Halloween

With Halloween rapidly approaching, at our meeting this week, we decided to have a spooky theme where we each wrote a ghost story between 500 and 1000 words to share with the group. Below are the ones that we shared on the night and we hope you enjoy reading!

All That Jazz, by Peter Jump

When I stepped off the dark street into the pub the band was already playing, on a low stage at the far end of the lounge. I checked the wall clock and saw it was another ten minutes till they were supposed to start their set. Given the effort I’d made to get there on time – I’d sprinted most of the way – and my hatred of missing the beginning of anything, I immediately felt somewhat peeved.

As a consequence I chose to ignore the band for the time being and got straight to the bar for a drink. After pushing past a couple of overweight pensioners in tweed jackets I managed to catch the barmaid’s eye. Except that instead of asking me what I wanted to drink she just started giggling like a school girl (despite obviously not having been to school for several decades).

“You’re fogged up,” she said.

“Just one of the many hazards of being short sighted,” I replied, taking off my glasses to wipe them on my shirt. “But I find a pint of Guinness always makes things better.”

“Of course it does,” she said, reaching down for a glass, thereby revealing more cleavage through the top of her blouse that a woman her age had a right to.

“Do you have to wear them all the time?” she asked, placing the pint glass under the tap.

“I sometimes try going without them, but then I usually end up walking into lampposts or nearly getting run over.” The barmaid giggled again, though I hadn’t really been joking.

As she pored I inspected the band. It included a very thin middle-aged man on clarinet, along with a very tall and stocky man, probably late thirties, on trumpet. There was also a stringy woman who looked about 125 sat playing a banjo. There was music on a stand in front of her which she was squinting at through thick round glasses.

Interestingly, there was no drummer, and also no double base. But as compensation there was a man – he looked East Asian, possibly Chinese – playing, of all things, a Sousaphone, which was wrapped around his upper body like an immense python. It was very tarnished, looking as dull as an old penny, and had several large dents. Even so, as the player puffed hard into its mouthpiece it produced very clear and rich bass tones.

As the group started a very upbeat and also very loud rendition of When the Saints Come Marching In it became obvious this was a traditional jazz band. All I’d known was that jazz would be played, but not what kind. I preferred something more modern, but decided I’d listen anyway. After all, any live music is better than no music at all.

Seats had been arranged theatre style in three rows for those wanting to watch the band, and I was able to snag the last empty chair at the front. Looking about me, I saw that most of the audience was well over sixty, and dressed relatively formally in shirt and tie. So was this the typical audience for trad jazz?

Though I felt out of place, I soon found myself enjoying the music a little more than I’d imagined. Then, as the group started an extremely slow version of Summertime, a youngish man in a trench coat entered the pub carrying a bass drum, which he placed behind the ancient banjoist. He then proceeded to saunter in and out of the lounge for ten minutes, bringing in the rest of the drum kit.

“That one, he’s always late,” whispered the grey-haired octogenarian next to me. “Never on time, always late. Not like you, eh?”

By the time Summertime was over, the tardy drummer was sat on his stool, sticks in hand, and ready to bring some extra rhythm to Ain’t Misbehavin’. Over the course of the tune the clarinettist, the trumpeter and even the Sousaphone man had a chance to play extended solos. The banjoist, however, just strummed along regardless, her chords never seeming to match up much with the rest of the band’s efforts.

With the end of the song an interval was announced by the trumpeter. The players put down their instruments and then walked towards the bar. Soon they were all chatting with friends in the audience while knocking back their beers.

As I pondered getting myself another drink, my aged neighbour leaned towards me and asked, “How did you hear about the band?”

“Oh, I just, erm, I just saw maybe a, erm.” Now that I came to think of it, I couldn’t actually remember. I noticed posters on the wall of the lounge announcing live jazz would be on tonight, but as I’d never been to this pub before so that couldn’t have been how I knew.

To hide my embarrassment at not being able to answer his simple question I said, “What’s the band called?”

“No idea,” he replied. “They always seem to be on here, but I’ve never caught their name.”

After twenty minutes the band reconvened to play the old standard Alexander’s Ragtime Band. After a couple of minutes they stopped and the trumpeter stepped to his microphone and said, “Would anyone like to join us on stage? Perhaps try your hand at singing, or playing one of the instruments?”

A low murmur went round the room at this rather odd announcement, but after a minute or so nobody had come forward. The trumpeter then pointed at me and said, “You sir, you look like a jazz aficionado. Please, why don’t you take a turn on the Sousaphone.”

