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Angela Haward

Christmas 2016, Ghost stories...

Rachel’s children

I started walking at the beginning of December last year: all that sitting behind a desk, staring at a screen, within reach of the biscuits . . . I realised that, short of moving the biscuits out of the building altogether, exercise was the answer. Early morning was best. I found it set me up for the day and, if I really pushed myself, the endorphins could last till lunchtime. Even my boss’s boss noticed the raised productivity in my section of the office.

I began by exploring the local footpaths but got bored with saying hello to the same dog walkers every day – as well as avoiding the evidence of their passing – so I diverted to the field behind the church. I was fascinated by the graveyard and all that it represented – people who had lived and loved, fought and died, leaving a shadow in the soil around the church. Jemima and I would go there on Sunday afternoons in the summer, reading the gravestones and amusing one another with ever more far-fetched stories of the lives and deaths represented there. Albert Archer was born in 1851 and lost at sea 1882 so the grave was really that of his wife Julia, who outlived him by 47 years. George Fitzwilliam’s grand edifice recorded his death in 1645 in a barely discernible description mentioning that he fell in defence of his King at Naseby.

The tomb of Rachel Warren stood near the altar wall at the far end of the churchyard. The tragedy of her tale was etched in the statue some benefactor had erected – a life-sized angel draped across the tomb in an attitude of utter despair. The legend on the tomb told of a fire in Waltham’s Wood which had taken the lives of all nine of Rachel’s children. Beneath was a quotation from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

An almost overgrown path skirted the graveyard, leading to a stile with a tree-shadowed lane beyond. In the twilight of the pre-dawn a wintry ground-mist obscured the grass, and bushes appeared to rise out of a translucent sea. I didn’t expect to see anyone on those walks. Dog walkers are creatures of habit and the well-worn alleys between the houses were lamp lit and, somehow, felt safer. But I treasured the silence, broken only by the uneasy grating of winter branches or the owl’s cry as he mourned the passing of the night.
February dawned and, as the not-so-new year stretched towards spring, I decided to extend the walk. I left home half-an-hour earlier so I could watch the light change from dark to twilight to golden dawn as the stars faded into their ritual obscurity. Deep in morning thoughts and revelling in the stillness, I was merely irritated the first time I saw the lady. She was at the edge of the trees across the lane from the stile and she wasn’t doing anything, just standing and staring towards the first glow in the east. Her face was set in a mask of anxiety, her brow was furrowed, her lips pursed, her eyes wide and black. I was taken aback. I had got used to the solitude that set me up for the crowded mayhem of the day ahead. I felt unreasonably affronted that someone had intruded on my special time and what I now regarded as my very own place. I was aware that I gave her a rather hostile glare as I stepped over the stile and turned right along the lane, but she didn’t appear to notice. When I glanced back, after walking ten yards or so, she was no longer there.

I didn’t see her again for four days but, when I did, it was raining. Refusing to be cowed by the vagaries of the February climate, I was wearing Jemima’s old cagoule. The rain was dripping off the hood, running in irritating rivulets down my face, but the woman wasn’t wearing a coat. Her shoulders were lightly covered by some sort of shawl and the hem of her dress trailed in the mud. This time, she wasn’t looking up. Instead, her eyes, still ridden with anxiety, were turned towards me and in them I read a sort of plea. Feeling embarrassed by my previous churlish behaviour, I nodded and muttered, “Morning.” She didn’t respond, but her hand rose slightly, almost in a gesture of supplication, as I turned along the lane.
The last time I saw her was the following week. It had snowed during the night and the ground was lightly dusted with flakes, enough for my steps to sully the virgin ground with a trail of footprints. She was standing in the middle of the lane, near the stile, as if she was waiting for me. I smiled this time and stopped in the act of climbing the familiar wooden barrier, opening my mouth to utter a more congenial greeting. Her dark eyes widened and I felt a constriction in my solar plexus at the desperation that emanated from her face. As I hesitated she moved back towards the trees and turned until, in the obscure light, her shape was indistinguishable from the vegetation. I felt profoundly disturbed as I continued to clamber over the stile, looking down the lane as I did so. What I saw, as the sun slid over the horizon, made me stop again: where she had stood the snow glistened, unmarked and pure. There were no footprints.

I turned back, almost falling in my haste to retrace my own steps. The lights in the village had never looked so welcoming and I would have given my eye teeth for a dog walker at that moment. I was running by the time I reached the graveyard again, heading straight for the east wall where the path bent to the left. I couldn’t avoid noticing the grave of Rachel’s children with its weeping angel. The hem of the angel’s dress trailed in the mud around the gravestone and, above her wings, her shoulders were covered by a shawl. Her eyes gazed toward the wood, her marble face rested on one outstretched arm and her free hand was raised in a gesture of supplication.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 2 – Niamh: New York, May 2015

Niamh had always found the junk shop off 32nd Street rather an irritation.  The detritus of someone else’s past spilled across the pavement and she frequently had to step into the gutter to avoid it on her way to and from Whittle’s Law.  She rarely glanced at the eclectic display, other than to ensure she didn’t trip up.  But today, she had to look.  The sidewalk was completely blocked by an ornate table and four chairs. Their over-stuffed seats had clearly supported one too many over-stuffed backsides in the course of a hard life.  Across the table top someone had carelessly flung a large painting – an image which halted Niamh in her tracks, one foot already in the street.

