In my youth, I squired to Balladyne, called a freebooter, who rode with the Warden of Dumfries or the Keeper of Tynedale or Lord Scroop at Carlisle, or whoever might his hungry purse fill, for in those days War was Gospel and hot Porridge in the Borderland betwixt Tweed Mouth and Sark.
Richard Crichton steeped in to provide a very evocative reading for this story. I love writing these 17th century 'Border ballad' style ghost stories. How right Walter Scott was to seize on this period for adventure and romance. It's not a ghost story, but everyone should try George MacDonald Fraser's 'Candlemass Road' (1993) which is written in a fantastic imitation of Elizabethan English. Fans of paganism might read something into the sisters' identities as maiden, mother and crone and 'Macbeth' fans might chew on this too.
The shadows lengthened across the fens. Not a soul moved on the street. The windows were all dark.
Jesus, Courtney! Where are you?
“I’ll check inside,” I remembered her saying, finding the door to the Sedge Hotel open. “Someone will know directions.”
Women. Always so keen to ask for directions. We had fallen out over it, driving in furious silence, with me cursing the satnav. Then, suddenly, we were in Deeping St Jude, with a nearly empty tank and no phone signal. Not on any map, but sagging brick cottages, a dilapidated hotel and a church steeple like a preacher’s hectoring finger.
Still no Courtney. How long has it been?
I saw a pale girl in a dirty frock leave the old almshouse.
I lowered the window and called out.
“Which direction is the B1454?” No answer, so: “King’s Lynn? Anywhere?”
She approached the car and I noticed her leathery cheeks and bruised lips. No beauties in rural East Anglia.
“Take me with you,” she said – no, hissed.
“I don’t think your mother would like that.”
“She’s not coming back, your woman. Take me instead!”
Her little hand grabbed my collar. I struggled, but her grip was too tight. I flicked the switch and the window rose, pinning her thin wrist. Terror made me pitiless. I drove forward, with the horrible imp running beside, her fingers trapped in the door.
That’s when I saw them: faces, in every window; eyes like cold lamps, unkind and covetous.
I put my foot down. The girl fell away and Deeping St Jude disappeared from my rear view mirror.
When the car sputtered to a halt, I walked through the evening until I found a proper road. A pickup truck stopped for me and I insisted the old driver search for my girlfriend. We trundled back down the lane until it emerged near Burnham Market. We returned, to my waiting car. No village.
“Do you recall the name,” asked the old man “of your missing lady friend?”
But I couldn’t remember who or what I’d been looking for.
He hooked a chain to tow my car.
“I don’t like to be on these lanes at night,” he grumbled, as we pulled away. “Too close to Deeping St Jude for my liking.”
I nodded, reflecting on the odd names they give these funny little places, while I calculated the size of my breakdown bill.
I've written a series of tales for the eerie Deeping St Jude. There's no shortage of endless lanes beside sunken fields in East Anglia. The villages often have these double-barrelled names, ending in the local church. St Jude, or Judas Thaddaeus, is the patron saint of lost causes - but I wonder if the church in Deeping St Jude isn't named after the other, more notorious Judas...
“The coin was minted around 300BC for the Pharaoh Ptolemy Soter. The obverse shows Ptolemy in the role of Osiris, the reverse as the dark god Sutekh.”
The audience of the Numismatic Club squinted at the ancient coin.
“In modern times, the coin belonged to the artist Richard Dadd. After his return from the Middle East in 1843, a string of murders led to his incarceration at Broadmoor.”
The slide of the Victorian serial killer drew gasps. I was complimented on a “stimulating” presentation. While packing away, a whim prompted me to toss and catch the ancient coin.
Heads – Osiris – meant home to bed; tails – Sutekh – meant a nightcap in a nearby bar.
In the bar, Osiris proposed a shandy, Sutekh a scotch.
