New Ghost Stories
by Tony Walker
Noises from the Attic
I moved into the house towards the end of the year when the nights began to darken and the cold winds blew from Camden all the way to Wapping. I liked the location – right by the river, not far from that famous pub [_The Prospect of Whitby _]that stands on the bank of the River Thames and was apparently built in 1520. Julie was my landlady – my landlady and my colleague. I liked Julie, but she didn’t like me – at least not in the way I wanted. Sure, she thought I was a nice guy, but she liked big strong sportsmen and I was a male nurse. So I did caring really well; I was the darling of old ladies, but not Julie’s darling. We were working together on a cardiac ward in a big teaching hospital in London. I needed somewhere to stay and she had a spare room.
The house was old. I don’t know if it was as old as the [_Prospect of Whitby, _]but it was at least 18th Century, if not earlier. It too looked over the lazy, dirty Thames as the cold, brown water flowed endlessly to the sea. To cap its charms, we weren’t far from Execution Dock where pirates had been chained at low water and left to drown as the tide came in.
The house belonged to Julie’s father. She told me it had been in the family for generations but her dad chose to live elsewhere – out in the leafy suburbs with his new, young wife. It was handy for me and the rent was very reasonable. And it got me to be a bit closer to Julie sometimes too. When she was in.
My bedroom was up on the top floor, facing the street, so no river view. There were plenty of other rooms but they were mostly locked. The ones I could see into were full of clutter - mouldy old books, piles of car magazines from 1972 and her dad’s old model railway, which no longer worked. Downstairs was the living room with its sofas, its TV and big Persian rugs. There was a dining room and an old fashioned kitchen that badly needed a refit. From the kitchen there was a small balcony overlooking the river, and I used to go there and sit and drink wine after work. At least when it wasn’t raining. When it was raining I’d sit just inside the French windows as the rain spattered on the glass, watching the tug boats and pleasure boats and even police boats ply their way, bedecked in lights, though those dark winter nights.
The tapping began in mid October. Or maybe it had been going on for a long time, but I just noticed it then. I used to lie on my bed looking at the ceiling wondering what the hell was making that noise. It was rhythmic, but not always the same. Just a light tapping. And then sometimes it was so loud would actually wake me up. I tried to see if it coincided with heavy rain, as if the rain was getting into the roof space and tap-tap-tapping down just above my head. That explanation put my mind at rest for a while.
Julie tended to spend her time at her boyfriend Brian’s place. He was a big rugby playing jock type. He was OK with me, but we had little to talk about. He had no interest in cardiology and I very little in rugby. But Julie was taken by him; she would stand there, with her arms draped round him as he talked about whatever was on his mind and she smiled and looked up in awe.
I said to her one morning when they had stayed over at the house, “What the hell is that dripping that I hear from the attic?”
She went white, but said as if it was nothing,. “Dripping?”
“Yeah, the tapping noise. It’s like water has got in? You want to get someone up there to check out the roof.”
“There is no attic,” she said in a definite tone of voice.
“In a house as old as this? No attic?” It seemed strange but it wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would lie about.
She shook her head. “No, nothing like that. But, maybe there is rain getting in somewhere. I’ll ask my dad to get it checked out. Does it bother you?”
“Well, not mostly. Sometimes it’s pretty loud. It comes and goes you know.”
“I’ll ask Dad to get it seen to. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. It’s your house.”
Then she changed the subject.
The noise went away for about a week. I managed to have some refreshing baby sleep. Work was difficult. There were spending cuts and we lost some staff; the rest of us just had to fill in. So when I went home after my shifts on the ward, I slept deeply.
It was about two in the morning when I was wakened by a loud scraping noise, like something being dragged across floorboards. It was coming from above my room. That sure as hell wasn’t rain. I lay there with my heart racing. There was silence for about five minutes and I had decided to roll over and try to sleep when I heard a sound like scratching. It sounded like an animal. Or maybe more than one. But it wasn’t just a random noise, I had the idea that there was some purpose behind it. I sat awake for a while then I told myself not to be stupid. Maybe birds had got in. That would account for the scratching. But not that awful dragging, scraping noise. I even thought that I could have dreamed the noise. That it belonged in some weird dream and not in the waking world. But even that disturbed me; I didn’t like the idea of that noise being in my dream. There was something odd about it.
The scratching came again the next night. It alternated with the tapping noise. In my imagination, I even thought that someone, or something was trying to send me a message. It unnerved me and I took to staying at friends’ houses instead of coming home to sleep. I made various excuses. To tell the truth, more than once I deliberately drank myself into oblivion so I could stay somewhere far away from that house in Wapping. I thought about moving out. Finding somewhere a bit more conducive, but the rent was too good. The location was too good. The whole thing about the noises was just my imagination and it was totally irrational to let it get on top of me like it was.
Then one night Julie and her boyfriend Brian were at home. We cracked open a bottle of wine downstairs while we watched some glitzy big budget talent show on TV. Work had gone well; I was in a good mood. I was getting on with Brian. He said, “Why don’t we go to the Prospect?”
It seemed a good idea. The pub wasn’t far away and so even though it was raining and the winter night still cold and cloudy, we walked through the narrow streets of Wapping with their tasteful repro Victorian street lamps to the Prospect of Whitby. Once inside, Brian bought me a drink, “You’re not a bad guy for a nurse,” he said.
“And that means?” I asked.
“I thought you were maybe gay at first.”
I took it well. Why not? I was relaxed. I said, “I don’t want to fall out big man, but if I was gay, how would that be a problem?”
He raised his huge hands, palms out to signify peace. “Nothing, man. It’s your life choice.”
We took the drinks from the bar and went to sit down where Julie waited.
“Thanks,” said Julie. She was looking mighty fine in a pretty blue top, her long black hair cascading round her shoulders, but she only had eyes for Brian.
After a pause, Brian said, “Are you gay though?”
Julie punched him in the arm. “Not all male nurses are gay,” she hissed.
“It’s not a problem, if he is,” said Brian. “Just curious.”
“No, I’m not Brian. So you don’t have to worry if you’re standing next to me at the urinals or we happen to pass coming out of the bathroom.”
He laughed and sank half his pint in one gulp.
“Hey,” I said to Julie. “What’s with that scratching?”
She pretended she didn’t know what I was talking about.
I said. “Like you must have noticed it. You’ve lived there all your life.”
“I was away at school and we mostly lived in Surrey…” she protested.
“Even so. You must have heard the scratching, even if you’ve only lived there for a week you’d have heard it.”
“No,” she said, wanting to end this particular conversation. There was something about her tone of voice that made me suspicious. But I couldn’t see what motivation she’d have to lie about it. The rest of the time in the pub, she looked embarrassed and avoided my gaze. Brian had finished his beer. “Beer good,” he said. “Let’s get another!”