I laughed and waved away the request, not least because I hadn’t played any instrument since having a go at the violin when I was thirteen. But the trumpeter wasn’t to be put off and repeatedly implored me to come up. I found numerous wrinkly hands encouraging me out of my seat and before I knew it I was on the stage.

The Asian gentleman put the immense Sousaphone over my head and on my shoulders, then he muttered, “Don’t worry. It’s really easy. Play it just like you would a tuba.”

Of course, that was absolutely no help to me, but I thought the sooner I make a noise the sooner I’m off the stage. So I took a deep breath, puckered up, and blew into the mouthpiece.

To my immense surprise what came out of the instrument wasn’t an evil sound that could be used to ward off bad spirits. Instead, there was a proper, clear note. I then pressed a key and made a different note, and then another key and another note, and so on and so on, until I was playing a fair rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with the other players joining in.

When the tune was over there was a booming applause from everyone in the pub. Feeling almost euphoric, and with a big grin on my face, I was helped out of the Sousaphone. But as I made to return to my seat the clarinettist barred my way and thrust his instrument into my hands.

Tiger Rag,” he said. “You can do it. Yours is the first solo.”

Before I could hand the instrument back the band had started playing and I felt impelled to try a second unfamiliar instrument. And for a second time I managed to play a tune, in fact play it very well, to receive yet another big applause.

Next I was taking the trumpet and playing Wonderful World, and wondering why I’d never noticed my innate musical genius before now. And when that song finished I was finally allowed to retake my seat.

“You’re quite an accomplished musician, aren’t you,” said the old man next to me. “I bet you never realised how good you were till you tried just now.”

“No, I didn’t, as it happens.”

“I thought so. You’re not the first to arrive here to find he has a talent he neglected to use when he had the chance.”

“Had the chance?” I said, starting to get annoyed by what the man was saying. “What are you going on about?”

“Don’t you realise yet?” he replied, leaning back in his chair. “Haven’t you worked out where you are?”

“I’m in a pub near, somewhere near…”

“You’re in the place where the music goes on forever.”

Ah yes. Jazz heaven, where the music never stops. There were worse fates.

Not Tonight…But Soon, by Cuca Vega

I heard strange noises again. The same muffled cry of a child and thumping steps. I am not curious, I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t like children anyway. Why would I have called the night nurse to see what the noise was about?

I turned and tossed painfully about the bed just like I have done many nights before. Sure the sounds would go away and the day would break before I had to make any decision or reach out for the buzzer.

I am old. I am tired. Why would any message come to me in the middle of the night? I cannot help anyone. I cannot even help myself.

Go away! I shouted in my head. Let me be. I insisted. The noise wouldn’t go away and I could almost discern words from a toddler in between the cry. Then the words ‘Wake up, mammy wake up!’ clear and directed at me.

With difficulty I sat up in bed afraid the voice would say anymore. It didn’t. My eyes wide open in the darkness of the room.

I am not anyone’s mammy. Why call me? The only child I had I never carried for more than 4-months. I never saw the tiny body or asked if it was a boy or a girl.

Little steps moved across the room. I saw a silhouette of a chubby boy. ‘What do you want?’ I thought. I said.

‘Hold me up.’ He replied.

‘I am old and frail and I am nobody’s mammy. I am not your mammy.’

‘Hold me up!’ the child persisted. Like a demand, an order.

I reached out with my trembling hands and grouped the air, cold air.

‘No! Not like this.’ The child protested. ‘With your heart, hold me up with your heart.’

My withered lips quivered and tears soaked my rice paper skin. What heart? I thought to myself. What heart? All I felt was dark and pain. I have no heart.

The little boy moved even closer and despite the murkiness of the night I saw his old, sad eyes, a toothless mouth and a wrinkly face. He begged me again for an embrace with my whole heart. I feared then I would consent. I would open my heart and let him in.

No! I can’t. I shut my eyes and lay back in bed. I am not ready to die. Not yet. Not tonight.

Silence and a shift in the air told me the child was gone. No longer in my room demanding what I am not yet prepared to give. For how much longer will I be able to choose? A crack in my chest is already opened. A little light seeps through.

Only stubbornness pumps blood in my veins. I know I have no time to fix the ugly mistakes I have made. It is too late and I know the little boy will return to my room again. Maybe not tonight… but soon.

The Green Box, by Mike Bailey

His father worked frantically in the rain, gouging at the black soil with a broken wooden stave and his bare hands as he burrowed deep into the ground like an animal. He worked in darkness and without noise. As soon as he was up to his waist in the hole he cradled the awkward bundle that had lain in the deeper shadow against the church wall and pushed it quickly down into the mud at his feet. He pulled the earth over it, burying his son as quickly as he had dug his grave.

