A Whisper in the Shadows

Some stories that are a little darker

Impish

Image Thomas Marlowe (c)

“Don’t worry about a thing.” Trevor smiled with deep reassurance at the nervous store owner.  “The restoration will be completely sympathetic and we will be using authentic materials and techniques throughout.  It will look just like it was first built all those centuries ago.”

“I was warned about the little imp figure.” Mr Oliver had only recently bought the shop and was beginning to get unnerved by some of the unexplained happenings.  “Apparently if he isn’t painted red bad things happen.”

“Red is the authentic colour for a figure of that type.” Trevor mentally added another £100 to the eventual bill.  “And we will, of course, be using the type of paint authentic to the period.  You would not believe some of the shoddy attempts we’ve seen.  People think it’s find to go slapping modern gloss paint over medieval plasterwork.  It’s a shame really.”

“I’m not really bothered about the paint type.”  Mr Oliver said faintly.  “As long as it looks a bit better.  Of course as it’s in a conservation area I have to be a bit careful.”

Internally Trevor sighed and took £100 back off the bill.  “We are craftsmen, aren’t we Ryan?  We like to live up to the skills of the old masters who painstakingly put together these amazing works of art.  We think it’s important to keep the old traditions going.  It would be tragic if the old skills were lost.”

“Tragic.” Ryan agreed from up the ladder next to the imp.  “I mean, who puts an early twentieth century piece of chain on a medieval carved figure?  It would make you cry.  I’d say this chain was about 1932.”

Trevor made a mental note to warn Ryan about overdoing it and all three followed the chain with their eyes as Ryan threw it down on the floor.  As one they froze as a wicked chuckle came from out of nowhere.  Then they all slowly looked up at the red imp.  It wasn’t there.  Trevor swallowed.  “Of course I do know someone who does a very good rate in absolutely authentic carved wooden figures.”

Mr Oliver sighed a little with relief.  Looking into the shop it already seemed a bit emptier.  “I think that’s a splendid idea.”

Originally published June 14th 2014

Burning Up

“Are you sure you’re okay, ma’am?” The policeman was trying to be kind.

“It’s the shock.” His colleague said quietly.

“Would you like a tea or a coffee?  We’ve called a neighbour over to sit with you if you need it.”

“I’m fine.” I said, trying to breathe normally.

“There’ll be a lot of press speculation.” The first policeman said.  “We’ve had a lot of calls.  I suggest you get a legal representative and get a statement drafted.  Don’t feel you have to answer any calls.”

“I think my husband has a solicitor.” I said, then corrected myself.  “He had a solicitor.”

“He was in a hotel with his secretary, I believe some sort of business trip.  She may want to talk to you but perhaps it’s best if you don’t speak straight away.” The second policeman was trying to judge if I knew about my husband’s affair.

“There will have to be an inquest, of course.” The first policeman was watching me carefully.  “Perhaps you should sit down.”

I looked at him blankly.  This was all so unexpected.  “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” I asked the police.  “I’ve got some biscuits in.”

The police exchanged glances.  “I’ll put the kettle on.” The second policeman said calmly.  “I’m sure I’ll be able to find everything.”

“You need to aware that the internet have taken this up as a case of spontaneous combustion.  Someone filmed it on their phone.  I wouldn’t look at it, if I were you, ma’am, it’s distressing.” The first policemen gently eased me into a chair.  “We are going to have to take some samples, the people are on their way, we’ll be as discreet as possible.  It will all be returned to you.”

“Whatever you need, officer.” I murmured.  A cup of over sweetened tea was pushed into my hand.  “Take whatever you need.”

Because they would find nothing.  I kept my diaries on my laptop which was currently at work.  I kept my tools in my friend’s garage.  And no-one believed that ‘How to Cast Spells and Influence People’ was a book that actually worked.

Originally published November 27 2015

Everything has Changed

Zoe sighed.  It had been a long day at work but now she could relax.  She could have a salad and a glass of wine in peace.  Mark would be over later, and they could watch a film before another romantic night.  She felt that her life was perfect.  She set the table in the dining room, lit one of her favourite candles and uncorked the wine.  There was a knock on the door.

“Hello, Zoe.” Ryan pushed past her.

Zoe couldn’t breathe.  She shut the door and leaned against it as she watched Ryan saunter up the stairs.  What could she do now?  For a short, awful moment she listened to Ryan moving around upstairs, then she forced herself upright, went into the dining room and poured herself a glass of wine.

“You know I don’t like you drinking.” Ryan said.  “And you’ve redecorated.” He looked around.  “In fact, this is the only room that’s still fit to see.  You never understood how to achieve elegance.”

“I cremated you.” Zoe drained her glass.

“Apparently there was a mix up at the morgue.  I was embalmed instead.” Ryan turned around mockingly, flexing his shoulders.  “And I’m not in bad shape.  I’ve no idea who I was swapped with.  Obviously they enjoyed golf.” Ryan threw a golf glove on top of Zoe’s salad.  “I told you again and again that salad isn’t a real meal.”

“And I told you again and again that you needed to eat less meat.  That’s why you died of a heart attack.” Zoe poured herself another glass of wine.

“And I warned you that I would come back from the grave.  When I was dying I was very clear.  The house was to remain exactly as it was.  You were to dress in black and remain faithful to my memory.  Not that bit of rubbish you’re wearing. You’re thirty-three, Zoe, not a teenager.”  Ryan smiled thinly.  “But here I am.  I don’t suppose you kept my clothes as I instructed.  Wearing another dead man’s suit isn’t my style.”

“I sold your clothes.” Zoe said quietly. “I sold your car, your record collection, your shoes and your power tools.  I don’t know if I can divorce a dead man, but I am not staying.”

Ryan grabbed her wrist, hard.  “The only place you are going tomorrow is work and then to buy new wallpaper.  What were you thinking?  You’ve painted everything, it’s just not good enough.  You should be glad I’m back.”

“You can’t make me.” Zoe said, tugging her hand away from the unexpectedly strong grasp.  There was a giddy rush.  She had never said that to Ryan before and he wasn’t expecting it.”  You can’t make me do anything.  After all, you can’t stop me having money for the bus fare to work as all the money is now in my name now, legally.”

“I never liked you working in that office.” Ryan muttered.  “There were too many divorcees.”

“You can’t hide my clothes.  I’ve got a suitcase stashed in my car for the weekend and the money to get new stuff.  I have friends that would worry if I didn’t get in touch after a few days and a very nice boyfriend who would definitely come to claim me.” Zoe defiantly poured another glass of wine and took a long drink.  “I’ve just got a promotion.  I’m an Area Manager now.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ryan snapped.  “We both know you’re too stupid to get a decent job.  That’s why I wanted you at home, to protect you.” He looked away from her.  They both knew he was lying.  “And I told you, I don’t like you drinking wine.”

“You’re dead.” Zoe said. “You don’t have an opinion.”

“Pour the wine away, you stupid girl.” Ryan loomed over her.

“I could call the police and say that a strange man has forced himself in here and could he come and get you.” Zoe said recklessly, drunk on the sudden ability to disagree with her revenant husband.

“I would say I was your husband and point to our wedding photos.” Ryan paused and looked round.  “There are no photos of me.”

“I burned the lot.” Zoe took a deep breath.  She had to keep her head.  “This house is in my name only now.  You have no right to be here.  I want you to leave.”

“This is my house and you are my wife.” Ryan snapped and grabbed at Zoe.  She jumped back and ducked behind the table.

“I really loved you, really, really loved you.  When you died I cried for weeks.” Zoe made a grab for her car keys.  “But I’ve made a new life and I’m alive and you’re dead.”

“Come here!” Ryan lunged desperately at Zoe across the dining table, knocking into the candle.  It fell against his sleeve.  Zoe screamed as the flame caught hold of the fabric and raced up the sleeve.

“What’s happening.” She looked round for something to throw over him.

“I was embalmed, you stupid girl.  I’m flammable.” Ryan was panicking.

Zoe tried to remember her training.  “Lie down.” She pulled up one of the rugs.  “I can smother the flame.”

Ryan screamed.  The flames had caught hold of him now and he was burning up.  “Do something you stupid girl.” It was too late.  Ryan threw back his head and howled as flames gushed from his mouth.  The stench was unbearable.  Zoe tried to throw the rug over him but Ryan staggered away, stumbling into the wall and leaving scorch marks and ash.  Then he crumbled.

Zoe methodically dampened down the scorch marks and opened all the window.  She looked at the ash covered, burned carpet, the marks on the wall, the soot on the ceiling and sighed with a sort of relief.  Even Ryan would admit that she had to redecorate now.

Originally posted April 29th 2016

Elfshot at Dawn

They got Jenkins just as dawn broke and the mist was sidling away from the valley.  It was elfshot, straight in the chest above the heart.  We carried him back as he raved, our legs dampened and cooled with the morning dew and the light spilling golden through the mist and down the valley.  Into the farmhouse we took him and put him near the roof with a Bible next to his bed and a rosary over the bedstead.  The priest was slow to come but prayed hard when he came and someone was always watching as Jenkins told us about the sky kingdoms sailing through the skies like swans and cooed at pictures on the walls that only he could see.

The hen keeper could hear his shouts as she collected her eggs and topped up the water trough.  The cows being milked in the cool dairy with rowan twigs hung above the stalls could hear his cries.  Neither the doctor not the priest could pull the elf shot as Jenkins sang wildly as if under a mackerel sky.

He died at sunset, not well, and we did not bless the day the Shining Ones, the Fair Folk, the Faerie returned.

Tap Tap Tap

It started when the house along the street blew up.  We were told it was safe and I suppose it was.  The houses either side of the gap were fine and there was no trace of gas or anything.  But that night the tapping started.

First it was on the windows, a light, tap tap tap, like a branch against the panes in a light breeze.  Except there were no branches near my window.  Just the tap tap tap after dark.  It started to unnerve me.  There was never any trace when I pulled back the curtains to look and nothing seemed out of place when I looked at the windows from the street in daylight.

Gradually I got used to it and talked about perhaps it was mice or birds in the attic.  I even added it to the ghost stories that were exchanged at work – I live in York, after all, and there are always ghost stories.  However, as the nights grew longer and the days got cooler, the tapping changed.

It was the day after my birthday, 22nd of September, when I sat bolt upright in bed.  The tap tap tap was now coming from the living room.  I remember how frozen I felt, pinned to my bed as the gentle tap tap tap seemed to patter against the wooden floor.  I crept to the door of my bedroom and listened.  There were no human footsteps, no rustle of clothes and no sigh or grunt of someone moving.  I opened the door just a crack, peering out into the hall.  No light shone from under the living room door.  As I gathered my courage to confront the noise, the tap tap tap faded away and I realised it was dawn.

That was three days ago.  I forgot about the tapping as I went away for work.  I lost myself in the hectic pace of the conference and the after conference drinks, happy to forget about strange noises, but now I was back.  There was no sign of any disturbance in the house.  Nothing had moved.  I had a quick shower and got into bed with Netflix playing loudly as I wriggled down into the bed.

But it didn’t drown the tapping.  I can hear it now, tap tap tap in the living room.  I am lying here, terrified, as the tap tap tap gets nearer and nearer.  The tapping is in the hall now and getting closer to my door.   I pick up my phone from the bedside cabinet and scroll through my contacts, looking for the number that had been forced on me.  Now I was desperate.  I found the name – Rev D King, Exorcist.  My fingers trembled as I dialled the number, burrowed under the covers.  Dawn is two hours away and the tapping is getting closer.

 Image from free-images.com

Dead Roses

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I sat and stared at the faded roses in the centre of the table.  My cup of coffee was cooling in front of me.  Tonight was the last night of the dark of the moon.  Perhaps it wouldn’t work.

