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.
This is another passage from the spirit-writing of local psychic Keith Credge (1943-2004).
In the last years of his life, Mr Credge claimed he was taking dictation from lost souls during hundreds of trance sittings. Most of the writings are fragments but others take the form of complete narratives. Rose’s story is exceptional because parts of it have been verified (as far as these things can be) by the Society.
Out of respect for the surviving relatives, her surname and house number have been removed from the transcript.
Broughton Society for Paranormal Research, 31 October 2020
I’ve been alone in the dark for five thousand and twenty-two days now with nothing to do except get my thoughts in order, so I’m happy to tell my story and think I’ll do it well.
My name is Rose. I was brought up near Moor Lane, in a Salford suburb that was almost Prestwich. I knew this from an early age because my parents were incapable of saying where we lived without quickly adding that it was almost in Prestwich. When Engels came to Salford in the Nineteenth Century, he found an old man living in a pile of dung, and a critic would say it hasn’t changed much—but our corner of the city was nice enough. Maybe because it was almost Prestwich.
There isn’t much to say about my youth. My early memories are a jumble of dream logic and magical thinking, stitched together like a patchwork quilt. When I got older I folded it up and put it away. It’s still there in the back of my mind and it smells faintly of the sea and sun-cream. I find it a comfort in this dark place, where I’ve been stranded for five thousand and twenty-two days, with nothing to do except get my thoughts in order.
In adult life I was the senior editor of a publishing house, with a secret ambition to write my own literary fiction. My husband was a GP in Cowley. We were very comfortable in Oxford, but I wanted to retire to Greater Manchester because all my family were there. My husband was sceptical of Salford—”almost Prestwich” or otherwise—until a beautiful house came up for sale on Blackfield Lane.
We weren’t ready to retire but I thought we could rent it out in the meantime. My husband grumbled but acquiesced. Since it was my dream rather than his, we agreed that I would take the sabbatical to do it up. Thus I found myself boarding a train to Manchester on a cold wet day in November, full of ideas about real fires and oval rugs and crystal chandeliers.
It was raining when the taxi brought me to Blackfield Lane and it’s raining now. I can’t see it but I can hear it. The wind-whipped droplets, lashing the house like handfuls of rice.
I’m still here, you see. I vanished but I never left.
When I first arrived, it was already dark and raining hard. Great liquid sheets of it, hitting the ground like glass meteors. I put my jacket over my head and ran to the door, cursing the strange new keys as I fumbled with the lock.
When I finally got inside, the first thing to hit me was the smell of damp. I walked through the house in a horrified daze, tormenting myself with long deep sniffs. Where was it coming from? Would it ever go? What if a time came when we thought it was gone, but we’d just got used to it, and people were too polite to say?
I made my way through the house, opening all the windows. I wanted to catch something red-handed, like a leak in the ceiling or rising damp, but there was nothing obvious. Nothing at all. The whole place simply stank.
“Great,” I said out loud.
I plugged in a phone and got a dial tone, which was a small victory. We’d asked for the line to be re-connected but didn’t think it would be. Then I rang my husband to tell him about the smell.
“What about the rest of it?” he said.
I looked around.
“Well you saw it yourself,” I reminded him. “It’s quite presentable. If we’re having tenants, we can leave most of the rooms till we move in ourselves.”
“Are we, though? I don’t think we decided.”
“I suppose we didn’t. What do you think?”
There was a long pause.
“Well we don’t need the money,” he pointed out. “Do we?“
We agreed to discuss it another time, but I think we’d reached a point where neither of us could be bothered renting it out. It was a small weight off my shoulders, of the kind you don’t even notice till it’s gone.
I unrolled my inflatable mattress and bedded down in one of the rooms. It took a long time to get to sleep, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t booked a hotel for the first few nights—at least until I got a bed delivered—but I couldn’t go back in time. I just lay there feeling sorry for myself.
When I finally nodded off, I had a nightmare.
In my dreams it was raining and the rain was getting in. I watched in horror as it came through the ceiling and ran down the walls. The plaster was so damp it had all turned to mush. I scooped it off in handfuls, trying to work out how bad it was.
Deeper and deeper I went into the wall. I couldn’t even find the brickwork beneath. I can’t remember what I did find, but I know I woke up screaming.
The next morning I explored the house properly, this time in a better frame of mind.
The previous owner had started to improve the property, apparently without much conviction. Here and there was evidence of half-finished work, like a bag of screws with the corner ripped off, or a dusty hammer stood on end. A post-it note with a plasterer’s number had fallen to the floor and curled up, like something that had died of old age.
I poked my head in the loft and was surprised to find a folding camp-bed. It looked a lot better than the inflatable mattress, so I lowered it through the hatch on the belt from my dressing gown. Then I went to a charity shop in Prestwich and paid for a chest of drawers, a small table, a jewellery box and a lamp. My plan was to put them in the room with the camp bed, just to make it more cosy in there.
I can still see them now. They’re set out before me, right where I left them. When morning comes, they’ll be thick with dust, like they were yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. I’ve watched the dust settle for five thousand and twenty-two days, like a blizzard of snow in slow motion. Tomorrow, it will be be five thousand and twenty-three, and the dust will be a tiny bit thicker. This is how I live now—watching the dust as it fills the room.
By the end of the week, I wasn’t worried about the smell any more because it seemed to have gone. I was coming and going enough to think that, if it was still there, I’d at least notice when I came back from town. I put it down to the house being uninhabited for several months with no ventilation.
It was surprisingly hard to get contractors to come. A decorator poked his head in the bathroom and promised to get back to me with a quote, but I hadn’t heard back and felt I never would. I went to B&Q and had a long talk with them about a new kitchen, but they weren’t due to visit for a while.
In the meantime, my husband and I formally agreed that we wouldn’t bother looking for tenants, so I made a start on stripping the rooms and planning the décor. In the evenings, I half-heartedly worked on a novel I’d been trying to write for nearly eight years, which began with the joyless words, “The whole house smelled faintly of lamb but dinner was ruined.”
“I think I misjudged this,” I told my husband on the phone. “I thought I’d have a team of people to manage, but it’s all so slow. I need something to happen.”
I could tell he was smiling at the other end.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he reminded me.
That night I had another bad dream.
It was the same as the first one. All the plaster in the house had turned to wet mush. I clawed it off the walls in a blind panic, trying to work out how bad it was.
Before long, my fingers discovered something in the plaster. It was the brim of a hat, caked in wet cement. I wiped it clean then backed away in horror.
A living face was buried in the wall, with two bright eyes and a mouth like the moon.
It leered at me like the Cheshire Cat and I woke with a cry of fear.
When morning came, the room smelled of damp. I sat up stiffly and saw, to my horror, a huge wet patch by the window. It started at head height and went all the way to the floor.
I got up and went to investigate. It was almost the shape of a man. Halfway down the wall it split in two, making an uneven pair of legs.
“Great,” I said sarcastically.
I brushed my teeth and found a Yellow Pages. I tried eight builders and only one of them answered.
“I’ve got water coming in,” I told him.
“Down from the ceiling or up from the floor?”
“It’s starting half way up the wall.”
I could hear him checking a diary.
“Well I can’t get there till next Friday,” he said. “I can do—one o’ clock on Friday?”
It was far from ideal, but no one else answered so I had to take it. After I hung up I went through the whole house, obsessively sniffing and checking for leaks. I didn’t find any others but I postponed my plan to hang the new wallpaper. I felt irrationally sure that, wherever I put it, rain would come in and instantly ruin it.
The downpour continued on and off for the whole day. The damp patch didn’t grow or change shape. It just got darker.
On day ten, I woke to what I thought was an intruder in the corner of my room. When my head cleared and my heart stopped pounding, I saw that it was just the damp patch on the wall. It really was uncanny, the way it resembled a man. I could discern a head, shoulders, waist and legs, but it was just my brain looking for patterns. I struggled to remember the word for this and it suddenly came to me.
“Pareidolia,” I said in triumph.
I had no choice but to wait for the builder. In the meantime, I kept checking the damp. I’d never seen a leak at head height before. There must have been a crack in the bricks, I realised, because I could see the shape of the fissure where the water entered. It was a band of damp across the top of the head, like the brim of a hat. It gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu but I couldn’t think why.
After dinner, when I sat down to write, I put my long-suffering manuscript away and tried something new. “I had no choice but to wait for the builder,” I began. “In the meantime, I kept checking the damp.”
There was a peal of thunder and it started to rain.
The contractor postponed twice but eventually came to look at the leak.
“It’s through here,” I told him.
He stepped into the room and looked around.
“Right there,” I told him. “In the corner.”
“Which corner, sorry?”
I looked at him in surprise. He was blinking right at it.
Then my skin began to crawl because it was clear he couldn’t see it.
“That corner,” I said—pointing it out.
He went to check but seemed bemused.
“It looks fine,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say because it couldn’t have been more visible. Not to me, anyway. I was fearing for my sanity at this point but didn’t want to make a scene.
“Well it’s fine now,” I lied. “But that’s where it gets wet, when it rains.”
He pressed his hand to it, getting black he couldn’t see on the tips of his fingers.