And so we got another and the conversation moved on and for nearly a week things were OK.
On that Thursday, Julie was in. I was in my room. She was in hers, studying for an exam she had the next day – part of her continuing professional development. I was reading a science fiction novel by Iain Banks. I was light years away on a huge gas giant planet. Then the scratching came. But much louder.
I jumped off my bed and stood in the middle of the room. There was a pause and then it came again. This time I was sure it was an animal. Something, big – almost man sized. I flung my door open and half ran down the upstairs corridor to Julie’s room. I banged on the door.
She opened the door and said, “What?” obviously pissed off that I’d disturbed her. She looked lovely. A bit sleepy. I wondered if she’d napped instead of studying.
“That!” I said. I could still hear it. It seemed to be centred above my room.
“What?” she said again.
“I can’t hear any noise.”
I was incredulous. “You’re joking right? That awful scratching sound. What the hell is up there.”
“I told you. The house has no attic.”
“Come to my room. You can hear it.”
Reluctantly she followed me. We went and stood in my room. There was nothing – not a sound; as if it was conspiring with her. She shrugged. “I think you’re imagining it.”
“I so am not,” I said. We waited. Still nothing. I started to feel deflated – foolish. She looked great. She probably thought it was just an excuse to get her into my room. Not that my room was particularly impressive. We waited a bit longer. She turned and said, “I need to get back to studying.”
And then the noise came again – a scrabbling sound, like something with claws.
She stopped, but didn’t turn to face me.
I said, “See, that’s not rain. It’s something.”
She still didn’t turn round. “Julie,” I said, “Come on. You can surely hear that.”
She didn’t speak. Her silence was beginning to annoy me, much as I liked her. The scratching came again – a frantic scrabbling scraping as if something was trying to dig its way through the ceiling into my room.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Say something,” I said. “What is that?”
A dark suspicion began to form in my mind. She knew what it was. But why the hell wouldn’t she say? Why the hell wouldn’t she do something to get rid of it; her and her dad. And the scratching didn’t stop. I said, “I can’t sleep with that noise. What is it? Some kind of pet or something?”
“I’ve got to get back to my studying,” she said.
“But you can’t leave me with that noise. It’s freaking me out.”
“It’ll stop soon. It always does.”
So she did know. She walked out of my room without looking back. I followed her. She went into her room and turned round, the door in her hand ready to close it in my face. I stood there and said, “What’s going on?”
She shook her head and said vehemently, “Nothing.”
She was standing at the door of her room and I looked past her. There was a hatch in the ceiling. Like the door to an attic.
The scratching stopped and I managed to sleep.
The next day Julie was gone early and I missed her at breakfast time. I watched morning TV as I wasn’t due in at work until the late shift began at 2pm. I stayed at the bottom of the house and looked out at the river. The bottom of the house seemed OK. It was at the top of the house that I felt uneasy.
But even so, I wanted to know what it was.
So after I’d eaten my toast and drunk my tea, I went upstairs. I knocked on Julie’s door. There was no answer. I knew she was out but I waited. I knocked again. And then after three minutes of silent hesitation, I pushed the door open. It was a messy girl’s room. The bed was unmade. Herpyjamas lay – the top on the bed, the bottoms on the floor. A couple of nursing textbooks also lay on the floor next to a pad filled with notes about blood results. It was all so normal. Then I looked up at that hatch in the ceiling. It had been painted white. It looked fixed. I wondered when it had been opened last. I got her chair from the dressing table and I moved it so I could stand right under the hatch. I got up on it and reached up, prodding with my fingers. The door into the attic didn’t give but as I looked closer I could see that the edges of the oblong door up into that space had odd scratching marks on them, as if something very long nails had opened it and scratched away the paint. But that was it; that was as far as I was going to go.
And then for two nights nothing happened. No scratching. The third night I stayed at a friend’s house in Crouch End. The fourth night I went back. Brian was in. We cracked a bottle of wine and watched the football: England v. Macedonia. Macedonia won.
“It’s only got a population of about a thousand. How can they fucking win?” asked Brian.
“Dunno, mate. Let me refresh your glass.”
Then we watched the IT Crowd. I said, “Brian, Julie ever speak to you about the attic?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Is there an attic?”
“You’ve been in her room?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “I’m her boyfriend. So yes.”
“Have you noticed the door in the ceiling?”
He shook his head again. “No. Is there one?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Oh, you mean that hatch thing?”
He shrugged. “It’s just a hatch. I don’t think it opens.”
“But where’s it to?”
“Have you heard the scratching?”
He looked thoughtful. “Sure. Thought it was birds.”
“So did I.”
“It’s not birds?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So what’s scratching?”
“I don’t know.”
I paused. “Should we go and look?”
He laughed. “Look in the attic?”
“I just want to know what’s in there.”
“But do you want to look?”
“Julie would go mental. Anyway she’s back soon. Should be home about eleven.”
“She won’t let us look. I think she’s hiding something.” The wine had made me a bit too open. He looked at me long and hard. Then he said, “Macedonia, eh? Who the fuck would have thought they’d have beat us? It’s a fucking disgrace.”
Julie came home and they started canoodling so I went to bed. And then in the depths of the night, I heard it again. The house was quiet. It was long after they’d gone to bed. It must about been about three a.m. I thought that whatever it was – it was trying to scrape its way through the floor and come and get me.
My plan was that I’d wait until Julie and Brian were out and I’d go look myself. But I needed equipment. I went to a hardware store and got a flashlight and a crowbar in case I needed to prise the hatch open. Until the time came, I kept all my gear in a sports bag at work. The night I decided to do it, I was on a late shift and I got back about half ten. I had the bag over my shoulder. I let myself into the house with my key. The downstairs was in darkness. I flicked the light on and began to make my way upstairs. I was scared but I told myself not to be. What could be in the attic? I thought it would be some birds. They would be scared of me, not the other way round. I know I’d told Brian it couldn’t be birds, not that dragging noise, but that was the only thing that made sense – the rest I put down to my powerful imagination. And I had to lay it to rest or it would just take control. I needed to inject some cold logic into the riot of my fear. And so I went up the stairs. I could feel my heart banging. It was Julie’s night for being over at Brian’s. She was never in on a Thursday. That’s how I’d planned it. She was out. I’d just pull the chair until it was under the hatch, open it and pull myself up – shine the flashlight around and that would be that. But why had she lied about there not being an attic? That was the disquieting thing. But it was nonsense. I’d carry out my plan. Job done. Drive away the devils and sleep well. Simple.
And even though I knew she wasn’t there I knocked on the door. I waited for a second then I was ready to push it open when a sleepy Julie answered. “Dave, what do you want? I was having an early night.”
“What do you want?” She was annoyed.