I sat immobile, staring at the fallen petals surrounding the plain black vase.  I had made a deal.  I should get the results before the last petal fell.  Outside the sun was setting.  I needed to get up and close the curtains but somehow, after all the weeks since the funeral, somehow now I was finished.  I couldn’t go on.

I watched another petal drop.  I had worked so hard, risked so much, lost so much.  I couldn’t bear to see it fail.  Another petal dropped.  I looked down at my hands.  I had lost weight over the last month.  My hands looked like claws and my wedding ring was loose.

The room was getting darker.  I needed to stand up.  I needed to close the curtains, switch on the light, sweep up the fallen petals and admit my failure.  I briefly closed my eyes.  How could I have failed him so badly?  But I had done all I could.  I had thrown everything into this.

Outside the wind was rising.  I could hear a sighing of the trees.  It was all the more reason to push myself to my feet and take care of the house.  To go through the motions of closing curtains and lighting the fire as the temperature dropped.  I gripped the edge of the table and forced my head to move.  By a massive effort of will I looked out of the window.  I could hear the sighing of the wind, but the trees were not moving.  Moving became easier.  I looked back at the table as another petal dropped.

I managed to push myself to my feet.  My joints ached and my head swam but I stood and looked fully out of the window.  The last gleam of the sun’s rays slipped down and I heard a soft tap at the door.  My dead love had come back.

Bad Night’s Sleep

You were my perfect victim.  You were young, bright and energetic and I was so glad when I stumbled across you when you visited that fake medium.  You were the only one who believed in him because you had just a hint of my presence as I followed you home, but you shook it off and eventually went to bed for your lovely, long healthy sleep.

It was glorious.  Here was someone who slept eight hours every night.  That is a gift to one of my kind.  During the day I could creep into a corner or a shadow and remain an unobserved spirit.  I would even hide under the bed.  Then, when night fell and you slid between your covers and slept, I could creep into your dreams.

You had never remembered dreams before.  When I first crept into your sleepscape I was shocked at how bright it was, filled with sunlight and good memories.  But it was also full of your energy and you were worth the effort.  It took weeks for me to make it my home.  I eroded the sunlight, filled the golden fields with a nameless dread and sent strange shapes to hunt your dreamself.  I nibbled at the corners, cutting off the good memories and making the perfect opportunities for every shameful moment of your life to echo.  Every dark thought, every insidious fear, every tiny morsel was savoured as I nurtured your sleepscape like a master nurtures a perfect pupil.

You didn’t notice at first. I’ve been around for a very long time and I don’t make mistakes like that.  Instead you noticed that you were a little tired, a little run down.  You laughed with your friends about your strange dreams and tried changing your diet around.  Once I became settled, I took a little more.  You were finding sleep harder and harder and the nightmares were scaring you.  You cut out all caffeine and went to a counsellor.  I went with you, of course, and took notes during your discussions.  You gave me wonderful tools to use for your torment.

Then you cut out sugar and went to the gym more.  I basked in the dark thoughts that were brimming in your sleepscape and fed to satiation.  I gave you sleep terrors and laughed as you woke screaming.  I noticed that your boyfriend was a little too perceptive, so I made sure your nightmares featured him.  I was relieved when you dumped him, as he was getting close to the truth.

I drained draught after draught from you as you slept, your torrid dreams feeding me to repletion.  You, however, lost weight as you tried different diets and exercises.  You went to the doctor and got sleeping pills and I celebrated.  You had started to wake a little too often and now these wonderful pills kept you in my domain for so much longer.

You were finding it harder and harder and I gave some thought to moving on.  The bright, bubbly victim I first met had gone.  You were gaunt and pale, with dull eyes and slow speech.  You dragged yourself from work to home to sleep to work and suffered.  You were now insipid fare.  I looked around for a suitable candidate, but you were now far too exhausted to speak to anyone and my choices were becoming very limited.  I couldn’t survive long without a host, but you were so drained that you were barely adequate to keep me in existence.

Thank goodness I had my lucky break.  You were far too tired to drive but at the same time you were far too tired to see sense.  You lost concentration as you drove to your work and so you swerved to miss a fragment of dream and hit a tree.  I was frantic, wondering if I would be able to transfer to one of the crowd who rushed around to help you, but they brought you into this place.

I have never been in a hospital before.  It is truly a marvellous place.  As you slip deeper into a coma and I perch unseen on the end of your hospital bed and plunder the last of your sleepscape, I have so many other potential hosts I can choose from.  The patients are not worth considering, but there are plenty of visitors, along with technicians, secretaries, cleaners, maintenance, porters and all manner of healers.  The chirpy blonde girl who chats to your unhearing form as she cleans the room is perfect. I wonder what her sleepscape looks like.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Walk in the Park


Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

As first dates went, it hadn’t been too bad so far. I had met him at the local coffee shop and we had drunk a few lattes. He looked like his online profile, which was something, and the conversation had been light. He was studying computers and something that I didn’t catch or really understand and getting some side hustles with web design on the side. We shared a love of Doctor Who, agreed to disagree on Star Trek and I felt more relaxed with him than I had in a long time. I should have known it was too good to be true.“Let me walk you home.” Ryan said. “It’s a shame to end the conversation. I feel like I could talk with you for hours.”

“I’m good.” I said. “And if you walk me home and we get talking there then I won’t get to bed early enough and I have work tomorrow.”

“Come on, let me walk you at least part of the way.” Ryan said. “Don’t pretend we haven’t had a marvellous time.”

“It’s been a great evening.” I said, “And I hope we have another one like it, but I do need to get up tomorrow.” What with one thing and another I would be lucky to get even a couple of hours sleep before work, even if he didn’t come in.

“Spoilsport.” He smiled at me and I smiled back. “Okay, let me walk you some of the way back. I promise I won’t go all the way.”

“That sounds like such a cheesy line!” I shook my head. I either gave in or he made a scene here. “But you said you lived over the other side of the city. Why don’t we walk as far as the subway terminus? Then you can get the subway back and I will be near home.”

“You aren’t that near to the subway terminus.” Ryan sounded a little sulky.

“Someone’s done their research.” I said. “But we can hang out together until you get on the subway, so we have a little more time.”

Ryan smiled. “I know you haven’t lived in this part of the city long, but I grew up around here. I know a great short cut, through the old park.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be haunted?” I asked. “I mean, I was warned about going into the old park after dark as it was dangerous.”

“Nobody believes in ghosts.” Ryan said, “And I can protect you.”

I looked at him thoughtfully. He was in good shape, but he didn’t look like he could take on a pack of muggers. What was worse, if we cut through the abandoned park, we would have to go past my home to get to the terminus. It looked like Ryan could be a problem. “I’d rather stay in public. You know all the advice that they give, about online dating, to stay in public for the first few dates and to be really careful who you give your details to? Perhaps I should just get an uber home.”

Ryan put a hand on my shoulder. Somehow it felt heavier than it should. “Please, we are having such a good time. Let’s just walk for a little while, carry on connecting and you can wait with me at the subway station.”

“And we can go past the supermarket.”

“Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure. There is nothing wrong with the park. It’s just neglected, that’s all.”

“It will be dark.” I said.

“It will be romantic.” Ryan held my hand and smiled at me. I felt incredibly uneasy.

The old park had effectively been abandoned by the council. Once it had been carefully landscaped but now it was an overgrown of tangled bushes and trees with some worn tracks through the dense growth. It was dimly lit even in daylight. We walked through the rusted gates in the dark and away from the street lights and we were suddenly in an eerie dark. I dug a mini torch out of my handbag.

“You’re prepared.” Ryan said. “I admit, it’s darker than I was expecting, but I thought you would use your phone.”

“Wouldn’t that run the battery down really quickly?” I asked as I found a path. “Is this the way?”

“I think we need to go down here.” Ryan said, pointing to a different path.

“No, this way will get us through the park quicker and nearer the subway.” I insisted pointing my torch.

“But this way will be more fun, I promise.” Ryan said.

He set off ahead of me, and I sighed and followed. The park was not safe after dark just because it was so overgrown and badly lit. If he fell, he could hurt himself badly and not be easily found. I decided that I would see him off at the subway and then send him a ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ text. “Hang on!” I shouted after him.

“The park is supposed to be haunted, you know.” Ryan said as I scrambled after him. “They say that you can see ghosts here and that vampires and werewolves come here to meet.” Ryan looked around as much of the park as he could see in the small beam from my torch. “It’s a shame it isn’t a full moon.”

“Vampires and werewolves, seriously?” I said, as I hurried after him. “We’ve left the path.”

“I grew up here, remember?” Ryan turned and smiled in the glow of the torch. “I know all the tracks, like this one here.” We stumbled out onto a slightly wider path that was heading downward towards the neglected artificial lake.

“I need to get home and you need to make sure you get to the subway in time for the last train.” I said. “This is silly.”

Ryan looked around. “I’m just trying to get my bearings. Does your phone have GPS?”

“I thought you knew this place?” I was trying to keep calm. I really didn’t want to have a scene. “Come on, lets get out of here.”

“Seriously, which way is North?”

I ignored his hand open for my phone and pulled up the map function myself. “It’s that way, and if we follow this path, we’ll come out almost next to the subway. And you won’t miss your…” I was interrupted as I turned to point to a path. Ryan snatched my phone out of my hand and threw it into the bushes. I whirled around to glare at him. “What are you doing?”

“It’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?” Ryan said, in a low voice, running his hand over my arm. “You are in the middle of the haunted park, in the dark, possibly surrounded by werewolves, and with a handsome stranger. Anything could happen. And you have no way to call for help.” He tried to pull me towards him for a kiss, but I struggled free.

“Okay, that’s it. This date is over, lose my number.” I shone my pitiful torch where I thought my phone landed.

“I don’t think you understand.” Ryan said. “You are alone, in the dark, with a stranger. You are in no position to tell me what to do. I’m in charge.” He moved a little closer. “I could even be a werewolf. That would be something, wouldn’t it, to be rescued by a werewolf.”

I swore at him and headed to where I thought I saw a glint of grey. “What are you going to do? Leave me for the ghosts. Leave me alone.”

“Or what?” Ryan was smirking as he followed me. “There are no werewolves around to rescue you.” He pushed his hand into my hair and pulled my head back. “We are going to have a nice time here, and then we are going back to your place and by the morning you will see that I am the best thing that could happen to you. No werewolves needed.”

“You’re right.” I snarled, my fangs lengthening as I grabbed his arm and twisted until he was on his knees, screaming. “No werewolves needed at all.”

Dis

Photo by Mauro on Unsplash

I was desperate. This was the only thing I could think of to get me out of this mess. I looked around the attic. This had taken the very dregs of the money I could scrape together. If this didn’t work, I was sunk.

I took a breath. The book had to be right. I’d found it in the box of old cookery books that I’d hoped to flip. That hadn’t worked either. Everything I had tried had turned to dust. This was my last throw of the dice.

I looked around again. All the chalk marks were exactly as the book had shown. I had copied them again and again, just to be sure. The coloured candles were just as shown, the incense was correct, and I’d set it out exactly as specified.

I felt tension run through me. How bad was it to summon a demon? It wasn’t like I was going to worship it, I just needed to get out of this hole. I swallowed. What if I’d got it wrong, what if the demon controlled me? What if I was responsible for evil? All the books and films of evil being unleashed on the world ran through my mind. I ran through my mental checklist. No, I had followed the instructions to the letter. It had to be alright.