“It feels dry enough,” he said. “So you won’t have to replaster, at least.”
“Well that’s good,” I said weakly.
He went through the motions and found a cracked slate at the edge of the extension roof. It wasn’t in the right place, but he gave me a rehearsed spiel about how water finds its own route, then offered to come back and fix it for eighty quid. After I accepted he left me in a daze.
Eventually I rang my husband.
“How did it go?”
“There was a cracked slate on the extension roof,” I heard myself say. “The water found its own route. He’s coming back to fix it.”
“I suppose you’ll need a plasterer next.”
“He didn’t think so.”
“Really? You said it was a right mess?”
I turned to look at the dark shape in the corner. It—or was it him?—seemed to be watching me.
“I must have been exaggerating,” I said.
For the next few days I seemed to move through life in a dream. I kept finding myself in the room with the damp patch, looking at it in confusion.
Before long, I no longer thought of it as a damp patch. Other people could see damp patches. It was simply the shape of a man with a hat. It reminded me of those shadows in Japan, etched onto buildings by nuclear fireballs. They were the outlines of people who had died, frozen in time in Nagasaki, or on the steps of a bank in Hiroshima. Mine was waiting by the window, loitering among the house plants.
But waiting for what?
I considered moving out, or at least picking another room to sleep in. For some reason I didn’t. A peculiar sort of fatalism had come over me. I don’t think I ever got over the shock of discovering that only I could see it. From that point on, I sleep-walked through my life, doing bits of DIY in the day and staring at the shadow in the night. Before long, it even had a face. Two bright eyes and a mouth like the moon, watching me from the corner of the room.
You’ve guessed by now that my story doesn’t have a happy ending. Whoever he was—whatever he was—a time came when he stepped off the wall and came to life. I woke in the middle of the night to find him standing at the foot of my camp-bed, grinning down at me.
When I tried to scream, he climbed on the mattress and pressed a cold hand over my mouth. The smell of mildew was so strong that I almost passed out.
Very dimly, I remember him lifting me from the bed and carrying me to the corner of the room. Then—somehow—he sealed me in the wall he’d come from. It gave way like porridge and swallowed me whole. He stood back to admire his handiwork then melted into nothing.
And here I remain. I can still see the room but I no longer have my former shape. I’m two-dimensional now, spread through the plaster like a web of spores—or maybe just a patch of damp.
From my strange new vantage point, I watched my husband, and then my sister, and then the police come to visit. I was powerless to call out to them. I saw them slowly give up on me. I watched in silence as dust filled the room and settled on my possessions.
I don’t know who the man was, or why he put me here, or where he went, but I strongly believe that my capture was the price of his freedom. It has a perverse sort of logic. One in, one out. The house must have its ghost. If you sleep here you will dream of me, just as I dreamed of him.
I’m waiting for the day when someone else buys the property and moves in. I’ll see if I can will myself into existence, like he did, until I’m strong enough to step off the wall and seize my replacement. Then I’ll melt into darkness and simply go away. To heaven or hell, if those places are real, or the never-ending peace of non-existence, I cannot say.
In the meantime, I’ve been alone in the dark for five thousand and twenty-two days with nothing to do except get my thoughts in order. Tomorrow it will be be five thousand and twenty-three and the dust will be a tiny bit thicker. This is how I live now—watching the dust as it fills the room.
The narrative you just read was produced by Keith Credge over the course of four different sittings. After his death, it was edited it into a single document by volunteers at the Broughton Society for Paranormal Research. Edits were made to correct misspellings, redact personal details and remove duplicated material. Other than that, the original text was unchanged.
In recent years, we’ve established that a woman called Rose did indeed move from Oxford to Kersal and subsequently vanish. The house on Blackfield Lane remains in her family and is presently unoccupied—or, at the very least, has no living tenants.
Broughton Society for Paranormal Research, 31 October 2020
I don’t know where Grandma came from, but it must’ve been somewhere, and wherever it was, it surely wasn’t here.
She had the faintest trace of an accent, which seemed to recall the gloomy pines of the Black Forest, or maybe the foothills of the Carpathians. Her mottled arms were always brown, like she’d caught the sun in a faraway land and never let it go.
She knew the ways of the woods and wild places, but if you asked where they were, she’d only smile and shrug. Not in the innocent way that meant she didn’t know, but the impish way that meant she wouldn’t tell you.
Her teeth were long and yellow, and I once saw her pluck a spider from its web and eat it whole when she thought I wasn’t looking. It was the only thing I ever saw her eat that wasn’t a beef paste sandwich or tinned fruit. She drank steaming brews that she called “tea”, but they didn’t smell like normal tea. I felt then, and feel now, that she was a witch.
We saw a lot of her because she lived at the far end of our street, which was a place called Nevile Road. From an early age, my sister and I were allowed to walk between the two homes, past the football ground and little school, and the tiny power station (or whatever it was) with the sign that said it would electrocute you. From Monday to Thursday, Mum would still be working when school finished, so we had to wait at Grandma’s for a phonecall.
From the outside, Grandma’s house was no different to the neighbours. It had PVC windows and render on the first floor. Inside, it smelled of incense and raw meat, and something else you couldn’t name. On the smoke-stained walls were pictures of strange gods, like the masked woman with the moon on her head, or the one with horns who sat like Buddha. When I asked Grandma who they were, she just smiled and shrugged.
She had a lot more patience with my sister. Maybe because she wasn’t a boy.
“Do you believe in souls?” my sister asked her, when she was making a beef paste sandwich.
“I do,” she replied—slopping it on the bread. It smelled like dog food and sparkled wetly.
“Where do they go when we die?”
“Nowhere,” said Grandma. “If your soul is in your body when it dies, it simply dies as well.”
I looked up from my comic.
“What’s the point of a soul,” I said bitterly, “if it dies when you do?”
She just smiled and shrugged and ate her sandwich.
I’d say that Grandma took a special interest in Sarah, which was fine by me, because their conversations sounded like hard work. Once, when I went upstairs to use the toilet, I heard them talking in one of the rooms. It had been a bedroom once and now was full of knick-knacks.
“Liberate your mind,” Grandma was saying. “Separate the spirit from the flesh.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” my sister groaned.
“Of course you do,” Grandma snapped. “But you’re breathing wrong. Use your mind instead of your lungs. Breathe the light and not the air.”
It looks very mysterious when I put it down on paper, but at the time, it just sounded boring. Grandma had the weary tone of a Latin master, ordering a child to conjugate a verb for the thousandth time. I’d heard stuff like this before, but gave up asking what it meant, because my sister got embarrassed, and Grandma just smiled and shrugged. Better Sarah than me, I thought. I continued to the toilet, then back downstairs to read my comic.
Grandma’s death, when it came, was surprising but swift. I believe she got a rare kind of dementia that happened overnight, which must’ve been vascular, or maybe the result of a stroke (if that’s not the same thing). We never saw her like that because Mum thought it would upset us. “It’s like a second childhood,” she said tactfully. When I begged for the detail, she added: “Well basically, she’s forgotten who she is. She thinks I’m her mum, and she’s always scared, and it’s not nice to see.” When she took over Grandma’s affairs, it turned out the old bird had been living with terminal cancer, which—given her ruined mind—was almost a mercy.
We never saw her again. I believe she was looked after in a special kind of hospice till she died two months later, the day before Christmas Eve.
The last time I saw her was the day before she lost her marbles and got taken away. It was a crisp October evening, midnight-dark at eight p.m. The autumn air was like cold hands pressing my face. We’d been waiting with Grandma after school, as always, but Mum had phoned, so we were leaving the house to walk back home.
It was Grandma’s voice. We turned to see her standing in the door. The hall behind her was a strange haze of orange light and incense smoke.
“I’m ready,” she said. “It has to be now.”
I looked at my sister in confusion.
“What does she mean?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah admitted. “It’s like—a weird prayer I had to learn.”
“What kind of prayer?”
“Oh, some stupid thing. You know what she’s like. God knows why she wants to do it now.”
She went to join Grandma inside. I took a couple of steps to follow, but before I could, a long brown arm snaked out of the light, shutting the door in front of me. I waited by the gate with with my school bag, hoping it wouldn’t take long.
I don’t know how much time went by, but I know I heard a faint cry inside. Suddenly, the wind seemed to quicken around me, and the dark was somehow darker. I was gripped by an irrational fear, like cold water filling me up. It reminded me of the moment in a bad dream, when you know, without knowing how, that something awful is going to happen.
The feeling vanished. The door opened and my sister came out, walking with a strange new posture.
“Nothing,” she said. “Come on.”
I looked at the house and saw, to my surprise, that Grandma had come to one of the windows. She pressed her hands to the glass and looked out in fright, like she couldn’t believe what had happened.
“Is she okay?”
I hurried to follow my sister down the road.
“What did you do in there?”
She just smiled and shrugged.
Grandma’s house was left to Mum, who left it in turn to Sarah and me.
By then, we were all grown up. Sarah bought my half and kept the house to live in. She remains at the end of Nevile Road, and lives, as far as I can tell, on beef paste sandwiches and tinned fruit. She knows the ways of the woods and wild places.
