Preparing for Travel

John ran his hand over the gazetteer. There was a lot less about Sudan than he would expect. He wondered what he was getting into. He poured himself a brandy and soda and read through the half column of text. The book was out of date, as it claimed that the country was still under the control of the Mahdi. Well, Kitchener had done his stuff, the British were now established in Khartoum and it was technically safe to travel. John took another sip of his brandy and soda. One part of the closely typed text struck him: it is estimated that since 1885 more than three-fifths of the population have perished through war, famine and slave-trading. They were headed away from the worst of the troubles, but what would they find? He closed the heavy book and stood, taking his glass in his hand and wandered over the window.

The London fog had fallen again. Thick tendrils wound their way around the streetlamp next to the window and the familiar, stinging smell crept in through the chinks in the casement. It would be good to get away from the damp of London. He peered down at the scurrying figures rushing home. It wasn’t even dinner time and it was already dark and dismal. John pulled the curtains across and went back to his desk.

He didn’t pick up the gazetteer, but instead watched the flames flickering in the hearth. He was going to be paid good money to fly Professor Entwistle out to find ancient Nubian pyramids, and he needed that money. He was getting away from the upheaval and chaos of his inheritance. And he was at least going to get some sun.

John poured himself another brandy and soda. He normally didn’t bother drinking until after dinner, but today had brought yet more bills left by his late brother. When would it end? Yesterday one of his late brother’s mistresses had visited at lunchtime and had screaming hysterics on the doorstep when barred from seeing his late brother’s widow. The journey to Sudan would not only mean sun, payment and possibly gold. It would be a welcome escape.

John looked back at the sparse information in the gazetteer. He felt a cad leaving Clara to deal with any intrusions, although she had dealt with hysterical ladies with greater aplomb than he had ever managed. It wasn’t just that nagging at him, though. Professor Entwistle was talking about the knowledge that could be there. Knowledge of the sort that had sent a monster into the London Mists only a few weeks ago and had led to the death of his brother, among many more.

John pushed aside the last half of his brandy and soda. Would any knowledge found be worth the fees and potential treasure? He wasn’t in a position to judge. He had some aether heaters in the attics and an hour before dinner. He could get them out and give them a quick look over before he needed to get changed. It was much better to stick to the practical. Anything mystical could wait.

A hint of what is coming in the sequel to Out of the London Mist, my new novel, Under Bright Saharan Sky out on 21st January 2021.

Light up the Night

Image from Unsplash, taken by Thomas Allsop

“They always go over the top.” Dad turned away from the lounge window. “I don’t know who they think they’re impressing.”

“There must be yards and yards of the things,” Mum said. “Or metres or whatever. They’re not cheap, you know, not even in Aldi.”

Sandra drifted over to the window. The family across the street had swathed their house liberally with fairy lights – inside and out. The colours twinkled as they changed, spinning around the door and window frames and the miniature conifers in the front garden.

“Look at the way that they change,” Dad said. “That’s technology, that is.”

“It’s an app,” Sandra said, staring at the lights. They swirled and danced, echoed by their reflections in the cars parked in the drive and cast coloured shadows on the snow.

“They must have money to burn,” Mum said. “Those apps are expensive. And you need the phone to go with it.”

Sandra didn’t answer but instead watched the sequence chasing over the porch and across to the fuschias.

“I wonder what it does to their electric,” Dad said. “It must put the bill up something fierce. He frowned. “You won’t catch me wasting money like that, not for a few days when there are other things you can be spending on.”

“Or just putting the money away,” Mum said. “You never know when it would come in useful.”

Sandra looked around. As usual, her parents had only decorated the lounge, and the dusty paper streamers hung, sagging, across the ceiling. Faded tinsel wound around the miniature artificial Christmas tree. It was older than Sandra and beginning to show its age as the tinsel dropped. “You’ll need a new Christmas tree next year,” she said.

“No, it will do,” Dad said. “It’s not like you’re a little kid anymore. You’re moving out next week, for your fancy new job. I hope you’ve thought of all the expenses. You won’t be able to waste money, you know, not when you’re starting out.”