The frame of the picture was as rococo as the furniture upon which it lay, hinting that it hailed from the same source. But Niamh was transfixed by the painting itself.  Her eye was drawn to the two cottages at the heart of the piece.  They leaned into one another like an elderly couple and rested on the edge of a towpath, skirting the banks of an ancient stream.  The nearer cottage seemed to emerge from the hillside as if it had struggled out of the land itself in some preceding century and the tree-dotted turf led up to a ridge which marked the boundary of their land.  A neighbouring cottage looked on from some distance, and in the foreground, alongside a primitive fence, was a mound of earth, at odds, somehow, with the timelessness of the scene.  But casting a pall over the whole scene was the sky – a storm sky, black and threatening.  There was a suggestion of Lear’s heath, with the coming storm merely a metaphor for wild and dark events lurking under the apparent tranquillity.

Niamh noted all these details in a single glance but they were secondary to a revelation which took her aback. She recognised this place.  She knew it.  She couldn’t possibly have been there.  She was New York born and bred – but she had seen it.  Somewhere.  On a complete whim she went into the shop to ask the price.

‘House clearance,’ was the brief response. ‘Some old Irish lady.  No will, no relatives so…the state called us in to clear the place.  Unsigned work – if you can take it now, you can have it for $50.’

The deal was done. Niamh struggled back to her apartment, stopping frequently to rest the painting against a wall or lamp post, and now it was leaning against the Ikea shelving in her ultra-modern apartment – a complete anachronism against the white walls and clean lines of 21st century urban living.

Niamh stood back to study it again. Some old Irish lady…Ireland…she’d never been there…her mother had told her there was Irish blood in her father’s family but…how did she know this scene?  Niamh stood back further and narrowed her eyes – then opened them wide as she saw what had eluded her until that moment.  There was a face.  Someone indistinct was peering from the upper window of the nearest cottage.  The expression was too distant to be discernible but there was an air of entrapment, of menace, enhanced by the stillness of the scene and the brooding sky.  What was the artist trying to tell her?  The picture had come to her down the years, from his brush into her life and she would find out.  She was an investigator, for goodness sake.  And here were the bones of her own mystery.

Short stories on International Women's Day

The reunion

Lucy tore the invitation into small pieces and dropped it in the waste paper basket. She hesitated a moment, before grabbing the basket and marching out to the dustbin, where she emptied it with a violent shake and slammed the lid. She wouldn’t go. She could just picture the halted conversations as she walked in, the embarrassed smiles, the veiled condemnation.

And she could picture Andrew. He would be standing by the bar, of course, beer in hand – probably wearing that ancient leather jacket with the patched elbows. Would he have some grey in his hair now? Would he have grown that beard which was always allowed to emerge for a day or two before she complained? Would he look at her with that same nonchalant smile playing round the corners of his mouth – or would he stare into his beer as if he hadn’t even noticed her arrival?

She’d had the invitation pinned to her notice board for the last two weeks. Every morning, she had tried not to look at it as she made her cup of coffee. Every morning, she had pushed away the need to decide.

She knew it off by heart anyway. Class of ’96 – it’s been 20 years. Join us in The Queen’s Head, by Brighton Pavilion on Saturday 5th May at 12.30 for an afternoon of reunion and reminiscence. Bring your photos.

She wanted to go – she so wanted to go. But how could she? How could she look him in the eye again after what she had done? How could she look at any of them?

She’d been back in her home for three months now and she had heard nothing – not from her old friends. Not from Andrew. And how could she blame them? Of course, she had a lot of counselling before they released her. They told her the hardest thing would be seeing her old acquaintances. She still saw the psychotherapist every four weeks but they’d stopped talking about the past now and were trying to concentrate on the future.

As she did every morning, she wandered upstairs and turned the key in the first door on the right, opening it with great care. Picking up the pink rabbit from the cot and laying it to her cheek, she closed her eyes against the familiar wave of pain and guilt. They had never managed to excise that. Then, closing the door very softly behind her, as if trying not to waken any memories, she made an effort to plan her day so that she would be very busy at 12.30 and for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe she’d visit her Mum. There’d be plenty to do there.

The morning dragged though. Even the clamour of the vacuum cleaner followed by the vigorous cleaning of the bathroom didn’t drown out the tiny voice which whispered There’s still time…

She was just changing the sheets on her bed, swathed in an apron and sporting pink Marigolds, when the doorbell rang. She wondered if it was in her head, as no-one ever called since she got back. Then it rang again.