I sometimes remember what Mum said about Grandma’s “dementia”, but I try not to, because the implications are too awful to contemplate.
“She thinks I’m her mum, and she’s always scared…”
Sarah and I aren’t close nowadays, but I see her from time to time. When I point out the uncanny resemblance between her and Grandma, it always makes her chuckle. People even say she has Grandma’s laugh, which is strange, because it’s true. And I swear she never used to.
Johnny was weird before he died. After the accident, well—it got pretty dark.
I was still a child then, at the awkward age where you don’t so much choose your friends as simply clump together. I floated in the soup of childhood, aimlessly sticking to my fellows.
By the time my peer group curdled, I found I was joined to three other boys. Gary Brewster was a nice enough kid, but he had the annoying habit of blinking over and over, like he was trying to get it right and never could. The second boy, Paul Cook, was annoying but benign; one of those compulsive liars who keep trying to impress you. He once told us his father was the third strongest man in the Commonwealth. I doubt he was the third strongest man on Nevile Road.
And then there was Johnny—Johnny Beddow—who was just plain weird.
I don’t mean he played a tuba, like Claire Broomfield, or endlessly doodled pictures of dicks, like Gordon Lee. I know children set a low bar for weird, but Johnny took it to another level. He was whippet-thin, and his arms were a little too long, and he always had this hungry smile. When he spoke, you’d look at his eyes and wonder what the hell was going on behind them, because the things he said were so—off.
I’ve got hundreds of examples, but I’ll give you one. When we were picking superpowers, like children do, I chose super-strength, and Gary said he wanted to fly. I can’t remember what Paul said, or if he was even there—but Johnny wanted to place his hand on people’s hearts and drain the life right out of them. The way he described it—I didn’t have the frame of reference at the time, but I knew something was wrong—the way described it was almost sexual. He wanted to look at their faces and see the light fading from their eyes, and when he described it, he was wiping spit from his mouth, like he was hungry or something.
That was Johnny in a nutshell. Even so, we saw him every day because, well—he was in our gang.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I wondered, when we were kicking a ball round Kersal Moor.
Paul put his foot on the ball, stopping it dead.
“I’ve actually seen one,” he said boldly.
I didn’t take the bait.
“What about you, Gary?”
He thought about it, blinking furiously.
“Let’s make a pact,” he suggested. “When one of us dies, if he’s a ghost, he has to come back and haunt the others. Then we’ll know for sure.”
“Deal,” I said.
“Deal,” said Johnny darkly.
I looked at him and shuddered. I’d forgotten he was there.
“I hope there are ghosts,” he added. “If I knew I’d be a ghost, I’d kill myself tomorrow.”
“Why?” I said in horror.
He smiled ghoulishly and shrugged.
“Just reckon I’d suit it,” he said—and I couldn’t disagree.
It wasn’t just the things he said. It was the things he did.
He was fascinated by weapons. Once, Paul told us his brother had a slingshot called a “Barnett Black Widow” that could punch holes in tin cans. We thought he was lying, but he surprised us by turning up with it stuck in his waistband.
“I can borrow it whenever I want,” he boasted—which was a lie, because his brother battered him for taking it. But the slingshot was real.
We passed it round for inspection. It wasn’t what I’d pictured. I was expecting something that Dennis the Menace might use, with a “Y” made of whittled wood, but the Black Widow was a proper weapon. It had a moulded grip like a handgun, with a wrist-brace for extra support. The fork was stainless steel. The “rubber band” was yellow tubing. We took turns trying to draw it, but even with the brace we weren’t really strong enough.
“Should we look for rocks?” I suggested.
“You don’t use rocks,” said Paul. “You use these ball-things.”
He opened his hand, showing us six he’d nicked from his brother. We guarded them jealously, trying to find them when we shot them. Gary was like a bloodhound when it came to looking, so we only lost two in total.
“Wait here,” said Johnny suddenly—lumbering off like a ghoul.
He was heading for his own home. When he reappeared, he was holding something red and floppy in his hand. I shielded my eyes to see better.
“What’s that?” I called.
“Steak!” he shouted back.
It soon became clear what he had in mind. He monopolised the slingshot to shoot his steak at close range.
“I want to know if it can penetrate muscle,” he explained.
He put it on the ground and stood over it, trying to shoot at a funny angle. He didn’t do much damage, but it wasn’t a conclusive test.
After a while, he got bored of the steak and aimed at a distant magpie.
“That’s enough,” said Paul quickly, taking it off him.
We lost interest in the slingshot after that because it felt weird, but really, it was par for the course where Johnny was concerned. He was the kind of boy who always has a cigarette lighter, and he used his to melt dolls and set fire to ants. He liked to trap woodlice and put salt on slugs.
As I said at the start: even before he died, he was weird. But he got even weirder.
It was a swampy day in August when we heard about the accident. Details were thin on the ground, but we knew that Mr Beddow had crashed his car, which was a blue Ford Orion. Johnny—who hadn’t been wearing a seat-belt—had gone face-first on the windscreen.
Face-first. The very thought of it made me shudder.
“I saw the whole thing,” said Paul audaciously.
“No you didn’t,” I told him automatically.
He was briefly offended. Then he made a calculation and his face softened.
“Well no. Not the crash,” he agreed. “I don’t mean the actual crash. But right after. The car was upside down.”
“Bulls░░░,” I judged.
He glared defiantly.
“It was!” he insisted. “Right in the middle of the road. Swear to God.”
Gary was patiently trying to split a blade of grass into a pair of thin ones, using his thumbnail.
“The middle of what road?” he challenged—which was a pointed question, but rather more neutral than I was being.
Paul took a moment to think.
“Vine Street,” he decided.
I groaned at the transparent lie. Vine Street was a long sleepy lane where his grandma lived. It only had houses on one side, with a dense wall of trees on the other. On dark winter nights, when the branches were bare, you could see Kersal Vale beyond, all the way to the city centre. Tiny lights shone in the distance, seeming to swim as hot air rose from faraway streets. I couldn’t think of a less likely place for a high speed car-crash.
“Vine Street?” I jeered. “What were they doing? Going round the bend at fifty miles an hour? Come on Paul, it must’ve been an A-road.”
“What’s an A-road?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“Well then,” he said in triumph.
I felt my face redden.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” I said, “but it’s a proper road. You go fast. Not like bloomin’ Vine Street.”
Of the three of us, Paul was the first to visit the hospital. We were keen to get his report, despite the high risk of fantastical nonsense.
“He didn’t wake up,” Paul told us. “He hasn’t since the crash. He’s stuck in a coma.”
We were sat in Paul’s bedroom that day. The clammy heat had turned at last to liquid downpour. The rain made maracas sounds on the street below. From time to time there was a blue electric flash, followed by the sheet metal rumble of the thunder.
“Did you see his face?” I asked.
“No. It’s all bandaged up. He’s just got tubes for his nose and stuff.”
Gary butted in.
“It’s true,” he confirmed, blinking repeatedly. “My mum told me.”
It was a rare moment of honesty from Paul, but it didn’t last.
“He doesn’t even have a face,” he went on. “The doctor said so. They’re calling him Johnny-No-Face now.”
“Rubbish,” I said again. “Even if they were, the doctor wouldn’t tell you about it.”
He glanced at the carpet and made one of his calculations.
“Well no,” he agreed. “Not an actual doctor. I mean a nurse.”
Gary chipped in again.
“He’s got ‘life-changing injuries’,” he said glumly.
I looked at him in horror.
“Life-changing? What does that mean?”
“Means he’s got no face,” said Paul darkly.
I saw for myself at the weekend. Johnny was in a side-ward with no other beds. His head was completely bandaged. He just lay there, and I didn’t know what to do or say.
In time, we learned that Mr Beddow had been wearing a selt-belt. Incredibly, all he got was whiplash—plus, of course, debilitating guilt.
A few days later, I saw him leaving his house on Oaklands Road. He was wearing a neck brace. Someone had a hand on his shoulder, steering him to the back of a taxi. He looked broken, like he barely had the strength to stand. His eyes were downcast. I shudder to think what was going on in his head. I don’t know if the crash was his fault, but Johnny’s seatbelt certainly was.
I waited for news of Johnny but none came. I was worried. Not because I liked him—I think I’ve made it clear I didn’t like him—but because I had a morbid fear of anything bad that happened to anyone. If bad things could happen, they could happen to me. It was naked self-interest, rather than altruism, which made me pray for his recovery.
A few days after that, I had a dream.
It wasn’t really a full dream. More like the remains of one, when you know you’re in bed but aren’t yet awake, and part of your brain is still dreaming. I lay there on Sunday morning, unwilling to stir, when Johnny’s voice came to me.
“Joe,” he whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Yes, I thought—keeping my eyes closed.
“You’re not going to believe what’s going on,” he said. “I’ve seen the other side! Oh, Joe—I’m going to love it there.”
I felt a pang of dread.
The other side? You mean you’re dead?
“No. But I’m close enough to see it. You know the view from Vine Street, in the winter?”
I relaxed. I’d thought of it the week before. It was too much of a coincidence for Johnny to bring it up. I was surely dreaming.
