albums dated from 1965 to 1993 and there were several old fashioned tea crates in the centre of the floor. These looked exciting so I approached them first. Reaching in, I grabbed a roll of 8mm film in a Scotch box. Written on it in biro was DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE, REEL 3, 1979. Excited, I grabbed another: BLEAK HOUSE, REEL 1. Then another: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, 1990, INCOMPLETE.
‘We’ve got some papers to go through in the bedroom. Make yourself comfortable,’ said Mrs Harwood. Mr Harwood snorted sardonically. Once they had left, I pulled out my notebook and began to write down each title as I pulled the reels out. After thirty minutes or so, Mrs Harwood shouted from the other room.
‘If you’d like to watch some of those, there’s a projector in here. It’s not in very good condition, but I think it works.’ Mrs Harwood was clearly impressed by my enthusiasm, unlike her husband, who shouted over her: ‘Load of old rubbish anyway. I suppose muggins here will have to take it all down the dump. Typical.’
‘The dump?’ I walked over to the doorway with a reel in my hand, and my eyes wide with amazement. The bedroom was damp and reeked of cigarettes and lager. There was a well-used 8mm projector, and a screen on an easel, but little else. Mr and Mrs Harwood were kneeling on the floor, sifting through a stack of yellowing papers, most of which they then transferred to a bin bag. Mr Harwood looked up.
‘Yeah. The dump. Where you take old things that aren’t any use anymore.’
I couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, and I was glad.
‘You can’t do that. This collection is historically important.’
Mr Harwood’s lips pulled back from slick yellow teeth.
‘Don’t tell me what I will and won’t do, son.’
Mrs Harwood began to cry. Unsure what to do, I carried on as if I hadn’t noticed and set to work with the projector. After a minute or two, I had had Dan Dare threaded. My fingers were crossed as the silent, scratched image faded up. There was Nicky Henson in a sub-Star Trek space tracksuit, his hair hanging down around his collar and pipe in hand, piloting a poorly realised but nicely designed spaceship. Next to him, Richard Griffiths, presumably as Digby, was snivelling and doing his usual bit of business whilst grappling with a control lever. Cut to a treen destroyer in pursuit – Gerry Anderson’s work? Cut to Rod in facepaint and a plastic vest, as a Treen commander barking orders and pressing buttons. Cut back to Henson and Griffiths; more shouting; a fizzy explosion. I was captivated. A lost British response to the Star Wars phenomenon. Dan Dare’s ship crashed into the surface of a lush, jungle planet, and then the reel ended.
I stared at the white rectangle of light for a moment, and then exhaled.
‘That was very interesting.’
‘What you could see of it, through the scratches. Load of old rubbish.’
Mr Harwood looked at his watch.
‘We’re done. Are you going to be long?’
‘I’d like to watch another, if you don’t mind.’
‘There’s plenty of time for that later.’
Mr Harwood switched the projector off, and drew the curtains. As we left the flat, Mrs Harwood grabbed my arm.
‘Sorry about my husband. He’s always been jealous of Dad. To be honest, I think he’s glad to have me to himself again.’
‘Please don’t let him do anything silly,’ I pleaded.
‘I’ll try.’ She gave me a smile, and squeezed my arm. She was flirting. I’m not used to being flirted with, but in comparison with Mr Harwood, I can see how I might have appealed.
‘Can I come back soon? I’ll need to catalogue the films, and all the photo albums.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. If it was up to me…’
‘Please. I’d really appreciate it.’
She pushed her hair behind her ears and nodded. Her husband whistled for her, as if for a dog.
‘Are you coming, or what?’
As the BMW pulled away, I waved limply, and lowered myself to sit on the kerb. There was every chance I was going to become a rich man, or at least famous on the cult film circuit and, despite the sheer improbability of it all, I was excited.
I spent the next few days carrying out some peripheral research when I should have been writing my column for Cable and Satellite Monthly. First, I phoned every expert on British film in my professional address book and ran some of the titles by them. ‘That one rings a bell,’ was a common response, but I knew that these were the Emperor’s new films – no one wanted to admit they didn’t know them. I took the opportunity to gloat a little: ‘You haven’t seen it? Oh, you should. It’s a real lost classic.’