Six whiskies later, a group in a nearby booth, including a pretty young woman, caught my eye. I trusted Dadd’s coin for one last spin: heads I go home, tails I talk to the young woman.
Her name was Alicja, Polish, very friendly. Going on to a club was not my scene at all. I swapped authority: now Sutekh meant home, Osiris followed Alicja and her friends.
In the club, Osiris urged me to dance with Alicja, which was delightful, and kiss her, which was better. In the toilets, a dealer offered me Speed: heads or tails? Grinning Sutekh landed on my palm and the night took on a new urgency. More dancing, Alicja half-undressed in the taxi, then undressing in my bedroom while I stood in the kitchen, staring at the coin in my palm.
Heads and I made love to Alicja; tails, a cold shower instead.
Sutekh’s face scowled at this feeble option. Not exciting enough. Sex or rough sex? Sex or …
My eye fell on the steak knife by the sink.
Sex or death.
I flipped the coin. Sutekh and the knife.
Ridiculous. I was not going to murder Alicja.
Flipped again. Sutekh.
Laughing, I changed authority: Sutekh meant sex with a beautiful woman; Osiris meant death.
I flipped. Osiris.
This was madness. Again. Osiris. Again. Osiris. Osiris. Osiris.
Sobbing, I grabbed the knife. Death then, but whose? Heads, Osiris, and I kill the girl. Tails, Sutekh, and I kill myself.
I flipped. The coin turned in the air, reflecting the light with the blinding glare of a desert sun.
Richard Dadd (1817-1886) returned from a trip to the Middle East in 1843 quite mad: he murdered his father and attempted to kill a passenger on the train on which he escaped. He was committed to the Bedlam and subsequently Broadmoor psychiatric hospitals, where he painted his greatest work. He wasn't actually a 'serial killer' (though not for want of trying) but it is fascinating to suppose a supernatural cause for his madness.
Osiris and Sutekh (more commonly Set or Seth but I like the name Sutekh because it alludes to a classic Doctor Who story) were Egyptian gods locked in conflict.
It is a dark and moonlit night and I am haunting the alley behind the old cannery, thinking about not much, and who do I see but my old pal Skullface. The reason Skullface has this name is that his pan was burned right off in the fire at the Grand Hotel, which is where he haunts, so I am greatly surprised to see him here.
“I cannot complain,” he says when I ask him how he is doing, but he is not looking so happy, so I ask if this is on account of the new Holy Man in town.
“Since you ask, yes,” says Skullface. “For he seems to be a guy as owns the ear of the angels and has made such a performance exorcising the Grand Hotel as has driven out all the spooks, even Ripper, who as you know is a guy that never had any respect for religion.”
I know that this is true, for Ripper is a spook that never respected anyone, quick or dead, but I do not say this, in case Ripper should hear it.
“This new Holy Man has put the chill on many spooks,” I say, “but I also hear that he has the glad eye for a doll.”
“I have not heard this,” says Skullface, but I tell him that this is a one hundred percent doll by the name of Veronica Vervaine that works in the library and has the sort of peepers that make a Holy Man want to kiss crap dice all night just to buy her a rock.
“This is most interesting news,” says Skullface, “particularly to Ripper, who will want to hear all about this doll.”
Then next time I see Skullface it is three nights later and he is not looking so good. In fact, he is more than somewhat discouraged.
“When I told Ripper about Miss Veronica Vervaine,” he explains, “well, nothing will do but Ripper must see her in person, for to put the haunt on her, on account of the Holy Man having exorcised him all the way out of the Grand Hotel.
“So he takes me with him to the library, where he intends to drag this doll up the wall and across the ceiling, which, as you know, is the way Ripper likes to put the haunt on a Judy.”
It is well known to one and all that Ripper is so odious towards Judies as to give all spooks a bad name.
“But,” Skullface goes on, “this doll is no ordinary librarian, but an honest-to-goodness witch.”
“This,” I tell Skullface, “I did not know.”
