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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.

Christmas 2016, Ghost stories..., Short story - Horror

THE GARDEN GATE

If only I had been able to sleep that night none of this would have happened. You see when I couldn’t sleep I would gaze out the window and that’s when I spotted that the garden gate was open. It was swinging to and fro in the dark misty night, and it seemed to be beckoning me in.

I look at my sister Jenny, fast asleep in the little bed next to mine. “Jenny, Jenny,” I whisper. “Wake up!” But she will not stir; she just groans slightly in her sleep and snuggles further down into her warm bed.

I run back to the window. The gate is creaking in the still dark night – but wait, what is that, a light at the far end of the garden? I just have to find out what it is; I just can’t rest.

Feeling less than brave I creep slowly down the stairs, my nightdress billowing around me, my slippered feet making no noise on the parquet floor. The house is completely dark. What would my parents say if they saw me going out at the dead of night to the garden, dressed only in my nightwear?

I slowly lift the latch on the heavy front door and it creaks open. I wait a few moments, just to make sure that I haven’t woken anyone else, and then I am outside. Thank goodness no-one heard me.

Once outside my feet just seem to fly over the cobbled path towards the light. It is blinding in its intensity and draws me in, draws me on.

I reach the open gate, still swinging gently on its hinges. It seems to be saying ‘Enter, come right in.’ I walk nearer and nearer to the light and, as I approach it, I see that the glow is surrounded by an enormous rainbow bubble, just like the ones Jenny and I used to blow from our little pots of bubble liquid that Mother bought for us, but we had certainly never blown one so big or so beautiful.

Suddenly I stumble but feel a hand guiding me up. “Careful, my child.” A woman is standing there, the hood of her long black cape covering her face. “Careful,” she repeats. “You nearly fell and we can’t have you falling, can we now?” The woman is holding my hand and I feel strange, uncomfortable. I want to go back to my nice warm bed. Who is this woman, and what is she doing in my garden late at night? Deciding I must tell my parents, I turn to go but she will not release me.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Back. Back to the house,” I reply.

“Not so fast. We’ve only just met, and we have so much to talk about,” she says. She will not release my hand. “Come sit a while.”

I am scared. I don’t want to sit. I want to go back now. This was such a bad idea. But the light is blinding me now and I can’t see the woman’s face; it is completely hidden by her hood. Maybe if I could see her face I wouldn’t be so scared. “What do you want to talk about?” I ask her.

“Oh you know, this and that.” I try to calm myself, but I am shaking like a leaf. There is nothing I can do to calm my nerves. “Now, Emily,” she starts.

“Oh! How do you know my name?” I ask in surprise.

“Oh, there’s a lot I know about you,” she replies. “For instance, I know that you have not been a very nice girl lately. I know that you stole your sister Jenny’s ballet shoes because you had lost your own. I also know that you have been telling lies about your best friend Miranda, and got her into a lot of trouble. That’s just a few of the things I know. Would you like me to tell you the rest?”

I sink down onto the cold grass. “No, no thank you,” I reply, my head in my hands. I feel my heart racing. How could she know so much about me? I stutter an apology. “I never meant to hurt anyone, or do them harm. It’s just that I had a really important ballet exam, and I couldn’t find my shoes anywhere. Jenny is no good at ballet so it wouldn’t be so important to her, and it meant everything to me.”

“That was very unfair of you,” says the woman. “Jenny wanted to do well in her ballet exam as well. You see that light in the distance, the one in the middle of the big coloured bubble? I want you to walk towards it. You must enter the bubble and be cleansed of all your evil ways.”

I start to cry. I don’t want to walk into the bubble. Why had I come here?

“Now my child, there is no need for that. Just keep on walking. Come on, I’ll lead you there.” She grips my arm once again, pulling me towards the light, and all the while I am sobbing quietly.

I find myself in the middle of the bubble, and there is Jenny. I call to her, “Jenny, Jenny,” but she doesn’t seem to hear me. She is looking for something, and I hear her say, “My shoes, my lovely ballet shoes, where can they be?”

She starts to cry and I run towards her, but the light is hot, beating me back. “Now I can’t enter the competition,” she says. “All that practising, all for nothing . . . ” and she sobs as though her little heart would break, and I feel mine break with her.

Suddenly, with a loud pop, Jenny is gone and, with a whooshing noise, there in the middle of the light stands Miranda. She is talking to someone; I think it is our teacher but I can’t be sure because the light is so much brighter now and I can’t see her face properly. I call out to Miranda, but she doesn’t hear me.

