Some stories that are a little darker
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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…
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.