I said, “I was just going to tell you I’m moving out.” I had just thought of it that instant. But as soon as I thought of it, I knew it was right.
“OK,” she said. “You could have told me in the morning. And what’s that bag? You look as if you’ve come back from a burglary.”
“Where’s Brian?” I said.
She froze. “I don’t know.”
“Thought tonight was your night to stay at his.”
I look I couldn’t read flickered across her face. “I’m not sure I’ll see him again,” she said.
“Oh, OK. I don’t mean to pry.”
Then she said, “But if you thought I was out, why did you knock on my door?”
I gave a nervous laugh, knowing I wasn’t covering up anything, but I had nothing sensible to stay.
She looked at me. “Good night Dave,” she said.
I felt very foolish. I put the bag down and then got ready for bed. I read a little of Consider Phlebas and then felt my eyes grow heavy. I slept. Much later, I was woken by the scratching. It was middle of the night. The house heating had switched itself off and the room was cold. The scratching kept on without cease; it was intense. I wondered whether I was going to see claws break through the ceiling. I began to shake. I needed light to chase away the bad dreams. I leaned over to switch on the angle-poise lamp by my bed. I clicked the switch but nothing happened. Tentatively I got up out of bed. I went and switched on the room light by the wall. No light, just an empty click. There must be a power outage. I went to the door and opened it. And then I stopped. Above me the scratching had gone silent, but out in the corridor I heard a breathing – a ragged breathing. A breathing from something that had trouble with its lungs, wheezing, crackling, and waiting; as if something had dropped from the attic and come into the house.
It was out there. I didn’t know what it was. But it was out there in the corridor. There was no lock on my door. I closed it as quietly as I could, hoping that the thing with its tortured breath would not hear. And I held the door handle, shaking with fear. I had known there was something in the attic. And now it was walking the house. There was no way out behind me. The window was small and high. I would die if I jumped out onto the street. I was standing there in a t-shirt. I stooped down and picked up my underpants from the floor. I pulled them on. Stupid what you think of, but I didn’t want to die naked.
I got the door and I pulled it slightly, quietly towards me. But I needed to see it. So I opened the door a crack and put my eye to it.
The creature was standing there; its face pressed against the crack in the door right in front of my eye; its blind, boiled eyes in my face; its cold stinking breath against my skin.
In horror, I jumped back. I fell. I stumbled. I ended up tripped and lying on the carpet. And above me the door slowly opened.
I thought I was going to piss myself with fear.
It came in. It was tall and hung in ribbons and its face was filled with teeth. Its hair was dirty and stunk of old dead meat. I heard its ragged breath as it moved into the room. It came towards me and I heard the sound of its nails, clicking and dragging. In the half light from the window, I saw its mouth begin to open. Half open; it found me by my warmth; for it was a thing cold and dead. It was a thing that lived in the attic.
And in a burst of desperate life, I jumped forward. My fear gave me strength. I pushed past it. It felt cold against my arm. I smelled the stink of that revenant that had died and returned – the stink of that which belongs in the pit. It turned and snickered at me. It touched me with its foul ragged nails; it tried to hold me but the love of life and the fear of death gave me strength. I ran.
And when I came to Julie’s door, I thought of abandoning her. After all; she knew this thing. Whatever she said. She knew it.
But I couldn’t leave her. I heard its breath as it followed me. It was so close. It did not rush for it was a thing that was used to eating in its own slow time.
I pulled open her door. There she was cowering. I grabbed her by her night-dress and I dragged her with me. It was at the door behind us.
With all my strength I barrelled at it. It caught me and twisted towards me. I felt its breath. I felt its teeth as close as my skin, almost snapping at me. But I was past and, with her, we stumbled down the stairs. How we didn’t fall was a miracle, but we got to the door and with shaking hands I fumbled to open it.
And I heard it coming behind us, stumbling, dragging. Julia was sobbing as I held her.
It came down the stairs. If its eyes could see then I judged it didn’t see very much. It scented us. It felt our life and the heat of our life drew it. It was as if blood was a beacon for it, as light is for us. The hideous, stooping creature came to take our souls to a cold place beyond time, beyond hope – to the place where it waited.
And I pulled the door, rattling it frantic in my panic. But it was locked. I had a key, but my hand was shaking so much I could hardly fit it in the lock. Julie said, “Go, save yourself. It has eaten Brian; killing you is just pleasure for it; killing you is its gluttony.”
“What is it?” I said.
She shook her head. “Go!”
I turned. The door was still locked.
“I can’t leave you.”
“It won’t harm me. It belongs to us. It belongs to the house. It belongs to the family.”
But by this time, I had turned the key. The door opened. I pulled at it. The thing was close.
“But what is it?”
She pushed me out of the door, crying with fear. “It is a Belphegor. It is us. Go before it hunts you.”
And I fell out onto the street.
And I left her there as I ran. I wanted to save her but I couldn’t face that thing. And in my heart I knew that it was a thing that belonged to her family. That they had nurtured and summoned long ages ago.
That night I escaped; but I have seen the Belphegor and it is a thing that no man is meant to see and live. My life will not be long now. I know it will find me, and devour me and drag me down to hell at last.
Cumberland Coal Mine
John Bragg was a coalminer. He was a friend of my grandfather William Fell. In the early 1960s, they worked at various pits around the West Cumberland coal field in the north west of England, moving from one to another as they were closed down. There was a particular pit that he worked at near a village called Siddick on the coast. The area has been landscaped now and there is no trace that there was ever a mine complex there.
Miners are traditionally superstitious men. Their lives hang on a thread when they are underground. There are so many ways they can die – by earth as the rock collapses on them, by fire as the invisible fire-damp gas is ignited by a spark from their picks, by water as the sea breaks in and floods the galleries that run miles out under the sea, and finally by air – as the atmosphere is taken away by the dreadful sucking gas known as choke-damp.
Some of the men would refrain from washing their whole back as they sat in the tin baths in front of the fire when they came home from work. They said that if your whole back was washed, that was inviting it to get broken – as if the water would wash its strength away so you couldn’t withstand the falling rock. They were all superstitious but John Bragg had a reputation for being the worst. He always took a scrap of blue silk with him when he went down the pit. It had belonged to his fiancée – Dorothy. They were due to be married but Dorothy was taken by the Asian ‘Flu. That was years ago, but he never wanted anyone else. The men he worked with were hard men, and they didn’t tolerate weakness in others, but they never mocked John for his little bit of silk. They knew how her death had affected him and they knew that even beyond the grave, he still loved her.
There was one gallery deep down in the mine that had a reputation for being haunted. I suppose that during the course of it being worked men must have died down there but oddly, the reports of the ghost, such as they were, never referred to men at all. It wasn’t dead miners that were supposed to haunt the gallery but something quite different. Something that shouldn’t ever be down a mine at all.
