Deep Summer Magic

Illustration by Marisa Bruno.
Image by Marisa Bruno.

“Deep Summer Magic” is also available as a free audiobook, narrated by Nick Denton.

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.

Jon snorted.

“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.

Jon scowled.

“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.

Mandy shrugged.

“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.

“Banging sticks.”

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.

Ellis Reed, 19/04/2020

The Goosebumps Were Right

Image by Marisa Bruno

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.

Jim smiled.

“Mam wouldn’t let us near it,” he said. “Couldn’t go further than the soap works. She reckoned that river was haunted.”

“What by?”

“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?”

“Paul. 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.”

“Anywhere nice?”


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?”

I shrugged.

“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.

But how?

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?

And yet…

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.)

You Must Come to Them Sideways

Image by Marisa Bruno

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?

Well—we shall find out.

Ellis Reed, 21/03/2020