Try before you buy: that’s what I say. The opening chapters of a book should grab you, so here you can sample the opening prologue and first five chapters of my novel Witchopper. I wanted to give you a little more than you get on Amazon or Apple Books previews. Take a look. I hope you get pulled into the world of this urban legend and want to read more. Now beware the Witchopper…
If you see her, then you’re dead…
All Rob wanted to do was fit in at his new school after being torn from London so his parents could fix their marriage. But when Rob’s journalist father dragged him along to investigate the urban legend of the Witchopper for the local paper, her curse became their reality.
She was priestess to the pagan god of the wild wood, hanged by a rabid mob for her unspeakable crimes. Now, something far worse than the hell of high school is after Rob and his dad…
In the vein of The Wickerman and Midsommar, Witchopper is an epic ordeal of a father and son relationship, where past sins echo in the present.
Guidance: Contains sexual references, bad language, and moments of gore and violence
School children from the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell have a playground game similar to What’s the Time Mr Wolf and Blind Man Buff that is peculiar to the town. The game is called Witchopper. One child plays the Witchopper with their back turned to all the other children, who must sneak up on the Witchopper as they sing the following song:
If you see the Witchopper
Then you’ll come a cropper
Never mind how hard you try
If you look in her cold black eyes
When it’s time to go to bed
You’ll be sure to wake up dead.
The sneaking children must close their eyes when the Witchopper turns, for if they make eye contact, they are out of the game, along with much screaming in a mix of delight and mock terror. Then the song starts again in a neverending childish pantomime of death.
(From S. Lovegrove, 2012, The Witchopper, Nottinghamshire Folk and Pagan Religious Practices at the Cusp of Modernity. PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham.)
Facsimile from the notebook of Richard Peters
30th May 1820: Final entry from the diary of Reverend Gordon Moseley, vicar in the diocese of Southwell
Great sins have been perpetrated in this town. Sins that have snaked and entwined into one another to become a thicket of hate. It is a briar of her making and our immortal souls will bear the scars of our entanglement with her, as God is my witness.
I dreamt that none of us shall ever look upon his heavenly face because of that witch. When I close my eyes, I see only tortured images with the writhing worms and dark things of the earth.
It is three weeks since we dragged the witch from the Burgage gaol and meted her unspeakable crimes with the fury of good Christian men.
Three weeks and the town is quiet. People dare not look one another in the eye and all pass quickly about their business. Each and every face looks as tired as mine, for if my fellow man is like myself, the vision of that wretched woman has denied them any reprieve from their sins in slumber.
At the end, she uttered something, an ancient superstition in the old tongue, like one of Cromwell’s witches. At first it meant nothing, nonsense from a bride of Satan. Yet last night once more I could not sleep. I rose finally with the sun and opened the Minster, my thoughts crowding in on me. I sought sanctuary in the Chapter House. It has always been a place to think, a refuge for the mind. But there, on every wall, he stared back at me, branches and leaves creeping from his mouth and ears. He was everywhere, in the ground of every street, in the stone, wood, and brick of every building, and in the grass and the trees and the plants of all else. That old god, whose name she invoked, laying his hex upon us.
I think too much. I am so awfully tired, and despite that I drink, I am so terribly and insatiably thirsty.
The spidery idiosyncrasies of the Reverend Moseley’s copperplate handwriting became ever more erratic. He dipped his pen hurriedly into the inkwell on his writing desk, splashing uncharacteristically careless spots. The letters had degenerated into an almost illegible scratch as his hand shook, either from fear, fatigue, or both.
He struggled to replace the pen in its resting place on the desk. A flickering orb of light from his bedchamber candle illuminated his late night penmanship, while outside a cold moon, nearly full, shone down from an almost cloudless sky.
Swallowing hard, the Reverend felt the acid bite of dehydration and quickly poured himself another drink. He’d had the housekeeper place a jug in his room every night for three weeks now. A meagre splash of water fell into his glass. He drank it like a castaway on a raft, in the midst of a bleak ocean, might drink a puddle of rainwater on his leaky deck. It was never enough. Every morning the jug was drained, but still his thirst grew.
The slight man rose from his writing desk. Dressed in his nightgown, his cheeks drawn and eyes sunken, Moseley passed the mirror above his dying fire. The priest saw the image of a wraith staring back at him in the mottled glass. It was a true image, he thought briefly, before sniffing haughtily at the idea and burying it down, just as he had with the acid bile of his sickness. He wrote thoughts on paper to distance himself from them. It was silliness. All would pass.
