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Do you want to know the truth?

My boyfriend, Seth, has – or had, I should say – been in my life since I was 14 years old. I remember it very vividly because the same night that he and his family moved into town, my step father… Well, he did something awful to me, and that was the start of 2 years of even worse hell than my previous 14 years had been.

That awful night, after my step father left the room, I gazed out of my bedroom window, tears rolling down my cheeks. I was frightened and alone. That’s when I saw Seth for the first time. He must have just moved into the large house opposite; the posh, detached, three storey house. He was in the bedroom that was directly across from mine. His dad was in there with him, his arm thrown around his shoulders, pointing around at the bare walls, probably chatting about how to make it their own. I watched his mum enter the room with a tray of mugs. ‘Probably hot chocolate’, I remember thinking, my mouth watering and my stomach grumbling.

Seth was there in the middle of his family, the centre of their universe, and I was mesmerised by him. He had messy black hair and a mischievous grin, and I could see his parents laughing so I just knew he was funny. They were an attractive family, the sort you see in stock photos but without the dead eyes. Their eyes were full of love.

I desperately wanted to be friends with someone like him, but I didn’t believe he would ever want to be friends with the weird kid of the neighbourhood. There wasn’t *anyone* who wanted to be friends with me.

Seth wasn’t just anyone, though. He was very special. On that first proper day of him living there, my mum had tossed me out onto the street to play with the kids who lived on the road, even though she knew they just picked on me. Seth’s mum probably encouraged him to get out and make some new friends while her and his dad unpacked their things. As Chelsea, a girl in my year at school who lived on my street, and her younger cousin, who stayed with them regularly, were being horrible to me, I saw him doing kickflips on a skateboard in his front garden.

“Rose, why don’t you ever brush your hair? You look so ugly” Chelsea sneered at me, her cousin cackling like a hyena. They were right, I *did* look ugly, and I really did never brush my hair. I think that’s what stung the most. You get horrible people in life who do and say awful things to you, but you can take comfort in the fact that that person is just a terrible excuse for a human being. But when you’re attacked with a truth, it cuts through you like a knife. The truth can either completely devastate us or it can give us the strength to rise up. I seemed to be constantly devastated by it.

After throwing a few more painful insults about my personal appearance, they got bored and wandered off. Probably into town to hang around with their mass of friends. Why do the mean kids always have so many friends? As soon as they had gone, Seth wandered over to me.

“Hi.” He said, his voice shy but with a confidence I knew I would never have.

“Hello,” I responded, nervously. I couldn’t understand why he was talking to me, and when he sat down on the curb next to me I flinched, expecting him to do something nasty. Instead, he kicked at a stone lazily at his feet.

“Those girls seem pretty… awful.” He mumbled. I was shocked. I had expected him to ask me to introduce him to Chelsea, because all the lads my age wanted to go out with her. But I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was disgusted by the way they spoke to me, and my heart soared.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mum coming out of the front door. I stood up quickly while she locked up, and headed around the corner where I knew she wouldn’t see me. I didn’t want her yelling at me or telling me to do something.

To my surprise, Seth followed me. We stood next to each other silently, both aware I was hiding from my mother. He didn’t make fun of the way I stooped when I walked, like so many of the other kids did. Like a tortoise trying to hide in its shell, which earned me the nickname tortoise at school. The truth stung.

After 30 seconds, I allowed myself to breath. I looked up and he was staring at me, smiling kindly. I darted my eyes to the ground, unable to keep eye contact. He lightly touched my chin, raising my eyes to meet his.

“Do you want to watch The X-Files with me?” He asked me, gently.

“O…Ok.” I stuttered, sure it was all a trick. I swallowed noisily, trying to gulp down my insecurities. “Aren’t your parents still unpacking, though?”

“Yeh, well, we can watch it at yours, right? My parents work from home, so I’m not really allowed friends over.”

I nodded, smiling now, aware that I looked goofy but unable to hide my grin. Friends! So I led him to my house and showed him how to climb up to the fixture above my front door, and then pull up into my bedroom window. I always left it slightly open because my mum and stepdad often locked me out when they were out for hours on end.

I was nervous, at first, having a boy in my room for the very first time. There was mould all up the walls and I had no sheets on my quilt. My pillows had all funny yellow stains on, and there were holes in my mattress where I had been playing with one of my mum’s lighters when I was bored. Seth didn’t seem to notice, though. Or at least he pretended not to. Either way, he seemed so at ease that it kept me from feeling humiliated.

We sat on my bed next to each other, and that became our daily routine over the summer. As soon as my mum went out, we would jump up and watch The X-Files. Over and over again.

I couldn’t believe it when, a few weeks in, Seth put his arm around me as we were watching. My stomach did a flip as I nestled into him I felt, hearing his heart pound in his chest. For the first time in my life, I felt accepted.

We fell in love, even though we were so young. I kept him a secret from my parents, because they were truly evil and I didn’t want Seth to have to have such negative monsters in his life. But his parents knew all about us, and his mum and dad often chatted to me in the street.

It didn’t matter to him that I had no friends… In fact, it seemed to suit him. He was a huge introvert – probably on the spectrum – and I preferred to keep him all to myself, anyway. He was unbelievably gorgeous, his hair always perfect, his clothes always new and so stylish. But he kept himself to himself, so I didn’t have to contend with all the girls of the neighbourhood trying to tempt him from me.

I asked him, one day, what he saw in me.

“You’re beautiful. You’re clever. You’re funny.” He said. I grinned at him like the cheshire cat, knowing none of that was true but also believing that he saw me that way.

It was the best summer I’d ever had, even though the worst things my step father did to me began that year. However, Seth had been the most perfect distraction. Chelsea even moved away, so I didn’t have to deal with her and her vile cousin anymore. I heard my parents talking about it one evening. They’d heard she had taken an overdose and barely survived… she had some sort of brain damage. Her family moved swiftly away for ‘a fresh start’. I was pleased that I wouldn’t have to have her treating me so terribly anymore, but sad that she had had so much bitterness and anger inside her that she’d felt she needed to try and end it.

When school started back in September, I found that Seth was home educated. He had a habit of not really telling me huge things about himself unless they were completely relevant, he was more of a listener than a talker. I was glad that he wouldn’t have to see me getting bullied every day. Even though home life had become so much more bearable now I had Seth, I knew the school days would be as miserable as before.

Sometimes I wished he was there to stand up for me, but every evening as soon as my mum had fallen asleep and my stepdad had left my room, Seth would climb up and into my room and make me feel better. We’d cuddle, watch The X-Files and sometimes kiss. But even as the years went by, he never, ever pushed me any further. I never told him what my stepfather did, but I think he knew, and he was content with what we had. He just wanted to make me happy.

When I was 16, my step father died. He slit his wrists in the bathtub. I was out in the woods with Seth at the time, and my mum was working. I felt irrationally guilty about it all afterwards. Maybe if I’d been home I could have stopped him. Maybe I could have got him some help.

“But why would you want to?” Seth had asked. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t answer.

Losing my step dad had pushed my already bitter mother over the edge and she was furious, all the time. She drank more and more, and she took it all out on me. After a year I could no longer cope with it, and so I left home.

I was placed in a council flat in a very rough area of town, but even though the neighbours screamed and fought and took drugs in the stairways, at least I was away from home. I saw a light shining somewhere in my future. Seth would come over most nights, and sometimes he would stay with me. Other times he would go home after I had fallen asleep. He was always there when I needed him, and every day I felt myself becoming stronger.

He worked for his parent’s tech business, mainly remotely. It suited his need for solitude. I worked in a dead end factory job which was soul destroying, honestly. I thought I would lose my mind at points. But I had to pay the bills and buy food. I couldn’t escape my depression, and before long Seth moved in full time to try and keep me in bright spirits. His parents didn’t pay him well, wanting to teach him some sort of life lesson about privilege, so we always struggled for money but we had each other, and we were happy.

You never really heal from an abusive childhood, but things get easier over the years. And with Seth by my side, things really did improve. When I was in my early 20s, I went to college and got the qualifications I needed to attend university. I struggled at college. I still never fitted in anywhere, and had very low self confidence. But when I started uni, there were so many people there that I was barely noticed.

Early on in my first year, Seth had to work in London for a month. I wanted to surprise him when he got back. I threw out my wardrobe of baggy, black clothes that had always rendered me as close to invisible as possible, and bought some tight fitting, bright dresses. I got my haircut and I allowed myself to stand out. When he got back, he held me for a long time.

“I’ve missed you.” He said. “You look beautiful. You know you always do, though, don’t you?” I blushed, turning on The X-Files and cuddling into him all evening.

I was nervous about my new style getting noticed at uni. I know that seems weird, but the idea of people complimenting the change would make me face the fact that there had been a problem in the first place. However, there were so many people there that they really didn’t notice. Not directly, anyway. I did find that people made more of an effort to talk to me. I began to make friends.

I was encouraged by my peers to join societies based on my interests. One night at a social event, I met some bloke who was studying art who quite clearly wanted to be more than friends. I couldn’t believe it! I told him I had a boyfriend, but would love to be friends. He seemed disappointed that we wouldn’t go any further. I was so flattered! When I got the bus home that night, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I told Seth about it and he laughed. “Of course he tried it on. You’re perfect.”

I graduated, not inviting my mum, who I was estranged from now. Seth was working away more frequently now, and the graduation ceremony coincided with him being in London. When he offered to tell his parents he needed to come home, I promised him that it was fine. I didn’t mind. I insisted he stayed there. I was kind of glad to simply share it with my university friends. It seemed like I had created my own safe spot there, just for me. Plus, I had an inkling that his parents were setting him up to take over company when they retired. I believed that good times were coming for both of us.

As yet more years passed, I climbed up the ladder in my new job that I had practically walked into, with my degree and my new found confidence. Seth and I did little more than best friends might, but we adored each other with a passion that my proper friends were envious of when I told them about it. He was the perfect boyfriend.

However, when a new boss took over my section at work, depression started to cripple me in bouts. He was a misogynistic bully and he reminded me of my step dad. Every day I was terrified of being called into his office. When he walked past me, I struggled to breathe.

I found myself coping by retreating into my imagination. During those dark times that often lasted weeks, sometimes even months, I have to admit that I pushed Seth away. I would become obsessed with celebrities that I had watched on the television, forming wild crushes on them and creating entire personalities for them, with story lines that centred around them falling in love with me. I would imagine they were there with me, holding me to sleep, falling in love with me, doing everyday things with me… all the things that my wonderful Seth had done for so many years. He was left behind, but I was honest with him. I told him about my imaginary affairs, and what was happening at work. He told me they were a coping mechanism and though they probably weren’t healthy, they were a sign of a shift in my mental state. He promised that I shouldn’t feel guilty about them. After all, it wasn’t real.

As my boss started to call me into his office more regularly, openly staring at my breasts and legs, my mental health deteriorated. I retreated further and further into my imaginary relationships, sometimes calling in sick just so I could spend time with my creations. I didn’t really see it as dangerous. Well, not until I went to see a comedian perform at the theatre and I booked *two* tickets even though I attended alone. I wanted to pretend one of my creations was there with me. I kept turning and laughing at the empty space, pretending he was next to me, falling in love with me a little bit more every time I laughed because I was giving him an insight into the way my mind worked.

As I made my way home, I felt sick with shame. I was allowing my weird game to spill over into my real life. I knew what I had just done was dangerous. I also felt rueful that I felt sexually attracted to these creations, but I had never even been able to sleep with Seth.

I fell into bed and sobbed hysterically when I got home. I felt Seth’s arm rubbing my back.

“Rose, what’s wrong?” He asked. But I couldn’t speak, I just shook my head frantically. “Please. You can tell me anything.” He urged me. “You know that. I just want to help you.”

I swallowed down the sobs and told him what I had done. I told him how out of hand this was getting. I told him I was scared that I was crazy.

“Perhaps you realising that it’s getting ot of hand is a good thing, Rose.” He said, stroking my hair. “Maybe this is your glass shattering moment, you know? They say crazy people don’t actually know they’re crazy, they think they’re normal. So you can’t be crazy, right?”

He had calmed me down, and comforted me like he always did. I fell asleep with my arms wrapped around him for a while, listening to his heart beat slowly. My Seth. My saviour.

I woke up at 3am with chest pains. Seth held me close, helping me catch my breath. “What’s wrong with me?” I gasped.

“You’re panicking, Rose. It’s your mind making your body react this way. You’re having a bad reaction from facing the truth. It will get better soon. I promise.”

It was my first ever panic attack, but looking back now I guess I was lucky not to have been having them for much longer. And though I trusted Seth, it didn’t feel like it was ever going to get better. Night after night in the following weeks, I would fall asleep listening to Seth’s heart beat. Then I would wake up hours later, my chest tight, struggling to breathe, crippled, frozen to the spot.

A few weeks after the first, I whispered to him as I recovered. “When is this going to end?”

He sighed. “Whenever you want it to, Rose.”

I went back to sleep.

The next night, after yet another panic attack, I lay there exhausted. I shuffled out of his arms and twisted around so I could look at him. “I don’t want to lose you.” I said, my lip trembling and a lump in my throat. “I can’t imagine a world without you in it.” Tears filled my eyes, so I looked down.

He smiled at me, then he lightly touched my chin, raising my eyes to meet his. My tears spilled out. “The good thing is, Rose, that you don’t have to imagine a world without me in it, do you? You just have to step into it. You just need to say goodbye.”

“How long have you known for?” I asked him, the tears flowing freely now, because I knew this was the end.

He was calm. “As long as you have, I suppose. I think that’s the way it works. And there’s no point in asking me questions about the meaning of it all, because you know as much as I do already. Or, I guess I should say, *I* know as much as *you* do.” He shrugged.

“But… What’s changed? Why now?” I pleaded.

Seth gripped me into a bear hug. “You have changed. You’re getting better, can’t you see? Going to the theatre, realising what you did was unhealthy, that was just the beginning. It’s just been me and you for so long, Rose, since your step dad…” He let the sentence trail off.

“I invented you the first night he did it to me.” I murmured.

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?” I felt him kiss me on the head as I pushed my face into his chest, my heart breaking.

“Hey, cheer up.” He said. “Maybe in a parallel universe, *I’m* the real one and *you’re* the imaginary friend.” I laughed, even though I felt like my insides were being ripped out.

“Do you want to watch The X-Files with me?” He asked me, gently. I nodded, and turned on the television, crying silently all the way through, but safely cuddled into him. I fell asleep listening to his heart beating, slower than before. I supposed it had been getting slower every night, these last weeks. I just hadn’t wanted to accept it.

When I woke in the morning, I was cuddling my pillow. It was still wet from my tears. I had a ball of pain in my stomach, and I believed that I would not see Seth again, so the pain I felt was grief. I had lost my best friend, my protector, the person who had always saw beauty in me when everyone else had seen a freak. But I also knew that he was my creation, so essentially he had simply been a version of me. I’d always found it cheesy when people were dying in movies and they’d say “I’ll always live on inside you.”, but in this case Seth really would live on inside me, somewhere.

I drove to my parents old house that afternoon, and I wasn’t surprised to find there was no house across the road from mine. I always knew, I’d just buried it down. It was just an unused, three storey, shoddy council building. I stared at it for a while, looking through the window that I had pretended was Seth’s room. And for a moment I thought I saw him, staring back at me, his face contorted in terror, screaming silently, fists banging against the window. His eyes pleading with me to release him. But I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and when I reopened them there was nothing there.

It’s strange, really, because just a few weeks later, my boss threw himself out of the top window of that old council building, so close to my parents house, so close to my life. It’s funny how life is full of such strange little coincidences.

I was sorry he felt so disgusted by his perverted ways that he needed to end his life. But I was glad that life at work started to go back to normal, and I began to flourish again.

I have my first appointment with a very good therapist soon. It’s expensive, but I know it will be worth it. I won’t tell them about Seth. I always liked to keep him all to myself. But I’ll tell them about the obsessive crushes, and what my step dad did.

Unless, of course, I’m imagining the therapist. Or the dream job I have that allows me to pay for it. Maybe I’m locked in an asylum somewhere, maybe I cracked at some point and… Well, maybe everything is in my mind, created by myself to protect me from the truth.     

The Black Shuck, Protector of Women

One of the most famous Fenland legends is the story of the Black Shuck. Made world famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this black ghost dog of immense size is said to roam the Fens and is attached to various beliefs. Some say if it follows you home then it’s a sign that you will be dead within a year. Others believe it has a more instantaneous evil, with a howl so wicked that if you’re unfortunate enough to hear it your hair will be frozen white, at best, or the blood in your veins will cease to flow, at worst. Most versions of the legend suggest that the Shuck is ungodly; a hellish creature, at least a minion of Satan, if not the Devil himself. However, I’ve reason to believe that the Black Shuck isn’t sinister at all. In fact, I believe he is benevolent. A misunderstood hound that deserves a much kinder reputation than the frightful whispers you might hear in the Fenlands, or in popular media. Today I’m going to tell you the truth about the Black Shuck.

All Black Shuck stories are taken extremely seriously in the towns and villages of East Anglia and Norfolk. Sometimes inquisitive tourists, Holmes fanatics, or ghost hunters come down our way, pestering locals because they want to hear a true insider’s perception of Old Shuck. Locals, born and raised around Shuck tales, might tell them the stories they could read just as easily on Wikipedia, but tourists will never be gifted with the true beliefs. Certainly not the details I’m going to give you today. If outsiders pipe up that they’ll go looking for the dog themselves then they’ll be sharply warned off. This isn’t a game to people here; it isn’t a bit of fun, or a work of fiction. It’s much deeper than that.

So why have I decided to reveal the secret legend here? I am lucky enough to have heard what I believe is the true Shuck story, many years ago. I guess I didn’t realise how important it was at the time. I was a very young boy, and though I took everything in I never had the misfortune to have to truly understand it. Over the weekend it all came flooding back to me.

For me to truly understand the tale of The Black Shuck something horrendous had to happen. On Friday a good friend of mine, Shelley, was walking home from work at 5.30pm. She cut through a park in order to save an extra 15 minutes on her commute. In that park she was confronted by a middle aged man. He overpowered her and dragged her into some bushes. She cried out, of course, and even though there were people passing by, just a stone’s throw away, no one came to help her. The man raped my friend. Afterwards, he pulled up his trousers and did up his belt, and thanked Shelley before leaving her there, lying in the dirt.

I visited Shelley in hospital. She looked so broken, her body bruised and battered, her mind a mass of confusion. I cried as she told me what had happened. Then I sobbed when she brushed off my sympathy, my horror, telling me it ‘was just something that happens’.

Why did she feel this way? Why did she seem accepting of this awful crime? I have my suspicions. Shelley told me that when she spoke to the police she felt that they didn’t believe her. She’d had a glass of wine after work, after all. She’d worn silk underwear, under her work trousers. After being interviewed, interrogated, she had been left with a sense of hopelessness, of self-blame.

I spent all weekend thinking about this awful situation. Wondering why my friend had been led into believing it could in any way be her fault that a man had raped her. It made me think of a story my mother told me when I was a young boy. She said it was the truth about the Black Shuck, and I think I finally understand what my mother was telling me all those years ago. And I am quite sure that I’ve just received a phone call that offers me confirmation that my mother’s version of the Shuck was, indeed, the true one. For Shelley, for so many others, I want  – No, I need – to share the truth about the Black Shuck.

When I was 6, maybe 7, years old, I was playing with my catapult in the back garden one afternoon after school. My mother came outside and asked me what I was doing. “I’m saving you from the Black Shuck, Mummy!” I called to her. We’d learnt about the beastly hound that day at school, and I was quite enthralled by the legend. I pulled back the elastic band and released a small rock that hurtled towards the poor silver birch that was playing the part of the Shuck.

A chip of white bark flew off and I cheered. “Defeated, you beast!” I turned to my mother and looked at her triumphantly, but my smile melted away when I realised that she wasn’t impressed by my heroic combat. She was shaking her head and frowning. “Come inside now, Mikey. I think we need to have a chat.”

We sat by the fire, lit in preparation for the cold autumn evening that approached. “So what have those quacks at the school been telling you this time then, Mikey?” She smiled gently at me, letting me know I wasn’t in trouble.

I repeated the exciting tale that Mr Cox had told the entire school during assembly that day. It had been of a dog as tall as us, at least! It had eyes as red as the fires of hell. It would follow you home silently – you’d never hear the padding of its feet, or the clip of its claws against the pavement, but you might feel its hot breath on the back of your neck. You must never turn around, Mr Cox had warned the hall full of infant school children, for if you looked into its evil eyes then you’d just signed your own death sentence.

Mum scoffed and poked at the coals in the fire. “There’s a dark reason that men like Mr Cox are so scared of the Shuck, Mikey, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell you a truth that you’re too young to hear, my boy. He’s forced my hand though. I haven’t a choice.”

I pulled a blanket around me and listened to my mother intently as she told me of a young girl, Alison, who had once lived in a close by village.

“She was barely a teen when it all happened,” Mum sighed. “It was a long time ago, very long. A time when men could do as they wished to women – girls, even – without fear of punishment. If a baby Miss was the first born child then the midwives would announce the sex solemnly, and the mother would fill with utter dread. The only hope they clung to was that they’d soon after be blessed with a son, who could protect his sister from the advances of the scum surrounding them.

“Well, for Alison’s parents it simply wasn’t so. No son, no protector. They were destined to have one child, their stunning baby girl with her jet black hair and her golden-brown eyes. Alison’s mother knew her girl would need protection, maybe even more so than other girls. There wasn’t much that her mother could offer but she had to do something. So she insisted to her husband that they got a dog.

