historical

Dead Oak – a short story

I had to face up to it: I was lost. The forest stretched all around me, an identical mosaic of green and brown, as though I was seeing the same photograph on every side. There was no path, no sign of civilisation at all. I might have been the last man alive or the first to visit this God-forsaken place for all I knew. If I didn’t find Siskin, or someone, soon then I was going to be in real trouble.

I do not know what man sees in nature. Give me a pipe, an open fire, and a good measure of aged scotch and I am the happiest man alive. Fresh air causes chills, I’m sure of it. But Siskin had insisted on a “ramble” as he called it, and I did so want to make a good impression, for a number of reasons. So I borrowed his walking shoes and put on a coat and hat too good for the occasion, then followed him out into the great outdoors.

And promptly lost him.

Goodness knows how it happened. One minute we were side by side, discussing some oddity of English law, and the next he was nowhere in sight. I admit I had been watching my feet, rather than him, because I was concerned about the mud. It seemed to me that it would have been terribly rude to spoil a fellow’s shoes, even if they were his second pair. Suddenly there was only silence, broken once by the harsh call of a magpie. I haven’t heard a living soul since.

There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and bemoan my fate. I wrapped my arms around me, trying not to shiver. The evening was drawing in, and the sun, coloured like a poached egg, was sinking lower in the sky. Siskin had promised we would just be out for an hour or so and would be back before tea was served. His dear, sweet sister, Lucy – one of the reason for wanting to make a good impression – waved us off at the doorstep and called “Watch out for the Witch!” Siskin had laughed it off as a local superstition when I queried her words, and told me not to worry about it.

I think I would rather face a witch than this forest, I thought to myself. At least she could make me some hot eye-of-newt soup! It was such a silly thought, it made me laugh out loud, which was a terrible mistake. My voice sounded harsh and unnatural, and suddenly I was aware that everything would now know where I was. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching me from the undergrowth, which sent a shudder down my spine.

I set off, not really caring which way I went. The sound of my feet in the dead leaves was like whispering, harsh and cruel, and the feeling of being watched only grew stronger. The shadows were growing longer, deeper, reaching for me. I had to stop and give myself a stern talking-to. There had not been wolves or bears in this country for hundreds of years and never anything worse. Still, I crossed myself, just to be sure.

Up ahead, I saw something that gave me heart. It was an old, dead oak tree, standing in the centre of a clearing. This was something new, something I could use to prove I was not simply walking round in circles. How large can this forest be? I wondered. Surely if I walk with my back to the tree I will come across civilization before very long. I found myself walking faster in anticipation of a hot supper.

The oak tree was clearly once a magnificent specimen, even a city man such as myself could see that. I wondered how many years it had stood, how many kings and queens had reigned during its lifetime. It had been struck by lightning, splitting the tree in half right down to just able the height of a man. The branches that remained were bleached white, jutting out like fleshless limbs. There was no moss anywhere on the tree, and nothing grew at all for about fifteen feet around it. The air was still and silent as a graveyard.

Despite the eerie atmosphere of the place, my spirits were raised. I filled my time pondering what would be for supper. I hoped it would be something warm, as the night was almost upon me and there was a distinct nip in the air. Picking up my pace, I thought of Lucy, waiting with concern on the doorstep. Oh, how I longed to see her sweet face again.

And then I stopped.

There, up ahead of me, was a familiar sight. Through the otherwise identical green vegetation I could see the tips of the old, dead oak. It couldn’t be, though, could it? Looking back over my shoulder, I saw only green, but I was certain I had not been turned around. It must surely be another dead tree.

But it was.

Not only was the tree identical, but there on the dark earth, were my footprints. I placed my shoe in one, just to be sure, and it was a perfect match. My heart was starting to pound in my chest and I was shaking like a new-born lamb. Oh, how I wished for a good stiff drink to settle my nerves! I followed my footprints across the clearing to where they disappeared into the forest.

I must have gotten turned around. That was the only explanation. I decided not to try the same thing again, but set off out the exit on the left hand side of the clearing. As I passed, I noticed a strange shadow below one of the lower branches. I couldn’t see what was causing it, but decided not to dwell on the matter. The sun had almost set by now, and the forest was growing steadily darker. In my haste, I tripped repeatedly over roots and fallen branches, catching my clothes and skin on the vicious vegetation. The whole damn forest seemed to be out to get me.

Head down and arms up to protect myself, I ploughed on through the forest, sustaining myself only on thoughts of Lucy. It was almost completely dark, now the sun had set, but every now and then a sliver of moonlight would break free from behind the clouds to grant me a brief moment of illumination. I was exhausted, cold and thoroughly miserable by then. I would have sold my own grandmother for the way home by that point.

