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Archive for the ‘Ghost’ Category

Where have all the ghost times gone?

village

Have you noticed the recent lull in supernatural activity in what I, for one, have always been proud to call ‘the most haunted town in England’?  The Party of the Fields and Trees are ever more deep in frenzied activity, of course, but when was the last time anyone saw a proper no nonsense ghost?

I have a theory.

Today, I was walking in the town centre: the A-Store is expanding, and I think I counted an extra pound shop, but the general trend is towards closure, 15 shop-fronts on the high street alone are boarded up, and the number increases on the little roads leading out. As I looked around, it brought to mind ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. I can’t be alone in finding myself humming that song of late. This time I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed before, a tension that had previously eluded me. Why, in the song, is Coventry a ghost town? Is it a real place haunted by its past? Or is it a haunted place itself, a shadow of a prior reality? What is doing the haunting? To reformulate: is it that the town is no longer here, what remaining being a mere ghost of what once truly was?  Or is what is haunting the town the ghosts of a golden age: ‘bands don’t play no more’. Reality, as it is experienced now, is something of a different order: ‘people getting angry’. The ghosts are not getting angry in this way, because they are the ghosts of past content.

Coventry, in this reading, is a ghost town because it is not now a town of ghosts. The ghosts are out of step with the town. It is not now their place, and that this is precisely the condition of the ghost.

Counter to this, my suspicion is that the ghosts of Lethmachen, whatever they are, are only too at home here, with the shut up shops, the general air of defeat. They are – perhaps – the spirits of this place, not only of the loss that in some part constitutes it, but of the very present moment of despair. Lethamchen is a ghost town. And that is why the ghosts are not out and about. They are the mice within our skirting.

The ghosts will – I hope – appear to us once more when the possibility of hope returns, when we can more fully articulate the loss we have experienced. At that time, the ghosts – now half of gold – will find themselves torn between places. Only then may the horror return.

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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).

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A ghostly stare plagues a man during his most private moments…

 gents

I find I must begin with a slightly embarrassing confession. This does not start in a very auspicious place: let me take you to the gents toilets on The High Street, Lethmachen! I was sitting in one of the cubicles the other day, and I suppose I must have been there for a while, because I got to thinking about the door in front of me, specifically about its size. Why do they make them so small? The obvious reason, I guess, is safety: you don’t want a child trapped in there. Yet it seemed to me that there are other advantages in having gaps at the floor and the ceiling. For a start, they must make unsavoury types less likely to engage in their preferred activities. I guess they cost a little less as well. That sounds silly, but I know a thing or two about economies of scale.

Anyway, that was that, or at least it should have been, but this seemingly trivial subject was returned to me later that evening when, in a distracted moment, I found myself contemplating the door to my guest bedroom. This room does not enjoy much official use, to be honest, and since I have been living on my own, I spend quite a bit of my time in it. Well, I was watching television, as is my want, when my eye was caught by the rectangle of glass at the top of the door. My home is rather large, and I find it disconcerting to leave all the doors open, so I had a good view, and it occurred to me that, rather like the gaps at the bottom and the top of toilet doors, this was a design feature to which I had not previously given much consideration.  I suppose it was there to let in light. This was not for the benefit of the bedroom, as behind the door there was only a small, enclosed corridor, containing three doors that led variously to my lounge, study and bathroom. Could the feature, then, really be there to illuminate such an insignificant place, and then only during those hours when the door was closed? It seemed absurd, and I looked on some more, hoping, in the most general way, to understand.

It was then, for the briefest moment imaginable, that there appeared to me two vast, brown eyes, looking through the glass, searching, yet horribly placid. They were not floating, but set within a vast, masculine brow. As I say, the vision was over before it began, the memory of it being, it seemed to me, all I had from the first.

I was struck with fear, really quite pinned to where I sat. I have never felt anything as intense, certainly not in my adult life at least. What disturbed most was not the knowledge that I was exposed, or even the sheer size of the threat, but the incongruity of the space in which my adversary must have been located. What contortions had that body, even momentarily, had to endure. And why, considering this, was there no pain registering in those vast, mild eyes?

If anyone else has experienced similar, I would, of course, like to know. Somehow I doubt it.  This is more generally a warning: these things can creep up on you. I am now more careful than ever about what I look at and what I think.