I also tried phoning agents and relatives of Michael Caine, Nicky Henson, Diana Rigg, Brigid Forbes, Nicholas Rowe, Timothy Dalton, Freddie Starr, Eric Idle, Joan Collins, Lewis Collins, Shane Bryant, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithful, John Alderton, Dennis Waterman, Paul Freeman, and a lot of other actors. No-one was very helpful, but even those that were didn’t recognise the films I was asking about.
What I couldn’t understand was how Rod had managed to act only in films no-one had heard of. I actually had a panic attack – tight chest, near-blackout, wobbly legs – at the thought of how embarrassing this whole business could be if someone analysed the film frame-by-frame and found that it was a trick. Perhaps Rod was just a front for some hoaxer’s elaborate con?
That Wednesday, I phoned Mrs Harwood to confirm the second viewing. Her husband answered the phone.
‘Oh, it’s you. I’ve been thinking about these films.’
I could hear him breathing across the mouthpiece of the phone, and the phlegm rattling in his throat.
‘Since you seem so keen, I might be willing to let you take them off our hands.’
I nearly whooped.
‘That’s fantastic news, Mr Harwood. I’d be happy to look after the archiving for you.’
‘Calm down, son. I was thinking that, just between you and me, this might be a business transaction. Funerals aren’t cheap, and that old sod sure as bloody hell didn’t leave any cash behind to pay for his own do. How much?’
‘Well, if you can’t, then I’ll have to dispose of them some other way.’
He seemed to be enjoying himself – the thrill of bargaining. I hadn’t done much bartering, and gave myself away immediately.
‘No! No. Right. Two hundred reels of damaged 8mm film, mostly incomplete features. That can’t be worth more than…’
‘I’m not a mug, sunshine. Don’t waste my time.’
He put the phone down. I redialled.
‘Mr Harwood, I was going to say that they can’t be worth more than, say, £200.’
‘£200? I might not be Barry Norman, but I know this stuff is interesting. I’ve been doing a bit of research, see? I was thinking of five grand.’
There was a long silence. I switched the phone to my other ear and cleared my throat.
‘I don’t have that much money. I probably never will. You’re not really going to dump it all if I won’t buy it, are you?’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I’ll sell it to someone else. I can put an advert in one of those film magazines.’ He was twisting my arm very effectively. The thought of Barry Furst, Mark Sidley or any of the others taking my story from me made me feel nauseous.
‘Can I speak to your wife?’ If Daddy says no, ask Mummy. The old classic. Laughter echoed down the line, sounding like a saw cutting tin. For the second time, I heard the click of a phone being dropped into the cradle.
I spent the afternoon trying to think of ways to get £5,000 together. No sources I hadn’t already tapped sprang to mind. That evening, not long after I’d finished putting together an estimate of how much I could make by selling everything I owned, my phone rang.
‘Hello?’ I said.
It was Mrs Harwood.
‘Mr Riley? Can you meet me now? My husband’s out, and I thought you might want to take Dad’s stuff away before he gets back.’ She giggled, exhilarated. ‘I feel very naughty.’
She picked me up at my flat in her worn out Nissan Micra.
‘We’ll have to be quick. My husband will ring me when he gets home and finds I’m not there.’
‘Well, he won’t be too angry, will he? I mean, it’s not as if…”
She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Not as if what?’
The evening was drawing in, and the flat was dark when we entered.
‘Where’s the light switch,’ I whispered.
‘I’ve brought a torch,’ she replied, suddenly standing very close to me. I could smell her perfume, which was the same one my grandmother had used. She clicked it on, and shone it around the flat. The broken circle of yellow light slid across bare walls. And bare floorboards. I snatched the flashlight from her hand and jogged forward into the living room. My footsteps echoed – the room was empty.
‘Where’s it all gone?’ I whimpered.
‘Daddy’s things! Where are Daddy’s things?’
The torch dimmed, and went out.
‘For fuck’s sake!’
I pushed past her and slapped the wall around the doorway until I found the light switch. The forty watt bulb on the ceiling bloomed, illuminating an almost completely stripped room. In the middle of the floor, though, was a shoebox. I went over and knelt next to it. A note was sellotaped to the lid.
‘£200 worth of tat. Pay the wife. H.’