The fact that only the Reverend saw the wraith in the mirror had also been playing on his mind. The gentle Doctor Goodyear hadn’t detected any malady, unable to meet the Reverend in the eye throughout their consultation down in the parlour four days since. Picking off the leeches, the doctor had recommended brisk walks to fortify the constitution and a nip of brandy with milk at night.
The Reverend smirked at the idea of his enfeeblement. He poked the fire and the wraith smiled back with hell-cast shadows wrought across its haggard complexion. Moseley’s own smile uncorked itself on seeing the happiness of his dark twin. He had to scrunch his eyes tightly and open them again to be sure that the wraith wasn’t still smirking back at him. Sure enough, the smile had gone, and Moseley hurried from the mottled mirror to his bed.
Placing the candle on his bedside table, Moseley hoisted up his nightgown in one hand, while he readied the bed pan in the other. He held his nub of a penis between thumb and forefinger, trying to stifle his grunts and gasps, a cold sweat beading over his pallid skin as fire slowly melted its way from his bladder to his urethra. Muffling his cries, Moseley bit his lip so hard that he tasted blood, and a thin trickle of molten urine trilled against the porcelain bowl. Sweat ran down his face, and he panted with his eyes shut, upper body hunched, his penis gripped tightly in his shaking hand.
When he opened his eyes, the bedpan fell, smashing on the threadbare rug. A silent scream opened Moseley’s jaws while his eyes glared wildly. It wasn’t that his urine appeared as a dark porter ale in the gloom, or that the pan was speckled with blood. It was that the nub of his penis was black and necrotic and, far worse, it was no longer attached to his groin. The dead nub fell to the floor, as a pathetic whimper escaped his lips.
Moseley moved frantically, grabbing at the candle, knocking it over. Only luck, if it could be called that, meant that it did not fall on the bed clothes. Snatching it up, the Reverend blundered from his bedchamber, cutting his feet on the porcelain shards of the broken bedpan.
The vicarage didn’t wake when he tumbled into the walls and hurried down the stairs. The door was left wide open to the night and would be found that way in the morning. Moseley, whimpering and chuntering incomprehensibly all the while, stumbled into the moonlight, bare feet slapping on the garden path that led into the graveyard surrounding the Minster, a monolith rising over the town.
In the moonlight, the shadows of the graves followed the priest’s futile haste. He carried the heavy iron keys, which jangled. Blood rushed in his ears only to be joined by a susurrant sound of something, perhaps everything, moving, growing, watching the priest try to outrun his fate. Or perhaps it was the sound of Fate herself, sister to the Reaper, come to meet her brother for the collection of another damned soul.
The key butted ineffectually against the lock, like a panicked fly trapped under an upturned glass. There was a hissing noise, as something serpentine drawing closer and closer, as if the ivy was winding snake-like over the gravestones and the sycamore roots burrowed and churned beneath the earth towards him.
Finally, Moseley’s trembling hand found its mark. The key lurched into the lock and muscles contorted in his twisting wrist. Straining to open the door, the Reverend fell through the portal. Scrabbling on his backside, bloody feet slipping as he backed away from the sounds that pursued him, Moseley withdrew into the church. It, whatever it was, stopped, halting in the night beyond the porch of the north door to the Minster’s nave.
Moseley stared wild-eyed into the dark, paralysed for a moment, before hurrying on his knees to the open door, to shut out the things in the night.
Reprieve. Sanctuary. The hallowed space of the Minster would protect him, the Reverend thought, gathering himself. He was cold, dressed only in his nightshirt, and still shook with fear as he padded into the middle of the vaulted nave, leaving a trail of bloody footprints.
The great font lay on the other side of the cathedral between two thick sandstone pillars near the huge oak front doors. The Reverend had no chalice for his sacrilege, lifting the wooden cap from the font with the help of a pulley system at the nearest pillar. He fell on the font like a child’s toy soldier drinking from an eggcup at the breakfast table. Scooping handfuls of water, Moseley drank and drank. The water sloshed into his belly, causing it to distend, and still he drank. But it was never enough. Eventually, with his nightshirt soaking from the holy water, he slumped to the floor, sobbing.
The serpentine noises from outside rose up once more, interrupting Moseley’s self-pity. He sniffed, inhaling the snot dripping from the tip of his nose and listened, unsure. The rustling, hissing sounds had amplified in the vaulted echo chamber of belief in which the Reverend had sought safety.