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Location, location…apparition? Exclusive residence hides a dark past?

haunted2

It was only upon discovering that the house had been rebuilt that I felt the need to write to you.  I am not even sure why this is significant. Following the renovations, the place is almost completely unrecognizable as the derelict ruin that still haunts my memories, and my dreams. Now the house exhibits an air of opulence: an array of expensive cars parked up on the driveway; the whitewashed stonework of the Georgian facade boasting sculpted pillars and elegant balconies. It even has a new name: Hillcrest Villa. Yet it was all very different in my day. I am not even sure the building had a name back then, not a real one. People called it all sorts of things: Hill House, Tower Lodge, Yews Court. But to the children who attended nearby Lethmachen Primary School it was known simply as ‘The Haunted House’.  I remember we used to talk about it all the time, especially during the summer, when the teachers would march us up the hill on a nature trail. Our route would typically skirt around the back of the property, and every child would take turns peeking nervously over the crumbled stone wall, pinching and kicking at each other whilst inventing terrible stories.

As for me, these days it is the familiar story. Trying to balance work and family life occupies most of my time, so I rarely have the inclination to venture across town and visit the neighbourhood where I grew up.  In fact, I only happened to be crossing Lethmachen Hill that day because I was attending a meeting out of town and had been diverted by the latest set of roadworks. As my car struggled to the peak of that steep incline I happened to glance off road to my right. And that was when I saw Hillcrest Villa. You know how it is when you return to somewhere you once knew. You immediately notice if anything looks different, even if you can’t exactly remember how it looked before. It almost feels like a personal insult that changes have been made in your absence! Well, my first reaction on sighting Hillcrest Villa was ‘Ooh, that’s new!’ Only the next moment I realised it wasn’t. In fact it was very old, and I knew it. You see, in spite of the shiny new facelift, in spite of the gentrification with the chandeliers and works of art I glimpsed in passing, nothing had really changed. I still felt this horrible, oppressive sense of fear when looking at that building, even though it had attempted a disguise. That afternoon I gave a terrible presentation at the executive meeting. All I could think about was The Haunted House, and what had happened there so long ago. I mean, what had happened to me. When my eldest daughter mentioned your website, I thought that perhaps by sharing my story it would become just another story, and no longer belong to me. I am tired of keeping it all to myself.

We’re going back twenty years now. That morning everyone in my year had received their GCSE results. That evening, as we were all still too young to get into any pubs or clubs, a party had been arranged on Lethmachen Hill. I don’t remember much about the actual party, partly because of the alcohol, partly because I imagine it was pretty dull. There were probably stories circulating for a few weeks afterwards, exaggerated tales of who had been sick and who had had sex, but by then I had already decided I was too old for such gossip. Instead of returning to school for A levels, I had made up my mind I wanted a job. This party would be my last experience of school life, of my childhood. Tomorrow my life was going to change. At some point in the evening, about half way down a bottle of vodka, I realised that I needed to mark this momentous occasion in some way. There needed to be a significant ending that I would be able look back on and recognise in years to come. Drunken logic dictated that Chris would fulfil this function. He was a boy in my class who had liked me for ages. The other girls were always winding me up about ‘the chemistry’ between us, although in truth I only really saw him as a friend. Still, I kept flirting with him on and off throughout the party and we ended up walking off alone and stumbling down the hill together in the dark. He was showing off in front of me, little suspecting I did not intend to see him again after this night was over. For me this was an ending, not a beginning.

Straying from the path, we soon lost our bearings and found we were approaching ‘The Haunted House’. When I was able to focus, I could just pick out its low silhouette crouched amongst the surrounding trees. In the dark the place looked even more desolate, as if it were the remnants of some stone age dwelling, rather than the shell of some Victorian town house, gutted by fire, as was told in most of the stories. Of course the stories were what we immediately started talking about, the conversation suddenly steering away from how short my dress was or how it would be fun if we went to explore what was behind those bushes. By our age, nobody really believed those stories about ‘The Haunted House’ anymore. Even at primary school they had become so contradictory and confused that you had your doubts. Tales of drowned witches, phantom highwaymen and headless horsemen had somehow all got mixed up in the legend, and even I recognised the latter had just been drafted in from ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The version of the story I knew best was that there had been a murder in Victorian times. A father had murdered his wife in an upstairs bedroom and then waited for his children to get home from school. On their return he had stormed downstairs, picked up the boy in one hand and the girl in the other, and thrown them on to the roaring flames of an open fire. Oh, and another thing. When the father stormed down the stairs he had been wearing a mask cut from the face of the dead mother. No, no, no, argued Chris, quite animatedly. That was not the version he knew. His story was at once more plausible and more sordid: something to do with an illegal abortion racket and police corruption. But seriously, between us we had heard dozens of variants, ranging from fairy realms to flying saucers.