There it was again!

I was quite sure I was going mad now. In front of me was that oak tree, pale and menacing, and there were my footprints, criss-crossing across the clearing. My heart was slamming against my breast, trying to break free no doubt. This couldn’t be happening! Tremors wracked my frightened body and I’m sure my eyes were as wide as teacups. Was this my doom? To find myself forever in the shadow of this dead tree?

As I looked up, the dark shape I had noticed the last time seemed sharper, more defined, even in the gloom of night. It was a little way below the branch, and seemed to twist slightly in the air as a watched in growing horror. I thought of Lucy and her telling the story of the witch as we sat talking after dinner yesterday. No, wait, that wasn’t right. She’d mentioned it on the door-step? Hadn’t she?

I clutched at my head, feeling sick with fear. Not only was my direction all twisted up, but my memories seemed to be, too. I was forgetting something. Something important.. With a cry, I took to my heels, running blindly into the depths of the forest. Twigs and thorns snatched at me like grasping fingers. Roots leaped up from the floor, trying to pull me down or break my ankle. I sobbed like a frightened child in a thunderstorm.

What was happening to me? What had I done to deserve such a fate? I had a sudden vision of Lucy, her sweet face contorted in shock. But I would never do anything to hurt her? Why, I had come to the house with the very idea of seeking permission to court her from her brother. Tears ran down my face, and I could scarcely breath for the terror that gripped at my chest.

My foot snagged and spilled onto the ground, my knees sinking into the cold, dark earth. I shut my eyes, for I knew all too well what I would see when I opened them. There was a strange noise, a creaking sound almost, rhythmic. The moon emerged; I could see its milky light from behind the shade of my eyelids. Though my body shook and the tears fell freely, I lifted my head and saw it, swinging above me.

I remembered everything. I remembered broaching the subject of courtship with Siskin, and him laughing at me. When he saw my shock and anger at his reaction, saw that I was serious, he told me there were other suitors lined up for Lucy, and to let the matter lie. I flew into such a rage, demanding to know why I was not good enough, what right he had to judge me so. We quarrelled, loudly and violently, and the dark rage over came me. I pulled out my gun and I shot him dead, just as poor, sweet Lucy walked into the room to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing what I had done to her, I fled the house with one thing on my mind.

There was a body, hanging from a noose on the dead oak tree. And what was more… It was mine.

The Mortician’s Boy – Extract 2

Leaving the mortuary, Toby is pursued by a strange creature…

Despite the comforting familiarity of London crowds, Toby decided he did not want to be jostled the entire way. He headed down a side street on a route that was technically longer, but would probably work out quicker.

Within a couple of turns the number of people on the street had dropped dramatically, and within two more they were empty. The air was still and warm, no breeze stirred. It somehow made the city smell worse than normal.

I can rely on London to be constant, Toby thought as he walked. A scrawny tabby crossed his path, stopping to mew at him in a squeaky voice. It was missing most of an ear and its tail had a kink in it about half way down. Toby grinned. Someone who looks more pathetic than me.

“I’m not stroking you,” he commented. “I bet you’re just infested with fleas.”

The cat mewed again, louder this time, then hissed at the sound of a dog barking in the distance. Its mangy fur stood up on end, and its tail expanded to twice its previous size.

“Well, stay safe, little creature,” he muttered, heading off. The dog barked again, somewhere off to Toby’s left. It sounded like quite a big animal, probably a guard dog in one of the nicer town-houses. Toby picked up his pace. The idea of a drink in front of the fire was growing more and more appealing.

There was a howl this time, and it sounded close. Toby had broken into a jog before he realised it. He stopped and forced himself to walk normally. I am fed up with being scared by things. There was no one else on the street. It was narrow, too small to get a carriage or even a pony-trap down. Brick walls stood on either side, windowless and dark. He could see people moving ahead, where it intersected with a busier road.

Something growled.

The sound was low and guttural. It spoke of sharp teeth and jaws that could snap through bone. Toby stopped. It was coming from something in front of him. No matter how hard he peered and squinted, there was nothing in the street ahead of him. He glanced over his shoulder but there was nothing there either. He took another step forward and the sound came again, loud and threatening.

Toby turned and ran.

Holding his hat to his head, he ran, not caring how ridiculous he must have looked. His feet pounded on the cobbles and his heart pounded in his chest, but neither were loud enough to drown out the sound of the thing that was following him. He could he hear the click of claws, the pad of heavy, muscular feet: thud-thud, thud-thud. It let out a howl that reverberated off every nerve in Toby’s body.

