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Every Society Breeds The Ghosts It Deserves….

Lethmachen is the most haunted town in England.

 We should know. We have lived here all our lives.

 Yet you have probably never heard of Lethmachen. The town is never mentioned in any book or on any website dedicated to the paranormal.

 This does not mean that Lethmachen is not haunted, it means that people here are afraid to talk.

  A conspiracy of silence? We say ‘Always watch the quiet ones!’

 The purpose of this site is to document the supernatural phenomena of Lethmachen, both contemporary and historical.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Teachers claim to be besieged by absent children

climbing

There has been extensive debate concerning the expansion of CCTV surveillance in our small town, both on this site and across local media. One particularly contentious element of this project has been the placing of cameras in and around Lethmachen Primary School. Some parents have voiced concerns that their children’s development will be hindered by this round the clock surveillance, bearing in mind that this generation already has to suffer the constant scrutiny of social media. Yet the opposition claims that this unflinching vigilance is essential to protect the pupils – a deterrent to those who may seek to sexually exploit or otherwise endanger the children. Regardless of the pros and cons of the argument, the installation of CCTV in the school grounds has certainly had a dramatic impact on the following story.

Shortly before 10pm on Friday 18th March, three teachers from Lethmachen Primary School burst through the doors of their local police station. They were covered in cuts and bruises and clearly in a state of distress. Although their names have not been officially released, their identities are well known within the community, all being native to the town and indeed former pupils of the school where they now teach. We therefore feel it is permissible to reveal that the individuals involved were two members of staff (one male and one female) who double as sports instructors plus a third teacher who supervises the school drama productions. Interviewed separately, all three gave identical accounts. To celebrate the final day of term, a ‘Sports Gala’ had been arranged to take place in the gym, immediately after school. The three teachers had not only accepted the responsibility of supervising the gala, acting as referees and awarding trophies, but also assumed the caretaker’s role of securing the premises at the end of evening. Inevitably, the sports event had overrun and the last, straggling parents and pupils were not out of the gates until gone 8pm. By that hour it had grown dark and the teachers admit they were completely exhausted. Following a quick circuit to check all windows and doors were locked, they retired to the staff room to share a well-deserved bottle of wine. A few minutes later, the trouble started. “We never intended to hurt the children” all three would later repeat, catatonically, in their police interviews “We only wanted to protect them”.

But what exactly happened at the school that night? In an attempt to stifle the bizarre rumours circulating, on Tuesday the Lethmachen police force took the almost unprecedented move of holding a press conference to request help from the local community. Taking centre stage amongst the flashbulbs was Mr Cottingley, Head of Lethmachen Primary. Mr Cottingley used the opportunity to defend the credibility of his staff whilst also appealing directly to parents. “I ask each and every one of you, yet especially those families from the Dalton Estate and surrounding areas, to look deep into your hearts and vouch, with all honesty, that you can account for your children’s whereabouts on Friday evening”. In an attempt to trigger memories and bring further information to light, the police also went public with the CCTV footage taken from the school cameras that night. Unfortunately, this footage immediately went viral and was widely mistreated, which led to it being withdrawn from the local constabulary website (however, it can still be viewed at www.teachersgofuckingnuts.com) In its place the police have now provided an edited, downloadable transcript of the events captured by the cameras. Please find a synopsis of this transcript below. A word of caution: as any of us who have seen the footage can attest, not once does any child appear in frame, either in interior or exterior shots, not even when the teachers appear to be reacting to an intruder. The children are never seen or heard, only the staff. Folie a deux? Mass hallucination? Some on-line commentators have gone so far to suggest that the teachers succumbed to a rapidly escalating strain of ‘cabin fever’:

8.27pm: The three teachers can be seen sharing a bottle of wine in the staff common room. Teacher C leaves the room to use the bathroom across the corridor. A few seconds after his departure, Teachers A and B leap to their feet and rush across to the window, apparently reacting to a noise loud enough to startle them, yet inaudible on the CCTV footage. The window of the staff room overlooks the front yard and the school gates, an area monitored by an external camera. Teacher A seems to witness a number of figures loitering in the darkness outside, whom he seems to identify as school age children “What are they doing out there at this hour? Those kids from Dalton are just allowed to roam wild. If I had my way they would all be under curfew…” Teacher B comments: “Ignore them, they’re just a bunch of chavs. Let them have their fun. They’ll all be pregnant or in prison by the time they’re eighteen anyway…” (Nobody is visible in the CCTV captured by the external camera).

8.39pm: Teacher C staggers back in to the room, apparently having suffered an injury. Distracted from the window, Teachers A and B come to his aid. “I was attacked, he was waiting outside the cubicle” gasps Teacher C “It was some young kid, came at me with his nails and teeth. I didn’t recognise him, he wasn’t one of mine, not the sort of child I’d cast in the play. His clothes were scruffy and they smelt old. I had to drag him off me, to overpower him, I had no choice. We were fighting, I must have dunked his head in the toilet bowl…held him there…then I realised he had stopped struggling.” Teacher C appears to break down in tears at this point. Teacher A and B prepare to investigate, ignoring Teacher C’s pleas that they should remain together in the staff room. (We next see the couple head down the corridor, but thankfully the council drew the line at actually installing CCTV in the toilets).