Mum nodded. “We’ve always been careful with the decorations, and it hasn’t hurt us. Some of these decorations are older than you. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”

Sandra thought of her skint friend, with the bright bells made of egg boxes and foil, the snowflake wreaths from thin sandwich bags and the newspaper garlands wound with cheap, bright tinsel. She looked back at the lights across the road. Their generous sparkle lit up the entire section of the street. “I’ll be careful.”

“Anyway, you’ll be back for Christmas next year, at least,” Dad said. “You’ll miss us.”

The lights across the road were reflected in cars on both sides of the street. The neighbours on either side had their lights reflecting with them, and mingled with the fireworks over head as they marked the New Year. The bright chaos made her smile. “I’ll be celebrating in the new flat,” Sandra said. “And I’ll have every room filled with fairy lights.”

Extract 34

clear glass bottles on table
Image from Unsplash taken by Charl Folscher

Ian sat in the battered waiting room and tried to relax. Trent sat at his feet, panting and wild eyed. That was the problem. Trent was a werewolf, the same as Ian, but Trent was stuck in wolf form. He couldn’t change. As the leader of the pack, Ian had a duty to its members. However, he was in something close to a veterinarian’s office and his mouth was dry with the tension. But Trent needed help and it was beyond the home remedies of Jeanette and Mrs Tuesday. They had to turn to the one doctor in York that specialised in non-normals.

The icy, older lady who was busy behind the desk noted the flashing light above the scarred door. “Dr Williamson will see you now, Mr Tait.” She glared at Ian as he hesitated. “Please do not keep the doctor waiting.”

Ian forced himself to his feet and tugged at Trent. Trent whimpered but scuttled behind him, paws skidding wildly and his ears flat with fear. Ian knocked on the door and went in.

“Good afternoon,” Dr Williamson said. “Take your time and get your bearings.” He stood and walked to the head of the table. “I never try and rush a nervous werewolf.”

“It’s okay, Trent,” Ian said. “It’ll be fine.” As Trent pressed himself against Ian’s legs, Ian looked around. It was definitely a specialised treatment room. Most doctors didn’t have a treatment table with restraints – some in strange places. Most doctors did not have a burly boggart keeping an eye on things in case things got out of hand. And most doctors did not have huge saws, knives and augurs ranged in the glass cabinets surrounding the room. On the other hand, most doctors did not have a tray of best quality dog treats on their desk and a patient expression. Ian ran a comforting hand over Trent’s flanks and turned to the doctor. “It’s Trent, here. He’s stuck as a wolf. I don’t know what to do.”

“Hmm,” Dr Williamson patted the table. “Just jump up on here and let me have a look.”

Trent whimpered again, but, after a stern look from Ian, jumped onto the table, skidding a little on the polished steel. Dr Williamson selected an instrument from his desk. “Let’s have a look at your eyes, hmm.”

Ian kept a firm hold of the collar around Trent’s neck to stop him from bolting. Collars were worn by werewolves when they were out and about ‘in fur’ to stop awkward questions, and Ian was glad of the handhold. “It’s okay. He’s not going to hurt you.”

Dr Williamson examined Trent’s eyes and ears and felt along his lupine rib cage. “You’re in great condition for a young lad,” he said. He slipped in the stethoscope’s ear pieces and listened to Trent’s heart. “But stressed.” He turned to Ian. “Was he part of the pack that brought down the stray last week?”

Ian nodded. “We all turned out for that. It was a bad business.”

Dr Williamson nodded. “I hear a lot about non-normal stuff, one way or another,” he said. “I patched up a few of the stray’s victims. He made quite a mess of them. I’m glad you took him out.” He looked closely at Trent. “That stray was a murderer. He was a killer. He left some kids with injuries that they would carry for the rest of their lives, if they weren’t suddenly plunged into being werewolves. He was the worst of strays and you and yours did your duty.” He held Trent’s terrified gaze. “You were a stray once, I know. You were without a pack. You scrounged and begged and hid in the shadows.” Dr Williamson leaned closer. “And I bet you never so much as snapped at anyone, no matter what the provocations. I bet you didn’t growl, you didn’t snarl, you didn’t bite. You kept your head down and did your best. That’s why you didn’t end up like that stray that you helped to stop. That’s why you would never end up like that stray.” Dr Williamson didn’t break eye contact. “Hand me extract 34 please.” He frowned in thought. “Fifteen millilitres, undiluted.”