People used to avoid going down there unless they had a specific job. It was off the main thoroughfare – the long tunnel that they took on their way to the coalface way out under the sea. Even though it was out of the way, the Lady’s Gallery was a handy place to store things – things like wheels for the bogeys that transported the coal or bricks for building walls or any other structures that might be needed underground and general odds and ends that kept the mine ticking. My grand-dad said that what scared the people who went to the Lady’s Gallery were the odd noises. They said that the worst was the sound of rustling silk. As if someone was rubbing the material between their fingers. Always behind you and always in the dark. As if it was standing there in the shadows, just outside where the light reached. As if it was watching you.
Most of the time the thing in the Lady’s Gallery was forgotten about. There was a job to do – the coal had to be hewn and the sea kept out after all. However, there was an upsurge in interest in the story after one of the miners reported hearing it when he went to the Lady’s Gallery. This man had a reputation as a bit of a clown and so no one took the story seriously. They thought it was just him trying to get some attention. No one took it seriously that is apart from John Bragg. The story of The Lady’s Gallery seemed to obsess him. People didn’t like to ask him why he was always talking about the story, because he seemed so eager and strange about it.
One time, my grandfather did ask him. He felt he knew him well enough to pull his leg about his fixation on the place, after all they had been boys together. But when William Fell asked him why he seemed able to think of nothing else, John Bragg just smiled a strange smile and said, “I know who it is.”
“Who what is?” said William.
“Who it is that rustles the silk.”
My grandfather half guessed, but asked anyway. “And who is it?”
John pulled the scrap of blue silk from his pocket where he always kept it and rubbed it between his fingers. “It’s her; it’s my Dorothy.”
William thought he was half mad and changed the subject.
Then the next day, John tried to persuade him to go to The Lady’s Gallery when they had finished their shift.
William said, “When I’m finished in the pit, I’m going home. I spend too many hours in the dark as it is.”
John tried to persuade him. “If we just went and waited there, I’m sure we’d hear it.”
“If we miss the end of our shift, we might have to wait a long time for the cage to come back down. I’d hate to be forgotten about down here.” He tried to force some humour, despite how uneasy he felt at seeing John’s frantic, eager eyes.
John said, “But she’s come here for me. I can’t ignore her.”
“Dorothy. She’s come here to talk to me.”
My grandfather looked at him in silence. Could John really believe that his dead bride had returned from grave to meet him in the inky blackness of a coal mine, away from the bustle of the work, in a place so silent itself that the only sounds were men working miles away or the dripping of water from the roof?
“You can’t be serious?” he said finally.
John nodded. “I know in my heart, Bill. She comes and whispers to me at night; she tells me to come and meet her down there.” And then he looked embarrassed as if he’d just disclosed a terrible, personal secret. All his hope was in his eyes – the hope of a man that death had cheated of love.
William felt sorry for him. He wanted to help him but he knew that this was insane. Later, he said the most unnerving thing was that John was so serious – he truly believed that some dead woman was calling to meet her in that place without light, deep underground.
William shook his head. “I’m sorry John, but I won’t do it. It’s not good for you to dwell on this.”
Two weeks passed and then it so happened that William’s son was ill. John Bragg should have been off work that day but he volunteered to do an extra shift to cover William so that William could take his son for medical treatment. William knew he owed John a favour after that and he was wary about what he would ask him to do. At first John asked him nothing. But then, in a few days, when they were getting ready to go underground, John said, “I still want to go to the Lady’s Gallery; will you come?”
William felt like saying that if John was so sure that it was Dorothy, why didn’t he go on his own. But he couldn’t leave the poor sick man to do that. He knew he should go with him to make sure he was all right and to bring him back up to the light when it was proved that it was just his imagination – that Dorothy was dead like everyone else who’d passed away. For if William knew anything, it was that the dead do not return.
John asked again. “Please Bill. It would mean a lot to me. And you do owe me a favour.”
William sighed and turned back to his gear, making sure everything was working and safe. But John persisted. “Will you come with me tomorrow, Bill? After we finish?”
William felt he had no alternative. “I will,” he said, “but I can’t see any good coming of it.”
When William went back home that night and told his wife that he was going to be late the next day and why, she told him that John Bragg was a fool and that he was a bigger fool for agreeing to go with him. She said, “I know it’s sad that Dorothy died, but it’s not healthy that he dwells on it. And you shouldn’t be encouraging him by going there with him.”
William groaned. “But I owe him a favour. He swapped shifts with me.”
She said, “Your sense of honour will get you in trouble one day William Fell.”
So they went to work the next day, William and John and all the other miners. John was in high spirits. People commented on it as he worked. “You’d think he’d won the Derby,” said one. “Either that, or he’s got a woman lined up,” said another. William kept quiet. He knew why John was so happy – he thought he was going to meet his dead love.
At the end of long shift, they hung back as the rest of the men made their way along the tunnels, walking the three miles back to the elevators that would take them up to the surface. William had a strong sense of foreboding. They walked down the tunnel. It was so low in some places so they had to stoop to avoid banging their heads. In this tunnel, there was a long electric cable tacked on the ceiling from which dangled electric light bulbs. The rooms that lay off the main tunnel, such as the Lady’s Gallery, were not lit. The only light that was in those rooms days came when the miners entered and shone from the battery powered headlamps that were secured to their hard hats. And of course the batteries only had a limited life. Enough to last through a shift and then a bit more. That was another reason that William was not keen to linger too long in the Lady’s Gallery; he feared his light would die and then they would be in the impossible dark, a blackness so complete it was as if the world had been snuffed out.
They were a long way behind the others now. And as they got closer to the Lady’s Gallery, even John became quiet, as if his excitement had turned to apprehension. And finally they stopped by the dark entrance to the man made cave. “Here,” said John.
“Aye,” said William, “here.” William saw his lamp flicker. “We need to be mindful of the life left in these batteries,” he said. “We can’t be here too long.”
John turned to William, as if nervous, and said, “You have to wait with me Bill. You promised.”
They entered the Lady’s Gallery and William sat himself down on a box that lay in the middle of the cavern. John just stood there.
“What now?” said William.
John shrugged. “Maybe we should switch off the lights? Maybe that will encourage her? She always was shy.”
“Do you have any other form of light?” asked William. John shook his head.
“Luckily I brought a candle and some matches. They’re in my pack.”
William started to search in his pack, while John went and sat on a big coil of rope. He looked expectantly into the dark tunnels that led off the Gallery. William got out his candle and his matches and set them to the side. He also had a flask of water which he sipped from then handed to John. John smiled and took it. Handing it back, he said, “She will come, you know. She loves me. She told me last night.”
William regarded him with sense of pity but also of fear that the man was clearly mad; what if she, Dorothy, it – a revenant – did come? He tried to distract himself. Beside the candles he placed an old fashioned pocket watch. Old fashioned but it still told the time well. William gave their enterprise one hour, and then he was going to go for the cage.