What would happen when the demon appeared? For a moment I almost forgot to breathe. I hadn’t thought of that. What was I supposed to do with a demon? Did they understand the stock exchange? Could they find buried treasure? I looked down at my notebook and my hands were shaking.

“What am I supposed to do when the demon comes?” I didn’t realise I had spoken out loud until I heard a step behind me. I whirled around. He was there. He made me think of some sort of aristocrat, tall and slim with finely carved features, piercing blue eyes and thick red hair, trimmed and combed away from his face. The shirt looked like silk and the jeans looked tailored. I swallowed. 

“I believe it is customary to offer a guest a drink, even if that guest has replied to a summons.” The smile was mocking and his eyes knowing. “You can call me Dis.”

Not Alone

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash 

I double checked the locks. I checked the windows and closed the curtains over. I pushed furniture out of place to block the door. Tonight is the last night. Tomorrow I will go back to my family, go back to my friends and beg them to forgive me, beg them to let me back into their lives.

As the darkness falls, I can hear them singing. Whatever they are, they surround this house, the place that was supposed to be my refuge, away from anyone who could hurt me, away from Steve.

But the strange singing and the tapping get worse every night. The haunting voices are getting closer and climbing the ivy and the outhouse roof. I feel so alone. I hope I make it to morning.

Iron Railings

“Why do they still use iron railings, Mr Benson?” Ollie worked his shoulders before getting back to rubbing the paint down.

“Hm?” Mr Benson was checking the cans of paint. “Make sure you get a good surface on those railings. Get all the gloss off before we paint it.”

“But why don’t they put in those Perspex panels?” Ollie said. He tried to find a better angle. “Lots of places have those panels. And they don’t need much upkeep.”

“Never try and talk yourself out of a job, lad.” Mr Benson squinted at the fine print on the tins of paint. “It may only be work experience, but it’s better than nothing at all, and it gets you out in the fresh air. If it was them new panels then you wouldn’t need someone to paint them. No, they have to be cold iron.”

Ollie changed hands, now thankful that Mr Benson had insisted on gloves. “Why iron, Mr Benson. Why not wood, if you need to make jobs and keep people out of the ruins.”

“Iron is special.” Mr Benson said, shaking the tin. “It’s long lasting, if you look after it. You can shape it more or less how you like, and it’s been around for a while so you know what to expect.” He looked down at the young lad. “You’re doing alright there, lad. Yes, iron is special. There’s a lot of superstitions about iron, you know. They say fairies and elves can’t stand it.” He paused. “I suppose I can tell you what I learned as an apprentice, when I was about your age. I don’t know how true it is, but it’s what Mr Harvey, the old gaffer, used to say. You see, this was a fine Abbey, very rich, with lots of monks and servants and despite what they say, a lot of good was done as well as a lot of bad. But when the Abbey was closed down by King Henry, something odd happened.” He paused. “Don’t forget to rub under than ledge there with the glass paper.”

Ollie shifted, changing the paper from one hand to the other again as cramp set in. “You mean, like witchcraft?”

“I don’t know about that, just that strange things happened.” Mr Benson looked between the railings. “All I know is that people still see strange lights inside the Abbey at night, when no-one’s supposed to be there. Sometimes iron railings aren’t there to keep people out. Sometimes they’re there to keep something in.”

Dimming

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

He left yesterday morning. He wanted me to go with him, but I insisted on staying. Someone needed to look after the chickens and keep an eye on things. He said he would be back before I knew it with someone to sort out the generator.

It seems a long time ago. It’s a long time since I had a charge on my phone, and longer still since the last log burnt out of the fire. Now all I can do is watch the flame ebb on the lamp and wait.

And all the time the pad of paws pacing around the house grows louder. I hope the lamp lasts the night.

Seeking

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

It took me a long time to learn how to see fairies. I don’t mean the sort that you see in children’s books, but the fair folk, the shining ones, the quiet presence in a country lane. I trained myself to see a shimmer in the corner of a garden, a hint of rainbow as I walked down a dark country lane. I watched for an unexpected glimmer. I listened for a hint of tune that shouldn’t be playing. I waited for the scent of honeysuckle on the winter air.

An old man waited at the gate, grabbing my arm and pulling me to one side where my mum couldn’t see. “They’re hunting you. You need to stay safe. Carry salt or iron – or both! Or you’ll be trapped.”

I laughed and pulled away. How could they be hunting me when it was me that was searching them out, looking for the rainbows in dim places, listening for strange song. The glimpses were getting longer and I knew I was getting closer. I skipped school and found strange corners on the industrial estates where bindweed wound its way through the fences and flies hung in the shade of scented elder bushes.

I read everything in the library and on the internet. I joined groups and forums. They didn’t help. But I started noticing, through the long summer holiday, that I saw more of the glimpses near elder bushes and trees. I searched them out. I found clusters of them near abandoned warehouses and around the edges of neglected parks. I saw glimpses of the fair folk now, just a brief look at a face, glorious with beauty, lit from within by their wild, magical nature.

As the year turned, I ignored school and gloried in the change of the weather, watching the wind swirl the dead leaves around elder bushes drooping under heavy, purple berries. I saw more of them. They wore green and brown and the ladies had wreaths of autumn leaves in their hair. I stayed as still as a cat, watching. As the nights grew longer and the arguments with my mum got worse, I got closer. I could hear their singing and their soft conversations. Finally, I saw them enter the fairy realm. I saw them slip between two elder stems and I followed through.

The sky was alive with colours and shapes. The trees whispered in shock as I walked into the forest and called ahead that a mortal child was here. I could see the Lords and Ladies, the fair ones, riding towards me, their harness jingling and the sun glinting on their shining hair.

The doctor put down the latest report and shook his head. “I’m sorry Mrs Taylor. All tests for drugs have come back negative, but your daughter continues in a persistent, catatonic, hallucinating state. We’ve tried everything to reach her, but I’m afraid that there’s nothing more we can do. She’s lost to us.”

Never Get Drunk with a Stranger

Never get drunk with a stranger. My life would have been a lot easier if I had remembered those words. I may have missed out on some excitement, but, looking back, I could have lived with that.

Moving to Leeds was supposed to be the start of a better life. Moving from rural Lincolnshire to an insurance job in a city was supposed to be the start of great opportunities that included a steady job, a pension and possibly even a girlfriend. It was supposed to be an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. “It will do you good to get away from your computer,” my mother had told me as she packed my good shirts into my single suitcase. “You can get a hobby.”

“Computer gaming is a hobby.” I had tried to argue one last time.

“But you don’t find a girlfriend like that. Don’t forget to send us pictures.” My mother had tucked a pair of socks into the corner of the case and zipped it up. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

So here I was, three months into my life in Leeds, still without a girlfriend, and getting drunk with a stranger. His name was Piotr but he said to call him Peter. “It’s what all the English guys do.”

“So you’re not from Leeds either?” I said.

Piotr laughed. “I’m Polish, of course, from near Krakow. And this beer is no good. I’ll show you a pub that does proper drink.”

“Where is everyone?” I asked as we stumbled out into the dusty street. Last time I had been in Headingley the place had been almost too full to move and I had given up and gone home.

“Headingley is the student place and most have gone for the summer.” Piotr put a brotherly arm around me and steered me towards the back streets. “And finally we can get the good drink.”

If a stranger you have just met tells you to come with him for a good drink, don’t go. It’s never a good idea. Usually you get mugged. But we had had a few beers and traded a few stories and all sense had been washed away. The warm night air felt soft and lulled me into a sense of security as I listened to Piotr pouring his heart out to me about his girlfriend. At least he had one.

“She is so beautiful. But she knows how beautiful she is, and she is difficult.” Piotr said as we cut down one of the many back alleys. The cobbles were uneven, and I had had enough to drink to be paying attention to walking safely on the old stones. Piotr seemed used to them, though, and strode confidently ahead through the red painted, brick-built terraces to what looked like a private house. “Here we can get the good drink.”

If a stranger you have just met tells you to come into a private house for a good drink, don’t do it. There are so many bad things that can happen that you should just turn around there and then before you get mugged, or you have your organs harvested, or even just drink bootleg vodka that turns you blind. But Piotr seemed low and I had had a few beers and, besides, what else was I supposed to do on a Friday night? I followed him in.

This was a room for serious drinkers. Battered sofas were pushed against the walls, the carpet was threadbare, and the air was heavy with smoke. Men of different ages sat around, ignoring the wall mounted tv and staring at the drinks in their hands. All of them were holding small glasses filled with colourless liquid and all, like Piotr, were clean, neatly dressed and silent. It was a room with a single purpose and that purpose was drink. A middle-aged woman in heavy make up and an unflattering low-cut top sat behind a table in a corner. Piotr handed over some money and hissed at me to do the same. It seemed a lot, but I handed over the cost of two bottles of good whisky and accepted the small glass and bottle of liquor.

If someone you don’t know hands you a re-used bottle filled with alcohol, don’t take it. To be honest, a re-used bottle even from someone you trust is a risk. My bottle looked like it had once held maple syrup and it didn’t have a label. But here I was, in a room full of drinkers, all drinking. What else could I do? I joined Piotr on a cracked, leatherette sofa in the corner and poured myself a small shot.

“What am I going to do, Jamie?” Piotr asked as he poured himself a cautious amount. “Jenja is my life, but she is so fickle. And she says she loves me.”

A few drinkers glanced up at this. I looked up from the glass and got a sense that this was something unusual, but the rest of the men turned their attention back to their drinks and I followed their lead. Did I down it like tequila or sip it like a fine, single malt whisky? The others were sipping so I followed their example. How bad can bootleg vodka be?

This wasn’t vodka. I didn’t know what it was, but it slipped gently past my lips like sunlight made solid and spread warm over my mouth and down my throat. My fingers glowed, my legs tingled and I could feel a blessing stealing over me. I took a moment and breathed in the wonderful sense of well-being. I bathed in the sense of a golden glow before taking another sip. “This isn’t vodka.”

“It’s nearly vodka, made with plums.” Piotr said. “It’s hard to translate. Jamie.” He put a persuasive hand on my arm. “You are a good man. I can tell you are a good man and you come here, and you drink the good drink, and listen to a stranger who is facing a bad death. Do one thing for me. Please?”

“What do you mean?” The golden haze lifted a little. “Are you sick? There are new cures every day, you know. You look great.”

Piotr sadly shook his head. “I have fought against it for many days, but I must accept my fate.” He poured himself another measure of the gift from the gods and raised his glass, saying something in Polish before draining his glass.

I topped my own glass up and saluted him. “Cheers. But what do you mean? Surely there’s something that you can do?” I downed the glass, just like Piotr. This time it felt like a ball of liquid sunset smoothed its way down my throat to warm my stomach. This stuff was probably illegal.

“Jenja has said that she loves me. She is sorry for it, but it is what it is. She is crying at home.” Piotr looked sadly at his glass. “Or, at least, she is staying at home.”

“I don’t understand.” I said. I poured a little more of the magical water into my glass and took a sip. I felt like warm sun caressed my shoulders, but it didn’t help me think any clearer.

“You are English.” Piotr said. “And you are kind. Please, take care of Jenja when I go.”

I looked at my glass. It was half full. I didn’t think another drink would help, but I took it anyway. “Can’t Jenja be taken care of by her family or friends? Is she sick?”

Piotr sadly shook his head. “No-one Polish will help.”

I looked around the room. The silent men were all nodding. A few raised their glasses for the Polish toast, their eyes sad and sympathetic. “Why do you think you’re going to die?”

“Because Jenja said she loved me.” Piotr waved a drunken finger. “I forget. You are English. When a Vila loves someone, they die in dreadful ways. I write down the address for Jenja. You must help her get home.” He patted his pockets and found a cheap pen. He kept searching until the woman from behind the makeshift bar came out with a page ripped from her puzzle magazine and handed it to him. He nodded a thanks and carefully wrote the address. “We live near Bridgewater Place, where the winds are.”