“What’s that?” Ian asked, holding the young werewolf firm as Trent’s paws slid in panic across the steel bench.

“Thank you,” Dr Williamson took the tiny cup of brown fluid from his burly assistant, ignoring Ian. “Open wide.”

Trent fought frantically to escape but Ian, pushing aside his doubts, prised open Trent’s jaws to allow Dr Williamson to tip the medicine inside. Trent gasped, coughed, swallowed, coughed again and shuddered as he changed back into his human form.

“There are some spare clothes behind the screen,” Dr Williamson said as Trent sat up. “I’d like them back later.”

As Trent dived behind the screen, Ian leant in close to Dr Williamson. “Neat brandy?”

“In this case, it wasn’t what was delivered, but how,” Dr Williamson grinned. “Nice young cub, that. I’m sure he’ll do well. But it’s always the good ones that get hit by this stuff hardest. Good thing that he’s got you looking out for him.”

Ian relaxed. “Good thing that he had you treated him.” He nodded in approval as Trent emerged wearing joggers and sweatshirt a little too big for him. “Thank you, doctor, thank you so much.”

“My pleasure,” Dr Williamson said.

“I’ll pay on the way out,” Ian said. “Thank you for treating us.” He watched Trent almost dancing on the way out and winked at the doctor. “And to show our gratitude, I’ll send around some top quality extracts of our own, for you to sample.”

“I look forward to testing them,” the doctor grinned.

Out with the Old

black fireplace near couch
Image from Unsplash, taken by Annie Spratt

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.

How Do You Tell?

top view photography of broken ceramic plate
Image from Unsplash, taken by Chuttersnap

Carol cracked open the front door and peeked through the tiny gap. “Can I help you?”

Sir Dylan smiled brightly as he forced the door open and strode in. “May I come in?” he asked as he stood in the hall, checking out the layout of the small house.

“You can’t come in!” Carol said, her voice wavering. “Please leave.”

“Leave now, before something dreadful happens,” a voice boomed from the kitchen at the back of the house.

Sir Dylan flung open the kitchen door. The room was icy, far colder than outside or the rest of the house, and incense smoke hung heavily in the air. A plate flew off a shelf and through the air, past his ear, and smashed dramatically on a cupboard. The tall, thin man standing in the centre of the room was holding a Bible and gesturing dramatically. He didn’t look around. “Leave now, while your soul is still safe.”

“Hello, Foxglove,” Sir Dylan said.

The tall man froze and then spun around. “It’s Foxbane.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sir Dylan said, taking the Bible out of his limp grasp and setting it down respectfully on the nearby counter. “You’ve been warned about this.”

“I swear that this is a genuine exorcism,” Foxbane said. “Absolutely 100% genuine. This poor lady came to me when unexplained cold and draughts affected her home.” He looked behind Sir Dylan at Carol who was hovering helplessly. “There was unexplained activity and some damage. I was helping her out of the goodness of my heart.”

Sir Dylan backed away a little, keeping an eye on Foxbane as he asked Carol, “How much did he charge?”

“It’s true that I went to him,” Carol said. “Someone on Facebook recommended him, and I’m paying in instalments.” She laid a trembling hand on Sir Dylan’s arm. “It’s all real, you know, all of it. It’s been a nightmare. I’ve not been able to sleep properly for months.”

Sir Dylan looked at her. She was an older woman, with deeply shadowed eyes and tension lines around her mouth. She did not deserve Foxbane’s games. “I know it’s real,” he said. “But it’s not exactly what you think.” He pulled a small monocle from his pocket and peered through it.

