The woman who answered the door was very old and very slight, like a skeleton shrink-wrapped in skin. She had bulging brown eyes and a shock of white hair, and a plain grey jumper speckled with food.
“Mrs Booth?” I enquired.
She just stood and stared at me, absently picking the soup from her sleeve. I knew the expression on her face at once; it was the thousand-yard stare of supernatural shellshock, and it left me with no doubt at all that something was wrong inside her house.
“I’m Lucas,” I told her. “From the Broughton Society for Paranormal Research. I think you’re expecting me?”
She gathered her wits and stepped back from the door.
“Of course,” she said. “Come in. I’ll put the kettle on.”
I followed her into the dark hall and looked around. I’m not a medium by any stretch, but even I could tell the house was haunted. As I picked my way through the clutter, the shadows seemed to sit up and take notice. I went to the dining room and waited while she made the tea.
“I’ve been talking to Keith,” she called down the hall. “Keith Craddock, I think it was.”
“Credge,” I told her.
She rummaged loudly in the kitchen.
“Credge,” she agreed. “That was it. Funny bugger.”
She came to join me in the dining room and closed the door against the dark hall. When she placed my cup and saucer before me, I saw that her hands were trembling.
“Keith believes me,” she added. “He says it’s my husband, all right. Just like I thought it was.”
“I don’t doubt it for a second, Mrs Booth.”
She looked at me in surprise.
“Not at all. Keith is a very gifted medium. But he isn’t an exorcist—which is why I’m here.”
I blew on the tea. As I did, my eyes wandered to the curtains and then the pelmet, which had ornaments placed along the top. There were gilt-framed photos, china figurines and tiny wooden boxes, all covered in a film of grey dust. I wondered how she’d got them up there, since she was far too old to be standing on chairs. Between two painted saucers was a small black urn, and I guessed it contained her husband’s ashes.
“When did he die?” I asked bluntly.
She looked at me in fright for a moment, then composed herself and sat down.
“Last summer,” she recalled. “Didn’t have any trouble till a week ago. Since then it’s been awful.”
“May I ask how?”
“He liked a drink, put it that way. One night, well—he just went down the stairs.”
As she spoke, the ceiling groaned softly overhead. She glanced up in alarm and I did the same. It sounded like a thick-set man was pacing upstairs. The chandelier swung lightly on its chain, making a soft creaking sound.
“Are we alone?” I said in surprise.
She shook her head.
“Who’s up there?”
She looked at me fearfully.
“He is,” she whispered.
As soon as she said the words, the whole room began to tremble. The pokers by the fire, the ornaments on the pelmet—even the cup of tea before me. I looked down and watched it rattle on the table, sloshing tea into the saucer.
“This is what he does,” she said, wringing her long bony hands. “Every night he gets a little bit closer. A little bit further down the stairs…”
Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but as she spoke, I heard him stomp across the upstairs landing. My cup and saucer skidded off the table and landed on the carpet with a crash. In the same moment, a poker fell over by the hearth, making a dull clang against the grate. I jumped to my feet in surprise.
“Is it normally this bad?” I marvelled.
“No,” she admitted.
She’d gone quite pale, and I’m sure my face was no different.
“Nothing’s fallen over before. I think it’s because you’re here.”
“I’m flattered,” I said sarcastically.
Trying to ignore the menacing atmosphere, I unzipped my bag to get a long solid object wrapped in a scarf. I put it on the table and took her hands in mine, squeezing them to reassure her.
“Are you ready, Mrs Booth?”
She glanced nervously at the bundle on the table.
“Is this—is it Christian?“
“Not quite,” I admitted. “It’s older than that. It comes from a time when Salford was nothing but trees. I need you to trust me, Mrs Booth, and I need you to breathe.“
“I am doing.”
“Not like that. Breathe the light and not the air.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she began to say—but then her eyes glazed over and she did it perfectly.
“Good,” I said. “Now close your eyes…”
A deep growl came from the stairs, followed by heavy footsteps. Whoever it was—whatever it was—it moved very slowly. One painful step at a time.