Toby ran blindly. The creature seemed to be constantly a few paces behind him, no matter how fast he went or where he turned. He swore that he could smell its foul, foetid breath, though that might have been his fevered imagination. He remembered the bodies in the morgue, cold and stiff with their hearts ripped out. Was that going to be his fate? Would Styles soon be preparing his corpse, Kitty prettying it up one last time? Who would take his memento mori? Who would even look at it?

He knew he could not run much further. Each breath he took felt insufficient to fill his lungs. There was a stabbing pain in his side and his legs felt heavier and heavier with every step. He had made his way back out to the main streets, but this did not seem to deter the creature. Toby could hear and smell it, even feel its presence behind him, chasing him down. He pushed through the people around him, elbowing and shoving as hard as he could. Some people allowed themselves to be rammed aside, through most complained loudly. Toby didn’t care.

He caught his foot on a cobble and he stumbled forwards, arms flailing. As he fell, he felt the cold certainty that this was it: his heart was about to be ripped from his chest right here on the street. Hot breath tickled the back of his neck and he felt something tighten around his throat. Time seemed to slow down, the voices of people around him sounding low and unearthly.

Something caught his arm. Toby cried out and shut his eyes. He did not want the last thing he saw to be this creature.

The Mortician’s Boy – Extract 1

After a bad day, Toby and Kitty head to the pub to unwind. That doesn’t exactly go as planned…

Kitty poked her head around the door. “The Vampire’s left for the day. Styles says he’ll cover for us if you want to knock off?”

“Oh, yes!” Toby said eagerly. He grabbed his coat and hat from the stand by the door and followed Kitty down the stairs.

“Pub?” she suggested. “First round is on you, of course!”

“Why this time?”

“Because you almost broke my nose this morning,” she retorted as they headed out onto the street.

“That was utterly your own fault,” Toby protested. “It’s always me that has to get the first round in, it seems.”

“That’s because you’re always causing me trouble!” Kitty grinned. “Plus you’re a push-over.”

“I am not! Ugh, so much for the idea of a quiet drink and sympathy from a good friend.”

“You should have invited one, if that’s what you wanted. Instead you’re stuck with me.”

She linked her arm with his and propelled him along the street. When they reached the Dancing Fox, their usual retreat, she pushed open the door and shoved him inside. Immediately Toby was hit by a wave of warm air from the room ahead. A vast, homely fire crackled in the fireplace, and thick candles added their light. The air was hazy with tobacco smoke and loud with the voices of the drinkers. Kitty sat down at a table and looked expectantly at him.

With a sigh, Toby headed over to the bar. As their drinks were being poured he looked around, hoping to see some other familiar faces so he could share his tales of woe. His eyes fell on a woman sitting on the far side of the room. She was dressed in a black mourner’s gown, decorated with ebony beads and trimmed with sable. Her hair was raven black, pinned back under an elaborate feathered headdress. She caught his glance and stood up, waving at him with a hand clad in black lace.

Toby tried to look away, to pretend he had not seen her, but it was too late. She was already picking her way through the drinkers towards him. He sighed. What more could today throw at him?

“Mr Tobias Shaw?” she asked as approached.

Trying to mask his annoyance, Toby gave her a quick bow. “Please, call me Toby. What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“Rosetta. Cordelia Alexandria Lucrecia Rosetta,” she replied in a voice that spoke of finishing school and elocution lessons. “I was hoping to speak with you about some photographs.”

Toby wasn’t sure what he had expected her to want from him, but the word photographs surprised him. Not as much as her name, of course. How anyone managed to even move under the weight of such a thing was beyond him. “Why don’t you take a seat and you can tell me more,” he suggested. It was against his better judgement, but he did not want to risk the woman making a scene if he refused. She looked to be the swooning sort.

She nodded gratefully and followed him to the table where Kitty was waiting.

“Who’s the Corpse Bride?” Kitty asked as Toby held out the chair for Cordelia. He rolled his eyes at her.

“Kitty, this is Miss Rosetta. She would like to talk to me about some photographs. Miss Rosetta, this is my former good friend and now constant source of harassment, Kitty Lewis.”

The woman looked between Toby and Kitty for a moment, and then smiled sweetly. “Cordelia Alexandria Lucrecia Rosetta. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“What did you want to speak to me about?” Toby enquired before Kitty could say anything else.

Cordelia produced a few photographs and laid them on the table. “I wanted to ask your professional opinion about ghosts in photography. I thought if anyone would know it would be a mortuary photographer, and your name came up time and again.”