I took the ragged piece of paper, folded it and put it into my wallet. “But you may not die.” I said.

“I will die and Jenja will be left alone and she will need help to go home. Jamie, you are a good man. Please, please promise me that you will take care of her, even if she is difficult.”

Never promise anyone anything when you are drunk. That’s how I got kicked out of the Student Union’s French Society. “I’ll look after Jenja.”

Piotr put an earnest hand on my arm and made sure he looked me in the eye. “Promise me, Jamie. Promise me on something that will mean it.”

What could I say. “I promise, Piotr. I promise I will look after Jenja.”

“By what do you swear?” His grip was tight and I was in danger of spilling the vital contents of my glass.

“I swear by Manchester United.” Never swear on anything while drunk. You will swear on something that means life or death to you and sound like an idiot at the same time. “But you may not die.”

Piotr poured himself another glass. “It will be bad.” He raised his glass and drank. I matched him and felt a golden filter settle over my vision. I could see, but there was a warm, fuzzy glow around the room, like a filter on a camera lens. Even the woman behind the bar looked good. Piotr stood shakily. “I use the bathroom.” No-one looked up as he weaved his way across the room to a door in the back wall.

I sat back and looked at the glass in front of me. I had never tasted anything like it. Reassured by the wonderful clarity in my glass, I knew that Piotr was just feeling his mortality. You worry about strange things under the influence of drink. Tomorrow we would forget all about this. Piotr and I would sleep off the heavenly fumes of whatever it was we were drinking and laugh at the promise. There was an awful crash from the bathroom.

Every head turned towards the battered door at the back of the room. I tried to rationalise it. Perhaps Piotr had knocked something over or had fallen. The woman got up from behind the door and, taking a deep breath, walked towards the crash. She paused before she opened the door, took a deep breath and closed it gently behind her. There was a long pause, as if the room held its breath. Eventually the woman came out looking pale and shaken.

“Piotr has died. I will call ambulance and fire brigade.” She thought for a moment. “Also plumber. You all leave.” She walked over to me as I struggled to get to my feet. “You go to Jenja now.” Her hand closed over my arm and it was icy. I looked into her eyes and even through the effects of the plum vodka I knew that I didn’t want to know the details. “You are a good boy. Get Jenja home. Be blessed.”

I had never knocked on a stranger’s door in the middle of the night while drunk. It’s exhilarating. While the nectar from heaven was still working its magic, I didn’t worry about getting a police record, or whether I was going to get mugged before someone could answer the door, or even if I had found the right place. The cramped terraces that sprawl south of Leeds City Centre are not safe for strangers who can barely walk. I made it, however, and a woman answered the door.

“Jenja, I have bad news!” I said dramatically, falling into the tiny entrance hall. “It has happened.”

“Who the hell are you?” She didn’t look like I expected. Her dark hair was tousled and she had a faded dressing gown over well washed pyjamas. She was pretty, in an understated way, but nothing like the vision Piotr described. She also had a look in her eye that could make any man sober.

“I’m Jamie Reid. Piotr made me promise to take care of you, Jenja. I’m really sorry…”

She held up a stern hand. “I’m not Jenja. I’m Lindsey.”

I looked again at the paper. “Piotr said you were Jenja.” I peered at the address.

Lindsey sighed. “Jenja is in her room. She’s been crying.” She leant against the newel post at the foot of the stairs and shouted up.  “Jenja, there’s someone at the door. He says it’s about Piotr.”

A soul shattering wail came from upstairs, followed by a crash and a thump. Lindsey shook her head. “She keeps throwing glasses at the wall. What was your name again?”

“I’m Jamie.” I was sobering up fast and I didn’t like it. I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

Lindsey shook my hand but before she could say anything a door slammed and a vision of loveliness appeared at the top of the stairs. Jenja was dainty with an inviting figure under a white satin wrap. Her golden blonde hair was swept into an adorable ponytail and her large, deep blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “It has happened.”

“I’m sorry to break the bad news.” How did you tell a barely dressed vision of beauty that her boyfriend was dead. “I’m afraid Piotr had an accident. He… he didn’t survive. He made me promise to come and tell you.”

“Did you promise to send me home?” Jenja asked.

“Yes, I promised.” Now that I was sobering up I realised I had no idea about how to send a beautiful woman to Poland. “I don’t know when the funeral will be…”

Jenja waved an imperious hand as she came down the stairs. “I can go home now.” She pushed past Lindsey and I and wandered into the living room. I exchanged a worried glance with Lindsey. Perhaps she was in shock.

“I can look into flights tomorrow.” I said. “Have you got a lot of stuff to take back?”

Jenja looked at me in bewilderment. “I am Vila. You burn the lock of hair and I can go home. Where is Piotr’s green shirt?”

“Would you like a cup of tea.” I said.

Lindsey shook her head. “She really is a supernatural air spirit. Piotr told me his family sent her over as they were worried he didn’t have a girlfriend.”

My first thought was that why did all these families worry about girlfriends. Then my mind caught up. “What?”

Jenja sighed. “They never believe me here.” She waved her dainty hand. For a moment I was caught in the sweet elegance of the pink painted fingernails before I grabbed hold of the door frame. That casual gesture had sent a stiff breeze around the room that knocked the cheap prints off the walls and whirled the letters from their pile on the mantelpiece to all corners of the room.

“The Greeks called them sylphs, I think.” Lindsey said, picking up the envelopes.

“Sylphs are pathetic.” Jenja said. “They don’t know how to treat a man.”

I inched nearer to Lindsey for protection. “This lock of hair?”

“Yes! A lock of my hair. I am bound to it. Once it is burned, I am free and can go home.” Jenja smiled. For a heartbeat I was dazzled by the beauty. I wanted to lay the world at her feet. I wanted to sweep her into my arms and never let her go. I wanted to kneel before her. Lindsey elbowed me sharply in the ribs and I gathered what was left of my wits.

“Where is the lock of hair?” I looked around. “Did Piotr keep it in his room?”

“His mother sewed it into the pocket of his green shirt. She knew he would never look there. That way he couldn’t send me back and get an English girl.” Jenja said, looking around. “Where is Piotr’s shirt?”

“The green one that had the frayed collar and the airplane design on the back?” Lindsey said, feeling her way into a chair and sitting down.

“Yes, that’s the one.” Jenja said. “If I do not burn it then I am trapped in England.” She turned to me and looked deep into my eyes. “I want to go home.”

Before I could promise to dedicate my life to finding the green shirt, Lindsey grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard, digging her nails in. She turned to Jenja. “There’s a problem. You see, I was sorting out some of my old clothes to donate to the church sale and Piotr gave me some old clothes he didn’t want to add to my bag.” Lindsey swallowed. “He said that the green shirt was falling apart but someone may have a use for it.”

“I have a use for it!” Jenja snapped, her eyes sparkling. “I want to use it to go home. Where is this bag of valuable clothing?”

“It’s just old clothes for the sale tomorrow at the church.” Lindsey huddled back into her chair. “I took it down this afternoon.”

Jenja stamped her foot and another sharp breeze rattled around the room. “That is not good.”

“That’s okay, we can just call in tomorrow and buy the shirt, can’t we?” I looked between the two women. “It’s only a church sale. It will be less than a pound.”

Jenja shook her head. “I know these women. They will be in early in the morning to sort out the clothes and to take the best stuff for themselves. They are known for it.”

“Mrs Rafferty can get quite fierce.” Lindsey said. “But the shirt was worn out. I can’t see anyone buying it.”

Jenja started pacing, her wrap working loose and showing more of her than I expected. “What if they decide it is no good but they can put it in with the rags? I know that they have a deal with Mr Rafiq. He takes the stuff that doesn’t sell for his own reasons.” Jenja dropped into a chair across the room.

“He’s got a deal with a warehouse in Dewsbury.” Lindsey said. “Why don’t we just go in early before the sale starts and explain that we need the shirt?”

“Mrs Rafferty will not help with anything to do with me.” Jenja said. “Not after the incident with the marmalade. And I must be there to see if it is the right shirt.”

At this point I started to wonder exactly what had been in the bottle and how long it took to leave the system. “So what can we do?”

Never ask an air spirit a rhetorical question. It’s not something that comes up often, but I think it’s worth sharing. From what I read afterwards, air spirits are tricky, duplicitous and malevolent. They are also impressively slick at persuading people to do stupid things. That is why Lindsey and I found ourselves standing outside a church hall at two in the morning, wondering how to break in.

“There are bound to be alarms.” I said.

“Who steals from churches?” Lindsey asked.

I looked at her. “You would be surprised.”

“But it’s just a church sale of old clothes and second-hand ornaments.” Lindsey said. “There’s nothing of value.”

I shook my head and pointed to the alarm box at the side of the building. “We are not in the best part of Leeds. People will steal the copper from the wiring.”

Jenja looked thoughtfully at the church hall. Back home in Lincolnshire, the church hall had been solid stone and about a hundred years old. This was a slapdash wooden building, about twenty years old, with wire mesh over the large, square windows which were interspersed with panels of cheap turquoise plastic. She looked down at the rubbish strewn and overgrown flower beds that surrounded it. She paced around the structure, nodding and turned to us. “You will wait across the street. Then you will help me find the shirt.”

Lindsey and I crossed the street and leaned against the stone wall. There weren’t any houses on the street, thank goodness. The church next to the hall and the school we leaned against were empty, as was the ramshackle garages and the deserted fast food shop. I watched Jenja pacing up and down outside the hall. “Why are we here?”

“Because you made a promise to someone who died almost immediately afterwards, and I can’t wait to get Jenja out of my house.” Lindsey said.

“She’s not really going to break into a church hall, is she?” I asked. “And what if we’re caught? I work in insurance.”

“And I work in a solicitor’s office.” Lindsey said. “Piotr was a lovely lad, but I wish I had never met him.”

I was about to agree with her when Jenja started dancing. She was spinning as she ran up and down the street and around and around the hall. I shivered as the suddenly warm night chilled and a sharp wind whipped along the street. Dust and crisp packets whirled behind her and the moribund roses dipped and rattled as she passed. “I don’t think this is good.” I grabbed Lindsey’s arm and pulled her inside the small school doorway.

“She’s going to do something dreadful, isn’t she?” Lindsey yelled over the noise of the cans clattering in the gutters. I nodded, and with some instinct I didn’t know I had, pulled Lindsey against me and turned us away from the open street.

It was a good call. Behind us I heard a huge crash echoing with glass against metal. I could feel dust and grit spatter against my back as we huddled against the door. As the echoes of the explosion died down, I heard Jenja shouting, “Come on, you must help me.”

The nearest street light had been shattered in the blast, but enough light came from the ones further away to see the damage. Jenja was leaning in through what was left of the window. Something had blasted out all the church hall’s windows and the main door which sagged helplessly on its hinges. Twisted metal and glass shards littered over the road and there were cracks in the windows of the school and church. We ran over, squinting in the dust.

“I do not have a torch,” Jenja said. “And it may alert people if we switch on the lights.”

“People may have been alerted by the noise.” I said, shouting over the sound of the alarm.

“Then you have to be quick.” Jenja said and looked at us.

Never climb in through a broken window, no matter how much you think you have cleared it. There are always tiny shards of glass still embedded in the frame that will claw your skin off. None of us were wearing jackets and so I pulled the curtains hanging askew from the curtain pole and made a rough pad to climb over. Jenja went first, undaunted by the glass and splinters scattered over the floor. “You must help me. It’s here. I can feel it.”

