List of Read-for-Free texts:
Save the White Stag (Chapters 1 & 2)
The Things We've Seen: Speculative Tales from the Care Home Writing Club (short extracts from the short story element)
Footprints in the Snow (extract)
The Knocking (extract)
The Wishing Sisters (complete story)
A High Windy Place (complete story)
Save the White Stag
Adventures don’t usually start on the school bus, and this one is no exception. Today had been just like any other school day; a bit of fun here, a bit boring there. Now Caro was busy chatting to her friends until the bus came to her stop. Caro was the only person who got off here and she stepped into the warm spring sunshine. She waved goodbye to her friends as the bus pulled away and set off down one of the tracks into the trees.
Caro loved the walk along this forest track. It led directly from the bus stop to the traveller camp where she lived with her family. There were lots of tracks just like this one, criss-crossing the forest, well-trodden by hikers, joggers, dog walkers and cyclists, but on days like this, when there wasn’t a soul in sight and Caro was alone, she felt as if the forest belonged only to her.
Soon the track led Caro deeper into the trees, away from the sound of the traffic on the busy main road. As she strolled along, she took in the undisturbed forest around her. Now and then there was a crack as a twig snapped and fell to the ground. Up above, the tallest branches of the trees creaked and swayed in the breeze. The birds squabbled and squawked, and a squirrel suddenly ran across Caro’s path and disappeared up a nearby tree, making her laugh.
The afternoon was peaceful and quiet, and Caro felt comfortable in the arms of her forest, until she glanced through the trees to her right and suddenly stopped in her tracks. A flash of something had caught her eye and then it was gone, but immediately there was a sense that something about the forest had changed. Caro knew how to read the signs, and her forest suddenly felt different.
She peered into the trees, squinting to get a better look through the sunlight streaks which dappled the branches and made patterns across the forest floor. She stood still for a moment, very still, listening carefully, and then she stepped off the track. She crept through the trees, between the huge trunks of the great elder statesmen and the wisps of younger
saplings, watching out for twisted tree roots or holes in the ground which could be hidden by bracken and pine needles. The air smelt damp and musty, but the leaves beneath her feet were crisp and dry. She placed her feet cautiously and tried hard not to make crunching noises as she pushed forwards.
Soon the trees began to stand closer together. Their branches reached out and clasped hands with those of their neighbours, pushing away the sunlight and leading Caro into a world of shadows. Eventually she arrived at the top of a gentle bank which sloped down to a small stream. She made her way down, sliding on damp moss, and stopped by the water to look around. Caro had a strong sense that something had just been here and she was trying to work out what it was, when a particular fir tree further downstream caught her attention. She jumped the stream and headed towards it.
The tree was large, with lower branches which spread out wide and hung low, and up close, Caro could clearly see a hint of shimmering shining light along one of these branches. The edge of the branch was coated in a mysterious silvery layer, which was there and not there at the same time.
Caro bent down and inspected the ground below the shining branch. The earth was bone dry and there was no suggestion of an imprint to help her work out who or what had just been beside the tree. She stood back up and moved around to inspect the shining branch from different angles. It seemed to be brighter or darker depending on where she stood; something to do with the sunlight, perhaps, although Caro wasn’t convinced. She wondered what it would feel like if she touched it and then she decided not to. Instead, she pulled her mobile phone from her pocket and took some photos. She stepped back to survey the branch once more, then she turned around and went back up the slope, the way she’d come. When she emerged back onto the track, she gathered some small stones together, heaped them up into a pile to make a marker at the base of the closest tree and then headed for home.
“When’s Caro coming? I want her to draw me a picture!” said Molly, for the hundredth time.
Molly was following her Mum around like a puppy. Now they were standing behind their caravan home, next to the washing line. Annie put down her clothes basket and began to unpeg the dry washing. She looked down at her daughter.
“She’ll be here soon, Moll. School’s just finished.”
“But how long is soon?”
“Not long. Why don’t you go and play with Finn?”
“He went for a walk with Daddy. Anyway, I don’t want to play with Finn. I want Caro to draw me a picture. She always makes…oh there she is! CARO!!!”
Molly immediately forgot about her Mum and disappeared round the side of the caravan. She ran across the clearing in the centre of the camp, wrapped herself round Caro’s legs and held on tight, giggling.
“Hey, now I can’t walk, silly!”
Caro prised Molly off, lifted her up and carried her towards the caravan.
“So, how was your day, Moll?”
“I dunno. I forgot. Will you draw me a picture?”
