If I hadn’t had a puncture, I would never have discovered the haunted house.
And if I hadn’t hit the traffic jam, I would never have had the puncture.
The motorway out of London was at a virtual standstill. As I eased forwards a few feet every few minutes, a stagnant river of blood across a green landscape indicated the situation would not improve for many miles to come. The clipped female voice of the satnav encouraged me to take the next exit. I followed her advice unquestioningly. Little did I know where it would lead me.
I was eventually winding along narrow lanes amid fields and woods and hedgerows. One bend followed another, but my computer friend informed me this was the fastest route available and would get me home in forty-five minutes.
Light was fading fast and fat globules of rain splotched the windscreen. I flicked the lever and the wiper scraped noisily across the glass. It had been an early start and a tedious day of meetings. I did my best but the clients decided they wouldn’t renew their contract after all. I hoped my boss would be sympathetic.
Finally there was a straight bit of road I could accelerate on. I increased the speed of the wipers which now thudded across the windscreen. I guessed my long awaited promotion was shot. Maybe I’d see if the lads wanted to go for a pint tonight. I needed cheering up.
Suddenly the steering wheel wobbled violently. I stamped on the brake pedal and slewed across the greasy tarmac. My world went into slow motion as I careened sideways towards a deep, dark ditch. I braced myself for the impact and came to a halt with a mighty thud.
Even the rain seemed to stop for a moment. Then the percussion restarted on the roof.
For a few seconds I just sat there, my head swirling.
I was dizzy but unhurt.
I clambered carefully out of the car and walked around it. My front right tyre was flat; both left wheels dangled into a water-filled ditch. There was no way I could drive out.
Taking my smartphone from my coat pocket, I found there was no network. It was that sort of day – why should I expect any good luck now?
As rain pattered loudly on the car and the vegetation all around, I contemplated my options. Should I sit and wait for someone to pass by and offer help? Or should I walk to the village the satnav said was about two miles away?
I looked each way along the deserted road. A distant thunder clap concentrated my thoughts. Turning up my collar, I hurried off into the growing dusk.
As I trudged along, head bent against the wind and rain, two cars shot past, both of them ignoring my pleading hitchhiker’s thumb. One hit a puddle and sprayed water all over me. I was already too wet to feel anything.
Fifteen minutes later I rounded a corner to find tall hedges and a metal gate concealing the entrance to a driveway. If no-one was at home I’d waste a lot of time walking up to the place and back. But another thunder clap and a gust of window convinced me to try. Perhaps I could at least find a doorway to shelter in for a while. The gate was slightly open which felt like an invitation. I squeezed through and walked down the gravel between an honor guard of poplar trees.
The house was more like a small mansion, complete with balconies, columns and gargoyles in the eaves. A yellow oblong of light glowed from a skylight in the top corner of the roof.
I pressed the bell button. No noise emerged through the thick oak door. Lightning streaked across the sky.
I went to press again and noticed the door was an inch ajar. I pushed gently.
‘Hello!’ I moved into a shadowy hallway. It smelt damp and musty, of old books and wet dogs. A large staircase climbed to the dimness of an upper landing. ‘Hello. Is anyone there?’
I thought I saw movement in the shadows at the far end of the passage. But it must have been a trick of the light as my eyes adapted to the gloom.
‘Hello. I need to borrow a telephone.’
There was a flash and a thunder clap from outside. Half a second later I heard a distinct thump from upstairs.
A gust of wind slammed the front door shut. My heart leapt into my mouth. I turned to secure the handle.
‘Can I help you?’
I spun round towards the male voice and got a bright torch beam in the face. I shielded my eyes.
‘Yes, I’m sorry to disturb you. My car slid into a ditch. Can I borrow your phone to call for help?’
The light dropped and I saw a tall, dark figure at the top of the stairs.
‘You did disturb me. But you could be of immense help.’
‘Come on up.’ After a moment’s hesitation, I walked tentatively across frayed carpet and creaking floorboards, illuminated by a spot of torchlight as the man guided my way. The bannister was hard and dry to my grip. The stairs creaked louder than the floor below. As I reached the top, my eyes readjusted to the gloom and I found a young man in his twenties, long hair swept back into a tight ponytail. I caught the dark shadow of a goatee beard and the brief sparkle of an ear stud. He wore a long flowing patterned shirt over dark trousers.
