When my son was young, something happened in the night that we never discuss.
I don’t know if he remembers. Some days, I’m not even sure it was real.
Even so: when it’s late at night and I can’t sleep—when I open my eyes to the lukewarm pressure of the dark—I remember what happened with a cold thrill of fear, and wonder if I’ll ever sleep soundly again.
Sebastian was a nervous child. I never knew why. I always used to worry it was somehow my fault.
I split up with his mother when he was six. There wasn’t much anger by then and we almost laughed at the state of it. I remember we opened a bottle of wine and stayed up late to sort it all out.
Afterwards, I had the horrible feeling that, by failing to make it work, we’d somehow screwed up his childhood. Every time something went wrong in his life, I pictured our divorce as a dark figure standing beside him.
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. That’s just my personality. My least favourite song is the one that goes non, je ne regrette rien, because the truth is I regret almost everything.
When Sebastian was ten, I still had to tuck him in at night. He had a superstitious dread of his own wardrobe and wouldn’t sleep unless I checked inside for monsters. Even then, he had a lamp by his bed, and it stayed on through the night.
To be fair, it was a scary wardrobe. A big solid unit, with a crest along the top that seemed to scowl at you.
It belonged to my mother-in-law. After she died, my ex thought Sebastian would like it. He didn’t. I got him the Narnia books, hoping he’d warm to it. He just got scared of witches.
By the time of the “incident”, I’d settled on moving it out of there. He could make do with neat piles of clothes in the corner of his room. I just hadn’t got round to it.
Although my son worried me, I could sympathise. If there’s one thing that gives me goosebumps, it’s anything supernatural. I’m not so bad I jump at shadows, but I’ve been known to hurry down from a dark loft.
The funny thing is, apart from that I’ve always been quite bold. After the divorce I took up free climbing. Every bank holiday, I drove to Land’s End or Malham Cove, just to see how high I could get. I was quite happy with my fingers and toes on the rockface and nothing but fresh air under my heels.
Before Sebastian was born, I even passed selection for 4 Para, which is the reserve unit of the airborne infantry. I don’t want to over-egg it because I didn’t deploy, and I’ll never know if I had it in me—but signing up, and jumping out of planes, aren’t the actions of a nervous man.
Even so: if I’m alone at night and there’s a crack in the curtains, and I rise from my chair to draw them, I don’t like looking at the darkness beyond, for fear of what I’ll see.
As part of my army training, I did a two week course in Catterick Garrison, which is an army town in Yorkshire. I bedded down with the other trainees in Helles Barracks. We were quite a mixed bag. We had a mechanic from Glasgow, who was openly racist; a rower called Ben, who sat there reading The Art of War and going on about Tai Chi; and a placid Welshman who never said much. When he did speak, he just seemed faintly bemused. Like he’d wandered in by mistake, and didn’t know why people were shouting and making him run around fields.
Then there was Jim. Jim was older than the rest of us. I forget the maximum age for reserves, but I know he was sailing close to the wind. Despite that, he was the fittest of the group. He had staring blue eyes, visible veins on his temples, and not a pound of fat on his body. He was obsessed with getting his resting heart rate as low as possible. He even had a sort of nervous tic about it, where he kept feeling his throat to check his pulse. I remember Ben saying he wouldn’t be happy till he was clinically dead.
He came from Kersal. At the time, I’d never heard of it. He made it sound like a suburban version of Transylvania, where gothic scenes played out in council flats, or on the banks of the River Irwell.
“I bet it was great in summer,” said Ben—meaning the river.
“Mam wouldn’t let us near it,” he said. “Couldn’t go further than the soap works. She reckoned that river was haunted.”
“She called ’em ‘geggers’.”
Jim shook his head.
“More like fairies,” he said. “If they took a shine to you, they followed you home and gobbled you up in bed. Then one of them took your place. No one would know you were gone.”
Jim felt his neck, counting the beats.
“F░░░ knows,” he said. “Ask me mam.”
I shuddered in my bunk. I didn’t believe in “geggers” with my brain, but it’s funny what the back of your neck believes in, when it’s late at night and the goosebumps come. And the goosebumps were right, as I’ll soon explain.
I met the ex when I was working in Liverpool, at a pub called The Hole in the Wall. It’s tucked away in a long narrow street called Hackins Hey and it’s meant to be the oldest pub in the city. It’s out of the way, but I’d heard it was there and made a special trip.