The two sisters went inside the caravan, where Caro changed out of her school uniform and into some jeans and a T-shirt. She opened her bedroom window, peeped out and saw Annie getting the last of the washing.
“Oh, hi, Caro.”
“Do you need a hand?”
“No thanks. Almost done.”
Caro went through to the dining area, where Molly was waiting at the table, her little hands clutching a sketchbook and some coloured pencils.
“So, what should I draw for you today?”
“A shark,” said Molly.
“Why a shark? Yesterday I drew a playground with you and me in it.”
“But today we had a story about a shark that went to school and was scaring all his friends.”
“Alright. Shark it is!”
Caro drew a huge shark. She made sure it had a smile and looked friendly. Molly was happy with the result and she settled down to colour it in. While her little sister was occupied, Caro took out her phone and scrolled through the photos she’d taken on the way home. The single branch of the tree was definitely shining with some sort of mysterious, other-worldly sheen. Suddenly Annie opened the caravan door and Caro put her phone away again.
“Here, Mum. I’ll put the washing away.”
“Thanks, Caro. Oh, I like your shark, Moll, but can you move onto the sofa or your bed to colour it in? I want to set the table.”
Later that evening, after the family had eaten dinner and Molly and Finn were tucked up in bed, Annie sat outside on one of the plastic garden chairs, enjoying a bit of peace and quiet in the late sunshine. Chris was planning to go and see his friend Pete for a game of chess.
“Dad,” said Caro, as she watched him pulling on his jacket, “Can I show you something?”
“Sure. What is it?”
Caro showed her Dad the photos of the tree. He studied them.
“Nice photos, Caro. Why did you take them? Are they for a school project or something?”
Caro looked at Chris.
“You don’t see anything strange in them?”
Chris looked again more carefully and shrugged his shoulders.
“No, just a nice old fir tree, set in its natural surroundings. Why? What am I supposed to see?”
Chris smiled and ruffled Caro’s hair.
“Are you playing some sort of trick on me?”
“OK. Well, I’m off to Pete’s for a couple of hours.”
“Jamie’s arriving tomorrow,” said Caro, “Are we still going by after school to see him?”
“Of course. Right then, I’m off.”
Caro pulled on a hoody and followed Chris outside. The sun had just reached the tops of the surrounding trees on its journey to bed and the air had taken on a spring chill. The camp was also settling down for the evening. Several children were playing together in the central space. Around its edge, smoke wafted up from wood burners inside the caravans and vans, filling the air with a delicious woody scent. Across from Caro’s home, two men were working together to repair a bicycle. A group of people chatted on a nearby bench.
Caro sat down next to Annie. They waved to Chris when he headed off to his car and he beeped the horn as he drove off. Once he was gone, Caro showed her photos to her Mum.
“Nice tree,” was all Annie said, confirming Caro’s suspicions.
They sat together for a moment without speaking, watching the sky turn into a pink and purple twilight. When a couple of Annie’s neighbours came over, Caro stood up and offered one of them her seat.
“I’m just off for a walk,” she said.
“Alright,” Annie replied, “but make sure you’re back before it’s properly dark.”
Extracts from 'The Things We've Seen'
'One Good Turn'
The heavy snow had begun at first light, and the heaviness had kept the day dark. There was an eerie silence that only comes with snowfall and the thick snowflakes swirled and danced, quickly forming a deep white carpet. Harry had been trying for some time to clear a path to the garage so he could retrieve the car, but he had to accept that he was losing the battle. He was too old for this kind of work and no-one was there to help. Now his wintry foe was winning, and its attack couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Harry leaned on his shovel, out of breath, and looked across the garden. The tree line boundary was a blurred image behind the snowy curtain and the road beyond was silent. Nobody was going anywhere today. Anyone with any sense was inside by the fire. Harry’s boots sank into the snow as he pushed his way back to the house, where he leaned his shovel up against the wall and climbed the steps. He felt carefully for the wooden slats of the rickety front porch; now was not the time to fall and break something. Martha needed him.
Inside, Martha listened to the sound of boots stamping on the doormat, then the front door opened and closed again quietly.
“Harry?” she called.
Harry followed the sound of Martha’s soft voice through to the living room. The fire he’d built earlier still crackled quietly in the hearth and Martha was still sitting exactly where he’d left her, on the edge of the bed by the window, dressed in her boots, coat and scarf, clutching her small overnight bag with both hands. He paused, then he went to hug her.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he whispered into her ear, “I can’t get anywhere near the car.”
“It’s alright,” she replied, turning to gaze up at him.