“She didn’t just pick any old runt, oh no. She searched for three years for the right hound. It was at a traveller’s market that she finally found the right one. He was a big, fat pup with jet black hair and golden-brown eyes – just like her daughter’s! Not as beautiful, I suppose… They say the pup had a scruffy mass of fur and a squashed up face that made it look ancient, but as Alison’s mother looked at that baby dog she saw something beautiful and felt a familiarity that she couldn’t explain.

“As Alison’s mother was leaving the market, pup in both arms, an old traveller woman caught her arm and pulled her aside for a moment, mysteriously whispering into her ear. “The song of the Lord isn’t as holy as you’d think woman, and this one knows it. He’s a good boy.”

“Well, those words didn’t make much sense to Alison’s mum, but it hardly mattered. She knew by the size of this mutt’s paws that it was going to be a beast, and the length of its fangs told her it could keep her baby girl safe if she raised them together.

“And so she did. Alison’s mother named the dog Old Shuck, a word meaning terrifying fiend, but it was a gentle soul really. He became Alison’s best friend. Old Shuck went everywhere with the girl; It’d wait outside the village school, it accompanied her to the shops and back, they ran in the fields together, it slept at the foot of her bed. They were never apart.

“That dog was so sweet and kind to her daughter. Even though he grew huge, he remained  soppy and playful. Alison’s mother was sure her intentions of him being her daughter’s protector would be thwarted, should it ever come to a fight. He was a sweet thing! His size was a deterrent, at least. He grew as tall as you are now… that’s one thing your teachers are right about. It didn’t matter that he was soft as cotton, because he looked like he could tear a man’s head off, especially if that little girl clicked her fingers in the right way.

“Some evils are harder to keep at bay than others, though. A lust filled man can be as insistent as anaesthetic. When Alison turned 13, her mother saw the way that the village Friar looked at her daughter on Sunday mornings. She saw it and she knew. He was a huge man, well over 6 feet, and sturdy too. He had size 14 feet, something he bragged about in bad taste, and his hands were blocks. When he had baptised newborn Alison, some 13 years before, her mother had shuddered as he held her baby girl, because she knew he could crush her skull into powder if he wanted to.

“Yes, Alison’s mother knew the look the friar gave her teenager. She knew it quite personally, for her own husband, Alison’s father, was a lot older than herself. As she watched that dirty old pervert leering over her daughter, drooling at the mouth, hands everywhere, she knew what was coming, and she was terrified.

“When the Friar sent a note demanding that Alison start singing in the church choir, her mother collapsed into tears. It wasn’t as though she could escort Alison herself, to keep an eye on her girl who was being forced into a world too mature for her, because that wasn’t how the world worked back then. If that Friar had said a bad word about Alison’s mum… well, she would be hanged! So it was all down to Old Shuck. It had to be. She handed the safety of her daughter, the star of her universe, right over to that fluffy, overgrown mutt.

“Shuck escorted Alison to choir practice each week, where he would wait in the churchyard because it wasn’t proper for a dog to be inside a church. They say the hair on his back stood up straight when the Friar bolted those young girls inside the church to sing the word of God. They say he knew that man’s secrets.

“One dark evening, as the rain poured and the clouds came alive with electricity, Shuck lay down outside the church. He was drenched, he was cold, his fur was heavy, but still he waited loyally for his best friend. Hours later the doors finally opened, and out ran 4 or 5 other young girls, each giving Shuck a quick pat on the head. But before his Alison had emerged, the doors were slammed shut once more. The Friar had trapped her in there with him! Alone.

“Shuck was agitated. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that something was terribly wrong. As the thunder began to crackle and crack he became more and more worked up. He began to throw himself into the church doors… thud, thud, thud. Thick and heavy, they bore his weight well.

“Inside, the Friar had pinned poor Alison to the altar. His intentions… Well, they were dark, Mikey. Very dark. And her wails of terror kept pushing her beloved black hound. Thud, thud, thud, he kept going, as the storm around him grew.

“You’ve never heard the scream of a desperate woman, Mikey, and I hope you’ll never have to. Something in that pitiful girl’s sob gave Shuck the strength he needed. It brought the magic that comes with loyalty and love. A bolt of lightning scorched the church door and the thunder boomed. With one last weighty thud, Shuck burst through the doors!

“He ran to his Alison, who was naked on the altar, her clothes torn off and discarded on the floor. The Friar hovered over her with his back to the church doors, so frenzied by his lust that he hadn’t even turned to see what had caused the commotion behind. Shuck leapt high and he would have ripped that dirty man’s head right off, I’m sure of it. But the Friar turned last minute – perhaps he felt Shuck’s breath on the back of his neck – and he caught the poor hound with one huge hand.

“I’m so sorry to say it, but he squeezed the dear life out of Old Shuck. His soft yellow-brown eyes turned red as the blood vessels burst. Alison watched in horror. She knew her precious friend, her protector, was going to die. She whimpered mournfully, and reaching out to Shuck she choked out, “I love you.”

“And whether that love strengthened Shuck or whether it weakened the Friar, I’m not sure, but it allowed Old Shuck one last act. He twisted his head out of the Friar’s grasp and plunged forward, sinking his long fangs into his throat. He ripped a gaping hole into the man who attacked his best friend.

“Don’t flinch now, Mikey boy, rejoice! That man was a predator and he deserved what he got. It’s just a shame he took Old Shuck with him – As the Friar fell, so did the hound.

“Alison jumped off the altar, naked as the day she was born, and she ran home as fast as she could. She wanted to get help for Shuck, not realising that it was too late, Shuck had been starved of oxygen for too long. It did her good to not watch him die, I suppose.

“The friar and the hound lay there next to each other, taking their last breaths. Shuck didn’t take his blood red eyes off that filthy pervert, not for one second. He watched the bastard descend into hell, then thought of all the wonderful times he and Alison had had together. He was glad to have served such a wonderful friend. If a dog could smile then Shuck was surely beaming as he took his final breath.

“After Alison arrived home, naked and traumatised, her father gathered several local men and stormed to the church. They found the bodies of the friar and Shuck. And do you know what? They burned the body of the Friar in disgust, but they buried Shuck with honour. They feasted in his memory. And the villager’s love, and their loyalty, gave Shuck strength – even in death.

“To this day, the ghost of Old Shuck finds Fenlanders who are in danger. Maybe a woman with a man following her late at night,  on the dark country paths where no one but Shuck will hear her scream. Maybe a scared teen with a car full of leerers crawling behind, or a frail grandmother carrying her pension in her handbag. Well, good Old Shuck escorts these people right back to their front door! Out of harm’s way. And he’ll keep doing so, because he’s a good dog. He’s a protector.

“But the tale of Shuck got twisted over the years, as you’ve found out today. Why? Because some men want to demonise a protector of women. Some men want to silence the truth. Not all men are evil, Mikey, but some certainly are, and they want Shuck’s story buried with him.

“I know that it’s a big story for a young boy, Oh, I know. I wish I didn’t have to tell it, but I do. Partly because Shuck’s true story needs to be heard, but mainly because there is still a sighting or so a week of the hound. What does that tell us? That Shuck is still desperately needed. Things might seem different nowadays, but really the evils are just better hidden. Or better ignored, maybe.”

Mum sighed, looking into the fire. We sat in silence for a long time, before she turned to me. “I know that was dark, my lovely boy. But it’s a dark world. I’m sorry. Do you have any questions?”

I paused for a moment, several deep ponderings flitting through my mind. I decided I’d settle on what seemed the most important to me, at the time. “Can we get a dog, Mum?”

Many years have passed since my mother told me Alison’s story. I wish all vulnerable people had an Old Shuck to protect them from predators. I wish Shuck had followed Shelley home last friday. I hope that the legend is true, because Old Shuck is a reminder that there is good in this bad world. Shelley is my reminder that things aren’t all that different from Shuck’s time.

Of course, I was prompted – pushed, maybe – into revealing all of this. Yes, I’ve thought about it all weekend. Yes, I’ve agonised over my friend being raped. Yes, it’s brought back memories that I didn’t understand at the time. But there’s more to this reveal than that.

Last night the man who raped Shelley was found. There hadn’t been a big police hunt, and he certainly didn’t hand himself in. To be honest I had very little hope the monster would ever turn up, let alone pay for what he did to Shelley. However, a man was walking through the park on his commute, the same park where Shelley was raped. He noticed someone lying in a bush – the same bush where Shelley had been left, lying in the dirt. At first he thought it must be a drunk but there was an eerie stillness about the form, so he checked closely. It was a dead body. It was the man who raped Shelley.

His body was found in the same park, the same bush, that he attacked Shelley in. Why was he there? Waiting for his next victim, perhaps. How did he die? Well, the bastard – the deviant – had his throat ripped out. According to the news it was a dog attack. The police assume an owner is hiding their violent pet somewhere, and they seem to be putting on a better hunt for this hound than they did for the man who raped Shelley. Despite their efforts, though, I don’t think they’ll find the dog.

You see, I think that Old Shuck might have got there a bit late but that the good boy still sought revenge. Yes, I believe that it was the ghostly black hound that ripped the throat out of the man who raped Shelley, just like he did to the friar. And I believe that Shuck’s true story needs to be heard, but, even more importantly, so does Alison and Shelley’s.

Stories From The Fenlands: The Hounds and The Sprites

This tale is about a life changing experience I had when I was 9. At the time, my mum was going through a rough patch financially. She had lost her job as a barmaid and fallen behind on mortgage payments. She’d done her best to hide this from me but I’d seen the red letters pushed through our letterbox each morning, I’d overheard whispered conversations between her and my aunt and I’d been unable to ignore just how stressed she was.

She had managed to pick up some temporary work over the summer holidays as a nanny for two 5-year-old twins whose parents were incredibly wealthy. The Houghton family lived on a large estate out in the sticks of Norfolk, and they allowed my mum to take me with them when she worked, so it was the perfect arrangement for us. I’d spend the day playing around Houghton Estate with their 10-year-old daughter, Poppy, while mum watched the twins inside.

I got along with Poppy well, and that summer began as one of the most wonderful ones of my life. As the Houghton’s had a lot of land, we spent hours each day just running around their modest woodland area, building fort castle dens and crafting wooden weapons to have battles. One day, though, everything went terribly wrong when Poppy’s psychopathic older brother insisted on joining us to play.

It was early morning, not long after dawn had broke. Mum and I had arrived at Houghton House particularly early that day because Poppy’s parents had been struck with food poisoning the night before and were unable to get up with the twins. Mum took me into the servant’s kitchen and set me up at the table with breakfast before leaving to deal with the twins for the morning.

Poppy wasn’t up yet, so I sat alone, munching on a slice of toast and rubbing at my bleary eyes. Just moments after my mum had left, an older boy stalked into the kitchen. I hadn’t met him before but I already knew he was a Houghton because he had their look. Dark shadows under his eyes, pale skin and a stiff posture. He looked like Poppy but he had a coldness about him, with a nasty glint in his eye as he looked at me as though I was a meal.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked me, smiling in a way that I knew most would find charming. I, on the other hand, was nervous.

“You’re Jake,” I mumbled, keeping my eyes on my toast. Jake was Poppy’s notorious older brother. Until this moment, he had been nothing but a scary rumour to me. Poppy had told me that Jake spent most of his time lurking around the west side of the manor, and that all the staff – and even Mr and Mrs Houghton – tended to avoid him. He didn’t go to school because he had been expelled for bad behaviour. Apparently, the final straw had been when he lured a younger girl into the school bathrooms and done something awful to her.

I didn’t know what he had done to that girl, and I didn’t want to, either.

“Do you know my surname?” The teen demanded.

“Houghton. Jake Houghton.”

“You’re the nanny’s son, aren’t you? Perhaps you are as simple as the staff say you are. As one of the servants, you should refer to me as Sir Houghton. You’re not to use my Christian name. Do you understand?”

I looked at Jake, my cheeks blushing. He was smiling devilishly at me. I couldn’t understand if he was joking or not. If I agreed to refer to him as Sir, would he ridicule me for being so gullible? If I laughed it off, would he put my head down the toilet for disobeying him?

I was saved from answering him when Poppy skipped into the kitchen, whistling a little tune on her way. When saw Jake standing in the kitchen with me she stopped in her tracks. I saw fear flash over her eyes, but she quickly covered it up and stood defiantly.

“What are you doing here, Jake? I thought Mummy told you not to leave the West block?”

Jake ruffled his little sister’s hair with force, causing Poppy to wince. She glanced at me and smiled brightly. “Hi Mikey!”

“Hello Poppy.” I did my best to hide my agitation but there was a shake in my voice.

“I think you mean Lady Poppy,” Jake sneered at me.

I looked at Poppy, hoping she would laugh and confirm he was joking. But she side eyed Jake and shrugged at me apologetically.

I kept quiet as Poppy and Jake chatted about playing in the woods. To my horror, Jake intended on joining us. Poppy was clearly nervous around her brother but she wasn’t scared like I was. I felt physically ill at the thought of him tagging along with us for the day, and I was almost frozen with fear when he decided it was time to go into the woods to see the castles we had made.

Jake stood over me as I washed and dried my plate, checking that I ‘had done it correctly’. I could almost feel him breathing down my neck and nearly dropped the plate because of how uncomfortable he was making me. When I heard the Houghton’s Groundskeeper, Dill, approaching, the heavy thud of his boots echoing around the stone utility room, I felt relieved. Dill surely wouldn’t let Jake follow us into the woods… Not when he was supposed to be grounded to the West Block of the house!

“Good mornin’, Miss Poppy and Master Mikey!” I’d always liked Dill. He was rough and ready but always kind to us. He looked at Jake and I saw distaste all over his face. “Jake, what are you doing down here? I thought you were on lock down.”

“Day pass, Dill. Ask Mother. I was just about losing my mind, all locked up. So I’m going out with these young ones. They’re going to show me around their little dens in the woods. Precious little things.” Jake ruffled Poppy’s hair again, more gently this time. His tone was sickeningly sweet and I wondered if anybody could actually fall for an act like that. I hoped desperately that Dill would send him back to his lair.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. “Well, you make sure you’re good to them, Jake, else your Father will hear of it. Do you understand?”

Jake ignored Dill and made his way outside. I felt utterly deflated, knowing I had no chance of getting out of a morning with this terrifying, older bully. I wanted to tell Dill how scared I was, but I didn’t want to cause any problems.

As Poppy and I made our way out, Dill called after us. “What’s the rule of the woods, kids?”

“Never cross the stream!” We chanted in unison.

“Aye, that’s right. Else the water sprites will get you!” Dill winked before turning to the fridge, and out we went.

Dill had always told us that, every time he saw us (which had been most mornings in the last 4 weeks I had spent with Poppy). On the first day I’d come to Houghton House, Dill had brought Poppy and I a picnic to take out into the woods with us. Before we left he told us we must never cross the stream. He said that the water sprites were an army of water fairies that protected the stream from humankind. They were dedicated to stopping mankind from hurting plant life and animals, and that they did not like trespassers. We weren’t to go in the stream, else they would be angry, and who knew what they would do?

Afterwards, on our way into the woods, Poppy had told me that the stream actually separated the Houghton’s land from their neighbours, and her father had always told her that it would be very rude of us to ignore the border. She wasn’t sure if that meant the water sprites were make believe, but either way she would never dream of risking it. Which suited me just fine – I like following rules.

When Jake and Poppy and I got into the woods that day, we showed Jake our dens. He decided that mine shouldn’t be as big as Poppy’s, seeing as I was one of the staff. I tried not to cry as I watched him kicking half of my den down. I had worked on it all week. Poppy whispered to me that we could rebuild it tomorrow, and that if we just waited until Jake got bored then he’d leave us alone. But he didn’t get bored.

He inspected our wooden swords that we had made (with the help of the handywoman, Jane, that the Houghton’s employed). He challenged Poppy to a sword fight, and when he hit her hard on the wrist and she began to cry, he turned to me, scowling. “Are you going to stand there and watch your Lady get beaten by a man? Are you too scared to stand up for her? That sort of treasonous cowardice deserves execution…”

was too scared to stand up for her. I wanted nothing more than to run up to the house to my mother and the twins, and hide with them for the rest of the day. But I was more scared that Jake would beat up if I didn’t stand up for Poppy, so I meekly challenged him to a sword fight in his sister’s honour.

I was no match for him, of course, what with my shaking hands and tear filled eyes. He ended up jabbing me in the ribs with the wooden sword until I fell to the floor with a thud. I lay there and tried to cry, but the wind was knocked out of me.

It gave him a panic, I suppose, because he ran over and knelt next to me, pretending to be sorry. He said he had just got a little excited and he really never meant to hurt me. I didn’t trust anything that came out of his mouth but I went along with it. I got up and let Jake brush me down.

Poppy and I were reluctant to indulge in any more of Jake’s nasty games, and he sensed he had pushed us too far. He left us alone for a little while, walking off round the woods while Poppy and I calmed down. He was back before long, still wanting to have ‘fun,’ I suppose, because he offered us something that he knew we would struggle to refuse.

“I’m really sorry I hurt you both. I’m so excited to have friends to play with after being all on my own for so long that I just got carried away. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have company. Please let me make it up to you… I have the best idea! Why don’t we go and play with the puppies?”

Poppy’s father, Mr Houghton, bred hunting hounds on the estate. His best pair had had a huge litter of pups just months before. Poppy and I had begged her mum and Dill to let us play with them, but they always said it wasn’t a good time. Now Jake was offering us something we had dreamed of all summer, and even though he had been horrid, even though he was a cruel and scary young man, we nodded eagerly.

He took us to the barn where the pups were kept and I saw the couple of staff members there scarpering off when they saw Jake. He unbolted the door and we all stepped inside. We were greeted by ten beautiful beagle babies, and they were the most adorable sight I saw for a long time (probably until I held my newborn daughter many years later). They all ran up to us excitedly, jumping up with their tails wagging all over the place. They were only up to my shins and I just wanted to roll around on the straw with them and let them jump all over me.

As Poppy fussed three puppies at once, I spotted a small one lurking at the back. It was too scared to come over and had a lonely look on its face. It was very different from its sisters and brothers… It was pure white, whereas the others were brown and white. I quietly approached, not wanting to scare it, and scooped it up.

She was a snuggly little girl and I felt full of love as I cuddled her into my chest. She squirmed around and licked my face with pure pleasure, so pleased that she was being given love.

Jake watched from the corner of the barn, impatiently shooing away the pups who were trying to get his attention. “That’s the runt of the litter. She’s an albino. I suppose they haven’t got round to drowning her, yet.” He shrugged. My stomach lept into my throat as I cradled the little white puppy.

Jake told us that these hound puppies were being trained to chase the scent of humans, so they could be sold to those who wanted to hunt but without killing foxes. Hunting is not a thing that my social class has ever enjoyed (or supported, for that matter) but Poppy and Jake had grown up with it. “Will they attack the people they chase?” I asked, sadly. How awful that these innocent little creatures might be taught to attack. But Jake laughed at my stupidity and told me they wouldn’t attack anything, as they wouldn’t be trained to.

He decided that we were all going to take the puppies out and play a game to help train them. Taking a red rag from the corner of the barn, he rubbed it on his chest and under his arms, then exited the barn. He called through to us, telling us to let the dogs smell it for half a minute then let them come after him.

I put down the little puppy I held and watched Poppy letting them all sniff the red rag. Their mood changed immediately – they went from playful and disorderly to excited and ready to work. It was fascinating, really, witnessing their innate need to chase. Jake had instructed us to run behind the dogs, who would certainly chase him through the woods, because some might get distracted and need herding them towards him.

I had to admit to myself that the game did sound like fun. As soon as the 30 seconds were up and we opened the door, the puppies raced in the direction of the woods. We hurried out after them.

Jake wasn’t that far ahead of us and we all ran after him. The puppies barely needed directing – it was in their breed and their soul to chase, and it was brilliant watching them do what they were made for. To my surprise, the little white runt was the fastest of the lot!

As we started running through the woods, the runt soon caught up with Jake and playfully yapped at his heels. Poppy and I laughed, and she called out to Jake, who was approaching the stream in the woods, “The puppies win this round!”

I’d relaxed a lot and I’d even go as far as saying that I felt quite happy. I believed that we were all having fun together, finally. How foolish of me. Jake didn’t like being beat by the runt of the litter, and so he turned around and booted her, hard. She yelped loudly and he booted her again, this time sending the pup rolling.

“No!” I wailed. Jake continued to run into the woods. “GAME’S STILL ON!” He shouted over his shoulder to us.

The other puppies carried on chasing the filthy cheat happily, but the runt sat miserably on the ground. I went over and cuddled her again, whispering that it was ok to try and soothe the poor little thing. She licked my face gratefully and a second later her tail was gently wagging once more as I held her close to me.

“Don’t cross the stream, Jake!” I heard Poppy yell. “The sprites will get you!” I looked up and saw Jake splashing through the water, the top of the flow barely covering his trainers. Just before he reached the bank on the other side he knelt down and picked up a large rock from under the flowing stream. He turned back to us and held it up threateningly.

I watched the puppies following him through the water. I felt like I was about to vomit, because I knew, oh I knew for sure, that whichever unlucky little creature was to ‘catch’ Jake next was going to get bludgeoned with the jagged rock he held. And I doubted he’d stop until it was dead.

But when the puppies were half way across, there was a sudden flash of light. The entire litter of puppies froze. The stopped in their tracks, perfectly still. Too still. It was as if they were suspended in time. Jake, who had only just reached the bank on the other side of the stream, called out to them. “Come on, you stupid idiots! I dare you to come and get me!”