8.45pm: Emerging from the toilets, Teachers A and B share a confused exchange, having apparently found no sign of an injured or dying child. They linger in the corridor, appearing to listen to sounds again not picked up on the CCTV. Then, without warning, there is a sudden outbreak of chaos. Teachers A and B begin to frantically whirl and gyrate around the corridor, spinning into the walls whilst lashing out at empty space. Their body language gives the impression they are trying to protect themselves from attack. Gradually their reactions grow more violent, until the two staff members seem to gain control of the situation. Ultimately, their actions suggest they are forcefully herding some smaller bodies into a nearby cupboard full of cleaning supplies, then locking the door. Teachers A and B run back to the staff room and in turn lock themselves in.

8.52pm: Obviously in a state of some excitement, the three teachers can be heard engaging in tense, almost hysterical conversation, as they discuss what is happening to them and their options for escape. “It’s not just one of them, there’s a mob. They’ve broken into the school, a whole litter of them…” Teacher B explains to Teacher C. “Did you see the size of some of them?” Teacher A asks the others “Disgusting. Obese. No wonder I didn’t know their faces. Not likely they’ve been picked for any sports team I’m in charge of”. “But there were also some really girly looking boys” Teacher B reminded him “I doubt you’d see their names on the list for any first team either”. Meanwhile, Teacher C has drifted back to the window. “Look, there are more of them gathering out there…a dozen now at least. Why are they here? Haven’t they got anything better to do? Piano or clarinet lessons? Theatre rehearsals? We’re under siege…we’ll have to break out…”

9.20pm: Cameras monitoring the school playing field around the back of the main building capture the fleeting image of three people sprinting wildly across the damp grass. Their voices echo breathlessly in the darkness: “That child in the bathroom…” stammers Teacher C “When I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck I glimpsed a name sewn into the back of his school jumper. Adrian Petts. Doesn’t that ring a bell?” “Yes, but that’s impossible” rasps Teacher A “Petts was at school the same time as us, that sickly little kid that everybody picked on.” “The one who killed himself?” Teacher B asks as they stray out of shot “Didn’t he hang himself from the monkey bars our last morning of Year Six…?” (The climbing frame referred to still stands on the playing field, just out of range of the CCTV. For the three teachers, its skeletal outline would probably have loomed into view at the very moment we lose them).

Something fishy going on in the world of children’s publishing?

stickleback

Dear Lethmachen Haunted,

You will probably recognise my name from such best-selling titles as The Johnson Book of The RomansThe Johnson Celtic Sticker Book, and The Complete Johnson History of London. Yes, I am the celebrated children’s author and historian, Sara Stickleback.

Last year, on the release of The Johnson Book of the Georgians, a work the Johnson publishing house found a little daring due to its focus on one of the seemingly less popular periods of our history, I was tempted to write a work that genuinely went beyond the frankly quite tiresome accounts of Kings, battles and (ha ha) toilets. I worked on a proposal for The Johnson Book of The World Turned Upside Down. It was to cover the beliefs and practices of Ranters, Levellers and Anabaptists, amongst others, but with a focus on Winstanley to give a ‘famous men’ gloss that would make it commercially viable. The proposal was rejected, and quite rudely so, I felt: children have no interest in C17th religious dissidents, apparently.

A little unnerved, I tried again. This time The Johnson Book of Historical Pets. My initial email was met with much warmth, and I was asked to turn in a detailed treatment. I decided to focus on prince Rupert’s hound, of course, and that War Horse, but I added some less well known characters, and Vinegar Tom, and then, thinking as I often do about the hardship endured by Magellan, I imagined myself partaking of those weevil wreathed biscuits, and I thought that, of course, I would have kept one of their number at least for company. So I imagined myself there, and came up with names for all concerned, and that went in as well.  I always like to have at least one page in each of my books dedicated to ‘recovered voices and minor perspectives’, and I know my publishers heartily endorse this focus. I will indicate how women’s voices, and the voices of children, for example, have been silenced within a history penned by men.  Expansion would no doubt go down well, I thought, so I framed my history from the perspective of the animals, and, as far as I could, I stayed true to the voice I caught emanating from the gap within the record.

As my treatment was not mentioned again, I tried once more, but from a different angle. The personal touch is promoted by the Johnson company, so I began, and then fully completed, The Johnson Book of Stickleback Pets, a history of animals with whom I have had shared my life. To offer some context, and to avoid the pitfalls of a too human centred narrative, I included the history of these individuals up until the 7th ancestor, and beyond where I felt able, and open to receive the information necessary to the task. Children, I am told, also like the mysterious. So I have penned The Johnson Book of the Wis. Ah! The Wis! They watch, and always have, so I am surprised we have not turned to them before for our histories.

There is more to come. As my publishers have seemingly better things to do then engage my efforts, however, I thought this a good opportunity to contact your good selves. The Lethmachen History of the Fields and TreesThe Lethmachen Sticker Book of Damned Exchanges.  The Pop Up Lethmachen Red Book. The Complete Lethmachen History of My Wanting. I await you response…

Yours most sincerely,

Sara Stickleback   

Are sinister forces at work behind the scenes of local music festival?

festival stage

The origins of ‘The Old Duddy Music Festival’ are shrouded in mystery, some claim secrecy, yet it has been an important date in the Lethmachen calendar for generations. Most likely it commemorates some significant event in local history long since forgotten, its true meaning assimilated into a generic celebration. But that does not mean that the festival has been without its controversies over the years, in fact until recently there was a fair amount of organised, vocal opposition to its annual staging. At odds with most of our home-grown events, the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ actually drew people from outside the area, and a central concern of its detractors was that, as a free festival, it attracted the ‘wrong types’ to Lethmachen. There was usually some trouble with the police, complaints about traffic congestion and lack of proper facilities, besides which these ‘outsiders’ didn’t seem to dress or to think like us. Impromptu ‘all night raves’ would inevitably follow the official festivities, and the music heard drifting or reverberating across the town and fields would be unfamiliar to most ears, seeming to hail from another planet, or at least another country.