“Look at us,” Foxbane said to Carol. “Who looks more trustworthy?”

Carol looked at Foxbane. He looked tall and urbane, with a silver streak in his dark hair. His expensive suit and shirt looked a little rumpled from the effort of the exorcism and his silk tie was askew, but he looked erudite and in control. Sir Dylan was wearing a leather jacket over a cheap t-shirt and battered jeans. His heavy boots were scuffed and tattoos covered his thickly muscled arms and ran up his neck into his closely cropped hair. Carol eyed the knight nervously. “It all seems very complicated.”

Sir Dylan glared at Foxbane. “I’ve spoken to Lord Marius, and he says that he would like to deal with you himself.” He eased something out of his pocket with his free hand. “He’s not happy.”

Foxbane pulled himself up to his full height. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care,” Sir Dylan said. “But he gave me some stuff to help me out.” He threw a chain at Foxbane which wrapped itself loosely around his neck and hung over his arms. As Foxbane stood pinned and immobile, Sir Dylan held out the monocle and peered through it before his hand shot out and grabbed what seemed to be thin air. Without warning his hand was clutching the throat of a red-headed young man who wriggled wildly as Sir Dylan dropped the monocle and pulled out a second chain. “Hello, Catkin.”

“It’s not Catkin, it’s Willow,” the man hissed, clawing at Sir Dylan’s fingers tightening around his throat.

“Yeah,” Sir Dylan said, dropping the chain around Willow’s neck. He turned his back on the two frozen figures and tried a reassuring smile at Carol. “I’m sorry that you were bothered by this, ma’am. I’m afraid you’ve been targeted by scammers.”

“But you saw that plate move…” Carol trailed off. Willow had appeared from nowhere and he and Foxbane were now frozen underneath the thin chains, their outlines fuzzy and indistinct.

“These aren’t human,” Sir Dylan said, “Or they’re differently human, or whatever the latest phrase is. They’re elfen. They’ve done it before. One causes psychic disturbances in a house, one tries and fails to exorcise the ‘spirit’. Then they suggest you move out, as it’s the only way. Obviously you won’t get a decent price for a house with flying plates, but they can recommend a broker. So you sell your house to them at below market value and then they flip it and sell on. House prices are going up around here, aren’t they?”

The colour drained from Carol’s face. “I’ve had a few letters asking for me to sell, but it was my mum’s house and I’d hate to leave it…” She trailed off.

“Have you given them any money?” Sir Dylan asked.

“I gave them £200 on deposit when they came in,” Carol said, still pale.

Sir Dylan strode over to Foxbane and started rummaging through the frozen elfen’s pockets. It took a few attempts as he delved into the shiny stones, fake rings and feathers, but he found a wallet and extracted £300 before replacing it. “That’s your money and a little compensation for the inconvenience,” he said as he handed over the money. He reached into his own pocket and pulled out a card. “If you have any more problems, or you know someone who needs an exorcism or has supernatural problems, call me. We don’t charge.”

Carol looked down at the card. “Knights Templar?”

Sir Dylan nodded. “It’s changed a bit since the Middle Ages.” He rummaged around in his pockets again and pulled out a small, marquetry box. “Try to forget about this. With a little luck, you’ll never need to talk to us again.” He flipped open the lid and braced himself against the kitchen doorframe.

Carol watched as the two frozen figures twisted and turned in place, dissolving into strings and ropes of colour that curled and writhed before being sucked, rattling, into the small box. The chains fell to the floor with a clatter as Sir Dylan snapped the box shut. “Is that it?”

“That’s it,” Sir Dylan agreed. “I suppose it seems an anti-climax, but you shouldn’t have any more problems.” He tucked the box into an inside pocket and picked up the chains. “Don’t feel bad about getting played. It’s easy to get sucked in, especially if you are unfamiliar with this sort of thing. I’ll see myself out.”

Carol stood in the middle of the kitchen listening to the heavy boots treading down the hall and the slam of the door closing behind Sir Dylan and slowly relaxed. The scent of incense still hung in the air, but as she picked up the brush to sweep up the pieces, she realised that the room was finally getting warmer.