He felt weariness in his muscles after his hard physical labour and despite the fact his box was not a bed, and it was far from comfortable, as the silent minutes counted themselves round the watch face, he found his concentration fading and his head drooping – eyes closing.
Then he heard it; fluttering out of sight in the dark tunnel. He snapped awake, “What was that?” But he knew it was the sound of rubbing silk. He spun round to check John was still there.
John was standing up, a look of pure joy on his face. “It’s her. I knew she’d come.”
“Did you make that noise?” asked William.
“No, Bill. I told you. It’s Dorothy.”
William looked around him. The light in his headlamp battery was fading and it hardly illuminated the Gallery at all. There was a silence, then he heard it again. The sound was coming just out the light – from one of the darker tunnels that lay beyond the Lady’s Gallery. William stood up. He shouted, “Is there anyone there? Show yourself! Give up with your silly games!”
There was no reply.
John was smiling. “I just want her to show herself”, said John. “Come on Dorothy. It’s me John. Don’t be shy.”
William noticed that John’s light too was faint.
“I’m going to light the candle,” he said. He scrabbled with the match because his hands were shaking so much. But then he succeeded and the flickering yellow flame caught and grew. “Come on John. Let’s go. This is just someone playing a trick.”
“No, Bill. It’s Dorothy.” And John called again into the darkness, calling for his shy love to show her face.
William went up and put his hand on John’s shoulder. “John,” he said. “I’m as brave as any man but this is getting the better of me. Let’s make our way back to the main tunnel and then to the cage.”
John shook his hand off. The sound of rustling silk came again. This time it was distinct. It was coming from the darkness in the tunnel that led away from the main workings of the mine.
“See, she’s there,” said John. He was pointing down the tunnel. “I saw a shape. Something moved.”
“Your eyes are tricking you. Or it’s someone playing a joke on us.” But William knew none of his mates would have had the patience to wait for so long in a pitch black tunnel. It was a lot more sinister than a joke.
“No, she’s down there,” said John. “Maybe she’s too shy to come out and see me with you here.”
“I’m not leaving you on your own.”
“I’ll be all right Bill. It’s Dorothy. She loves me.”
William felt fear rise in him and he struggled to keep it down. Then John’s helmet lamp flickered and died. The diminution of the light brought the shadows crowding in on them. The darkness danced and moved as the single candle flame quavered in the faint drafts.
“What if it’s not Dorothy, John? What if it’s something else?” said William.
John shook his head. “Of course it’s Dorothy. Who else could it be? The silk is the sign. It’s her sign that she’s coming for me.”
And then William’s head light died as well. All they were left with was the light of the candle. He had some matches to re-light it, if the draft blew it out, but not many.
The darkness came very close and as if with that weakening of light, the sound came again, this time more insistent, closer and louder. Whereas before it had come and then was quiet, this time it was a frantic rustling. It no longer sounded like a woman’s dress, but like something quite different – something wicked and old.
William took John’s arm. “Come on. I don’t mind admitting that this is unnerving me. Let’s go now.”
John shook himself free, angry now – annoyed at William’s attempt to keep him from meeting this dead thing that stood, just out of sight in the annihilating blackness of the tunnel.
Without warning, he turned and ran into the dark. Down into the tunnel where the sound was; where whatever it was waiting for him.
And even William’s courage failed. He could barely stay where he was. Every nerve urged him to turn and run, but he couldn’t leave John in the dark. He shouted down the tunnel. He shouted for John to come back but his voice echoed unanswered down the black and vacant tunnels that stretched down into the centre of the earth, perhaps all the way to hell itself.
“John, where are you? The candle’s nearly gone,” he yelled. But there was no reply. He looked at the stump of the candle in its pool of wax. He had maybe ten minutes left. The watch told him they’d been there nearly two hours. He couldn’t afford to stay much longer or he’d be lost there in the dark himself. And without any light, it would be free to come when it wanted. William shouted again for John. And this time he thought he heard something. He listened hard and shouted and listened again. And then he knew he had heard it – just behind him. Not in the tunnel where he was before, but standing behind him in direction that cut him off from the way out to the cage. There was no doubt – it was the rustling of silk.
William picked up his pick axe, and he shouldered his bag. When it was secure on his shoulder, he took the candle, hoping that its light would not be extinguished as he walked. He brandished the pick like a weapon. “Whatever you are,” he said. “You’ll not take me.”
He walked, slowly, fearing that at any time it would reach out of the dark around him. But he walked out of The Lady’s Gallery, and if the thing was there, it let him leave.
As he got to the main tunnel, the candle flame guttered and died. But ahead – only yards – the electric lights still burned. He could see the way ahead to the Cage and he ran towards it. When he got there, panting and out of breath, he heard the machinery working as the Cage descended. When it got to the bottom, he saw that there were two electricians in it. One of them was Jack Tubman, a man nearing retirement who’d worked down the mine for forty five years.
“Thank God,” said William. “John Bragg’s gone missing near the Lady’s Gallery.”
“The Lady’s Gallery?” said Tubman. “And what possessed you to go there of all places?”
William told the story and Jack and his mate listened. A knowing look passed between them.
“You go up now Bill. We’ll speak to the foreman and go looking for him.”
An extensive search was organised but it did not find any sign of John. After searching as many of the miles of tunnel that they could, eventually the search was called off.
And then, four days after he disappeared, John’s body was found in the middle of the Lady’s Gallery. As if something had put it there.
Jack Tubman came round to tell William personally. He was offered tea in the small terraced house and as he sipped it, William asked him. “What did he die of?”
Jack shook his head. “No one knows. He was stone dead, but without a mark on his body.”
William saw his hand was shaking. He said, “Of fear then?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know.”
William said, “The poor fool thought it was his dead fiancée.”
Jack shook his head. “I doubt that,” he said firmly.
“Then what was it? If not her.”
“No one knows what it is. But that thing’s always been there. Ever since they first sank the shaft. Whether it came down with us from above, or more likely it was there waiting for us. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure – whatever he met down there, it wasn’t Dorothy.”
That summer we took a road trip to Northumberland. Since we both retired we had plenty of time to go and see places we’d long wanted to visit. Northumberland was one of them: England’s most northerly county, bordering Scotland to the west and the cold North Sea to the East. The coast is a long pearl necklace of yellow sand beaches, stone built fishing communities, ancient castles and rocky islands. Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, was the home of a Dark Age monastery and the monks are still there. The castles, such as Bamburgh, standing on its rock above the sea since at least the 6th Century, are breathtaking. Inland are the rolling empty hills of the National Park: more curlews than people: empty glens echoing to the memory of ancient bloodshed and long dead feuds.