I helped Lindsey in next and followed, my heart in my throat. I wished I was still drunk as I pulled out my phone and switched on the torch. My ears were still ringing from the blast and the noise from the alarm was getting on my nerves. It was obviously affecting Jenja as she hurried over to the pile of bags in one corner. “It’s in here, somewhere. Please help.”

“We had better be quick before the police arrive.” I said, ripping open the nearest bag and dumping the contents on the floor. I looked at Lindsey. She shook her head.

“That stuff isn’t mine.” She held her phone steady for light as Jenja and I tore open the bags scattering tired baby clothes and worn shirts across the glass and splinters. I kept glancing out of the window, waiting for sirens, but nothing came.

Jenja shrieked. “Here it is! I have found it!”

“Are you sure?” Lindsey asked, training the light of the phone on the worn fabric in Jenja’s hands. There was a faint lump in the pocket flap and Jenja used one of her long nails to slit open the fabric. She sighed and pulled out a neatly tied bundle of golden hair.

“This is mine. I can go home now.”

We got back to Lindsey’s house without any trouble. A few people were peering past us through cracks in their curtains as we passed, but they were all looking at the dust hanging over the church hall and ignoring us. Lindsey unlocked the door and we headed for the kitchen where Jenja pulled out a small, metal pan and placed the lock of her hair precisely in its centre. “The lighter, please.” Lindsey handed over the lighter they used for the kitchen candles and Jenja smiled. “Thank you for all your help. Please pray for Piotr.” And then she lit the hair.

Never light a lock of hair in a rental kitchen, especially if you light it directly under the smoke detector. All your neighbours will hate you for setting off the alarm at three in the morning. You should also never light a lock of hair in that rental kitchen if it’s going to release a Vila. Because right after the smoke alarm went off, Jenja sighed and vanished. Every window in the street blew out and all the street lights shattered. As the noise of breaking glass faded, there was the thumping sound as tiles slid from roofs up to a hundred yards away. And just as that settled down, the water main blew.

Good things did come out of that drink with a stranger. As Lindsey’s house was wrecked and the landlord had a breakdown, Lindsey moved in with me. One thing led to another and now we’re getting married in three months’ time. I now look at insurance claims for wind damage in a new light. I have never been able to find that little house with the golden drink again, although I walk around the area every now and then. And when it’s stormy and the winds are howling around the chimneys, I think of Jenja and wonder what she’s doing now. Then I thank my good fortune that I’m not a part of that and say a prayer for Piotr.

Out of the Mist

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have always liked walking in the mist. It feels like walking inside a story. I love the way it can soften the world and make the most mundane corners magical. 

It was more than mist tonight. It was a heavy, swirling, writhing fog. Local radio had put out weather warnings and the police had recommended that if there was any choice, people should stay at home. It had been taken to heart. The last few hours of my shift at the store had been extremely quiet.

Mum had rung as I was dragging on my coat. “I’m sorry, love, but I don’t think it’s safe for your dad to come and pick you up. You can’t see across the road. Will you be okay walking if you go past the church and stick to the main road? It shouldn’t take you long.”

“I’ll be fine walking home.” I said, wrapping my scarf firmly around me. “I’ll cut down the back of the estate.”

“You can’t do that!” My mum had been horrified. “Not at this time of night!”

“Mum, it’s only 9pm and no-one is out.” I peered through the back window as my boss pulled down the shutters. You could barely see the edge of the pavement. “Besides, I don’t think any attacker would be able to see me in this murk.”

“Go past the church and stick to the main road.” Mum said firmly. “It won’t take much longer and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“Okay.” I said, picking up my bag and heading for the door. “I’ve got to go now, Mum, see you in a bit.”

I nodded goodnight to my boss who was locking the shutters and headed carefully along the pavement towards the estate. If I cut through that way, I could get home almost half an hour earlier. Besides, I couldn’t see how much safer I would be on the main road. I would be risking walking next to a road that drivers could barely see.

I strained my ears as I reached the main road. I couldn’t hear anything. I’d never known the town centre so quiet. I could hear the faint hiss of the traffic lights as I got close to the crossing, but there was no other sound. I couldn’t hear any cars, or footsteps or any sign of life at all. I paused and felt the water droplets settling coldly on my skin. Crossing the road was a step into the unknown.

It wasn’t so bad once I got away from the glare of the streetlights on the main road and into the shortcuts. The estate was normally a hive of activity full of small businesses and traffic no matter what time it was. Even this late there was usually a mechanic working late or the carpet firm stacking their vans for the next day. Tonight, however, it was silent.

I walked briskly down the alleys and shortcuts, past the rag people and the appliance repair centre. The usual scatter of half-finished washing machines was there under their plastic covers, misted by water droplets and barely visible as I walked within touching distance. I looked around to get my bearings. All the landmarks had disappeared. On my left should be the main road and that meant that I needed to go straight and cut between the empty unit and the double-glazing place. I tilted my head and pulled my scarf loose. I couldn’t hear anything, and I didn’t want to miss my turn. I pulled out my phone to see if the maps were any use, but I couldn’t get a signal.

This is what it felt like to be truly lost, I thought, as I made an educated guess and headed across the road, tripping on the kerb. But if I squinted then I could just see that the fence had the double-glazing advertising on so I must be in the right direction. I heard a growl.

I wasn’t good with dogs. I wouldn’t hurt one, but they scared me half to death. Even my auntie’s elderly westie made me nervous and the growl ahead of me was low and menacing. I leant forward into the fog. “Good boy…” I took another step forward and the growl intensified. I wasn’t ready for this. I tried moving to the right a little and I heard paws pad on the cracked concrete. “Good boy.” I said with as much conviction as I could manage. I tried moving straight ahead again but once again I was met by the ominous growl. 

I froze. I could just about make out the shape a few yards in front of me and it was huge. It seemed nothing more than a shadow against the fog, but it was shaped like a large Doberman, long legged and fierce with pricked ears. I backed away a few steps, stumbling again on the kerb. I watched the dog pad unhurriedly behind me with a faint rumble of threat in his throat. I tried to take another step back towards the way I came, but the dog was not tolerating that either.

My hands were trembling so much that they could hardly hold my phone as I tried again to get a signal. There was nothing, and the great beast slowly approached me, cutting me off from the town centre and the road curving left. “You want me to go right, boy?” I said. The words hung in the damp air. The dog took another step towards me and I could see cold light reflected in his huge eyes. “Okay, good boy.” I stumbled towards the right.

I was always told never to run from a dog, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to try. I felt the awful cold sensation of the great dog’s gaze settle between my shoulder blades as I headed right, away from the town and away from my route home. I tried to catch my breath and slowed a little. Once again the beast growled, low and purposeful, his breath warm on the back of my head, and it stank.

I quickened my pace a little, but the fog was too dense to move at any sort of speed. The dog seemed satisfied, though, and apart from the hum of the intermittent street lights, all I could hear was the pad of his paws and his even breathing.

It seemed to take forever before we moved directly under a street light, although it was only a few minutes. I recognised the corner. On the left was a sign writer and on the right was some sort of storage. If I made a run for it, I could race down the alley behind the sign writer and reach the town centre in only a few minutes. I glanced back and stumbled in shock as I saw the beast properly. He was huge, his head nearly at the height of my chest, with staring eyes that gleamed in the reflected light. His jaws were large with a tongue lolling incongruously over oversized, gleaming teeth. I froze.

For the longest minute I just stood there, trying to keep my stomach inside, trying to just to keep breathing as I stared at the monster in front of me. I couldn’t make sense of it – it wasn’t a Doberman or a Rottweiler or anything I recognised. Perhaps it was one of those ‘part wolf’ breeds that were cropping up. Whatever it was, it was terrifying.

He gave a low ‘woof’ and padded forward. The thing may not have spoken, but it was clear – I needed to keep going in the right direction. I stumbled forward, loosening my scarf as I tried to scrabble my wits together while what looked like a hell hound padded gently after me.

Where were we going? I didn’t know this part of the estate well, but we seemed to be heading towards the edge near the motorway. I could see the faint gleam of the lights in the distance and the sound of cars, muffled through the damp air. I swallowed and stumbled, catching hold of a wall looming out of the fog to keep my balance. There was a cemetery the other side of the motorway. Was that where I was being herded? Another low ‘woof’ reminded me to keep moving. I kept going.

The great beast started shifting a little, moving up on my right-hand side and guiding me left as I shied away from him. I could hear his breathing far too close as I rounded the corner near the tyre storage, smell his stinking breath and hear the relentless pad, pad, pad of his great paws. Maybe I should try and make a break for it or maybe I should try and find a weapon in the rubbish strewn across the path.

Then I forgot everything. The fog thinned in the air from the underpass and through the mist I could see the remains of a van. It had crashed down the bank from the motorway above us and landed awkwardly in the middle of the road. The windshield was smashed, and the glittering shards were stained with blood which trailed from a broken figure that had been thrown across the path and landed across a low wall. I raced over, oblivious to what the dog wanted.

He was only young, younger than me, with his shock of brown hair matted with blood and his eyes sunken in his pale face. I caught hold of his hand. It felt icy.

“It’s okay, I’m going to ring for an ambulance now. We’ll get you sorted out.” I frantically looked over him. There was blood everywhere, seeping through his thin t-shirt and trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

There was a faint pressure on my hand as he tried to squeeze it, the strength fading from him. “It’s okay. I just didn’t want to die alone.”

“No, you are not going to die.” I heard my voice break. “I’m going to call the ambulance, it’s going to be okay…” I stopped. The light had gone out of his eyes and something indefinable had left. I fumbled for my phone, and finally I got a signal. I was just too late.

I looked around for the dog, but there was no sign. As the fog turned to rain, I thought I could make out some faint paw prints in the blood that had splashed across the street, but they faded and before I could be sure they were being washed away.

Child in a Sweet Shop

He looked carefully at his outfit.  He had to get the look exactly right, it could make all the difference between success and failure.  There was an all night screening of the Twilight films and he could not miss this opportunity.

 He was naturally pale but his blond hair was a problem.  The old fashioned top hat that he had picked up on the internet should cover it and give the right feel.  He had considered a cane but he hoped there would be times in the evening when he wanted both hands free.  There were likely to be a lot of young ladies at the screening.

The suit had been a problem.  He had found one eventually in a second hand shop.  The black suit jacket had velvet lapels and the waistcoat was nicely cut.  He had been meticulous to get rid of any faint trace of the iridescent dusting powder.  With the slightly flared trousers it said very clearly that this was a man who had not quite got the decade right. 

He had wondered about the shirt.  He may have wanted to look as if he couldn’t keep up with fashion after all this time, but there was no way he was wearing 1970s drip dry polyester with a frill.  He had settled for a deep crimson silk shirt.  It was brand new, but silk was an old fashioned material and he could always say that he had ripped his favourite brushed nylon shirt in a fight with a werewolf.  With well polished shoes and a heavy, plain signet ring he should look the part.

He checked he had his ticket and plenty of cash.  He didn’t want to break the look with a credit card and if he got lucky with a persuadable lady he didn’t want to give too much information about himself, just in case.  The taxi outside sounded the horn.  

“Going to the screening?  You look just like a vampire, mate.  It makes a better night if you put a bit of effort in to look the part.” The taxi driver sighed.  “I used to have a suit like that forty years ago.  Of course, I was a lot thinner then.  Well, you won’t be lonely tonight, I bet you’ve got a hotel room booked.”

He smiled enigmatically and gave the driver a generous tip.  Looking at the crowd there were others who had aimed for his intended look but he prided himself that he had hit closest to the mark.  He was already getting interested glances and he thought it would not take much to entice the pretty brunette near the popcorn stand to a secluded corner to ‘talk’.

