Monthly Archives

May 2016

Short story - Humour

The ghost’s story

Dear Mr and Mrs Willis,

If you have seen me around your house, you may have recognised me from a 2014 edition of Most Haunted. I was the one they captured on camera in the village library. Yes – that blurry image was me enjoying my five minutes of fame!

In case you’re wondering, it’s hard work being a ghost. Okay, so it’s partly my own fault for choosing to be a Class I HGV but that’s the most fun. HGV? Hair-raising Ghostly Vision, and the Class I is the full skeleton and chains standard.

A full skeleton is hard to come by these days with the increasing popularity of – nay, the need for – cremation. You can’t rattle a pile of pulverised bones. And chains aren’t ten a penny anymore. I don’t know why they are considered an essential feature of the best-dressed ghost’s outfit. Very few people die in chains these days, if they ever did…

The worst part is definitely the move to zero-hours contracts. They might suit people who like to stay in bed all night but some of us like to feel useful. My friend James is the opposite of me. He doesn’t need the money and rarely gets up before sunrise. Why he bothers going out then I don’t know – nobody can see him during the day.

Being a ghost is a lifestyle – should that be deathstyle? – choice. Not everyone wants to do it, and most people choose to stay dead. But I’ve always enjoyed interacting with people so I chose this way of life – sorry, of death. I couldn’t use my own bones as my body had been cremated, so I did a deal with another ghost. He wanted to get into the disembodied voice line of work, so his bones were surplus to requirements.

I used to think I’d go out even if I wasn’t on a contract. I loved seeing those terrified faces and hearing the screams. Then along came the nonsense of Monsters Inc. That made a big difference to what people will scream at. It takes a lot of effort to raise a proper blood-curdling scream these days, but it’s very rewarding when you do get one. My favourite trick is to levitate, seeming to appear out of the ground in front of someone. It’s an easy stunt to pull off, if you can find a low stone or fallen tree trunk to hide behind. Not being constrained by skin, tendons and muscles, I can collapse in to an apparently disarticulated heap only to rise with everything in the correct order.

I say ‘everything’, but not all my bones came from the disembodied-voice guy and I don’t actually have a full skeleton. Most people don’t even notice the missing bones, which are mainly the tiny ones in wrist and ankle joints. My right leg is longer than my left because my donor was an above-the-knee amputee and the only left leg I could get was from a much shorter woman. The same accident that took away his leg also destroyed his right hand, but I make good use of that by replacing the bones with scary-looking (but blunt) knife blades. Yes, I do know about Edward Scissorhands – where do you think I got the idea from?

Anyway, I’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me solve it. I’ve got to pass the Scaring Standard Test next week and my heart’s not in it. If I ever had a mojo, I think I’ve lost it. Would you be prepared to scream even if I don’t manage to scare you? You won’t see the examiner – they always discorporate before attending the test. I believe you normally go to bed quite early – could you stay up a bit later next Tuesday? Do you think you could make sure to still be awake at 22:00? That’s the appointment I’ve been given and I’m in enough trouble for cancelling the last test. After the last time, I can’t cancel again or I’ll lose my accreditation. I don’t want to wake you up and really scare you – you seem like such nice people, what with your cat and the pictures of your grandchildren on the piano. I’ve heard you play, by the way, Mr Willis, and I really like that Chopin Nocturne you play so well.

I promise not to be too disruptive and I won’t damage anything valuable. Maybe you could leave out some things you won’t mind being thrown about – soft toys, plastic tableware, paper from the recycling bin. That sort of thing looks messy but doesn’t do any damage if it hits you. I’ll try not to hit you, of course, but if the examiner looks stern I might have to chuck things around a bit harder than I’d like.

If it’s going to be impossible, perhaps you could let me know and I’ll find another venue for the test. Luckily the examiner doesn’t need to know the postcode until a few hours beforehand. I’ll say this for the Academy – they understand the problem of finding a suitable host for the test.

With warm hugs and gentle kisses – well, that’s my ideal ‘goodbye’, and I know that it actually comes across as a sharply pointed grip and a smack of bones.

Frederika Johnson, widow of Flt Lt Pete Johnson and full-time ghost

Short story - Horror

The doorway

The hood of my jacket is pulled forward close around my face as I lean back into the shadows of the doorway. I have found the perfect place: from here I can see into her window, but she can’t see me.

The rough red brick is pressing into my back as I settle in for the evening, the polished wooden door providing a solid pillow for my head. This space – my space – is set between two street lamps. A space completely in shadow, a space the light never reaches.