Poppy and I walked over the the edge of the stream, careful not to slip in. The puppies still were still frozen in the middle. No tails were wagging, no excited whines could be heard. They were like statues. I could see something, though. There were round ripples on the surface of the water all around the dogs, as though someone was skipping invisible stones. I found it very strange that we would see that, because the water had a medium flow to it – it was a trickling stream, not a still lake. The ripples on the water looked as though there was a mass of invisible beings approaching the litter.

I followed the approach, and sure enough I noticed that fur on the back of the puppies necks suddenly dipped, and it looked as though something small had mounted them! Every pup in that water had the same thing happen. I checked the little runt, which I still held close to me, but her fur had no dent.

Jake stormed back into the water, angry at the puppies’ for their lack of participation. He obviously hadn’t noticed that it was down to something very odd going on. As soon as he stepped into the water, I heard a collection of small voices burst out from the direction of the puppies. They shouted, “Prepare!” and then whatever spell had turned the puppies to statues seemed to break.

The herd stood still, but they weren’t frozen anymore. All of the hairs on their backs stood upright and they snarled and growled. There were no wagging tails, no play fighting amongst their siblings. They were nothing like they had been just moments before. They all focused solely on Jake, changing their stances so that they waited like panthers preparing to pounce.

I couldn’t see the puppies’ eyes as they were facing Jake, not Poppy and I. But I watched Jake’s and they were suddenly full of fear. He saw something in the dogs in front of him that terrified him. Perhaps wrongly, it pleased me to see fright wash over him.

The little albino runt squirmed out of my arms once again. I didn’t want to let her go but I could have only kept hold of her if I had gripped tightly, and I couldn’t bear the thought of putting her through discomfort after what Jake had just done. She trotted over happily to the others. “Please, come back!” I called to her. I didn’t know what was going on in the stream but I had a very uneasy feeling.

As soon as she paddled into the water, something invisible ‘ran’ over the water to her. I watched the indents on her fur as whatever it is climbed up and nestled on her neck. This one was bigger than the others.

Immediately, the hair on the runt’s white back stood up straight and her positioning changed to match her siblings. They moved slowly out of her way to allow her room as she stalked towards Jake. Perhaps he should have run while all this was happening, but he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t.

The runt snarled loudly and in the blink of an eye she went for Jake. She leapt up at him, far higher than a puppy her size should have been able to jump. She opened her jaw wide, far wider than her little snout should have allowed. Then she dug her teeth into the side of Jake’s throat and yanked.

I heard Jake’s skin rip open and I found myself unable to look away, as the puppy that I had held lovingly in my arms torethrough muscles and arteries in Jake’s now exposed neck. She did it with total ease, as though they were pieces of spaghetti.

Jake tried to beat the runt off, grabbing her hairy little neck and trying to throw her down. I watched as every finger on the hand he tried to grab her with bent 90 degrees back, and I shuddered as I heard the snap of his bones echo around the woods. Then a fierce voice boomed from the direction of the runt, “CHARGE!”

The runt’s sisters and brothers were suddenly following her lead and pouncing on Jake. He was knocked backwards by their force, and then the pack of puppies were feasting on him.

Jake was thrashing about on the floor in a weak attempt to get the dogs to leave him alone. Poppy and I watched with horror as the stream around him went from clear to red, his blood pumping quickly into it. Poppy screamed and I heard her running away, back towards Houghton House, but I was too scared to move, too scared to take my eyes off the view of ten puppies eating a boy alive.

I should have ran after Poppy, I should have raced away from whatever hell was in front of me. But I couldn’t, I was too shocked and scared to move. Within 30 seconds Jake was no longer thrashing. As soon as he lay still, I watched those indents on the puppies’ necks disappear. I saw ripples leading away from them. And then I saw the puppies relax.

They were back to how they had been before their moment of utter madness! They totally ignored Jake’s lifeless body and began playing happily with one another again, splashing in the stream, their snouts stained with his blood. The white runt trotted back up to me. I shrank away from it at first, tensing for an attack, but it simply lay at my feet. She looked up at me with a soppy look in her eyes, hoping for some more attention.

I sunk down to the floor next to her and placed a hand on her neck. I felt nothing but her soft fur. She burrowed into me, and I sat there, still too scared to move.

By the time Poppy had brought Dill and several other adults to help, Jake’s body must have totally been drained of blood because the river was running clear again. Of course, Jake’s corpse and the puppies’ red-stained snouts were evidence enough of what had happened. His entire neck had been ripped open, and the sight caused one of the housekeepers to vomit everywhere. I myself avoided looking, but I knew what they’d done.

Dill ordered Poppy and I back to the house. I thought they would surely kill the puppies for what they had done, so I scooped up the runt and held her close to me again. I approached Dill slowly. I was in shock and shook like a leaf, but I knew – more than I’d ever known anything – that whatever had ‘taken over’ the puppies was no longer present.

I made sure Dill watched as the little one licked the tears away from my cheeks. I knew that her sloppy kisses would leave traces of Jake’s blood on my face, but all I cared about at that moment was showing the grown ups that these puppies were not evil.

I looked up at Dill frantically, pleading with him. “Don’t hurt them, Dill, please! Please don’t kill the puppies! It wasn’t them, not really. It was the sprites! It must have been the sprites! I saw them, they -”

“- Hush now, Master Mikey. I don’t know what happened here but it isn’t down to me what happens to the hounds. They’re Mr Houghton’s responsibility.” Then he crouched down to my level and checked no one was listening. He whispered to me, “Go up to the house now and hide the runt in your backpack with a blanket. Then find your mum, she’ll take you right home. Tell her everything – and I mean everything – before you show her the little one.” Then Dill scooped up some water from the stream and sprinkled it on the puppy’s head, then wiped a bit on mine, too.

Well, I did just as Dill told me to. On the drive home, and then for some time after, I recollected the entire morning to my mum. And all the way through my story the little runt slept soundly in my backpack. As if on cue, just as I finished telling mum all that I needed to, we both heard her little whimper. Without giving Mum chance to react I scooped the white pup out of my bag. She licked my face excitedly and wagged her little tail so quickly that I thought she might take off.

The next day, mum took the puppy – who I called Nixie – to a vets far from home. They confirmed that she had nothing wrong with her. No rabies, no illness, no vicious streak. Nixie was perfect.

When mum told me that we would not be returning to Houghton House, I worried it was because they thought I was somehow to blame for Jake’s death, or that Poppy hated me. She told me it was nothing to do with that, it was just that she had no need to work there anymore. Sure enough, the red letters stopped and my mum seemed happy again. I later found out that my mother never need to make another mortgage payment again after that summer, though she never told me why. The Fenlands are full of secrets, but this one I suspected I knew… I think that Mr Houghton bought her silence.

You see, just a few months later the litter of puppies that Jake, Poppy and I had played with, the litter that had chased Jake through the woods, the litter that had viciously ripped open his throat and feasted on the insides of his neck… They were pictured in all the local papers. They had won the award for Norfolk’s best litter. The article pictured them all, much bigger than when I’d seen them, still bigger than my Nixie. They were a very happy looking bunch of dogs indeed. The article specifically mentioned their ‘kind sentiment’ and ‘excellent work attitudes’, and they were being sold at £1,000 a dog. Back then, that was worth a lot more than it is now!

So I knew that Mr Houghton had kept quiet about his eldest son’s death, else those dogs would never have sold. I’m not sure how exactly he covered it up, because I never heard any news about a funeral, or even a death announcement. And my mother told me not to speak of it at school. I wasn’t even allowed to mention that I’d ever been to Houghton House over the summer. And, if anyone asked, I was to say I’d found Nixie out in the woods.

Poppy didn’t return to school. I heard that her father sent her to an expensive boarding school in Scotland. I missed her for a while, as we had had such a wonderful time that summer. Until Jake had spoilt it all.

Over the years, I thought a lot about what happened at Houghton House. Nixie remained the most loyal pet I would ever have. I adored her and she adored me. She was the definition of a ‘good girl’. I made sure she lived a happy life, and I was devastated when she passed (which was at a surprisingly old age) but I’m eternally grateful for the time I got to have her as my best friend.

I can’t make sense of much of what happened out at Houghton Estate, but I do know this… Those dogs were not evil dogs, not at all. Jake on the other hand – well, he was a despicable human being. I always strongly believed, and still do, that Jake being put down was necessary for the safety of the public.

Stories From The Fenlands: The Gooseberry Bushes That Saved My Life

This story sees me in my early 20s, shortly after returning home to the Fenlands after graduating university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life so decided to wait a year until I would make a career move. Still, I had to keep afloat somehow, so I placed an advertisement in the local shop offering my services as a maths tutor.

Within a month or so I had a full time job’s worth. I suppose after I secured my first couple of clients, word had got around and near on everybody in town wanted their children to have a tutor. Not only did it pay well but I loved seeing the children achieve so much more than they’d believed they could. Perhaps I would have made a comfortable career out of it, but after 8 months I experienced something so horrible that I had to walk away for good.

I was always fully booked and after a while I had a waiting list as long as your arm. I had to stop adding people to it but I felt guilty about turning them down. So instead I got in touch with a university friend of mine, Danny, who had gone into teaching. I asked if he wanted to do a bit of tutoring on the side which he jumped at, so I started passing his name onto people that I had to say no to.

Late one night, I was woken by a phone call at 1am. I stomped downstairs and answered it grumpily. The line was so crackly that I could only just hear the voice on the other end.

“Hello, kind sir! I wonder if you can help me?” A sickly sweet voice asked. She emphasised every word dramatically and sounded much more cheery than you would expect anyone to at 1am.

“Who is this, please?” I demanded, irritated but relieved that it clearly wasn’t an emergency.

“Ah, yes, I’m Mrs Green. I’d like to hire you as a tutor for my daughter, Elizabeth. She has decided she wants to learn piano and -”

“- I’m a maths tutor. I can’t even play the piano! And it’s 1 in the morning!”

“Oh. Maths. Yes, that’s what I meant. She wants to learn maths. So can you be here this morning? Shall we say 6.30am?”

“Is this a prank?” I laughed out loud.

“A what? Listen, kind sir, I am incredibly busy and you’re starting to waste my time. Can you be here or not? It’s very important to my daughter and I like to keep her happy. She’s an only child and gets bored out here alone, what with not being allowed to attend the local school.”

Back then, there had been a lot of issues with the local school that I’ll tell you about another time. So when she said her daughter wasn’t ‘allowed’ to attend I felt sympathetic. I also thought it made her sound a bit more credible.

“Well, actually I can’t help you I’m afraid. I’m fully booked and certainly not accepting any more students on my waiting list. I do have a friend in King’s Lynn who tutors, I could see if he has any availability?”

“Right-ho, send him along then. 6.30, yes?”

Of course I couldn’t arrange it for 6.30am. It was an absurd expectation. I pointedly mentioned that our ‘office’ hours were 9-5 before handing over Danny’s details then went back to bed. I forgot about the pair of them as soon as my head hit my pillow.

The following Sunday my phone rang again at 1am. I rubbed my eyes as I answered it, once again worried a family member had been in an accident. Then I heard that sickly sweet voice on the end of the line again.

I felt a stab of irritation, but I was way too polite in those days. Instead of confronting her, I listened quietly as an irate Mrs Green explained that Danny hadn’t turned up. Apparently her daughter was still incredibly eager to begin her archery lessons.

“What?! I’m a maths tutor, Mrs Green!”

“Oh yes. So you are. Apologies, kind sir, my memory is rather bad these days. I’m 78, you know. Forgive me. Now, do stop procrastinating and get back to business. Can you send a replacement mathematician?”

Though a 78-year-old having a young daughter struck me as very odd, I didn’t ask any questions. It wasn’t my business. Maybe she’d adopted, or maybe an older daughter had had a child that Mrs Green had taken on for some reason. So I simply told Mrs Green I would ring a contact of mine in the morning and put him in touch with her. That way I could be sure she would be dealt with and I’d get no further 1am phone calls!

The next day I tried ringing Danny to find out what had gone wrong. There was no answer, but I didn’t think much of it. I suspected Mrs Green had probably forgotten to ring him in the first place. After, I spoke to Jerry – a retired maths teacher from Cambridge. He was happy to take on Mrs Green’s daughter as he was finding his empty days quite dull. I gave him her number and that was that. Or so I thought.

The following Saturday, the phone rang again at 1am. This time I marched down the stairs, knowing full well who would be on the other end. “Hello!” I snapped down the line.

“Ah, yes, hello again, kind sir.” I rolled my eyes at her sickly tone and waited for her to continue. “… I’m sorry to call again, but there was a problem with the man you sent. I’m going to need a replacement tutor as soon as possible.”

“Mrs Green, what exactly was the problem this time?” I asked haughtily.

“He was rather rude. Quite unflexible. He thoroughly upset my poor girl, actually. She’s… Well, she’s special, you see. She needs someone who can be very sensitive with her.”

I softened up immediately. I remembered when I was in school, in they years before I had received my autism diagnosis. So many teachers got frustrated with me for taking so long to get the hang of new topics. I was treated like I was stupid, but it wasn’t that at all. I just had to be taught in a very specific way. Luckily for me, my mum picked up where the teachers failed and I managed to get through it ok. It was one of the reasons I had enjoyed tutoring so much… Being able to unlock the individual learning style of a child and help them thrive.

“… I don’t usually work Sundays, Mrs Green, but I can make an exception, I suppose. I’ll come over at -”

“- 6.30am!”

“No! No. I can be there for 9.30. What’s your address?”

So the next day I found myself driving right out into the middle of the Fens, quite far from the town centre and past the hamlets that surrounded it. Eventually I took a winding road and saw a small, run down cottage near the river Great Ouse. It was the only house in sight. The garden was wildly overgrown, and I had to fight my way past several gigantic gooseberry bushes in order to get to the front door.

I knocked, and a moment later a tall, slim elderly woman opened it. Her eyes seemed to stare right through me and there wasn’t even the hint of a smile on her face. She didn’t look miserable, as such… she just looked as though she was away with the fairies.

I cleared my throat awkwardly, waiting for her to great me. As if triggered by the noise, a huge smile came over her face and her eyes went wide. “Kind sir,” She oozed. “Amelia will be so pleased to see you. Do come in.”

I was confused because I was sure she had told me her daughter’s name was Elizabeth, but before I had time to mention it she’d turned and gone into the dark cottage behind her. And, rather stupidly, I followed.

The ground floor was only one large room, with an old fashioned stove and a heavy wooden table and chairs, then a grotty looking sofa in front of a huge, unused fireplace. There was stacks and stacks of old, grubby books. Of those I got a glance at, I didn’t recognise any of the titles. Mrs Green led me to the kitchen table and we both sat down. I was pleased that she didn’t offer me a drink, because the whole place seemed to have a layer of grime on it and there was a sickly sweet smell that was not unlike her voice!

We sat in silence for a moment as Mrs Green stared at me with that expressionless face again, then suddenly she boomed, “COME ON THEN! GET DOWN HERE! IT’S TIME!”

I jumped out of my skin! She was staring right at me as she shouted it! Was she having a breakdown? Was there really a child here? Is this why my colleagues left? I was confused and shocked, but then I heard heavy thuds coming from the floor above.

A moment later, one of the strangest sights I have ever seen appeared at the top of the stairs. It was a cat – bear with me – that must have surely been an illegal wild cat, because it was at least 2 foot tall and must have weighed 30lbs. But that wasn’t even the weirdest thing. Riding on its shoulders was a chubby little 6 or 7 year old!

She clutched its ears like they were reins and rode it all the way down the wooden stairs, over to the table, then slipped off its back onto the seat next to her mother, opposite me. The cat sat down next to her and started purring as she stroked its back.

I was gobsmacked. “W…What is that?!” I stammered, shying away in case it went for me.

Mrs Green looked at me, her confusion apparent. “… It’s my daughter, of course! You’re here to tutor her. Reading the classics together, isn’t that right child?”

“Mathematics, Old Woman!” The girl sighed, her voice as grossly sweet as her mother’s but even higher in pitch.

I looked between the mother and daughter in disbelief. “For God’s sake, Mrs Green! I clearly meant the cat! What breed is it? Is it wild?!”

Mrs Green looked at the cat out of the corner of her eye, then waved a hand lazily in its direction. “It’s a Savannah. Soft as a feather. Don’t get too close, of course. It will bite your fingers off if it thinks you are invading her personal space. Anyway, I have things to do upstairs. I shall leave you both to your lesson.” She got up from the table and disappeared up the stairs.

I was still in shock, and I eyed the cat warily. It stared right at me but continued purring as the girl stroked it. I tried to ignore it, instead looking at the girl.

She had chubby rosy cheeks and curly hair that was held in piggy-tails by white ribbons. She wore a white frilly dress that made her look even rounder than she was. Her ears and nose were very angular, a pointed feature that did not suit her round face.

I smiled at her,reminding myself that despite this very strange environment she was still only a child. “I’m Mikey,” I said brightly.

She ignored that, instead firing a demand at me. “You are to tell mother that I passed maths.” When she spoke her double chin wobbled.

I stayed quiet for a moment. Most tutors have encountered small, spoilt brats who treat them like they are a slave, make unreasonable requests and try and shirk out of doing any work. I knew that it was usually a defense mechanism and I was fast learning how to gently break down the walls they put up around them. This was different though. The girl in front of me had an evil glint in her eyes, almost as though she was daring me to disagree. The cold way she ordered me to do as she said chilled me.

“Ok,” I agreed. I decided I could just talk to her mother on the phone, let her know this wasn’t going to work. Whatever it was that they needed, I couldn’t provide it. “Is there anything you would like to do instead?”

Suddenly, the girl shouted. “MOTHER! IT’S TIME TO PICK GOOSEBERRIES! QUICKLY!”

Mrs Green came sprinting down the stairs less than a second later. I wondered if she had been waiting right at the top? “How did my daughter do? With the maths?” She asked me.

I looked at Mrs Green, who was staring back at me expectantly. I looked at the girl – Elizabeth or Amelia, who knew? She nodded at me, as though giving me permission to speak. “She… passed maths?” I submitted, meekly.

“Horah!” cried Mrs Green enthusiastically. Then the cat rose to its feet, its head brushing on the bottom of the kitchen, and the child climbed back on it. Together they made their way to the front door with Mrs Green following closely behind.

I stood, looking forward to getting out of there. Mrs Green turned back to me and shook her head. “No, no, kind sir. We’ll be back shortly. Sit there and sit still. Whatever you do, don’t go near the chimney.” They left the house shutting the door behind them, the clicking noise of a lock revealing that I was trapped inside.

The situation had been bizarre before, yes, but now I felt scared. Who were these people, and why had they locked me in their house? What the hell was going on with that huge cat? I started to panic.

I got up and hurried over to the only exit I could see. I tried the door frantically but it only confirmed what I already knew… I was trapped. I looked around frantically, spotting two small grubby windows, but they were stuck fast and I couldn’t find anything around to break them. I ran over to the chimney and realised that there was a draft coming down from it. Maybe I could climb out?

I glanced up and I screamed out loud when I saw what was inside. I fought the urge to throw up as the source of that sickly sweet smell suddenly hit me. Up the chimney, stuck on metal spikes that were drilled into the wall, were two decapitated human heads. Their skin was grey and some sort of thick, gooey liquid dripped down from them onto the hearth beneath me. My entire body went cold. What the hell had happened here? I was so utterly horrified by my discovery that it took me a moment to realise that I actually recognised the heads above me! I almost fainted when I saw that it was Danny and Jerry, my colleagues. My friends.

Well, I knew then for certain that I needed to get out of there immediately. I wrapped a dirty rag around my fist and punched through one of windows, scrambling through and falling into the garden beneath me. I looked up and could see Mrs Green and the child, riding on the terrifying cat, up at the end of the garden path. To my surprise they weren’t facing the house – they either hadn’t heard the window break or they had ignored it. Instead of looking for me, the child was picking gooseberries by the fistful and ramming them into her mouth. Mrs Green stood next to her, clutching a huge, blood stained axe.

I suppose I could have overpowered the old woman and took her weapon, but I wasn’t taking any chances with the huge beast her daughter sat upon. So I walked quietly through the bush closest to me and crouched on the other side. I thought I would wait until they went back towards the house then make a run for it for my car. But suddenly flood of whispers erupted all around me, and my plan had to be put on hold.

It was as though a hundred tiny voices whispered together at once. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I heard the child speak from further up the path. “The gooseberries are all excited. Calm down, little beasts! What is it you’re trying to say, gooseberries? Be clearer.”

The whispers stopped and the girl looked towards the house. She must have spotted the broken window, because suddenly she roared to Mrs Green. “He’s GONE! Gooseberries, tell me where he is RIGHT NOW!”

The whispering did not return, though. Instead, a loud thwacking noise began. I carried on peeking from my hiding place and watched Mrs Green hacking into the bushes with her axe, gooseberries flying everywhere. She didn’t stop until the whispers started again. This time they were much clearer. “He is in the riverrrrrrr…” They – the gooseberries?! – whispered. “In the riverrrrrrr, he is…”

I watched as the cat slowly carried the girl towards the fast flowing river with Mrs Green following them closely behind. As her daughter was led into the water, the depth quickly covering the cat, Mrs Green hovered nervously on the river bank.

“Old woman,” The child called back. “The cat can’t seem to swim. Come and get me out immediately. My hair will get wet.” There was no panic in her tone, she spoke the same way she had to me at the table. Even though the water was rising around her faster and faster, she didn’t seem to care! I knew that at any moment she would be entirely underneath.