Carefully keeping his expression immobile, inside he was laughing wildly.  He may be seven hundred and thirty two years old and a vampire but looking at all those pliable, gullible necks made him feel like a child in a sweet shop.  

Just in Case

“You can’t be too careful.” Dan said as he nailed another horseshoe on the top door. “The fairies cause problems.”

Yvonne looked critically at the horseshoes. “Shouldn’t they be the other way up?”

Dan looked shocked. “If they are on the other way, all the luck would drain out.”

Yvonne chose her words with care. “Dan, you know that fairies aren’t real, right?”

“How can you be sure?” Dan asked, standing back and looking at his handiwork. “You know that there are a lot of strange things in this world that never make the papers.”

Yvonne nodded. “Absolutely. But have you ever seen a fairy?”

“That’s not the point.” Dan said. “Milk is going missing from the dairy.”

“And that’s nothing to do with the local cats?” Yvonne asked. “What other proof?”

“The iron keeps them away.” Dan said. “It proves that it’s working.”

“Did you ever see a fairy before you put the iron up?” Yvonne asked.

Dan rubbed his sleeve over the latest horseshoe to knock off the dust. “Just because I haven’t seen a fairy, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”

Yvonne sighed. “You’ve been a vampire here for four hundred and seven years. If there were any fairies around here, I think you would have noticed by now.”

No Rest

cars parked on side of the road during night time
Image by Pontus Wellgraf on Unsplash

“What’s her name?” I stalked slowly towards the man hunched over the drunk girl sprawled on the pavement. It was a scene played out every Friday and Saturday, and I knew the script. A predator had found his prey.

“She’s my girlfriend, and she’s sick.” He lied. “I just want to get her home.” He avoided my eyes. I didn’t blame him too much. I am a tall, well built man who is completely sober. I’m not an easy target like the woman crumpled next to him.

“What’s her name.” I pushed past him easily and picked up her bag, pulling out her driver’s licence.

“I think she needs to go home. I’ll call a taxi.” He tried to meet my gaze and failed.

What’s her name?

“I’ll go get a cab from the station.” He ran off.

I gently helped her up and guided her to the shop at the end of the street. It was a 24 hour convenience store, and, though corporate probably didn’t know, a safe haven with reliable people and a good relationship with the local cops. She swayed a little but managed. I checked her name and made sure she still had her phone. “Come on, Rose, come in here. It’s nice and warm and you can have a nice cup of tea.”

Steve came over, and nodded to Shelley who started calling the paramedics. “How is she?”

“I think she’s okay.” I said. “But I don’t think it’s just drink. She may have been spiked.”

“That’s the third one tonight.” Steve guided Rose onto a chair set next to the door, with a sturdy back and stable arms to support a vulnerable guest.

“I had a good look at him.” I said. “About the same height as Shelley, not tall, and skinny with it. He was wearing jeans and a denim jacket.” I shrugged. “That might help. I mean, who wears denim jackets these days?”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “You’re keeping up with fashion? I know what you are. I wouldn’t have thought you noticed these things.”

I looked away and shrugged. “It’s useful information.” I looked down at Rose who was still semi conscious. “I had better get back on watch.”

“You’ve been watching this street since I was a kid.” Steve said. “It’s not just at night, either. Last week someone raised the alarm about Surjit falling and getting stuck at the corner of Wine Street. I guess you couldn’t show yourself in daylight, but if someone hadn’t pulled down that stand of brochures into the alley, Surjit would still be there.”

“I need to get back to my post.” I said, taking a last look at Rose and backing out of the door.

“I know we are all grateful, but it must be hard for you.” Steve said. “When are you going to rest?”

“When I’ve paid my debt.” I faded into my usual nothingness and slipped past the paramedics as they rushed in. I looked down the street and watched a group of lads stalking a drunk. They looked like they had robbery on their mind. Softly, into Steve’s ear, just before I set off, I whispered, “There’s no rest for the formerly wicked.”

Music in a Bar

“Why bring me here?” Jess asked her brother. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ve sort of fallen for someone.” Kai answered. “It’s complicated.”

“It’s always complicated with you.” Jess answered. She looked around the dingy bar with the stained tables and dated chairs. The evening sunlight was slanting through the worn blinds but it showed little except the tired houseplants. The place was clean – mercilessly, relentlessly clean, and the glass of house red she was nursing was okay, but it was nothing special. Kai, who knew his wines, had a glass of beer in front of him. “How did you find this place?”

“Jim told me.” Kai said briefly. “See how it’s filling up? Aren’t you glad that you came early?”

Jess looked around the bar and it was indeed filling up. All the chairs were taken and the bar was ringed by young men. There was a hush of expectancy hanging in the air and conversation was falling away. “What is going on? Is this why you are moping around?”

“Shush.” Kai said impatiently and then silence fell.

Jess stared at the woman who came self consciously from behind the bar. Her hair was scraped back and the unflattering dress hung loose around her spare frame and the work roughened hands that brushed down over her skirt were unadorned by rings and her nails were plain. The thin face that looked anxiously around was scrubbed clean and angular. Jess glanced around the bar. Every man there, and it was almost all men, were leaning forward slightly, fixed on the youngish woman who sat at the scarred piano.

“She’s called Cecily.” Kai whispered to Jess, earning him a glare from the nearest men.

Cecily managed a forced, nervous smile and then started to play. Everything changed. Suddenly there was a glow in the air, a sense of wonder. Her unremarkable hands suddenly were enchanted. They danced gracefully over the battered keys, coaxing music that called to the soul. Arpeggios soared over a sublime rhythm, while the themes and counterthemes entwined and raced along the compelling song. Jess was caught, entranced, as Cecily coaxed the music of the gods to ring around the battered bar. You could almost see a golden haze hanging in the room as the glorious performance held everyone in its magical grasp. And in the haze of the music, she was gloriously, wondrously, goddess-like and beyond beautiful, lit from within by the inspiration of her playing.

Then she stopped. Cecily stood, pushed a strand of mousey hair from her face, smiled awkwardly and then scuttled behind the bar, where she started washing glasses. It seemed almost sacrilege to break the spell and clap over the last echoes of the ringing notes, but first one, then several, then the entire bar clapped wildly as Cecily blushed awkwardly and racked up the glasses.

“That’s why we come here.” Kai said, placing another glass of unremarkable red in front of Jess. “She plays most nights. And we are all a little in love with her.”

And Jess understood.

Clean Door

I never felt quite comfortable with Elaine. There was something a little off. I recognised her bag as a genuine Chanel and her scarf was Hermes, but her nails were cracked and dirty and there was a dead look in her eyes. It didn’t matter, I needed the job. Times were hard.

“You want all of this cleaning?” I asked. I stared at the battered, graffiti-covered door. “It may well attract graffiti afterwards. I mean, almost straight away. It may be easier to paint over it.”

Elaine shook her head. “I would like the door taken back to the original paint,” she said. Her eyes darted around as she looked for an explanation. “I need to find the original paint for correct restoration.”

That was another thing. When Elaine spoke, she used an accent that I would have put somewhere in the Home Counties, with nothing particularly striking. The way she said the words was as English as Buckingham Palace. The words she used, however, were just that little bit off, like she was translating in her head. Still, these sort of cleaning jobs had dried up recently. “It will take some time,” I said. “I’ll have to go carefully as well. It’s an old building and the wood may not be sound. I may have to use specialist cleaners.” It was a rundown building in a rough part of town. This back alley was the back of closed shops, empty sheds and long disused garages. It wasn’t worth the effort, but who was I to argue with the fee she was paying.

“As long as you are thorough,” Elaine said. “And you requested half of the fee in advance.” She handed me a bulky envelope which I hastily stuffed inside my jacket.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll start this afternoon.”

I got back into the van and discreetly checked the envelope. The notes all looked genuine, but it was the same strange jumble. They hadn’t gone to a bank and withdrawn the cash in neat bundles. Instead it was a mishmash of notes of all denominations and conditions. I checked a few with the pen that I had picked up but couldn’t find a fake. My instincts were screaming at me to run, but I had rent and the van payments to consider and no other jobs on the horizon. I carefully stashed the money under the toolbox in the back and went to inspect the door.

I didn’t believe for a second that Elaine really cared about the original paint, but I took pride in my work and I took pains. If you have the right product, it’s not a hard job, but it took some time as I was washing off the chemicals between scrubbing the layers. I wondered if I would get in trouble with the gangs. It didn’t seem that sort of street, but I could feel an uneasy prickle between my shoulder blades as I worked, as if I was being watched. It didn’t matter. I needed this very generous payment.

The last layer was the worst. It was some strange signs that I had never seen before, not in years of graffiti removal. I squinted at them and took a picture on my phone. It looked like some strange writing, or a collection of symbols that should have been on ancient monuments, not a scruffy doorway in Leeds. I sent it to Kate at the University. She was into odd languages and perhaps could tell me who had tagged this.

It was getting dark as I finished. The usual chemicals hadn’t worked on the last layer but I fell back on the old faithful mixture of washing up liquid and biological laundry detergent. Eventually even that last tag was wiped away and the mushroom coloured door was left clean in glory just as the streetlights came on. It had been easy money, really, and I felt a twinge of conscience at the amount I had overcharged, but I had done a good job and the door gleamed.

My phone vibrated and I pulled it out of my pocket to check the text. I smiled. Kate had got back to me telling me not to wipe off the last layer, under any circumstances. I had to wait until she got there. Well that was too late. I sent back a pic of the immaculate door just as it was opening. I wasn’t expecting that. I hoped that the guy inside wasn’t upset at the change in his doorway.

Elaine appeared at my side, making me jump. “You have done well, especially with that last layer.”

“It was a little tricky,” I said. I fought with myself for a moment, and my conscience lost. “I needed some extra chemicals that I hadn’t accounted for in the quote for the job. I think…” I trailed off.

The man stepping out of the door looked barely human. Grey skin stretched tautly over sharp cheekbones and his eyes were red-rimmed and sunken. Great, I thought, a junkie. The elderly overcoat hung loosely on his tall frame and he swayed a little as staggered down the steps.

“Is that your door, mate?” I asked carefully.

He ignored me and turned to Elaine. “You have done well, my dear. You shall be rewarded.

My phone started ringing. Automatically I pulled it out of my pocket. It could be work. “Excuse me,” I said to Elaine. It was Kate.

“You need to get out of there, now!” Kate yelled frantically. “Just go!”

“I’m just finishing up now,” I said. “I’ll get my money and I’ll be over straight away.”

“Don’t wait for the money!” Kate screamed.

With unexpected, snake-like speed, Elaine pulled the phone out of my hand and ended the call. “You have done a wonderful piece of work,” she said, with a chilling smile.

I looked back at the door. That last layer of graffiti, that last bit of paint. It hadn’t been graffiti. I could feel the realisation flowing through me like ice water. It had been a warning.

“You removed the lock on the door,” the man said, also smiling. “Now you need to find what you have freed.”

I watched as the man’s smile changed, his teeth lengthened and his jaws gaped. I screamed and screamed as he stepped closer. And as his teeth fastened on my neck, everything went black.

Jar on the Shelf

green plant in clear glass jar
Taken by
Keszthelyi Timi on Unsplash

She was finally dead. My bitch of a grandmother had finally shuffled off the mortal coil. Everyone knew she was a witch, and she held it over the heads of her family like a dagger. She always acted like she knew everything as well. What was worse, she wouldn’t tell me how to do it.

“You have no warm blood in your heart,” she’d tell me. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. You’ll never make a witch.” I hated her more every time she told me this.