But it… her curse… no, she… had found him. Just as he had been unable to hide in sleep, she was coming for him as the irrational part of his mind feared she would. Moseley put his trembling hands to his ears as the noise grew to a crescendo. Like the terrible rumbling of an avalanche, the sound grew so intense it became a vibration, penetrating every ounce of his flesh until it rattled his soul.
“No!” the Reverend screamed with defiant terror.
Shadows in the great nave began to move. From where they lurked, hulking in corners, they thinned, growing longer, solidifying, joining each other. A thousand tendrils of different sizes, from every corner, crack and crevice, slithered out toward him, entwining like a thicket of briars, a churning chaos of life. With it came the potent smell of woodland decay, sweet and earthy. From the loam of nourishing death, the perfume of existence blew through the church, a building which had been planted a millennium ago on its land, built from its rock and wood and transmuted ores by the sweat of its people.
The Reverend shook his head, tossing it from side to side, hands still covering his ears refusing to accept. “N-n-n-n-no…” he stuttered. A small trickle of dark brown urine oozed from the scab encrusted hole at his groin, hidden like a woman’s private parts beneath a mat of pubic hair.
Moseley turned his head left and right at the faint sound of giggling children playing among the pews and hiding in the dark. And with them in the shadows there was something else watching, something great and towering and powerful. God! Could it be God had come to deliver his faithful servant? Moseley hoped in vain.
From that dark she emerged.
There were screams of a tortured death, which echoed through the great nave. The terror bounced from the walls, repeating itself as the faithful might chant their psalms in the learning of a hallowed lesson.
She smelt of spring flowers, sweet and new. Her touch was soft, her lips like velveteen down, skin warm like yielding mosses. Her hands ran through Rob’s hair. Her fingers, with nails of bark, and a hundred exploring tendrils, sent electricity from the nape of his neck to the tips of his toes, which curled in spasm, lost in a sublime warmth of no fixed location but omnipresent. Back arching, pressing into a heat that would consume him entirely, folding him in on himself until he no longer remained. A writhing mass of sweating skin and lush dew-covered forest, touching the divide in an ecstasy of oneness. Sweat and sap, pollen and…
Rob woke. The touch of his boxer-shorts on his crotch rubbed him as on a tender, barely healed wound. The wetness of his dream was already growing cool over the skin of his belly, and the material of his underwear felt sticky and unclean. Trying to wipe the clamminess from his face, Rob hit the screen of his phone. Midnight. He’d been asleep barely an hour.
Rob changed his underwear, hiding them at the bottom of his pile of washing. His new pair of shorts pressed just as sensitively on his privates, which still throbbed painfully, jutting out preposterously, like a small demon Rob had little to no control over. In the dark of his room, sweat cooled on his bare torso. Rob pulled on a dressing gown from a hook with a racing car back plate. The room was decorated for a boy at least half his age, with race cars on the carpet and superheroes on the wallpaper. His parents had promised to let Rob redecorate as he wanted. Childish though it was, in the dark, the superheroes were lunging silhouettes, the racing cars the shadows of a rocky, broken path. Rob shivered, pulling the dressing gown around him, closing his eyes, trying to pull the dream of the woodland goddess back into his mind. His shorts twitched, and then he heard something.
In the sleeping house, there were noises. Rob strained to hear. The shadowy, broken floor did not feel like a child’s fun space. Rob tiptoed as quickly as he dared across it, the throbbing in his boxer shorts shrinking away. The sound of the turning doorknob felt as though it was giving away his location. Rob slipped onto the landing, a floorboard creaked, and he took his weight from it, stopping to listen in the hallway. There were those noises again. A low mournful groan. Rob swallowed, thinking even that sounded like a twig snapping underfoot in a dark wood. A squeak, and then another. Rob thought about going back in his room and putting something up against his door, climbing into bed, and curling the duvet around his feet, but he knew he’d seen rats above him in the attic when they’d moved in, and his father, Richard, had sent him up into the eaves to store boxes. The rodents could be scuttling above his room or in the walls or beneath the floorboards. He needed to get close enough to locate the sound.
Three steps farther down the hall and Rob heard the moan again followed by the squeaking. He stopped dead, blood rushing in his ears. The squeaking continued, like a door with a rusty hinge caught in a draught. His dream of moments ago now forgotten, Rob’s legs were lead-heavy, each step a clumsy placement in the dark of a house that felt foreign and strange.
The noises stopped.