‘Daddy’s things,’ said Mrs Harwood again, before wailing. She launched herself toward me, rested her head on my chest and grabbed my arms with her fingers. I wasn’t sure what to do, but let her sob over me without hugging back. I was in shock.
She pulled away after five minutes, leaving my t-shirt covered in warm salty water and snot.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. I nodded. ‘What’s in the box?’ she said, pointing at it.
I looked down and nodded again.
‘I’ll open it.’ Inside was one reel of film and a handful of photographs – just Rod, alone, on one anonymous sound stage after another.
‘Is it worth anything?’ she asked hopefully, looking up at me with a contact lens stuck to her cheek.
‘I don’t know. The reel’s not labeled.’
* * *
They found Harwood’s BMW later that night. Mrs Harwood called me to ask if I’d go with her to identify the body.
‘I don’t have anyone else, Mr Riley.’
The body on the gurney was him, alright. His bald head wasn’t white anymore – it was a sticky red – but his yellow teeth still grinned from behind his shrunken lips.
I spoke to a policeman while Mrs Harwood cried.
‘Looks like the daft bastard flipped a cigar out of the front window and the wind whipped it in through the back window. The back seat was piled high with flammable material – film reels, apparently. Went up like…’ He gestured an explosion with his hands. ‘Ka-boom.’
‘Know him well, did you?’
‘No. Talked to him twice. Hated him. But it’s a shame about the films. Some of them were rare.’
I laughed grimly at my own joke.
‘Well, we did find a couple of reels intact.’
* * *
First the leader, then suddenly a handheld shot of the inside of a car taken from the back seat. Above the driver’s seat, a shining white bald head.
Cut to an exterior shot. The car passes at a leisurely pace. It’s a BMW.
Cut to another car, in pursuit – a 1975 Ford Escort, being pushed hard. The driver looks familiar, but glare on the window half conceals his face.
Cut back to the BMW. The driver fiddles with the radio, and laughs. He looks startled when a horn sounds.
Cut to a POV shot from the Ford Escort. It pulls up alongside the BMW, and a hand extends. It’s holding a fat cigar.
Cut to the terrified face of Mr Harwood.
Cut to Harwood’s POV as a smiling mid-period Michael Caine, riding shotgun in the Escort, flicks the cigar through the open window of the BMW.
Jump-cut: the BMW exploding and careening from the road. The Escort pulls up alongside. Rod, in the driver’s seat, turns to Michael Caine, and gives him a nod of approval. They pull away.
Why is my novel called The Grave Digger’s Boy? Well, finding out is part of the fun, but here’s something I’ve kept a bit quiet until now: I’m a grave digger’s boy.
For a year or so when I was at junior school, my dad had a job as a grave digger for the council.
At the time, I thought this was pretty cool. I enjoyed telling other kids who would either recoil or want to know more.
There certainly were macabre stories – days spent opening up old graves so the newly-dead could join their spouses or siblings, boots through the rotten lids of coffins, slips and falls among the mud and bones…
But it was also utterly mundane. Rotas and requisition orders, job sheets and sheds. Cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of the van, sheltering from the rain.
Part of being a writer is throwing different ideas into your brain and letting them bounce around until they stick together in interesting ways.
So if The Grave Digger’s Boy is ingredient one, here’s number two, freshly added: John Braine’s The Vodi, which I came across as part of my #reading1959 project, has been described as ‘kitchen sink gothic’ – bleak social realism with an added flavour of the sinister supernatural.
Suddenly, I realise that lots of things I’ve written or have been working on that I’d thought were separate and distinct, aren’t.
For example, there’s my big work in progress – the epic novel I expect to finish in a decade or so that I jokingly refer to as War and Peace but set on a council estate. When I launched into writing last year, something happened that I hadn’t planned or expected: incidents of the uncanny began to manifest in what was supposed to be raw realism.
Here’s an example, from the opening, set in 1957, as two central characters arrive at a half-built council estate after dark, late at night:
John Patrick slammed the brakes on and the little car jerked to a dead stop. He turned off the headlights and they sat in the dark as the engine ticked.
‘Will you bloody give over? We’re nearly there.’
Another sigh, softer, came from between her dark lips.