The result of this conversation is that Chris and I became convinced that we had to break into ‘The Haunted House’. We couldn’t believe that, as far as we were aware, nobody had ever attempted this in the past. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. We had a purpose in life, we would make history. Predictably, Chris insisted on trying to impress me by dramatically wrenching away the rotten boards nailed across the nearest window. There was no glass, just a gaping hole that yawned an even deeper darkness than the night outside. The two of us slithered clumsily through the jagged space and dropped to the floor. As you would expect, once inside there was nothing to see. Not only was the hull pitch black but it smelt dank and there was no furniture, no carpet, no character. We loitered awkwardly for a few seconds, trying to think of something funny to say and trying to imagine what we could do next. I certainly wasn’t having sex in here, no matter how drunk I was. ‘OK…right. I think it’s time to go home…’ I began to slur when Chris abruptly hushed me. Yes, now I could hear it too. A dull, muffled vibration of sound rising from somewhere up ahead. As if summoned, we took simultaneous steps forward. Could I also now make out a frame of pale light in the far corner, as if a door had been left ajar?

We opened the door and walked in. The living room was brightly lit and cosy, neatly arranged with a chintz sofa and an ornamental table piled high with board games and books. An open fire raged in the hearth – this was the sound we had heard. Fascinated, I stared deep into the fire, watching the tongues of flame spit and surge higher. Chris touched me gently on the arm. On the mantelpiece stood a gallery of family portraits: two parents and two children stared out from the sepia tinted photographs. The mother’s smile always appeared strained, as if she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. Everything about the room felt impossibly warm and homely, just for a moment. Then I realised it all felt impossible. My sensation of content had been broken by the sound of heavy footsteps above us, pacing the upstairs room. Did this house even have an upstairs anymore? No, I couldn’t recall seeing one from the outside, the roof had sunken in. This couldn’t be. But there in front of us was a flight of stairs, ascending. Suddenly, a savage, unseen voice rang out from the top of the stairs – threatening, not welcoming.

‘Children, is that you? Are you home?’

I can’t remember exactly what happened next; I didn’t drink alcohol for a while afterwards. When I heard those footsteps slowly begin to descend the stairs I must have instinctively turned to run. There was something wrong with the way they sounded: heartless, lifeless, weighted with a burden. I think they even had this weird echo. Anyway, I swear I grabbed Chris by the arm and tried to drag him with me. But he refused to move. He was frozen to the spot, staring blankly towards the stairs with this horrible expression – a mask of disbelief and yet undeniable belief. In that split second, he looked to me almost as if he had suddenly realised that this place was his home, that he had been stupid to have ignored the stories, or been unlucky to have heard the wrong ones. He had been part of the myth all along and it had come back to claim him. I guess I just panicked. I fled the room and scrambled through the dark next door until I reached the window. Outside, I must have dashed blindly down the hill for a distance, careering through hedgerows and undergrowth (my body was covered in cuts and bruises when I woke late the next morning). Then a sudden wave of guilt had swamped me and I stopped running. How could I have left Chris there on his own? I turned and sprinted back up the hill as fast as I could. But when I reached ‘The Haunted House’ there was nothing there. Once again it was just a dark, dismal, empty shell of a building: holes in the roof, damp in the walls. I couldn’t find that brightly lit, inhabited room and I couldn’t find Chris. In fact, I never saw him again after that night. Of course I had never intended to see him again but that didn’t stop me feeling guilty. Later I heard rumours that he and his family had relocated, left town during that summer. I hope this is the truth.

Most of the time, when I think about what happened at that house, I can convince myself it was all a dream. Even today, if I ever drink too much, I often have dreams where the night continues as if I had never gone to bed, and then in the morning I have to pick apart dreams and reality. Perhaps this is what occurred? Perhaps Chris and I just parted ways after the party, yet because we had been talking about the legends of ‘The Haunted House’, I then went home and dreamt about one of them? I mean, it couldn’t be that out of that jumbled mess of stories that have been told over the years, one of the stories was actually true? And so that particular story returns every now and again to assert its truth? As I said at the beginning, I thought I had buried the memory, the guilt years ago. But for some reason seeing that house rebuilt, renewed….well, it brought it all back again. Sometimes I worry I will open the wrong door and find myself back in that warm, cosy room, as if I now too belong to the myth. I suppose that was one reason why I wanted to give the story to you?