He was nearly at the top of the stairs. Inkish night cast a Rorschach of dark shapes on the landing. The house lay silent, listening for Rob as much as Rob listened for it. A ladder climbed to the black attic. Rob resisted the urge to look into the abyss above, sensing eyes on him. The light switch was only a few feet away. Its illumination would banish the dark and those things which hid behind its veil. But even though the house was still a strange new thing to him, Rob remembered the loose floorboards at the top of the stairs. He hesitated. Forward or back?
Rob jumped as two cats screeched outside. His heart lurched at first and then, getting past the initial shock as the caterwauling continued, Rob calmed, realising his foolish mistake. Knowing his nerves in this new place were getting the better of him, he decided to go back to bed, hoping his dream would return. He was beginning to turn back when he heard something that truly terrified his teenage mind.
The rhythmic squeaking started up again, as if it had paused, listening, just as Rob had, and decided there was nothing there, only cats fighting over their garden territories for the night hunt. With the squeaking came the moaning, and Rob felt revulsion. The squeaking got faster and the moans of his parents louder as Rob retreated to his bedroom, shutting the door tight against the horror.
“Yes, I suppose. Sex can be quite funny,” the Reverend Lovegrove said. He was completely unfazed by the class of almost thirty teenagers sat snickering before him. “There’s an awful lot of humour based on sex, so it’s quite natural that you should find it funny. The best humour is based on taboos, and with sex there’s so much we don’t talk about. The whole biology of it is by far the most simple part, wouldn’t you agree?” The class said nothing, but neither was it laughing now. “When you think about it, sex is really the heart of most things, isn’t it? Charles Darwin certainly thought so. Competition pressures on natural selection in mate choice. That’s not just for animals, is it?”
Mr Bryce, the form tutor, lurked in the corner pretending to read a book, peering periodically over the pages with a hard stare to silence the group.
Rob Peters, as was his habit, let his pen mediate between his subconscious and the world around him, doodling on a page at the back of his notebook, while he tried not to snicker like the rest of the class. He had captured perfectly the shiny forehead of the prematurely balding Reverend Lovegrove in his caricature. He had exaggerated the man’s slight foppishness by the expression he had given him. Like all caricatures, it was an unkindness edged with the cut truth.
Ally Strachan, a small Northern Irish boy originally from Belfast, sat next to Rob. “Not bad,” Ally whispered. Ally and his small gang had become Rob’s friends. They were in the same form group and shared enough classes with Rob, who was looking for anything to hold onto in the new school, to be pulled into their circle.
The searching eyes of Mr Bryce fixed on Rob and Ally. Rob quenched the small smile he had on his face and tried to surreptitiously close his notebook and make like he was listening. Mr. Bryce’s eyes lowered back to his paperback.
While the painful lecture droned on about responsibility, love, and respect, Rob’s eyes wandered to the side of the class. Sat at a table, biting her lip trying to ignore the hushed comments of her friend Effie, was Julie Brennan. She was quite possibly the most beautiful thing Rob had ever seen. He sat behind her and across the aisle between the desks. From that position Rob could see the languorous line of her neck, the curve of her jaw, the delicate folds of her ear, behind which she occasionally tucked her curly hair. Without thought, his fingers pressed the pencil down, ready to commit those lines to an imaginary page and mark with his artist’s embellishment what he perceived.
“She’s not for the likes of mere mortals as us, Robbo,” Ally whispered in Rob’s ear.
“Ally Strachan, have you something you’d like to share with the whole class?” Mr Bryce’s voice cut across the Reverend.
The restlessness of the teenagers stilled in anticipation. Along with the rest of the class, Julie and Effie turned to look at Ally. Rob blushed.
Without missing a beat Ally said, “Thanks for asking, sir. I was wondering if the Reverend would cover the sticky issue of internet porn?”
Several of the class were unable to contain their laughter.
“Black, Johnson, Sims, that will do.” Mr Bryce narrowed his eyes on Ally.
For his part, Ally projected a face of naive, honest interest in his question.
“You think about internet porn a lot, do you, Ally?” Mr Bryce countered. There were more titters immediately swatted down by a rapier sweep of Mr Bryce’s glare.
Ally replied, “I wouldn’t know anything about that, sir. But I read something on the BBC website about how porn,” there was more tittering at the legitimate use of the word porn, “was warping young minds, sir. It seemed relevant and pressing, sir.”
Mr Bryce couldn’t narrow his eyes any further, and Rob thought if he was to caricature him right then, he’d draw a pile of dynamite sticks piled into his skull with a short fuse fizzing away to impending ignition.
“If I may, Mr Bryce,” the Reverend Lovegrove said, still as sanguine as ever. “I think this is a most excellent topic to address.”