‘You’re gorgeous, you are,’ he said after a moment. ‘Like a film star.’
She tutted. ‘Well? Go on, you daft sod.’
He looked at her for a moment longer and then pushed a lick of his brown Bryclreemed hair back into place behind a big ear.
‘It’ll all look better in daylight.’
He switched the lights back on and they both started.
Staring back at them from the road was a big cat, as big as a man, with oily black fur and eyes reflecting back as yellow stars.
Irene shrank back in her seat.
The engine purred.
The cat licked its lips, yawned, and bolted away.
After a few seconds, Irene cut into the silence.
‘What the bloody hell was that?’
With a shaking hand, John took the cigarette from between his lips, snuffed it, and tucked it behind his ear.
‘A large female yaws,’ he said.
‘Yaws? What’s a yaws?’
‘A-Mild and a-bitter with a whisky chaser, a-thank you kindly.’
Elsewhere in the story, there’s the ghost of a dead sibling and an echo of Bella in the Wych Elm – “Who Took Mary Cook?” The UFO my dad swears blind he saw might turn up, too.
Another novel, abandoned for now, tentatively titled The Red Lodge, combines the case of the Lamb Inn haunting with the modern trend for buildings ‘protected by occupation’:
A hand on my arm, those fat digits digging into my bones.
“I’ve missed seeing you.”
“Hello, Uncle Bernard.”
His hand dropped away and he looked me up and down.
“You look like shit,” he said, rummaging in his pocket for a bunch of keys.
I said nothing.
He slapped flatfootedly towards the temporary steel gate with its warning signs and chains and opened the padlocks one by one.
Together, we dragged the gate across rough concrete, scratching a white semi-circle.
Bernard drew on his vape stick and exhaled a blueberry flavoured cloud around his unruly head as he considered the overgrown driveway.
“Got decent boots on? Let’s walk.”
I looked down at my well-worn, thin-soled Adidas trainers, but didn’t protest.
“It’s a lot of land,” I said, partly to break the uncomfortable rhythm of our synchronised steps.
Amid the brambles were the remains of concrete and brick structures, pieces of pipe cut off a few inches above ground, and chunks of rusting machinery. Here and there were burst bags of rubbish, hurled over the fence and left for rats and gulls to tear apart. A lone shoe grew moss.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
He wasn’t being sarcastic – to Bernard, it really did look beautiful, a virgin plain beyond the frontier.
“They built parts for planes here before the War, until they moved production under Salisbury Plain.”
The house was getting nearer, flooding the horizon with a wall of red.
“There were Italian prisoners of war here until 1947, working on the farms.”
Beneath our feet, concrete gave way to smooth asphalt and Bernard began fingering his keys again.
We stopped at the doorway with its clamshell hood and four white stone steps as Bernard muttered to himself, irritated: “Fucking thing… Checked it before I left the office… Should have… Fuck sake…”
I could hear the motorway in the distance – a constant exhalation – and the wind shaking the brambles, but there was also something else – a high, secret sound.
In more concrete terms (no pun intended) is there perhaps something about the way the houses were constructed? In the Sunderland case journalist Ken Culley slept in the haunted bedroom but, despite apparently making every effort to spook himself, saw no evidence of anything supernatural. What he did observe was that the construction of the house made it simultaneously cold and stuffy, and that opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl around the foot of the bed, numbing his feet. Light and airy may have been the intention but large rooms with high ceilings, sparsely furnished, offer great potential for echoes, reflections and strange circulations.
Focusing on the connections between all of this, more items from the memory banks presented themselves – a body of family stories, from the morbid Lancastrian side, that must have settled in my subconscious.
Greaty Aunt Ann, for example, who tried to kill herself by walking into the sea but came back to shore to get an umbrella when it started raining.
The great-great-uncle who tramped around the country during the depression of the 1930s sleeping in graveyards: “They’re safer than anywhere else; it’s the wick ‘uns outside you’ve to worry about.”
A vague tale of a relative, or family friend – urban legend, more likely – who worked as night-watchman at a funeral parlour and ran screaming from the premises when at two in the morning, through the action of tightening muscles and trapped air, a corpse sat up and groaned at him.
My grandmother’s story of a childhood acquaintance from Crawshawbooth who awoke to find a rat that had eaten its way into her bedroom from the attic chewing at the tip of her nose and cheeks.