Well, it’s nice to have a reputation that doesn’t make me out to be some sort of monster, Toby thought. He picked up the photographs. “I’m afraid there’s no such thing,” he said. “See this one? Both these men are very much alive. The man behind the chair only looks transparent because he walked in after the plate started developing. It’s probably taken with a dry plate as they need a much longer exposure.” He turned over the next one. “And this one’s a very famous fraud. The photographer drew on the plate after the image was taken to get this ghostly shape.”

Cordelia’s face, which had been a mixture of excitement and optimism, fell. “Oh, I see. So, they’re all fakes?”

Toby smiled kindly. I should have guessed it would be something like this. She needs to stay away from the penny dreadfuls. “I’m afraid so.” He shuffled through the last couple of photographs and stopped. An image stared up at him from stained table and he felt the breath catch in his throat. “Wait! Where did you get this one?”

He tried to pick up the photograph, but his fingers felt numb and useless.

“Toby? What’s wrong?” Kitty said softly. “You look like…Well you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Where did you get this?” Toby demanded again. “There’s no way you can have this photograph! It’s impossible!”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Cordelia stammered. “Why is it impossible?”

He looked into her eyes, trying to determine if this was sort of sick joke, but there was nothing there except bewilderment.

“Because they were all burned,” he said. He clutched at the table to try and stop his hands shaking. “My father was developing it and a fire broke out in the darkroom. It almost killed him and did kill another man. The negative and all the photographs were destroyed!”

Apple – Extract 2

Trapped in Cavington Hall, Apple wakes to a strange sound.

I wake in darkness, drenched in sweat and shaking. I must have been thrashing about in my sleep as I am completely tangled up in the blanket. Unwinding it from my ankle, I wrap it round my shoulders. I won’t be able to get back to sleep while I am as tense as this; I’m still trembling from the dream. In the gloom I can make out the shape of my brother on the bed, so I hold his hand to help me calm down.

Thump-thump

My blood runs cold. It is the sound from my dream, I am certain of it! I pinch myself just to make certain and wince quietly from the sharp pain. No solace there.

Thump-thump

There’s no denying it now. I definitely heard that noise and it sounds horribly close. I grip Skye’s hand tightly, silently begging him to wake up and protect me. Still holding on, I wiggle under the bed and lie there, quivering like a mouse. My heart beats faster as I hold my breath, listening. Under the bed is very dusty and I can feel my nose itching. I pray desperately not to sneeze.

Thump-thump

I try to think rationally. Skye said there was no such thing as ghosts, and he was right about the owl in the woods. Surely there were no such things as monsters? It must just be George banging around downstairs, or the doctor doing some work? Right? As hard as I try, in the enveloping darkness of the strange house it is very hard to think rationally.

I think of my father’s ghost stories, of the woman alone in the graveyard and the unseen thing pursuing her. It was scary enough then, wrapped in the blanket with Skye awake and teasing me. Now the very thought of it turns my muscles to jelly. I try to push back the memories, but they rush through, unstoppable, like the cloud of bats that emerges from the forbidden cave in his tales.

Thump-thump

I let out a quiet whimper, unable to suppress it completely. The noise sounds louder now, as if it is right outside the door. I let go of Skye’s hand, and move further under the bed, curling myself up into a tiny ball. If I keep really quiet, really still, maybe it won’t notice me. I wrap my hands around my knees, trying to prevent them from knocking together as they shake. It doesn’t really sound like footsteps, not human ones at least. What creature moves with a sound like that? Nothing normal comes to mind.

Thump-thump

Skye! I realise I have almost forgotten about him. If there is something out there then he is defenceless, lying above me. I force myself to crawl out from under the bed and stand up, holding on to the post. It takes a while for me to be certain my legs won’t give out beneath me. I take his arm and try to pull him off the bed, but he’s very heavy and my hands are slick with sweat. The mattress is old and has a deep indent in the centre where Skye is lying. After a few struggling attempts, I reluctantly give up.

Thump-thump

The sound has not gotten any louder, maybe it has stopped moving? I look at the welcoming darkness under the bed, wanting to hide myself away again. No. I can’t do that. If there is something out there, then I need to be able to protect my brother. It’s my turn to be the strong one. There is no tinder box in the room as George lights the candles in the evening by himself. I pick up the candle-stick though, as it has a reasonable weight for a weapon.

Taking a deep breath I tighten my grip around my weapon.

“Don’t worry, Skye,” I whisper as quietly as I can. “I’ll protect you.”

Being brave for Skye helps me to be brave for myself and I open the bedroom door a crack. Peering out, I can see moonlight flooding in through one window, bathing the corridor with its ethereal light. Nothing moves, not even a spider.