The school bell rang like a referee’s whistle. Chairs scraped back as teenagers reached under desks to stuff them with notebooks. The Reverend Lovegrove perched casually on the edge of the desk, and Rob thought his caricature had done the man a disservice. He really did look kind and intelligent, but neither of those things were particularly funny.
“We’ll save it for next time,” the Reverend said, his words barely audible under the rush to leave.
“Football,” Ally said. It was a question, command, and statement, all at once. And in the rush of bodies, Rob allowed himself to be swept along. The school still had an unfamiliar edge. He had to think about where he needed to go in the transitions between lessons. At least at break times the crowd surged like storm water down centuries-worn gullies, depositing them in the cafeteria or out to the concrete play areas. Rob found the organic automation of the herd to be a place to hide while he found his bearings in its mass.
Outside, Rob took up position between two piles of deposited school bags standing in for goalposts on the concrete. He liked football well enough, and as the new boy he was content to serve his time in the nets. Besides, it gave him a break and a chance to sit back and watch.
A dozen or more games pin-balled around the playground, overlapping and navigating invisible lines of hierarchy, age, and friendship groups in a lived chaos between the order of lessons.
The ball was downfield when suddenly more than half the players lost concentration. The opposition made a break for it. A boy Rob thought was called Johnny saw his chance and thundered the ball at Rob. He struck it too hard and the ball sailed over Rob’s head, hit a post holding up the wire fence and pinged off to the side. A chorus of “over!” rang out, to confirm by consensus that the ball had missed the half-imaginary goal. Ally jogged over to Rob.
“Oi, Potty, get your head out of your arse and chuck us the ball back, would you?” Ally shouted. A boy in Rob’s year was sat writing in a notebook on a bench as Julie and her friends, Sally and Effie, walked past. Rob had his back to the girls’ appearance on the pitch and realised they had been the distraction. “Come on, Potty. You don’t need to fix your make-up,” Ally shouted. Rob heard some of the boys laugh. As Julie and her friends sat on a bench and began to talk. The boy Ally called Potty visibly sighed and put down his notebook. He had black hair that didn’t match the pale colouring of his skin and freckles. Rob suspected he was naturally a redhead. Potty picked up the ball and spun it in his hands.
“Fuck me, Potty. Actually, I’d rather you didn’t. Just kick it back,” Ally shouted.
Potty gave the ball a small toss in front of him and punted it high and down the playground.
“Thanks, you wanker,” Ally shouted with disgust and ran back to the game as someone on the other team went to collect the ball.
Rob barely noticed the boy sitting back down to carry on writing, because his eyes met Julie Brennan’s. She’d looked his way, and for a brief moment, she’d actually looked at him. She smiled and laughed when Sally Watts said something in her ear. Rob flushed. Were they talking about him? Were they laughing at Ally? Or was it some other impenetrable mystery he’d never fathom the answer to?
“Rob, man on,” came the shout from his team, right before the ball whistled past him through the goal, followed by groans as the school bell rang.
“Nice one, Rob,” Chris Ward, one of Ally’s gang, said.
“Sorry, Wardy, I wasn’t looking.”
“Don’t be hard on Robbo,” Ally said, shouldering his bag and putting an arm around Rob’s shoulders. “He was admiring the goddess that is Julie Brennan.”
Henry Willits laughed. “Don’t blame him. I admire her every night, when the lights are out.”
“And your sports socks thank you for your donations,” Wardy said.
“A boy’s got to dream,” Ally said.
“Wet dream, more like,” Chris said.
“Aye, a wet dream she is.” Ally looked wistfully in the middle distance.
“Better just keep it a dream, unless you want to lose your teeth,” Chris said as the boys moved off.
Rob didn’t get it. “Teeth? What does that mean?”
“Well, Robbo, me lad,” Ally said, releasing him from his shoulder hug. “Our resident goddess there doesn’t mix with mere mortals such as us. She only favours the company of older gentlemen. And this particular one is called Danny Broad. He is an especially large fellow, like a titan of old.”
“Is he at our school?” Rob asked.
“No, no, Robbo. Only the best for our Julie. Danny goes to a private school in Nottingham.”
“His dad is the chief constable,” Henry added.
Ally grinned. “So he could smash your teeth in and get away with it.”