I watched Mrs Green clamber into the river, swimming alongside the girl who now clung onto Mrs Green’s neck. But she was too heavy! There was no way a frail old woman like Mrs Green could hold up that chubby thing. I watched them struggle for a minute, then as soon as they were fully submerged, I ran to my car and left.

Could I have helped them? Perhaps. Well, I mean, for a start… I can’t swim. I hate water so I’ve never had an interest in learning. They went under in the space of 3 minutes. Maybe I could have done more… looked for a plank of wood or something? I don’t know. But I was confused and terrified! Something very, very strange had happened, and plus… they’d murdered two of my friends! They were probably going to do the same thing to me!

I called the police as soon as I got home (this was before the days of mobile phones being owned by all) and they ‘sped’ to the cottage in the middle of the fens. I told them to look out for whoever had been whispering to those murderous hags – the voices that had saved me, by sending them off into the river while I hid. I hadn’t caught a glimpse of anyone out there, but maybe they were well hidden. Because it couldn’t have actually been the gooseberries speaking… could it?

They never found anyone, though. They didn’t even retrieve the bodies of Mrs Green, her daughter or the cat. They did find poor Danny and Jerry, and they told me some time after that they’d been tortured quite horrifically before their death. The evidence that the mortuary had gathered suggested it was committed by a child. When I heard that I was glad I hadn’t tried to help them as they drowned.

The police investigated the murders for quite a while. Nobody knew anything about the two strange women I met at the cottage that day. Not the school, the doctor, the hospital… not even anyone from the town. The cottage itself had been owned by a recluse who had died 10 years before, so there weren’t even any details of Mrs Green and her daughter on the deeds. The case was closed eventually. It just faded off as another mystery of the Fens.

I stopped tutoring straight after that horrible day. I did teach at the local school later in life, but private students were not a risk I was prepared to take again. To this day, whenever I walk past a gooseberry bush I stop and whisper a quick thanks. Just in case.

Stories From The Fenlands: The Stone Witch

The Norfolk town that I live in is very small, however we’re surrounded by a lot of countryside that’s mainly farmland and forests. Amongst the scenery there are lots of odd things dotted around… Like there’s a meadow, for example, that’s a mass of overgrown grass and wildflowers. In the middle of the meadow is a ring of stones that encircle a large rock which stands at 5 foot high. Legend has it that the larger rock is a witch that was turned to stone after she milked a cow until it ran dry.

When I was a child, I always thought that seemed really extreme. Why would you turn someone to stone because they drank too much milk? Perhaps the ‘witch’ had a calcium deficiency, or just a bit of a hankering for a nice glass of creamy goodness here and there. My mum always tutted and shook her head when I suggested this, and would remind me that before the Fens were drained they all had very little contact with the outside world. One greedy woman could result in the death of many others, she said. So basically, the witch had been turned to stone for good reason.

One of our weird local rituals was that if a woman conceived in our town then she had to go to the ring of stones at some point in the third trimester of her pregnancy. There, she had to leave a chalice of milk for the witch as an offering. If the women didn’t do this it was said that their breast milk would be ever rotten and cause their babies to starve to death.

It’s hard to explain, but we have always taken these practices very seriously… even when they no longer seem relevant. In more modern days when formula became the more done thing, the women of the town would still take a chalice of milk up to the meadow during their third trimester. Over time it had just become a way of the town, even if there was little sense in it.

When I was 7 I was deemed old enough to start playing out alone. As an adult, I now look back at this as quite reckless of my mother. I am autistic and as a child I was very easily led, which was how I found myself in trouble one autumn morning. I’d bumped into a local lad called Freddie Smith, hanging around on his own at Marsh Park. The other kids didn’t usually play with me, but that day Freddie didn’t exactly have a choice. There had been a nasty case of the flu going around and most the children were being kept indoors, either because they were already ill or because their parents wanted to avoid them catching it. Apparently, mine and Freddie’s mother’s didn’t mind that much if we were at risk.

We had fun at first, playing in the park together happily. But Freddie had always been a bit of a rascal and before long he suggested something to me that made me feel a little uncomfortable.

“My sister’s having a baby soon. She took her chalice up to the ring of stones last night! Shall we go and see it, Mikey?”

I swallowed nervously. It wasn’t that the ring of stones was out of bounds or anything. I’d never been told not to go there, but it’d also never been suggested that I should, either. The lack of clear lines to follow made me uneasy, and the mischievous glint in Freddie’s eyes made me panic.

“I’m not sure, Freddie. I think it’s girls only, or something…”

He rolled his eyes at me. “Well, I’m going anyway. You can stay here if you want. Or you can come with me…”

Of course, I followed him. I felt like Freddie and I might actually become friends after the fun we had had that morning. I didn’t want to mess it up.

We trekked the mile or two out of the centre, towards the edge of the forest where the meadow lay. When we got there I looked up at the centre rock in awe. It felt huge, compared to Freddie and I. The jagged rocks that surrounded it were much smaller, no higher than my knees, their sharp edges all pointing directly at ‘the stone witch’. There were hundreds of old metal chalices littered around the meadow, with one full one sat on one of the surrounding stones.

“That must be Cassandra’s offering,” Freddie said, eyeing it up. “Do you believe in the witch, Mikey?”

I shrugged, reluctant to admit that I certainly did. I believed most things my mother told me. I settled on telling Freddie that if the witch was real, then I thought it was nasty of the town’s elders to turn her into stone just because she wanted some milk. “That is pretty mean,” Freddie said, thoughtfully.

So started a glorious game of ‘free the thirsty witch’. As little boys do, we beat the stone with sticks to try and break her free. Then we tried to kick it over. Truth be told, I was never really into rough and tumble play, but the way Freddie laughed as we messed about made my heart soar with hope. Maybe I’d finally found a friend. When Freddie started throwing rocks at the chalice to see if he could knock it down, I held back a little, throwing them half hardheartedly and feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the direction this was going.

What Freddie suggested next I couldn’t agree to even in my desperation to impress. “I’m thirsty.” He declared. “I’m going to drink the milk.”

“No!” I gasped. “You can’t drink it, Freddie… It’s the witch’s! She needs it!”

“If she needed it that much she would have come out and got it already, stupid. I need it. I’m going to have some…”

Freddie darted towards the milk eagerly and I yanked him back by his arm. He hissed with pain and scowled at me. I felt tears filling me eyes because I was so upset that I had made him angry.

“Cry-baby! Cry-baby! Cry-baby Mikey doesn’t want the witchy’s milkies to get drank, blub blub blub!” Freddie laughed cruelly and I dropped his arm, stung and confused by the sudden change of atmosphere between the two of us.

Of course, he darted right up to the chalice and, looking me dead in the eye, he lifted it to his lips and took a deep swig. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen, and I’m not sure what he was expecting, but his face crumpled in disgust as he spat it out on the ground. “Eurgh!” He moaned, doubling over and clutching his stomach. His cheeks bloated out and his face paled. Fear clutched my stomach. I was worried that he had been poisoned for taking the witch’s milk. Was he about to drop dead in front of me?

He looked as if he had just been slapped around the face. I darted towards him. I wanted to help. Then he stood up, waving me away angrily. “It’s gone sour!” He cried before throwing the chalice down to the ground.

I winced, a memory of accidently drinking rotten milk from the bottle a few months ago still fresh on my taste buds. “Are you alright, Freddie? Shall we go and get some squash and a snack at my house?”

Freddie scowled at me again. As an adult, I think he was probably embarrassed about what had happened, but at the time I just blamed myself for the entire situation. “I’m not going anywhere with you, cry-baby! Leave me alone.”

Freddie headed off in the direction of town without me. I hung around at the ring of stones for a while, feeling terribly sorry for myself about yet another taste of rejection. It was a taste I would become used to eventually, but at the age of 8 it still cut deep.

I picked up the chalice that Freddie had thrown on the floor. Most of the milk had sunk into the soil, but still I placed what remained of the offering on the rock that faced the stone witch. I whispered a quick apology, then wandered back home slowly.

I didn’t tell my mum what had happened. The women of the town took the tradition very seriously and I knew she would be livid by what had happened in the meadow. There was no way she wouldn’t tell Freddie’s mother and I was already in his bad books – the last thing I wanted to do was wind him up further by grassing him in. I didn’t really think about his sister, Cassandra, and how she might feel if she found out her offering had been stolen. I just didn’t want anybody to get in trouble… myself included.

The next day, my mother told me we were both on lockdown. Neither of us were to leave the house. At first I was horrified that I had been found out, that it was a punishment for my part in the day before. But when I asked why she explained that the flu that was going around the town seemed to be a bit more serious than they’d first thought.

“Little Freddie Smith is ever so ill,” She told me. “Apparently he’s been throwing up thick white mucus every half hour since lunchtime yesterday! Aunty Helen tried to go round this morning, to do his mum’s hair. Well, Carol sent her straight away! She said his vomit stinks just like rotten eggs and his tummy is as bloated as his sisters. She won’t be held responsible for spreading this round town. Well, it’s already all round, I bet. I don’t mind a touch of flu but I won’t have any stinking sick in this house – you’re not to step foot out of this house, until I say so.”

Freddie’s ‘sickness’ never did spread, though. The flu around town soon wore off, and Freddie was the only one who ever had the reeking white vomit and the bloated stomach. And it didn’t go within a few weeks, like the typical flu did. Freddie was bed bound for three months with that illness, and it had long lasting effects after, too. To this day, he’s still lactose intolerant… but he’d never had a problem with dairy before that day at ring of stones. And he still always looks like he’s just had a slap around the face (or a face like a smacked arse, as my mother always said). I’ve heard from people my age that it’s because every time he tries to eat or drink something, all he can taste is rotten milk.

I suppose you could just put all of that down to a weird coincidence. It gets weirder, though. A few months after Freddie got sick with the witch’s flu his sister – Cassandra – gave birth to her baby. Now, as I’ve said, legend has it that those women who didn’t offer the witch a chalice of milk would be cursed with rotten breast milk. Well, Cassandra had a bit of a worse experience than that. Her baby was born detrimentally deformed… Where its mouth should have been, there was nothing but smooth skin. No lips, no hole… Nothing.

I know, it sounds unreal. They whisked him away the moment he was born and they operated. They operated over and over again. But every single time they created something that could function as a mouth, the skin would just grow right back over it within a day or two.

He survived, you might be surprised to hear. He’s been tube fed through his nose since birth. They keep operating, they keep trying to ‘fix’ him. He’s had a great number of experimental operations in our little hospital. None of them worked, but he gets by.

Believe it or not, I know the kid well. His life has been a little rough, what with having no mouth… People can be cruel. But, for the most part, people got used to it. He’s just another part of the scenery, nowadays. I taught him sign language not long after I learnt it, after my horrible experience in Marsh Park. He’s a teenager now and from what I can tell he’s a nice enough lad. Much nicer than his Uncle Freddie ever was, anyway.

Sometimes I wonder if I am reading too much into all this business with the stone witch. Maybe Freddie really did have a rare, unusual version of the flu. Maybe he was dairy intolerant all along. Maybe Cassandra’s boy’s deformity wasn’t a punishment for her offering being spat on the ground. When my wife had our baby, though… Well, I wondered if I was being praised, in some weird way. You see, she had a huge oversupply of breast milk, and though it was uncomfortable and often painful for her, she was able to express and donate endless bottles for premature babies in NICU units up and down the country. Maybe that was the witch’s way of thanking me, for trying to be respectful of her?

Well, that’s just one of many strange things that went on in our town. I thought you might like to hear it.

Stories from The Fenlands: The Hocketers of Marsh Park

I live in a very strange town in Norfolk that is a bit like a mixture of Summersile and Sandford. We don’t burn people alive in wooden effigies and we’ve never been awarded ‘Town of the Year’ so haven’t had to kill for it (yet). However, we do have curious rituals and mysterious town legends that are pretty creepy. I’m going to tell you about some of them, starting with an experience I had when I was 14 years old that I still feel the effects of today.

We’re quite closed off here as we’re in the heart of the Fenlands. The Fens were drained centuries ago but the feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the country remains. Public transport out of our town is limited and regularly cancelled or disrupted, and the council run a scheme where households that don’t run a car get deductions from their council tax. People strive to ensure the town is reliable and sustainable, and as a result we are very isolated.

Perhaps that’s why many of us have never questioned the unusual rules we need to follow, or the legends we are told. Most of the people who live here were born here so there are a lot of stories handed down from our grandparents. We do get outsiders that move here, but they rarely last over a year. Some people just can’t handle the seclusion. I don’t think I realised just how odd the way our town functions actually is until I moved away for a few years while I did my degree.

First off, I’m going to tell you about one of our parks that has a curfew. There are lots of small play areas dotted across the town, but we have one main park – Marsh Park – that sits on a small hill surrounded by green space. When I was very young, my mum took me there once or twice a week and would sit chatting with other parents while I played. We always left before it got dark, which never struck me as strange because parents don’t tend to hang out in the park with the kids at night. As I got older, though, I was always warned that I could never be in the park after sunset. My parents warned me this, my grandparents, my teachers… and it wasn’t just me that had to obey this rule. Everybody did. And, thankfully, they still do.

In primary school we would have to recite the town rules once a week, and one of these was that we must always leave Marsh Park as soon as the sun began to descend.

“Children, what do you do when the sun starts to go in at Marsh Park?” Our headteacher would ask us during friday morning’s assembly.

Then 80 children would chant simultaneously, “Stop what we are doing and leave straight away, Mr Steward.”

It was a form of indoctrination, I suppose. We just accepted it as something we had to do. It was as normal as getting up in the morning and getting ready for school. It was drilled into us and so we accepted it. I don’t think any of us really questioned why.

When I was 14, I broke the rule. I wasn’t rebelling, as teenagers do (although even the most rebellious around town wouldn’t be found at Marsh Park after nightfall). My experience was a total accident. I’ve always been happier than most to toe the line and follow the rules; in fact, they have always made me feel more comfortable. This particular evening was different, though.

It was a late summer’s evening and I was being chased by the local gang of bullies. They’d been hanging around outside the library when I left with my weekly collection of graphic novels and they started throwing small rocks at me. I tried ignoring them, hoping they’d leave me alone, but as I walked away they started shouting stuff after me. I picked up speed which almost seemed to egg them on, and I suddenly found myself racing through town trying to escape my four tormentors, who seemed to have an endless collection of stones to throw at me throughout our run.

I found myself running past the church and through the graveyard that was one of three entrances into Marsh Park. As soon as I stepped onto Marsh Park land, the rocks stopped bouncing off my backpack. I turned around triumphantly, thinking I had outrun the bullies. Instead, I saw they were all still there, frozen on the path.

I watched as they all backed away slowly, stepping back down the path we had run up. “You’ve done it now, Mikey!” The only girl of the group, Bea Hart, cried out. “The Hocketers are going to get you!”

I had no idea what she was talking about so I turned back towards Marsh Park. To my shock, I saw that the sun was setting in the distance. Stress rushed over me as I realised that I only had a few minutes to get out of there. Darkness already covered the far entrance, so I knew I couldn’t make it out that way. I could have ran to the small passageway on the opposite side to where I stood, but it led onto a local farmer’s field and legend told that he shot kids with his shotgun if they went on his land without permission. I frantically turned back the way I had come, hoping I could head back with the gang.

“Quickly, Mikey!” Bea called urgently. “Come back with us!” I could hear the fear in her voice and it exasperated my own.

I started to walk towards them, nervous and unsure, but I stopped dead when the ring leader shoved Bea so hard that she fell onto the ground with a thud. Tears filled her eyes as dread filled my stomach.

The biggest bully looked at me and grinned maniacally. “You come back here and I’m going to make your life hell,” He sneered. “Starting with a beating right now.” He smacked his fist into his hand.

He turned and jogged back towards the church, his minions following closely behind him.“We’ll be waiting at the church!” One called back to me.

Bea picked herself up and shrugged at me apologetically. “You’d better hide, Mikey.” I saw shame burning in her eyes before she turned and followed the rest, leaving me alone in Marsh Park while the darkness descended behind me.

I still had about a minute to go until the park would be shrouded in gloom. I thought quickly about what my options were. It’s hard being autistic in a town full of so many cliques, rules and interpretations. I could race for the crazy farmer’s field, but I took things so literally that I was sure he would actually shoot me if he caught me. I could face my bullies, but the fear of 4 to 1 held me back. I knew full well what would happen if I took either of the two available exits, but I didn’t know what would happen if I stayed put. I’d never heard of ‘the hocketers’ before – I had no idea what Bea had been on about. Although I desperately didn’t want to break the rule of being in Marsh Park after sunset, I was terrified of the potential outcomes if I left. So I decided to hide in the tunnel on the play equipment until I could think of a way out of here.

The darkness of the tunnel put me at ease, because it meant I didn’t have to watch the sun disappearing over the park. I crouched inside, breathing heavily and trying to calm myself. I could feel a meltdown coming on and I’d been working hard with the town therapist to control them. I tried to separate myself from my environment, drifting off into my imagination. I must have been daydreaming for 5 minutes or so, the technique doing its job of keeping me from totally losing it, when I first heard them.

Have you ever heard ‘hocketing’, before? It’s a medieval multi-part music technique. I’d never come across it so I didn’t know what I was hearing at first. There were a great number of voices coming from beyond the tunnel, out on the field, and they were approaching me slowly. Each voice sang a single note, then another voice picked up the next note straight after, then another voice with another note… and so on. It doesn’t seem unnerving when I write it down, and I was never able to explain the terror I felt as I crouched in the tunnel listening to an unseen succession approaching me, singing rapid exchanges together.

Their song had a Hitchcock like effect, choppy and ritualistic and full of tension. Terrifying tension, that gained traction the closer they got. There was loads of voices, too… It wasn’t just a few. As someone who is particularly sensitive to noise, I could hear voices stretching across the entire length of the field next to the park. It’s not a huge field, sure, but what I heard told me there had to be 30 or 40 people out there.

I couldn’t bear the dreaded wait for whoever ‘they’ were to reach me. I wanted to know what I was going to have to face. So I poked my head out of the tunnel.

At first I couldn’t see anything. I could just hear that peculiar choppy song. But as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw lots of small, dark figures advancing up the hill. Towards the play area. Towards me.

Though they were the height of children, they were definitely not kids from around town. In fact, when I look back I don’t think they were children at all, but at the time I thought they must be due to their height. Maybe it was a trick of the darkness, but from what I could see they had no features. They looked more like mannequins than people, except they had black, charred skin. They did have mouths, I suppose… if you could call them that. They were more like gaping holes. I couldn’t make out any more detail and I didn’t want to, either. I retreated back into the tunnel.

The children’s song grew louder and more frantic as they got closer to me. I could tell they knew I was here; whether I had revealed myself when I’d poked my head out or if they just sensed me didn’t matter. The chant seemed to zone in towards me, and I knew they weren’t edging towards the play equipment – No, they were edging towards me.

I had to cover my ears before long. They began to shriek, one at a time, in an unworldly, jumbled tune that made my ears scream with pain. I felt fluid oozing out of my ears and ignored it, not wanting to see the blood coming from me that I was sure would be there. I rocked back and forth, desperate for someone to help me, crying loudly. I didn’t care if they heard me over their musical cries because they were coming for me anyway! I squeezed my eyes shut. I wished I was at home, safe with my mum. I don’t know how but I was sure that once they reached me I would be seconds away from death.

When a rough hand grabbed me by the shoulder, I screamed hysterically. But instead of claws digging into my skin, or charred, bony hands wrapped around my throat, I was shaken urgently. I stopped screaming and to my relief, I noticed that I could no longer hear the chant of the children. Instead I could hear the fuzzy sound of white noise – like when the tv goes onto the wrong channel, you know? Electrical noise. So I opened my eyes quickly and saw Bea’s grandfather staring at me, holding a boombox that was blasting the white noise all around us.

“Mr H..H..Hart!” I stuttered, absolutely traumatised. But he didn’t say anything. I remembered then that he was deaf! Of course, he couldn’t hear me. He urgently gestured me to follow him, holding out a hand for me to grab. I did as he wanted and let him lead me out of the tunnel, my small hands shaking into his.

He tugged me towards the churchyard and just as we were about to leave Marsh Park land I couldn’t resist looking back. I saw the chanting children stood still at the top of the hill, just a dozen steps away from where I had hid. They no longer approached, not the tunnel or Mr Hart and I, and they no longer sang. They were frozen like statues.

As we left Marsh Park they all turned towards us. I don’t know if they carried on making that monstrous noise, but I imagine they did. I couldn’t hear anything over Bea’s grandfather’s boombox, thankfully.

Once we were out of the churchyard and onto the main road, Mr Hart bundled me into his car. I shook with fear in his passenger seat while he shoved the boombox onto the back seat with some force. It must have landed on the power button, because it turned itself off. To my distress, as soon as the white noise stopped all I could hear was a rapid ringing noise that pierced my ears. It was similar to the chant of the children, but more like tinnitus than their music. Because even though it was awful, it had been musical. Talented, I suppose.

The ringing caused me so much pain that I thrashed around on the passenger seat. Mr Hart noticed something was wrong even if he didn’t hear my agonised shrieks, and quickly fumbled with the power button, turning back on the white noise. Then he took me to our town’s tiny hospital.

He didn’t stay in the room with me, instead waiting outside it for my parents. Thankfully, he left his boombox in there with me, so I was spared of the pain that silence now caused me.

It took months of having white noise on at all times before I could finally turn it off without being in agony. To this day, I still have tinnitus. It’s bearable now. Well, as bearable as constant ringing can be.

The doctors, my parents, my teachers – they never gave me any explanation for what I experienced that day. They just told me I should never have been in Marsh Park after sunset.