But those were different times. Five years ago, local business entrepreneur Sol Baron purchased ‘Pleasant Farm’ and its sprawling acres of land from the ailing Idle family, who were struggling under heavy debts (most Lethmachen residents will have known the farm as ‘Idle Farm’ or ‘Idol Farm’). By scaling down staff and streamlining output, Mr Baron soon engineered an upswing in the farm’s fortunes and one of his first, most profitable initiatives was securing the rights to both the name and the staging of ‘The Old Duddy Music Festival’. Traditionally the festival had been located in The Parish Hall and was a rather small-scale, some would insist ‘underground’ or ‘subversive’ event, featuring a cosmopolitan line-up lured by word of mouth. However, by manipulating the methods of crop rotation on his lands, Mr Baron was able to make available a sea of fields in which to re-settle the festival. Through this means he was able to dramatically expand the festival, whilst simultaneously attracting more investment through increased advertising and alliances with big business. The result has been an unprecedented success. ‘The Old Duddy Festival’ has rapidly become a beloved, household name and attracts thousands of consumers every summer. In contrast to the old days, the line-ups now boast the most expensive stars in the industry and the on-site stalls are operated by big name brands rather than unknown amateurs. Naturally all this activity has led to a huge hike in ticket prices, but this does not seem to have affected its popularity in the slightest. “It’s all about re-branding” Mr Baron explained to The Lethmachen Echo “When I was growing up, even people in this town didn’t really know what ‘The Old Duddy Festival’ was. I certainly never went. Most of us thought of it as this scary gathering of weird people from strange places who liked arty, obscure things. But I recognised there was an opportunity there. All the name needed was a bit of polishing, a cleansing of its undesirable elements, so to speak. Of course promotion is important too, it is vital for the investors, but also for your potential market. With a bit of television coverage, a bit of radio, you can sell the idea to the ordinary punter. Once they are reassured that attending a festival is not a frightening thing, once they see that the people next door are doing it, then they don’t want to miss out on the experience. And of course you don’t have to be a business mastermind to realise there is no profit in a free festival. People are too savvy nowadays; they know that if something is free then it is not worth having. No, they would rather pay for something and get a decent, professional product. That said, nobody could claim that the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ has become safe and boring; believe me it’s still a bit of a walk on the wild side! Those fields can get really muddy you know!”

There are, as always, dissenters to such accepted opinion. Some claim that Mr Baron is in fact offering a bastardised, diluted product – that he has betrayed the very essence of the original festival whilst profiting from the historical associations of its name. Unsigned musicians without industry backing claim that slots on the bill are no longer available to them. Independent traders are finding that they have been priced out of their pitches by the likes of Starbucks and Subway. Simmering just beneath the surface there are other controversies, other conflicts, that could perhaps have even more serious implications. The statistics are alarming: the last three years have seen a small but consistent rise in the number of ‘missing persons’ cases linked to the ‘Old Duddy Festival’. It is possible that this trend could be traced back further yet, due to the nomadic or anti-establishment lifestyles led by many festival-goers in the past, this has not been documented. However, those who have disappeared over recent years are all affluent professionals or students from upper middle class backgrounds – the type of people whose absence will be reported. At the time of writing, as another summer, another festival season approaches, these cases remain unresolved. Indeed, there is no firm evidence that any of the individuals concerned even reached the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ as intended. Yet an apparent eye witness to one such disappearance has recently come forward with his own version of events. True, the student himself confesses to being ‘under the influence’ of various substances throughout the weekend, nevertheless this does not mean we should dismiss his entire story as without merit:

“We had wandered away from the main stage. For some reason they had booked one of those hip-hop or grime artists – you know, the kind of music that nobody here wants. We ended up somewhere round the back in this big, empty field – just me and Jezzer and Izzy. You could hear the sounds of the festival in the distance but they were fading fast, being overtaken by the natural silence of the night. We were all pretty wasted and I remember that, just before it started, Izzy had said ‘‘Amazing! Look at all the stars!’’ We all stood quiet and contemplated for a moment, and that was when we first became aware of this faint, unearthly music. Although we immediately tried to categorize it, to put it into some historical context, none of us could find the words or pinpoint exactly where it was coming from. Perhaps we were all hearing something slightly different because I remember Jezzer said he could hear singing along with the instrumentation – “a voice that sounds really old, even older than the voice James Bay uses”. At times it seemed like the music was everywhere, all around us, yet the three of us instinctively, unconsciously took the same path across the fields. I don’t know, perhaps we had all been hypnotised…sort of compelled. Personally, I think I was following some weird strain of pipe music. It was nothing like the indie music I would usually listen to, instead it had a sort of dark, foreign air, like something I had heard whilst travelling. Oh and there were smells too, scents that seemed to be rising from the earth…exotic, enticing aromas of cooking; spices and herbs that we all failed to identify, although we enjoy good food. “The music…it’s coming from underground!” whispered Jezzer. “Yes…yes…there are cracks in the earth…I can see lights…I can hear voices” agreed Izzy enthusiastically. My friends were a few feet ahead of me. I must have tripped on a tussock…fallen…passed out. Like I said, I was pretty out of it that night. But before it all went black I’m sure I caught a final glimpse of Jezzer and Izzy descending into one of those glowing fissures in the ground. Either lowering themselves or being pulled down, I can’t say for certain. Only when I came to in the dawn there was no music, no subterranean gullies, and no Jezzer and Izzy. I was cold and alone – lying on my back in this barren, dew soaked field in a kind of ring of weathered grass”.