A Small Sprig

“I don’t know why people press flowers in books,” Ken said as he dusted down another stack of hardbacks. “It’s awful for the books and it doesn’t do much for the flower. Why don’t they use blotting paper and then put it in a frame?” He sighed and tipped out another sprig of faded leaves. “At least this one hasn’t stained the pages too much.”

Lynn looked around the crowded room. “Do we really need to go through all these books now? Perhaps we could go for a walk and get some fresh air. It’s a lovely day.”

“It will take more than a day to get through these,” Ken said. “And don’t forget, we have another shipment coming at the weekend.”

Lynn stood up and dusted off her jeans. “I’ll make us a cup of tea,” she said as she picked her way through the towers of stacked books.

The kitchen was just as full. Her late uncle had left her everything. The exasperated landlord had piled the hoarded contents of Uncle Tim’s house into storage and sent Lynn the bill and now the contents of the storage units were being sent down by instalments from Scotland to their Bristol town house. Boxes and boxes of junk were travelling hundreds of miles to pass under Ken’s inspection.

Lynn poured boiling water on the teabags and looked around the kitchen. It was crammed. Uncle Tim had collected some beautiful enamelware and Lynn had suggested that they throw out the mismatched utensil pots and the tea and coffee tins that had come free with her saucepans and use the lovely, warm cream pots and jugs, but Ken was talking about how much the enamelware would fetch and thought that they should keep the old stuff. She added sugar to Ken’s mug and then topped up both drinks with milk. She didn’t want the money. She wanted Uncle Tim back. She carried the drinks back to the living room.

The books were dusty, mainly from Uncle Tim’s house, and Ken had dark smears on his face and shirt. “Thanks for the tea. It’s dry work. I’ve tossed the flowers I’ve found so far into the bin, but some of them have still stained the books. It’ll affect their resale value.”

“What? Some of those were put there by mum! I remember her putting them there.” Lynn stared at him.

Ken shifted awkwardly. “Well your mum’s been gone for a bit now. I don’t suppose she minds now that she’s in a better place.”

“I could have planted any seeds on her grave,” Lynn said. “Why did you do that?”

“I said that it will give a better resale value. We could get enough for a wedding if we sell this lot and get a good price for the enamelware, and perhaps we could get a better car for me, depending on what else is sent down. At least the landlord seems to have been honest. It doesn’t look like he kept back anything valuable. This is a first edition by Hemingway novel. I’ve found the same copy is over £7000 online.”

Lynn looked at him and then back at the book. “I remember Uncle Tim reading that story. He kept that copy for best and read and re-read paperback versions. He loved his Hemingway.”

“Lucky for us he did,” Ken said, making a note in a notebook and putting it to one side. “We could sell this place and get something a little nicer under both of our names. Something with a bigger garden.”

“You hate gardening,” Lynn pointed out as she stared at her partner. He’d been in her life for eighteen months now. Why had she not seen him clearly before? The house was hers, the car was hers, and all these treasures from Uncle Tim belonged to her. Ken didn’t even share the bills. He just paid for the Sports Channels that he had insisted on. At least she had held out for that. She didn’t even remember inviting him to stay. He had been living with his mother and after a while the nights he had stayed over had merged until he never left.

“But it will be nice to relax in a garden,” Ken said. “We can have a quiet glass of wine at the end of the day, perhaps with a barbecue.”

Lynn looked around and started sorting through the books. She was sure it would be here somewhere. “I’m very happy here,” she said. “And the neighbours are lovely.”

“I know that you’re close with the neighbours, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit,” Ken said. “You know, now and again.”

He had never liked her friends, Lynn remembered. She hardly seemed to see them nowadays. There always seemed to be something else happening. She shifted a stack of books and found what she was looking for – Pride and Prejudice. She had been holding it as she had excitedly told Uncle Tim about Ken, how they had met on a walk and how he seemed absolutely perfect. Uncle Tim had insisted that she picked a spray of borage from the border and preserve it, as a memory, so that she could look back one day and remember the excitement. She shook the pages carefully and caught the brittle fragment as it fell.