During my three long months of having to listen to constant white noise, I got a book out of the library that taught me sign language. Everyday I studied it relentlessly. It became something of an obsession, actually. The doctor’s weren’t sure if I’d regain my hearing once the whole process was over, but I decided that even if I did then I would need to talk to Bea’s grandfather. Partly to thank Mr Hart for saving me, but also because he obviously knew more about the children of Marsh Park. Bea knew what hocketing was, too – she had warned me about ‘The Hocketers’.

When I researched it at the library, I knew that the noise those creatures had made was, indeed, hocketing. Nowadays you can hear it easily online, but none of it is like the horrifying version I had to endure.

When I could finally turn off the white noise I went to see Mr Hart. Through sign language, we spoke about what had gone on that night. I told him how terrified I had been and explained that if he hadn’t found me then I was sure I would have died. He said I had Bea to thank for that, though I wasn’t sure ‘thank’ was exactly the correct term. Sure, she told her grandad I was in trouble, but she left me there, too.

Of course, I asked him how he knew the white noise would work. He told me that it had taken a great time of trial and tribulation to figure it out, and that it didn’t always work. That time, though, it had. He didn’t know why and I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I am eternally grateful for Mr Hart rescuing me.

I never asked how he came to be deaf. I think I knew already, in all honesty. Somebody must have rescued him, like he did me. We became friends after… playing chess together once a week and signing to each other about this and that. Right up until he died. Bea and I became friends at a later date too, but that’s another story for another time.

The children in our town know never to be in Marsh Park after sunset. It’s indoctrinated into us from birth. But accidents happen. I’m evidence of that. A few steps more and I would have been deaf like Mr Hart, I’m sure of it. Any more steps? Well, I feel very lucky that my old friend stepped in when he did.

Shortly after what happened to me, the local police started doing checks on Marsh Park at sunset. They don’t go in once its dark but they do shine a flood light over it.The idea is to check for kids who might be in trouble. We haven’t had any incidents since… not that I’m aware of, at least.

My daughter disappeared during our walk through the woods. Part 3.

After a stressful night with very little sleep, I had woken to a note that told me my partner, Mark, was taking our two-year-old daughter, Rose, out for a walk. Believing their walk would take them to the trail, I got ready to leave immediately. I will start the final part of my story before I found the note, early that morning.

When I woke, it was particularly dark so I knew that it was early. Despite only going to sleep a couple of hours before, my body clock has grown used to the extremely early mornings demanded of me since Rose was born. I automatically wake up before sunrise even on the rare mornings that Rose isn’t around to act as my alarm clock. As soon as I opened my eyes, I felt sick with guilt for shouting at and scaring poor Rose the night before. Neither her nor Mark were in bed so I assumed he was downstairs with her, trying to give me the opportunity to rest.

Not wanting to waste my time sleeping when I could spend it making my actions up to my little girl, I decided to get up even though I felt fatigued. I dragged myself out of bed and made my way downstairs, my body aching all over and exhaustion overwhelming me. Though it was understandable that I was still tired, this felt like something else. I felt as though I had been drugged. I was drowsy and my limbs felt heavy.

When I got downstairs, the house was still. I wandered through the empty ground floor, my mind fuzzy. I didn’t seem to have the mental strength to theorise where they might be, I just felt confused. After shuffling around the place for five minutes I found a note on the kitchen table:

If you wake up, don’t panic. I’ve just taken Rose for a walk. Be back soon.x

It took a moment, but then the realisation of what Mark’s note actually meant hit me like a slap around the face. I knew that at this time in the morning he wouldn’t want to go far from the house. That meant he would be taking Rose to the trail – it the closest route to us, it’s not too far for Rose’s little legs and it is where we have always gone. Due to his skepticism, I had felt unable to share what I had experienced at the trail and even if I had then he would have sought explanations that involved diving into the eye of the storm. That and a mixture of my mental state when I had returned home meant that I had kept quiet. He had no idea what he was getting himself – and our daughter – into.

After glancing at the time on my mobile phone, I knew that they would not have left long before I woke. Rose is habitual, and her wake up time is quite predictable. I still had a chance to catch up to them before they got into any danger. I very quickly updated you all, then I threw on a hoodie over my PJ’s, slipped on my boots and ran out the door. Unfortunately, I left without thinking of anything but reaching them, so I didn’t take a thing with me other than my phone.

As I ran into the crisp morning air, my foggy mind started to clear as the cold morning brought me around from my drowsy state. My body creaked and ached but the sudden clarity of what was at risk had given me a boost of energy. The streets were dark and quiet and my boots pounded against the pavement with an echo as I made my way quickly to the trail. There was a low mist that made my skin feel damp and visibility was even more limited than usual.

It didn’t take me long to reach the thin path that led up to the wooded area. I took a moment to catch my breath while I scanned the area for Rose and Mark. The darkness stopped me seeing a lot, but I was fairly confident that they were not on the path. I pushed myself into jogging up the trail so that I could reach the opening of the woodland. I hoped so much I would hear them chatting as they made their way through the woods, but the dread resting in my stomach suggested otherwise.

Once I had reached the wooded area I could hear no happy chatter, so I looked out into the field for the building. With the lack of light I could not see it, just like the many mornings where it had remained completely unknown to Rose and I. Oh, how I missed those simple mornings. Yet even though I could not see it, I felt its perilous presence out there. I knew that it stood directly opposite the opening, so I jumped the fence and started to sprint towards where I had been less than 24 hours earlier.

A few metres later, against my will I suddenly slowed dramatically. It felt as if I had stopped running and started walking, but I hadn’t. I was still pushing my body through a sprint, except now it felt as though I was running against an immense pressure. Every step was a fight. It was as though a heavy duty wind machine was in front of me. The pressure pushing against me was unreal. Yet, the air was still, the night was quiet, all I could hear was myself gasping for air. Involuntarily, I had slowed to what would barely register as a jog, despite the fact that I was sprinting as hard as I was capable of. I was sure that I was running against nothing.

This went on for an unreasonably long time. A few seconds of running against such a force will exhaust anyone, and I was already totally drained to begin with. Still, I fought on, and after a short while the force abruptly dropped. With nothing pushing against me, I sprawled forward face first, collapsing onto the grass. I lay there panting. I was hurt, tired and scared. I swallowed it down, took a deep breath and picked myself up, wiping the sweat off my forehead. I don’t know how I found the energy, how I fought against my burning limbs, but somehow I pushed through it and began to speed through the field again.

Before long, though, I found myself in the midst of another obstacle. It’s hard to explain without sounding preposterous, but I’ll try. My sprint so far had been in a straight line. Though it was dark and I couldn’t see much ahead of me, the building was not far from the opening to the woods and I had not deviated from the short route that I knew would take me there. Yet, after a minute or two I still had not reached the building.

I kept going and going, running, my body pushed to its limits, my lungs screaming at me to stop and rest. I got nowhere. The situation was nonsensical. As I flew through the grass, I felt like I was stuck in an infinite loop of despair. I thought I would never reach my destination. There was a chance that I may have veered slightly off course on my way through the field, but it was highly unlikely that I would have got myself totally lost, surely?

After what felt like a lifetime of running in the same direction, I cried out in infuriation, doubling over with stitch, needing to catch my breath before I passed out. The opening to the woods was so close to the building, and I knew, beyond a doubt, that I should have reached it by now. I stood still and screamed in anger, pulling at my hair. I surely must have drifted off course, disorientated by the dark and monotonous scenery. Perhaps I was running aimlessly through the field, having somehow missed the building. Should I try a different direction? See where it took me? I had to find my baby, I couldn’t keep running around foolishly while anything could be happening to her.

I was so close to making the decision to turn another way, to run in a different direction. I almost went back on myself and tried to restart the route. However, at the last minute I decided that if I truly had got lost then that meant I had been running in the wrong direction for minutes. If I turned around I would only get more lost. So, I decided that I would not change course. Instinct – the instinct that I should have listened to in the first place, before I got into this mess – told me that I was heading the right way, and so I began to run again.

Within thirty seconds of making this decision, the outline of the building emerged from the mist ahead of me. It was just a few steps away! My body tensed and I got ready. For what, I did not know, but I knew I needed to be prepared for anything.

As I approached, the first thing that struck me was that there was a large, dark figure lying on the ground, 5 metres away from the doorway. I knew before I even got there that it was Mark. I glanced around for Rose, or any unheard dangers, but I could see nothing else.

I jogged up to Mark, kneeling next to him. His eyes were closed, his body limp. I quickly checked for a pulse and felt a heartbeat. He was out cold, but breathing. I moved his limp form into the recovery position then I pulled my phone out of the front of my hoodie and I dialed 999. I directed them to the care home, unable to tell them the exact address of the field. I told them I was in a field just behind it and that I couldn’t stay on the line as I had to find my daughter. Then I hung up.

I looked at the building. A faint light flickered through the holes that served as windows and the doorway. I knew that Rose would be there, but I knew she would not be alone. For a moment, I felt too scared to approach. I felt very close to the edge. This all was just so much to handle, physically and mentally. I wanted to slump down on the floor. I was scared and alone. I’m not a strong person, neither physically nor mentally. Truth be told, I guess I’m a bit of a coward. I just live my life and try and stay out of trouble. Mark goes to work each day, I take care of Rose. I work freelance at the weekend, if I get the time. It’s all so simple, so normal. Yet, here I was right in the middle of such insanity. I desperately wanted it to all end.

It wasn’t me in the middle of it all, though, was it? It was my Rose. If the terror of this situation was so overwhelming for me, what must it be like for a two-year-old? So I pushed back the fear and I forced myself forward. I made my way into the building.

I couldn’t hear a thing as I entered silently through the doorway. A fire roared in the hole in the opposite wall to the doorway, illuminating the entire space. A scent drifted through the building that reminded me of many things; spent fireworks, dying plants and roadkill, to name a few. In the far corner, the woman who had attacked me the day before stood with her back to me, her gray hair spilling down the back of her rags. Lying on the floor in front of her was Rose, naked and bound by ropes. She was staring up at the ceiling, her eyes wide with fear.

The woman was chanting in a low tone, words that bore no meaning to me but filled me with dread all the same. I wish I could tell you some of the things she said but it was not any language that I can imitate. Her arms were resting by her sides and she rocked gently backwards and forwards as she chanted. I saw that in her left hand she held a long, rusty blade. Her hand clutched around rope that was wrapped around one end of it. It appeared to be a makeshift handle, and looked like the same rope that bound my daughter.

I wanted to call out to Rose, to let her know I was there. I wanted her to know that no matter what happened, she wasn’t alone. I had to stay silent, though. The woman was so enchanted by her strange ritual that I suspected she had not heard me enter the building, so to call out would kill any element of surprise that might help me save my child.

I tried to decide on an approach to take. I wished desperately that I had grabbed a knife on my way out, but I had left so urgently that it hadn’t even crossed my mind. Could I shout to the woman, diverting her attention to me? Could I find something to throw at her? I looked around, quickly. I spotted the mortar and pestle on the ground next to the fireplace. I knew I couldn’t lift it, so it was no good. I was shocked to see that next to it was a ball of hair wrapped in weeds. Blonde, frizzy curls. My hair.

I knew I couldn’t use anything in the building, so though I was freaked out by my discovery I swallowed it down. With growing desperation I realised that there was nothing I could plan, no way I could have the upper hand here. As I grew close to melting down over this horrific situation, the woman’s left hand suddenly thrust into the air, held high above her head and directly over my Rose’s chest.

They say that when you have a near death experience your life flashes before your eyes. As the blade was a mere second away from ending Rose’s life, I can’t tell you what she saw but I can tell you what I did. Like a movie, I watched the first few minutes after she was born, this tiny, bundle of pink placed onto my naked chest, squealing and rooting until she found my breast. I physically felt her tiny newborn hand gripping tightly onto my finger as she clutched me, so totally reliant on her mother’s love.

I heard her first giggle, when she was just a few months old as I tickled under her chin. A burst of laughter from this little creature that could barely move. It brought tears of joy to my eyes then and brought tears of despondency to me now. Would I really never hear her laugh again?

I heard her first word echo around me. “More, More!”, she had squealed with delight as her father swung her into the air, catching her with his protective arms. He had focused so much time on work to provide for his family. He had lost so much time with the daughter that he adored so that Rose and I could have as much time together as we could get. Now he might never have the chance to make up that time.

I watched her take her first steps into my outstretched arms, as I promised that I would always be there to catch her. I heard her crying out for us in the night, afraid of being alone in her room, always welcomed in between her loving mother and father. I felt her little, clammy hands stroking my arm absentmindedly as she watched television, just wanting to remind herself that I was close. As soon as she was born, Rose had become the centre of our world. It would stop spinning without her.

Was this it? Would I never be able to tell her I loved her again? Would I never feel her hand in mine? Would she die, right now, terrified and alone? Too young to understand why somebody wanted to cause her harm, why her mother and father were not there to protect her? It felt as though my heart would burst with pain, with love, with the sheer desperation to protect my offspring.

Then time froze. The flames in the fire stopped flickering, the chanting ceased to a slow motion drivel. I was surely hallucinating, my mind must have snapped. As everything around me paused, Rose slowly turned her head towards me and she looked into my eyes, touching my soul with her gaze. Despite my crippling fear, I smiled at her.

“I love you Rose,” I whispered. Then I felt strong again. I refused to let someone take her from me.

I ran towards the woman as the flames flickered once more, I watched her arms plunge down as the blade speed down towards Rose. I crashed into her, somehow finding the strength to force her down to the ground, tumbling down on top of her. I heard the blade clatter across the floor as the woman lost her grip on it.

Though I felt as though I had just ran into a brick wall, I forced myself to reach across to the blade as the woman lay on the floor, a low raspy laugh coming from her. I grabbed it by its rope handle then stood up quickly, the woman lying underneath me. I raised my foot and stamped with all my might on her bony wrist, hearing the crack of a broken bone.

I ran to Rose, sawing through the ropes as fast as I could. When they were loose enough, she wriggled out of them.

“Stay still, Rose,” I ordered her as she sat up. “Don’t move until I tell you to.”

I stood tall between my daughter and the woman, who had pulled herself up into standing position and was watching us, her hand limp at her side. I looked at her directly and saw her face for the first time.

Her eyes seemed completely black. It might have been a trick of the light but there were no whites, no pupils or iris’. If it wasn’t for a liquid glisten then I would have thought they were bottomless holes leading to hell. Her nose was long and pointed, sharp at the end. Her skin was pock marked and cratered, ivory white. It was so wrinkled that not even the slightest hint of youth remained. Her cheeks were hollow, as though she had not eaten for months. She looked like she shouldn’t be alive, yet when I shoved her she had felt so strong. As she stood before me, I felt like she was staring right into my very essence.

What looked like a centipede crawled up from inside her rag dress, up the side of her face and into her hair. My skin crawled at the sight of it. I was revolted by her, but I was no longer scared because there was no room for fear. Whatever she was, whoever she was, my love for my child could defeat her. Even if Rose and I were to die, we would die together. It would end with just us, with nothing surrounding us but love. However, it wasn’t over yet. I had an advantage – the blade. I wasn’t giving up without fighting with everything I had.

I expected her to approach, to try and tackle me, but instead the woman started to open her mouth. I knew what she was about to do. She was going to make that hellish explosion of noise, the noise that had reduced me to a quivering wreck. That shriek that had overwhelmed me before could immobolise me now, and I knew that I could not let it leave her ugly mouth.

I ran forward, the blade pointing out in front of me. My shaking hands gripped the rope handle with determination. I didn’t think about what I had to do, I just did it. I sunk the rusted blade right into the middle of her throat. It pushed in like it was merely cutting into paper. I heard a guttural attempt as she tried to make noise, I heard a gurgle of blood, but she could not utter a thing. Blood as black as tar oozed around the blade, but thankfully it stayed stuck fast in her scrawny throat.

Taking no risks, I tackled her again, this time towards the back of the building. I wanted that bitch as far away from my baby as I could get her. I kept pushing until she was directly in front of the gap in the wall, where the fire roared. I guess I should be ashamed by what I did next, but what would you do in this situation? With one final shove, I pushed her right into it.

She landed into the flames with a thud. I bent down quickly and picked up the bundle of my hair from next to the mortar and pestle, shoving it into my pocket. I noticed a green liquid that bubbled in the mortar, but I didn’t take any time to further investigate. It was time to escape.

I ran back to Rose, picking her up and running for the door. I took one look behind me before we left the building, half expecting to see the woman running after us. However, she was still in the fireplace, her entire body consumed by flames. It was an eery sight. She could not scream out in pain because of the blade stuck in her throat, or maybe she wasn’t even in pain – she was smiling. She was making no attempt whatsoever to escape the flames, she just wriggled about in them. In what was surely a trick of the light, I could have sworn that hands emerged from the flames, clutching at the woman who writhed around silently. I didn’t stick around, though, and ran out of the doorway and into the field.

Mark was still on the ground, but he rolled over as we approached. He was coming round. “Can you get up?” I hissed urgently at him. His eyes were still closed. “We need to run!”

He didn’t respond. Though I hesitated, my heart torn, I knew I had to leave. “I’ll send help,” I promised, hoping he could hear all of the love I had for him in my voice. Then I ran through the field with Rose in my arms.

I sprinted through, worried that I would get lost again, but within moments I reached the wooded area. I jogged through it as the sun began to rise, exhaustion hitting me now. The fresh day’s light guided my way over thick tree roots and bricks and rocks that were buried in soil. Before long, I saw the flashing blue lights of the ambulance in the near distance.

When I burst out of the woods, one paramedic took a shivering Rose from my arms and wrapped a large blanket around her, taking her to the back of the van. The other put a hand around me, gently urging me to follow them.

“We were attacked!” I cried, as I caught my breath. “By a woman. In the field through the woods. My partner… Mark… he’s still there. He was unconscious. He’s coming round but he might have a concussion. Please go to him, quickly. I’m fine, I’m not hurt.”

The paramedic left then and I got into the back of the ambulance with Rose. I held her to me. This time, our tears were from happiness. I knew it, she knew it… it was over.

I won’t go into too much detail about what happened then. It was over and that’s all that matters, really. For the sake of wrapping things up, I will tell you that we were taken to the hospital and Rose and I were treated for minor shock. I was amazed that we escaped unscathed. Mark arrived separately. Thankfully he was ok too, other than very confused. I didn’t actually get to see him for hours as he was arrested on suspicion of attempted abduction, but we cleared it up and were reunited by the afternoon.

Mark doesn’t remember anything after his approach up the trail, when he got to the outside of the wooded area. He said he felt a pull into the field, like something was calling to him. The next thing he remembered was waking up in hospital.

I asked the police who questioned me if they had found the woman who attacked my daughter. I didn’t give them any more details, waiting for them to tell me what I needed to disclose. I wasn’t about to start blurting out that I had stabbed an old woman in the throat then pushed her into a fire. Luckily, I didn’t have to. They told me they had searched the building in the field very thoroughly, but had found no traces of a woman. Perhaps that should have scared me, but it didn’t. I knew the whole thing was over.

I don’t have explanations for what happened. I try not to think about it too much. I am glad I noted it all down, because perhaps one day I will want to come back to it. For now, though, I want to let it all go. I am very pleased to say that our lives have returned to normal. There are some differences, of course. Mark and I have always had a fierce love for our little Rose, but every moment feels like a bonus to us now. I’d say we certainly appreciate our family a lot more.

Would you think I was crazy if I told you that Rose and I still go on the walk to the trail each morning? Today, Mark joined us. He’s cut down his hours at the office a lot. I know you probably think we’re mad, but I can promise that I will never ignore my instincts again, and the trail always feel safe now. I know it sounds like I’m risking something, but I can tell you, with my hand on my heart, that I’m not. I wouldn’t go if there was any risk.

We even went to the building, the three of us. It was something we felt that we needed to do. There was nothing left there. Not even the remains of the fire. The mortar and pestle was gone, too. It was just an empty building, in a field near some woods.

I’m glad to say I can draw a line under all of this now. I might add, though, that the gentleman I briefly mentioned before – James Kimber, a private investigator – has asked for permission to analyse my story in some depth. I have agreed, and I have also shared with him some photographs of the trail. I believe he plans on uploading it all to his blog at some point. I’ve also handed over this account to him, as I think he would find the advice you all offered very useful. I hope you don’t take offence to this, but I want to turn away from all of it for now. So as of tomorrow, the account will be under James’ control.

I must stop writing now, as I need to pack our bags. Mark, Rose and I are going on a well deserved family holiday. We want to make some precious memories with our beautiful little girl, and celebrate everything that we got through together.

My daughter disappeared our walk through the woods. Part 2.

I did not want to return to the trail alone but unfortunately I had no choice. I could not take my partner, even though it would have perhaps satisfied you to see his admittedly arrogant skepticism challenged. However, we only moved to Derbyshire a year ago from the South of the UK and our little family is extremely isolated here. Our wider family are not close to the North of England and I have not made any friends in Derbyshire. My partner works so much that he hasn’t been able to form any kind of social life. So one of us always has to be with Rose.

Following the events of part one, my partner had an unexpected day off work after the heating at his office broke. I saw this as my best opportunity to jump back onto the horse, so to speak. I told him that I wanted to go for a walk alone to try and get my head around what had happened. Ever the skeptic, the idea of me going alone did not scare him at all. In fact, he thought it was a good plan.

I made him promise not to bring Rose out of the house while I was there, telling him that if I suspected she was out and about then it may trigger another ‘episode’. He promised he would not leave the house with her. I knew I could trust him to keep her inside.