Occasionally, a figure will walk past. It gives me a thrill to know that I am so close to them, hidden in the shadows.

My hand moves reflexively into the pocket of my jacket to touch the shiny polished handle of the serrated blade hidden there. I feel comforted by the feel of the solid plastic and cold sharp steel.

I look up at her window across the street. She never closes her curtains, which is lucky for me. The glow from her table lamp provides a golden halo that surrounds her and lights her face. I can see her every expression from here. I know what she is thinking.

The thing I need to explain is that I never intended for things to go this far, but sometimes the universe has a different idea. It doesn’t matter how much we plan, how much we prepare. We can set events in motion expecting a particular outcome, but the universe will provide something unexpected, something outside of our control. Like the day I first met her.

You see, it was meant to be.

I should begin at the beginning, the day I first saw her, dropping her shopping basket in the local shop. One of those expensive delicatessen type places that take advantage of people who don’t plan their weekly shop.  They are open until late, which means that, at ten o’clock at night, they prey on tired workers making their way home.

Her shopping went everywhere and she blushed, coloured up bright red, falling to her knees to collect her intended purchases. She was clearly flustered and my heart went out to her. I understood her embarrassment, her need to wipe out the mistake as soon as possible before anyone saw how clumsy she had been.

I knelt down to help her and she looked up into my face and smiled. She just smiled and it was obvious what she was saying to me with that smile – she was telling me she wanted me to help her, telling me she wanted me. I could see it in her eyes.

That’s the way it was between us. There was no need for words, our connection was deeper than that – I knew what she was saying to me just by the way she looked at me. The little messages she sent me with the way she did things, like that first moment when she reached out her hand to pick up the same items in the same order as I did and our fingers brushed together. She was telling me she wanted me to touch her, wanted me to hold her hand.

I know that you won’t be able to understand, you can’t unless you have experienced it. The total symmetry of that connection, how deeply we understood each other.

That’s how I knew, when she left one of her shopping bags behind on the counter, that she wanted me to follow her home. It was a signal, you see, a message just for me.

I could have run after her and given her the bag, but that’s not what the message meant. She wanted me to know where she lived.

I followed her home, a few paces behind, waiting for a few seconds after she had turned the corner. Watching her reflection in the windows, I could see the direction she was taking while staying far enough behind to be hidden.

I saw her walk briskly up the steps to her front door. She stopped on the top step and put her shopping on the ground while she balanced her handbag on her raised knee to search for her keys.

Once she went inside I made my way down the opposite side of the street and that’s when I found this doorway, the perfect place to watch her.

I watched and waited until she appeared in a window, her window. Now I knew I could see into her home.

I watched as she dropped her keys onto a small side table and bent gracefully to pick up the shopping bags before turning to move into another room – the kitchen perhaps?

This was my chance.

I moved quickly across the road and up the stairs to her front door. I felt breathless and excited at being so close to her again. I placed the shopping bag on the front step and knocked on the door before turning away and running back across the street to the safety of the doorway.

I was rewarded by the front door opening a few moments later. She leant forward from the doorway, looking from left to right to see who was there before venturing out to stand on the top step.

That was when I knew she couldn’t see me although I had a perfect view of her.

At first she looked puzzled to see no-one there, but then her beautiful face changed as it displayed a small rueful smile. She bent gracefully once more to pick up the shopping bag she doubtlessly thought she had left on the doorstep in her haste to get inside.

I continued to watch as she turned and moved back into the house, closing the door behind her.

This doorway has become my favourite place and I return here night after night to watch her. The thrill of being so close to her warms my blood and makes my skin tingle.

We are so perfectly matched and one day, when the time is right, we will be together forever.

Until then I am content to watch and wait from the shadows of my doorway.

Short story - Crime

The runner: part one

He was standing quite still. He was some distance away, but it was definitely him, looking straight at her, and she knew then that he had been following her all the time, watching her.

He must have tracked her as she left the safe house that morning; he had been there all along, watching, waiting for her to make a move. She had changed her whole routine; no meet-ups, no contact, not even a morning run or grabbing a coffee, she had gone into total lockdown.  She was only a few days in, so she still hadn’t worked out a long-term plan, she was just lying low, regrouping. But still he had found her, he had been patiently biding his time, waiting.

She realised he must have been following her as soon as she broke cover. She shouldn’t have left; she had been warned never to leave unless she had her next move planned. Things just hadn’t worked out. But she had thought she was safe, that they didn’t know where to find her.