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School reunion draws some surprise guests to the blackboard…

detention

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a small town like ours, it is certainly not unlikely that you will run into people you went to school with from time to time. The majority of residents will have attended one of three schools that have historically monopolised the district’s education system: Flinchley Academy (previously Comprehensive), St Joan’s Catholic School and Lethmachen Grammar. The latter traditionally accepted any child who passed their 11+ yet, in part due to its impressive academic reputation, over the last couple of decades The Grammar has evolved into an elite establishment streaming off the most promising pupils from the local primary schools. Competition for places has become so fierce that more affluent families are investing in second properties to ensure that they fall within the catchment area. Aside from impacting on the local housing market, this has also resulted in children from wealthier backgrounds increasingly dominating the school’s annual intake. Yet, even in the years prior to these developments, Lethmachen Grammar had something of a haughty reputation. A number of formal pupils contribute to this site, yet few seem to have fond memories of the place they often refer to as ‘The Grimmer’. With hindsight they believe they were led astray at an impressionable age; by teaching staff who encouraged them to look down upon the other schools in the area and to feel superior to other people in general. This attitude was tacitly cultivated through an endless parade of assemblies and ceremonies celebrating the history of the school and the achievements of its alumni (which amounts to building a few bridges and some minor contributions to Conservative Party politics). It is one of these ex-Grammar boys who has supplied the following report:

‘I first heard about the reunion on Facebook and I confess my immediate reaction was: what’s the point? What are we trying to prove? Although I still keep in touch with a handful of people from The Grammar, conversation rarely turned to our school days. Nobody I knew would be interested in attending a reunion, for them that whole era now seemed either unimportant or unpleasant or both. So if I did choose to attend I would have to go alone. What we would talk about after all this time? What could we possibly have in common? There were probably good reasons why I had lost touch with all those people; it was perfectly natural to move on. Yet Jason Nock was so persistent that in the end it felt discourteous to refuse. Not that he ever contacted me directly with a personal message or invitation; he simply requested that I like the page that he had set up for the occasion. To be honest I was surprised he even remembered my name. We had never been close friends. He was always the centre of attention, the life and soul of the party, whilst I loitered awkwardly in the wings. I am sure you know the type. It was as if Jason had been born with the awareness that this was his time to flourish, an inherent knowledge of how to manipulate the school environment to his advantage. These are skills that it takes people like me years to develop, and by then it is too late. Yet Jason slipped so comfortably into the role: admired by the boys, attractive to the girls and maintaining a good rapport with the relevant teachers. Of course he was a natural at sports, captaining a number of teams. Yet his academic work was also of an accomplished standard, and if his grades had been any higher they may have compromised his all around appeal. As to the future, Jason’s prospects were rosy; he seemed to have the potential to achieve anything. To think that was all thirty years ago now.

On visiting Jason’s Facebook page, I could not resist the temptation to take a quick browse. A date had now been set for the reunion (aptly, a school night); further details to follow. A healthy number of people, presumably notified before I was, had already signed up and confirmed their attendance. This included a few teachers, who had been lured out of retirement for one last performance in front of the class. As I scanned the list of names one or two inspired a flicker of recognition, half formed images of adolescent faces. Yet the majority were now forgotten, unfamiliar to me, and attempting to scrutinize the photographs of them as prosperous adults offered few additional clues. As an introduction, Jason had helpfully provided a paragraph of text about himself and what he had been up to, whether out of pride or a need to prompt our recollections it was not clear. Snapshots of his wife and children; Jason himself holding aloft various amateur sportsman trophies, looking a little younger than in recent family pictures. All in all, he seemed to be doing alright for himself:  Executive Director at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals, a small but successful local company. Perhaps he had not quite achieved the lofty heights his trajectory at school had promised, but I was sure he was earning considerably more than me.

Somehow I became convinced that my attendance at the reunion was inevitable, predestined. Possibly I was swayed by the repeated notifications, status updates and latest additions that stoked the on-line air of anticipation. If you cast your mind back, last Thursday was a dark, dismal evening. The building had changed so much since my day that I was through the gates and into the ultra-modern entrance foyer without even the slightest twinge of nostalgia. No doubt due to Jason’s tireless efforts, a significant crowd had already assembled in the main hall, which was brightly lit and had recently been refurbished. Soon it was just like old times and we listened to the current headmaster’s introductory speech in respectful silence. The gathering was reminded us of the honours that Lethmachen Grammar had bestowed upon us; like the emblem of the lion on every blazer pocket, so we were the lions of learning. Fortunately Mr Peel, the deputy head master during our day, succeeded in lightening the mood when he took to the stage. The crowd particularly seemed to enjoy the superficially barbed, yet deeply affectionate remarks ‘Peeley’ directed at his old ‘nemesis’ Jason Nock. With the brief speeches concluded, and a generous buffet wheeled out, I braced myself for the true impetus of the evening. It was time to impress people who belonged to my past. Feeling a little isolated and self conscious, I gravitated once more to the fringes of Jason’s circle. He was charismatically holding court in the centre of the hall.