In my rucksack I took salt, as advised, in a large tin, and I put a small torch in my jacket pocket. Pepper spray isn’t commonly available in the UK that I know of and I couldn’t take a weapon. If I was having some sort of mental issue and I was running around with a knife in the middle of the day, someone innocent could get extremely hurt.

I set off after lunch, just as Rose started to take a nap. I wanted to make sure there would be plenty of light. I got to the trail quickly. Though I felt nervous, the daylight gave me confidence. I checked along the side of the wire fence as I walked up the path, moving shrubs and bushes to the side to get a good look. Sure enough, at around the same place I had began to do our giant steps I found a small hole that Rose could have just about fit through.

Once I reached the opening to the woods, and was facing the building, I jumped the fence again, landing smoothly. I felt a little uncomfortable at being in the field as whoever owned it clearly did not want people messing around there (hence the barbed wire). I started walking across towards the building regardless, deciding that the worst that could happen was an angry farmer telling me to get off his land.

When I approached the building, I didn’t feel anything, I didn’t smell anything, and I wasn’t scared. Everything seemed completely normal. I entered through the dark doorway, standing just inside it as I got my bearings. Though it was dark in the small building, sunlight shone through the gaps that served as windows and I could see a fair bit of what was inside from my position. There wasn’t a lot in there.

Though from the outside the building had looked as though it would be tiny, it was deceptive – the inside was about the size of my living room and kitchen combined. The floor was made of dark, grey concrete and it was littered with small stones and empty packets of this and that. There was a hole in the back wall that had clearly served as a fireplace for someone, probably kids messing around. Left there were blackened remains of twigs and bark. I noticed something small on the floor underneath the makeshift fireplace and was about to head further into the building to investigate when I felt unease wash over me. My senses alerted me to the far corner of the building, where the light didn’t reach.

All I could make out in the darkness was two small shining circles at a height that wouldn’t have even reached my knees. I pulled the torch out of my pocket, trying to switch it on so I could get a better look. It wouldn’t turn on. The batteries must have gone. I should have checked before I left.

I stared at the shining circles for a while as I tried to figure out what they were. The feeling of unease of the unknown transformed into the shocking realisation that I was being watched by something. The two shining circles were eyes.

I lunged backwards in an attempt to get out of the building. Instead of backing into the open doorway and out onto the field as I had expected, I crashed into stone, hurting my shoulder. I was still inside.

I called out urgently, “Who’s there?” I wanted to sound brave but I heard the fear in my voice.

Then the shining circles began approaching me, quickly. I closed my eyes and flinched, waiting for an impact. Then I heard a gentle mewl and I opened them, looking down. It was a cat. Just a cat. It was a tiny, scrawny little thing, with black fur that was specked with grey. I laughed in relief as it began to rub its side against my leg.

“You gave me a shock,” I told it, as I bent down to stroke its back. Before my hand could fuss it, it hissed and then bolted around me, out of the doorway and into the grass. I made a mental note to remember to check locally if anyone had lost a cat, then continued into the building to find out what was underneath the fireplace.

I could still hear the distant sounds of traffic, the trees rustling gently in the breeze and birds singing. I felt even more relaxed after being so scared by a cat, so I went for the object with only a little trepidation. Yet I couldn’t lift it – it was too heavy.

Now that I was closer, I could see that it was just a small stone bowl. However, it was so heavy that I couldn’t lift it off the ground. There was a small club-shaped object inside that seemed stuck fast to its side. An ornamental mortar and pestle, but an exceptionally heavy one, it seemed.

There wasn’t anything inside the mortar, just dirt from a previous substance. I feared it might be some sort of drug paraphernalia so put it back down, wiping my hands on the front of my jeans. I remained crouched on the floor, took off my rucksack and pulled out the tin of salt so I could reach my hand sanitiser at the bottom of my bag.

As I rubbed it into my hands, I decided it was time to get out of the building and go on to explore the woods. I had confirmed that there was nothing of particular interest in the building and that it had probably just been used by tearaway kids. Then I noticed that the everyday sounds coming from outside that had comforted me just moments before had gone deathly quiet.

With my back towards the doorway, I sensed more than saw that the sun had gone in. My surroundings darkened. Then I heard a deep, heavy rasping from somewhere behind me.

I was too scared to turn around. Whatever it was, it sounded disgusting. With every inhale there was a guttural gurgle, and with every exhale there was a low, long growl. Even when I heard the beginning of the slow drag of shuffled footsteps approaching me slowly, I could not move.

I hoped that whoever, whatever, it was could not see me crouched on the floor. As adrenaline started to rush around my body I knew I had to do something – anything – and so I slyly picked up the tin of salt ready to use it as a weapon. I knew that it could not do much damage, but it was all I had available. I wished I had more strength so I could pick up the mortar and pestle, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to.

When the thing behind must have been surely just a few steps away, the smell hit me. That herb-like, burning, rotten smell. It was how I imagined the insides of a corpse’s stomach might smell, and I was sick in my mouth. I tried to swallow it down but that made me gag even more, so I had to spit it out onto the floor. The bile splattered onto the concrete. If whatever it was hadn’t seen me yet then now it had certainly heard me, so I stood up quickly, swinging around. I flung the tin of salt in the direction of the noise, encountering a physical form for the first time

The tin bounced off it with a soft thud and hit the floor with a clatter, the lid popping off and the contents spilling out onto the floor. It hadn’t acted well as a weapon but perhaps it had shocked the presence, for it stopped approaching me and I had the time to look properly at the cause of my torment.

Standing just an arm length away from me was an extremely tall, female form, but there was something hellish about it. She was at least a head taller than me even though she was stooped down like she had a hunchback. She wore floor length rags that looked as though they had been fashioned from a hessian gunny sack. It was sleeveless, exposing her arms that were as white as bone and unnaturally long. Perhaps, though, they only appeared that way because she was so thin that I could have easily fit her arm into a circle made by my thumb and index finger.

I could not see her face, and I was glad for that. A mass of matted, thick, grey hair that looked as though it could be crawling with unseen insects spilled over the entire front of her head. It covered her entire face, from where her forehead should have been to the bottom of what I guessed was her chin. It jutted out in a wrinkled, white spike. I couldn’t see her eyes but I knew she was watching me. Then the screaming started.

It was the same roar that had chased us through the woods, but now I was facing it head on and it sounded like a thousand different screams all in one. It was as though she had stolen the desperate cries of a mass of hopeless souls. I covered my ears with my palms, but the noise did not lessen.

I could feel her rage, her hatred… it radiated from her like a wave. She stretched out towards me as if to grab me; her long, yellow nails tried to claw at my face. Her body didn’t move, though. As she tried to step forward she was held back by an invisible force. It was as if there was a barrier between us both.

I took the small chance I was offered and ran around her, shoving into her with my shoulder as I passed. It felt like I was pushing against a brick wall and I don’t think she moved more than an inch, but it must have shocked her at least because I managed to get right up to the doorway without her grabbing me. However, just before I crossed the threshold I felt myself yanked back and a tugging pain seared through my head. She was pulling my hair in an attempt to drag me back inside with her!

Adrenaline rushing through me, I fought with everything I had against that pull until I felt a large chunk of my hair rip from my scalp. The pain barely registered, I simply I jostled forward and then ran. I rushed through the field, through the woods, and onto the streets. Only then did I look behind me, and there was nothing. I doubled over, catching my breath. My ears rang and my heart hammered.

As soon as I could breathe again I sprinted home, ran in the door and went straight up the stairs. I locked myself in the bathroom, slid down against the door and sobbed. My partner called through to me for what felt like forever but I ignored everything he said. Even when he tried to coax me out by telling me that Rose had woken up distressed from her nap ages ago and still needed me, I couldn’t respond.

He eventually left me be. When I had calmed a little, I pulled my phone from the back pocket of my jeans and sent him a message, telling him I was ok but needed to be alone for a while. Then I had a searing hot shower, staying under the water until my skin wrinkled.

My ears still rang but it had dulled into more of an irritant than a pain. There was a small bald patch at the crown of my head where the woman had tore my hair away. However, I felt incredibly lucky to come away relatively unscathed, apart from feeling utterly exhausted. That woman had wanted my blood.

I stayed in the bathroom until the sun began to set. The growing darkness outside that dimmed the bathroom began to scare me, and the harsh artificial bathroom light stung my eyes. I could no longer bear to be alone, anyway, so I made my way downstairs, where Rose and her dada were sat on the sofa reading stories.

I didn’t tell my partner what had happened when he asked what was going on, instead telling him that I had experienced a terrible panic attack while I was out. He tried to press me further but I bluntly told him that I didn’t want to talk about it. He backed off, making his way into the kitchen to make dinner, leaving Rose and I alone.

Rose looked up at me warily, as if she was nervous of me. I mustered a smile and picked her up. She relaxed and cuddled into me. I breathed her in like she was my oxygen.

“Oh no, mama,” She whispered into my ear, sadly, as she stroked my cheek. “Oh no.”

Then we rested our foreheads together and cried quietly together for a while. When we both calmed, we cuddled on the sofa.

Shortly after, we had to make our way to the dinner table. I poured myself a large glass of white wine and I listened to my partner talk at me. My body ached with exhaustion. The whole experience must have took a lot out of me because I had never felt so tired in my life.

After a while, my partner started to drift around the subject of what had happened while I was out. I poured myself another glass of Pinot Grigio before telling him again that I did not feel like talking about it yet.

“For goodness sake,” He snapped. “You run in looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards, you spend hours locked in the bathroom and yet you won’t tell me what the bloody hell is going on!” I could feel his irritation and I could understand it, but I couldn’t answer it.

“Just leave it.” I said, my voice barely louder than a whisper. I didn’t even have the energy to talk.

“No. I won’t ‘just leave it’,” He sounded exasperated. “You’re being extremely unreasonable!”

I started to laugh then. I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps it was the absurdity of the entire situation. What started off as a giggle quickly turned into hysteria. I just couldn’t stop. The pressure had clearly got to me.

When I saw Rose peering at me apprehensively I managed to calm slightly but I was still chuckling.

“What wrong, mama?” She asked, sounded frightened.

My partner frowned at me and I saw him glance at the bottle of wine. It was half empty. I looked up at them both and burst out laughing again.

“Stop, mama! Scary!” Rose whined in a pitch that went right through me. It filled me with aberrant anger.

“Oh, just shut up!” I sneered at her. Rose burst into tears and horribly it gave me a grim sense of satisfaction. I felt a twisted smile flash upon my face.

My partner ran around to her and picked her up, comforting her. “What on earth has gotten into you?” He snapped. “Are you drunk?!”

I looked at Rose burying her head into her dada and listened to her wail. I saw the confusion and displeasure in my partner’s eyes. The anger and hysteria drained away and I was left with a sickening ball of guilt in the bottom of my stomach. The twisted smile melted away from my face.

“I think you had better lay off that,” My partner warned me, nodding towards the bottle of wine. Then he left the room with Rose in his arms.

Was I drunk? I don’t think I was. I mean, I’ve been drunk occasionally around Rose… there was a wedding last year we went to, and a few months back I had one too many glasses of prosecco in a beer garden as Rose played. I had never acted so nastily towards her, neither sober or tipsy. That said, I hadn’t drank around her enough to be able to confidently say that it wasn’t the alcohol causing me to be so cruel to my baby.

I felt disgusted with myself and splashed my face with cold water from the kitchen tap. I went to the bottom of the stairs where I could hear Rose crying and my partner hushing her gently. I made my way up.

I stood in the doorway of her bedroom and saw that my partner was lying on Rose’s bed with her, stroking her head. He looked up at me and frowned.

“I know.” I answered, even though he hadn’t said anything. “I’m sorry. I’ll make it right.” I told him. He nodded, got off the bed and left the room.

I got into Rose’s bed with her and she shuffled as far away from me as she could, facing the wall.

“I’m sorry, Rosie,” I said. Something in my voice made her to turn her face towards me and I saw her tear filled eyes watching me hesitantly.

I continued, “I’m so, so sorry. I’m just… tired. I was so mean to you, and I shouldn’t have been.”

She visibly relaxed and crawled over to me. “Cuggle?” She whimpered. We cuddled until she fell into a deep sleep, then I lay next to her listening to her soft snores. After an hour or so, I was wired. I felt like I could fall into the deepest sleep of my life but my mind wouldn’t let me. I removed myself from Rose’s bed and made my way downstairs.

My partner wasn’t in the living room – I assumed he had gone to bed. I remained downstairs instead of joining him. I couldn’t deal with the questions, the accusations. I settled down on the sofa and I turned on my laptop. I spent next hour writing this, and researching our area.

I didn’t find a lot. We live in a small town in a busy county and any supernatural history seems to have been buried by more mainstream ‘horror’ stories from neighbouring towns and cities. After much searching I did come across an interesting blog by a man called James. He had posted a few times about strange occurrences in Derbyshire, and there were a few similarities to what I had been through in the last few days. I fired off an email to him, explaining what had happened.

I received one back almost immediately, but it was just an automated response telling me he was currently in Australia and would respond to emails as soon as he was able to.

I sat there till after midnight, wondering what to do about the whole situation. Of course, not returning to the building was the obvious answer – but I didn’t feel that that would be enough. Something was going on. I didn’t know what, but I felt that this was not over.

My partner came down at one point and asked if I was coming to bed. He told me that it was clear something was wrong with me, and that he would call in sick tomorrow so I could get better – or at least catch up on my sleep. I was grateful. I knew he was trying to be supportive in his own way. I thanked him and told him I would be up before long, and he returned to bed.

Of course, I could have told him everything that had happened – but I think it is pretty obvious that he would not believe my version of events, instead believing I had had some sort of mental break. Especially with what I did at the dinner table. I know that I need to be careful with how I approach him.

I feel a lot more ‘with it’ mentally now than I did when I first returned home. However, physically I feel honestly awful. My entire body hurts so much and I feel like I am rotting from the inside out. I guess it’s the shock of the events catching up on me. I need to go to bed now, anyway, else I’ll collapse. Please fire any more advice my way. I have a feeling that I need all the help I can get.

Edit: I’ve just woken up. It’s still dark – it’s early morning. My partner and Rose are not in the house. There’s a note… they’ve gone for a walk. I think he might have taken her to the trail. I’m leaving now. I need to stop them.

My daughter disappeared during our walk through the woods. Part 1.

Up until very recently, early every morning I would take my two-year-old, Rose, on a brisk walk around the area we live in. However, a few days ago our walks had to stop rather abruptly after some strange circumstances occurred. I’m writing about them here to ask for advice, because even though the logical part of me tells me that there is a rational explanation for everything that has terrified Rose and I over the last couple of days, my instincts are screaming that there is something more to all this. Let me give you some context.

Everyday, Rose wakes up so incredibly early that we can watch the sunrise together. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, she seems to have some sort of super sense for the beginning of the day. I decided to start taking her out before breakfast a few weeks back, in an attempt to combat my own grogginess from such an early wake up and to gratify her morning buzz of energy. We both really enjoyed this special time together, even if, for half of it, we are walking in the dark. We enjoyed it up until a few days back, that is. That was when things got scary.

Before everything went wrong, she would toddle along beside me on our walks, chattering her babble that is still rather babyish but is finally beginning to turn into pre-school speech (basically, not yet understandable but sentences are beginning to form… in toddler language). She would squeal with excitement at the sight of squirrels and birds roaming freely whilst people without toddlers still slept. At that time of morning, no one is around. We had the whole walk to ourselves – too early even for dog walkers – and that suited us just fine.

Living in Derbyshire, we are incredibly lucky to have a vast array of terrains on our doorstep. In just a 20 minute walk, we get to go through streets, past a field and through some woods. If we simply make our way through a couple of roads from our home then we come to a large care home. One side of the care home hides a small entrance to a trail, and the other side is an entrance to a small wooded area. It’s all connected, so we can walk in one entrance and end up coming out of the other one.

We start our loop around at the trail, rather than the woods. Just a few steps onto it, we turn round a corner and there is a large, empty field on the left, with shin length grass. A waist high wire fence that thin shrubbery grows along separates the trail and the field. It is topped with thick, rusty barbed wire to keep that let’s us know the field is off bounds.To the right of the trail there are huge bushes of nettles and thorns and tall trees that hide the trail from the care home.

At the end of the thin, stoney path on the trail there is an entrance to the woods. The other side of the care home is just a two minute walk through this wooded area, which then brings us back onto the street and on our way back home. It’s an easy going, circular route.

On the first morning of unusual events, Rose was a little tired by the time we reached the trail, despite only being 8 minutes into our walk. She was whining to be picked up, but at two years old she’s a little too heavy for me to carry. Of course, I can if I need to, but I’d rather not – I want to encourage her to walk along on her own.

The trail is only wide enough for us to walk single file, rather than our usual hand in hand. Rose always takes the lead, but on this particular morning I walked in front of her, hoping she would follow a little faster. I tried to boost her energy by playing a game we regularly played when she was flailing. She would call out instructions for silly ways for me to walk and I would theatrically do as I was told.

“Run, mama!” She called. I ran forward five steps, pretending to gasp for breath. I heard her little feet thudding against the stone path as she followed, giggling.

“Stomp, mama!” She directed, and I accompanied my five stomps with a verbal, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

She laughed through her own imitation of my booms, “Bom! Bom! Bom!”

“Giant, mama!” She requested next, and I took five huge steps and rumbled in a deep voice, “I am a giant walking with my giant baby!”

I waited for her response, but was greeted by silence. I was surprised when she didn’t respond, as giant impressions usually guarantee a side splitting laugh. I turned around, puzzled, only to be confronted by an empty trail behind me. My stomach dropped. Where was my daughter?

“Rose?” I called, widening my eyes to try and force my vision to stretch further along the trail. The sun had not yet risen, and my sight was limited. There was nothing there that I could see, only the fence separating the path from the field on one side and the tall bushes that hid the wooded area behind them, on the other.

I retraced our steps along the trail quickly, looking in the bushes to see if she had perhaps become distracted by something in them; maybe a bird, some berries… something that would interest a toddler more than giant steps with her mama. I found no trace. She wasn’t distracted by something close by.

My panic began to grow and I found myself extremely agitated by the lack of sun – it should have risen enough by that time, it should have granted me enough light so I could get my bearings. However, I was still in the dark. I tried to stay calm, but then I found my imagination running wild and I pictured someone sneaking up behind us as we played. Someone who might have snatched her away, covered her mouth with their hand to stop her crying out to me, and ran back the way we came. My terror grew.

“ROSE!” I shouted. “Get here, NOW!”

I ran the risk of my angry voice making her cry in fear, but it did not matter. It was sure to bring her out of any hiding places. Yet, no toddler emerged. Just as I was about to run to the beginning of the trail, back the way we came, I heard a wail of pain and terror and I knew beyond any doubt that it was Rose. Her scream came from the field. I snapped my head around towards the sound, but I couldn’t see far into the grass due to the darkness.

I put my hand onto the closest wooden post that held the wire fence – and barbed wire – in place, and put my muddy boot onto the spiky metal, hoisting myself up. In my haste I stumbled down, landing in the field on my hands and knees into the overgrown grass. I scrambled up, eager to get to my baby.

Though I felt sick with anxiety that Rose was in pain and scared, I also felt relief that at least she was nearby. There hadn’t been a stranger creeping behind us, ready to snatch her away when I wasn’t paying enough attention. Thank goodness.

“Rose?” I called. “Where are you? Shout for mama and I will come and get you!”

She didn’t respond, but at that moment the sun began to rise and the field became illuminated enough for me to see. I turned my head and scoured the field until I saw a glimpse of blue – her jacket – quite far away in the distance. It was opposite the opening to the woods, where we had been heading, but a long way into the field. I was extremely surprised that she had managed to get so far in such a small amount of time, but toddlers surprise their parents every day. Thankful that I had not left the trail in search for her, I ran towards the blue, calling her name as I dashed along.

As I approached, lungs burning, I saw that she was standing in front of an old, single storey building of some sort, which the grass did not grow around. There were gaps in the rounded, dark grey bricks that served as windows and a doorway. I had never noticed the building before, but I am not a particularly observant person and my attention would have been on the entrance to the wooded area at this part of our walk – not on the field.

15 metres away, maybe less, I slowed to a jog and I saw that Rose’s back was to me. She was facing the doorway that led into the dark unknown of the unlit, clearly unused, building.

“Rose!” I called, my breath short. “How did you get out here?”

She didn’t turn around at the sound of my voice, she just stood perfectly still, seemingly staring into the building. I wondered if she was intrigued by it, itching to go in and explore. I sprinted the last few metres to her, in case she darted in – it could have broken glass in, amongst other dangers, which could be very risky for a wobbly two-year-old.

Even when I reached her, she still didn’t move, neither towards me or towards the building. She was only a few steps away from the entrance, yet remained frozen like a statue. I placed my hands gently on her little shoulders, not wanting to startle her from her daydream. It didn’t work – she jumped out of her skin, turning to me.

There were tears flowing down her cheeks, though she did not sob aloud. Her eyes were wide and I saw a fear in them that I had never seen her express before. She held her arms up as a request to be picked up. I immediately lifted her into my arms and she cuddled her face into my neck. She was ice cold, and trembling.

“Are you ok?” I asked her, my throat choking with sadness at her little face, so scared, so alone. I wiped her tears away. How could I be so stupid as to let her wander off?

“Yes.” She replied, sadly. “Home now, please.”

I couldn’t see any marks on her and she seemed herself physically. I started to step towards the building with Rose still in my arms, as I wanted to have a glance inside to assess if it was dangerous. There was a chance she had entered and hurt herself while I searched for her. I had heard her scream in pain.