She had been careful as she left the house, not taking an obvious route, doubling back on herself. She had gone into shops, browsing books, looking at ready meals, reading magazines while all the time scanning the other customers, the street outside, anything out of place, anyone who might be following her. When she thought she was clear she relaxed a little, and walked further along the streets, through the suburbs and towards the city, taking no particular or predictable route, just walking and thinking. Then she saw the park, heard the sound of chatter, laughter, children playing. She impulsively turned around and walked towards the park gates. She saw the groups of people brought out by the sunny weather, some having picnics, some with young children, dogs, friends, families. So many normal, happy people, and she saw safety and maybe a way out. She walked along the pathway that divided the lush parkland and, with an almost imperceptible movement, scanned the faces as she walked past, noting the position of every group.

Then she saw him. Her stride halted for a split second then she walked on, faster, with renewed purpose. She realised then that they had really meant it. She would not be safe until she completed the job, maybe they would never let her go. He had meant for her to see him.

She felt again in her jacket pocket – the syringe was still there, pre-loaded and ready. She held it tight, frightened it might discharge in her pocket, in her thigh, and then it would be over.

She walked through the park purposefully, looking for the exit, knowing he was following. She left through the main gates and crossed the busy road that ran alongside the park, dodging through the slow-moving traffic. She turned right at the junction and down the main avenue, walking amongst the rich tourists and slow shoppers, blending in, unobserved, except by him, until she arrived at the hotel entrance. She had been told that the target would be there, staying all week, and that he would be expecting a visitor.  She reached inside her jacket for the baseball cap and pulled it tightly on her head, then walked through the main entrance and across the lobby with her head tilted down and her hands in her pockets.  She glanced at the reception desk to see if she had been noticed, but they were too busy checking-in a large group of Japanese tourists. She deftly moved around the large crowd and their luggage, heading for the stairs rather than the lift and hoping her presence would appear on as few security cameras as possible.

Once in the stairwell she pulled on gloves and took the stairs two at a time until she arrived at the third floor. She paused.  She was sure she had heard someone in the stairwell below and knew he was still following her.  Moving silently along the corridor she got to room 307 and knocked.

‘Just a minute.’ The man’s voice was cautious. ‘Who is it?’

‘It’s a special delivery, the gift you ordered from Mason,’ she replied calmly, glancing around to check that no one was in the corridor. She felt a sudden surge of adrenaline as she heard the bolt and chain slide back and the heavy hotel door swung open. He looked at her, his hair still damp from the shower, his hotel bathrobe hanging loosely open at his chest. He was older than he had appeared in his photos, unfit, his lifestyle had finally caught up with him. He looked at her quizzically for a second, as if he might recognise her from somewhere. She moved fast, shoving him back into the room with a force that knocked him off balance and kicked the door closed behind her.

He swung a fist to her face but missed; she had anticipated it and stepped deftly to the side. Then in one swift movement she turned and plunged the syringe hard into his chest with practised force, knowing as his eyes widened in shock that she had hit his heart first time. He tried to grab her but she stepped back, just out of reach, and watched him as he gasped in pain, his arms clutched across his chest as he dropped heavily to the floor, his body jerking and fitting, his face contorted in pain. She stood over him for a few seconds longer, just to be sure it was done, before pulling out the syringe and putting it back in her coat pocket.

She turned, opened the door and stepped into the corridor, checking it was clear of any guests or staff before closing it softly behind her. She walked swiftly towards the lift area, opened the door that led to the stairs and ran down them, quickly and silently, exiting into the lobby and walking calmly across the plush carpets and through the milling guests, scanning all the time.

He was sitting in one of the armchairs, reading a paper. He looked up at her and she gave an almost imperceptible nod as she walked through the door. The busy street was filled with shoppers and tourists and she disappeared into the crowd. As she peeled off the gloves and stuffed them into her pocket, her pace quickened. She knew he would be following her. She walked past the first few shops, looking far ahead for the right one, then suddenly turned and disappeared into the entrance of a large department store.  Without stopping, she grabbed a smart dark blue jacket and put it on before taking a summer scarf from another display and wrapping it over her hair. She dropped to her knees, as if to tie a shoelace, and crouched, silently watching the entrance. Then he walked in.

