“I saw him, sir, under the apple tree, plain as anything. Such a shock it gave me.”
Isla was a QA on the production line. I could see she was too upset to work, so I called her into my office and poured her a coffee.
“Others have seen Mister Cooper’s ghost before you,” I reassured her. “He haunts the apple tree he planted outside when he founded this company. Coopers have been making cider in these parts for a century and growing apples for longer than that. That’s his name, on your badge.”
My workers all wore the Cooper’s Cider logo: a rosy apple in a sun-tanned hand.
“He looked,” she said, hesitantly, “so sad.”
“It’s a sad story,” I said. “Don’t worry about the rest of your shift. You’ve had a fright and need to calm yourself.”
She nibbled on a shortbread while I told her the story.
“Brynmor Cooper wanted to share his good fortune so he adopted a little boy, dark-haired imp he was, bought at the marketplace for an old farthing and named Hammet.”
Isla sniffed, but was no longer shaking.
“Such tragedies followed. Brynmor’s older son fell out of a window. His young daughter died in the cradle. Then his wife sickened.”
“It got worse. Brynmor took a turn and died soon after his wife and of a similar sickness. Very mysterious. The family didn’t want Hammet to inherit the business. They came to Pomona House to challenge the will.”
Isla’s eyes widened. “Was that … the Big Fire?”
I nodded. “That apple tree is all that’s left of Brynmor Cooper’s estate.”
“So Hammet inherited the business?”
“I suppose he did.”
“How nice for Mr Cooper,” said Isla, “watching over the business from his old tree.”
I walked Isla back to the factory floor, then crossed the busy road to stand under the tree. It was a fine autumn morning and the town was scented with ripening apples.
“Still there are you, you old fool?” I murmured.
The branches shifted in breeze. An apple dropped to the grass. I picked it up and took a bite, while I contemplated my factory.
“I’ve insured it for a fortune.”
A worm wriggled out of the apple core. I threw it away.
“This time, Father,” I told the rustling branches, “I’ll make sure your wretched tree burns down too.”
I used to live in Hereford and love how, in early autumn, the whole city is scented with apples because of the cider industry there. My friend Luke Hoare is from Hereford so I wrote the story to make use of his adorable West Country voice. The character of Hammet Cooper is, in a way, inspired by Emily Bronte's Heathcliff (brought back from a Liverpool market by old Mr Earnshaw), but in this story he functions as a classic changeling, bringing misery to his adoptive family. I fancy writing further Hammet stories as he deals with the ghosts his psychopathic past has produced.
No one talked about crazy Aunt Val but she left me a suitcase full of outrageous Mary Quant miniskirts and her collection of Sixties vinyl ‘45s, all of which were going straight to eBay.
"Are ya ready, Boots?" It's a great song that draws an uncharacteristically sullen snarl from Nancy’s normally mannered vocals. Supposedly the producer ordered her to deliver the song like "a sixteen year old who likes to **** truckers" and that gave me my impression of Crazy Aunt Val back in the Sixties.
Aron was delivered at 13 weeks +5 days by D&C, molar pregnancy, nothing but a piece of meat, but we named him. Then we buried Aron. I wish now I had grieved with Carla, but I thought it was important to be strong.
We worried about history repeating itself, getting a scan at 6 weeks, which proves nothing if you ask me, and another at 12. Baby looked well. Another boy. But Carla was troubled.
“There’s a shadow,” she kept saying, squinting at the ultrasound. “Is it twins?” But the nurse said, No.
“Can’t you see the other one?” she asked me at the 18-week test. I couldn’t, but what can you see in ultrasound anyway? It’s like noticing shapes in clouds. It was easier to play along with Carla’s fantasy about twins.
Then the kicking started. It even woke me in the night.
“It’s the Quickening,” I told her, taking pleasure from the old fashioned word that sounded like something from Harry Potter.
“They’re fighting,” she replied, placing my hand onto her belly, pale white against her creamy brown. “Can’t you tell?”
“Dancing, perhaps,” I joked, faintly disturbed by the sensation of violent activity going on inside my wife’s body.