A strange scent hit my nose as I stepped closer to the doorway. It was a herb-like sort of smell, with a hint of burning. It didn’t smell like food cooking, though. I can’t explain why, but the smell made my stomach turn. There was something awful about it.

When I took another step towards the entrance, Rose gripped me tightly, digging her little finger nails into my arms. I looked at her and saw that she was as pale as a ghost.

“No!” She cried. “Home now, please! Home, now!”

I tried to explain, “I just want to have a quick look inside, Rosie, it won’t -”

“NO! NO, NO, NO!” She screamed.

She was becoming hysterical, so I quickly backed up, turned around and headed back over the field towards the trail. As we got further away from the building her hysteria faded until she was only whimpering quietly into my chest.

Once we were safely back on the trail, about to make our way through the wooded area, I asked if she wanted to walk. She shook her head determinedly, clinging to me, clearly still spooked. I carried her home.

Once we got back, she wouldn’t touch her breakfast. It was very unlike her, but after half an hour of cuddles and then some time playing with her building blocks she was back to normal. I wish I could have asked her what had happened and got a sensible answer, but she’s two. Toddlers are notoriously hard to communicate with.

It was certainly an odd morning, but it wasn’t beyond the realms of reality. My toddler had wandered off, somehow scurrying through a gap in the shrubbery and wire fence that I hadn’t noticed (she certainly couldn’t have climbed over the barbs that topped it), and she had discovered an old, stone building that I had not noticed before as it wasn’t in a place I’d ever looked. Toddlers often become hysterical over silly things, so her reaction didn’t strike me as particularly weird. However, things were about to get much stranger.

That night, when I undressed her ready for a warm bubble bath I noticed that her shoulders had five dark marks on that didn’t wipe off. They were bruises. Each one was topped with a small red cut into her skin, as though someone had dug their fingernails into her. To be bruised and cut she would have had to have been grabbed quite forcefully. When I had touched her shoulders, as she stood outside the building, I certainly had not put enough pressure on them to cause marks.

I discussed the whole thing at length with my partner that evening, once Rose was sleeping soundly in bed. Rationality told us that in my fear I had grabbed her a lot harder than I realised. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with this explanation, but it was the only thing that made sense. We agreed that during any outings in the future she must always stay in direct sight if she wasn’t holding hands. I chastised myself for leaving her wandering behind me and he comforted me by telling me it was an easy mistake to make, but one not to make again. It could be dangerous.

The next morning, I wondered if Rose would be too scared at the memory of the previous morning’s events to want to go on our walk. However, she bounced out of bed buzzing like a little bee, running into our bedroom for a cuddle before asking for “morning walks”. We waved Dada off as he left early for a swim and the gym before work, and off we went.

As we walked up the trail in the dark (I needn’t mention that Rose was safely in front of me, but I will), I glanced across the field in the direction of the building. I couldn’t even make out an outline in the gloom. The sun had not yet risen. We approached the entrance to the woods just as our surroundings began to brighten, and sure enough, the building was there.

Before we followed the trail into the wooded area, I found myself leaning towards the building. I felt an unusual pull to it. I can’t really explain it, it almost felt hypnotic. It was as though there was a gentle gravitational tug. Rose tugged me away, though, gently steering me towards the woods so we could get to the path towards home.

I knew from experience that in just a couple of minutes we would see the care home. I quickly forgot about the building now it was behind us, and onto the next part of our walk we went. The woods were darker than usual, despite the fact the sun was rising, and I figured it was a sign of a miserable, cloudy day ahead.

A few steps into the woods, I felt Rose’s grip on my hand tighten. Before I had the chance to ask her what the matter was, a fierce wind spun up out of nowhere. The leaves that coated the floor rustled and stirred and the trees swayed. It was such an abrupt change from the still air that both Rose and I startled.

While the wind was making me slightly unsteady on my feet, the smell hit me. The sudden gale had brought that strange scent that I had smelt the morning before by the building. This time, though, it was much more rotten. It was so strong, so vile, that it made me physically gag.

I breathed through my mouth and smiled down at Rose, wanting to comfort her and show her that the wind was nothing to be afraid of, even though it made me unsteady, and that the smell was something to simply ignore, even though it nearly made me sick. I wanted to make her feel safe, even though I felt on edge. She stared up at me, her eyes wide, a sense of urgency in them. Her lips were moving quickly but I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the wind. Her eyebrows furrowed and I felt her start to tremble. She was terrified.

The wind died down suddenly, leaving as fast as it had arrived. Everything went quiet, even the birds in the trees. I expected Rose to calm, but instead she still looked horrified. She was whispering something to me. I couldn’t hear her so I crouched down next to her, my arm around her back.

“What’s that, darling? Can you speak up a little?”

“Run, mama.” She spoke in a more serious tone than I’ve ever heard her use. “She does not like mama. Mama, run… now.”

I cannot describe the chill that ran through me at Rose’s whispers. Every hair on my body stood straight, my breath hitched in my chest and I froze. Then I heard the most horrific noise I have ever heard.

It was a shriek, a scream, a bellow full of rage, and it was not human. I can’t tell you what it was because I’ve never heard anything like it, but it was coming from behind me and travelling quickly, growing louder as it got closer. I looked behind me but there was nothing there, apart from the building standing ominously in the distance. The roar grew more furious with every millisecond that passed. I quickly scooped Rose into my arms and I ran like I had never run in my life.

The scream chased us through the woods, and I could feel it physically at my heels. I don’t know how you feel a sound, but I felt it as sure as I felt Rose clutching me. It had a presence. I am sure that the memory of that sound will turn every dream into a nightmare for the rest of my nights – it has so far.

I ran through the woods as though my life depended on it, and I felt like it truly did. I didn’t know what was chasing us, but something inside me told me that if it caught us then I wouldn’t be leaving the woods. The two minute walk should have been a thirty second sprint, but those thirty seconds seemed to go on forever.

Eventually, I made it to the clearing on the other end of the care home. As soon as my feet were over the threshold from woods to pavement, everything stopped. The scream faded. The presence disappeared. I felt it all end.

Rose stroked my cheek gently, then wriggled so much I had to put her down. Off she started toddling towards home, as if nothing had happened. I glanced back towards the woods, and all was as it should have been. Still, quiet, peaceful. Everything was perfectly normal, apart from my shaking legs and ringing ears.

As soon as we got home, I tried to talk to Rose about what had happened. However, the ability to form sentences, like when she had whispered to me in the woods, had faded back to toddler babble. I left her watching some television and made myself a strong coffee, adding a double whiskey to calm my nerves. I was deeply shaken and my ears were still ringing. In fact, they burned with the pain of it.

I spent an hour trying to make sense of it all. I couldn’t. I eventually rang my partner, who I knew would be arriving at the office he worked at. I told him the full story, careful not to miss a detail. His response only served to infuriate me, though. It was a typical psychologist’s analysis.

Obviously, he told me, the previous day’s walk had scared me more than I realised and the fear was manifesting in an incredibly vivid and imaginative way.

“But what about Rose telling me to run?” I quizzed. “She can barely pull three words together, yet she specifically told me to get out of there because ‘she’ doesn’t like me! What the fuck?!”

“Calm down,” he urged. “That’s not half as unusual as you seem to think. Rose’s speech is improving every day, she is learning so much. She often asks you to run… it’s one of your games, right?”

He waited for an answer. I didn’t respond.

“Exactly,” he continued, ignoring the fact I had neither confirmed nor denied it. “The rest of it was probably her blurting out some speech and your mind finding a pattern in it that matched your fear. Your fear, that she was reacting to.”

I was not impressed. “Well, what about the shrieking?” I snapped. “My ears were ringing afterwards. They are hurting me, right now! I haven’t imagined a physical pain!”

He chuckled, “The wind makes really unusual noises, and it was obviously loud enough to scare you. A particularly loud and sudden gust of wind could easily cause a backlash to your hearing.”

Making no effort to hide the anger in my voice, I barked, “If you’re not prepared to take this seriously then there is no point in continuing this conversation.”

I hung up the phone, stung and embarrassed. I immediately felt guilty. He was only trying to explain everything logically, and he was right. Right?

I don’t know what happened on either mornings, but I do know that I was – am – petrified by all of it. The logical part of me sides with my partner and tells me that I had a scare and I reacted to it in a pretty ridiculous way. However, my instincts tell me otherwise.

Needless to say, I’ve stopped our morning walks for now and I’m not taking Rose to the trail anytime soon. However, I am going to go alone. I know that probably sounds crazy – or maybe I just sound crazy. Why would I go back to somewhere that clearly terrifies me? Well, I can’t allow such a potentially absurd fear to seep into my two-year-old. She’ll be terrified of all sorts if I allow my fear to win. So I need to get my head around it. I need to get back to normal.

As soon as I get time to go alone, I will return to the trail. I’ll find the gap in the fence that Rose must have crawled through. I will cross the field and check out that building. I’ll walk through the woods. If I can’t rationalise all of this in my mind, I will seek the physical answers I need in order to move on.

The reason I’m writing this here is to indulge, just a little, in my instinctive side. It is screaming at me, but I can’t quite hear what it’s saying. I can’t be talked out of my plan – I will be returning (in firm daylight) sometime soon. I know it’s silly of me to seek advice in a forum that regularly deals with the supernatural, but that thing that chased us through the woods was malevolent and I don’t feel can be explained away by me simply being a wimp.

I can’t talk to my partner about this side of my fears, and surely it’s sensible to be prepared for any turn of events, so I need to seek help elsewhere. Though I won’t be talked out of returning to the building, I’m not opposed to taking advice. So, is there anything that you, if you were in my position, would do to be prepared for anything… untoward… that I might encounter? What would you do, in this situation?

The Hidden Churchyard

Not so long ago I decided that I would start taking a walk on my own every evening once I had got my 3 year old daughter to sleep. It was my husband’s suggestion, and I was reluctant at first because by the end of a day with Layla I was always totally exhausted. That was why Greg suggested I start going out alone for a little while once she had fallen asleep – to wake myself up a little, get some exercise and feel fresh. I decided to give it a go, and I never expected that a simple walk would lead me into the most terrifying experience of my entire life.

I suppose all the horror started on the first night I took my walk, though I didn’t realise that at the time. I ended up finding what seemed like the perfect circuit. I left our little family cottage, walked past the village school which Layla would start at the following year, then past the village hall. Next I passed by the symbolic handful of ‘local shops for local people’ that made up our village centre. This brought me to a large field with a public path which led to the outskirts of the forest that lay North of our little dwelling. I walked past but not through the forest, as I wasn’t prepared to start trekking through the woods at sunset. So instead I carried on right past, which took me to an area that was hidden by large brick walls. I was very pleased when I saw there was a gate leading in because this meant I could cut through and end up near the bottom of my road, resulting in the entire walk being complete in 30 minutes.

The chill of the early autumn breeze woke me, the beauty of our surroundings inspired me, and being alone revitalised me. It reminded me that I was a person, I was more than just wife and mother. It was just what I needed.

On that first night, as I walked alongside the tall brick wall I felt more at peace than I had in a long time. I opened the iron gate that led into what I discovered was a churchyard. It creaked with age and the weight of it caused it to slam itself shut behind me.

The churchyard was a large area, with slanted graves and old trees. Most of it was grassland, apart from a small cobblestone path that led up to the church itself. The church was quite small… a single storey, typical small village church. There was large wooden cross nailed to the wooden archway that protected the door. The middle of the cross was wonky and the paint on the arch was chipped, so I could tell that this was a place that hadn’t been taken care of in a long time. I wondered briefly if it was private property, but the gate hadn’t been locked and I’d never heard of anywhere being off bounds in the village of Upper Chalston. Anyway, I knew everyone who lived here so I wasn’t worried, I was more intrigued.

A foggy memory came to me… Yes, Greg and I had stumbled across this place when we first moved here and were exploring… what, 5 years ago now? But as soon as we’d walked away from it it had slipped from our minds, and I’d not heard it mentioned by any of the locals. How odd. It was so well hidden away by that huge wall that I’d all but forgotten about it, and I wondered why it wasn’t used.

On that first evening, my first impression of the churchyard was that I thought that it would a wonderfully spooky place for mischievous children to play hide and seek in. I didn’t even get the slightest hint of the terror that was to come. As I walked over the cobblestone path, I felt an urge to try the church doors to see if they would open. I wasn’t sure why – curiosity, I suppose? I thought I knew the village like the back of my hand, so I was surprised that I had forgotten about this little place. I fought the urge though, because I knew Greg would worry if I took too long. Plus, this was simply a walk to wake me up… not a sightseeing trip or an adventure. There would be another time for more. I decided I would ask about the church at the village meeting in a couple of days and settled with walking past.

It wasn’t until I approached the gate on the other end of the yard that I felt someone watching. I turned around, expecting to see someone walking behind me; maybe Mary who ran the village shop, out walking her little dog, or Percy who worked at the post office, on his way to the pub. Perhaps this was a popular gem of a walk that I’d somehow missed during my years here. But the path behind me was as empty as it had been when I entered the churchyard. I shrugged to myself and left, closing the gate behind me with a rusty creak.

I told Greg happily about my walk, but do you know something? I forgot about the church! It completely slipped my mind for almost 24 hours, until I was on my second walk. It wasn’t until I reached the tall walls that shrouded it from the world outside that I remembered. “Oh!” I muttered aloud, completely surprised.

I pondered for a moment about how easily I’d forgotten it, putting it down to such a busy day with Layla. Then I opened the gate and took more time to pay attention to my surroundings. It was slightly darker than the previous night, as the sun was setting earlier every evening as we approached the throes of autumn. I suppose there should have been something quaint about the little unused church, but on the second look I found it more creepy than alluring. Maybe it was the way it was so shut off from everything outside, or maybe it was because I didn’t know anything about it.

The sunset draped lazily over the churchyard but it didn’t meet the church itself, which gave me the impression that it was surrounded by darkness. As I walked slowly up the path that would take me past the church, I felt like I was being watched again, earlier than I had the previous evening. There was nobody ahead of me, and – of course – there was nobody behind me. I picked up my pace, shuddering to myself.

As I walked past the grubby windows on the side of the church, I glanced at them. The third window from the church door – closest to to the exit gate – caught my eye. I was sure I saw a face looking out at me. I squinted my eyes to try and make them focus better but I couldn’t make anything out. I supposed it was just a trick of the light on a dirty window. I was glad to close the gate behind me and walk away from that funny spot on the edge of the village.

I made sure I remembered the church that night. I asked Greg if he had any recollection of the place.

“What are you talking about? There isn’t a church in the village.” He said, flicking through our watched list, impatiently waiting to start the second episode of the series we had started.

“There is! It’s behind a huge brick wall. We went through the churchyard when we first moved here, you know… when we went out to get to know the village a little better? It’s just past the trail by the woods.”

Greg was barely paying attention. “Nah, I don’t remember that, love.” He pressed play and I didn’t think much else of it. After all, I’d forgotten it myself, until I’d stumbled across it again.

The next day flew by in a whirlwind of tantrums, nursery rhymes and crafts. That evening, Layla sat in her bed facing away from me. I watched her plait and unplait her dolly’s hair over and over. She was growing so fast. I got into bed with her and we cuddled until she drifted off, then I slipped out of her bedroom.

I enjoyed my walk that evening, even though it was almost dark when I approached the trail by the forest. I had wondered just that day if I would have to stop going once the autumn hit, but I decided right then that I would simply bring a torch the following evening. It was so good for me that I couldn’t let it go.

As I left the trail by the forest and approached the tall walls, I realised that they reminded me of the walls that surround a prison. I thought about walking around it, admitting to myself that the five minute cut through did unnerve me, even though I didn’t quite understand why. However, the shortcut meant that I would be home 20 minutes earlier, so I opened the gate and entered the churchyard.

It was much darker in here now and very quiet. I hadn’t realised how quiet it had been before. Where were the birds? Surely the grass in the yard would be a delight for them, with no humans around to disturb an evening feast of worms and slugs.

This time I had only got near the church doors when that feeling of being watched crept over me. I followed the slight curve of the path and watched the windows as I walked past.

I was sure I saw a face again and the outline of someone’s shoulders, this time in the middle window rather than the one near the gate. It was as though they were getting closer to the door! I stopped and stared right at it, and because I detected no movement, not even a flinch, I was sure it must just be a trick of the imagination. I ignored it the best I could, speeding up to a light jog. I wanted out of there.

I told Greg about the face when I got home. “Seeing faces in grubby windows, eh? I think you might be going mad,” He laughed before pressing play and pulling me in for a cuddle. I know he’s right, I thought, as I lent against his chest. I was sure I was being silly.

The next night, torch in hand this time, I lingered at the gates to the churchyard for a while. Should I just skip past, adding on that extra 20 minutes to my walk? I battled internally. In all honesty, I knew my body wasn’t ready for the extra exercise just yet and I would find myself tired out if I went the long way. That wasn’t the aim of my walk – it was supposed to wake me up, so I could actually do something! I gave myself a ticking off. A grown woman should not be afraid of walking through a churchyard, I decided.

As soon as I had stepped through the gate I felt my heart rate pick up. It was all good and well telling myself I shouldn’t be afraid, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t. I shone my torch around to get my bearings, oddly comforted by the graves and a large willow tree that stood in the corner. I relaxed a little and began to walk towards the church.

I lifted my torch up and illuminated the cross that sat on the arch, noticing that the middle beam had dropped slightly. One half of the horizontal beam now leant towards the bottom of the vertical beam. I felt watched, of course, so I also checked out the door. All closed, no signs of disturbance. I looked behind me, no one there. So I continued around to the side of the church.

I wanted to just shine the torch on the path ahead of me, to keep walking and refuse to even glance at the windows. What was the point? I’d only end up getting scared by them. If I didn’t look then I could just walk through without a bother! I almost made it to the end before curiosity won. When I was just a dozen steps away from the gate, so close to the exit, that feeling of being watched overwhelmed me. I couldn’t resist turning back and shining my torch towards the windows. If there was something watching then I wanted to know what it was.

The third window seemed clear. No odd trick of the light, no pattern in the grime. I sighed with relief then quickly moved the light onto the middle one, where I had seen the face the night before. Again I saw nothing. I felt myself relax and laughed a little. Of course, it had all been in my mind.

I turned to leave but then I felt eyes bore into my back. I can barely explain it, but we’ve all experienced it at some point. We usually turn and see someone there. It was a stronger sense than I’d had before, something about it alerted my senses to danger, so I spun around and shone my light at the first window which was the furthest one from me now, the one that was closest to the door.

This time there was no doubt about it – there was a woman stood at the window staring at me. This was not a trick. She looked bald, but her angular features and slim shoulders told me she was female. I couldn’t quite make out any more detail because I was so shocked and nervous that I spun back around and ran out of the gate, leaving whoever she was behind me.

I jogged all the way home. Greg laughed when he saw how spooked I was. I told him to piss off, which only made him laugh more.

“I don’t understand why you’re reacting so strongly, love.” He said. “A woman was in a church in the village. So what?” I understood his attitude and I even felt a little embarrassed. But Greg hadn’t felt what I had. I decided then that I would absolutely not be taking the shortcut again.

The next morning I didn’t even think about the church. It was a musing lost in the business of the day. Greg was at work, so in the afternoon I took Layla to the village hall for the monthly meeting over cucumber sandwiches and cupcakes and tea. I was the youngest there by far and it was always a pointless meeting, but I cherished the tradition and I knew the elders of the village did too.

I sat with Bert, a retired gardener, and we chatted about our week, as we always did. I told him about my walks and how I was hoping to lose a bit of weight. “You don’t need to lose weight, sweet. You’re lovely as you are. A mother needs her energy!” He nodded towards Layla, who was running around the hall with a bucket on her head, pretending to be a robot.

I’d always felt uncomfortable with compliments, so searched my brain for something to change the subject with. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask!” I blurted. “What’s going on with that old church, the one out by the forest?”

I watched Bert frown with confusion. “What church?” He asked.

“It’s a little thing, abandoned by the look of it. You can’t see it from the outside… it’s behind massive walls. Like it’s not meant to be seen, rather bizarrely!” I laughed, nervously. The memory of the night before still chilled me, and though I kept my tone light it wasn’t something I found easy to achieve.

Bert thought for a moment, and then I saw his face startle with realisation. I watched as the blood drained from his face. “Oh, don’t go in there, sweet.” He said, ominously, shaking his head.

“Why?” I asked quickly, scared now. “I saw a woman in there last night.”

“You couldn’t have. No one’s been in there for a long time. It’s not a nice place. It’s blocked off for a reason.”

I asked what the reason was, of course. Bert was a kind old man who had nothing but everyone’s best interests at heart, so when he said he couldn’t remember and just to trust him, I believed that he meant it. He made me promise I would walk around the churchyard and not cut through. I didn’t bother saying that I had already decided I wouldn’t be going back again.

The wind picked up over the afternoon. We’ve had bad weather in the UK over the last week, the North being hit particularly bad. We’re in the South and we escaped the worst of it, but the back end of the storm was hitting us. It was a little wild outside but not dangerous.

I watched Layla from her door as she plaited her dollies hair and then cuddled her until she drifted off. I toyed with the idea of staying home in the warm. However, one night off is a slippery slope for someone like me, so I pulled on my jacket and wellies and out the door I went.

It was windier than I expected. The gale howled around me so loudly that it made my ears ring. I kept my head down and trudged on, looking forward to a hot chocolate under a blanket when I got home.

When I approached the walls, I quickly crossed over to the other side of the road and pushed the church out of my mind. I fully intended to follow the road home. It would take longer but at least I would have a peace of mind that I certainly wouldn’t find in the churchyard. It wasn’t to be, though. Ahead of me there something long and dark in the distance that stretched the full length of the road. As I approached, I saw that a thick oak tree had come down in the wind. It had even taken a chunk of the field with out with it, and, of course, it completely blocked the road.