 

Did controversial local psychic predict an unsolved murder?

walton

Perhaps this is all a hoax. That is not for us to judge, that is for the reader to decide. However, what our writers can confirm is that a murder did indeed take place, and in circumstances that remain unexplained. The body of retired farm labourer Brian Quinn was discovered in a perimeter field, pinned to the earth by his own pitchfork. We can also verify some supporting evidence. The psychic who calls herself ‘La Llorna’ most certainly exists, although the true extent of her precognitive powers is open to debate. Our local broadcaster, Radio Wan, corroborates that she appeared as a guest on their ‘New Year’s Eve Show’, although that is all they will corroborate. In fact, when we contacted the studio we were brusquely informed that the recording of that particular show had been ‘accidentally wiped’. Last week, in the wake of Quinn’s murder, the following handwritten letter was found slipped beneath the door of what passes for our office (the location of which is supposedly secret to all but the handful of lost souls who work here). Heartfelt confession or heartless hoax? Read on and make up your own mind….

“It was on the stroke of midnight that I heard my name spoken. I think it was only said once, although I cannot be certain, and that is what has been troubling me. It’s not as if I can ask anyone else. They would think me crazy and, besides, I doubt that many were listening. Not at that time, not on New Year’s Eve. Judging from the carnivalesque clamour I heard rising outside my window, most people were celebrating with friends at swarming bars or enjoying intimate house parties. Whilst those too jaded or insecure to leave the house were no doubt comforting themselves in front of the television, perhaps watching the ‘Annual Hootenanny’ presented by that semi-cultured froglet of a man. Not me, however. I was listening to our local radio station, Radio Wan. I never miss a show by Glory Allan, she hosts the late show and she’s my favourite. Sometimes I like to turn off all the lights in the flat and listen to her in the dark. She has a beautiful, melodic voice – rich with empathy, with understanding, with kindness. She’s not like the others, not like those Jo Whiley’s or Edith Bowman’s, who make you feel nauseous and depressed as soon as they open their ignorant, artless mouths. I saw Glory Allan in Sainsbury’s once. She made sensible selections from every aisle, nothing pretentious or fattening, and all in single portions. She lives in that new complex on the corner of Keepers Close. I’ve passed by a few times. It seems quiet, even during the daytime. Sorry for rambling. This is all simply background material, setting the scene. So now you understand why I was one of the few listening to the names that night.

That woman who calls herself ‘La Llorna’ is a regular guest on Glory’s show. I don’t like her very much. She co-hosts ‘The Obituary Hour’, celebrating the lives of local residents who have recently died, and also reads the Tarot and makes predictions for the few regulars who call in to the show. Of course it is all nonsense. There is no magic to ‘La Llorna’, she cannot see into the future. She just guesses and lies like we all do. I was outside her house one night when she wasn’t on the radio. I could see her beneath the light of a solitary lamp in a downstairs window. She was hunched over a little desk, restlessly rearranging whatever lay before her. Perhaps it was her cards, perhaps it was her books, I don’t know. But there were tears streaming down her cheeks (I caught them glistening in the wan light) and she tore anxiously at the stray strands of hair that hung loose from the scarf wrapped around her head. In her heart, I think ‘La Llorna’ knows that she has no special gift, no power to control fate. And when she is alone, when she thinks nobody is looking, this terrifies her even more than it terrifies the rest of us. This is what I believed; I was so sure. Then came New Year’s Eve, when she read out my name, and I grew anxious, uncertain. Was it possible that ‘La Lorna’ could read the stars after all? Maybe we all could, yet only for a moment, if we happened to glance up at the right time?

Certainly she did not seem herself. Her voice sounded different, as if it came from somewhere, or someone, else. Initially I was offended – ‘La Llorna’ had rudely interrupted her host without warning, just as Glory was wishing the listener a ‘Happy New Year’ in those warm, liquid tones that so suggested a personal intimacy. Yet almost immediately both Glory and I fell silent, in perfect synchronicity, as we understood that, for once, ‘La Llorna’ had something grave and profound to communicate. The medium was sobbing uncontrollably into the microphone, yet at the same time audibly struggling to master those tears, to find her voice. Slowly, painfully choking back the grief, ‘La Llorna’ began to recite a list of names…and, amongst them, I heard my own. There was no explanation, no emphasis; the intonation was flat and leaden and the names were evenly, precisely spaced. I do not even recall whether the medium specifically announced that this list represented a roll-call of all those in the parish destined to die within the next calendar year – I just knew this to be the case. For one night only, ‘La Llorna’ could see into the future. After a couple of minutes the control room obviously came to their senses: there was some vague clutter of confusion off-microphone, a brief whine of feedback, and the programme segued into a jingle (endlessly repeated). It was all over, and I knew I had heard my name. But once, twice? I could not be certain and, as I explained, this has lately begun to trouble me. Yet at that moment I barely even considered this issue. A more pressing concern was that in 2016 I was doomed to die and there was nothing I could do about it. Or was there?