Tears are running down her cheeks as she sobs, “I promise you, I didn’t steal Tom’s pocket money. I wouldn’t do that, Miss.” But the teacher says she doesn’t believe her, and that she will probably be expelled from school. Miranda falls to the floor and I want to run to her, tell her that I didn’t mean to get her into trouble. It was just that I really wanted those sherbet lemons on the top shelf of Mrs Walker’s sweet shop, and Tom’s money just happened to be in his desk and it was my only way of getting those lovely sweets. I know I shouldn’t have blamed Miranda for stealing the money when I had done it myself, but I didn’t think Tom would notice the money was missing. After all he is so spoilt and seems to have loads of money all the time, and I never have any.

Suddenly there is another loud pop, the light goes out and the bubble bursts, throwing me back onto the grass. I see the woman standing there again.

“See? See what you do by your lies and untruths? So much unhappiness all caused by you,” she says.

I am just trying to work out how to defend myself when, from the distance, an even larger rainbow bubble starts hurtling towards me. It stops beside the woman and she steps inside it. In an instant, she is gone and I am alone in the garden.

I run back to the house, my slippered feet carrying me faster than I have ever run before. I hear the garden gate close behind me. I am nearly home, nearly at the house, safe, warm. AND I have learnt my lesson.

Christmas 2016, Ghost stories..., Short story - Horror

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Reward
£100 Guineas for information leading to the whereabouts of Lady Sophia Foster
Fears grow for missing girl as parents offer a substantial reward for any information that leads to news of her whereabouts.

December 1858
I stopped at the doorway to the Grand Ballroom and peered inside. It looked so beautiful with the sparkling chandeliers bathing the room with sharp slivers of light that bounced off the ebony dance floor. The women were all dressed in their finest silks, which at this Christmas-time meant deep jewel tones of garnet, green and gold. The men looked dark and mysterious, dressed in their evening suits of black and dark blue.

I looked down at my new silk dress, delivered only this afternoon. It was a bright blood-red, crimson silk with a tight-laced bodice that accentuated my curves. The neckline was much lower than I was used to wearing, but it made my neck seem long and swanlike. Somehow I appeared taller. I had piled my long hair up and fastened it with a jewelled comb.

I certainly felt I looked my best, but I just wished I knew who had invited me.

The dress had arrived this afternoon with a note inviting me to attend the ball, along with an apology for sending the gown. The writer had seen it in a shop window and had been inspired to send it to me. The note had been signed X.

My mother would definitely not approve. Indeed she would be positively shocked that I had accepted such a personal gift from someone I had not even met and decidedly angry that I had accepted an invitation from them. I could hear her voice in my head: ‘Young Ladies of Good Breeding would never deign to behave in such a way. What would people say?’

But I was tired of the restrictions that society placed on me. I wanted to have some fun, and what harm could I come to in a Grand Ballroom with fellow members of my class? Other girls my age were earning their own living, working as governesses, ladies’ companions or in some of the new business offices around town. What harm would it do for me to have a little fun? So, with the help of my maid, Mary, I had got dressed, secretly, after Mother retired for night with a convenient headache. I climbed down the backstairs to the servants’ entrance where I hailed a cab in the street, another thing a Young Lady of Good Breeding would never do.

And here I was, intrigued about who had invited me and excited to be here alone, even more so because it was a masked ball. My eyes were hidden behind a red and gold lace mask, as was the current fashion for women, whilst the men wore larger disguises of full-face masks.

“Ahem.” I heard a discreet cough behind me and turned to see a tall man leaning down towards me. “May I?” he asked, in a deep rich voice that made me think of chocolate and silk, as he offered me his arm.

I stared up into his face: it was covered with a white porcelain mask that obscured almost all his features. “The dress looks well on you. I am glad you allowed me the liberty of sending it to you,” he went on.

I continued to stare at him, lost for a moment in trying to recognise him. His voice wasn’t familiar and he was considerably taller and broader than any of the men I was acquainted with. I stood as tall as I could, almost on tiptoe, trying to look into his seemingly bottomless blue eyes. “Th-th-thank you,” I stuttered. “I am very pleased to be here.” I sounded ridiculous and childlike – what would he think?

I looked down and realised I had taken his arm. We had moved through the entrance to the Grand Ballroom and now stood at the edge of the busy dance floor. He leant down once more and whispered in my ear, “Shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was being swept away in his strong arms. Around and around we whirled, and I felt like I was flying as the waltz went on and on. I was pressed tightly against his solid chest and, several times, I felt my feet leave the floor as we moved together as one. Round and round, side to side, on and on until I was quite breathless and the room had taken on a dream-like quality.

The surrounding dancers seemed to make a path for us, inclining their heads in deference as we wove between them. Some of the nearest couples seemed to be guiding us along an unseen path – a brush against us here led to a gap being created there, as we were led along the dance floor from one end to the other.

Suddenly we came to a stop, and I felt a wave of dizziness rise over me as the other dancers seemed to recede into the background. He leant forward and, once again, I heard his deep rich voice in my ear. “Some air?”