By morning the storm water had obliterated any sign of the recent digging and those passing along the muddy path that ran beside the church wall noticed nothing. The boy’s body was safe now, protected by the church from Satan and his demons and by death from any further harm or disease. His spirit slept undisturbed.

Great scoops of sandy orange earth were gouged by the digger’s metal jaw. The hole next to the church in the high street widened where the pavement cobbles had been dug away. Shoppers and market traders bustled past the unannounced obstruction as the workers took a tea break. A safety barrier in red and white plastic prevented pedestrians from falling into the excavation while a stiff orange plastic sheet covered the trip hazard from road to pavement they had to cross.

A burly man took over from the digger. His shovel blade bit into the darker earth at the bottom of the pit. A deeper channel was needed for the new internet and phone cable. It would carry it from the new junction box close to the church wall out into the road to meet up with pipes and cables already buried there. Another slice of soil was cleaved from the side of the earth wall and fell crumbling to the bottom and with it something muddy yellow.

The workman who reached down into the earth had seen the yellow streak now lying against the dark earth. “Look at this”, he said. He held the bone up, turning it as he examined it. “Must be a dog, I guess”. He laid it on the road at the edge of the hole and bent to dig his fingers into the loose dirt. “Here’s another one. Must have been a big dog with legs this long”. The foreman said tersely he would look after the bones and that there was work to do, so get on with it.

By the end of the day the bones had been passed to the local museum, the cables had been connected and the paving bricks re-laid on top of the filled-in excavation. A new green painted box alongside the church wall protected wires and switch equipment from the elements and curious school children. At the local telephone exchange phone connections were rerouted to bring the newly installed equipment into service.

Mrs Clemence was talking to her daughter who lived down in the valley. She had described the tribulations of her day and was settling comfortably into a well rehearsed catalogue of the various failings of the ageing body when she was interrupted by a loud cry. She asked he daughter if she had the television tuned to one of the crime dramas she was so fond of. Before her daughter could reply the cry of a child in pain startled them both. “What was that?” the old lady asked. “It must be a crossed line”, her daughter replied, “Ring off and I’ll call you back”.

The telephone service provider received several complaints about interrupted calls and noises on the line. Several people in the town phoned the emergency services to report hearing a child in obvious distress when they lifted their telephone receiver to make a call. Tests were run on the wiring circuits. No faults were found but the complaints of interference continued.

Tom unfolded his aluminium stool and set it down in the shadow of the church wall. He adjusted the headphones over his ears and clipped the jaws of the contact wire onto the exposed metal junction. Instead of the quiet electronic hum he was used to there was an empty silence as if he was listening to the depths of a well. He tried another circuit, and another. Each time he had a sense of vertigo as the silence dragged him down. He shook his head to clear the sensation and eased the headphones away from his ears. The noise of the high street returned, a reassuring bustle of voices, footsteps and traffic.

He bent his head towards the green box again and resettled the headset in place. “Oh, it hurts so sir. Please stop it hurting, I beg you”. The voice was a child’s, a young boy. The pain and the fear were as clear as the words. Tom jumped up and the headphones were jerked from his ears by the wire clipped to the junction frame. He trembled as he unclipped the wire and threw the headset into his bag. He closed the green box and locked it, put his bag and folded stool in the van and slammed the door shut. He stood looking back at the junction box. Feeling calmer, he was still sweating and breathing heavily.

People waiting at the bus stop on the opposite side of the high street saw the telephone engineer turn from his van and start to walk away from the church. One of them said afterwards that it was as if he had walked into a wall. He stopped suddenly and clasped his hands to his head. Another lady was sure she heard him cry “No, no, leave me alone”. Others said he simply screamed as he fell to his knees. When the ambulance attendant cradled his head and shone torchlight into the vacant eyes there was no reaction. He could have been dead except that his mouth kept producing a child’s voice, “No, don’t you go away, I won’t let you leave me. Please stop it hurting. Oh, it hurts so”.

Winning Shot, by Becky Bye

I set up my tripod and placed myself behind the camera. The beauty of the Abbey was such that even in its ruinous state, there would be little work required from me in getting the winning shot.

As my finger hovered over the shutter, I watched the ruin flare with colour through the lense. The sunlight caught the sharp angles of protruding stone and scattered the light across the highly decorated floor tiles.

I smiled to myself as the shutter clicks reverberated around me and I imagined the haunting voices of choral song once echoing down these corridors in a similar way.

A hand on my shoulder made me jump. My little brother giggled skipping around me in taunting circles as I attempted to grab him.

“Daniel,” I hissed, “we have to be quiet so we don’t disturb the other visitors.”

He raised his face to mine and poked out his tongue.

