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A Tale That Must be Told

The moment her cousin Abi Rutherford told her the story, Ellie knew she had to write  about what had happened. And with her journalist’s intuition kicking in, she knew she hadn’t been told the whole truth. Abi was keeping something back and Ellie was determined to find out what it was.

The haunting had occurred, so Abi had told her, in the back garden of an old manor house in Somerset, and Abi had seen the ghosts. Excited and sceptical in equal measure, and much  intrigued, Ellie went down there at the earliest opportunity. Her first impression was disappointing. It was a lovely house, yes, with a pretty garden, but nothing remotely spooky as far as she could see and the people who lived there had told her little. Platitudes. ‘All old houses are reputed to be haunted.’ and ‘Abi is more sensitive than most.’ That sort of thing.  Even when she told them she was Abi’s cousin, and that Abi knew she was there (not actually  true) they had kept stum.

Ellie and Abi had been close once when they were children and later, when Abi had been a journalist too, they had met regularly, compared notes, given each other ideas, swapped stories.  Then Abi had started to change; she had given up on journalism and they had grown apart, their interests more and more different. They had just about lost touch until they had run into each other in London and Abi, reminded of old habits perhaps by the ambience of the wine bar where they  went for a quiet drink together, had started to tell her this amazing story.  Why had she stopped? Why had she suddenly clammed up? She knew Ellie was a sceptic and that she  was still a journalist. It was almost as though she had wanted her to know, wanted the story to be told. Maybe, disproved? But didn’t dare.

The research as far as it went had been easy, partly because so little was known about how many Romans were in Britain before the  Claudian invasion in AD 43, and these ghosts were Roman. There were traders, obviously; perhaps some invaders left over from when Julius Caesar came. Perhaps they were just adventurers or second home owners, braving the awful English weather as a change from the glorious Mediterranean. Ellie shivered, glancing out of the kitchen window.

It had been a coup finding a cottage so close to the haunted manor. And it was a no-brainer, surely, that the farmer who owned it was  bound to know the story, so she had taken a short lease and moved in without telling anyone in the family. She didn’t want Abi descending like an avenging angel and telling her to mind her own business.

Almost  at once she had begun to feel uncomfortable and now, for the third morning  running, as early mist lapped against the cottage windows her unease had become profound. The summer sun was strong, she reminded herself; it wouldn’t take long to break through, but until it did, she was alone in this miasma of cold and damp and now, for the first time, she realised that it wasn’t just unease she was feeling. She was downright frightened.

Firmly trying to ignore her fear - she was after all on a ghost hunt - she turned her back on the window and reached for the kettle. Next door her reference books and notes were piled on the table beside her laptop. Later, when the sun had finally sucked up this awful mist she would open the windows onto the garden and let in the warmth and light. Meanwhile, she refused even  to glance outside. The fenland was unspeakably beautiful in the sunshine, the water glittering between the reeds, but under this blanketing whiteness, it had become a threatening place,  under which something evil seemed to be lurking. And it was, she had to remind herself sharply, the something evil she was after.

The sound of a knock on the back door made her jump nearly out of her skin.  Stupid! She was normally, calm, her imagination under control. And above all, she was not superstitious. She did not believe in all this stuff. On the contrary. Whatever was going on she intended to find a rational explanation. ‘Who is it?’

There was no reply. The kettle was boiling cheerfully, masking the all encompassing silence.

She grabbed it, waiting for the bubbling to die away, holding her breath., staring at the door. She didn’t want to open it. She had opened it yesterday and the day before. There had been no one there.

‘Ellie?’ The voice from, outside was loud and cheerful and she gave a whimper of relief. ‘Mark?’ Fumbling with the bolt she pulled it open.

‘Are you all right?’ His jacket covered in droplets of moisture, his wet hair wind blown, her landlord stepped in, shutting the door behind him.

She nodded, knowing her face still betrayed her fear. She saw him do a double take as he scanned her expression, then he looked away. ‘Kettle boiled?’ he asked, then he glanced at her  again. ‘Spooky old place, this, when the mist lies on the levels.’

She knew her answering nod was too adamant.

He sat on a stool while she made his tea. ‘I thought I’d see if you needed anything,’ he said at last. ‘If it’s too lonely for you, my wife says you’d be welcome at the farmhouse.’

She smiled. It was so tempting.  ‘I think I need to stay,’ she replied at last. ‘For the book.’ When had it become a book? It had started as an article, then progressed to  a feature – perhaps at most a long one  for a Sunday paper.

He nodded. ‘Research, you said.’

‘Yes.’

He  sipped from the mug thoughtfully. ‘Folk round here reckon memories are easily stirred up.’

‘Yes.’ She was staring down into her tea.

‘And you want that, I suppose, for the book?’

She shook her head miserably. ‘I didn’t realise it was all still so – ’ she hesitated, ‘So, near the surface.’

He glanced up and met her eyes. ‘It is a powerful story.’ She nodded.  So he did know what it was all about. ‘And it surfaces when the mist gathers over the levels.’

She gave another almost imperceptible nod.

‘You heard him knocking?’