“That looks newer,” Ken said. “I wonder who put that there.”

“I did,” Lynn said. She tossed the small sprig into the bin. “And I’m not moving. But you are.”

Pictures from an Unknown Past

brown paper and black pen
Image from Unsplash taken by Joanna Kosinska

“She isn’t here now,” Kane said. “She was too embarrassed.” He looked at the lady sitting opposite him. It was almost a stereotype. She sat upright, as a plumb line, ankles crossed, hands folded on her lap and not a white hair out of place.

“My mother?” Mrs Kirkdale said. “That is a surprise. She was usually quite direct.”

“I didn’t manage to contact your late mother,” Kane said. “But I managed to get in touch with someone called Ellen. She seemed very fond of you?”

“My sister? She was always good to me, despite the age difference. I miss her a great deal, you know.” Mrs Kirkdale sighed.

Kane wished he knew the right way to approach things. “You got in touch with me about a strange bequest, didn’t you?”

Mrs Kirkdale nodded. “You were recommended by Tim McGuigan. He was the solicitor for my late husband, you know. He’s very practical and not usually one for such mumbo jumbo, so I took him seriously when he suggested that I speak to someone who speaks to ghosts.” She looked doubtfully at the scruffy figure hunched on her chair, then turned her attention to the small bundle of photos and slides. “Apparently there is a lot more of these photos and some letters, if I choose to accept the bequest, along with some money. But my parents and sister left me everything anyway and I invested in a good pension so I’m comfortable. I can indulge my scruples. These look like other people’s memories. I’m not sure that it is right that I have them. It should go to family.”

Kane shifted a little as he perched on the edge of the chintz armchair. He felt desperately out of place and had no idea how to approach the news. “You were fond of Ellen, weren’t you?” he said.

“I adored her,” Mrs Kirkdale’s face lit up with the memory. “She was such fun, you know, although she was nearly twenty years older than me. In fact, I was something of a miracle baby. I don’t think my parents really expected me. They were older and set in their ways.” She sighed and looked over at the pewter framed picture sitting on the windowsill. “Really it was Ellen who brought me up and taught me about life. She was very encouraging and supportive. I always think that she should have had children herself, but she never married. Her sweetheart died in the war, you know. It was right at the end, in Berlin. Ellen never talked about it, well you didn’t, but mother said that it was dreadful luck. They had even planned their wedding. I suppose I gave her something to think about. All I ever knew was that she doted on me.”

Kane took a mouthful of excellent tea from his china mug and summoned all his courage. “Did you ever wonder about your mother being a little older than most ladies giving birth?”

Mrs Kirkdale frowned. “I must have been quite a last gasp as a baby. I think it was a shock. I don’t remember her being affectionate to me, or loving, but she did her duty. It was a different generation and she was set in her ways. She always liked things to be just so, which saved me a few times. She had to be seen as a good mother.” She laughed. “Then I scandalised her by going to university. She didn’t see me working in the labs with the first computers, as she passed away before then, but she would have been horrified.” Mrs Kirkdale shook her head. “And she never met my late husband, either. I’m not sure that she would have approved of me marrying an engineer instead of a doctor or a solicitor.” She took another sip of tea. “Are these evidence of my mother’s indiscretions? If so, I would be very interested.”

Kane swallowed. “These photos and slides are from your father’s family. Not the man you think of as your father, but your real father.”

Mrs Kirkdale stared. “You mean that there really was a scandal? I can’t imagine it! Mother was so proper!”

Kane shook his head. “Ellen said that it was different times, and her mother was very strict.” He hesitated. “She asked you not to blame her. She loves you very much. It’s just that, she is your mother. She thought it wouldn’t matter, as they were supposed to be married the next month, but he got called back to the front line unexpectedly and then he was killed.”

Mrs Kirkdale looked blank. “How dreadful.”