She almost didn’t go – it was probably just the man to read the gas meter or something. But it wasn’t. It was Andrew. Andrew wearing a new jacket, clean shaven – and entirely grey-haired. Her body emptied, leaving a great hollow in her middle. She reached out to steady herself on the wall as his hand came out to support her.

“Lucy.”

Words deserted her. She gestured to him to come in, but he stood awkwardly in the hall.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t visit you.”

He was apologising to her!

“I didn’t…” The words caught in her throat. “I just wish…” She couldn’t say it.

“I was so angry.” He spoke over her, gabbling as if he feared his courage would desert him. “It hurt – I can’t tell you. But I’ve had some help – you know… bereavement counselling – and I think I’ve finally begun to understand about what you had – the depression, after the birth. I know she cried all the time, and I know it was the colic – and I was never there. I was too wrapped up in the job and – well, I could escape from the crying, but you couldn’t. I left you on your own…” He stopped and swallowed.

Lucy covered her face. So many tears over the last five years but the well was bottomless. She felt Andrew’s hand on her shoulder. His touch burned into her skin like a branding. She didn’t move.

His voice had regained control as he went on, “I knew if I went to that reunion, I would spend the afternoon looking at the door in case you came through it. And you wouldn’t. So – well – I decided we should spend the time together instead, maybe – if you’d like to? Please?”

Lucy felt her whole body trembling as he led her unresisting into the kitchen and sat her down while he filled the kettle and laid out a couple of mugs. It felt so normal that he should do this, as if the last four horrendous years had been nothing but a hiccup in their joint destiny.

Finally, handing her a mug of tea, he spoke again, with more confidence than before.

“It wasn’t just your fault, Lucy. By my very absence, it was mine too. We both killed her – we both did.”

Lucy looked up at him at last, and recognised a lingering memory of hope.

Short story - Horror

Locked in

I am trying to open my eyes.  My eyeballs roll up to my hairline under the lids with the effort of it.  Nothing.  OK, stop that for now.  Try something else.  My finger.  Let’s move that – just a little bit.  I feel a bead of sweat form on my forehead as I concentrate my whole being on the index finger of my left hand.  It remains motionless, resting on the rough cotton of the sheet.  The cotton – I can feel that – so coolly lifeless.

I can hear a door opening and the rustle of clothing.  Almost silent feet pad in my direction.   I can feel a scream forming in my throat – but the silence is tangible.  The footsteps stop and my brain flashes as a voice fills the room.

“Can you hear me, Elizabeth?”

“Yes, I can hear you,” my brain replies.  “I can hear you, I CAN HEAR YOU…HELP ME!”

With a supreme effort, born of desperation, I feel my eyelids twitch.  I try again and they twitch once more.  My right eye opens just a slit and the light is blinding.  It is enough.

“Oh, there you are.  I’m Susan, the duty staff nurse.  I’m just waiting for my colleague and we’re going to turn you.”

Turn me?  What are you talking about?  Duty nurse?  I must be in hospital…and this is real.  I feel a tsunami of panic begin to swell in my head.  I try again to move my tongue and hear a high pitched squeal – like a dying animal.  It comes again and I realise the sound is my own voice.  The tsunami breaks.

“Hello, Elizabeth.”  This is a new voice – male, resonant, too cheerful.  “OK Susan, before we turn her, did you explain?”

“No – do you think I should?”

“Of course.  It’s early days, but she’s locked in – for now anyway.  She probably has no memory of what happened on Thursday.”

Thursday?  So what day is it now, then?  Locked in?  LOCKED IN?  The tsunami has formed a whirlpool, the words swirling down in a spiral of fear.

Susan’s voice assumes a measured calm.

“Elizabeth, you’ve had a stroke.  You’re in hospital now and you’ve been here for a couple of days.  Your son will be back very soon – he’s barely left you…”

The male voice interrupted, “The doctor thinks you may be locked in, which means you are unable to move or communicate at the moment…”

“Too much information!” hisses Susan in an aggressive whisper.

“She deserves to know the whole position.”  The man is obviously affronted at the criticism.

“She’s not deaf!  And it’s too soon.”  The forced calmness returns to her voice.  “Locked in syndrome is often temporary, Elizabeth.  We’ll do everything we can to stimulate movement.”

I’m falling into the whirlpool.  I am swirling round and round and the eyelid closes as another silent scream rises to my throat.  The sound of roaring water fills my ears and etched against my eyeballs, I see a pageant of pictures – the field at the back of our house, the long grass rippling as I watch my son running towards me; laughing faces round the barbecue in the garden; Christmas paper strewn all over the carpet as the cat tries to climb the Christmas tree and the baubles fall to the floor; my husband, young again, and well.  Then nothing.  I recognise that I have seen my past, and the future I had imagined has vanished without trace – snatched by my body’s own treachery.  I am left only with this fading consciousness…sliding…dissolving…gone.