My current project, which I’m unsubtly trailing on Twitter, sits in the same territory – the darkness of recent past, the modern world weighed down by the old, blood on the lino.
‘Kitchen-sink gothic’ is good – and there’s an anthology that uses that title. I gather ‘gothic realism’ is also a term that sometimes pops up. But I prefer ‘municipal gothic’, perhaps because it suggests a Venn diagram of two of my favourite projects, Hookland and Municipal Dreams.
I’ve been writing municipal gothic by accident until now but I reckon it’ll be deliberate from here on.
Growing up in the shadow of the British Cellophane factory in Bridgwater, Somerset, I often heard stories of its ghosts.
The factory opened in 1937 as a joint project between the French firm that owned the rights to the process for mass-manufacturing cellulose film and British textile company Courtaulds.
It was built on fields next to Sydenham House, a 16th century mansion with its own stock of strange tales as recounted in Berta Lawrence’s 1973 book Somerset Legends. The Duke of Monmouth, she suggests, haunts a bedroom where he is said to have stayed (‘said’ always being a danger sign in such stories) before the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685. The room overlooked an oak tree, and some years later a member of the Perceval family was lifted by “some invisible spirit out of the chamber beyond his window-bars and, by levitation, set in the oak’s branches”. The house was also the scene of violence during the peasants’ revolt of 1381.
In the 20th century, the house was used by Courtaulds for corporate hospitality and, beyond the security boundary, hidden behind foliage, attained semi-legendary status among local children. I was taken to the garden once as a child, on a hot but darkly overcast day, and found it unsettling – the perfect setting for a timeslip.
I spent most of my childhood living within five minutes’ walk of the factory and its famous stink – it was often called ‘Smellophane’ – and my father worked there in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the parents of many of my peers. Every Thursday morning, as I was walking to school, they’d test the emergency sirens, adding to the collective sense of Cold War dread.
The first person to tell me a ghost story about the factory was my childhood best friend whose father worked in the section of Courtaulds dedicated to the production of non-woven synthetic fabrics. I asked my friend if he remembered what he’d told me all those years ago and his reply (edited for clarity) was as follows:
Late one night Dad saw someone in a checked shirt at the end of the production line. There wouldn’t have been many people about at that time so he went to investigate but the person had gone and the only door nearby was locked. The bloke couldn’t have gone anywhere else. It turned out someone from the other shift had died in just that spot (drowned, I think, in a cooling tank, or dragged under the rollers) and had been wearing the same clothes as the figure Dad saw.
As an 8-year-old I’d simply enjoyed shuddering at this story but I find myself wondering today if his father – quite a joker – might have been teasing him. My friend thinks not: “Mum said he was absolutely convinced at the time and quite shaken.”
I also remember a variant of this ‘drowned in a vat’ tale told by another school contemporary: a figure spotted on a high gantry, then apparently falling from the edge into a tank; emergency services called, the vessel drained, but no body found.
I asked my own father if he’d ever found working on the site unnerving. He talked at length about the general twitchiness of factory life, especially working nights, practically alone in vast, echoing spaces, and the long stretches of boredom between bouts of strenuous labour. But as to specifics, he said:
The only experience I had was of something that passed through a corridor. It might have been that somebody opened a door and it was a cold chill or something… It was weird. It wasn’t something I saw, just felt.
My younger brother suggested I get in touch with a friend of his who worked on the site in its final years, who wrote:
[One] of the machines there, called C2, killed a guy back the 1970s and it was definitely creepy in that area. [He] was pulled into a huge heated steamrolling press. [There was no] reverse mechanism and the firemen had to sledgehammer the machine apart to peel him out.
With prompting, Dad recalled a similar story from British Cellophane – strangely similar, you might say – about an operator who got cocky while threading a length of film through the moving parts of a machine. He was pulled into the workings and then when the machine reached full speed it “tore his limb right from his shoulder, voom! He Dropped dead.”
My suspicion is that these were scare stories, garbled and embellished as they spread, perhaps intended to reinforce the importance of safety procedures, or merely to wind up new recruits. The arm-ripping incident my father recounted of course happened ‘a few years’ before he joined the firm, like all good urban myths.