At first it was all in good humour. Jason, flanked by a couple of cronies he had obviously maintained contact with, regaled us with exaggerated tales of his youthful escapades. What surprised me was the depth of detail with which he could recall the staff members he had plagued. Jason not only knew their names and the subjects they taught, but could also describe their appearance intricately and mimic their mannerisms perfectly. It was as if they were back in the room. Or we were back in theirs. There was a certain supply teacher that Jason had been especially fond of, even though she had only been with us for one term. Who could forget Miss Linden, he demanded? Who, but me? Next the results and controversies of every sporting event were recounted, whether inter-house or opposing rival schools. Many of those present were probably drinking too much, no longer knowing their limits, simply glad to be free of the kids for the night. Yet Jason seemed to be slugging back the bubbly particularly recklessly, as if he needed the courage to fuel his stories, to keep people listening. Although those about me continued to be entertained, I noticed an embittered, sour tone beginning to creep into his reminiscences. Before long the collective memories had been dispensed with altogether. No more awkward romances, no more fashion disasters, no more cancelled parties. Instead Jason was demonstrating his photographic memory of the old school registers. Swaying unsteadily on a chair he had called for silence in the bustling hall. Then, in a slurred, bullish voice he announced the name of every pupil who had not attended, following each name with a drawn out laugh of derision. Members of the crowd began to shift uneasily. This was no joke; it was evident he genuinely despised all those who had ignored the invitation. It was as if each had personally offended him with their evasiveness, their disinterest, their soft resistance. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Jason, suddenly looking a little queasy, was obliged to depart the hall in search of the toilets. Someone threw on a compilation of well known chart hits from ‘our era’. When Jason returned he still looked ill. I have no idea why he chose to speak to me that night. As I said we were never close. However, this is the story he told me:

‘‘I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark…but as soon as you’re out those doors there isn’t a light anywhere. Of course I knew where I was supposed to be going, only things don’t look the same these days. Without realising I must have taken a wrong turn. Being lost wasn’t so bad for a while. I was quite enjoying strolling the corridors and remembering all the laughs we had in this place. That was when I saw the child. We both stopped still, him like a sentry at the far end of the corridor. Although he was really only a silhouette, I could make out his school uniform by the moonlight. It took a few seconds to register what I was seeing. Then, without warning, the boy took to his heels with a sort of nervous laugh and disappeared down a side corridor. I ran after him; don’t ask me why. There was no way I could keep him in sight, like I said the whole building is pitch black. The direction I had followed led me to a dead end. All that was in front of me was a closed classroom door; I think it had once been my home room. Catching my breath, I put my ear to the door and listened hard. At first there was nothing but dead silence, a sort of low drone, like I hear in the factory at nights. But I’m not fooled so easily. Sure enough, I heard something: whispering on the other side.

Perhaps I should have questioned what I was doing. Why would anybody still be at school at this time? Yet at that moment all I cared about was knowing the big secret. Flinging the door open I stepped onto the threshold. Dozens of eyes met mine in silence, glinting like marbles in the darkness. The classroom was packed with children, sat stiffly upright at their desks, as if waiting for someone. Their teacher? Was that why they were here, without light? Were they all in detention? It couldn’t be me they were waiting for? You know how I am, usually got a joke on hand to break the ice. But for once the words just stuck in my throat. I think I got as far as gasping ‘Why…?’ but that just made them stare fiercer, harder, like they really hated me. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Then, as if obeying some secret command, every single child in that room began to rise slowly from their desk. Was their teacher here at last? I did sense a sudden presence at my shoulder. Someone at the back of the room pointed a finger at me. ‘You don’t belong here’. That was all they said. Softly, but making it sound like a threat. All the time, the front rows struggled closer through that crowded room. Some of their faces caught the moonlight coming in through the windows. Do you understand? That was the worst thing of all! Because I recognised them. The faces of those who did not come tonight. Only they hadn’t needed an invitation because they had never left, they had been here all along. I felt the shadow behind me move closer, but I no longer thought it was a teacher. It was more like a zookeeper about to throw some live prey to a pack of lions. Something broke and I turned and ran, faster than I ever did on the track. Behind me, I heard a classroom door slamming shut.”