“It’s beautiful, right? You can see the dark vale, all the way to the city. Fairy lights on the bottom of the sky. It’s like that here. From where I am, I can actually see it.”
See what, though?
“I already told you, Joe. The other side. And it’s beautiful.”
I opened my eyes. I was facing the wall and wasn’t brave enough to roll over.
“Johnny?” I said out loud.
No answer came so I got out of bed.
I caught up with Gary and Paul that afternoon. We weren’t in the mood to do much and just sat on the moors. It was hot again, and the world smelled faintly of sewage. We took turns to throw stones down a sandy footpath.
I asked if they’d dreamed of Johnny. Paul instantly said he had, and span an elaborate yarn about a lucid dream with aliens and zombies. I didn’t believe a word of it.
Gary was more measured.
“May-be,” he said. “I didn’t see him, but I think I heard him. Something about—a city? I don’t know. It was like—it came between two other dreams. Like an advert or something.”
“An advert,” I laughed. But I shivered inside.
He came to me three more times in the coming nights. On the first two occasions I kept my eyes shut, for fear of what I’d see.
“I had a good look at the other side,” he told me. “I wasn’t actually there because I’m not dead, but when I looked across the plain, it was like a camera zooming in, and then I was swooping down the dark streets.”
Did you see other people?
“I wouldn’t call ’em ‘people’. You’re different when you’re dead. I’m not surprised they don’t bother haunting us. They’ve got better things to do.”
He started to laugh.
Like what, Johnny?
Before he could answer, I woke up. The sky was painting sunlight on the wall.
I could hear my parents moving below. The dull chimes of breakfast bowls.
I shivered and went to the loo, then downstairs to join them.
The second time he came, two nights later, he was even more excited.
“It happened again,” he told me. “The camera-zoom. I think they’re showing me on purpose.”
What’s it like there?
“It’s magic. The streets are dark but the homes are lit. You can hear them laughing inside. All day long, they laugh and laugh. It’s like a dream come true.”
When I remembered his words the next day, I felt uncomfortable. The two of us were very different, and I had the vague idea that his dreams would be my nightmares.
There was a smell, too, that came with his voice. It wasn’t the smell of dreams; it was the smell of injured flesh. It was metallic, like blood, and faintly rotten. It was an old-sausage smell, like a butcher’s bin. It seemed stronger each time he came.
During the day, I remembered him holding a flame to the long grass, making tiny thrashing martyrs of the ants. Behind that hungry smile was the soul of a Caligula.
The thought solidified in my mind. His dreams are my nightmares, I warned myself.
In any case, the day after that, I got the news: Johnny Beddow had died in hospital, without ever regaining consciousness.
The third time he came, he was different.
I’d gone to sleep at the normal time but was soon aware of lying in bed. The putrid smell was back again. It was so strong that the air was hot in my nostrils.
“Open your eyes,” Johnny urged.
His voice was unmistakeably different. Deep and hollow, dark and cold. The sound of the grave or distant stars.
I don’t want to, I said with my mind.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised. “I want to give you a present.”
“I crossed over, Joe. It was nothing. A short walk. Listen—can you hear them?”
I could. It was a distant sound of screaming.
“They’re laughing,” he said unexpectedly. “That’s what it sounds like, when you’re dead. We all laugh together. It’s like—And Death Shall Have No Dominion. Do you know that poem? ‘Dead men naked, they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone.’ I never knew poems till I died and now I know ’em all. Open your eyes, Joe. I want to give you something.”
Something in his voice compelled me to obey. I opened my eyes and rolled over, and there was Johnny Beddow, standing in the corner.
In some ways, he looked quite normal. He was wearing his yellow tee shirt with the rabbit-head logo, and he still had his black leather cuff on one wrist. But death had changed him. Instead of a face, he had nothing. It was a black rip in the fabric of space.
“What happened to your face?” I said out loud.
His voice came from the dark tear.
“I left it behind,” he told me. “Shook it off in the crash. I don’t need it on the other side. I’ve got something better than a face now. Here—take this.”
He was holding a pulsating knot of weird green light.
“When you touch it,” he promised, “you’ll see me properly.”
“What about the others? Did they touch it?”
“No. I didn’t bother with Paul, I never really liked him. And I didn’t get far with Gary. It was like he was talking in his sleep and kept drifting off. Too much like hard work. With you, though, I made a real connection.”
Like a sleepwalker, I rose from the bed and took some steps towards him.
“Come closer,” he urged, “and touch it.”
The smell was very strong now. A hot breeze blew from the nothing of his face. Warm air coming from an abattoir.
A low note of dread sounded in my mind, making my body vibrate with one long shiver. The light in his hand made the room seem green and unreal. It writhed between his fingers like an emblem of pain.
“Touch it!” he cried.
I didn’t. I stayed where I was and simply screamed. Then I was back in bed and Dad stood over me, shaking me awake.
I’m an adult now but I remember him often.
I hope they were dreams. If not, then whatever he found on the other side, it isn’t for me. His dreams are my nightmares.
Maybe what he found was hell and it suited him. I only hope that I find heaven.
But really, none of us knows what dying is like. Maybe when I’m old, I’ll go to sleep and find myself in a dark borderland. Maybe I’ll look out across the plain and see a city of the dead, shining in the night like fairy lights on the bottom of the sky.
If I do, I won’t go there. I’ll just stay put, or turn and walk the other way. I’d rather wander the dark forever than join that boy on the other side. I just hope I have a choice.
But no one lives forever, and I’m sure I’ll find out.
Mr Keith Credge (1943-2004) was arguably the most talented psychic in the North of England. In the last years of his life, he shuttered his parlour (which he called a “clinic”) and devoted himself to the practice of spirit-writing. He produced hundreds of handwritten notes between 1997 and 2003, believing them to be the life stories of lost souls. The narrative reproduced here is among the most striking.
Broughton Society for Paranormal Research, 25 May 2020
I know my name was Daniel, and I know I went to school on Nevile Road, but I don’t know where that is any more.
Nevile Road. It hangs in space, trapped in a bubble of gleaming grey sky. In my mind’s eye, the ends of the street are lost in glare. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know where it goes.
Nor can I remember what the school was like. I can see it from a distance, but the windows are blanks that mirror the sky. I wish I could walk towards them and lean in to see. In my dreams, I stand by the school gates, watching dead leaves circle in the wind. I am unable to move.
I know we had a playground. On rainy days, we played a game called “Shallow Man”. There was a blocked drain that flooded, and it happened so often you could see the puddle when it wasn’t even there, because it left a stain in the dirt. When it was there, we said it was Shallow Man’s den, and that was where we played.
The Shallow Man was a local legend. He jumped out of puddles to snatch children, but apart from that, the details were vague. We thought he made himself flat like a pancake and waited for victims to walk by. Other times, we wondered if the puddles were magic portals, so he’d step in one and spring from another. I had a notion he could kneel down and reach in the water, and his arm would come out somewhere else. It made me shiver with a mix of horror and delight.
When you were Shallow Man, you stood in the puddle and waited. He had long white hands with terrible fingers, so your task was to grab your friends and pull them in. You had to keep at least one foot in the water because Shallow Man never came out of it. He wore oilskins, like a fisherman, but they were black instead of yellow, and his sou’wester hid a scowling face with terrible eyes. When you took your turn in the puddle, you pulled your jumper over your head and grimaced through the neck-hole to impersonate him.
So here we are in my memories. It’s a cold wet day in March and I am Shallow Man. The others dance by the puddle, daring me to grab them. As they do they chant my name: “Shallow Man! Shallow Man!” My shoes are sodden but I laugh as we play. Then the school bell rings and they all turn to leave.
In the very same second, there’s a brief electric flash, followed by peals of thunder. It starts to rain again. Then I wonder: what if Shallow Man is real? I imagine a wet hand reaching from the water, grabbing my leg and pulling me down. The puddle closes like a liquid trapdoor. No one knows I’m trapped below.
I shudder in the rain and run to join my friends, shaking water from my shoes.
I know there was a place where I felt safe, and in that place was a woman. She must have been my mother.
In my dreams she is frozen in time, boiling rice and shelling peas. I remember the bitter green smell of the raw peas. The lava sound of boiling water. She doesn’t turn round, which is sad, because this is my only memory of her. Her face is lost forever.
She asks about my day. I tell her about Shallow Man and she whistles in surprise.
“That’s a sad story,” she says. “When I was your age we’d never heard of him. Then a boy drowned in a puddle and his mum went crazy. He’s got my boy, he’s got my boy—the Shallow Man has got my boy! It was a weird old story no one knew, but after that, well—everyone knew it again.”
I look at her in surprise.
“How can you drown in a puddle?”
“He used to have fits. Convulsions or something. I think he passed out when no one was looking. You can drown in an inch of water, if you’re lying face-down. I knew his sister, and—”
That’s all I remember. She disappears, blown out like a candle.
I don’t have many memories left, and I’m trying to put them in order.
I’m sitting by the window as a grown man, watching the street below. It’s late at night. Drops of rain dance in the wind, set ablaze by orange streetlight. I don’t know when the Witching Hour is, but it must be now, because the night is strange and electric.