“Look, I promise we won’t be much longer. Hey, it said on the sign that there is dressing up in the next room, why don’t we go try it out?”

Immediately his face shone and he sped off round the corner, his feet rattling over the roughly cobbled floors.

Reluctant to leave the tranquillity of the space, I gathered up my camera and followed in Daniel’s direction.

The next room was once the Abbey’s kitchen, an enormous fireplace rising high at one end of the room. The bricks were stained black from years of smoke and ash and the room smelt damp and musty. It was a comforting sort of smell and it was easy to imagine this room bustling with activity. A set of stairs in one corner led to lodgings above and a small wooden door at the opposite end to the fireplace stood tauntingly in one corner, bearing a small white plaque that simply stated ‘private’.

Daniel had obviously been distracted elsewhere and so leaning my tripod against the wall and checking to make sure that no-one was looking, I walked towards the private door and gave it a gentle tug. It didn’t budge, but a tiny keyhole was carved just above the handle. I bent down and peered through it, seeing nothing but the smudge of darkness. Frustrated, I pulled my iphone out of my pocket and shone the torch through the small hole. A couple of worn away steps led down to a blocked up doorway.

Even in the dim light, I could see that the mortar between the bricks was old and crumbling, suggesting that this doorway had in fact been blocked up for some time. I wondered what the point of the private sign was as there seemed no need for a visitor deterrent from a blocked up doorway.

A finger in my ribs made my skin leap and I dropped my phone with a clatter to the floor. I span round on Daniel, my heart thumping.

“Watcha doin?” he asked, his arms folded. “That says private, we aren’t allowed in there.”

I opened my mouth to argue but Daniel interjected. “Can we dress up now? You promised!”

“I was waiting for you slowcoach!” I said, breathing more steadily and reached for a rail of monks robes. I helped Daniel into the outfit and tied the rope around his middle, holding the robe in place. I positioned him in front of the fireplace, his hands clasped together and his head bowed low, so that the dark hood obscured his face.

“Ok, keep still,” I insisted.

I clicked the shutter several times, before Daniel started to fidget.

“Your turn now!” he said, wriggling to remove himself from the robes and thrusting them at me.

I smiled and shook my head. “I don’t feel like dressing up. Why don’t you run ahead to the gift shop and I’ll buy us an ice cream. I just want to get a couple more shots of this room, ok?”

Daniel shrugged. “Ok, but I want an ice cream AND sweets!” He grinned and sped off, dropping his robes to the floor.

I picked them up and returned them to the rack in the corner. Turning my tripod round to face the private door, I noticed that it was beautifully decorated with ornate carvings of animals, which I hadn’t paid any attention to before.

After taking a few more shots I went to locate my brother and found him chatting animatedly to the Abbey guide, his mouth already smeared with ice cream. “Daniel! I told you to wait for me.” I turned to the guide. “I’m so sorry.”

The man laughed, “Please don’t worry, he’s not doing any harm. Help yourself to an ice cream and I’ll tally it up on the till.”

I rummaged in my pocket for some change and handed it to the man.

“Do you have any questions about the site?” he asked, “she’s a bit of a beauty though sadly fell into ruin like so many others during the dissolution.” He sighed, “She managed to hold onto her secrets though.”

My skin prickled and I felt the question about the doorway burning on my tongue. “What do you mean?”

He eyed he me intently and then leaned forward onto the counter. “There was once great treasure here; gold, silver, jewels and no-one knows what happened to it. Old King Henry certainly never got his hands on it. The story goes that a monk was given the treasure and told to build a secret room under the Abbey and hide it there so that it would be safe. The monk died before he could tell anyone where he had hidden the treasure. Archaeologists have had a look around the grounds but have never found anything.”

I felt my stomach jolt with excitement at the possibility of hidden treasure beneath my feet.

“If you ask me,” the guide continued, “then the entrance has to be behind the doorway in the kitchen. There is no key for that door, hasn’t been for as long as I’ve been here, which is over forty years. I’d love to get my hands on whatever secrets lie behind that door.” He chuckled, “Anyway, you don’t want to hear the theories of a boring old man. I hope you enjoyed your visit.”

When I got home, I couldn’t wait to develop the photos. The first shots of the Abbey standing majestically in the sunlight had come out beautifully. The ones of Daniel in his monk’s robes were a little dark, his robes blending in with the blackness of the fireplace behind him.

As I reached for the pictures of the door I gasped, feeling the colour drain from my face and my hands start to tremble. The door was open and stood just inside the doorway, I could make out the silhouette of a monk, his face obscured by his hood, and in his outstretched hand was a tiny brass key.

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