We went up the coast and then found our way back towards Wooler. The summer day was bright but cold. There was a wind from the east as we made our way inland. We stopped at a magnificent castle, still lived in by the same family that had built it centuries ago as a bastion against Scots’ raids, and a springboard for raids of their own into Scotland. Those times of the Border Reivers, as they were known, were bloody and lawless and, thank the Lord, long gone. The castle was impressive, though we couldn’t be shown round all of it as the family were there in their private rooms. Our guide was knowledgeable and I enjoyed the tour. But somehow the cold seeped into my bones from that old place and there was a feeling about it I didn’t like.
My husband George didn’t seem to notice the atmosphere. He wanted to stay and take some more photographs but it was about 4pm. In January in Northumberland that meant it would be getting dark soon. I managed to drag him away by reminding him he wanted to go to the second hand bookshop in Alnwick. It’s built in an old railway station and it’s huge. It’s famous all across the north, and he’d wanted to see it for some time.
We got there just before it was closing. I was glad they had a coal fire by the sales area. I sat down on a wooden chair there while I waited for him to browse. The place smelled of old books. I don’t like that musty smell. If I’m going to buy a book, I like it to be crisp and new. Or better still, an ebook that I can carry around in my Kindle and which weighs nothing.
He was gone a long time. I’d occasionally see him down the rows and aisles, picking up a book to add the pile already in his arms. Sometimes he put them back, retracing his steps to make sure he got them in exactly the place he’d taken them from. George was always a thoughtful man.
Eventually I got bored and I went to peruse the antiques section. The girl behind the counter told me that they were just venturing into antiques. It was mostly furniture. I guessed they got it at auctions and then stripped down the wood, cleaned it up and re-varnished it. There was a nice big oak table, but it was hundreds of pounds. I was standing there looking at the furniture when George returned.
“About ready?” he asked.
“Just looking at this.”
He nodded and took a look himself, still holding his books. Then he put the books down and said, "That's nice." He was pointing at a mirror- the kind that stands on its own legs, about four foot high and you can angle it. The mirroring was spotted a little as it was so old, but it was a nice piece. It was more than we could afford. I told George that. He said, “Margaret. It’s lovely. We deserve a treat now and again. Anyway we can leave it to the children as an heirloom!”
He wouldn’t be dissuaded. I didn’t dislike it, but he loved it. He parted with his cash. The girl behind the counter was lovely, really helpful. A pretty little thing with long auburn hair and a Scottish accent.
“It’s a bit big to wrap!” she joked.
“No, we’ll just put it in the car,” said George. “Thanks for your help.”
Our long weekend in Northumberland came to an end and we were back home – back in our ordinary little house on the other side of the country. At first things seemed be much as they were before. Then I noticed that George was spending more time in his study. He had his computer and he was doing a bit of family history research. He usually went in there with his books and papers and did some looking up things on the Internet and discovering long lost cousins in the USA and Canada. But since we’d come back from our trip, he was always there. He even stayed there into the evening, when usually we sat and watched TV together. I grew suspicious and one time, when the weather outside was howling, I walked up to the door of the study, which was open just a crack. I heard him talking. It was as if he was having a conversation, but I couldn’t hear the other person. I thought maybe he was speaking with his sister Jean in Auckland on Skype. If he had headphones on, I wouldn’t hear her – only him.
When he eventually came through, I said. “Jean ok?”
“My sister Jean? You’re making me feel guilty now. I haven’t spoken to her in weeks.”
“Weren’t you on Skype before? I heard you talking to someone.”
“Me? No. Just been looking up surname histories.” And he sat down to watch TV.
The next time I noticed something wrong was when I woke in the middle of the night. I don’t know what disturbed me, but I realised he wasn’t in bed. I sat up. He must have just gone to the bathroom, I thought. But he was a long time. In the end, I put on my dressing gown and went to look. He wasn’t in the bathroom, but I saw the light was on in his study. Curious, I went to the door and pushed it open. George turned round guiltily. He was just standing there in the middle of the floor. I said, “George, what on earth are you doing?”
The computer was off, so it wasn’t that.
He said, “Nothing.”
I wondered if he was getting ill or confused. Then I saw that he’d moved the mirror into his study. It was right there, which struck me as odd. I knew he liked it, but to get up and admire it in the middle of the night? That was peculiar. He came back to bed with me.
The next day, I made an appointment for him to go to the doctor’s. Both me and our daughter Nicola accompanied him. The doctor asked him what the problem was. George said there wasn’t a problem. I told him that I’d heard George talking to himself and then found he had got up in the night and was just standing in the middle of the room. The doctor seemed to find this significant and he got out a memory test questionnaire. George scored perfectly. The doctor then took his temperature and a urine sample. They were all fine.
“I can’t find anything wrong,” said the doctor.
I felt George had made a liar of me.
The doctor said, “We’ll take a blood sample in any case. Just to make sure we catch anything that isn’t obvious. All I’d say is that you look a little pale. How’s your energy levels?”
“I feel a bit drained. But I put that down to getting older,” said George.
After the consultation, Nicola and her father went out, talking to each other. I followed along behind. They had always been close. When I was younger, I was jealous of their relationship. But she was such a daddy’s girl and always had been. Our son John was different. But he was in London and was rarely in touch.
That night I woke again to find George wasn’t in bed. I was angry this time. I marched down to his study and there he was standing there. As I approached the door, I tried to be quiet. He was talking again – having a conversation. And it almost seemed he was flirting. He had the tone of voice a man assumes when he’s talking to a pretty woman. It was ridiculous, the old fool. I stepped into the room. “George, what the hell are you doing?”
He was standing facing the mirror. It was that he’d been talking to.
He turned on me. I was suddenly frightened. For a second I thought he’d strike me. I stood my ground. “George, I’m worried about you. Who are you talking to?”
He snarled. “You wouldn’t understand.” And when I looked in his eyes, I saw something strange. Something that wasn’t him. Not George. There was a kind of evil in his eyes. I stepped back.
“Come to bed George, please.” I reached out and touched his arm. Warily, as if my touch was not welcome, he let me take it. Gently I pulled him. “Come on, please.”
He let me drag him away. When I awoke again, just before dawn. He wasn’t in bed. I knew where he’d be, but I couldn’t face hearing him muttering again, talking to someone who wasn’t there.
The next time I went to the doctor it was just Nicola and me. I didn’t want George to know and I left him at home in his study. The doctor referred us to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist thought he might be suffering from a psychosis and said he would ask the local psychiatric crisis team to call round and interview him. That frightened me. I didn’t want them to drag him off to a secure hospital and tie him up in a straight-jacket. When they came they were really nice. It was two girls. They didn’t wear nurses’ uniforms. They just asked him a lot of questions: did he hear voices? Did he see things that other people couldn’t see? He denied it all of course, but I told them about him getting up in the night and me finding him talking to that odd mirror. They suggested he come into hospital for a couple of days. He refused. They let him refuse, and I didn’t want them to have to get the police so even though I thought he needed treatment, I just hoped that they’d give him some medication that I could supervise and he’d get better at home.