“Anyway,” Skullface says, “Miss Veronica Vervaine reads a spell from her book that knocks Ripper bow-legged and do you know what she does next? I shall tell you, this doll puts Ripper inside a little jewellery box and locks the box with a key.
“I am thinking,” Skullface concludes, “that I shall take it on the lam, and you also if you listen to my advice, for between the Holy Man and Miss Veronica Vervaine there is altogether too much heat in this town for spooks such as us.”
So what happens but, the next night, I am haunting my alley and two citizens get out of a cab. One of them is a sterling young man of about twenty seven with a preacher’s dog collar and the other is a doll with knock-out eyes, although a little cold for my taste. She leaves the Holy Man waiting in the street and comes into my alley and let me tell you this pretty tomato has so much moxie she can clock me like I am still wearing skin. Then she speaks to me as follows:
“It was clever of you to send Ripper to me. I have many uses for a spook such as him.”
It is nice of her to say so, especially since it was all her idea. Now I am not a one for staring into dolls’ eyes, but, personally, I figure if Miss Veronica Vervaine keeps looking at me so, I’ll jump into her jewelry box alongside Ripper and pull the lid closed after me.
“But,” she continues, “there would be no little trouble and then some, if other spooks learn what happened to Ripper.”
I do not tell her about Skullface but instead say, “Miss, I do not recollect we have met before.”
She smiles her cold little smile then walks out of my alley to collect her Holy Man, who looks about as pleased to see her again as a John can be to see a broad. Then he and Miss Veronica Vervaine get back into their cab and take off. And I for one am most heartily glad to see them gone, for if there is one thing worse for a spook than a Holy Man with the ear of the angels, it’s a doll with knock-out peepers who can wrap such a person around her little finger, as I am sure Ripper would agree.
I usually keep the daily ghost stories to 400 words but this one deserves a bit of room to breathe. It's in the style of Damon Runyon (1880-1946) who wrote a series of short stories about American gangsters and hoodlums in a very recognisable style. Most people know the film musical Guys & Dolls (1955) which is based on some of Runyon's stories.
I am loath to travel the high road that passes Carterhaugh. They say its ruined battlements are the abode of demons and what else besides. But I am a Minister of the Lord, called to deliver His Gospel to this barb’rous Borderland betwixt Tweed Mouth and Sark. Such fancies are but Papist superstition and I press on past those forbidding walls.
I was called on such an evening to visit Erskine Bell, a landowner widowed this year past, and dwelling under the cold shadow of the Cheviot.
“Godamercy, man, what ails ye?” quoth I, for I marvelled to see him sadly altered since last Lammas-tide. His sunken cheeks were those of a gibbet-crow three days a-hanging.
“She calls to me,” he replied.
“She. Her. Janet Fraser, that was.”
At this I fell silent, for Janet Fraser died a year past, at Martinmas. I buried her myself.
“Janet Fraser that was,” I ventured, “a maid to your late lady wife.” And a pretty creature, I recalled, with a long stride and a wilful eye, given to laughing on the Sabbath.
Bell let out a moan and buried his face. “Such a maid as Hagar was to Sara, for we lusted upon one another, sir, aye, and coupled.”
“You knew her, sir?”
“As Adam knew Eve.”
“While your wife was with child?”
He beat his chest, saying: “God cursed my sin, taking my wife and unborn child, so I threw that lewd minx out. But she laughed, saying ‘There’s a promise in your lust, Erskine Bell, and when I call you shall come to me.’”
“And now,” I added, trembling greatly, “she calls?”
“She does, and I go to her at Carterhaugh.”
I called on Bell to bend himself in prayer, but he would ha’ none of it. I advised resolve, but he said that, ‘gainst Janet Fraser’s call, he was a man of flesh. I promised to return.
Return I did, but only to bury Erskine Bell. It was Whitsun before I found myself again walking beneath the dark Cheviot. A shepherd boy sat weeping at the roadside.