I nodded and allowed myself to be led out to a balcony where the cool night air seemed to surround us. I felt his arms encircle me from behind as I grabbed the wrought iron of the balcony to steady myself. For a while we stood in companionable silence and I tried desperately to calm my reeling senses, to clear the fog from my head.

His hands were moving in slow, steady circles at my waist, much as you might try to calm a skittish horse. I half-turned towards him in sudden shock as I felt the hard shape of his mask and the soft lips beneath place a kiss on my exposed neck.

“Sir, I . . . ” was as far as I got before his lips met mine, feeling strange and unnatural half-hidden behind his porcelain mask. I pulled away from him and stepped to one side but, before I could say anything, he grabbed my hand with his white-gloved fingers.

“Please forgive me, I seem to have forgotten myself. I can only apologise and ask you to excuse my familiarity. All I can say is that I was carried away by your beauty.” He gazed at me and I realised that his eyes were much darker than the deep blue I had thought they were, much darker, almost black. I shuddered and took another step away from him, so that my arms became outstretched as he continued to hold my hand.

I felt the urge to run, to get away from him, but the longer I looked into his eyes the further that feeling retreated. I found myself taking a step – and then another step – closer to him until I was once more inside the circle of his embrace. Again I heard his voice in my ear, making the moment seem even more intimate. “Now you have forgiven me, I have another gift for you.” He reached in to a pocket with one of his white-gloved hands and pulled out a fine gold chain from which was suspended a single garnet, like a teardrop of blood.

“I can’t possibly accept such a gift, especially from someone I don’t know,” I gasped in surprise.

“At least try it on for me, so that I may see how it looks on you,” he replied. Before I knew it, I felt his strong hands at the back of my neck and the gold chain slithered into place, the teardrop hanging heavily on my chest.

I turned towards him once more. “Sir, I really must insist that I take my leave. I have had a lovely evening, but I think it is time for me to go.”

“Really?’ he asked.

I took a step sideways, intending to return to the ballroom, and felt the weight of the heavy teardrop lift as the fine chain began to tighten around my throat. As I reached behind my neck, my fingers met his smooth gloved hands and I realised he was pulling on the chain. I gasped and tried to grab it but I couldn’t get enough purchase to loosen its dangerous grip, which was now restricting my breathing far more than my corset ever could.

If I couldn’t loosen the chain I might faint or, worse, be unable to breathe at all. Terror and panic began to claw at my stomach as I realised how precarious my position was. No-one but my maid knew I had left the house tonight, and she didn’t know exactly where I was going. The other dancers seemed so far away and I was in no fit state to scream for help.

Slowly and carefully my air supply was being cut off and I had no option but to hope he was just trying to frighten me. In one last effort to pull away from him I gripped the wrought iron of the balcony and stepped as far as I could to one side. “I don’t think so. You will be joining us,” was all he said, and I realised with mounting horror that his voice was not in my ear at all. It was inside my mind and I must have imagined it all along.

I was finding it really hard to breathe now, my vision blurring and a curtain of blackness slowing drifting into my view. I changed tack and pushed my desperate hands towards his face, clawing and scrabbling at his mask. If I was going to give in, I wanted to see the face of the man who had done this to me.

In my panic my fingers scraped against the white porcelain of his mask, pulling and scratching at it, until they caught an edge and managed to knock it sideways. It was then that terror really took hold of me as I looked into the empty face of the man who had danced with me – there was nothing there at all, just empty blackness. I opened my mouth to try to scream once more, but it was too late. Darkness closed over me, and I knew no more.

December 1859
I stopped at the doorway to the Grand Ballroom and peered inside. It looked so beautiful with the sparkling chandeliers bathing the room with sharp slivers of light that bounced off the ebony dance floor. The women were all dressed in their finest silks, which at this Christmas-time meant deep jewel tones of garnet, green and gold. The men looked dark and mysterious, dressed in their evening suits of black and dark blue.

I looked down at my new silk dress, delivered only this afternoon. It was a bright blood-red, crimson silk with a tight-laced bodice that accentuated my curves. The neckline was much lower than I was used to wearing, but it made my neck seem long and swanlike. Somehow I appeared taller. I had piled my long hair up and fastened it with a jewelled comb.

I certainly felt I looked my best and I was just waiting for the man who had invited me.

“Ahem.” I heard a discreet cough behind me and turned to see a tall man leaning down towards me. “May I?” he asked, in a deep rich voice that made me think of chocolate and silk, as he offered me his arm.

I stared up into his face: it was covered with a white porcelain mask that obscured almost all his features. “The dress looks well on you. I am glad you allowed me the liberty of sending it to you,” he went on. I looked in to his deep blue eyes, and smiled.

I looked down and realised I had taken his arm. We had moved through the entrance to the Grand Ballroom and now stood at the edge of the busy dance floor. He leant down once more and whispered in my ear, “Shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was being swept away in his strong arms to take our place amongst the other dancers for another year . . .