“Ellen said that your mother, that is, her mother, wouldn’t allow her to say anything, so they went into the country and then told everyone that you were a surprise baby.” Kane watched Mrs Kirkdale carefully for signs of shock.

“Well I was, really, wasn’t I?” Mrs Kirkdale shook her head. “Now it makes sense. I always wondered why I was born so far away from the family, and why I wasn’t christened in the local church. My mother, I mean my grandmother, was so obsessed with appearances.” She looked at Tim and smiled. “And Ellen was a wonderful mother! If you can tell her anything, tell her that. Tell her that she still has all my love.” She looked down at the photos. “Thank you. It may seem strange to matter at my age, but it’s a wonderful gift to finally know that you had a mother that loved you.” She shook her head and brought herself back to the present. “And now my late father’s family have found me. That will be fun.” She held out an envelope. “Here is the fee that you agreed,” she said, then hesitated. “And, well, it’s expected that old ladies bake cakes. Well, I can’t bake for toffee, but I can shop at Waitrose like a champ. I hope you enjoy these.” She stood and picked up a large box of assorted luxury biscuits from behind her chair. “Now, I’m sorry to rush you off, but I have a great many phone calls to make.” She smiled at him, looking twenty years younger and full of mischief. “I can’t wait to find out about my family.”

Shiny Stones

brown and white tree branch with brown and white hanging ornament
Image from Unsplash taken by Rock Staar

Sir Dylan knew deep down that he wasn’t made for this sort of work. He’d grown up in the back alleys of Holbeck, among the druggies and sex workers, abandoned any attempt at school around the age of twelve, by which time he was running drugs for the local gangs and hanging around parks drinking. He was not cut out for the more cultured and expensive area of Lawnswood. North Leeds was as alien to him at times as Mars. “So you asked your vicar?”

Mrs Girton nodded. “I don’t normally approve of patriarchal religion,” she said. “I feel that it’s an unnecessarily restrictive practice. But I’ve been desperate. I love my garden. And Kingsley hasn’t been comfortable going into the garden for months.”

Sir Dylan looked down at the Shih Tzu. It barked sharply at him. “And you’ve noticed that the garden is fading?”

“Are you really a knight?” Mrs Girton asked.

Sir Dylan sighed. “I wasn’t always a knight,” he explained, well aware that the neck tattoo and bulky muscles were not normally associated with chivalry. “I was drafted into the Knights Templar due to my experience. Can you show me the garden affected?”

Mrs Girton looked doubtfully at the amateur inkings on Sir Dylan’s ham sized hands. “You had better come this way.” She swallowed nervously and picked up Kingsley, holding the dog like a shield between her and the unfamiliar, dangerous looking visitor.

Sir Dylan followed her around the corner into the back garden. When you watched a gang of drug dealers torn apart by a pack of rogue werewolves, you had limited options. He had not chosen to lose himself in drugs, drink or madness. Instead he had joined the Knights Templar, the underground group that policed the werewolves, vampires and the rest of the non-normal community, to fight back. “I’m registered as a Special Constable, Mrs Girton. They did all the background checks.” To be honest, the Ministry of Justice had sent a strong letter to local station who had grumbled and watched him like a hawk.

“That’s reassuring,” Mrs Girton said. “Although I’ve heard a lot about police brutality.” She patted Kingsley nervously. “You know what they say.”

“They’re a good bunch, on the whole,” Sir Dylan said. He could say this safely as he hadn’t got much of a clue but the ones he had had dealings with had been straight enough – and bright enough not to trust him. A copper that trusted a tattooed, muscled thug that hunted rogue vampires was not fit for duty.

“It’s around here.” Mrs Girton said. She opened a gate into the back garden. It jingled.

Sir Dylan looked at it curiously. Bells and strips of multicoloured ribbon hung with mirrors were tied to the gate. “That’s very decorative.”

“No, I think it’s awful.” Mrs Girton said. “It’s just that I heard you can use mirrors and stones against them.”

“Against who?” Sir Dylan asked, looking around the garden.