And she was so precious about her things. A very select few were allowed to look at her notebooks – not me of course – but none of her grandchildren were allowed into her pantry or among her jars and boxes. At least, Annette and Daisy managed to have glimpses, once they were older, but I had always been shut out.

I hadn’t expected her to have a proper funeral, and I hadn’t expected so many to turn out. There must have been over a hundred in the hall afterwards, most of them bringing their sad pyrex casserole dishes filled with something vegan. I don’t see why my mother couldn’t get it catered, but she always was a cheap cow.

I wasn’t going to stick around and simper over someone I was glad to see gone. Annette and Daisy were red eyed and sniffling, but I didn’t care. I was going to do something I had always wanted to do, and no-one was going to stop me now.

I left as soon as they started passing round the instant coffee and headed straight to my grandmother’s house. It hadn’t been touched, of course, and my cousins had been too respectful to do anything before the funeral. They had been left all the magical stuff, of course. I just had the money. It stung that grandmother had done that because she thought it was all I cared about. If she hadn’t been cremated I would have danced on her grave.

I had been in and out of the old house all my life and I knew its ways. I slipped around the back of the house, got the spare key from under the plant pot and let myself in. All of my life I had been fascinated by a jar on the high shelf. Once, when I was around thirteen, I thought I had heard it calling to me and tried to reach it. The old bag had stopped me then, but she couldn’t stop me now.

I stood on a chair, took the jar down, set it on the scrubbed table and paused. I could hear Daisy and Annette shouting to me as feet pounded up the path to the house. They weren’t going to stop me now. The lid was stiff at first, but then it turned easily. I could hear the singing as the lid loosened and then finally, it was open.

I could hear Daisy calling down the hall, screaming at me to stay back, but I didn’t care. Now I could see inside the tiny perfect world, marvel at the minute and delicate fronds. Except now they were not so tiny. The fronds whirled, whipping around like vegetable tentacles, sprouting and stretching, growing faster than I could watch. The jar shattered as I fell back, too small to contain the writhing plants which were sprawling over the kitchen, feeling their way along to the surfaces and grabbing at me. The fronds were strong, far stronger than a plant should be and I couldn’t break free. They tightened around my throat and as I gasped for air, a cold green tendril slid down my throat. I could hear Daisy screaming as everything went black.

Dark Cupboard

bald eagle door chain lock
Image from Unsplash, taken by Thom Milkovic

Jim looked around. “It’s not a bad little flat,” he said. “It’ll turn a good profit once we’ve tidied it up a bit.”

Steve nodded. “It really just needs a few coats of paint and perhaps new doors on the kitchen cupboards. Everything is pretty sound.”

“She didn’t want to leave,” Jim said thoughtfully. “I mean, she handed over the keys alright, and the place was cleared, but she kept warning me about the cupboard.” He nodded to the cupboard set into the wall, with chipped paint and an ornate chain.

“I’ve got the bolt cutters here,” said Steve. “I’ll get into it in a sec.”

“I’ll nip back to the van and get the camera,” Jim said. “She seemed a sweet old dear, and a little confused, but she may have been playing crafty. There could be structural stuff inside that cupboard and there go our profits.” He glanced over at Steve. “Don’t start without me, we need to document this.”

“I’ll get it opened up,” Steve said. “I’ll get the lamp shining in by the time you’re back. It’s probably where she hid the empty bottles. She was talking about spirits when she left.”

“Or it could be a Ouija board,” Jim said with a shudder. “You know I hate anything like that.” He glanced uneasily at the cupboard. “Back in a tick.”

Steve shook his head as he heard Jim clatter down the stairs. You couldn’t even read your newspaper horoscope around Jim. He hefted the bolt cutters and checked the chain. It was steel but old and the bolt cutters were top of the range. The chain fell apart without much effort.

The cupboard was dark inside, much darker than Steve expected. He pulled out his phone to use the torch and shivered as a cold draught ran through the room. He looked closer and saw a few chalked symbols, faded and barely visible under some dusty leaves, on the base of the cupboard. The stench was stomach churning.

“There’s nothing here, Jim,” Steve called, heading to the windows. He had to get some fresh air into this room. “But we may have a sewer line issue.” He tugged at the window catch. “Have you got some WD40?” The window was jammed, no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. He frowned. They had been fine earlier and there had been nothing in the survey. He could hear Jim on the stairs. He had better get the chalk marks wiped off before he got here, or he would have a fit. “Hang on, Jim, I need a cloth.” Steve strode over to the door, shivering as another blast of icy stench ran over him, and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn’t move. “Jim, the door’s stuck. Give it a push, will you?”

There was a rattle. “I can’t shift it,” Jim said. “Is there a lock?”

Steve peered at the door. “I can’t see anything.”

“I’ll get the toolbox,” Jim called. “Back in a tick.”

The light in the room dimmed. Steve turned around, hit by another icy, stinking draught, but there was nothing over the window and the sun seemed just as bright. He shivered as the room got colder and, as he heard a low, malicious chuckle, he wondered if they would have been better leaving the cupboard alone…

Good Things

Everyone knew that Violet was fragile. She would happily and completely believe the last thing she saw on Facebook or YouTube and fall in love with whatever trend was rattling around the internet, before being completely crushed when it all ended badly. She was a sweet woman, with a heart of gold and a genius touch at the upscale salon she worked at, but she was vulnerable.

Then she discovered Instagram.

‘Hang on, I need to take a picture here,’ became her catchphrase. It even came out at a fast food place.

I looked down at my unremarkable burger. “It’s nothing special. Besides, you took one five minutes ago.”

“But now you’ve taken a bite,” Violet said. “It’s more of a statement.”

“Is it?” I looked down at the soggy bread and meat. “Well, you know best.”

“It’s all about the composition,” Violet said. She frowned for a moment. “Hang on…”

I stared in disbelief as she pulled a fake twig from the plastic pot next to us and laid it across my burger, before taking another picture. “I’m not so hungry after all,” I said. “I mean, that twig has seen some stuff.”

“Excuse me,” a manager had appeared. She had probably been watching for a while and half expected this. “I have to ask you to leave.”

“Why?” Violet said. “It’s just for my followers. You know that lots of people choose where they eat from what they see on social media…” She was still protesting as I hustled her out.

The trouble with Violet was that while she was the sweetest, kindest, loveliest friend anyone could ever ask for, she had the resilience and depth of a petal. There were times when I felt I could shake her. Not that it would have done any good. I had known Violet for years, and watched teachers and classmates try. Everyone liked her, when they noticed her, and she was cherished at her salon, but she was as substantial as a sunbeam. And I think that she felt it.

After some fairly traumatic attempts at making her mark, Violet finally settled on something. She was going to be an influencer. We couldn’t keep her away from TikTok any longer. She also registered on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and half a dozen other sites as well as setting up her own website on a free platform.

“Your site looks lovely,” I said, sincerely. Violet really did have an eye for design. “Perhaps you could share hairstyling tips.”

Violet shook her head. “The salon would have a fit if I did that, and I want to keep working there. I love my job. Besides, it’s quite a crowded niche. I’ve got a better idea.”

“It’s not cleaning, is it?” I asked. Violet’s flat was so clean that you could use any surface for open heart surgery, but it was quite soulless.

Violet shook her head then shrugged. “Sort of. Cleaning is a very full niche, but I think I can make my mark – old cleaning.”

“What?” I stared at her.

“Look at this,” she said, digging a book out of her bag. “This book is nearly a hundred years old, and it has a section on how to use a mangle.”

“What’s a mangle?” I asked, looking at the tattered book in front of me.

“It presses water out of clothes,” Violet said. “It’s a sort of early spin dryer, except that it doesn’t spin.”

“I don’t even know what one looks like,” I said, an uneasy feeling growing in my stomach.

“And it tells you how to make indelible ink – look!” she said, waving the book at me. “Take 20 grains of sugar and dissolve in 30 grains of water…”

“Water doesn’t have grains,” I said as she frowned over the old print.

“No, grain is a type of old measurement. It’s tiny, like a tenth of a gram or something. But it’s all in proportion. It’s two parts sugar to three parts water. Then you add sulphuric acid.”

What!” I craned to see over her shoulder but the tiny, cramped printing defied me. “You can get Sharpies from the supermarket.”

“But that’s no fun.” Violet said. “Lots of people want to go back to homemade, natural treatments.”

“Sulphuric acid isn’t natural,” I said, “Or it shouldn’t be. Where could you get it from?”

“I can get hold of sulphur,” Violet said uncertainly. “How hard can it be?”

“Perhaps you should start with something easier that won’t terrify any followers,” I suggested.

“Hmm, perhaps,” Violet said. “But there are loads of old housekeeping books around that are going for pennies, and I can share them with my followers.”

I thought about it for a moment and I couldn’t see any pitfalls. “It sounds great,” I said. “Don’t forget to send me the links so I can follow.”

I kept an eye on things for a while. Violet was one of my oldest friends and a sort of distant cousin as well. She didn’t have much family, or at least family that was of use, so me and her other friends tried to keep her safe. And the influencer stuff was working for her. She was working hard, having fun and enjoying herself as her followers grew. To be honest, I was having a lot of fun as well. I went with her to flea markets and book fairs to scour the place for the old cookbooks and housekeeping manuals that she loved and we poured over them together in whatever cramped coffee shop we found afterwards. Violet was thriving.

Then she got the book. The slim, tattered volume was tucked in the back of a box of a trader at a collector’s fair, along with some random 1980s cookbooks, bought from a house clearance company. I ignored it, but it caught Violet’s attention. It was a small volume with old recipes and it seemed to call to her.

“Look at this,” she said, waving the book past my face. “It’s got little sayings around the edges of the text. Look – ‘Wilful Waste Makes Woeful Want’. It’s true, though, isn’t it? You always end up down if you waste stuff.”

I nodded hesitantly.

“And there’s a recipe for Wharfedale Pudding here. I’d never heard of that before,” Violet continued. “I can’t wait to try it.”

Work got busy for me, so I wasn’t meeting up with Violet so much. I followed her social media, of course. Every morning I dutifully logged in on all the different sites and liked and shared everything. I even skimmed the text over my morning coffee. I started noticing things, however. I remembered us chuckling over a facsimile copy of Mrs Putnam’s Receipt Book, which must have dated to the early nineteenth century. There wasn’t a mention of it in any post. There was hardly a mention of Soyer or Acton or Glasse or any of her staples. Instead it was all about that little book. She started every day with a tweet of one of the trite sayings printed at the edge of the page. There were dissections of the recipes and videos of her trying them out. There was even some quite deep research on the book’s background, which I didn’t think that Violet could manage.

But the articles seemed flatter and lifeless. There seemed nothing of the inner joy that Violet took in life. Even the language seemed different. Violet didn’t usually worry about spelling and grammar, but the over-correct text next to each picture was jarring. Finally I got a call from Violet’s boss at the salon.

“I haven’t heard from her all week,” Kylie said. “It’s not like her, and I’m more worried than anything else. Have you heard from her?”

“I’ve not heard a thing,” I said. “She’s still posting, though, so she must still be sort of okay.” Inside I was terrified. Violet lived for her job, and it was unheard of for her to risk it.

“I don’t think that means much,” Kylie said. “Violet was telling me how she sets posts up to go live weeks in advance, just in case.”

I felt a chill run through me. “I’ll call in at her place tonight,” I said. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

I wasn’t reassured when Violet opened the door. She had always been slim, but now she was barely skin and bones. Her eyes were sunken and her smile was strained. I stepped in before she had a chance to make an excuse. “Are you okay? What’s happened?” I almost stumbled when I went into the living room. Normally it was minimalist and sparse. Right now it was a mess. Plastic flowers and bits of twigs were heaped everywhere. Black coffee mouldered in half a dozen mugs scattered around. The curtains were closed even though it was bright outside.