There was a titter around the table. It was funny, but the titter had an edge of nerves. Most of them had not met Richard Peters before, and he was something of a minor journalistic celebrity, brought low from the pantheon of London’s Fleet Street to the plebiscite of the regional press at The Newark Advertiser. And now he was their editor. He knew they probably had questions. Many of them would have dreams of working for a big newspaper or media outlet. They wouldn’t be journalists if they weren’t curious as to why he’d given it all up.
In fact, Richard would think about firing them if they weren’t suspicious about his claim that it was for a more comfortable family life. That’s exactly what every public figure says when they are covering something up. Of course, for Richard it was true on both counts. He was doing it for his family and there was an ulterior reason for it. But he didn’t want to share it with this lot.
Tim Smith, the sub-editor, was taking shotgun on the meeting, whilst Richard got his bearings. He seemed like a good guy. Actually, he seemed like too much of a good guy to be a journalist. Richard understood that Tim had gone for the job as well, and he’d served his time at the local rag for the last fifteen years. Richard swanned in at the last minute. The owners had gobbled up the chance to have such a premier league journalist as the new editor. Richard’s appointment had produced a bump in advertising revenue. None of this seemed to faze Tim. He was about the same age as Richard, with straight black hair as thick as the black rimmed spectacles of the Clark Kent variety he wore. Tim came across as bookish and kind, and if it was an act, it was a very good one.
Tim was looking to Richard, while Richard scanned the faces of his staff. The youngish female journalist, in the far corner of the table of the meeting room, came out with the hairy hands suggestion. A few colleagues still had small nervous grins, but the young journalist had put her head down and suddenly looked as though she needed to make notes on the pad in front of her.
“Sorry?” Richard looked at Tim for the name.
“Izzy,” Tim provided.
“Sorry, Izzy, could you say that again for me?”
Izzy shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She was pretty, petite and blonde, and Richard thought she’d look good on camera. “I said…” Now she didn’t seem half as confident. “…hairy hands.”
No one laughed this time. The words were greeted with stony silence.
“Go on,” Richard encouraged. Izzy seemed to bloom in confidence at his encouragement, and Richard liked that look on her. She was even more attractive when she smiled, so much so Richard wondered whether small time print journalism was merely a stepping stone for her.
Izzy glanced at her notes and then at the faces of the colleagues and cleared her throat. “Does anyone else remember hairy hands?” Again, she looked around at her colleagues for some support. Most of them looked away but one or two nodded. That seemed enough to encourage Izzy.
“I was thinking about old regional ghost stories and the supernatural. Things like that. You wanted something a bit different and of local interest. Well, there’s loads of those ghost stories all over, aren’t there?” This produced a few more subtle nods of agreement. “I grew up on the moors. And it was one of those Yorkshire things, you know about the invisible hairy hands and how they would grab the steering wheel of a car and drive people off the road. I mean, they were probably all pissed. How could they tell the hands were hairy if they were invisible? But the story had some traction for quite a few years. And I remember being a kid and it featured on early morning Saturday TV. And then there were those hell hounds…” Izzy trailed off, sounding as though the more she talked about the idea the more ridiculous it seemed.
“I like it, Izzy,” Richard said, looking into the middle distance above Izzy’s head and then back at her. Suddenly, the other staff around the table brightened to Izzy’s idea.
“That’s a good angle,” Richard went on. “There are lots of local ghost stories, and we are in the business of telling local stories. I think there’s a ton of ideas we could spin off from that. Okay, give me some more,” Richard gestured with his hand for the staff to come on. “I want local ghost stories or other supernatural things you know about and potential ideas about how we might use them. Go!”
“White ladies,” someone called out.
“Thanks, er…” Richard looked at him.
“John Cleese,” Tim said with a twinkle in his eye.
Richard gave him a ‘seriously, that’s his name?’ look, and Tim answered with a bright smile and a nod of his head.
“Good, John. Anything else?”
“No, it’s grey ladies, isn’t it? I grew up in Sutton-on-Trent, and we had a grey lady who haunted the village pond. She was supposed to have died in some horse and cart accident back in the… I don’t know, ages ago.”
“Karen Wilton,” Tim put in, speaking quietly into Richard’s ear.
“Footprints in the snow that went up over rooftops,” another journalist said.
“That was in Germany, not here,” another corrected.
“The hanged man out at Thoresby.”
“Oh yeah,” someone almost gasped. “That one used to freak me out as a kid.”
“The beast of Bodmin Moor.”
“That’s Yorkshire though.”
“No, it’s in Cornwall.”
“Oh yeah, right.”
“Rolleston Station is well known for being haunted.”
“There is the black-hooded phantom in Calverton. Lots of taxi drivers won’t go there after dark.”
