I’ve been known to write the odd story. In an attempt to make it look like I have something to post, I shall occasionally put up an old one here. They’re mostly ghostly tales and this one is no exception.
Where to start?
Hello! I am your unreliable narrator. I am sitting in the back of a Land Rover and I’ve just bumped my head rather hard on the ceiling. That sound you can hear is the ringing in my ears from the impact.
I say ‘my head’ and ‘I’ as if I really exist; but the words you read are not real. This is a transcription of some anal inner monologue that the star of our show might enjoy, but for all intents and purposes, I am he and he is me. His head is mine…and that damn well hurt!
This is the dumbest dare of all dumb dares and the nascent concussion I just suffered has already made it not worth my time. I have been challenged by Dave – the driver of said four-by-four – to spend the night in a local haunt for all things nocturnal and bumpy. I came out to the country to see him for the first time in seven years, but it turns out the years have been cruel to his sanity. Five pints down and we had skipped over politics to religion and thence to ‘the paranormal’. Dave is convinced that spooks and spectres are as real as I am and will not be convinced otherwise. The discussion grew into an argument and intemperance and before long the challenge was laid.
He’s not coming with me, of course. I quote “not fucking likely, mate!”
He did deign to drive me to the place known as Walker’s Folly. It’s a small, incongruous stone tower and a few associated, crumbling walls in the preferred style of many a bored and wealthy Victorian gentleman; an attempt to reclaim the world of maidens and damsels and heroic daring-do that they seemed to want to believe in. Anyway, it’s about half a mile from the nearest road, which we left a minute ago. The field in-between is fallow and uneven, hence the bump that banged my head.
Soon enough Dave draws the Landy to a halt just slightly further from the folly than seems reasonable. With a jolt I realise anew that he really does believe – or has convinced himself to believe – not only that spooks are real, but that this place in particular is a hot-spot. For all that he’s annoyed me, he is still a friend and seeing the look in his eyes, I can’t bring myself to give him a hard time.
“Nice place,” I say. “Homey.”
Dave just flashes raised eyebrows at me and helps me to drag a tent and a hastily assembled bag of camping gear out of the back of the car. Wordlessly it is clear that he wishes to go no closer to the folly and I do not argue; it’s a fascinating and beautiful place which I will be glad to explore without someone making things up to spoil the fun.
“You’re sure?” is all Dave says and I answer that I damn well am. “Look at this place,” I say. “How cool?”
Again he just raises his eyebrows. I push him towards the driver’s door of the Land Rover and shut the rear gate. The engine rattles into life and Dave bounces away back towards the road. I fancy for a moment that I see a figure waving at me through the rear window of the car, but I realise a moment later that it is just my reflection. Damnit; I have no desire to spend the night as a slave to my imagination, jumping at everything I know isn’t real.
It looks like it’s going to be a stunning, clear night, so I leave the heavy tent by a convenient gate-post and carry just my rucksack up the remaining short hill towards the folly. It sits atop a small tor that interrupts the lay of several large fields. There is a low stone wall around the base of the hill and a sparse copse of birch and oak complete the fairytale look. At the crest of the little hill, in a rough clearing, the folly stands forty feet or more high. It seems small, but only by the scale of imaginary castles; each floor is big enough to accommodate the footprint of a generous modern house.
I am rather surprised to find no trace of officialdom; that is, no signs proclaiming the dangers of the ruin; no starkly padlocked gates barring ingress. A grand archway leads into the ground floor; partly blocked by the withered remains of one half of a set of oak doors. The other half is nowhere to be seen, leaving the place with the look of an uneven smile.
Inside, the ground is mostly bare, apart from piles of dead leaves that have stumbled inside and found a home in the wind-sheltered corners. There are small bones on the ground here and there; rabbit, I guess. As I drop my pack onto the ground with a badly-packed clank, an owl is startled from somewhere above me and whirs off into the gathering dark.
The owl is marked down on a mental note-pad as ‘ghost #1’ and I take a deep breath, find a place to sit and begin to soak up the peace. This place is stunning; clearly the copse is healthy and wildlife abundant. The nearby road is quiet enough that cars rarely pass and certainly not fast enough to make much noise. The sky over the fields to the north is growing orange with the light of some town, but above me is gathering velvet darkness.
While there is still a trace of natural light, I set up a lantern torch in the folly so that I can find my way about inside, but the night outside has become a diamond-gleaming joy. The moon and stars cast a silver light over the landscape and I find I can see quite well. I set out for an amble about the little hill; I spend perhaps half an hour watching a small group of deer grazing amongst sleeping cows in one of the adjoining fields. I try to climb one particularly forgiving tree and, although I fail to make the top, I am treated to a stunning velvet painting of the countryside. I hear snuffling and waste another few hours trying to get close to a badgers’ set to watch them, but their senses are far keener than mine and apart from that snuffling, I see nothing of them. All in all, I have a wonderful time, pretending that my townie upbringing has not hampered my woodsmanship, for all the evidence to the contrary.
I am startled and, I admit, even a little freaked out, when I see light moving through the copse. It’s a warm, orange light, unlike the harsh blue LEDs of my own torch. It bobs and sways as if carried by a walker. I know that I should swallow my childish fear and approach openly, but I cannot resist the urge to sneak up and get a view of the bearer before I admit to my presence. I manage to see little except the silhouette of a generously proportioned man and what could be rabbits swinging from his belt. There is also a jaunty whistle which instantly puts my mind at rest. This is no phantom. No self-respecting ghost would whistle Camp Town Races.
I am drawn up short, however, when the figure arrives at the broken smile of the folly entrance. Now I can make out a broad-brimmed hat and see that I was right about the rabbits. He also carries a shotgun, broken over his shoulder. I realise in a flash that he is almost certainly a poacher and unlikely to be happy at being discovered. I curse myself for leaving the lantern glowing in the folly, but it is too late now.