The Hole in the Wall was built in the 1720s. I’m no expert but it seemed a lot older. Almost Tudor, in fact. The timbers were painted black. The first floor windows had cast iron lattices. It was grubby and charming at the same time.
Inside were dark wooden panels, gleaming brass fittings and a burning fire. There were room dividers with stained glass windows. Back then, you could still smoke in bars, so the air was thick with magic fog. I’ve never smoked myself but I miss that atmosphere. Entering a pub was like stepping through the looking-glass, to a magical world with rules of its own.
Louise was standing by the bar, rummaging in her handbag. She had gleaming red hair and matching lips. I was army-fit in those days and cocky with it, so I marched right up and paid for her drink.
“Thanks,” she said. “Who are you?”
I asked if she was from Manchester. She had that accent, like she was talking through her nose.
“Nearly,” she said with a smile. “Salford.”
I was surprised. I hadn’t known it was in Salford.
“I heard the river’s haunted,” I said. “Is that true?”
She gave me a withering look.
“It’s not true true, is it? Nowhere is. But we used to tell stories. There was a witch called Wet Ethel.”
I laughed at at the image.
“Wet Ethel!” I said. “And what about—geggers?”
She looked at me blankly.
“What are they, when they’re at home?”
“Just something I heard.”
When I offered her another drink, she insisted on buying the next round. It turned out she worked there and had only just finished her shift. We were still propping up the bar when her colleague rang last orders.
Two years later, she was pregnant and we were engaged.
We moved to Kersal to be close to her parents. I bought a house on Castlewood Road, just round the corner from the soap works. It was the same one which, decades earlier, had marked the end of Jim’s permitted route, as decreed by his superstitious “mam”.
When Sebastian was ten, I took him for a walk in Drinkwater Park.
We were following the river. The water’s meant to be filthy, but it’s a nice enough walk on a sunny day—and it was a sunny day. The air was almost swampy. A faint rotten smell kept wafting from the river. The sky was raw, like a peeled blister.
I stopped when I saw a giant drainpipe. It was sticking out of the far bank, spewing water from god-knows-where. It made a thunderous sound when it struck the river, turning the water to white rapids.
“Look at that,” I said to Sebastian. “Where do you think it goes? I bet we could get inside. We can come back with wellies, if you like.”
He looked at it in fright, so I quickly reassured him.
“Not when it’s like that,” I added. “When there’s less water coming out.”
He glanced at the pipe and his eyes widened.
“There’s someone in it now,” he said.
I turned to look inside. All I could see was a round dark hole with water coming out.
“No there isn’t,” I told him. “It’s empty. Look.”
He seemed rattled so I gave up trying. When we resumed our walk, he kept looking nervously around.
“Are you all right?” I said at last.
He’d stopped dead.
“There’s someone under that bridge,” he said—nodding down the river.
I looked but couldn’t see.
“You just missed him. He’s hiding.”
After the pipe, I wasn’t convinced, but nor could I be sure. I took it for granted that kids would come to loiter in the park. Maybe one of them was smoking weed, just out of sight beneath the bridge.
Also, we weren’t far past Forest Bank Prison, which is right on the banks of the river. In the worst case scenario, it could even be a fugitive, hiding in the park like a latter-day Magwitch.
“Was he by himself?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“Just ignore him then. Come on.”
We went past the bridge in silence. When it was behind us, I looked over my shoulder. I couldn’t see anyone under there, but it was a hot day. The river shone like liquid fire. Maybe the light had played tricks on his eyes.
Some nights later, Sebastian woke me twice because of tapping at his window.
It was a windy night and we had a tree in the garden. A large apple tree, which gave a yearly harvest of small inedible fruit. It must have been knocking the glass. I had a pole trimmer in the garage, so that was my chore for the following day.
After I’d done it, I was still in the mood for chores, so I went to Sebastian’s room and tried to move the wardrobe. It budged about an inch, so I made a mental note to phone a handyman.
While I was there, I opened the window, looking out at my handiwork. Now I’d trimmed the tree, there was no way it could touch the glass unless a storm blew it over.
Satisfied, I left the window open and went downstairs.
When bedtime came, I sent Sebastian to brush his teeth and promised to meet him upstairs, where I would check for monsters and tuck him in. Before I did, the phone rang. It was his mum, having some kind of drama with money. After a while of trying to untangle it, I promised to ring her the next day and got off the line.
When I went upstairs, the whole house was quiet. I wondered if Sebastian was sleeping. I opened the door very slowly, just in case he was.
