I started to notice the Missing posters last March. The first was taped to a post box at the mouth of Turnagain Lane. A lost cat called Trixie: last seen wearing a pink collar and missed terribly by her family. She looked just like my old cat, so I suppose I paid more attention to the poster than most. From my window I could see people walk past Trixie without so much as a glance. Commuters streamed through the gap to the station, heads bowed.
Turnagain Lane was a misnomer. Technically more of an alleyway than a lane, it tapered to a small gap before it widened again and spat travellers onto the High Street. Sounds snagged in the lane and footsteps echoed from wall to wall. After I saw the poster, I could have sworn I heard something scratching inside the walls.
Over the next few weeks, I saw more and more posters spring up over town: Mina, Dotty, Smoky. All cats. And every time I walked down the lane, I heard a cacophony of scratching. I phoned the police to report the noise, but the officer was very short with me and I had the distinct impression that my concerns had been forgotten even before the dial tone hissed in my ears.
Slowly, other people began to notice. The rumours spread like a virus through town before it was all anyone could talk about. What was happening to the cats? In the Post Office someone erected a board with photos of all the animals. Hundreds of helpless eyes imploring you to save them. People started laying cat toys underneath the board until it was deemed a health and safety risk. Instead people would come and stare into hundreds of cats’ eyes and wonder where they’d gone.
It wasn’t until the first person disappeared that the police paid much attention.
He was a serviceman, RAF to be precise, who’d last been seen walking into Turnagain Lane. He’d been captured by CCTV outside the kebab shop. You could tell it was that lane even in the blurry footage. The entrance gaped like a wound. The time read 3:23 AM when he walked down the lane, never to reappear on the other side. We knew this because someone at number 52 had CCTV installed outside their house, and he wasn’t on any of the tapes.
It baffled the police. They even drafted in help from another borough, but they weren’t much more use. Our town was thrust into the spotlight: reporters, photographers, helplines, and counsellors. Whatever you needed, it was there. The Post Office was the central hub for the local support group, no matter whether you wanted anything posting. I think people liked the attention in a perverse way.
Eventually the cameras stopped rolling, and the interviews dwindled. Once a year we’re lucky if we get a roundup in the local paper. I found a forum online that discussed the Officer’s disappearance, but most put it down to faulty CCTV and a need for a private life.
I tried phoning the police again, once the fuss had died down a bit, about the scratching. Thing is, it’s got louder, and sometimes in the dead of night, when it’s really quiet, you can hear a man screaming.
Sophie Watson lives and works in Oxfordshire. Her work has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Paragraph Planet and Oxford’s Haunted, an anthology of ghost stories. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @scewatson.