I hear the distant sound of high heels. Clop, clop, clop. A woman appears at the end of the road, shielding her face from the rain. She’s holding a phone to her ear, and I can hear her talking, even through the glass, because her voice is loud and angry.
“Nigel,” she’s saying—“honestly—I don’t give a crap what she said, because I said—”
She stops suddenly and listens to her boyfriend in disbelief. As she does, my eyes are drawn to a puddle by the kerb. It spreads before her like a mirror, reflecting her long bare legs.
A grasping grey hand reaches from the water…
I want to shout a warning, but instead, I freeze. The fingers close around her ankle. She falls on her front and is dragged under, too surprised to even scream.
For a split-second, she claws at the kerb, fighting for life. Then she’s simply gone, and the puddle closes with a soft splash.
I sit in a daze, trying to make sense of what I’ve seen. How can a person vanish into—what—an inch of water? Even so, she’s gone. Her phone lies on the ground, exactly where she dropped it. The screen hasn’t even gone dark yet.
Before I can decide what to do, the puddle starts to churn. A dark figure rises through the ground, like an actor being lifted through a stage.
Water runs from his waterproof sleeves. His shapeless hat is almost a hood. I can see his face because he’s looking right at me. As he does, I hear (or think I hear) an echo of the playground chant: “Shallow Man, Shallow Man”—distant and shrill—almost lost in the sound of the rain.
My heart pounds, fit to burst. He points up at me with a long wet finger.
I see you, comes a voice in my mind.
The fusebox bangs on the wall behind me, making me jump in fright. The flat is plunged into darkness. Then he sinks in the water and is gone.
It’s the middle of the day. I’m standing at the end of Nevile Road. The ground is wet but the sun is warm. The clouds in the sky are brilliant white, like shirts in an ad for washing powder.
Before me is a rundown house. The first floor cladding is rotten. Salt blooms white on the bricks. Beneath a broken gutter is a beard of black mould, like the shadow of an icicle. It’s not a nice house. It seems more rained-on than its neighbours. You could squeeze it like a sponge and water would come gushing out.
I go up the drive and knock on the door. No one answers, but I hear a brief sort of panic in the hall.
“Hello?” I call through the letter box. “Mrs Shaw? I want to ask you about—Shallow Man.”
The silence continues, but it seems different now. Curious, rather than fearful.
“I heard you know about him,” I say, “and the thing is”—I look over my shoulder, checking the street is empty—“I think I saw him.”
There’s a stained glass window in the door. Her face appears on the other side. Her eyes are hidden by a red rose.
“If that’s true,” she says through the glass, “he’ll never leave you alone. It’s been thirty years for me. Every time it rains I close the curtains so he can’t see in. I won’t have drinks any more in case I spill ’em, I just eat ice lollies.”
My heart sinks.
“What can I do?”
“Nothing,” she says bluntly. “All you can do is hide. Don’t go out when it’s raining. I think it’s safe in the day but don’t risk it. Lock the house and stay inside.”
“Can I come in?”
“No. I’ll give you some advice though: he can’t leave his puddles. He can reach out, but he can’t come out.”
My mind recalls the game we used to play. That was the rule. One foot in the water.
“Remember that,” she says, “and you’re in with a chance. Now clear off.”
I thank her for her time and walk away, avoiding puddles on the pavement.
Half way down the street, I glance at one and start with fright. There, in the water—just for a second—is a terrible face with two wide eyes.
They stare up at me from the ground. Once again, his voice enters my mind: “I see you!”
Then the wind blows a ripple through the water, wiping him away.
The next memory is my last. The rest of my mind has blown apart, like seeds from the head of a—what’s it called? The yellow flower that turns to fluff. My mind has turned to fluff.
I’m in the same flat but much has changed. In the living room, the whole back wall is covered with newspaper clippings. Half of them are about missing people. Key passages are underlined. The rest are cutouts of the five-day forecasts.
I don’t know how much time has elapsed but I know I feel older. Maybe just tired. I put the telly on in time for the weather.
“It’s a mixed day tomorrow. Low pressure heading north, bringing cold wind and more showers—”
The windows are boarded up but I can still hear the rain. It’s like the sound of cellophane. A car goes by with a liquid roar.
“—and here, in the northwest, it’s going to be very wet indeed. Looking ahead to Friday—”
I inspect my stockpile of food, flipping tins to check the dates. Apart from the tinned food I’ve got some bottles of gin, porridge oats, long-life milk, Monster Munch and dried fruit. I can stay inside for weeks if I have to. I drink the gin to mortify my fear of the rain and the rest is for sustenance.
This is how I live now. I don’t know how I get money, but it’s something to do with—diagrams? I think I write, or maybe proofread, the instructions for kitchen appliances. Whatever it is, I do it from home. Nothing else would fit my lifestyle.
I put the last tin down and go to the bathroom, running the shower till it starts to steam. When I get under it, the warmth is a great comfort. For a second, I could be anywhere. The Brazilian jungle. The Kingdom of Bhutan.
I look down and see water draining slowly. The plughole must be clogged because the shower tray is full. Inches of water slosh around.
The fusebox blows a fuse in the next room. I’m plunged into darkness. The shower head slows to a trickle.
Then I hear a soft splashing at my feet, and I know I messed up, because I didn’t think he could get me in shower—but it’s too late for regrets.
A cold hand grabs my ankle. He pulls me down into a bottomless sea, and that’s the end of my memories.
I’m in another place now.
When I woke, I was on a dark beach, and the Shallow Man stood over me. He dragged me from the sea and onto the sand.
The moon was a vicious hook, sharpened by the bitter wind. It wasn’t the moon I knew. It was much too big, and the light it gave was eerie green.
He bound my hands and led me inland. We walked for days. In all that time he never spoke.
After days of walking, we came at last to a barren plain with one bent tree. He took me to a palace on the far side, where the Smiling Ones were waiting to greet us. They took me in without a word and led me to my place in the choir.
Here I sing forever. When I do, I retreat into my mind, and what remains of my memories.
I know my name was Daniel, and I know I went to school on Nevile Road…
It’s strange how long that summer seemed. We were fourteen that year. The days buzzed around like a swarm of midges. The long holiday stretched before us, as bright and wide as the River Nile.
There was a gang of us who knocked around together. We weren’t popular at school, but—with the possible exception of Tim—were far from the bottom of that brutal pecking order (Tim had the distinction of being very large but very soft, with a lisping voice that hadn’t really broken). Aside from Tim, there was Jon Jones, who was pretty tough; “Mandy”, or Tom Manders; and finally me. We’d bonded over a love of electric guitars, 80s horror movies, and video games like Mortal Kombat.
One day in August, there was a heatwave, so we decided to camp near the river in the park. I don’t remember who said it first. I don’t even think it was our idea. It was simply there, humming in the hot air, till someone gave it voice.
I remember I’d been lying in bed some nights before. The window was open. The air was warm and almost still. Out in the dark, something made a soft knocking sound, like coconuts or bits of wood. I couldn’t tell if it was a nearby tapping or a distant pounding, but whatever it was seemed to call me from my bed, urging me to rise and rejoice.
I was in the fairyland at the edge of sleep. As my thoughts turned to mush, I pictured a girl running through the dark valley, banging two sticks. Come and play, she seemed to call. Come and play. The river ran beside her like a friend. Then I was asleep.
The next day, we gathered at the top of Moor Lane and hurtled down it on our bikes. Halfway to Kersal Vale, one of us cried, “Let’s go camping!” Maybe it was me.
None of us had tents but it didn’t seem to matter. We’d been sleeping with our windows open and the covers off, so were just as happy to kip in our clothes on a bit of soft grass. The plan was, Tim and I would tell our parents that Mandy was having a sleepover. His mum was dead and his dad was in prison, so he lived with an adult brother in Kersal Vale. “Big Mandy” was far from neglectful, but he was a brother rather than a dad, and more than happy to cover for us.
Jon didn’t need to make arrangements. His parents were spending the night in Burnley because his grandma was starting to struggle. They’d been doing it more and more since she’d had her mini stroke. When school started, Jon wasn’t coming back, because they were getting a place in Accrington. On the last day of term, he even got us to sign his shirt, like the fifth-years do when they’re leaving forever.
Just as the sun was setting, we gathered at the bottom of Rainsough Brow, on the corner of the junction with the mini roundabout. There were no mobile phones then, so we’d planned the rendezvous on our landlines—which, looking back, seems as quaint as using walky-talkies, or whispering into tin cans. These were the days when you knew your friends’ numbers off by heart, because that was the only way to talk after school—short of going round in person—and you had to dial the numbers by hand.
“Right,” said Jon. “Did you all bring torches?”
We had. Poor Tim’s was more of a toy than a proper torch, so we spent a good few minutes taking the piss out of him.
“And what about food?”
We opened our rucksacks for inspection. I’d made tuna paste sandwiches and wrapped them badly in clingfilm. I’d also nicked some Mars Bars from the cupboard and filled a bottle with Ribena. Tim had brought literally nothing but a twin-pack of Bourbon biscuits, which cost about 20p from Tesco, so we jeered at him again. Mandy had three different types of cake bar, and—this also got some jeers—a single bag of prawn cocktail crisps, which had popped in transit.