‘I don’t want to be a bother,’ I said. ‘I just…’
‘If you can spare me ten minutes of your time, you can use the telephone in the study.’
He strode off down the corridor. I didn’t have many options, so hurried after him. We walked past large wooden doors on each side, presumably leading off to cavernous bedrooms. At the end of the passage a spiral iron staircase clanked under out feet as we ascended to a small landing with two much shorter doors below a sloping roof. He ducked into one and I followed.
The room was remarkably spacious. As we entered, candles in each corner flickered before settling again. Rain clattered on two skylights which cast a dull grey light. A small four-poster bed with frayed curtains took up about a quarter of the space. Next to it was a wooden crib. A stone fireplace on the far wall had a large oil painting hanging over the hearth showing a man in the red uniform of the British army in a bygone era. The fire was made up ready to light with wood, kindle and bundles of newspaper. In front of it were two wooden chairs – one with a white cushion, one with a red cushion – and a small stool on which rested a piece of cloth with and a needle and thread.
But it was the modern equipment that caught my eye. Completely out of place in the museum-like room was a video camera on a tripod, a microphone protruding from its top. Next to it is another tripod held a camera, with wires stretching out to two large flash guns. On the bed post was a grey box, some sort of camera device too. They were all pointed at the back of the chairs.
‘Wow,’ was my only comment.
The man doused his torch and turned to face me. His wide blue eyes flickered nervously from side to side.
‘My name is Henry.’
‘Hello. I’m Ian.’
‘You may not believe what I’m about to tell you. I don’t honestly care if you do. I would just ask for some help.’
‘Sure. What are you doing?’
‘This house used to belong to the man in the portrait. He’s my great, great, great grandfather who was also called Henry.’ I gazed at the imposing figure. He stood below a tree, a horse grazing in the distance. A large medal shone on his chest, a long sword glinted at this side. ‘His wife Catherine had just given birth to a baby boy when he was called to join the British army in North America. She hated this big old house so used to spend most of her time in this room. She’d sit in front of the fire sewing while her baby slept, gazing at her husband and counting the days until he came home.
‘He never came home. One stormy January night a lone horseman clattered up the driveway to deliver a letter. It said Henry had been killed in the battle at New Orleans.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘What battle was that?’
The modern day Henry looked at me through narrowed eyes that suggested everyone should know their history. ‘The British were fighting the United States, a spill over conflict from the Napoleonic wars. Henry served with the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law and was shot by US soldiers on 21 December 1814.’ I thought we only fought the Americans during their war of independence, but I held my tongue. ‘Catherine was inconsolable when she heard the news. She took to her bed here and cried and cried until her weak heart gave out and she died.’ Henry looked at me, as if waiting for a response.
‘I believe you,’ was all I could think to say.
‘She still comes back regularly to visit.’
‘Sorry, who visits?’
‘Catherine.’ He held my gaze. I must have looked as puzzled as I felt. ‘Her soul is tortured by the death of her beloved Henry and the fact she left her baby all alone when she died. The child was OK; Henry’s brother raised the boy as his own. But Catherine was heartbroken and can still be heard on stormy evenings, walking the corridors looking for her child, wailing with grief.’
‘And she always ends up here, where she died, where her baby always slept. And when she can’t find the child she sits on a chair and sews below the portrait of her dead husband.’
‘And you’ve seen her?’
‘Many times. Mostly on stormy nights close to the anniversary of her death.’
I look at the camera gear. ‘And this is all to prove she exists?’
‘I don‘t need proof. It’s for her. She wants her portrait alongside Henry’s. So they can be together. To help her cross over to be with him.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘She told me.’
‘You talk to her?’
‘Others have heard her, a couple have seen her. But it seems I’m the only one who can communicate with her. I told her I’d paint her portrait – if I can get a photo I can print a large poster-sized image just like a painting. It will help her find peace.’ His eyes glinted in the candlelight and I realized he was fighting back tears.
‘How can I help?’
A flash of lighting illuminated the small windows in the roof.