“What, even an Uber?”
“God, Uber! I can tell you a horror story about my last Uber.” Several around the table groaned.
More suggestions were batted around, everyone knew at least one ghost story or strange supernatural event was somehow part of the local town or village’s mythology. And then it came:
“The Witchopper. That’s the creepiest of the lot. It’s got its own nursery rhyme and everything. Right in the middle of our patch too. My fiancé grew up in Southwell. She still scares the living daylights out of the children when they’re playing up.”
Tim leant in again: “Simon Farley.”
“Thanks, Simon. I’m from Southwell,” Richard said. It was such a mundane thing to say but had the effect of stopping everyone’s chatting. They looked at their boss as if finding out this minor piece of information about this strange new being in their midst was some important revelation. Really, they were just journalists who were starved of information, and so anything seemed that it might be important. Again, Richard thought, this is probably a good sign, they were the breed of newshound that he knew and loved. “Right, we’ve plenty of ideas to play with, but we need some other element of the hook. Ghost stories are good. Everyone loves them. But how do we develop them?”
They began to bat around ideas, talking about linking it to local fêtes or the tourist industry. In truth, this was never going to be a big segment, but Richard could maybe see it becoming a regular little thing for a few months where they went through local ghost stories as a fun interest piece. More importantly, it had broken the ice, and he didn’t want to start by busting their balls. He let them talk it over for five minutes before moving them on to the more important business, not least advertising revenue, fluff pieces on local businesses who take out advertising. Tim had already told him the preparation for the local May Day fair was a big part of their year, as were school photographs in the spring, which always featured in The Newark Advertiser. All those mums, dads, grannies and grandads buying multiple copies to have little Katie’s picture in the paper always boosted sales for that month.
How the mighty have fallen, Richard thought. From ending politicians’ careers to head shots of schoolchildren bought by a dozen family members. Stop moaning. No more excuses, no more lying. You’ve got to make this work.
“Right you lot,” Richard raised his voice above the hubbub. “Fun bit’s over, now down to advertising revenue. Tim, you’d better take it from here and fill me in as much as everybody else.”
Jane walked into the bedroom wearing only a dressing gown and drying her hair with a towel. Richard sat on the bed tying his laces. His wife was smiling to herself as she passed, and not just because she’d just had a hot shower.
Richard playfully grabbed her around the hips, pulling Jane onto his lap. She gave a mock cry of surprise and laughed. Richard looked into those beautiful grey eyes and felt lucky, really lucky, considering everything. He kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back. Their lips moved like old dance partners remembering each other’s rhythms. His tongue found hers, lightly touching before withdrawing. Their lips coming together was more than enough to get Richard aroused. Their marriage had been reborn, and with it, their desire for each other. Their mouths closed again, but they were halted by a creak at the top of the stairs.
“Rob?” Jane called, craning to see. The bedroom door was wide open and Rob’s shadow disappeared from the door frame, moving across to the top of the stairs. Then, the sound of his feet trudging down the stairs.
Jane rose from Richard’s lap, still smiling, returning to dry her hair. Richard tapped the flesh of her bum, and lightly she batted away his hand.
“Not now, you cheeky bugger.”
“What time is your interview?” Richard asked, coming up behind her to fix his tie.
“Eleven.” She nudged her bottom back to push him away.
Jane gave a small shrug. “What will be will be. It’s not as if I haven’t done the job before.”
Jane had been a medical secretary when she returned to work after Rob was born. She had studied graphic design at university, which was where Rob had got his talent for illustration from, although he eclipsed her ability by the time he was twelve and now, she knew, his talent was something very special. After university, struggling to find a graphic designer’s job, Jane had trained to be a copywriter, but she’d never enjoyed the work. Having Rob hammered that home, gave her a new perspective. The hours working as a copywriter in London were long and unfulfilling: helping to sell sugar to kids or debt to the poor. Well, now she had her own kid, and her own debt. Things had to change.
A medical secretary’s post came up at the local GP’s practice. It suited their childcare needs, plus Richard’s job was really taking off, and so Jane left the job when they decided they must leave London.
The front door closed heavily.
“Rob?” Richard called, dropping his tie, looking at his wife through the mirror. They both listened for an answer that didn’t come. Jane went to the window looking out from their bedroom and pulled back the edge of the curtain to see Rob reaching the bottom of the drive, his old school bag slung over his shoulder, headphones in his ears.
“Weren’t you supposed to be taking him to school today?” Jane said.