Convinced that I was about to die, my sleep was disturbed by terrible nightmares. One bad dream in particular plagued me, in fact the return of a recurrent nightmare I had suffered as a child. Always there was a dark shadow following me, stalking me down pavements and around neighbourhoods where I had once felt at home. Although I seldom glimpsed it, no matter how swiftly I doubled back, I constantly felt this presence over my shoulder. In my dream it could be the height of summer, front gardens and tree lined streets in full bloom, yet by contrast the mood, the perimeters were always dark. No matter how many times I prayed it would leave me, the shadow stayed in pursuit, gradually gaining ground. Then one bright morning, a few days after New Year, I remembered how I had managed to dismiss that nightmare as a child. By focusing my thoughts, I had succeeded in summoning an acquaintance from another school into my dream. It was some boy I had pretended to like, we had crossed paths at a few after-school events, but in secret I never really cared for him. So you can imagine how pleased I was to see him when he appeared in my dream that night, looking slightly disorientated and confused on a summer street. I turned my back on him and made a wish: that from now on the shadow would follow him instead of me. I never had the nightmare again. This instantly gave me an idea on how to deal with my current problem. There were five other people who shared my name in the local phone book. If I could dispose of just one of them I would be safe…for another year at least. To select my victim all that was required was a bit of research, a bit of watching and waiting. Often I walked slow and unnoticed: like a shadow. Four were easily discounted: amongst that number were two children and a local boxer. But the final name on the list seemed ideal.

He was already in his twilight years: retired, frail, a widower. ‘Welligramps’ the local children nicknamed him, because of the muddy wellington boots he wore on his daily walks across the outlying fields. Yes, it was all made so simple. He even had a routine – stuck to it like clockwork. Visited his wife’s grave after lunch, then walked three times round the churchyard and up onto Lethmachen Hill. And of course, there are some lonely stretches up there, away from prying eyes. Later, afterwards, was the first time I had felt safe for some weeks. But then I began to doubt myself – had I heard my name spoken just the once, or twice? Or was it even about to be repeated a third or fourth time, only for ‘La Llorna’ to be taken off air?”

We were naturally inclined to view this ‘confession’ with some scepticism, to view it as a hoax akin to the ‘Jack The Ripper’ letters sent to contemporary newspapers. Perhaps understandably, all those going by the name ‘Brian Quinn’ that we contacted in the local area (or their families) were either reluctant to get involved or were openly hostile. ‘La Llorna’ also, uncharacteristically, refused an interview. In all likelihood what we have printed above is simply a story – a rushed, confused, rather morally dubious piece of fiction written to cash in on a real life tragedy. The answer, perhaps, is written in the stars?

 

 

A countryside alliance gathering against local residents?

stick

There are few people working the fields these days. Things were different when I was young. Back then Lethmachen was still the rural community it had been for generations and farming the land was still the way that most of us earned a living. Of course that was before all these big office buildings and business types started taking over the town, with their computers and their wine bars and restaurants. If my parents were still alive I doubt they would even recognise Lethmachen today. It’s not the place they grew up in, it’s been changed into somewhere else, and I don’t care what anyone says but the people are different too. For one thing, those of us that remain farmers are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet; nobody seems to care about local produce anymore. That’s why we have no choice but to sell off our land to these property developers. I’ll never understand why we need so many houses, swallowing up the countryside until there’s nothing left. But it’s the truth that people never realise what they’ve lost until it’s gone.

All the folk from the neighbouring farms have signed petitions and gone on protest marches and attended meetings, but I reckon it never does any good. All the Council are interested in these days is money – I suppose what with all the cuts that is to be expected. But it is sad to think that the people in charge of running this town don’t even care about its history, about its roots. When I was growing up the local countryside was not just a place where a few scattered families lived and worked – it was the very heart of the community. Town dwellers would actually make a point of visiting the woods and fields out here. They would come for walking holidays, or for picnics at weekends, or just for a night’s drinking at The Bloated Sow. Its years ago now, but I remember hearing how the whole town was buzzing with excitement over the upcoming barn dance, or the fireworks display, or one of the summer festivals. As children we would spend hours exploring the forgotten pathways that run through the woods. Me and my friends would collect objects on nature trails, or play hide and seek amongst the trees. Sometimes we would even sneak out at night to go ghost hunting! But you never see anyone in the woods nowadays.

Which brings me to the point I am trying to make. Or rather, this seems the right place for me to repeat what other people have been saying. I have gathered, from certain small articles I have read in The Lethmachen Echo, that even folk who live in the centre of town have, over recent weeks, started thinking a lot about our countryside. Although none of these stories have been very specific, they do no more than hint at the details, I have filled in the gaps from local gossip I have picked up when travelling in to the shops. So, if I may be so bold to state the matter in plain words, the fear is that certain ‘things’ are coming down from the woods at night and lurking around the town. Nobody seems able to describe exactly what these ‘things’ look like; those who claim to have seen them could not even say whether they are human or animal or something else. However, all the eyewitnesses agree on a few points – the ‘things’ they saw were “dark and shadowy” (after all, it was always at night) and they moved in a strange, slow manner, as if they are feeling their way along unfamiliar streets and alleys (“like harvestmen moving through long grass”). From what I could learn, there is actually no evidence that these creatures are creeping down from Lethmachen Hill but, typical of town dwellers, everyone seems convinced that the countryside is in some way to blame. The main reason for this makes no sense – eyewitnesses have apparently reported that on the nights following their encounters they have all dreamed about the hill, and in particular that old stretch of trees those who live nearby call ‘The Petrified Wood’.