He wasn’t sleeping. His little white eyes shone in the dark. For some reason, his lamp was off.
“Sorry,” I said. “Your mum rang.”
I went to his bedside and stroked his hair. It was fine and red, like his mother’s. I could feel heat and sweat coming off it. If he wasn’t coming down with something, he was terrified.
“I thought you might be sleeping,” I said. “No luck, eh?”
He shook his head.
“Do you want me to check the wardrobe?”
He shook it again.
He had the duvet pulled up to his nose. I looked at the wardrobe. In the dark, it was a featureless slab of grey.
“What about the lamp?” I said. “Do you want it on?”
He didn’t answer, so I reached across the bed and pressed the button. With a sharp click, the wardrobe appeared.
The doors were ajar, which was strange. A vertical band of darkness stood between them, about as wide as my thumb is long.
In the narrow strip of gloom, I thought I saw a flicker of movement. One of the doors wobbled on its hinges.
A soft noise came from within, like a little gasp of air.
My mind raced but resisted horror. Surely, I thought—surely—we’d somehow let a cat in?
Then I remembered the window. I’d left it open. Even now, the cheap curtains billowed by the bed. Synthetic fibres glowed in the lamplight.
A cat got in, I told myself. That’s all.
“Hang on,” I told Sebastian.
I went to the wardrobe and opened the doors. I’d braced myself for the cat to howl and shoot out of there.
It wasn’t a cat.
Hugging his knees on the sock drawers—cowering behind his own shirts—was Sebastian, my son.
He looked up at me in terror. My mind reeled as I heard his words:
“I don’t know who that is in my bed.”
As if in a dream, I turned to see.
The thing that looked like my son was sitting up now—grinning right at me.
It wasn’t a perfect copy. The smile was too wide. Cheeks stuck out to make room for it. Five inches of grinning teeth, gleaming in the lamplight.
“Ge-e-eggh!” it croaked—clacking its teeth.
The room span, and I’m not ashamed to say I fainted.
Some time later I woke with a start.
It was dawn by then. The birds seemed aggressively loud. Through the wide-open window, liquid light came flooding in, making the lamp seem feeble rather than bright. It was still lit but lay on its side, making a faint orange stain in the general blue.
Sebastian was curled up behind me, still in the wardrobe. He was snoring softly with his hands on his face. I moved them gently to check his features. They were perfectly normal.
He whimpered softly but didn’t wake. I picked him up and managed to carry him to my room. He woke briefly on the landing and stiffened with fear, so I held him tight and shushed him.
“You had a nightmare,” I said.
When we rose at noon, he showed no signs of remembering—but nor did he ask why he’d slept in my bed—so I guessed he remembered something. Maybe just being carried. A vague recollection of a night terror.
I knew I’d seen a “gegger”, so Jim’s words came back to haunt me. Was this my son or a changeling? In the days that followed, I asked him questions, checking for things that no one else knew. If it wasn’t him, it certainly had his memories.
From that night on, I kept the windows closed. I managed to find an expert in local folklore, who gave me bundles of herbs and charms to hang around. I didn’t tell her that we’d had an intruder; only that I didn’t want one. Either her methods worked or we got lucky. My son was safe, and his doppelgänger never returned.
The terrible thing is, I don’t know what happened when I was out cold. All I know is, when I fainted, I fell against the open wardrobe. I opened my eyes and my son was almost under me. I could feel the warmth of his body on my back. Rather than trying to move me, maybe the gegger wrote it off as a bad job?
Here’s what bothers me, even now. After that one terrible night, my son no longer needed me to tuck him in, or check inside the wardrobe for monsters. In that regard at least, he was a changed boy.
I like to think that, somewhere in his brain, his subconscious knows what happened. Maybe it toughened him up. It’s a nice idea, and the alternative is unthinkable.
I have a recurring dream, or rather nightmare, and hope to God it won’t come true. I dream that I’m an old man, lying at last on my deathbed. Sebastian sits beside me. I can hear the peep—peep—peep of my heartbeat slowing down.
When the time comes for me to die, he takes my hand and leans across the bed. I look up at his face. When I do, he smiles a terrible smile that’s far too big, and I know the monster got him after all.
Ellis Reed, 12/04/2020
(A note from the author: this story was partly inspired by what I thought was an old urban legend, which turned out to come from a “two sentence horror story” by Juan J Ruiz. Now I’m aware of this I want to give him credit, so I encourage you to read the original text in this article.)