It’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen but I can say that I have not been able to find any record of any events like these in newspapers, even though relatively less gruesome accidents at the factory were reported. (A painter died during construction of the plant; a laboratory apprentice fell from a landing stage with no barrier and later died; a foreman dropped dead while walking along a gantry; and Raymond Culverwell set a legal precedent when a truck crushed his leg: being late back from his tea break, the Court of Appeal ruled, he was not entitled to compensation.) Gruesome limb-tearing and crushing incidents at other industrial sites were frequently covered so the press were clearly interested.
After a version of this story first appeared in Fortean Times in 2018, however, I heard from Gavin Hogg whose grandfather, George Rogers, worked at Cellophane in the 1950s and 60s, and died while working at British Cellophane, in 1963. He asked his mother for more detail:
He was killed in an accident during the night-shift (22:00 – 06:00) and she writes that he was on his own at the time (I don’t know if she means just in the immediate area, or the whole factory). The official inquest verdict was death by misadventure.
There was no compensation or any financial help for my grandmother and her two daughters – my Mum would have been 21 at the time and her younger sister would have been around 16-17.
Mum says that the factory destroyed all the evidence after the accident and changed the machinery.
A little digging turned up an account of the inquest from June 1963, which set out the details: at about 5am, Mr Rogers was alone, his colleague having stepped outside for a few moments, and accidentally put an amount of vinylidine chloride into a hot vessel rather than a cool one, whereupon it instantly vaporised and gassed him to death.
Again, no falls into vats, or torn limbs, but this does echo my own father’s explanation for the uneasy atmosphere in the factory, which is simultaneously more down-to-earth and scarier than any ghost. The premises was, he says, often dense with chemical fumes, and he would frequently find himself wading in pools of toluene, a liquid solvent known to cause hallucinations. It’s easy to see how that sort of thing might combine with the disorientation of shift work, and those grim shock tales, to generate paranoia, confusion and even strange visions.
Though none of that, of course, explains how Perceval got into the oak tree.
In Britain hauntings occur in ancient manor houses, old inns, and Gothic asylums – places whose very age makes them groan and creak, where shadows sit deep, and which are scarred by the lingering imprint of lives lived and lost. And yet arguably the most famous British ghost story of the 20th century took place somewhere quite different: in a humble council house, only half a century old, in Enfield, north London.
This turns out to be far from the only such instance, however, and was certainly not the first.
“The world of the ghost is riddled with class,” wrote Roger Clarke in his 2012 Natural History of Ghosts, “and the poltergeist is occasionally tagged as ‘the council house ghost’.”
Here are just a few examples of that particular, peculiar phenomenon.
Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, 1947-50
The tenants of a red-brick council house on Queen Street, built only in 1945-46, reported having seen a figure glide through the hall and then disappear. Mrs Thomas Bicknell (her own name is not given) first saw the ghost in around 1947, as reported in the Northampton Mercury and Herald for 6 January 1950:
She and her late husband, Mr Thomas Bicknell – a man with 23 years’ service in the Royal Artillery and not given to imagining things – had just finished a game of cards when they heard a rustling and tapping noise coming from the direction of the hall… Their dog, a large Airedale retriever, rose to its feet, raised its hackles and growled… Mr Bicknell went into the hall but could see nothing. The dog went up the stairs, still growling, and his master followed. Again there was nothing, but as he turned to descend the stairs, he saw a ghostly figure glide through the hall, go into the kitchen, and disappear. Mrs Bicknell, sitting in the living room, saw it too.
After her husband died, Mrs Bicknell saw the ghost a second time, on Christmas Eve 1949, doing the same gliding and disappearing act. When her distress story was reported at a council meeting it was met with laughter. “This added amenity warrants an increase in the rent,” said Mr D.H. Jelley, following in the grand gentlemanly tradition of scoffing at superstitious proletarians.