Of course these days I am too old for such children’s tales. Yet some of my neighbours reminded me that this is not the first time something of this kind has occurred. There were similar rumours back in 1969. I remember that was the year there was the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease, because Lethmachen Hill had been out of bounds all summer, and everyone used that as an excuse not to investigate any further. Anyway, eventually the stories died out. But then came the spring of 1976, when little Linda Snowbed disappeared, and it all began again. Linda was amongst a group of youngsters who had dared each other into exploring ‘The Petrified Wood’, even though they knew it was wrong. If you don’t already know, dead centre in ‘The Petrified Wood’ lies this dense copse, hidden away like it is either very shy or has something to hide. No sunlight is allowed in there, all the branches and hedgerows grow tangled and deep, and hereabouts people whisper of it as ‘The Wood Knot’. I went there myself, just the once, but not the same afternoon as Linda and her friends. Well, somehow the kids got separated during a game, and Linda did not return with the others at dusk. Blanche, her baby sister, had been with her. But when the adults questioned Blanche all they could get out of her was “It was the Ink-Sect! It was the Ink-Sect!” and some garbled story about a tall, thin creature, camouflaged in shadow, that peeled itself off a tree trunk and grabbed hold of her sister. Linda never came home, and once again the hill was out of bounds. Long afterwards, Mrs Snowbed recalled how one of their relatives had kept stick insects as pets, and Blanche had always called them ‘Ink-sects’. More to the point, what followed was a second summer of sightings – of dark ‘things’ creeping through the fields towards the town. Many of the older folk believed it to be Linda’s restless spirit, roaming from ‘The Wood Knot’. In fact, one of my last memories of my grandmother is of her, hunched over in her seat by the fire, shrugging her shoulders and saying sadly “Perhaps she’s alive. Perhaps she’s dead. Either way I suppose she just wants someone to play with”.

Being reminded of these old stories got me thinking about what they had in common. For a start, I realised that on both occasions mentioned above, the sightings of the ‘dark things’ occurred during a summer when the hill was strictly out of bounds. Whole areas were cordoned off – nobody went there; nobody spoke of doing so. This must surely be more than a coincidence, I reckoned with myself, if not the key to the whole mystery. Then I wondered if it could all be connected to what I was discussing earlier. Perhaps the woods are as sensitive as people. Once upon a time they were the centre of attention, they captured all our imagination, they were the first refuge of lovers. The woods were lived in, explored, even worshipped. Perhaps they were even proud of the fear that some people felt for them and the wild tales that followed? But what if people lost interest? What if nobody came to see them anymore, if they were no longer spoken of, nor written about in stories? Would they feel neglected, forgotten, spurned? Over time, would they grow jealous and bitter in the shade, like a jilted lover? Perhaps in their anger the trees and the shadows would breed dark things? And perhaps at nightfall these dark things would leave the woods and go hunting for an audience, gathering them by force? Such things are not unheard of around here, or at least they are half remembered in old folk legends – talk of ‘The Briar Folk’ or ‘The Stickmen’ or ‘The Deciduous People’ – whatever you prefer to call them. Not that I ever paid much attention to such old wives’ tales.

Yet once again it is true that the woods are empty. Just the other day, I barely saw a soul. Modern folk seem content to remain rooted in their homes, staring at their computers or their wide screen televisions. Rarely does anyone venture out into the street, let alone explore their local environment. For some strange reason, people would rather take a holiday abroad than spend a week in Lethmachen. Yes, today there are no children playing on the pavements or out in the woods. I assume the idea is that they will be safer in their own back gardens? Yet the trees hate us if we turn our backs. Rumour has it that ‘The Briar Folk’ are growing more fearless, more reckless. They can camouflage themselves almost anywhere.

French Evening Class speaking in tongues?

office

I believe I am reporting a fraud. There is a possibility that it could be something far worse, but let’s call it fraud, if just to ensure my integrity as a witness. Somehow it seems too early in 2016 for anything significant to happen, January always feels formless to me, as if the year is waiting to take shape. Yet something has happened, something that has compelled me to write. Like many people I optimistically made a few New Year’s resolutions over the Christmas period. One of these was to learn a language. Over the previous twelve months I had come to feel my life’s parameters were far too limited, a sensation no doubt shared by many Lethmachen residents, or in fact anyone living in a small town. Perhaps learning a foreign language would open up new opportunities, new possibilities for me? I had decided that to begin with French was the best option as I at least had some experience of studying the subject at school, although little of what I had learnt seemed to stick. It wasn’t that I felt any great affiliation with French culture – there are few French nationals, or indeed any international immigrants, living in Lethmachen. Yet I had to accept I did not really have the confidence to throw myself into anything more exotic, more challenging. I imagined I would find it awkward enough being back in a learning environment after all these years, and I was slightly anxious at the prospect of making a fool of myself in front of the other students.