“Good,” said Jon.
Then he smiled and unzipped his bag. Instead of food he had three big bottles of cider. He also had two packets of cigarettes, though one was open and looked a bit crushed.
Mandy whistled appreciatively. Tim looked around nervously, as if we might get arrested. Then we zipped our bags up and made our way to the nearby park.
The park follows the river, all the way to Whitefield at least. It’s funny how much green there is, so close to the greys of suburbia. You can walk all the way from Rainsough to the big Tesco in Prestwich, and it’s river almost all the way. Within minutes of leaving the mini roundabout, it was like we were in the middle of nowhere.
“Funny how close we are to the country,” said Tim.
“It’s not the country, you pillock. It’s Drinkwater Park.”
“I know. But it’s like we’re miles from anywhere.”
“Yeah. Thank F░░░ for all them Bourbon biscuits, eh?”
We laughed but knew exactly what he meant. We were following the river north and could have been anywhere on Earth. Water shone to the left of us, mixing colours from the sky with the faint green tinge of chlorophyll. The river made a soft liquid sound, lapping the grass that grew on its banks. Birds twittered in the dying light.
Before long we had to use our torches. We swung them in the dark, watching shadows lean in and then draw back. Our conversation dwindled, till all we could hear was the plop-plop-plopping of the river.
Then, once more, there came that strange knocking sound. It could have been soft and near or loud and far, but it made me shiver—in a nice way, I mean—like the thought of a coming birthday.
“What’s that sound?” I wondered.
They all knew what I meant.
“Dunno,” said Mandy. “But I like it.”
It was a strange thing to say, but I knew what he meant as well.
Later in life, it became important for me to work out exactly where we were that night. I know we hadn’t got far because we kept mucking around. At one point, we were chasing Tim, flashing torches in his eyes and trying to make him have a seizure. We stopped for sandwiches and some of the cake bars. I know we’d gone past the prison, because Jon made fun of Mandy’s dad—and I know there was a bridge, because Mandy did a piss off the side of it. We were a short way past the bridge, and that’s all I know for sure.
“It’s spooky at night,” said Mandy.
To lighten the mood, he shone his torch up his chin and did a manic laugh.
“Does anyone know any ghost stories?”
“Nah,” said Tim.
He was trying to sound blasé but I knew he was nervous. He was visibly relieved when Jon—the de facto leader of the gang—scoffed at the suggestion.
“It’s not a bloody cub camp,” he said. “Let’s have some cider and smoke these fags.”
He balanced his torch and got the bottles out. We passed them around, wincing at the sharp taste. Then he tried to light a cigarette, holding it over the lighter like a candle.
“You’ve got to put it in your mouth,” said Mandy.
“Does it matter?”
“Yeah. You’ve got to suck it. If you do it like that, you’re just toasting it.”
Jon tried it Mandy’s way. When it worked, he coughed out a cloud of smoke.
“Oh yeah,” he muttered.
He tried a second time and managed to get it down. It came out in a long shuddering breath, like he was on the verge of coughing again.
“Tastes pretty good,” he said, trying to save face—but it was a ridiculous thing to say—because it was a Lambert & Butler, rather than a Romeo y Julieta.
We all smoked except for Tim, who reminded us piously that “Gramps” had died of lung cancer. Jon pointed out—not unfairly—that “Gramps” had been eighty years old, and twenty stone if he weighed a ounce. All things considered, Gramps had had a pretty good innings.
Eventually, feeling a bit sick, we finished the cigarettes. Mandy checked his watch.
“It’s still early,” he said. “Should we carry on walking?”
“Nah,” said Jon. “We’ll end up at Tesco’s if we’re not careful.”
He turned his back to the river and shone his torch through the trees. We could hear the knocking again. It seemed to come from the other side.
“Let’s explore,” he decided.
We made our way through the dark trunks, snagging our jeans on brambles. Soon we were lost in a wild wood, glimpsing stars through the broken canopy.
“We’re nearly through,” said Tim.
Ahead of us was a dark building, blotting out the sky. Even in the moonlight, you couldn’t see much except for the size. We emerged from the trees and hurried over, shining our torches this way and that.
“Where are we?” I wondered.
“Dunno. Looks empty.”
It was a Georgian manor with tall sash windows. In the dark, they were bars of chocolate stood on end. Some of the panes were smashed. The house was made of brick but had a stone porch, with two pillars and a pediment.
I shone my torch around. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem real. Torches have a funny way of destabilising things. I think it’s the moving shadows. Ripples of chiaroscuro, spreading like a strange liquid.
“The door’s open,” I realised—shining my torch.
“We’re going in,” said Jon.
Tim looked at him in horror.
“Don’t be daft,” he begged. “It’s trespass!”
Mandy and I looked at each other. We had to pick a side. We didn’t want to go in the old house, but the alternative was joining a tragic faction led by Tim.
“We could call through the door,” said Mandy. “If no one answers—it’s probably safe to look around?”
I shrugged. It seemed like a fair compromise.
“Okay,” I agreed. “Do it.”
Jon marched up to the open door.
“Hello?” he called. “Hell-o?”
No one stirred inside, so he took a deep breath.
“Scrubby-dubby-doo-oo-o!” he bellowed at the dark.
We burst out laughing. I can’t tell you what “scrubby-dubby-do” means, because it doesn’t mean anything. It was just something we liked to shout. Mostly at Tim, when he turned up in his dad’s old clothes, or a horrible pair of trainers.
Satisfied, we went inside. The laughter soon died on our lips. There’s something instantly sobering about an old building. A stark memento mori that can’t be put into words.
We found a long dark lobby, with evil-looking stairs that rose into gloom. Mud had been trodden inside, drying on the tiles in brittle shapes. Grey dust hovered in the air and stuck to the banister. There was a red carpet on the stairs, held in place with stair-rods—but the carpet had been eaten by moths, and the rods were discoloured with age.
“It’s not abandoned,” Tim realised.
“Of course it is,” said Jon. “Look around.”
“I know—but listen.”
We did. It was clear from our faces that we couldn’t hear a thing. Then Mandy’s eyes widened.
“A clock,” he said. “I can hear it ticking. Right?”
“Exactly,” said Tim. “Someone’s been putting batteries in.”
I could hear it too. It was a deep tock, tock, like someone clicking their tongue at the top of the stairs. The sound of an antique.
“Or winding it up,” I pointed out.
Jon rolled his eyes.
“Well whoever it was, they’re not here now,” he said impatiently. “And we shouldn’t leave till we’ve seen upstairs. Come on.”
One by one we mounted the stairs. With every step we took, they groaned underfoot.
“These stairs are loud,” said Mandy. “Hope they don’t collapse!”
“It’s not the stairs,” said Jon. “Tim’s got creaky trainers.”
“Give it a rest,” Tim muttered.
At the top of the stairs we found a long dark hall. The landing wasn’t bad, but the bottom of the hall was a real mess.
“That ceiling’s going to fall,” I said glumly.
Down the ruined hall, doors stood in pairs, facing each other like soldiers. All were closed except one at the far end which was slightly ajar.
I probed the dark space between door and frame. I felt like I could push it open with the beam of light.
“Is this what’s ticking?” said Mandy behind me.
I turned. He was shining his torch at a grandfather clock.
“What’s the time?” I wondered.
“Dunno. It’s not right.”
He checked his own watch.
“Half ten,” he added.
Tim glanced at the clock.
“It’s not that,” he said. “It’s coming from over there.”
He waved down the hall.
“And I think I was wrong. I don’t think it is a clock. It’s the sound we heard outside. The weird knocking.”
I cupped my ear. I couldn’t tell if he was right or not.
“I actually heard it in bed,” said Mandy. “The knocking, I mean.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Me too,” Tim agreed.
Jon groaned and sat down.
“Me too,” he said. “Come on, let’s have another drink.”
Tim looked at him in surprise.
“Here? Are you kidding? Have you seen the state of it? We’re probably breathing all the spores in! Can’t we just go now?”
When no one answered, he shook his head in annoyance.
“Right,” he said bitterly. “I’ll see you outside then.”
He turned to leave. When he was halfway to the stairs, the knocking got faster and louder, making him pause.
My skin crawled in a pleasant way. A small electric thrill. I suddenly knew how the ancients felt, when the shaman banged his trance-inducing drum.
Jon sprang to his feet.
“It’s in that room,” he realised. “The one at the end. Someone’s mucking around.”
He took a step forward.
“Who’s there?” he called.
The knocking stopped abruptly.
“I am,” said a voice in the dark.
Tim jumped in fright, but the rest of us were just confused. It was the voice of a girl, coming from the room with the half-open door. The stranger thing was, the room wasn’t lit—so whatever she was doing, she did in the dark.
“What are you playing at?” said Jon.
She did it once for illustration. Knock!
“You were by the river,” said Jon.
“Then how did we hear you, by the river?”
She laughed softly through the crack in the door. As she did, the end of the hall seemed visibly to darken. Liquid gloom was seeping out of there. It was like a cloud of octopus ink.
“How did you hear me in your beds?” she pointed out.
When we didn’t answer, she resumed her game. Knock, knock, knock.