Thump-thump

It’s coming from the nursery across the hall, I realise. I tense, memories of the doctor’s reaction flooding back. I almost turn back. He locked the door; I saw him. If there’s anything in there, it won’t be able to get out. But as well as fear, there is a morbid curiosity that grips at me. What on earth is making that noise?

Slowly, I cross the corridor, my bare feet making almost no sound as I move. The air is bitterly cold out here and I can see my breath coming out in a ghostly cloud. Shivering violently, I bend down and prepare to peer through the keyhole. My traitorously vivid imagination pictures an eyeball staring back at me. I close my eyes for a moment and count to ten.

Thump-thump

I look though. Something moves by the window. I don’t see it so much as I see the change in the pattern of moonlight, but there was definite movement. Something is in there! My whole body tenses, and my heart beats so fast it’s painful. My hand brushes the doorknob and the door moves. The door is not locked. And if I can get in, whatever is inside can get out.

I want to run and get help, but I don’t know where George or the doctor sleep. And if I just shout for them then I will attract the attention of whatever is in there. I want to run. I want to hide. I want my big brother. But I just have me: Apple and the candle-stick against whatever creeping horror lies inside. And I can’t let whatever it is hurt either of us. I take a deep breath, tighten my grip on the weapon in my hand, and think of Skye.

Then I throw open the door.

It slams against the inside wall with a bang and I hold my breath. Inside the room is complete still. The curtains are open and the moonlight paints a silver highlight on all the surfaces. The wooden horse stands proud on its runners, and the chests of toys sit quiet on the floor, their lids open showing off their treasures. There are no monsters, no demons, no things that go thump in the night. As I stand there looking around, I grow braver and eventually summon the courage to throw open the wardrobe and drawers.

Nothing. Not a rat or a mouse or a spider.

I feel relieved, but also somewhat deflated, as all the tension runs out of me. I take a last look at the rocking horse, the moonlight turning the horsehair to liquid silver. In the distance, I hear a sound, like children laughing. My nerves break and I sprint all the way back to Skye’s room, not bothering to shut the nursery door behind me. Let the doctor punish me in the morning. At least he’s made of flesh and blood.

Panting, I throw myself into my nest of blankets. I pull a pillow over my head and sob quietly until sleep overcomes me.

THE MORTICIAN’S BOY

Synopsis:

It’s not the dead who bother Toby Shaw. It’s the living who are determined to make his life hell. While Toby would love to lock himself away in the safety of his darkroom, he has to appease his sister’s bullying husband, avoid the wrath of his boss, and take care of his father whose metal state is deteriorating fast.

Things really go to hell when Cordelia Rosetta, a widow who claims to be haunted by her dead husband, shows him a photograph he knew for certain was destroyed in a fire a year ago. Despite his best efforts, Toby cannot shake Cordelia’s attention, nor the feeling that it was more than just an accident that caused the fire and injured his father.

Aided by the eccentric mortuary staff, he begins to unravel the mystery of the photograph and uncovers an occult conspiracy that threatens both his family and his sanity.  And he better be quick, because the bodies are starting to mount up – bodies with their eyes removed and their hearts ripped out.

Status:

Withdrawn. Pending rewrite

Reviews:

Every sentence had me on edge, every detail was amazing and so vivid. The characters are unique, especially Kitty, she’s quite the card. – Stephanie S, Figment

I literally had the goosebumps when I finished the first chapter. Gosh, that was creepy. I love your style of writing. It’s a joy to read and fits in with the historical setting perfectly. Rayne-Lovett, Figment

Very well written and a really interesting premise. The first few paragraphs had me in stitches! Will read more tonight and can’t wait to see where you’ve taken these characters. – Steve Inglis, Figment

Where to read:

Figment – the first five chapters are available here.

APPLE

front

Synopsis:

Enter a gothic story of madness and cruelty, where the bonds of sibling loyalty are tested to the grave and beyond. High on the hill, Cavington Hall lurks like a beast surveying its territory. Spoken of in hushed whispers, it is home to Doctor Charles Cavington, last of a family cursed by genius and insanity in equal parts. It has now become home to twelve year old Apple. A run-away, she is forced into the doctor’s service as payment for saving her brother’s life.

While Apple struggles to cope with her loneliness and isolation, the mysteries surrounding Doctor Cavington are growing. What exactly is his interest in the two siblings? Is there any truth to his strange tales of Guardians and Reapers, ethereal figures he claims are responsible for dealing with the souls of the dead?

And what is making that thumping noise in the locked nursery at night?