‘Yes.’ So, it was a him.

‘You opened the door?’

‘Yes.’

‘No one there?’

She shook her head. It was a wind up, surely. Someone was out to scare her. Maybe scare her away. Either way, they were not going to succeed. She was feeling braver now that he was there. ‘Who is it, do you know? Does anyone ever see anything?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t reckon I  know much about it. It hasn’t happened but the once or twice in a few hundred years, as far as I know.’

She smiled in spite of herself. ‘Long time.’ Behind her in the next room the books on the table seemed to stir uncomfortably.

He took a gulp from his mug. ‘I do  know your book will make some people very angry.’

 ‘Why?  That’s not my intention. I just want to tell the truth. Perhaps you should tell me about it. Your take on it.’ She met his gaze hopefully. ‘To make sure I’ve got the story straight.’

Pushing the mug away he stood up. ‘I don’t like to talk about it. Sorry, but you know how it is.’ He shrugged.

She bit back a retort. She didn’t know how it was, that was the trouble.

He smiled as he headed for the door. ‘Sure you won’t change your mind and come down to us?’

She shook her head..

‘Fair enough. If you have second thoughts you know where we are.’

The mist had lifted. She watched him step out into the sunlight and stride away.

Come back! As soon as he was out of sight she wanted to call him  but the words died on her lips. She had to face this. Had to follow it through. She had to know the secret. If he wasn’t going to tell her, she had to find out for herself.

She stood staring down at her notebooks thoughtfully. ‘A Roman family,’ Abi had said. ‘They have been recorded for hundreds of years as appearing  in the garden behind the manor. They lived there in a comparatively primitive house but later a villa was built on the same site.’ They seemed content, Ellie had gathered. There were no dramas reported in the scene. Then something happened to them. But what?’

It had been enough to catch Ellie’s interest and Abi had instantly regretted mentioning it. Ellie had watched  curiously as her cousin clammed up and tried to change the subject. Why? What was so different about this ghost story? Somerset was a land of legends and ghosts. She would have thought the owners of the ghosts would be pleased they had an attraction on the premises, as it were, especially as they ran a b & b. Her lips tightened. When she had asked if she could spend the night at the haunted manor they had been full up. Every time.

She frowned thoughtfully at the notebooks on the table. She could try ringing Abi again. Her hand strayed to her mobile then she shook her head. She picked up her notes instead – the ones she had written immediately after their  meeting and she scanned the hastily scribbled pages – then once again began to study them looking for some sort of clue as to what had happened, what it was that Abi had been about to tell her.

Behind her the kitchen door banged shut. She glanced over her shoulder, startled, her heart thudding uncomfortably. What did she expect? There was a draught now she had opened the window. On the table, almost beneath her hand the pages of the notebook rattled over in quick succession leaving the book closed, face down. She laughed uncomfortably. ‘You’re not going to scare me that easily,’ she said out loud. She re opened the notebook and picked up her pencil. What she needed to do was to find other people to interview. Farmer Mark’s wife, obviously. Neighbours. Maybe the local vicar.

Automatically seeking the reassurance  of work mode, she was already analysing what had happened. Whatever was happening had seemed real to Abi, but obviously it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. Other people might buy into this ghost thing, but that was because they were gullible. She wasn’t.  Abi was going through some sort of spiritual crisis as far as she could see, but surely even she could not be convinced by the story.  It must have been a hallucination. Ellie picked up a pen and began to write.

(1)Dream (2) Daydream (3) Hallucination. If (3),  caused by what? Drink? No. Drugs? No. Pre-existing expectations (often a factor in ghost hunts) No, because she didn’t believe it.

But in  Abi’s case, probably yes. (4) Hysteria? Not in her case, obviously, Ellie sniffed indignantly. (5)Gas? She paused. She had come across reports that marsh gas lit by lightning led to all sorts of ghostly phenomena, flickering lights dancing across the marshes, leading people to their death in watery graves. Could that be what was going on? – except the gas had acted as a hallucinogen. She paused for a moment, doodling on the edge of the page. That idea was worth investigating. There might be a pocket of marsh gas under the cottage, and under the manor. She bit her lip thoughtfully. That might just prove to  be the rational explanation she was looking for. She glanced at her doodle. She had drawn a sword, dripping with blood. With a grimace she turned over the page and went on with  her list.

(6)Wood preserving chemicals in the house/paint fumes  She couldn’t smell either. (7) Magic mushrooms or other local psycho-active plants. She hadn’t eaten any. (7) Geology. She underlined the word three times.  It could  cause electromagnetic stress and discomfort in sensitive people, so she had read. An infinitesimal shifting of tectonic plates or perhaps underground water, a stream or even a river. These often caused so called psychic phenomena.  She needed to check that as well. She put down the pen, satisfied. There were so many reasons for what had happened. Rational reasons.

The window slammed and she jumped, looking up at it. The sky had gone grey outside. Raindrops were splattering against the glass. The room was suddenly very cold and dark.  She reached for the light switch. Nothing happened. She flicked it on and off a couple of times, then went across to the lamp on the sideboard. That didn’t work either.