She stayed low as she saw him walk briskly past, feeling his intensity, his focus. Then she got up and walked quickly back to the entrance, flinging the jacket and scarf onto a rail before she left. She started walking faster, weaving among the crowds of shoppers and tourists. She passed a group of well-dressed ladies, talking loudly and animatedly, their expensive jewellery glinting in the sunlight. She bumped into the group and caused one of them to stumble, then smiled her apologies and walked swiftly on. She slipped the expensive Hermes purse into her jacket before going into the next pub she saw and walking into the toilet.  She locked herself in a cubicle, hid the syringe in the toilet cistern and checked the purse. Some high-end credit cards but no chance to use them. There was a wad of notes, enough cash to get her through the next few days.

She left the pub and walked towards the main square, filled with outdoor cafes and tables. At the far end a tour bus was parked up in a side street, waiting for the final members of its cargo of tourists to return. The engine was running, but the driver was pacing around a few feet in front of the bus, checking his watch and puffing furiously on a cigarette.

She smiled confidently at him and jumped on to the coach, taking an empty seat. The last few stragglers arrived apologetically with sheepish smiles, dragging full shopping bags.  The driver stubbed out his cigarette on the cobbles and climbed aboard. The brakes hissed, the bus roared into life and started to pull away.  She slowly let out a breath and sank deep in her seat.  She wasn’t sure if she had lost them, but at least she had bought herself some time to come up with a plan. Her heart sank with the knowledge that she would never be free of them now.

Then the realisation dawned on her; there was only one way out.

Short story - Suspense

The ravine

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me. I repeated the thought like a mantra as I crouched in the middle of the gorse bush, my arms wrapped round my knees and my head bent to avoid the prickly branches.

Caitlin would be all right, I told myself. She knew how to take care of herself. Since we’d first met I’d been able to tell that she had an understanding of the world that was far beyond my own. I clutched my knees tighter and tried to numb my screaming thoughts by thinking back through the summer and how we’d met.

I’d first seen Caitlin on the lip of the ravine. My mother had sanctioned a rare route through the ravine, from the garage where our car was being repaired, but had lagged at the entrance to chat to an acquaintance. I’d trudged slowly ahead, savouring the shade after the blazing heat of the garage forecourt. As I walked, I had been tearing leaves from the bushes I passed and dropping them behind me surreptitiously. This was my favourite game, used to pass the time in school lunch-breaks as I waited for the bell to welcome me back inside. I would create a leaf trail across the playground; then, from my lessons, I would gaze out of the window and try to see where I had been.

Reaching the steps that marked the end of the ravine and the climb to my own neighbourhood, I had snapped off a final twig and sat down heavily on the bottom step to wait for my mother to catch up. She became nervous if I moved too far ahead. As I’d shredded the twig to a small, dry pile at my feet, I had heard a sound from above and glanced up. An elongated figure had been standing at the top of the steps, haloed by the sun. I had lowered my dazzled eyes and heard light footsteps descend.

“Why were you pulling all those leaves off the bushes?” had been the quiet question.

I had flushed as I’d realised my secret game had been noticed. My eyes had focused on a thin girl, about my age. She was dressed in denim shorts and a boy’s T-shirt and despite the heat, she’d looked cool. I had become conscious of the sweat pimpling beneath my thighs and the tight elastic pull of my smocked dress across my chest. I’d looked back down the pathway, but my mother was not yet in sight.

Dropping the shredded twig, I had looked away from the censure in the calm blue gaze and focused on the bush I’d violated. Finally I had answered in a mumble, “I was . . . playing Gretel.”

I remembered feeling a shift as she had registered what I’d said. She had smiled slightly. “They’re breadcrumbs? I thought it was Hansel who dropped them. Gretel didn’t do anything till she pushed the witch into the oven. You need to be Hansel.”

There was a pause, then she had continued, “I could be Gretel, if you like.”

It had been at least ten minutes before my mother puffed up to find us deep in acting out the babes in the wood beside the bottom of the steps, and by then the friendship had been set.

From that day, Caitlin had become my daily routine. I would push back from the luncheon table, wiping my milk moustache, and pack my backpack with a selection of props. With it bumping awkwardly from the handlebars, I’d ride my Chopper ten minutes to the ravine.

I never told my mother where I was going. She hadn’t noticed that I’d changed the route I took on leaving the house; she still thought I went daily to our local, manicured park, where I’d spent the previous summer watching the cricketers and the other children’s games. Although she’d been polite when they met, I knew she wouldn’t really approve of Caitlin: I’d never met anyone from that side of town.

We would hardly see a soul on those summer afternoons. The ravine was too out of the way of the town centre to attract any shade-seekers other than the occasional garage mechanic on a cigarette break. Even then, its coolness was only an advantage in the mornings; by afternoons, its depth turned the air stifling and the swampy creek at the bottom gave off unpleasant smells.