Earby, Lancashire, 1954
Mr E. Peasey, a chimney sweep, evacuated his wife and nine children to a single downstairs room in their council house at 1 Melrose Street as a result of ‘queer things’ happening upstairs, and multiple ghostly apparitions. Here’s a summary from the Burnley Express and News for 16 October that year:
[For] three years doors had opened on their own, footsteps had been heard overhead, crockery had flown into the air and pictures had gone crooked… One of the boys, 14-year-old [Bobby] described a shadow in his bedroom. At first he thought it was a reflection but it advanced to the middle of his room and then began to tickle his feet and scratch him… The ‘thing’ was white, with no arms or legs, and when an alarm clock went off it had backed into the corner and disappeared… Ten-year-old Kathleen described seeing two hooded figures “floating” and similar shapes were described by others in the family.
Another report, from the Barnoldswick and Earby Times for 15 October, adds more details: a bright light seen in an upstairs room, door knobs turning on their own, and two of the children waking their father to report that they had “seen a man in Daddy’s attic”. A small twist: this was apparently an older slum property with gaslighting rather than a modern council house and the story came to light precisely because Mr Peasey wrote to the council requesting a move to just such a new-build.
Sedgley, West Midlands, 1954
From the same year and month as the tale above comes the minor story of a haunting in Sedgley in the West Midlands in which the tenant, an unnamed woman, supposedly asked the council sanitary inspector to fumigate for ghosts while he was hunting rats on the property. It was reported in the Birmingham Gazette for 29 October 1954 as a “Nowt So Queer as Folk” sidebar scant on details, and with a decidedly unfunny punchline: evidence of haunting in her daughter’s bedroom was chalked up to the resident vermin, and the family were evicted for failing to maintain the house properly.
Sunderland, County Durham/Tyne & Wear, 1957
It was in spring when Norman and Audrey Dixon first reported that the council house in General Havelock Road, Sunderland, into which they had recently moved with their three young children was haunted in a rather colourful fashion, as recounted in the Birmingham Post for 23 October 1957:
[The ghost] takes the form of a zig-zag line [which] appears on the wall of their living room…. The first night they slept upstairs sheets were ripped off the bed and fingers dug into their chests, Mr Dixon said. “A few nights later I felt something clammy on my back and so did my wife. There seemed to be no air in the room. We staggered downstairs and took the family to my brother’s house.”
This case was taken seriously enough by the local vicar that he appealed to the Bishop of Jarrow, J.A. Ramsbotham, who visited the property and conducted a ten-minute blessing service on 22 March, including the sprinkling of holy water. But when journalist Ken Culley followed up (‘I was guest in the haunted house’, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25/03/1957) the Dixons told him that the exorcism had been effective for only 24 hours and that the “unwanted visitor” had returned in full force.
They too were eventually evicted after refusing to pay their rent in protest at the Council’s refusal to provide them with alternative accommodation. (Newcastle Journal, 29/10/1957.) Another family, the Rowes, moved into the house in November 1957 and reportedly found it “all quiet”, and that was that. (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 05/11/1957.)
Swindon, Wiltshire, 1966
A brand new council house in Penhill Drive in Swindon was the subject of national press coverage when Gladys and Robert Tucker, who lived with their adult children Beryl and Victor, asked to be moved after they saw a shadowy figure on the landing and strange lights on the walls. (Daily Mirror, 04/04/1966) The council agreed to rehouse them, reluctantly, and had the house exorcised by a priest before reallocating it to new tenants. In his 1967 book Swindon: An Awkward Size for a Town Kenneth Hudson reported this incident as a blot upon the image of a town keen to present itself as modern and forward looking.
Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, 1968
In March 1968, Gerald and Audrey Burke, 34 and 31, moved out of their council house on Fern Avenue as a result of “tappings, loud thumps and the breaking of glass”, and the ghost of “an old lady…. wearing a white hat”. Mrs Burke asked the Council to re-house the family. (Aberdeen Evening Express, 13/03/1968.)
It seems the Burkes were not the first tenants to complain of such occurrences (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27/02/1968) and so the Council resorted to sending in, first, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gerald Walker (Birmingham Daily Post, 27/02/1968), and then “psychic experts” – brothers Alan and James Bell, from Formby – to attempt to exorcise the property.
The Bells were convinced by the evidence they saw and urged the council to move the Burke family, even offering to rent the house themselves while they continued their investigations. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 04/03/1968.)
I haven’t been able to pin down what happened next but I can say this: Fern Avenue no longer exists, even though nearby Ivy, Pine, Larch, Ash and Laurel avenues do.