If it wasn’t for the advertisement I probably wouldn’t have acted and, as is so common, any ambition to change myself would no dount have faded by February. However, the little classified posting in the back pages of The Lethmachen Echo appeared an act of fate. ‘French For Beginners – An Intensive Two Week Course’. Everything sounded ideal: classes were beginning immediately, running 8pm every weeknight, and it would all be over so quickly I would hardly have time for second thoughts. Perhaps the fortnight would give me a taste for a more advanced programme or equally, if I did not enjoy the experience, I could quickly strike it from the ‘bucket list’. Inspired by a renewed sense of purpose, I phoned the number at the foot of the ad, wondering if the ‘limited places’ had already been filled. I suppose the more cautious side of my personality half hoped I was too late, yet after a few cursory questions about my (lack of) language skills, the flat, nameless voice at the end of the line announced I was in. I had heard these type of courses could be quite expensive, however when I enquired the fees they seemed very reasonable; suspiciously affordable I might say in retrospect. Nonetheless I must emphasise they still took my money under false pretences and, regardless of the cost, this amounts to fraud.

The following, frosty Monday evening I walked the twenty minutes across town to Stark House. During the day this rather drab 60’s built office block is home to various insurance and telemarketing firms. Many people I used to go to school with have worked there at one time or another. Yet by night the building is deserted and looks a bit forbidding: I could not see any lights on any levels and the glass foyer was locked up and also plunged into darkness. For a moment I thought I had somehow come to the wrong place, but then I noticed the laminated A4 sheet stuck to the front doors, directing ‘French Beginners’ to a side entrance. After climbing a flight of stairs sparsely illuminated by emergency strip lights I came to a landing and a set of lifts. Following another set of instructions fixed to the wall I took the lift up to the fifth floor and turned right, then left, then right down a dimly lit warren of corridors. A dozen shadowy figures were waiting in awkward silence outside the door of Room 5.17, looking as if they had been summoned to the headmaster’s office. We all briefly exchanged greetings before slipping back into silence, taking it in turns to glance expectantly up and down the corridor, waiting for an instructor we had never met.

The whole class jumped as the door behind them was suddenly flung open and, simultaneously, the windowless room within flickered into light. Our tutor, who announced himself as Mr Carnall, had apparently been in the classroom the whole time, oblivious to his prospective students gathering outside, presumably sitting motionless and mute whilst contemplating the darkness. My first impression of Mr Carnall was that, although he ushered us in with a show of great warmth and enthusiasm, his grin was more like a grimace and he studied each of us as we entered with hard, bird-like eyes. Nevertheless, during his induction speech he was considerate and re-assuring, insisting that none of us should worry if we initially felt out of our depth or struggled with the unfamiliar words and pronunciation. He also advised us to focus all of our attention on this intensive course, and not to get distracted by reading external materials, or be lured into practicing our new found skills on any French speakers. Mr Carnall was concerned that any outside influence could be detrimental to our confidence, as it can be so easy to be misunderstood. We must bear in mind that we were only ‘beginners’, and ‘there are, of course, many different dialects’. On completing his welcome, our tutor insisted we undergo that usual, painful rigmarole of going round the classroom so each of us could introduce ourselves. The majority of those attending had, like me, chosen to take the course simply because they were searching for something new in their lives. A couple of the younger students explained they were considering travelling or studying exchange degrees, whilst the more self-important types asserted they were learning the language for ‘business purposes’. When asking about our previous experience of French (nearly all of us had only fleeting memories of being taught it at school), I now recall that Mr Carnall seemed annoyed when one attendee, whose name I forget, admitted that he had distant relatives in France and had picked up the basics on his occasional visits. Although this student assured the tutor that brushing up on the essentials was what he needed, and he appeared enthusiastic during that first lesson, I noticed he was absent from all subsequent classes.

At the beginning of each lesson Mr Carnall would hand around our text books, in reality well-thumbed photocopied manuals, all of which had to be returned to the tutor at the end of class. ‘L’heure est venue! French For Beginners’ was set in bold text on the front page. The lessons followed a fairly typical format, stirring up vaguely unpleasant memories of school: the whole class reading and re-reading certain passages out loud until they sounded like some kind of ritualistic chant, role playing games structured around strange and unlikely scenarios, listening to audio tapes and watching video clips of strangers going about their lives in cities that look similar to ours but sound uncannily different. Perhaps as a child I had found learning a new language a little intimidating, a little unnerving, but just accepted it. At that age, I suppose the wider world seems like an alien planet. Yet I was disappointed at myself that now, as an adult, I was finding the whole experience even more unsettling than I remembered. It is difficult even with hindsight to pinpoint the root of my anxieties, only I was finding it almost impossible to follow the flow of conversations or the logic of texts; to me the participants in the recorded conversations sounded lost, almost frightened, and the performances of the actors in the videos seemed to imply a darker purpose beneath the bland surface. Matters were not helped by the addition of ‘Malfie’, a cartoon character who appeared in a few panels at the end of every chapter in our texts books. I assume he was designed to lighten the mood, whilst recapping a few grammar points. However, there was something sinister about this faun-like creature who always seemed to be lurking amongst the trees in the middle of nowhere. And what was the purpose of that ominous, dilapidated barn that the artist felt compelled to sketch in as part of the backdrop?