The ravine was an anomaly. The deep and narrow fissure created a rough divide between the sprawling, tree-lined avenues where I lived and the industrial and council estates past the town centre. I’d seen photos of splendid gorges in other parts of England and understood that our ravine was related to these, but it lacked their grandeur. It was as if it had never quite grown up.

Too big to ignore and too small to exploit, the ravine was an inconvenience the city could do without. The council had grudgingly laid a brick pathway through it, and wide steps that climbed to approach my neighbourhood. Then after that, it had been left largely alone.

At night, the ravine was more popular. It was known as a haunt for teenage parties and Caitlin and I sometimes came across thrilling and inexplicable relics as we explored: circles of charred wood, crumpled beer cans and peculiar objects like dull, squashed balloons.

This had been our kingdom all summer.

It was the hottest summer on record. We explored the secret places of the ravine, built forts and made each other imaginary meals of leaves and bark. The best part was finding virgin corners that we claimed as our own. My favourite was the gorse bush; from the outside it looked an impenetrable mass but we’d found our wriggly way in to a hollow centre where we would curl, invisible, to plan our next adventure.

This was our last afternoon before school would begin again. We hadn’t talked about it but I knew that I wouldn’t see Caitlin again until the holidays, if then. The bus to my new private school left early and returned late, and my mother would be ferrying me to a crammed schedule of activities and classes each weekend.

The two of us were sitting cross-legged on the pathway, playing jacks, when we heard a voice. We hadn’t heard him approach, and having anyone there was alarming: we’d come to think of the ravine as our private space, so rarely did anyone venture through. He was the age of a dad, but he wasn’t in a suit. His thin black T-shirt, grey trousers and sandals seemed an odd combination in the stifling heat. He spoke in a reedy voice.

“Girls, can you help me? My puppy’s run off. Do you think you could help me find him? He can’t have gone far.”

I had jumped to my feet, full of eager Brownie promises, and began peering hopefully into the bushes straight away. Caitlin slowly swept up the jacks and ball and rose, shoving them into her pocket.

“I didn’t hear a dog,” she said.

“No, he’s really quiet. I’m worried he might have gone to the creek and hurt himself. If we all split up I’m sure we can find him,” continued the man. “Of course, if you don’t want to help . . . ” he trailed off, turning away.

“Of course we want to help!” I said firmly. “Caitlin, you take the left side of the pathway and I’ll take the right. We’ll find him, don’t worry!”

Without waiting for an answer I plunged off the pathway and into the bushes, busily planning a systematic zigzag along the whole side of the ravine until I would get down to the entrance again.

I pushed my way through the bushes. It was very quiet. I stopped from time to time and called, “Puppy! Here, puppy!” I hadn’t thought to ask its name. But no noise came back to me, not even an answering call from the others.

Suddenly my foot caught on a trailing vine and I fell sharply, flat on my front, one hand plunging into a muddy clump of grass. I had reached the creek. Winded, I lay for a moment then began to push myself up. As I lifted my head, I saw the man’s sandals close by. He’d approached without noise again. He extended a hand to help me to my feet.

Once upright, I moved to pull my hand from his but his grip tightened. He raised his other hand to grasp my upper arm so we stood like awkward dancers in a stiff half-embrace.

Confused, I stammered, “I haven’t seen the puppy yet.”

His face was twisted into a strange smile and he pulled me closer. “Are you really looking?” he asked softly. “Are you really looking hard?”

On his last word, his firm grip pulled me closer into him until my body was pressed against his. I pulled my head back to try to see his face and in his eyes there was something I didn’t understand. His head bent closer down towards mine and I twisted desperately, trying to pull away.

In that moment Caitlin exploded from the undergrowth like a startled pheasant, a harsh scream erupting from her throat, her hands clawed and aimed towards his eyes. Her whole body weight thrust against us and knocked us off-balance, loosening his grip.

“Run!” screamed Caitlin.

I wrested myself free and stumbled away blindly, panicking. I couldn’t see where I was running and the undergrowth that had been so familiar all summer suddenly seemed strange, and frightening; like Snow White lost in her forest, each tree seemed to leer at me and each trailing vine to ensnare.

As I fought my way through, my panting breath drowning any other sound, my blurred eyes focused on a familiar shape. Trembling, my hands found the weakened place in the gorse bush and I thrust myself inside, heedless of the scratches. I curled up to a ball, trying not to make any move that would expose me.

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me.