Richard leaned over, kissing his wife quickly on the side of the mouth. “Yep,” he said hurrying for the bedroom door. “I’ll catch up with him.”
“What about breakfast?”
“I’ll grab something on the way to work.”
With Richard’s feet thundering down the stairs, Jane called after him. “Have a good day too.”
“Thanks,” he called back, the door slamming behind them, rattling the brass letterbox.
“Can I not walk in by myself? I’ll look like a right tool if my dad brings me into school.”
Rob sat in the passenger seat, both headphones still in. Richard couldn’t tell whether the music was on or off over the hum of the engine. They turned right at the crossroads, the bottom of the common called the Burgage. They drove past the museum of the old jailhouse and a local landmark called the Hanging Tree, which stood dying at the edge of the common. When Richard was a child, it still burst into green during spring. Now its bare branches creaked and knocked.
“We spoke about this. This is a chance to spend more time together.”
Rob tutted loudly, turning to look out of his window, the rows of quaint, Arcadian, Georgian, and red brick Victorian houses sliding by outside. The town looked like the quintessential English country idyll, the kind of place that would have been put on promotional material to attract American tourists. Which is exactly what the tourist board had done.
“Tell you what, I’ll drop you at the top of the lane off Westgate. It cuts straight down to the school. You can walk in by yourself. Come to the main reception and I’ll be waiting for you in the headmaster’s office. How’s that sound?”
To this gave Rob an ambivalent movement of his shoulders. He fished his phone from the inside breast pocket of his school blazer and started to check through his apps.
“Come on, mate. I’m trying,” Richard said, with a slight edge on his voice that he didn’t intend.
Rob’s face hardened. “You’re trying?” His tone was already harder than his father’s. “You’re not the one who’s been dragged out of London against your will to the back arse of nowhere, away from all your friends.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Rob. I’m still your dad.” Richard had matched his son’s tone and volume.
“Really?” Rob retorted, adding in a heavy helping of sarcasm. “You have a funny way of showing it.”
Richard felt his blood pressure rising. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He’d had just about enough of his son’s sullenness, his constant talking back, when he could be bothered to speak at all, that was. Rob couldn’t see the bigger picture and what they were trying to do.
A derisory snort came from Rob’s side of the car, and he turned up the music on this phone. “Yeah, right!”
This wasn’t an end to it, as far as Richard was concerned. The snort did not have a calming effect. Rob was acting as though he’d just won the confrontation. In truth, Richard had never been very good at losing an argument. It didn’t suit the high-flying acerbic political pundit he’d become at The Telegraph. He didn’t respond passively to people’s challenges. He hit the brakes hard. They skidded to a halt, throwing them forward before jolting them back into their seats. Rob looked up in surprise into the dark countenance of his father’s face. Richard slapped the phone from Rob’s hand; and it fell between Rob’s legs. He pulled his headphones out of his ears.
“What the fuck did you do that for?”
Rob was shocked and taken aback. He’d heard his father shout before, but he’d never known him to use physical force. He’d always been so absent. The shouting matches were normally with his mother, always muffled through walls, never far away in their apartment in London. However, those arguments had stopped a few months ago when everything changed.
“I’m still your dad,” Richard spat every word. “Show me some respect.” He was saying the words, but even he was thinking they were ridiculous, as though some other prat was saying them, the idiot who’d cheated on his wife and barely been there for his son. “…and try not to be such a selfish prick, Rob. We’re doing this for you. We’re doing this for all of us.”
A car beeped its horn, pulling out around their stationary vehicle which blocked the road.
“Yeah? No one bothered to ask me though, did they?” Rob snatched up his phone from between his legs, along with his bag, and opened the door, jumping out. “And I’m not the one who has been a prick, am I, my dad?” He spat it with venom and the sting sobered Richard for a moment. His son slammed the car door and set off apace, striding along the pavement onto Main Street. Another car blared its horn passing Richard.
“Fuck!” he hissed the initial fricative, gritting his teeth after the hard-ending consonant, hitting the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “Fuck, Fuck, Fuck!” he shouted, punctuating each expletive with a strike on the steering wheel.
The worst of it was that his son was right. Richard was the one who had been a prick, a world-class prick, a prick to end all pricks, and still Jane stayed with him to try to rebuild their marriage. Richard took a deep breath, put the stalled car back into neutral, and started her up again. Rob was already becoming smaller and smaller, a young man in the distance travelling away from him, becoming a stranger, and he didn’t want that. He’d make it up to him. They would do something together. He had to fix it.
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