“They’re special sticks,” she said through the door. “The sound they make is the heartbeat of the soil. The rhythm of the rain. Deep summer magic that only I know. The sound is heard where I wish it to be heard.”
Knock, knock, knock.
My heart soared. Suddenly, there was nothing to fear from the end of the hall. The dark was a friend and not a threat. The mould on the walls wasn’t squalid: it was the miracle of life, nourished by rain that remembered the sea. It was ripe and wholesome, like a field of wheat in summer.
“Come and play,” she called from the dark.
As if in a dream, we began to walk to the end of the hall.
I got there first but paused at the door, staring in a sort of trance. It was Jon, our glorious leader, who pushed his way past and shone a torch inside.
To this day, I can’t remember much about the room itself, except how dark it was. I dimly recall the black mould and maybe a window. That’s it. I couldn’t tell you if the room was big or small, furnished or bare. All I really remember is the girl.
She was standing in the corner with her back to us. Her hair was full of twigs and dead leaves. She wore a long white gown and her feet were bare.
Knock, knock, knock, went the sticks in her hands.
She didn’t stop or turn round. With each percussive blow, her elbows twitched at her sides.
We looked at each other in pleasant confusion, then turned our gaze to the girl.
“Who are you?” Jon marvelled.
“The spirit of the woods,” she said. “You can stay with me forever in this house.”
“Then show us your face,” he urged.
“You don’t want to see it.”
He moved impatiently towards her.
“Yes we do.”
I don’t know how the spell was broken, but I know I wobbled as I stood there. Did we want to?
It was suddenly strange, rather than charming, for the girl to be standing with her back to us. I wondered what she was doing there at all. Before we’d brought our torches, she’d been waiting in the dark. Her bare arms were those of an old woman, even though she had the voice of a girl.
“Show us your face,” said Jon again—reaching out to grab her shoulder. I realised, with a sudden pang of dread, that I didn’t want to see it.
Tim was the first to bolt. Without a word, he turned and fled. Mandy and I followed him through the hall, all the way down the dark stairs. His thumping feet had stirred us from our trance.
Jon didn’t follow.
We heard a bloodcurdling scream behind us. It grew in volume as we exploded through the door and into the night. It followed us through the dark trees, all the way to the river.
We got split up in the dark but managed to find our separate ways home. I remember I came out of the park somewhere in Prestwich, then wandered aimlessly till I found Bury New Road.
In the days that followed, we talked by phone, speaking in low whispers so our parents didn’t hear. None of us could reach Jon. To this day, I have no idea what happened to him. Maybe his parents returned from Burnley to find him missing, but news never reached us, because he’d already left school. It does seem odd that the police wouldn’t speak to his friends, so I like to think he found his way home, and they moved to Accrington as planned.
Later in life, I tried to find him on social media. I never could.
Nor could I find that house again. As an adult, I viewed the whole park on Google Maps. As far as I could see, there was no Georgian manor.
One day, I returned on foot and tried to retrace my steps. Somewhere past the prison and the bridge, I turned my back to the river and went through the trees. After a while, I found the bare foundations of a long-gone building.
I did a bit of reading online. I believe they were the remains of Irwell House. According to Wikipedia, “the house caught fire during a civil defence exercise in 1958 and was demolished some years later. The foundations and the first course of stones were left in place and are still visible today.”
I’ve since found a painting of Irwell House, so I know it was a Georgian manor with sash windows. The doorway was stone, with two pillars and a pediment. It came down years ago, before I was born. The foundations are wild with long grass. Make of that what you will.
I don’t know who the girl was, but I know she isn’t human. Maybe she never was—but she’s out there, somewhere. Even now, she haunts a dark hall in a house that isn’t there, calling children in the night.
When summer comes, I leave a TV on in my bedroom, for fear I’ll hear that knocking again.
One thing remains to be said. When I left Kersal High for the last time, I got the other pupils to sign my school shirt. That was the tradition.
Years later, I found it in the loft and read the messages. One of them surprised me.
I’m still here, someone had written. Come and play. Jon.
I hope it was Tim or Mandy trying to be funny, but in my heart of hearts I know it wasn’t.
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.)
I won’t have mirrors in my house any more. When you’ve read this story, you might not want them either.
There’s a phenomenon where, if you gaze at a mirror in a dark room, your own face can be quite alarming. To trigger it, all you have to do is dim the light and stare at your reflection. Your eyes swim and your features start to change. The revised image makes you shudder. It seems—wrong.
It’s called the strange face illusion, and it’s really quite uncanny. If you fight the urge to blink, it gets stronger. Soon, it’s not your face any more. A dark figure stands before you, lost in a cloud of shimmering fog. It’s like you’ve summoned something, and you’re seized by the notion that whatever you summoned is staring back.
If you’re daft enough to try it, and reach the point I just described, I hope you look away. I kept staring—and like I said—I won’t have mirrors in my house any more.
I was born and raised in Salford, near Kersal Moor and the Irwell Valley.
If that sounds romantic, let me disabuse you: it’s nowhere near as nice as it sounds. There was a time when the moors ran as far as the river, but that was long ago and most of them are gone. All that remains is a sad bit of heath, squashed between the graveyard and a golf course. It was near there that I grew up, in a place called Upper Kersal.
My uncle always said that Kersal had the most ghosts in England. He thought they met on the moor, like the Chartists had in 1838. In his tall tales, they rose from the dead for their nightly soirées, conspiring against us in the dark.
When the nearby flats were demolished, he told me it was because of all the ghosts there. Being local, I watched them coming down from the bottom of Castlemoor Avenue. I was nine years old, and it seemed to me like the world was ending. The ground trembled and the air was thick with dust. Whatever ghosts had haunted those concrete towers—and I’m sure there were many—dispersed with a roar.
I’ve looked online, but I can’t find anything to support the claim that Kersal is haunted. I do know I heard it again, several times, when I worked in the pubs around Whitefield, three miles up the road.
I didn’t take much notice of the ghost-talk. My outlook is different now.
Earlier, I warned you about staring in mirrors. For some of you, the effect I described will be quite familiar. You discover it by accident, usually alone, and almost always in the middle of the night. When you enter the bathroom, and light from the landing follows you in, the conditions are ideal. You stand in the gloom, washing your hands before a dark mirror that catches your eye.
It’s easy to stare when you’re half asleep. That’s when you’re most vulnerable. I wish I could say that happened to me, because then I could blame bad luck. The truth is, I did it on purpose.
I was renting a flat in Whitefield at the time, in a place called Besses o’ th’ Barn. It sounds lovely and picturesque, but it’s really just the junction of two main roads. McDonald’s, Aldi and Co-op sit to one side, facing each other like the witches from Macbeth. The car park between them is every bit as bleak as Kersal Moor. It’s got tarmac instead of heather, and painted lines instead of footpaths, but the same cold wind goes hissing through, seeming to sharpen the long shadows.
From Monday to Thursday, I did daytime shifts at a nearby pub. When we lost our student barman, I was asked to cover Sunday lunch—which (to my annoyance) became permanent. It was a graveyard shift, and the only reliable punter was a queer old bird called Jim. He had a square jaw, round glasses, thin grey lips, and a shabby old coat that flapped around when he hunted for his wallet. He always ordered a pint of mixed, in the old-style glass with a handle. He liked to sit at the end of the bar, and his preferred spot was under the sign that said, “Please leave this end of the bar free for collecting glasses” (for obvious reasons, there wasn’t a stool there, but he always got one and dragged it over).
One Sunday, before he arrived, I got an unexpected rush of people. It was a wedding party, en route from church to reception. I looked up in horror as more and more people came through the door. The men loosened their ties, rubbing necks that were still moist from the morning shave. The women had tiny hats stuck to their heads. Half of them were visibly annoyed with half of the men. In short, they were typical wedding guests.
I dealt with the rush but didn’t enjoy it. In bar work, we have a motto: “I’d rather be busy than bored.” On Friday night, when we brace ourselves for a long seige, it’s almost a rallying cry. “I’d rather be busy than bored,” we tell ourselves. It numbs the stress when there’s far too many people, all shouting orders at once.
Even though I say it, the truth is, I don’t believe it. I’d rather be bored than busy any day. On this occasion, I smiled at the customers but seethed inside, hating them for being there. Even worse, not one of them said the magic words that meant I could stick 20p in my tip jar (those being, “and your own, barman”).
They had one drink each and left. I went round, got the glasses, and stacked them on the bar beneath the sign. Then I hurried to the loo.
When I came back, I was annoyed to find Jim in his usual spot, peering over the stack of dirty glasses. The rest of the bar was clear, but he’d got a stool and parked himself in the least convenient spot.
“Come round,” I said impatiently. “I’ll serve you over here.”
He shook his head.
“It’s all right,” he said mildly. “Do the glasses. I’ll wait.”
I cleared the bar in front of him, loading the glasses in a basket for the washer. I made a point of not rushing.
“We do have a sign,” I reminded him, “asking people not to sit at this end of the bar—”
He raised a hand to interrupt me.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “But there’s no one else here, is there? And anyway—I can’t sit anywhere else.”
“Why not?” I wondered.
He scowled but didn’t meet my eye.