“I’ve been a bit tired,” Violet said. “And I haven’t had much appetite. But I’ve had some meals from The Book.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I looked around. “Where is it?”

“Hmm?” Violet’s eyes were losing focus and she was swaying.

I swore and grabbed her. “When did you last have something to eat?” I snapped as I guided her down on her chair.

“I made baked tomatoes for breakfast,” Violet murmured.

I stared at her for a moment. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a month. “Hang on,” I said, and strode into the kitchen. It was full. Packets were stacked haphazard on the usually empty counters, and the bin was overflowing. Someone had been eating plenty here. I opened the fridge. It was full. Something weird was going on. I returned to the living room. “You need to see a doctor,” I said firmly. “You’re nothing but skin and bone.”

Violet shook her head. “Honestly, I’m fine. I’m just a bit run down.”

“Kylie is worried about you, you know,” I said. “Why didn’t you at least call her?”

“What day is it?” Violet asked. She checked the calendar on her phone. “What’s happened? I think I’ve lost three days.”

“You can come and stay with me,” I said. “I’ve got a sofa bed in the living room, and it will give you a chance to relax. Come on, I’ll grab your toothbrush.”

“I have to bring The Book as well,” Violet said.

“Which one?” I asked as I rummaged in her bathroom.

“You know, The Book. The one called ‘Good Things’. It’s been an absolute life saver. And it was written in 1896, you know.” Violet looked wildly around and then relaxed as she picked up her book. “Here it is.”

I frowned as I came back in. “Are you sure that’s it?”

“Yes, look – it says ‘Good Things’ on the front.” Violet said. “And I’ll need my camera as well.”

I didn’t feel better about things when I got Violet back to my flat. I settled her down and made her some cocoa. “Are you sure you won’t see a doctor?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” Violet said. “I’ve just been overdoing it. I’ll have a look through The Book and see if there are any recipes for invalids. That will make a good blog post.”

I dragged out spare blankets and pillows and then looked hard at the book. I was sure that it wasn’t the book I had thought. It was plump and sleek and it seemed to gleam a little under the living room light. “I’m just nipping to the shop for some bits,” I said. “And I’ll call in at the pharmacy as well.”

“Ask if they have any quinine wine,” Violet said. “The Book recommends it.”

I stumped off down the road and, when I was sure I was out of sight of my windows, rang Kylie. “I’m really worried,” I said. “But I can’t get her to see a doctor.”

“Perhaps some time with you will sort it out,” Kylie said, though she didn’t sound convinced. “And she’s owed some holiday time. She never takes time off.”

“It’s that damn book, I’m sure of it,” I said. “She’s following health advice from a time when they gave opium to babies and put arsenic on the wallpaper. I’ll pick up something more modern at the pharmacy in the supermarket.”

“Let me know how it goes,” Kylie said. “But I’m sure that you’ll work it out.”

Violet had fallen asleep when I got in, with the book tucked in close to her. I looked closer. It had ‘Good Things’ embossed on the cover, but I was sure that I remembered it differently. I went into the kitchen, pulled out my phone and started checking Instagram. And it was there! No-one would believe me if I just came out with the words, but the book changed. Over the weeks the thin, threadbare copy seemed to swell and the cover grew sleeker at every image. At the same time, the images showing Violet’s hands holding the book grew thinner and paler until they were almost skeletal. I couldn’t hear Violet moving, but I didn’t want to take a risk. I carefully shut down my phone and poked my head back into the living room. The book hadn’t moved, but I had seen far too many horror stories. I went back to the kitchen and texted Kylie. <Check the book in Violet’s Instagram. It’s the same, even though it changes.>

Kylie texted back. <Are you sure it’s the same book?>

<According to Violet, it’s the same book and the same printing is on the cover.>

<You need to burn it!> Kylie texted. <It’s possessed.>

<How am I supposed to burn it?> I texted back. <I’m in a second floor flat with no fireplace. Besides, Violet would never permit it. She’s even sleeping with it right now. The hard part is going to be getting hold of it. We can worry about what to do with it after that.>

<I have an idea.> Kylie texted back. <I’ll be there in an hour.>

I had doubts when Kylie arrived. “Are you sure about this? I’m not sure it’s ethical. I’m not sure that it’s even legal.”

“Desperate measures,” Kylie said breezily. “And do you have a better idea?” She pushed past me into the room and stopped suddenly. “What the hell is the matter with you, Violet? You should be in a hospital!”

Violet managed a tired smile. “I’m okay, really. I’m just a little run down.”

“We had burgers for dinner,” I said. “Proper meaty ones from the butchers, with chocolate pudding afterwards.”

Kylie looked at Violet in disbelief. Violet looked like she could be blown away like a dead leaf. “Well, I’ve got something that will pick you up,” Kylie said, recovering. “I’ve got a bottle of tonic wine for you and a bottle of prosecco for us.”

I still had reservations as I brought out three wine glasses. The tonic wine was strong stuff and though Violet had wolfed down three huge burgers and two helpings of pudding, she didn’t look like there was anything to mop up the alcohol. Then I caught sight of the gleaming book nestled in Violet’s lap. I didn’t like the idea of getting Violet drunk. But if that is what it took, then that is what I would do. “Tonic wine,” I said. “It’s like the quinine wine that the book recommends. It will be just what you need.” I watched as Kylie poured a generous glass for Violet and then two more reasonable measures for her and I.

“The Book is never wrong,” Voilet said, and took a mouthful. She blinked. “What is in this stuff?”

I picked up the bottle and looked at the label. “It says it has added iron.”

“That won’t hurt,” Violet said and took another large mouthful.

“You’re looking a little peaky,” Kylie said, ruthlessly topping up Violet’s glass. “Iron has to be good for you.”

It took two and a half glasses before Violet fell asleep. I exchanged an uneasy look with Kylie. It seemed more about exhaustion and lack of resources than a couple of glasses of wine. “Let’s get a blanket on you,” I said cheerily as I stretched Violet out along the sofa. “What you need is a good night’s sleep.”

“That’s absolutely right,” Kylie said, shaking out a throw and slipping it over Violet. The book fell out of Violet’s hands and onto the floor. Violet murmured and shuffled in her sleep, but the tonic wine was too much for her. Kylie automatically bent to pick up the book, but I stopped her. I nipped quickly into the kitchen and came out with a tea towel, which I used as a barrier as I picked up the book.

“I’m going to take a walk,” I said, marching briskly to the door. “Keep an eye on Violet, will you?”

Kylie nodded, her eyes wide and fixed on the book as I marched out of the door, phone in one hand and a book wrapped in a tea towel in the other. “Be careful!”

I moved with purpose, down one street, then another, then I cut across a park, past an arcade of shops and then down the back of the industrial estate until I got to the canal. I hesitated. I had seen Jumanji. Things could come back from a watery grave. Then I pulled myself together. That had been a wooden box, not a paper book. Besides, there were things in the canal that would clean brass. An old cookbook didn’t stand a chance. I found the footbridge, got to the centre and shook out the tea towel, sending the book into the water with a splash.

I stood there, almost transfixed by the reflection of the setting sun bouncing off the murky water. I expected something to show for it, like lights or explosions or steam. Then I got a text alert. It was Kylie.

<Violet is looking better. She has some colour in her cheeks. Have you done it?>

Yes, I thought, as I turned back to the flat. I’ve done it.

Out With the Old

It was the longest night of the year and she always found it tough. She loved the sunlight and long days, and the dark, dreary nights pressed down on her like a weight. She sat next to the new woodburning stove and watched the flames flickering. He’d forbidden her to get a stove, of course. “Central heating is good enough for the church in the village, so it’s good enough for us.” The church was always freezing, though, and the central heating had never quite given the warmth of a fire in this draughty room. She added a small fragment of crumbling wood to the stove and watched it crackle into fiery life.

Traditionally it was a time to look back at the last year and on to the next. Last year had been a long, grinding slog with little respite. Her husband had fallen ill, and they had found it was terminal with very little time left.

“I told you to see a doctor about that cough,” she had said.

He had glared at her, his eyes sunk in his greying face but the glint of malice still bright. “I was never going to let you tell me what to do. You were always trying to get one over on me. You never knew your place.”

She shrugged. “Can I fetch you some water?”

“That fool Jeffries has been on the phone,” he had snarled. “They won’t let me change the payee on the life insurance. Did you sleep with him? You should have made me go to the doctor – I bet you worked it so that I wouldn’t.”

She had stared at him for a long moment. She had begged him for months to get a medical appointment but his refusal was still her fault. “It won’t be much,” she said. “I’ll have to go back to work.”

“No you won’t!” he had growled before a coughing fit took him. He sipped some water and gathered his strength. “I’ve made arrangements. There’ll be enough for you to live quietly, but you’re not to go gallivanting around and meeting people, and you’re not to change anything in the house.” His smile under the oxygen mask took on a vicious slant. “When I said I’ve made arrangements, I mean I’ve made proper arrangements. I’ve been speaking to Doctor Adodo and I’ll be haunting you. I’ll be watching every move you make and I’ll be waiting for you at the other side instead of crossing straight over.” The vicious angle of his smile grew stronger. “And you won’t like what happens if you disobey.”

He had not lasted long after that, and the funeral had been particularly grim. Hardly anyone attended apart from the unnerving Dr Adodo with his assistant and a scattering of neighbours who had nothing better to do. Unexpected fog had risen from the grave as he had been lowered down and Dr Adodo had given her a meaningful look. If she hadn’t seen Dr Adodo’s assistant tip dry ice into the grave as the minister said the last prayers, she would have been seriously upset.

The clock in the hall struck ten. She had spent enough time thinking of the past. There was a good film on and a bottle of wine in the fridge. He had been wrong about so many things. She had never stopped him going to see a doctor. She had never slept with Mr Jeffries at his old firm. And he was not haunting her. There had been a few unpleasant incidents at first, when she had started to redecorate, but she had dealt with that. She tossed the last piece of coffin wood onto the fire before standing up and fetching the wine. YouTube really did have a tutorial for everything.

Particular

I looked down at my husband’s grave. The funeral had been yesterday and the flowers were already drooping. I stooped and pulled out a faded leaf. Alan always liked things just so, and it was the least I could do for his memory.

He had liked his tea brewed for exactly four and a half minutes. He had insisted that his newspaper was placed at the side of his breakfast dish with the sports pages showing. He had always checked that his dinner knife was exactly perpendicular to the edge of the table. I accommodated his little ways as the years went on. After all, a prize winning research chemist had to have a few little foibles after working with dangerous chemicals all these years.

But while he was so particular about the brand of salt on the table and the angle of the curtains when they were opened, it was a shame that he had paid less attention to other details. It was always risky taking a mistress who worked in the same lab as you and who also dealt with dangerous poisons. And his genius for new compounds was lacking when it came to cyber security. I had known all his personal passwords for years, and I suppose plenty of other people had as well. Perhaps most dangerously, he forgot that once, long ago, I had also worked in the lab with him on dangerous chemicals, the same lab I regularly visited to bring his freshly home-made lunch, with the sandwiches always cut on the diagonal.

The police had found the email apparently from my husband to his mistress, ending their relationship. They had found poison in the mistress’s bag, coyly left next to my husband’s coat in the cloakroom where I left his lunch. They had ascribed the hysterics she had to guilt.

I straightened the roses – not lilies. My husband had been particular about flowers as well. If only he had been as particular and paid attention to me.