Slowly, she put down her bag and took off her coat. Harry pulled off her boots for her and helped her to sit back on the bed. He curled up beside her and they both stared out at the weather for a moment without speaking.
“Perhaps we can get there tomorrow,” Martha said at last, “I’m sure it won’t make that much difference if I don’t get to the hospital today.”
When Harry bent to kiss the top of her head, Martha missed the momentary look of pain that crossed his expression.
“I hope not,” he whispered, and then cheered up, “Right, then. I'm going to make us both a nice cup of tea.”
Martha didn't reply. She continued to watch out of the window. On his own in the kitchen, Harry gripped the countertop and closed his eyes. It had been really important that Martha got her treatment today, and they were trapped here.
When Harry carried their mugs of tea through, he was surprised to see that Martha had pulled herself up and was peering out into the garden. She was suddenly animated.
“Harry, come here, quickly!”
Harry put the drinks down on the windowsill and sat back down next to his wife.
“What is it?”
“Look,” she whispered, “Over there.”
He stared at the invading snow. It was falling faster than ever, and the evidence of his earlier efforts to cross the garden was already buried deep.
“What am I looking for?”
“Over there,” Martha repeated, “There's something lying in the snow.”
Harry squinted and tried to look through the blizzard.
“I can’t see anything. All I can see is snowflakes.”
“I’m sure I saw a buzzard fly at some little bird, and the poor thing fell out of the sky and landed in the garden. It was a little black shape. I can hardly see it now, but I know it’s out there.”
'Look Who Came to Help When You Were On Your Own'
Fingers of lightning flashed through Emma's bedroom curtains. She lay curled up on her side, listening as the thunder claps came closer and closer, counting the seconds in between just like she did when she was as a child. She nursed a headache which seemed to pound more and more in time with the storm. Finally she could bear it no longer. She sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed and got up in search of painkillers.
She peeped into Katie's room, and then into Jake's. They were both fast asleep, undisturbed, arms flung wide, deep in their dreams. As she turned to leave Jake's room she noticed that the window was open a little. The curtains blew gently in the breeze. For certain it was closed when she had tucked Jake into bed. She walked across to the window and pulled it shut, making a mental note to remind him not to open it again when he settled down for the night.
Back in the hallway Emma stopped by the telephone table at the top of the stairs. The message light was flashing on the answer machine cassette. She pressed the play button and listened. It was Paul.
“Hey baby. Sorry I didn't get to call before you went to sleep. I was stuck in a meeting that went on forever. See you tomorrow evening. Hug the kids for me. Love you.”
She pressed stop to end the message and continued on to the top of the stairs, where she flicked the light switch. Nothing happened. Power’s down. She stepped carefully onto the dark stairs and held onto the banister. Step by careful step, she went down the stairs, her journey lit up now and then when the lightning flashed through the windows. Just as she was almost at the bottom she missed her footing, slipped awkwardly and fell backwards. She lay there for a moment, winded, and rubbed at a strange pointed pain in her left side.
In the kitchen she found some paracetamol in a drawer and poured a glass of water. She swallowed the tablets and put the glass back on the drainer. She turned to go back to bed. Suddenly a particularly bright flash of lightning lit up the kitchen and Emma stopped in her tracks. Someone was there. Emma squinted in the dark. An old woman in a dressing gown and slippers, her hair tied up in a bun, was standing in the corner by the back door. For a moment the two women stared at each other, then Emma's breathing slowed and she regained her composure.
“Who are you? What are you doing?” Emma challenged, “And how did you get in? Did you break in?”
“This is my house. Why would I break into my own house?” The old woman stepped forwards as she spoke. “I woke up just now with a terrible headache and came down to find some paracetamol, but I'm confused. The kitchen looks just like it did years ago, before we renovated it.”
“Listen,” said Emma patiently, “this is my house, not yours. I don't know how you got in here, but you need to go home. Where do you live? Is there someone I can call?”
The old woman shuffled across to the kitchen table, sat down and stared at Emma. She stared for a long time before she spoke.
“I know you,” she said quietly.
“Yes. You’re Emma Phillips.”
“What? How do you know my name?”
'In My Garden'
Daisy was pretending. Every time she spoke to someone on the phone or replied to an email, she told them she was fine. She smiled gratefully to the volunteers who delivered her groceries and she waved to the neighbours from her window. She spoke to her daughter, Lisa, every evening, to touch base and to read instalments of her favourite children’s books to Lisa’s daughter, Lois. To the outside world, she was the same old Daisy, but inside, she was beginning to feel empty. With no-one to talk to for long periods at a time, Daisy began to talk either to herself, or to the things around her.