“Oh sir,” the urchin bawled, “I’ve seen Widower Bell and a woman, yonder by Carterhaugh, and I dare not pass them.”
I told the lad to reject Popery and read his Gospels, that the dead were at peace.
But I traveled on by a different road, avoiding the old stones of Carterhaugh.
The reading features the wonderful sonorous tones of Richard Crichton.
The bare plot is inspired by Edith Wharton’s fantastic Bewitched (1925), which is set in a Puritan colony in New England but transfers to the 17th century Presbyterian Borders easily. The relationship between Bell and Janet is straight out of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), echoing John Proctor and Abigail Williams. The ending is lifted from Wuthering Heights (1847), where the child reports the ghosts of “Heathcliff and a lady”.
Carterhaugh is a real place and the setting for the Borders ballad Tam Lin, in which a girl named Janet is seduced by an otherworldly knight. Here, Janet is the supernatural seducer.
It is bitter to be recalled to war when the fruits of peace are sweet, but an Emperor will not be denied, much less this new Hadrian. Taking up my old sword, I kissed my brave wife and left the villa, accompanied by the wails of sobbing slaves.
In AD 60, the British queen Boudicca (Boadicea) rebelled against Roman rule and her army of Celts sacked the city of Camulodunum (Colchester). A detachment of the Ninth Legion marched to save the city but was routed and massacred.
This story is set 50 years later, in 117, at the start of the Emperor Hadrian's reign, when a rising in Scotland was put down by the Governor, Falco. Veterans like our narrator would have been called out of comfortable retirement for this campaign. Durovigtum is near modern Huntingdon, a mustering site for Roman forces and a town I once lived in.
I started to hear her soon after Lucy died. The first time was at the funeral. She was faint, at the very edge of hearing, distracting me from the mumbled prayers.
I took to listening for her. I would stand, quietly, straining to catch her. Then of course someone, Jeannie perhaps, would say, “What are you doing there?” and the babble of talk would start up about Lucy and how hard it must be and I’d lose track of her.
I started keeping my own company, with no talk or doors banging or the kettle going on or a toilet flushing. Just listening.
Of course, you start preferring solitude and everybody loses their minds. You’re depressed. You need to move on to the next stage of grief, whatever that is, and get counseling. Then people start phoning ‘just to check on you’ and it’s impossible to listen.
No use explaining: “I don’t want to talk about it, I’m not depressed; I’m just listening.”
So I rented a little cottage.
“I’m just going away for a short while. I need to get my head together. Yes, I’ll take my phone. No, I’m not depressed. Goodbye. Love you. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
The cottage was delightful, but old buildings are full of sounds. The roof creaked and the wind moaned along the gutters. The rooks in the fields below croaked out all day and at night the owls screamed and raindrops banged on the slates. I strained but I just couldn’t quite hear her.
Down in the cellar, it was better. I pulled shut the heavy door overhead and descended the narrow steps. The torch buzzed so I turned it off. Down here, I could truly listen.
Except for the drip of water, somewhere in the darkness. Each plop echoing between the old stones. I wept with frustration. I envied the deaf.
I used a hairpin. It took a few attempts to puncture each eardrum. The pain was intense. But in the anguished quiet, I could finally hear … my own heartbeat. How it thundered.
I gobbled those Xanax tablets Jeannie got for me and washed them down with vodka, choking and sobbing.
Finally, the body slowed its racket. In between each faltering heartbeat, I could hear her, at last, getting clearer and clearer.
She’s so beautiful.
She is silence.
Over on Twitter, Heather H. offered a writing prompt, to tell a story with the title 'Silence.' I think this story ended up being the bleakest thing I've written, which is why I'm delighted with Eilish McDowell's vivacious delivery. Is there a ghost in this one? Of course, the narrator might be disturbed by grief. But that's the fun of ghost stories: the most disturbing ghosts are the ones that never make an appearance.
The Daily Ghost
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