‘I have some automatic cameras but they haven’t captured her yet and the flash seems to erase her image. I need to try a simple photo, with no extra lighting. And I want someone to photograph me with her.’
‘You want a selfie with a ghost?’
‘I lie awake every night worrying I’ll have the same problem as her. Maybe if I’m also on the wall with her…’
There was the bang of thunder and the roof rattled.
He looked at his watch. ‘It’s nearly time. The horseman arrived about seven ten. She walks the halls just after that time. We need to hurry.’
So what was I to do? Clearly this guy was a nutter, but I needed to make the phone call so I helped him set up his ghost trap. He instructed me to move pieces of equipment around so he could try to get still and video footage of whoever sat in the chairs. He then lit the fire. I sat on the edge of the bed as instructed, partly hidden from the rest of the room by the post and curtain, clasping two remote controls for the cameras.
‘So when you hear me say “I will paint your portrait”, you press the two red buttons.’
‘OK, got it.’
‘Good. Now please keep still and quiet.’
He moved across the room and sat in the wooden chair with the white cushion in front of the fire. He placed the piece of sewing cloth on the other chair then opened a book. As the fire spat and crackled, I surveyed the scene, hardly able to believe what I was seeing and doing. The candles and the fire cast a yellowy glow on the room that looked like a film set. And maybe it was all a fantasy. Maybe this man was a complete basket case. Was I hidden in a remote room in a haunted house with a mad man?
The wind howled, whistling in the eaves. The rain beat harder on the windows and the candles flickered. Somewhere in the house a door slammed.
I felt the hairs on my neck rise.
A floorboard creaked. I sat rigid, stock still, hidden from Henry by the curtain of the four-poster bed.
‘Hello,’ he muttered, and my heart nearly jumped out of my throat.
A shadow moved at the side of my vision, then I saw the edges of wide skirts and a small figure clad in a grey robe and black boots moved across the room towards Henry. I peered slowly round the curtain. Her head was covered by a shawl, strands of hair just visible at the edges. She stood close to the vacant chair, with her back to me. She seemed to be looking up at the portrait on the wall.
She wasn’t a classic theatre ghost – someone with a white sheet over their head. But surely she was a phony?
Why would this man calling himself Henry plan such a rouse with this woman? Was I about to be mugged?
I looked around nervously, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.
The fire crackled. But the room had gone cold. Very cold.
The woman folded her skirts and sat on the chair with the red cushion. I pressed the buttons and the cameras whirred.
Damn. I was supposed to wait until he gave the word.
I half expected her to jump up, but she just sat there. Henry muttered to her. She mumbled back. I couldn’t discern their words.
He turned to me. ‘Ian, come and meet Catherine.’
She removed her veil and turned to look at me. She was a young woman in her early twenties, with abundant, curly auburn hair. Her expression was the saddest I have ever seen. Her grey eyes seemed to focus behind me and showed no reflection of the candlelight all around. In spite of the fire, her face was pale. So very pale.
‘Hello, Catherine,’ I said, my voice catching in my throat.
She smiled, an oddly emotionless gesture. Her lips were thin pink lines.
‘Come to me,’ she said, reaching out. I stood and went towards her. Henry looked slightly taken aback, but recovered quickly and smiled encouragement. So I took her hand in mine. She was cold. Not just chilly, icy cold. It was like holding a piece of frozen meat.
I was not frightened by this poor cold girl, but I wasn’t at all comfortable in her presence.
‘Sit with me,’ she said. Henry stood and beckoned me to take his place.
I moved round, not letting go of Catherine’s hand. Henry was stooping behind the camera on the tripod and a wide beaming smile confirmed I’d got him the shot he wanted. I sat down next to the woman.
‘Are you OK?’ I asked. ‘You don’t seem well.’
She gazed towards the cot. Several seconds passed. I thought she hadn’t heard me when she suddenly said, ‘I want you to help me find my baby.’
There was a blinding flash. I jumped more than Catherine.
‘What is happening?’ she said. Henry had a different camera raised to his eye. He lowered it.
‘Sorry. I’ll turn that off.’ He flicked a switch and then quickly snapped a second shot without flash.
I turned back to the woman. My hand hurt with cold. It seemed to be spreading up my arm. She stared at my face imploring. I didn’t know who she was, or if Henry had told me the truth, but it was very clear she was not normal – perhaps not even of this world.