Feeling stupid and childish, but unable to overcome my fears, I hide in the shadow of a tree nearby and watch the figure pass into the folly. I can no longer see him, but the lights throw dancing, disfigured shadows through the door. I realise a moment later that the rhythmic thud I can hear is a set of feet ascending stairs. There was, I remember, the foot of a stone staircase on the ground floor, which ceased after about five feet and left a yawning chasm between themselves and the inaccessible next floor. The feet have now most definitely passed the top of those stone steps and yet still they proceed.
A shiver runs through me and I try to berate myself for the fantastical notion that I am listening to the folly’s ghost. Try as I might, however, the darkness and the strangeness of that broken smile of a building conspire to set my nerves on edge. Finally the noise from the folly stops and I watch for another hour or so, willing myself to investigate, but failing. Eventually sleep overtakes me in the embracing arms of the tree and the warm, clear night.
I remember nothing of my dreams, but that they are short and strange, shattered by the screech of another owl (or perhaps the same one as before). I start awake and feel somewhat refreshed and more sane for the snooze. The night is still dark, but the ridiculous fear I felt has abated. Inside the folly, my lantern still shines and I gather my wits to go back to the building. I find that my lantern now sits atop a piece of cheap lined paper which bears a message in biro. “I’m done for the night,” it reads. “Don’t feel you have to sleep down here. There’s a bed upstairs that you’re welcome to use. It’s comfier than it looks. Don’t mind the owls.”
The mention of upstairs reminds me of the footsteps I heard before and my previous trepidation returns as I half expect to find the stairs just as incomplete as I had previously thought. I am relieved, however, to discover that while the stone steps do indeed stop well short of the first floor, there is, in fact, a set of dark wooden steps set into the stone, which continue the flight to the floor above. It had been easy to overlook them on my previous cursory inspection of the folly. Relieved and laughing at myself, I pick up the lantern and stuff the paper in my pocket, then make my way up the stairs.
I am surprised to find the first floor rather well appointed; at least by the standards of derelict fortifications. A small camp-bed in one corner has long since collapsed, to be repaired with such blankets and planks as might be found. The result, when I test it, is remarkably comfortable, in a primal sort of way; as if it is the comfort that homo-sapiens evolved to take advantage of. Before this drags me back into slumber, I take a turn around the room. A battered wooden table lies along one wall. Were it a modern, plywood construction it would long since have crumbled, but the redoubtable strength of the oak from which it is made just looks all the more determined and solid for its age. A few old, half rusted biscuit and tobacco tins grace the surface, filled with an odd selection of wires, string, hooks and little pieces of metal redolent with the arcane knowledge of the trapper. Also on the table rests a creaky old radio. I play with the knobs and am delighted to note that it is a venerable enough piece that the innards actually light up with glowing valves. I fiddle with the worn dials, but I can get nothing but the fleeting ghosts of voices. Never mind; the whole place is so peaceful that it seems like sacrilege to play the radio.
Content and far more comfortable than I expected to be, I settle down on the bed and begin to hum tunes to myself, until the night gets the better of me and I drift off into happy sleep, delighted that I will be able to return to Dave in the morning and report, not only the lack of ghouls and ghosts, but the discovery of the poacher who might stand as a reasonable explanation for the wild stories of the haunted folly.
I wake with a start. I had expected to be woken up by the dawn chorus of birds and light, but it seems I have slept past them and into the morning. An unwelcome sound marches through the air again and I realise that this is what has finally woken me; a car horn sounding impatiently from nearby. I near leap out of the bed and look out of one of the small gothic windows that adorn every wall of the first floor. I can see Dave’s Land Rover at the foot of the hill and Dave’s face looking out through the driver’s side window towards the tower. I can only assume that Dave himself is close behind. I hazard to lean out of the window and wave expansively towards my friend. Presumably he doesn’t see me, as the horn sounds again and soon after he clambers out of the car and shouts “Oi! You ready to come home?”
I notice an air of worry in his tone and realise that, of course, he actually believes that I might have spent the night surrounded by ghosts and ghouls. I lean out a little further, wave both my arms wide and shout “Up here! This place is great! You should come and see!” This evidently startles one of the resident owls, which flutters out over my head with busy anger. Dave looks up to where I lean out and begins to trudge his way up the hill towards the folly.
I decide to wait for him on the first floor. I hear him approach outside tentatively and I call down “No ghosts Dave; you’re safe!” I am startled to hear a wordless cry from Dave downstairs. A note of real panic drives all thoughts of playing tricks on him from my mind and I rush to the head of the stairs to see what is the matter.
Below I see Dave kneeling by a crumpled heap which it takes me a moment to recognise as my own body, lying where it has met the ground after falling from the truncated top of the stairs which rise no more than five feet or so from the floor. The wooden steps by which I remember attaining the first floor are apparent only as the ancient rotting impressions that they have left in the wall.
I shout to Dave at the top of my voice and manage no greater reaction that for him to jump with shock and stare unseeingly at the spot from where I look down at him, but I can tell he does not see me. Dave begins scrabbling for his mobile phone, while behind me I hear the radio crackle into life and a creaky version of Camp Town Races begins to play. The crackle of the radio is joined by the hiss of frying food and I turn away from Dave’s white face to see the poacher sitting on the edge of the bed and tending a small fire. A rabbit hisses on a spit over the flames and a small pan beside it holds sausages that are just turning a perfect brown. I can’t think of a thing to say, even when the poacher dolls out a few sausages and a hunk of bread onto a plate and proffers them to me with a slow smile.