“There’s a river,” I told her. “A long dark river, with willow trees growing beside it. The trees are bathed in light. Can you see it?”
“I can,” she said softly.
“What colour is the light?”
“Red,” she whispered. “The trees are black but the light is red”—and I knew she was telling the truth because I could see it too. I could see it through the wall behind her. The drooping boughs were bathed in ruby light. It shone into the room, painting the walls blood red around me.
I inhaled deeply, sucking it in.
“Good,” I said again.
As I spoke, I heard another step on the stairs. In the dining room, panes of glass shook their wooden frames, making a sound like a soft drumroll.
“Breathe the light into your body,” I told her. “It won’t hurt you.”
Moving quickly, I took her hands and held them over the bundle from my bag. I spoke softly and urgently, uttering the words of the ritual. As I did, I felt her fingers tighten in mine.
We didn’t have long. The thing outside the room was crossing the downstairs hall. Stomp, stomp, stomp. The floor shook but my voice didn’t falter. I glanced at the wall and saw, in my vision of the trees, a dark figure standing among them. A tall black shape in crimson fire. I knew who she was and nodded in recognition.
As I did, everything came to a head. The dining room door blew open behind me. A rush of cold air came into the room, making me cringe in my chair. One by one, the ornaments flew from their places on the pelmet, smashing on the wall above our heads. The urn exploded in a shower of ashes that whirled around the room.
“Don’t open your eyes!” I cried—quickly shutting my own. “And don’t let go of my hands!”
“Agatha!” growled a voice from the hall.
Before he could enter, I pressed her hands on the bundle and said the last words of the ritual. There was a blinding flash of red, which I saw through my eyelids, and all was still.
When Mrs Booth finally opened her eyes, she found me unwrapping the scarf on the table. Inside it was a large white candle.
“What’s that?” she wondered in a daze.
“Exactly what it looks like,” I said. “You can bind a spirit to an object, if you know how. We bound your husband to this candle.”
“What happens now?”
I stood the candle on end and looked at it. It was fat enough to stand there with no risk of falling over.
“You know, Mrs Booth—I’ve never seen anyone as scared of their own husband as you were,” I said frankly.
She managed a weak smile.
“Not even when he comes back as a ghost?”
“Not even then. That’s my point. Even when the ghost is misbehaving, people think they’re confused or scared and want to help them. The thing is, Mrs Booth—did I mention that Keith is a gifted medium?”
“He got the strong impression that Mr Booth didn’t fall down the stairs,” I told her, “as much as get pushed.”
She looked at me in alarm and made to rise, but I held up a hand to stop her.
“Please,” I said. “Sit down.”
She did so reluctantly, hugging herself through her dirty sweater. I paused while she got settled and then continued.
“Keith thought you were scared of your husband before he died,” I told her. “Does that make sense?”
She glanced at the candle and then back at me.
“He wasn’t very nice,” she confirmed. “When he was drunk, I mean. Which was always.”
I nodded sadly. Keith had seen as much during his visit. When he gazed up the stairs at the dark landing, he’d had a vision of Mr Booth, violently shaking his wife. The bear-like man was drunk and enraged, beating her round the head with his free hand. Somehow, she’d managed to use his weight against him, shoving him backwards down the stairs. The vision was so real that Keith had jumped back in fright, expecting Mr Booth to land on top of him.
“He’s in the candle now,” I told her. “He can’t get out. We used the Spirit of the Sallow to bind him. There’s no need to be scared any more.”
“Do I have to keep it?”
“No. We should destroy it. But let’s do it properly.”
I went back in my bag, took out a box of matches, and lit the candle in front of her.
“Don’t blow it out,” I said. “Let it burn until it’s all gone.”
The wax began to melt, making hot clear beads around the base of the wick. As it did, I thought I heard a man screaming in pain—although the sound was very faint, so it might have been the wind—or maybe just wishful thinking. In any case, Mrs Booth heard it too, and made no move to blow out the candle.
Ellis Reed, 17/01/2021