Their psychiatrist prescribed him some quetiapine, which I understand is an anti-psychotic drug. Of course he wouldn’t take it.
That night, I found him in his study. I said, “George you need to take the tablets they gave you.”
He snapped at me. “No, I don’t. I’m not mad.”
“I’m not saying you’re mad. Just you’re not totally well. I mean George – you talk to people who aren’t here. That’s not normal.”
He looked at me with an icy glare. “You don’t understand. You never understood me. She knows me better than you ever could.”
I was startled. “She? Who the hell is she?” I never for a second thought he was having an affair. Who with? He hardly ever went out these days, and very rarely alone. I would know.
He didn’t answer. A faint smile played on his lips as if he had some kind of secret.
“It all dates from you buying that mirror,” I said.
He stared at me.
“I think we should throw it out. Sell it. I just don’t like it,” I said.
He pointed his finger at me and said, “If you touch that mirror, I will take a knife and cut your throat.”
The shock of him saying that was like a punch. I was devastated, shattered. He’d never spoken to me like that in all the 35 years of our marriage. I admit I burst into tears. I turned and ran and shut myself in the bedroom. He never came to see if I was all right. He didn’t come to bed either. Eventually I slept and I had a dream of a woman in white. She had a cruel face, skin the colour of bleached bone, long black hair, lustrous as the feathers of a carrion bird and a mouth as red as blood in the snow. She watched me as I slept. I woke with a start and had the faint idea that there had been someone in my room. George’s side of the bed was cold. I knew where he’d be, but I didn’t have the courage to go and find him.
In the morning, he was still in his study. He hadn’t eaten. His cheeks were hollow. There were black rings under his eyes. He hardly acknowledged me. He just kept staring at the mirror.
“I’m leaving,” I said. He didn’t look up. “You’re frightening me George. You need help. I’m going to stay at my sister’s.”
And still he said nothing. He was stroking the mirror’s frame, as if it was something beloved to him.
I rang Nicola and told her to go round and see her father. I told her she could ring the Crisis Team and they would come out. They might even take him to hospital. She asked me where I was going and I said I had to find out about the mirror.
The first thing I did was ring the place we bought it. There was no one there who remembered it. I described the girl who’d been there at the counter.
“Ah, Sandy? She’s on her day off,” said the man.
“Will she be in tomorrow?” I asked.
I could hear him turning over the pages of a book. Presumably with their rota on. “Yes,” he said.
“What time do you open?”
I put the phone down. There was nothing much I could do but wait. I wasn’t going to my sister’s; I was going to go back to Northumberland. I drove all day and got myself a bed and breakfast in Alnwick, where the shop was. I rang Nicola and she said she’d gone round. Her dad was much the same. Sitting in the study staring at the mirror. She managed to get him to eat something and she called the Crisis Team but he didn’t really listen to them. They did get him to take some of his tablets and they said they’d come back the next day but Nicola had their 24 hour phone number so if things did get worse overnight she could phone them. Nicola said she’d stay there overnight with her dad. I could tell she felt I was running out on him. I didn’t tell her that he’d threatened me because it was only because he was ill and I didn’t want to do anything to make her think less of him. I even felt I was running out, but then I told myself that all this was something to do with the mirror and I had to find out about its history.
The next day, I was there at the antique and book store before it opened. It was a frosty morning and I stood there in my coat, my breath making clouds, waiting for them to unlock the door.
“You’re keen,” said the owner – presumably the man who answered the phone.
I pushed past him. “Is Sandy in?”
“Yes,” he said, frowning. “Why?” Then he realised. “Ah, you’re the woman who was on the phone yesterday. You’ve come in person. I got the impression you lived miles away.”
“I do. But I have to know about the mirror.”
His frown deepened. “Sally handles the antiques. I focus on the books. You’ll have to ask her.”
Sandy was as helpful as I remembered her. “What’s the matter with it?” she said. “It was a nice piece.”
When I saw her, I said, “Did you not think there was something odd about it?”
She laughed. “Well, I did get it at a very good price. I joked with the woman that it was as if she wanted to get rid of it.”
“Where did you get it from?”
She could see I was deadly serious. Her expression froze. “It came from the Castle.”
It was the castle we had visited. I said I knew it. “Do you remember the name of the person there?”
“Yep. Dan Hetherington. He handles the visitor side of things. The owners have no commercial sense so they leave it to him.”
“Thank you,” I said and hurried out back to where I’d left the car.
It took me fifteen minutes to drive to the castle. The weather was heavy with low clouds and grey everywhere: it matched my mood. The castle loomed ahead of me. I had to pay to take the car in, though I wasn’t intending to take a tour. My hand shook as I paid the man at the gate and then I wound the window back up and drove through. I parked, got out and pulled tight my coat. At the entrance I asked for Mr Hetherington. The Guide there told me I needed an appointment. I even thought of bribing him, but in the end I just told him how important it was. He could see I looked upset.
Eventually, Dan Hetherington, who was a kind man, agreed to see me. “It seems urgent,” he said, extending his hand. I shook it and he asked me to sit down. He enquired whether I wanted a cup of tea but I was in too much of a state to drink tea. I said, “I’ve come about the mirror.”
“The mirror?” he said.
I nodded. “You sold a mirror at a knock down price to the antique and book place in Alnwick.”
His expression changed. He said, “Are you a journalist or something?”
“I don’t believe in all that kind of thing you know.”
“What kind of thing?”
“The so-called cursed mirror.”
“I didn’t know it was cursed. But my husband hasn’t been well since we took it home. It’s almost as if it’s given him a breakdown.”
He pursed his lips. He paused and then said, “I don’t know if it’ll help, but maybe you should speak to Mrs Eliot.”
I was bewildered, but if he thought it would help, then I’d speak to anyone.
Mrs Eliot was one of the general castle staff. She did a bit of cleaning and a bit of cooking for the tourists – baking cakes, making sandwiches and chips, etc. It turned out her family had been in employed by the Castle for decades if not centuries. Her grandfather was a plough boy in the days before tractors. Her husband had been the night security man for the castle.
“Does he still work here?” I asked. Mr Hetherington shook his head and was about to speak but Mrs Eliot said, “He’s dead.”
I felt a cold hand grip my heart. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “How long ago did he pass away?”
“About a year ago now. It was the mirror.”
Hetherington raised up his hand. “We don’t know that Diane. He had a heart attack. I don’t think it had anything to do with the mirror.”
She turned sharply on him. “You don’t know, but I do.”
“Please tell me about it,” I said.