In a sad coda to the above tale, word has reached us that this week Jason has been signed off sick from work, for what will possibly be the long term. Apparently his ailment is stress related. Colleagues report that when he returned to work on the Friday morning after the reunion they initially assumed his behaviour was the result of a hangover. However the main nervous symptoms persisted: Jason appeared terrified of opening any door when on his own, even doors leading into rooms he was very familiar with. This neurosis prevented him from entering the boardroom, the accounts office, even the bathrooms at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals. ‘They will be waiting for me’ he sobbed to one mystified business associate, ‘One day I will open the wrong door and they will still be there, waiting…’

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Local residents are plagued by strange thoughts during the small hours…

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Late last night week we were pleased to receive a phone call from Dr Neil Cross. It may surprise some readers to learn that although there are plenty of parallels in the research carried out by this site and by Dr Cross our contact is, at best, intermittent. Both parties would accept we do not always see eye to eye over the causes and explanations of the supernatural phenomena that troubles Lethmachen. Nevertheless, we are always eager to court the good Doctor’s opinions. Detecting the familiar urgency in his voice, a weekend meeting was hastily arranged. Naturally the rendezvous took place at his preferred haunt: Victoria’s Cafe, situated in a quiet back room on the top floor of the Lethmachen Antiques Centre. Once the headmaster of the now disbanded Lethmachen Boys School, Dr Cross took early retirement on the death of his wife, and has since devoted his life to investigating paranormal activity. Gaunt of features, yet with a wiry strength and an almost intimidating fire of moral conviction in his eyes, I learn that what inspired him to contact me on this occasion was concern over an outbreak of insomnia. Having previously read our July 2011 article on ‘Shared Dream Fright’, Dr Cross felt that we may be interested to learn of the happenings on a sedate, leafy cul-de-sac by the name of Quell Gardens, and perhaps even a detect a connection between the two cases. The essential difference in this instance being that Lethmachen residents are experiencing something more akin to a ‘Shared Waking Fright’.

‘Sadly, over the Christmas period there was a death on Quell Gardens’ began Dr Cross ‘The young fellow living at Number Eight, Jeremy Swallow, unfortunately resorted to taking his own life. He had recently divorced and I believe there were the expected custody issues and financial problems. My police contacts inform me that it was suicide by hanging; the body was discovered in a wardrobe in the bedroom. His superior at work notified the authorities when Mr Swallow failed to return to the office on the 2nd January. It seems that Jeremy had remained undiscovered for nine or ten days. In my view this tragedy underlines another deficit of modern society. Neighbours no longer speak to one another, or take the time to investigate an absence. Any sense of community has been eradicated. No doubt the rise of the internet and expansion of home entrainment are to blame, not to mention this ridiculous compulsion for married women to return to the workforce. It makes you fear for the young people. A note was retrieved from the scene. From the synopsis I was offered it would appear the overwhelming atmosphere of isolation and silence was the final straw. I believe the letter concluded with words to the effect of ‘’All those sleepless nights, nobody knew what I was going through, nobody understood what was on my mind”.

As I said, a tragic enough case, but all were content to let it lie. Then early last week I received a call from an old friend of mine, a charming widow by the name of Mrs Bury, who happens to reside at Number Six, Quell Gardens. As Mr Swallow had not lived the area long, and had not yet attended any parish functions, Mrs Bury was not well acquainted with him, although she would obviously offer a friendly greeting if the opportunity arose. Being of a sensitive nature, she was touched by his death, but in no sense traumatized or in deep mourning. Yet Mrs Bury told me she was subsequently having trouble sleeping. “I find myself suddenly wide awake at around three o’clock each morning, and can’t get back to sleep again. I lie there in bed listening to the rain or imagining things in the darkness. And the worst thing of all is what is running through my mind. The thoughts I have! Really quite silly, illogical, and to be honest rather morbid. When morning comes and I am able to look back with a clear head, they really do make no sense, and have no bearing on my life. It’s as if they aren’t my own thoughts at all!” Although Mrs Bury contacted me specifically as she suspected the work of restless spirits, I confided that I could not currently recognise any evidence to support this, and suggested that perhaps her sleeping patterns had been disturbed by the upheavals of Christmas.