‘I told you, you are not going to scare me!’ she murmured out loud. She could feel her fear growing. Ridiculous! This was an isolated cottage. It was a wonder it had electricity at all. She went over to the phone. No dialling tone. This was more like a film script every moment.  Corny. It was only a storm, for goodness’ sake.

With a wry smile she reached for her mobile, half afraid that wouldn’t work either. Mark had obviously gone straight home. He answered on the third ring and as she had hoped her would, laughed at her predicament. ‘Wait till the squalls have passed then press the reset button in the cupboard beside the front door to bring the electrics back on. It will be fine.’ There was a pause. Had he heard the faint request she had added, to come down to the farm to talk to his wife? His hesitation was brief. ‘Sure, come down. Have to be later though. She’s in town all morning.’

She stood in the semi dark looking round. The strange squalls were still whistling across the levels. Even through  the door she could hear the hiss of the sedge and the rushes, the thrash of the willows on the far side of the river. Her mobile was still in her hand. She called Abi’s number. It went straight to voice mail and she swore.

 OK. If the house was determined to chase her out she would oblige. She would go for a walk. Pulling on her jacket she reached for the backdoor knob. The door wouldn’t budge. She felt the palms of her hands slick with sweat as she tried fruitlessly to turn it. She rubbed them on the seat of her jeans. ‘This is crazy,’ she murmured. She could feel her throat tightening, her mouth going dry. ‘Front door.’ She turned back onto the hall.

Panic was beginning to grip her as she reached for the latch. The sound of the  wind thrashing through the reeds was increasing. She could smell it now, the mud, the wet grasses and the sedge, the smell seeming to ooze under the door, permeating the walls. Somewhere in the distance a bird was calling, a wild lonely shriek above the roar of the wind. The curtains were blowing. She turned back to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway,  almost paralysed with fear as she felt  mud under her feet. The ground was soft and wet. The kitchen had disappeared. She was outside. The wind was tearing at her hair.

Nearby she could hear someone calling. It was a desperate cry for help. Narrowing her eyes, her hair whipping round her face she took a step towards the sound, then another. ‘Where are you?’ Her own voice was feeble, useless against the roar of the storm. She turned round slowly realising in a moment  of blind terror that she could no longer see the cottage. She had lost her bearings completely.

The cries for help rose in intensity, until with  one short, agonised scream they broke off. Then nothing. She listened to the hiss of the reeds, her stomach frozen with fear, her voice locked into silence. At her feet a trail of blood merged slowly with the rain water and washed away.

Her terror was broken by the ring tone of her phone. Automatically she reached into her pocket.

‘Hi, Ellie, it’s Abi. Sorry I missed your call. How are you?’

The sound of the wind and rain had gone. She was standing in the kitchen. Outside she could hear a blackbird singing.

‘Ellie? Is there something wrong?’

Ellie’s hands were shaking violently. She was staring at the floor.  She couldn’t speak.

‘Ellie? Can you hear me? What’s happened?’ Abi’s voice sharpened. ‘Where are you?’

Without a word Ellie turned off the phone and put it down.

It had been her imagination, of course it had. She shivered as she walked through into the living room and stood pulling on a sweater as she looked blindly  down at her notebook.  Notes 1- 7. Any of them. All of them could apply. What she hadn’t taken into account  was the sheer weight of terror which had overwhelmed her. That was real, overwhelmingly real.

Glancing up she saw trails of white mist at the window and she was abruptly aware that her heart rate had  again accelerated sharply.

‘Not again. Please God, not again.’

The man was standing between her and the window, dressed in a mud splattered leather tunic and cloak. There was a sword in his hand, a sword that was smeared with blood, the sword that she had doodled in her notebook.

Ellie heard herself give a small whimper of fear. She couldn’t breathe. The roar of the wind in the rushes was returning. She took a step back towards the door. Then another. He couldn’t see her. He was looking through her. He wasn’t real. Desperately she grabbed at the thought.  She had imagined him and anyway he was fading. Slowly almost imperceptibly he was fading from her sight. In seconds he had gone, leaving nothing but a trail of mud and blood on the rug. She looked down at it for several seconds, unable to move or think, then reluctantly she bent down and hesitantly she reached out towards the stains. They too were imaginary. They weren’t really there

They were wet and sticky and smelt of wet earth and iron and blood and she stared down at her fingers in horror. At the back of her throat she could feel a scream building. She couldn’t hold it back.

It took her fifteen minutes to hurl her belongings into her bags and throw them into the car. As it bumped down the track towards the farm she glanced back at the picture-book cottage dreaming in the sun, at the flower-filled garden and the glinting waters of the ditches and meres  beneath their attendant willows. Whatever secret it was this place held she was not going to pursue it. Abi was welcome to it.

 She shuddered as she turned back to the track. She would drop off the keys on Mark, plead a sudden summons from her paper and drive back to London today.

Maybe one day someone would write the story, whatever it was. It would not be her.

 

 

[For those who haven’t read it yet, Abi’s story is  of course  told in my novel,  Time’s Legacy]

 

This short story was first  published in  My Weekly, in August 2010

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