She told me that her husband had been night watchman and security guard at the castle. He’d previously worked in the forestry but had an injury with a chain saw so he couldn’t do that anymore. The family had moved him inside. It was kind of them, she said: they could have just fired him. He liked the work, explained Mrs Eliot. She used to bring him a flask of tea and sandwiches about 10pm, to get him through the night. She said it all happened the previous winter. The days were short and the nights were long and dark. The castle kept a cold in it – a cold that almost felt unnatural, as if its centuries of blood weighed heavily. She said that there was a story that one of the family had married a woman from away. She was Scottish or Welsh or something, but she wasn’t English and the local people hadn’t taken to her. It was long ago – like a fable; the woman pale and cruel with long black hair and a red mouth, as if her lips were painted in blood. But Sir Humphrey had loved her. In fact he was besotted with her. He never wanted to leave her side and eventually he stopped eating and he sickened. All he would do was stare at her. When he died, as he inevitably did, the local people said she was a witch, or worse, and that she’d killed him with black magic – that she’d sucked out his soul.
“But that didn’t stop her,” said Mrs Eliot. “She didn’t care what they thought of her. She used the money and the castle she’d inherited to do what she pleased. And it pleased her to bring men there. Young men, middle aged men, old men, they all fell for her beauty. And they all disappeared. And so eventually the countryside was in uproar and the magistrate had to act. They came and knocked at the castle doors, which had been kept locked for so long, with only her having the key. But this time the doors were open. The magistrate and his men hesitated before they entered because there was such an air of foulness and despair about the place. Eventually they went in, but there was no sign of her. She was gone.”
Hetherington coughed. “But that’s just a silly old story. You’re frightening our guest.”
I was frightened but I couldn’t stop listening. As if something in her story was going to give me a key to understanding what was going on with my own husband.
“But she did exist,” said Mrs Eliot.
Hetherington nodded. “Some kind of 16th Century gold-digger. In any case Sir Humphrey’s brother came back from the wars in France and took over the castle and everything was fine.”
Mrs Eliot interrupted. “They thought she’d gone, but she was still there all the time.”
“Where?” I asked.
“In the mirror.”
Hetherington said, “Of course it’s absurd. But that’s what the people believe round here.”
“But what did that have to do with your husband?” I said.
Mrs Eliot said, “Not long after he started being there on nights, he started to talk about a woman that walked in the castle. At first I thought he meant one of the family or their guests, but then he was talking about seeing the woman when they were all away at their house in London. When he was the only one in the castle. I told him he was being stupid but he insisted. He starting telling me how he talked to her. How she would come to him and they would talk. And from the way he talked, it was as if he was falling in love with her – this pale-faced woman with black hair and a red mouth.
My mother said to me I had to get him away from the castle. It didn’t matter if he was unemployed. She said the woman was old Sir Humphrey’s bitch; the woman who got all those men and ate them.”
“Ate them?” I said.
“This is beyond absurd,” said Hetherington.
“What happened to your husband?”
Mrs Eliot said, “I talked to him time after time and I even went up with him to the castle and sat all night, even though I had my own job in the day. And he would get up and go walking away from me, saying that she was calling him. But I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I called her out, the evil bitch. I even think I saw her once, but I can’t be sure. Women don’t normally see her.”
Hetherington let her talk.
“And so, I got him to quit the job. The master of the castle said he’d find him another job because he was looking so ill, it was obvious that the constant night shifts didn’t suit him. He stayed home with me, but I would wake to find him out of bed, just standing at the window, looking up at the castle. And then one night, he got up and opened the door. I grabbed him. I held him back. I asked him where he was going. He said he was going to her, his mistress. He said she wanted to take him into the mirror. I screamed at him and tried to hold him back but he was too strong and he ran out of the house, into the night. It was pouring down. I got my coat and ran after him, but when I got up to the castle gate he was already dead. The gate was locked and he couldn’t get in, but she took him anyway. My only comfort is that she didn’t take him into the mirror, like she did with all the others, and so his soul was safe and she didn’t take him into that place where she eats them.”
“My God,” I said. I was trembling.
Hetherington tried to calm me. “Whatever Mrs Eliot thinks, there is a rational explanation. There are no such things as ghosts.”
Mrs Eliot, sitting behind him shook her head. “She isn’t a ghost.”
“Then what is she?” I asked.
“She’s a demon.”
I phoned Nicola and said I was driving back. I’d be about three hours. She sounded worried. She said her dad hadn’t been eating. She was pleased I was coming back. I could tell she didn’t know what to do. I told her to ring the Crisis Team, they could maybe get him to hospital. By force if necessary – anything to get him away from that woman in the mirror.
When I got home, Nicola met me outside. “Oh, mum,” she said. “He’s locked himself in his study. I can hear him in there but he won’t come out.”
I saw that she’d called the crisis team. A middle aged, dark haired man of theirs said apologetically. “I’m sorry, I can’t get him to come out. I think we’re going to have to call the Police and break down the door.”
“Just do it,” I said. I hurried through the house to the study door. I banged on it. “George let me in. It’s Margaret. It’s your wife.”
I could hear him in there, talking. Talking to that thing in the mirror, and I knew that it would be trying to persuade him to come into the mirror with it.
I shouted, “Don’t listen to her George. Come back to us. Come back to your wife and daughter,” but he didn’t answer. He just kept talking to her, listening to her whispers and promises. I knew he was at least half in love with her would believe her in everything.
I banged on the door until my fist hurt. But he didn’t stop talking to her.
By the time the Police came there was silence. “Are you sure he’s still in there?” asked the policeman. “It’s very quiet.”
“He’s in there,” said the man from the Crisis Team. Nicola was standing there, a look of sheer terror on her face. “I saw him go in. There’s no other way out. Are you ok mum? It’ll be all right.”
But I knew it wouldn’t.
The police smashed the door in. Splinters of wood flew everywhere and the door sagged off his hinges. The policeman kicked the ruined door out of the way and went in. I could see in past him. I heard him say, “No, there’s no one here.”
In the study, the desk and the chairs were still where they’d been.
So was the mirror.
George never came back and Nicola never knew what happened to her father. But I took the mirror to a remote place. There I smashed it; then I buried it, so that she who lived within it would never again be able to take another woman’s man into the place behind the mirror’s silver eye: the place that devours.
hree stories to entertain, and maybe scare you too. 1. Noises from the Attic: A man moves into an old house in London. He hears scratching noises from the attic, but his landlady tells him there is no attic... 2. Cumberland Coal Mine: A miner believes that his dead fiancee has returned from beyond the grave and is calling him to meet her in the dark tunnels of the mine. 3. The Mirror: A couple go on a road trip and buy an antique mirror. Once it's home, strange things begin to happen to the husband. Short but sweet ghost stories with a British setting.