It was only as I made to leave Quell Gardens that an incident occurred that forced me to reconsider. Out on the pavement a man collided with me, almost knocking both of us to the floor. Seconds before I had registered his rather unsteady, lumbering gait and announced “Excuse me” as we advanced. As I steadied him I noticed the fatigued, hollow look in his eyes and enquired if he was ill. This resulted in myself escorting Mr Boycott back to Number Ten, where he related a strikingly similar tale to that of Mrs Bury. Over the last week he had suddenly begun suffering from insomnia, leading him to listlessly roam the house during the small hours. “And the thoughts are the worst thing, like a chain I can’t break” Boycott explained despondently “They are not even thoughts I can recognise, it’s like they come from somewhere else. Once I even found myself driven towards the wardrobe, like I wanted to climb in and never come out!” These revelations prompted me to questions a number of other residents and on during each interview the same symptoms, the same complaints were repeated: disturbed sleep accompanied by absurd, unbalanced thoughts that they insist are completely out of character. Perhaps the most devastating aspect of all of this was that each person was suffering in silence, in isolation. None of these neighbours had spoken to each other, shared their experiences’.

My curiosity whetted, I asked Dr Cross for his conclusion. ‘I believe it is highly probable that these poor people are the victims of possession. The residents of Quell Gardens are acting as simultaneous hosts for the restless spirit of Jeremy Swallow. Conductors if you will’. ‘At least they have finally found a sense of community’ I joked, yet Dr Cross responded merely with a fleeting, humourless smile. ‘Do you think what they are actually suffering from is a shared sense of guilt?’ I suggested. Dr Cross paused in contemplation, as if estimating as to whether I would be able to comprehend what he was about to say.  He fixed me with a penetrating, slightly daunting glance. ‘My young friend, we do not yet know enough about Mr Swallow’s background. As reluctant as I am to speak ill of the dead, we must look at the evidence. A broken marriage, financial difficulties, this could well imply domestic abuse, alcohol problems, a bad apple so to speak. I would not be surprised to learn that an evil spirit has been set loose in Quell Gardens’.

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We all need a bit of ‘me’ time. But what if that me isn’t you?

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All those who have followed our posts over the last two years will be aware that Lethmachen is no ordinary town and that contributing to this site demands more than would be expected of the typical local journalist. Often we are confronted with outright hostility, yet more frequently greeted with a dismissive disdain as if our writing, our research, our culture has no foundation in reality, no place in society. What has this to do with you? We already know the truth about this – is the most common, uniform response if ever we seek an interview with Lethmachen politicians, Councillors, legal authorities or even the local press. As a result our work, exposing the haunted, subterranean undertow of Letmachen can at times prove exhausting, frustrating, perhaps even hopeless. So what is our motivation, bearing in mind that for the majority of us this is something we have to pursue alongside our ‘real’ jobs? On a philosophical level it is a commitment the freedom to doubt, to question, to undermine those who would speak for us. To give a voice to the silenced, the dead. On a personal level, we share an addiction to the creeping thrill that rises whenever we suspect that things are not as they seem; that the possibilities are more diverse than we have been led to believe. An open door on an empty street. Which elaborate preamble may explain why I was still at my desk late on a Friday, and took the following call from an old acquaintance (NB: we do not encourage phone calls, indeed our number is not listed – please contact the website directly).

‘You remember my flatmate Alona; I think you met her once at Chiaroscuros? Well, she moved out this morning, decided not to renew her six monthly contract. We didn’t fall out or anything, in fact we barely saw each other, passed like ships in the night. I had the impression she just wasn’t ready to settle down yet, that she was treating this as a period of transition. Well, last night we made an arrangement to sit down together for once, and enjoy a few farewell drinks. Anyway, late on in the evening we were discussing her new flat, apparently a little place on her own, which led to us exchanging tales of previous experiences with renting. It may have been due to the wine, but it only gradually dawned on me she was leading me in to this really strange story. And I immediately thought of you! I hope she won’t mind me repeating what she said, but as of today she has a new career in a new town, so it’s unlikely she’ll ever have reason to Google ‘Lethmachen’ again.

Alona said that, prior to moving in with me, she had lived with a boyfriend for the first time. Shall we call him ‘Ken’? I’ve forgotten his name already! After about four or five months of ‘co-habiting’ Ken announced he was going away for the weekend, attending a friend’s stag-do in Newquay. This would mean that, for the first time, Alona would be by herself in the flat. She was not too concerned about spending the night alone, in fact she told me that she was quite looking forward to having the place to herself, enjoying a bit of ‘me’ time. You know how it can be, even with someone you’re really fond of, sometimes it is nice to have your own space. Hence that Friday Alona returned from work in a relaxed mood, pleased with the prospect of stretching out in front of the TV with a few glasses of wine, with the bathroom and bedroom all to herself. She watched dusk fall over the town from the windows of their top floor flat, and received a few fleeting texts from Ken, informing her he had arrived safely but revealing little else. Bedding herself in for the night, Alona made a leisurely circuit of the flat, locking doors, closing windows and drawing curtains. She told me everything seemed fine until she was in the bedroom. That was when she began to feel creepy.