“Let’s dance too,” she whispered, biting my ear, “these boy hormones make me crazy horny.”
That’s when we discovered the spotting, like sinister fingerprints on the sheets.
The NHS were brilliant, can’t fault them. Carla was whisked away and the doctor talked to me about her cervix shortening, whatever that means, and a stitch to keep the pregnancy in place.
Then it was all hands to the pumps and everybody’s too busy to talk, thin-lipped nurses won’t explain anything and a line of specialists troop in, heart rate monitors beep erratically, and there’s talk about foetal distress and things being “non-reassuring.”
“Is it because it’s twins?” I asked, wondering about Carla’s obsession.
The doctor looked at me like I was crazy and explained, No: a single foetus.
In the theatre, I gripped her hand, blubbering, no strength left. Carla smiled a serene smile.
“It’s natural for boys to fight from time to time,” she said.
The foetal monitor printed a zig-zagging line, an endless snarl of serrated teeth.
She squeezed my hand: “Don’t worry, love. Aron’s just jealous of his little baby brother.”
This was a popular tale from August, winning a readers poll to be made into an audio (here read with great naturalism by Karl McMichael). I like the story's ambiguity: is the wife deluded or is the ghost of the dead twin haunting her womb?
When we received the news that the cancer had returned, Dennis brought me a stack of antique books. A copy of the mysterious 1799 ‘Tales of Terror,’ attributed to ‘Monk’ Lewis, brought particular pleasure with its macabre frontispiece of flesh eating ghouls. Also, its clean pages: cut but unmarked.
Matthew Gregory Lewis was a 18th century novelist who specialises in especially gruesome Gothic horror, notably 'The Monk.' The anthology 'Tales of Terror' probably isn't by him thought it imitates (and even parodies) his blood curdling style. It has a great frontispiece of graveyard ghouls eating corpses (reproduced above).
I began my journey in 2039. It was a Tuesday above the West African coast, with the dazzling arc of the Atlantic turning beneath me. It was an ordinary spacewalk. Micrometeors snapped my safety cable. I watched the shape of International Space Station Opera spinning as it shrank away from me.
Thirty nine minutes of air remained. A crackle of furious coms activity gave way to resignation. As the earth dipped beneath my vision and the haunting starscape replaced it, I recorded farewells to my family. The buzzing voices dimmed. The great silence embraced me.
Airless. Cold. No microbes to chew the flesh from my bones. My body withered inside the bulbous suit, like an ancient pharaoh encased in a tomb painted with arcane symbols: NASA, ESA, TESLA, the Vitruvian Man, flags, futile safety advice. Symbols more vast and inscrutable came into view: the constellations, flung like jewels across the bosom of the night.
My orbit took decades, but on my return from the dark side of the sun, Earth was not waiting. She had moved on, like an abandoned wife. I took my place among the other travelers: the frosty comets and tumbling asteroids that loop around the sun like a child scribbling on the walls of a cathedral. They had made their peace with eternity, but I was restless. Even after death, there is hope.
My orbit took centuries, but Earth was waiting for my return, like the dutiful widow.
I am history now. Scholars send out drones to find me, the tractor beams dragging me home. She’s changed, Earth, my old bride. Rings crisscross her axes. Traffic shuttles from the reshaped continents to the orbital platforms. Tugs and yachts cluster at the fringe of her atmosphere, bound for Mars and the moons of Jupiter. The coms in my suit whine once again with chatter in strange languages, bulletins, retrospectives, the tragedy of ’39, Earth’s lost son returning at last like a mariner from the sea.
They ease me through the clouds, where the austere black changes to dazzling blue. My old friends, the colours, touch my desiccated corpse. Below, fields of green in which to be buried, on the world that my grandchildren knew.
Ghost stories are often love stories and this one is partly a love story to Earth, our old playmate, ogress and fairy bride, and partly - as readers of a certain vintage might have spotted - a love letter to Queen's delightful folk rock ballad "39" from their 'Night at the Opera' album.
The Daily Ghost
The Daily Ghost publishes an original ghost story every day on my Patreon page. Subscribe and support my chosen charity!!! These stories are from the archive.