“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.
My family forbade me to talk to ghosts.
You smile? Perhaps, in the West, there are no ghosts. In Somalia, there are too many. But we are here to talk about different superstitions, about the cutting. For Somali girls, it is sunna, just ‘the Way.’ I learned about it from my sister Yasmiin but I asked eedo, my aunt, if it were true. Then abti, my uncle, beat me, partly for my immodest curiosity and partly for talking to Yasmiin, who had died ten years earlier.
Please do not laugh. We are a haunted people. Eedo grieved for her brother; abti grieved for two sons. A land mine killed my mother. My father was murdered by militants.
How quiet the streets of Europe are. How empty your houses. With ghosts, you are never alone, even when you learn to ignore them, as I did: the girls that al-Shabab kidnapped who wandered the fields shrieking, the disfigured old lady who waited at the water pump, fierce Yasmiin who followed me wherever I went, to the market, to the school, to prayers. But never my father or abti’s sons. The dead are all women, demanding to be heard.
The dead do not leave when you ignore them. You draw more with your silence and your downcast eyes. Ghosts crowded the house. They chattered through the night until I screamed at them to leave. Then eedo, waking, inspected my sheets and saw the blood and declared Wallahii!, no more delay. I would be cut and then married.
How the ghosts complained and pleaded. Once I followed the Way of all women, I would hear them no more. I was relieved at the thought. Then abti paid for a traditional cutter to come to the house.
“You will die,” Yasmiin shouted. “Did I not die? Do you want to join me? Do you?”
The ghosts pressed into the room while the cutter took out his knives. I looked from the man with his knives to my fierce sister. I spoke to the ghosts one last time.
I said “Caawi!” which means ‘Help me.’
They are years and oceans away now. The dead do not speak to me in this country.
So I will speak for them. For I have seen the anger of ghosts and it is a terrible thing.
This one took a while: partly some research into Somalia, and Somali language, but more working out how the ghosts represent the silence in a sometimes-brutal, patriarchal setting. In fact, there's very little ghost lore I could discover in real Somalian folklore and not much in Islam generally. But Somalia is a suffering country that certainly deserves angry ghosts.
“I do not intend to die. Ever.”
How terrible, to toil away in life only to find yourself burdened with a boring job in the afterlife. Qadaffa's name is meant to hint at Egyptian origins but really it's just an echo of 'cadaver'. In a longer version of this story, Jonas believed he had arrived at Qadaffa's office to secure a lucrative contract with him, only slowly realising that he is the one being contracted.
'A Loophole' turned into quite a series on Daily Ghost. Later episodes introduced the Egyptian death goddess Anupet who works to counter Qadaffah's necromantic schemes.
My grandfather worked down the Pit and he took his son, my Dad, down, just like I took my three lads down. I keep their pictures on the mantelpiece: James, smiling, and David, the quiet one, and Malcolm, just a boy, and the big colliery wheel behind them. I’m waiting for them to come home.
The colliery wheel turns and boys go down the Pit and come out old men. Then the man from the Ministry closed the Pit and the wheel stopped turning, 27 years after the big explosion and all the bodies they never found.
The neighbours left but I stayed. I was waiting for my lads to come home.
The letter from the Council told me to go, but I was waiting for my lads to come home.
The waiting got so hard, that I sat in the kitchen, one November night, and wept. Then the latch rattled and in they walked. James, smiling, and David, all quiet, and my boy Malcolm.
Black with soot they were. So I ran the bath, the way Mother used to, and scrubbed them clean. They never spoke, but they put on clean shirts and sat around the kitchen table, waiting.
Nothing in the fridge except a heel of bread. So I ran, to the Chippy, and Hamid was frying up.
“Hello Jack,” he said, “is it fish with chips?”
“Times four,” I said, holding up fingers.
“My lads,” I told him, “they’ve come home.”
They tucked into that fish like they were famished. Then they washed up in silence. They went and sat on the sofa and waited. So I turned on the telly. And they watched it in silence, and I watched them, all evening long.
They went to their room, and I lay in my bed and listened to their breathing. Not sleeping, they were lying there, in their beds, just waiting.
They came down at dawn, wearing the pit clothes I’d cleaned. I’d packed their lunches. I opened the door and out they went, smiling James, quiet David, my boy Malcolm.
“Lads,” I called and they turned to face me. I didn’t have words, but they nodded, James, then David, then Malcolm. Then they left, up the sleeping street, under the shadow of the big colliery wheel, turning one last time.
This one brought a lump to my throat when I wrote it. The destruction of the colliery towns by the closure of the old mines and the real grief of those who lost sons to mining disasters are real enough without ghosts. The supernatural plot is drawn from the medieval ballad The Wife of Ushers Well that Steeleye Span turned into a folk rock classic.
With no Brian, I can sleep in fuzzy stretchpants, eat toast in bed, watch soaps on the iPad. I throw the extra pillows away and enjoy the spacious mattress. I touch myself without shame.
Then the front door clicks in the silence downstairs.
Was that imagined?
No, it was nothing. I roll over with noisy sighs. The selfish moment is spoiled. Stare at the ceiling’s soothing blackness and count down to sleep again: three, two…
A stair creaks.
The stair that always creaks its distinctive complaint under a footstep.
Eyes open now. I reach out and – ‘click’ – the lamp sheds its inattentive light on clock and hairbrush, the bedroom door becomes an oblong of shadow.
It’s stupid to call out because of course there’s no one there.
Courage. My bare feet touch the floor. Three steps to the door. My fingers find the plastic square, the ready switch, and light jumps into the landing and halfway into the staircase. My shadow zig-zags down the steps into the darkness.
I resist the urge to say, “Who’s there?” like a fool.
Because, of course, there’s no one there.
Darkness again, but now the bed is cold and unfamiliar, my breaths loud and laboured. Then slowing. Then softening.
The landing creaks outside my door.
These are the sounds of an old house. Go to sleep.
At the foot of the bed, there is a weighty presence. I am looked upon.
This is the moment: to sit up and shout out, to scream and send an intruder running, defeated by my terror, his footsteps banging down the stairs, pursued by my shouts. The screams that will bring the neighbours and the police.
But my throat is dry and the moment to scream passes.
Tears prick my eyelashes. The one scream left is gone. I listen to the shifting darkness.
The duvet slips from my shoulder.
I demand a scream but my mouth offers nothing. I press my fists to my eyes, draw my knees to my chest, and darkness falls upon me with a dreadful weight.
Suddenly, I’m awake. The friendly clock announces midnight in bars of glowing red.
Jesus, I miss Brian so bad.
Then the front door clicks in the silence downstairs.
Ghost stories are at their best when they are ambiguous. Is she dreaming or fantasing? The original draft was longer and featured more on the death (not just the absence) of Brian and her sexual loneliness. This is one of the stories that perhaps lost too much in editing it to this format?
One reader interpreted the story in another way: 'Brian' is a controlling lover and the narrator is emotionally dominated by him even when he is not present - or after his death.
There is a Draugr under Grima’s Howe.
I love writing in this Heroic Register, with flipped sentence construction and "Lo!" and all that stuff. I think I got it from Marvel Comics! Anyway, it's more bearable to read when it doesn't go on for too long.
The Draugr is an undead monster from Norse mythology, perhaps a ghost, perhaps some sort of vampire. If they're not haunting crypts, they are pestering sailors. A Draugr (the seagoing sort) is the mystical foe in 'Elias and the Draug' (1870) from Jonas Lie's 'The Visionary.'
The Daily Ghost
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