“Mirrors,” he said unexpectedly. “Can’t bear to look at bloody mirrors. And your own, barman.”
I took his money and turned to investigate. My reflection peered back at me between two bottles of vodka. I’d never really noticed, but the whole back wall of the bar was glazed. There were mirrors behind the glasses and bags of crisps. We even had them in the fridges, making them seem twice as full. It’s funny what you see every day and don’t take in.
He’d given me the right money, plus 20p. I put it in my jar.
“Right,” I said uncertainly.
“I don’t trust ’em,” he went on. “Have you ever stared at your own reflection?”
“Well yeah,” I said. “If you do it in the dark, it’s quite creepy.”
He was taken aback.
“You’ve done it too?”
I nodded because I had. Once, when I was young, my brother got us to do “the mirror thing” as a spooky parlour game. We scared ourselves silly in the master bedroom, taking turns to stare at our reflections. We only stopped when Mum turned the light on and kicked us out of there.
“If you stare at anything it goes weird,” I said. “It’s a trick of the eyes. It’s just spooky when it’s your own face.”
He took a long drink and shook his head.
“It’s more than that,” he said darkly—thumping his glass on the bar. “And it’s no bloody trick!”
Before he could explain, the water in the washer stopped sloshing around. By the time I came back with the clean glasses, he’d downed his pint and left. Froth was pooling in the bottom of his glass.
“Bye then,” I said sarcastically.
That night, on a whim, I tried it at home. As I stared at the mirror, my eyes began to swim. I held focus and didn’t blink. Soon, my face seemed to leer at me through the glass. I rubbed my eyes and walked away.
After that, I got on with life. Looking back, my conversation with Jim had aroused a gentle fascination with the “strange face” illusion. I did it from time to time out of boredom, marvelling at my own features—zoning out as they changed, or seemed to move while mine were still. Over time, it took on an almost mystical significance for me.
Jim still came on Sundays. I wondered if I should tell him, just to reassure him, that I’d been staring in mirrors without consequence. I decided not to. Once, he caught me admiring myself in the glass behind the optics. I thought I saw a flash of fear in his eyes.
The watershed moment came months later, when I was confined to the flat with a bad cold (which—obviously—I’d self-diagnosed as “flu”).
Two days into quarantine, I felt lousy, but I’d used my daily ration of sleep. The well of oblivion had run dry. I’d watched all the videos I could think of. I’d eaten all the chocolate in the flat. A delivery boy had been and gone, leaving chicken noodle soup from the Chinese takeaway.
Out of boredom, I decided to do the thing with the mirror.
I turned the light off in the living room but left one on in the kitchen, which was joined to the room through an archway. Because of that, the wall behind me was bathed in dim light.
As I stared at the mirror, my face seemed more and more alien. If anything, because I was under the weather, the fuzz in my head made it more pronounced. I had a growing sense of jamais-vu.
That was stage one.
By stage two, my face seemed angry and old. My mouth started moving, mouthing god-knows-what. I watched with interest, sure it was just an illusion. After all: it isn’t normal to stare, and the brain has a special interest in human faces. It’s no surprise if it flounders in the dark, filling the blanks where shadows fall.
The visual fog thickened before me. Soon, I could no longer see my face at all. Just the dark silhouette of a stranger.
Stage three: I was surprised, but not alarmed, when I began to experience an auditory hallucination. Nothing intense; just a low bell tolling from afar. As it chimed, the tidal roar of Bury Old Road—omnipresent in the soundtrack of my life—died down to nothing.
Soon, there was only the bell. I didn’t stop staring.
I was almost functionally blind by now. My field of vision was an abstract canvas, endlessly re-painted before me. Muted night-time oils. The bell continued to sound, getting louder and louder.
I felt the floor tremble beneath me.
Then, stage four: a loud musical cry. The outrage of a choir.
My vision cleared. There was no shimmer now. Just a terrible stranger staring back.
I was stunned by the level of detail. He was bald, which I’m not. He had maggot-white skin, with scowling eyes lost in shadow. His mouth was a silent “O”. A scream without sound.
There’s nothing I can say, really, to do the face justice. But I can tell you this: years later, I saw a painting by Francis Bacon that made me cry out and cover my eyes, because it was the spitting image of what I’d seen. I’m sure the artist saw it too. Whether in a dream or a mirror, I can’t say—but if you’re curious, do a Google image search for francis bacon screaming popes. You’ll get a good sense of what I saw.
Behind him was a gloomy interior. It wasn’t the one that faced the mirror. It was somewhere else entirely.
Over his shoulder, I saw a dusty throne by a dark window. Beyond that, a barren plain. A single tree bent double in the distance, dark and bare. As I watched, the choir continued to sing, mounting to a terrible chorus.
My eye was drawn back to the foreground. He’d raised two trembling hands and pressed their fingers to the glass. He seemed to be feeling the mirror, testing it from the other side.
Finding it solid, he paused. His face became a mask of fury. He began to strike the glass.
It was so loud I fell backwards in fright. I crawled to the kitchen and covered my ears, shaking in fear. Bang, bang, bang!—I’d never heard anything like it. I knew, with the white-hot certainty of dread, that he was trying to fight his way in.
Then his voice came howling through the glass. It was half-mad with grief and hunger, and I can’t remember what he called to me, but sometimes now I wake in fright and for a moment I do—I do remember—and then it fades away, and I thank God for the mercy of amnesia.
At last, the banging stopped. I heard cars on Bury Old Road.
I got up and moved quickly. Without daring to look in the mirror, I turned the light on in the living room. Then I went to the bedroom. Still shaking, I threw the duvet aside and pulled the sheet from my bed. It got stuck on one corner so I tugged in blind panic. At last it came away with a soft elastic twang. I returned to the living room and put it on the mirror, tucking it in at the top.
Finally, I grabbed my keys, left the flat, and got the last Metrolink to town—shaking all the way to Piccadilly Gardens.
There was one other person in the carriage. I’m sure he thought I was a junkie. I didn’t care. I was heading to town because it was eleven. The local pubs would be ringing last orders. I needed a drink, and more than one.
I got off the tram and found a bar that opened late. They did racks of syrupy shooters, with a “rack” being six on a wooden plank. When I drained three of the racks in half an hour, they asked me to leave.
Again, I didn’t care. I’d stopped shaking by then. I spent the last of my money on a taxi home, all the way to Besses o’ th’ Barn. Fortified with Dutch courage, I let myself in and passed out on the bathroom floor, where I sweated profusely in my sleep (or—more likely—pissed myself in the night).
The next day, with a stinking hangover, I managed to convince myself that the “flu” had made me delirious (well—I say “convince”—but I never took that sheet off the mirror—and anyway—I was soon proved wrong).
As I lay in bed that night, I heard a soft tapping in the living room. I wondered in alarm if the ceiling had a leak. It was raining quite hard. Wind kept slapping the window. Outside, an endless drumroll filled the night. Panes of glass trembled in their frames.
I went to see but couldn’t find a leak. One corner of the ceiling was a known offender, but the floor below was bone-dry. Then I realised, with a cold thrill of horror, that the sound was coming from behind the sheet. He was back again, inside the mirror—knocking on the other side!
The sound got louder as he grew impatient, till he was banging the glass with full force. Bang, bang, bang!
It was too late for a bar then, but I left anyway. I slept rough in the tram stop. At least I didn’t piss myself.
The next morning, I was roused by the sound of tram doors hissing. I went home, got the mirror off the wall, and threw it in the bin with the sheet still on. I unscrewed another from the bathroom cabinet. I got rid of one in my bedroom.
Earlier, I said I’d rather be bored than busy. When it comes to removing mirrors, it turns out I’m quite industrious. You could say it’s my monomania. Everywhere I sleep gets the same treatment now. I always finish by nightfall, for fear of what the night will bring. I’ve removed them, and covered them, and once even painted a whole wall of fitted cupboards, because they had mirrors on the doors (I didn’t get my deposit back).
Even so: when I only cover them, I often hear him tapping. He’s seen me now and won’t give up. When I hear it, I picture him on the other side, confused he can’t see in—testing the glass with his long white fingers. Tap, tap, tap.
I sleep with foam earplugs now. He only comes at night, thank God. In the cold light of day, when people are around, I can just about bear to see a mirror. My phobia isn’t as bad as Jim’s, but I always approach them with caution. When I do, I’m reminded of lines by the Serbian poet Charles Simic: “You must come to them sideways / In rooms webbed in shadow.”
I’ve held down work in four different pubs. I think my colleagues find me withdrawn, but I still show up. I’m punctual. In my modest, traumatised way, I’m functioning.
But for how long?
As time goes by, I still think about it. Fear fades and fascination grows. It’s just a matter of time before I find a mirror, dim the light, and do it again.
I’m convinced that man is real. He haunts the thin space between glass and silver, waiting for someone to make the link.
Who is he? What’s that place, where the lone tree bends on a darkling plain? Where’s the bell, and why does it chime?
Who are the members of the choir—the one that cries when the fog clears—and will I ever see their faces?
Why does he tap at mirrors? Does he want to come here, or drag me over there? Is the throne his, or is he just a custodian? Does he seek a hostage for that high office?