Coventry, West Midlands, 1973
In 1973 it was a council house in Stoke Heath that scared away its residents. Lynne and John Edwards first moved their family into a single room at 63 Hill Side, before fleeing altogether, after they heard “whining noises and footsteps”, and felt the house turn freezing cold in in instant. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19/11/1973.)
* * *
After all that, it begins to feel as if not only is the council house not such an unusual setting in which to encounter a ghost but, in fact, a setting positively prone to hauntings.
What can possibly cause these relatively history-less houses, designed to be light and airy, to be such fertile ground for the uncanny?
In America the answer would surely be an ‘Indian burial ground’, as in Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, which sees shiny new-build suburban houses haunted not by the ghosts of previous inhabitants but by those who once possessed the very land. (Sort of. It gets complicated in the sequels.) But, based on historic maps available via the National Library of Scotland, there’s no such obvious plot engine – no burned-down orphanage or gruesome battle site – at any of the other locations listed above, though a couple are near cemeteries.
Then again, it doesn’t take much age at all for a house to gain the potential for a haunting. In the 1968 haunting of another Coventry council house, this time at Treherne Road, the anxious 37-year-old resident, Miss Barbara Mills, connected a serious of spontaneous fires with stories she had heard of a wartime suicide at the property. (Birmingham Daily Post, 22/10/1968.) The Dixons in Sunderland invited a local psychic, James Long, to conduct a séance at the General Havelock Road house which resulted in a message from a drowned man, John McKenzie, who apologised for the trouble he had caused, but mentioned that there was also the “earthbound spirit of a woman” haunting the house. (Newcastle Journal, 29/04/1957.) Legends grow quickly, even in poor soil.
In more concrete terms (no pun intended) is there perhaps something about the way the houses were constructed? In the Sunderland case journalist Ken Culley slept in the haunted bedroom but, despite apparently making every effort to spook himself, saw no evidence of anything supernatural. What he did observe was that the construction of the house made it uncomfortably stuffy, while opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl oddly around the foot of the bed, numbing his feet. Light and airy may have been the intention but large rooms with high ceilings, sparsely furnished, offer great potential for echoes, reflections and strange circulations.
Then there is the question of location, and here I’m going to indulge my own memories of growing up on an estate. Council developments often occupy what in the jargon of the psychogeographer are called ‘edgelands’, neither town nor country, and can resemble lonesome frontier towns. All that space, a joy on a summer afternoon, has its downsides: winds whistling across shopping precincts and playing fields, or along showpiece boulevards; long, dark gardens with no walls and too many shadows, butting on to fields or woodland; neighbours at arms’ length, and family further yet, back in the old country. A bedroom for the parents and one for each child sounds like the ideal unless you’re used to something more intimate and find yourself alone at 3 am listening to silence, staring at a black shape creeping across an excess of freshly-plastered wall. With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the cases described above resulted in the afflicted families bunking up together in a single room, or crashing with neighbours or family. Could this be a sort of stress reaction to the trauma of being almost forcibly cleared from the so-called slums?
Roger Clarke’s observations on class are relevant here, too. He suggests that, at least until recently, middle class people were less likely to publicly report experiences of ghosts, even if they might admit to them privately. Talk of ghosts is viewed as evidence of either peasant stupidity (see above), or working class mendacity, and either way ‘showing off’ by talking about this kind of thing for whatever reason is rather vulgar.
Finally, there is the very fact of the stress of life on an estate. I should be clear here: in my experience, English council estates aren’t as bad as some people like to suggest; but nor are they, in practice, anything like Utopian. There is crime, and there is anti-social behaviour. One small example: our back door-knob used to rattle after dark when my Dad worked nights. A small thing, but terrifying. My Mum got into the habit of having my Uncle’s Army riot baton by her armchair or next to the bed, and I got out of the habit of sleeping too soundly, just in case intruders needed seeing off. Living like that, never quite relaxed, wears you down and sets you on edge. And, at the same time, you are also dealing with poverty which can leave you cold and hungry, and which at the same time can erode your sanity and sense of self.
“I cannot stand it much longer…. I am living on my nerves”, wrote Peasey the Earby chimney sweep with nine children to feed in his letter to the council. He was certainly haunted by something.