Having made token gestures at tidying up, peeling a few items of clothing off the floorboards and depositing them in the wash bin, Alona had switched off the light in the bedroom and turned to leave. It was at that moment, the shift from light to dark, that she thought she saw someone. It had only been the suggestion of movement, close to the ground, as if someone was crawling out from that blind spot between the far side of the bed and the wardrobe. As I said she made clear it was only a glimpse, a hint out the corner of her eye, but enough to make her flee the room. Slamming the door behind her, in the sanctuary of the living room Alona caught her breath. Had she forgotten so soon what it was like to be alone? She never thought it would affect her like this, perhaps she had grown too accustomed to being surrounded by people? Yet try as she might to convince herself it was all in her imagination, Alona could not dismiss the feeling that there was someone else in the flat, someone else in her space. Someone that wanted her space? Minutes dragged by slowly. Her mind running in circles, Alona strove to persuade herself that all she needed to do was open the living room door, walk the few steps across the hall, and throw on the lights in the bedroom. There would be nothing there. But she couldn’t convince herself to do it.

Then the knockings began. Quiet, hesitant, but persistent. Like a weakly clenched fist, at the foot of the living room door. Could it be the pipes? The people downstairs? Tap…tap…tap. No, in her heart Alona knew what she heard was close to her. The timbre of the knockings almost sounded friendly, a gentle request for entry, but Alona suspected some kind of deceit and could not bring herself to open up. Tap…tap…tap. There would be a pause for five minutes, or even fifteen – just long enough to believe they had stopped, that you were alone – and then they would begin again. But why were the raps so low against the door, as if someone lay crippled in the hall, barely able to raise themselves off the carpet? To distract herself, break this absurd train of thought, Alona tried to call, then text Ken. His mobile was switched off, no response. Should she try contacting a friend? No, they would just think she was being childish, pathetic, or simply joking. It was only after some time pacing the living room, deliberating, that Alona realised the knocking had stopped. Instead, there was a faint scuttling, rustling, first above her head, then, at intervals, seemingly all around her. She’s in the walls, thought Alona. For some reason, from the briefest of glances, Alona had come to the conclusion that the intruder was female. She was not sure if this made things better or worse. Moments later that steady tap…tap..tap resumed, this time at the living room window. It reminded Alona of the time a seagull had settled on the ledge and pecked at each pane in turn. Still, she refused to draw back the curtains. It could be all she would see would be her own eyes reflected in the glass. But what if she saw someone else’s? As the knockings roamed further from the living room door, Alona considered making a run for it. Yet every time she took a step in that direction it was accompanied by what sounded like a sudden lurch from up above, as if her intentions were immediately known, and her escape would be cut off. Besides, her door keys were in the bottom in her bag hanging on the back of the bedroom door. By the time she had delved in and found them, then fumbled around with the lock, it would all be over.

To cut a long story short, Alona spent a terrible night barricaded in her own living room, eventually curled up in a foetal position on the sofa, not daring to sleep. The knockings faded with the coming of dawn, as these things tend to do, and the next morning she left the house with the support of a friend she had called over. I don’t think she ever explained exactly what had happened to this friend though, and certainly not to Ken. They weren’t together that much longer. I think something happened in Newquay. I don’t know why she waited until our last night together to confess all this. Presumably she was worried I would evict her for being too weird! Or perhaps it had begun playing on her mind recently. After all, she was about to start living on her own again. As am I. That is probably why I chose to call you tonight!’

An interesting postscript: with a bit of prying, or ‘research’, I discovered the flat in question was on Norwood Street, one of that row of Regency buildings divided up in to rented apartments. The top floor flat in question once belonged to Jennifer Wolfe, whom our older readers may recall from a series of sensationalized articles in The Lethmachen Echo a few decades back. Jennifer was, if this is not a contradiction, a famous recluse. She was also a famous, or rather infamous, hoarder, as discovered by local authorities when they forced their way in to her flat. It took them two hours to locate her body amongst the flotsam and jetsam piled up all over the property. Jennifer was eventually discovered crushed beneath a fallen wardrobe in the bedroom. The wardrobe in question had finally toppled under the weight of old scrapbooks, newspapers and once decorative ornaments piled upon it.

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