I could have tried to climb over it, or I could have turned back and gone back the way I’d come from. But it seemed very extreme when I could cut through the churchyard with such ease. I’d be home quickly and able to alert the police so they could cordon off the road and make sure nobody got hurt. I felt a responsibility, and so I went back to the gate.

As it clanked shut behind me I was shocked by the abrupt change in my surroundings. The wind no longer wailed around me, seemingly blocked off by the walls. It was darker than it had been before and the graves and tree did nothing to relieve me this time, because as soon as I’d taken a step forward I knew without a doubt that someone was watching me.

I waved my torch towards the church and jumped out of my skin when I saw that there was someone actually stood in front of the door, under the arch. I thought about turning back but that felt silly. Someone stood at the door was less creepy than a face in the window, surely? Because suddenly it was a real person, rather than a spooky form. Somebody I could meet, or someone I possibly already knew.

I waved at the figure in the near distance even though I doubted they could see me in the dark. I wanted to be friendly though. I shook off what I felt was a childish fear and walked down the path towards the church.

As I got closer, my footsteps slowed. I noticed that the middle section of the cross had fallen on both sides and it now looked more like an inverted cross. Directly underneath was the slender form of the same woman who had looked out of the window. I was sure of it. She was facing me directly, as though she was waiting for me. I wanted to turn and run but something pulled me forward. At the time I brushed it off as the typical English desperation to not appear rude, but looking back I can see that there was a sinister force at play that night.

As I approached and more of my light could reach her, I saw that the woman was short – much shorter than me – and though the top of her head was bald, she had loose straggles of thin and greasy silver hair dangling around her shoulders. At first I thought she wore a baggy grey dress, but as I got closer I saw that she was actually naked. I shivered on her behalf, cold in my thick winter jacket and jeans. Her skin drooped down as though she was melting, and it was drab and ashen. Whoever she was, she was clearly ill.

Reluctantly I kept going, keeping my torch light on her. I know it was foolish of me. Oh, how I know that now. But at the time I wondered if might be an old homeless lady, in dire need of help. I was scared, of course! Terrified. Yet onward I went, my civilian duty overpowering my instinct to run.

Then my torch light illuminated her eyes and I stopped dead. She had no eye whites nor iris’. There was nothing but an endless pool of blood red. Everything in me urged me to turn and run, but now I had caught sight of those awful eyes I was trapped. I couldn’t take my own away from hers, and neither could I couldn’t move.

Frozen in place, I watched as she gradually began to smile. I begged my body to shift but it was as though invisible chains held me in place. Suddenly she lurched forward, approaching me at a speed that was impossible in her frail and haggard state. In fact, the speed seemed almost inhuman. I impulsively went to scream in fright but I couldn’t do anything but watch her in silence.

Within the blink of an eye was before me. A force emitted from her so strong that it physically pushed me backwards onto the ground, causing my head to hit the cobblestones beneath me with a thud. She hovered above me, her body lying above mine. It was impossible! She was levitating!

Her blood pools bored into my terrified eyes. The wilting skin on her stomach and breasts sagged down, just inches away from touching my own body. The top of her scalp was covered in scabs and welts. Her hair dangled above my face, so thick with grease that I was sure it would drip onto me. I wanted to flinch but I couldn’t move a muscle.

She smiled, if you could call it that. It was more of a snarl. Her teeth looked sharply jagged and they were stained brown. Then she started to whisper.

I don’t know how long I lay there listening to her whisper, but it felt like the entire night. I couldn’t understand a word she said at first. Still frozen to the spot I could do nothing but let my warm tears spill down my cheeks, listening to her garble in a language that sounded as though it came from the depths of hell.

Then the odd word here and there started to become more comprehensible. It felt as though I had been lying there in terror for a lifetime by the time I was finally able to make out a full sentence. “We’re coming for you, you bitch!” She snarled at me. Her voice sounded as though several people were speaking at once. I felt my bladder go and my jeans became soaked at the crotch.

Then I heard the creak of the gate behind me and her head darted towards the source of the sound. Now she was no longer looking at me, I found myself able to move. I lifted my hands up and did the first thing my adrenaline fuelled instinct told me to – I grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled.

I expected a shriek, or a fight, or something. Instead, she looked back at me and smiled once more. “We’re coming for you, you bitch,” She said again, then moved away from me as fast as she had come at me, hair ripping from her scalp in the process.

The atmosphere of the churchyard changed immediately and my body relaxed. I had a thousand emotions running through me at once and I lay there sobbing, wanting to get up and run for my life but too exhausted to move.

I heard footsteps approaching and perhaps I should have felt scared, alone in the dark with someone unknown coming towards me. Nothing could possible scare me like that beast just had, though. “Come on sweet, let’s get you home.” I heard Bert’s gruff voice and I had never felt so relieved in my life. He guided me up then supported me as we stumbled through the churchyard together.

“Did you see her?” I breathed out urgently, as we went past the windows. “Did you see her on me, Bert?”

“Shh now, sweet,” The wind roared around us once again as the gate shut. We left the churchyard behind us.

He helped me into my house where I collapsed into Greg’s arms, crying hysterically. Greg waited until I had calmed slightly then lay me on the sofa. I heard him whispering to Bert in the hallway. Whether they were trying to stop me hearing their conversation or trying to avoid waking Layla, I wasn’t sure. I could hear them well enough though. Bert told Greg that he had found me in the churchyard rolling around on the floor screaming.

So he hadn’t seen the woman. I opened the palm of my hand and was glad to see that I had managed to hold onto the hair I had torn from her head. I had a feeling everybody would have thought I was crazy without it.

After Greg had said goodbye to Bert, I told him what had happened. I saw his expression turn from concern to disbelief when I told him how she had levitated above me, so I showed him what little evidence I had of my encounter. He held it up and stared at it, admitting that he was puzzled by the whole thing. Then he bustled off to make a call to the police. They told him that as long as I was safe for now then it would have to wait until tomorrow, as the weather was causing havoc all over the county. They directed us to drop the hair into the station the next afternoon and make a statement so they could start an investigation. It did little to relieve me, but at least I was home. At least I was safe.

Greg put the clump of hair into a small bag and took it into the kitchen before returning to help me up to bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It had all been too much, and my mind and body were exhausted.

The next day, Greg stayed home from work and the three of us had a lazy morning together. I was shaken to the core and he urged me to go to the doctor because my hands wouldn’t stop shaking and every little noise made me jump out of my skin. I refused though, as I didn’t want to face anybody until I’d made the statement to the police. Instead I cuddled into my husband as our little Layla pottered happily around the house, pushing her dolly around in a toy buggy.

Even though I was in the safety of our home, something didn’t feel right. Maybe it was because I still had to go to the police station, maybe it was just trauma from the attack. Whatever the reason, things felt very unfinished. Then just before we were leaving to go to the station, Greg went into the kitchen to get the hair. He returned to the living room looking nervous.

“What?” I demanded.

“It’s gone, love. The hair ball that you… Look, I’m ever so sorry. I must have chucked it out by accident.” His cheeks blushed with the guilt of being so careless.

It didn’t sit right with me. I knew Greg wasn’t lying, but I didn’t think he would be so silly as to lose something so important. We searched the kitchen high and low and I even made him go through the wheelie bin outside, but it was nowhere to be found. “It’s just one of those things,” Greg shrugged. It took all my strength not to slap him.

As we drove to the police station in silence, I looked out at the fields that surrounded us and wished I’d never bothered going on that stupid walk. That I had been depressed about being ‘nothing but a mother and a wife’ made me feel sick to my stomach.

The police didn’t seem particularly bothered that the woman’s hair had been misplaced, telling me it was unlikely they would have found anything from it anyway. When I relayed everything back to them I avoided their eyes, but I could still tell that they were looking at me as though I were mad. I felt judged and alone. I begged them to speak to Bert again – surely he must have seen something. I was devastated when they informed me that he was in hospital after having a funny turn in the night. Was all of this drama to blame?

We went home and relieved the babysitter. It was almost Layla’s bedtime and I needed to try and push the previous night from my mind. I picked a couple of stories to read to her and headed up to her room, ready to try and pull back some normality.

From the doorway I watched her plaiting her dolly’s hair. I saw the back of her blonde curls moving up and down as she bounced slightly on her bed. They were so different from the lank strands that I had ripped from the scabbed scalp of the woman the night before. Layla was so precious, so angelic. I was safe here, in my home, with my lovely daughter and my caring husband.

I took a step towards her, ready to surprise her with late evening stories. “Layla!” I called, as cheerily as I could muster. Suddenly she spun towards me at an insane speed. I saw that her little hand gripped her dolly around the neck as though she was strangling it. Then I noticed my daughter’s eyes – only they weren’t my daughter’s.

To my absolute horror, they were pools of red just like the woman from the churchyard. She opened her little mouth wide and exposed jagged and brown teeth. I felt my stomach churn and my chest ached in terror.

“We’re still coming for you, you bitch!” She suddenly sneered. I’d never heard her innocent little voice sound so vicious. I started screaming hysterically, all sense lost as I backed towards the door.

Greg was alerted by the commotion and ran in, pushing past me and sweeping Layla into his arms. He held her close to him as she sobbed into his shoulder. I watched from the doorway as he snapped at me, “What the hell are you playing at?!”

Layla peeked up at me from the safety of her daddy’s arms, her blue eyes full of tears and her little white teeth showing as she wailed with her mouth wide open. I put my shaking hands to my head and backed out of the room.

Was I experiencing post traumatic stress disorder? Had I just had a hallucination, caused by my brain being unable to process the night before? Or had I really seen something in my 3-year-old daughter? I felt confused and helpless so I decided to stay downstairs, away from them both. Greg was fast losing patience with me and I didn’t want to push him over the edge. I heard him settling Layla then stomping into our bedroom. It stung that he hadn’t checked I was ok, but I could understand that he was angry at me for scaring our baby girl.

When I was sure they would both be asleep I crept back upstairs into Layla’s room. My heart hammered in my chest as I gently pushed open her door. Part of me didn’t want to know what was beyond it, but another part of me forced me to look at her. And there she was – just my little Layla, my sweet little daughter. I watched her sleeping peacefully and my heart felt ready to burst with relief and love. I just wanted to hold her. I walked across the room, intending on getting into bed next to her, wanting her to wake up next to me in the morning so that I could make my actions up to her. But on my way I stepped on something in the dark.

I looked down and saw her dolly. I picked it up, holding it to my nose so I could smell Layla’s scent. But it didn’t smell like the usual mixture of baby shampoo and chocolate. No. It smelt like rotten, charred meat. I winced and pulled away, looking at it in shock. Weaved into the doll’s plait was the scraggly silver hair from the woman! Layla must have taken it out of the cupboard and wrapped it into her dolly’s hair when she was plaiting it!

My mind spinning once more, I left the room clutching Layla’s doll. I bolted downstairs and pulled on my wellies and jacket. I didn’t quite know what I intended on doing but I needed to do something. So despite my terror, I left the house and sprinted as fast as I could until I reached the walls of the churchyard.

There was no way I was going back into that place. Absolutely not. Just standing outside it made the hairs on my arms stand on end. Instead, I decided to throw the doll as hard as I could in the direction of where the church lay unseen. I was relieved that I managed to throw it high enough that it made it over the wall. I didn’t have any answers to anything but I knew that I absolutely had to get that hair away from our home, particularly away from our child.

The following day things returned to normal. Layla forgave me for the night before after accepting my apology in the form of homemade pancakes. Of course, she was distraught about her dolly being ‘lost’. I took her into the city to get a replacement, and on the way I stopped off at the hospital so we could visit Bert. He was recovering well and insisted he had seen no other women in the churchyard, only me. I believed him. He told me that all he knew about the place was that he used to play there when he was a boy until something happened. He couldn’t remember what and said he didn’t want to try. He’d only gone because he had been worried I wouldn’t keep my promise. I let it go.

I know I encountered pure evil that night and I think I had a very close escape. I believe that I brought whatever it was back home with me. Layla has been very much herself since, so I do think that throwing the doll back into the grounds of the church ‘worked’. How long for though? If I stumbled across this mysterious area that nobody seemed to remember, how long will it be until somebody else stumbles across it? How long until that hellish thing attacks someone else?

A UK city has just experienced a mass arrival of scientists. It’s being ignored by the press, so I’m reporting it here.

Something peculiar is happening in a major city in England, and I’m quite sure that I am being blocked from making it public. I’m Hayley Benett, a relatively successful freelance journalist, and I moved to this city a couple of years back. I cover any local story that takes my interest. When my dad was still alive he was successful in the industry, so I have firm connections to multiple publications that regularly publish my reports, articles and interviews. Some are national, some local… In this industry, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and my dad gave me a great entrance into a journalistic freedom that not many get to experience.

So I was extremely shocked when I was turned down by five of my go-to editors when I pitched them the article I am about to share with you. Because something that is this out of the ordinary, happening in the home of Europe’s top colleges, is newsworthy. It’s rare that my pitches are turned down, but when they are I am always given excellent feedback about why. This time, I have just been told no. There has been no explanation, no advice, no spec to work towards… Something is going on. I’m sure of it.

Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but I have decided to put the article out myself while I continue my investigation. I don’t feel comfortable being the only one pushing for this to go public. In my 12 years in this profession, I have learnt to trust my instinct, and something feels off here. This seems the safest platform for it, at least while I gather more evidence. I am having to keep the name of the city secret, for legal reasons. I hope that those of you who read this will get the same uneasy feeling that I have from everything that’s happened so far.

EDITOR TO INCLUDE HEADLINE

An unexpected influx of mathematicians and scientists has left the residents of -city redacted- baffled, after access to the city was temporarily restricted to allow for a mysterious mass arrival that brought the centre to a standstill.

Following nearby airports closing for several hours at 9pm on Wednesday, –city redacted– smaller private airport had a flurry of private planes arriving throughout the night. An anonymous source who works for the airport told –publication to be added once article is sold– exclusively that:

“There were private planes arriving at all hours. We usually only see one or two every couple of days. We’re a small airport. But there were so many arrivals, more than I’ve ever seen. More than any of my coworkers had ever seen, too. We’re talking about 15 planes, in one night. They were all full of people, too.

The passengers had to state their occupation after landing, and most seemed to be mathematics and science professors. They were from all over the world.

Someone must have known it was happening, because the entire staff were told last month to be prepared to be in all Wednesday night. We weren’t told why, and we definitely didn’t expect anything like that. We suspected they’d just have us painting the floors or something.”

The following morning, Thursday 16th August, up to fifty police cars arrived at the centre between 7.30am and 8.30am. To achieve the high number of police presence, police officers had to have been brought in from other counties, as the local police force only has 38 police officers due to cuts.

The police quickly evacuated the centre; with cyclists, tourists and shop owners directed to the outskirts. It was then cordoned off to ensure nobody unauthorised would re-enter central –city redacted– . Following that, traffic was stopped all over the city. Then a large number of private plate cars, whose passengers were protected from view by privacy glass, were seen driving towards the areas that the public had been forced to leave.

Disgruntled independent book shop owner, Ava Morgan, was amongst many locals to witness the arrival:

“They shot past from the direction of the airport. Without a doubt, they were breaking the speed limit. There must have been a couple every minute, at an accurate enough guess. It went on for an hour, so in total I lost two hours of business. Not that the police care about that, of course.”

As soon as the cars finished entering the centre, the cordon was swiftly lifted and those that had been evacuated were directed back to resume normality. However, tourists were disappointed to find that major attraction –college redacted– Library was closed off to the public, and remains so at the time of print.

It wasn’t only tourists and business owners that were affected. Dr Rahman Ellwood, organiser of annual, invite-only history event “Live History” told –publication to be added once article is sold- :

“I’ve been organising this wonderful event for three years now. Hard-fought-for funding has allowed us to hire various venues across the city in order to host our convention, which includes lectures, seminars and workshops. Now, just mere days before, I’ve been told that the whole thing has to be cancelled until further notice because they need the venues for ‘more urgent business’. Live History may be a relatively new event but I have 200 attendees and 50 History academics due to arrive, and now I need to tell them all that it’s not happening. It’s completely outrageous that I cannot even give them a reason. Those responsible for this abomination should expect to hear from our solicitors.”

Other than “Live History”, no public or private seminars are scheduled in or around the city for the following two weeks, so the reason behind the arrival of some of the world’s brightest minds remains a mystery. As it stands, city police have not responded to any requests for statements.

The unexpected cancellation of what is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular history events was preceded by an abrupt cancellation of –city redacted-’s loved and cherished ‘astronomy open evening’, in March. Held at the –city’s historical telescope– and open to the public, astronomy enthusiasts were gobsmacked earlier this year when Dr Mariya Madden “emotionally kicked out” attendees halfway through the session, as previously reported by Haley Bennett.

Do you have something to share? Contact Hayley Bennett at hayleybenett@***************co.uk

I know I’m not exactly the world’s best journalist, but I know a story when I see one and trust me – this is a story. For your reference, I’m pasting in the article mentioned above, written when the people who run the public astronomy evenings totally lost their minds and kicked everyone out:

Thursday 8th March 2018

**-**city redacted- Astronomers To End Public Open Evenings After Shock Cancellation

Local astronomy enthusiasts were left out in the cold on Wednesday evening when they were abruptly ejected from the popular astronomy open evening held at –city’s historical telescope-, in what eyewitnesses have described as a “surreal night”.

Lecturer Dr Mariya Madden, 31, allegedly ended the institute’s public session on the lawn outside –city’s historical telescope– 30 minutes early, insisting that everybody leave the area immediately. The public had been listening to a short lecture by Dr Madden and were due to go inside and use the telescope, guided by members of the institute.

An unnamed, elderly colleague, described as having a German accent, is thought to have triggered the early dismissal. It is claimed that he became “hysterical” in the small building that houses the famous telescope, and was heard from the outside by members of the public “crying out”, “screaming for help” and saying “It’s happening, my God, it’s happening.”

An audience of less than 30 attended Dr Madden’s public lecture, which was much less than the average 90-100 attendees. This was perhaps due to the unusually bitter weather experienced in –city redacted– this week. Mr Lewis Wright, who was at the public talk with his 12-year-old son, said:

“It was all very unexpected. We’ve attended most open evenings this winter and they’ve been professional but fun. To hear a member of the programme having some sort of hysterical meltdown was upsetting. He kept crying out, shouting ‘It’s happening’. It was clear he needed help.”

Following the comotion, Dr Madden is said to have urged her audience to stay calm before making her way in to attend to her distressed colleague. Within minutes, she returned and instructed the entire party to leave. Local amateur astronomer Joanne O’Brien described the scene in more detail:

“I heard him crying out for a while before anyone else seemed to notice. I didn’t want to interrupt the lecture because it really wasn’t very clear what was going on. But then he started screaming out for help. He sounded terrified. I thought he must be having a stroke or a heart attack.

Dr Madden went in to him and was back out within 5 minutes. When she came back she just told us all we needed to leave the grounds. A couple of us asked if she wanted us to stay and help, but she absolutely insisted we left straight away. She was pale as a ghost, in fact, she looked terrified herself. It was a surreal night, to say the least.

Even as we were walking away we could still hear him screaming out. He was shouting, “My God, it’s happening! It’s happening!”, over and over again. I tried to contact the institute when I got home because I was concerned, but the phone line was engaged all evening and nobody responded online.”

When contacted for a statement, Dr Madden sent the following:

“On Wednesday 7th March, my colleague, who will remain anonymous, experienced health concerns during a public lecture. Some of those attending may have heard his distress, and I am sure that they can understand why I made the decision to end the session early. Fortunately, my colleague simply had a minor health scare and is, thankfully, now well again.

Though the institute’s open evenings are scheduled to continue until the end of the month, my team and I have made the decision to end them with immediate effect. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

The early closure came as a shock to locals, many of whom regularly attend the open evenings held by the astronomy institute. They were not due to end for the summer until the end of March. When pushed for reasoning behind the decision to end three full weeks early, Dr Madden declined to comment further. It is currently unknown if they will restart at the beginning of next winter.

Do you have something to share? Contact Hayley Benett at haleybenett@****************.co.uk

It might seem like a loose link to the reader, but I’ve got a growing suspicion that it’s relevant. There’s more to it than I’m able to write in the article, and I think I might be about to break something big. You see, the ‘anonymous airport source’ is an ex-boyfriend of mine (when you’re a journalist, it’s always good to have an ex who works somewhere useful and hangs from your every word). When all the planes full of genius’ were landing, guess who was the one greeting them all? The one and only Dr Madden. And apparently she still looked like she’d just seen a ghost. Maybe that’s just her face… Or maybe there’s something really funny going on here.

I’ve got some leads to follow, anyway. Back in March, when Dr Madden shut down the telescope open evenings from the public, I chased her about it like a hound dog but she kept totally silent. At the time, I thought they must have been shutting early because of a funding scandal that I could break, but she was too tough to crack so I let it go. Perhaps naively, I fell hook line and sinker for the story about the ill colleague, so I never tried to interview him. In hindsight, who the hell screams, “My God, it’s happening! It’s happening!” When they are having a bit of a funny turn? I’ve got a few questions for him.

I’ve still got two more editors to contact, too, who I can try and get to publish my article. One of them is a good friend of mine with a weak publication, but a weak publication is better than no publication. For now, I’m going to get some sleep.

**To read the rest of this complete series, follow this link. It will take you directly to Part 1 on r/NoSleep, where the other 9 parts can be found at the bottom of the post.