Grandma’s Laugh

Image by Marisa Bruno

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.

“What happened?”

“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?”

“She’s fine.”

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.

Ellis Reed, 02/09/2020


Based on the above illustration by Marisa Bruno

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 shrugged.

“Dunno. You?”

“Not sure.”

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.”

Like what?

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.”

But—you’re dead?

“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.

Ellis Reed, 17/08/2020

Shallow Man

Image by Marisa Bruno

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?

She shrugs.

“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…

Ellis Reed, 19/07/2020