“The Fair Folk,” Mrs Girton whispered.

Sir Dylan took stock of the garden. There was definitely an issue. It showed every sign of being cherished but there was a greyness in the air. There was a pond with some sort of fountain that had a film of dust over it. The shadows under the climbing roses seemed to be darker and not moving with the light. A dimness fell over what should have been a glorious display of flowers. “You’ve put up a lot of these things.”

Mrs Girton nodded. “I’ve put them everywhere, but nothing helps.”

Sir Dylan stepped forward. He had got into the Knights Templar by being good in a fight, but he had developed a few instincts over the years. He could feel the elfen presence, but he didn’t want to get anything started in front of Mrs Girton. He looked over to her. She was hugging Kingsley, who was growling at a stand of bamboo. He sighed. That was the problem with things nowadays. People could learn just enough to get into trouble but not enough to get out of it. Bright stones, dream catchers and windchimes hung from every available corner and was enough to drive anyone insane. And Mrs Girton was right – no elfen could get past that lot. “Mrs Girton, you haven’t kept something out of your garden. You’ve trapped it in.” He checked the area and then strode over to the side that bordered onto the trees sheltering the golf club. Most of the shiny gewgaws were firmly wired into place but he managed to unhook the stones, wired with intricate patterns, and create a gap. “Out!” he snapped.

“What?” Mrs Girton asked over Kingsley’s barking.

“I’m talking to the elfen,” Sir Dylan said. “And I said, out!

A breeze rattled around the garden, shaking the blossoms, overturning a planter and ruffling the surface of the pond before shooting past Sir Dylan and then out.

Mrs Girton stared around her garden. Already it seemed brighter and Kingsley’s tail was wagging furiously. She put him down and watched as he raced around, sniffing happily. “So it’s gone?”

“Yes, it’s gone,” Sir Dylan carefully hung the stones back up. But I would be careful if I were you. How long were they trapped here?”

“It’s been over a year,” Mrs Girton said. “I mean, we bought the house for the garden and the view, and of course it’s near the golf course for my husband, but it has never felt right. And Jeff won’t play there anymore. He says he never has any luck. He goes to Alwoodley.”

“Then I suggest you move,” Sir Dylan said. “They won’t have been any happier than you, and they bear grudges for years.”

“But I’ve only just sorted out the kitchen!” Mrs Girton wailed.

“Then it will be a great selling point,” Sir Dylan said. “You have my number, if anything happens.” He turned towards the gate.

“How much do I owe you?” Mrs Girton asked. “I’ve got my purse in the house.”

“Just keep me in your prayers, Mrs Girton,” Sir Dylan said. “And I’ll be very grateful for that.”

Tap Tap Tap

Image by Anne Nygard on Unsplash

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 Kept My Word

Tell them I came, and no one answered,

That I kept my word,” he said.

– Walter de la Mare, The Listeners

‘Tell them I kept my word,’ he said

As the storm clouds gathered overhead

With the setting sun tainting them red

‘Tell them I came, as was my right

But the locked Great Hall was shuttered tight

And the echoes mocked in the fading light

He rested his head on the deep grained wood

The sunset glowed on his travel stained hood

‘Tell them I came as I said I would.’

‘Tell them I travelled over the seas

Across the great rivers and under the trees

But I kept my word and I held the keys’

A raven cawed in a twiggy nest

The wind was rising in the west

‘Tell them, say that I did my best.’

‘I saw strange stars and stranger skies.’

But he listened in vain for the listeners sighs

‘I kept my word, all else is lies.’

At the edge of the sky the thunder growled

And the rising wind wept soft then howled

At the dead Great Hall the traveller prowled

‘I kept my oath and now am free

I no longer approach on bended knee.’

He opened his hand and dropped the key

It seemed like no stroke of luck or chance

That the heavens threw down their fiery lance

As he rode away with no backward glance.

He felt the heat hard on his back

The Great Hall flamed from the lightning’s crack

But he still rode on down the weedy track.

I seriously recommend the original, and you can read it here

Originally published July 1st 2014