Fortunately, I was not alone. The three-hour classes were always relieved by a twenty-minute coffee break at 9.30pm, when we dozen students huddled into a small kitchen area attached to an adjacent office (I was not sure what Mr Carnall did during this time, but he never once joined us). A number of my classmates admitted, in moderate tones, that they were also finding the course more demanding than they expected, possibly too advanced. We confided that we often found ourselves misinterpreting the subject matter, or reading things into the dialogues that surely could not have been intended. If I ever looked over at Danielle, the woman who occupied the desk next to mine, I was aware that her eyes constantly held a look of bewilderment, sometimes bordering on fear. ‘And what about those ‘Night Tapes’ we’ve been given to listen to at home…’ she said to me during one coffee break ‘Don’t they give you nightmares?’ Frustratingly, at that point our conversation was interrupted by Roger Akeley, one of those ‘business purposes’ people who had soon emerged as the star pupil in the class. He was always seeking to inspire us with unsolicited pep talks and encouraging us to stick with the programme to the end. ‘Believe me, by the time we get to the final test next Friday you’ll really appreciate those ‘Night Tapes’…’ he enthused ‘It makes it all so easy…you can learn in your sleep! I reckon we don’t even realise how much we already know, what is stored in the back of our minds. Those tapes bring back things we thought had been forgotten’. In spite of his determination to sound persistently optimistic, there was something dry and ruthless underlying Roger’s delivery, prone to slipping out if ever someone disagreed with his opinion in class. It was his true voice that I thought I recognised. Had I met him before? It is only now that I realise how much he sounded like that voice on the other end of the telephone. The one that had guaranteed me a place on the course.

The ‘Night Tapes’ are the key to this whole affair; the exhibit I can enter into evidence. These were the only items that were permitted to leave the classroom with us, presumably because Mr Carnall thought it unlikely that anyone still owned the technology to copy the old fashioned cassettes contained within the Walkmans. The idea was that we would listen to these tapes whilst we were sleeping and absorb the knowledge without conscious effort. The cassettes were certainly effective in sending me off to sleep – the monotony of the endlessly repeated phrases and sentences merging into a soporific incantation. These solemn intonations must have continued to run through my dreams for, just as Danielle suffered, I too had nightmares. On waking all I would be able to recall was the imposing outline of a dilapidated barn, framed in silhouette against a rural night sky. Also, other sounds only half concealed by the chanting chorus of voices – the clashing of antlers, the clutter of cloven feet, the excited baying and whinnying of what must surely have been animals. Then the cacophony and the images would be cut dead, I imagine because in my sleep I had reached the end of the tape.

It was on the Thursday night of that second week, the night before the class had to sit their final test, that I received some unexpected visitors. I hadn’t really socialised since New Year’s Eve; obviously my weeknights were now occupied and I typically spent my weekends pacing the flat reciting passages from the ‘Night Tapes’. A couple of my friends had become concerned by my new reclusiveness and took it upon themselves to call round shortly after my return from Stark House. Steven and Sonia arrived bearing a couple of bottles of wine. At first I attempted to politely decline their company, explaining that not only did I have work in the morning but I needed this evening to revise for my French test the following night. There would be no time to swot up tomorrow as I was required to report to Stark House slightly earlier than usual. Mr Carnall had informed us that his company’s ‘Test Centre’ was located on the rural borders of Lethmachen, and he had hired a minibus to drive us out to The Old Tithe Barn. Yet my friends can be very persuasive, pointing out it was too late now to learn anything new, and sure enough we were soon settled down chatting and drinking. Unfortunately, I was completely exhausted as a result of my hectic schedule over the last fortnight, and must have fallen asleep in their company. It could only have been a matter of minutes, yet I was roughly shaken awake to find Steven and Sonia stood over me, their expressions troubled, accusatory. Had I been talking in my sleep? Apparently so…

‘That language is not French! Whatever language you were speaking, it definitely wasn’t French’ argued Steven, an English tutor at International House in Lethmachen. ‘If anything, it reminded me of a medieval English dialect, long fallen from use. From what I could piece together, it sounded like a call to worship, some kind of invocation beckoning something or someone back from the past…’ What I had been murmuring in my sleep were the teachings of the ‘Night Tapes’, yet the words and sounds I had uttered had so disturbed my friends that they feared I had suddenly fallen ill. After the initial shock had worn off, we were all able to laugh about it. Well, at least for a short while. Steven and Sonia convinced me that the classes I had been attending were all part of some elaborate hoax, designed to fleece a few gullible souls of the registration fee. ‘Whatever you do, do not attend the test tomorrow’ my friends cautioned me ‘They’ll probably just try and scam you for more money. Or get you somewhere isolated and rob you. There must be a reason they continued with these fake lessons after all of you had paid in advance’. It was agreed that the next day during my lunch hour I would visit Stark House in daylight, and alert the management company as to what was occurring on their premises after hours. However, when I stormed into the foyer shortly after noon and began ranting about Carnall and his phoney ‘French’ lessons, the staff of Stark House gawped at me as if I had lost my mind. There were no evening classes taking place in their offices, they assured me, that would breach health and safety regulations. They had never heard of this Mr Carnall or had any contact with him. Desperate, almost in a state of panic, I attempted to force those present to listen my ‘Night Tapes’. Unfortunately, at that point, I was escorted from the building by security.

I feel no shame in admitting I was angry…I am angry. Why are there such people in the world, whose only goal seems to be to profit from exploiting and humiliating others? My only crime, weakness if you will, was a cautious desire to expand my horizons, to try and make small changes to my life. Do I deserve to be punished for this? I am curious to know whether Danielle and my other classmates also uncovered the deception. Did they attend the final test at The Old Tithe Barn? Are they now walking around unaware that their language qualification isn’t worth the paper it is printed upon? They were only passing acquaintances; I haven’t heard from any of them or seen them about town since the day before the test. One of my motives for sharing this story on your website is to let them know that if they wish to join forces and lodge a legal complaint against Mr Carnall and his cronies, they will have my full co-operation. After all, in any language, F-R-A-U-D spells fraud.

 

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