‘I’m sorry, Catherine, I don’t know where your baby is.’
She withdrew her hand suddenly.
‘Then I must go. Thank you for your visit.’ She got up and with a slight rustle of fabric walked out of the room.
Candles flickered. The fire crackled. And I felt its warmth again.
I suddenly doubted what I’d seen. I didn’t believe in ghosts. This was crazy.
‘Wait!’ I shouted, rising from my seat and rushing out of the open door.
Henry cried, ‘No, Ian, leave her.’
I stopped dead. There was no-one in the corridor. She had moved fast to get out of sight so quickly. She must be in the next room. I pushed open the door. It was empty. No furniture. No paintings. Just bare floorboards.
Then she must have gone down the stairs – but how did she flee so quickly?
Henry grabbed by shoulder.
‘Let her go. She’ll be back.’
He guided me slowly back into the bedroom where the fire and light were very welcome. My mind raced.
‘How did you do it?’ I asked him.
‘The cold hand. Did she put her arm in an ice bucket before she came in? And the room. How did you change the temperature?’
He let go of my shoulder.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I thought you believed me.’
Then it struck me: proof of this fraud was right there in the room.
‘Let me see,’ I said.
‘The photos.’ I grabbed at the camera he still held. He tried to pull it away from me and it tumbled to the ground. He snatched it up quickly.
‘OK, don’t be so aggressive. You can see the photos.’
He flicked a button and the back screen illuminated.
‘Did you get a good shot?’ I asked.
‘When I turned the flash off, yes.’
The photo had her smiling at me. She was slightly out of focus but clear enough to identify her features. My face looked more frightened than I thought I’d been. But, even if a bit blurry, Catherine looked like a normal person. Not a ghost.
Then I remembered something Henry had said.
‘So remind me again why you can’t use a flash?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, his eyes suddenly wary. I snatched the camera off him.
‘What are you doing?’
‘If she really is a ghost, then the first photo you took with the flash won’t show her.’
I held up my arm to stop him.
‘Henry, if you’re conning me here, I’m going to be very angry.’
I pressed a button and the last photo of Catherine and me appeared again. I flicked the switch to scroll back to the previous shot.
Her chair was empty, the light from the flashgun reflecting off the bright red silk cushion she had been sitting on and the sewing cloth Henry had placed there. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck a second time.
On the chair next to Catherine’s, the camera flash had illuminated the white cushion.
‘Where am I?’ I felt dizzy. Very dizzy. I was going to faint. ‘In this first photo, Henry, where am I?’
‘Ian, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize either at first.’
‘Not everyone can see ghosts like I can.’
‘But I can’t touch them. As a living person, I could never do that.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘You held her hand. You saw her, spoke to her and touched her.’
‘It must have been the car crash, Ian.’
‘What about it?’
‘You were killed.’
‘Don’t be crazy. This is some stupid digital trick.’
‘Ask yourself this: why didn’t you get soaking wet in the rain?’
I touched my chest. Then my arm and legs. My clothes were dry. But surely I had been wet when I arrived?
‘I have the photos I need now,’ he said. ‘I’ll print them and put them on the wall. You’ve helped Catherine find her way. What can I do for you?’
Feeling giddy and confused, I looked up at the soldier on the wall. Tears welled in my eyes and I sobbed.
‘Ian, how can I help you find your way to the other side?’
As the thunder clapped ever louder and lightning lit the bedroom with flash after flash, my sobbing became a wailing; a wailing that swirled round and round and round my head, as if unable to escape, however loud I cried.
Catherine went to the other side that day; she’s with her husband and son again now. But every night the modern-day Henry still visits the bedroom under the roof. Every night he lights a fire and candles that flicker and dance on the row of faces on the wall.
Because the house is still haunted.
And I’m still wailing.
Night after night after night…
– PJ Stephenson
PJ is a British writer living in Switzerland. His fiction is inspired by history, nature and human nature. He has had short stories published in outlets such as Dream Catcher, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, The Fiction Pool, STORGY, Writers’ Forum Magazine, Writing Magazine and several anthologies. He’s at @Tweeting_Writer.