“Mad old bat!” she thought, “What would anyone say if they could hear you?”
Every morning, Daisy went out into the summer sunshine via the French windows of her South London town house. She crossed the patio, took hold of the handrail with her gnarled arthritic hands, walked gingerly down the concrete steps and set off across the lawn. The garden was kept apart from the outside world by high red-brick boundary walls, and over the forty years Daisy had lived there, she was the one who’d lovingly created this hidden gem, and so she felt it was reasonable to say hello to every blossom, every leafy shrub, every grand tall tree, because really they were like old friends.
The garden was long and narrow, just like all the others in the terraced street, and on this particular morning, Daisy decided to wander down the path which snaked through it. She walked slowly and carefully, because her age required it, until she came to the low brick wall which separated the landscaped section of the garden from the wild flower garden at the end. This unkempt meadow-like expanse was Daisy’s favourite part of the garden, and she loved to survey her mish-mash of cornflowers, kingcups, forget-me-nots, daisies and columbine, the cow parsley, poppies and foxgloves and the ivy and honeysuckle which wound their way up the walls like a theatre backdrop. Every plant was Daisy’s contribution to the welfare of bees, butterflies and other insects and, unlike the landscaped section of the garden, she’d left it alone to grow in gay abandon in whatever way it fancied.
She sat down on the wall for a moment, a little out of breath, and was surprised at just how overgrown the wild flower garden had become. Gay abandon was all very well, but creating a space which enabled the torture and strangulation of the floral world was quite another. Making her way through to the back gate would be a bit of a challenge, as tendrils, plant roots and grasses had tangled themselves around each other across the path, creating a veritable death trap for her unsteady feet.
“Well, I hadn’t noticed just how overgrown you’d become!” she said out loud.
“Then it’s about time you got down here and tidied it up a bit,” said a voice, “It’s turning into a jungle down here. It’s positively dangerous!”
Daisy lost her balance at the unexpected reply and almost fell off the wall in fright. She waited, but no further words came. The gentle breeze blew across the silent flowers. She looked around. Who just spoke to her? A neighbour, watching out of their window, to poke fun at her garden neglect? A passer-by in the back lane peeping through the gate to play a trick? Or did she imagine she just heard a voice, because she was a mad old bat after all?
“Hello? Hello?” she finally called out, tentatively.
“Hello? Hello?” mimicked a sing-song voice.
Daisy looked around quickly. She was confused. No-one was there. She was definitely alone.
“I expect you’re wondering where I am?” said the voice.
“I expect I am,” said Daisy.
“Look down here, a little to your left.”
“It looks like I really am having a conversation with a flower!” thought Daisy, “How can that be?”
She leaned forwards and to the left, as instructed, and peered into the tangle of grass, ferns and blooms. At first, she saw nothing out of the ordinary, but then, as she watched, the plant stems close to the ground began to move.
Footprints in the Snow (extract)
Without waiting for his older sister, Finn walked confidently into the opening. When Jamie followed Caro and Molly into the darkness, he discovered that they were actually in a tunnel. There was a glow of daylight up ahead, and Jamie guessed that just a little further on, the tunnel would open out into a cave. The cave was much higher and wider than Jamie had expected. The light was created by a hole in the roof which allowed a shaft of sunlight to penetrate the darkness. The light revealed pale stone walls, worn and gnarled with age and covered in moss. The walls were damp and the cave had the same earthy smell as the tunnel. In the centre, at the brightest part, four small rocks were placed evenly in a circle. Caro, Finn and Molly sat down on three of them in such a familiar way that Jamie knew they came here all the time.
“That one’s yours,” Finn pointed. “We pulled it over this morning, before we came to get you.”
Jamie joined the others and sat down on his appointed stone. He looked around.
“This is so cool,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere like this in London, or anywhere else!”
“And when we came this morning to move your rock,” said Caro, “we left a packed lunch here as well.”
She walked over to a darker corner of the cave and came back with a rucksack. Inside were sandwiches, drinks and fruit. They ate the food hungrily, and afterwards Caro reached back inside the rucksack and pulled out a giant bar of chocolate. She broke it into squares and passed them around.
“We come here all the time, don’t we, kids?”
Finn and Molly nodded, their mouths full of chocolate.
“No-one ever comes here,” she continued, “because no-one else knows it’s here.”
“Is it safe here?” Jamie asked.
“Yes,” Caro snorted, as if the question were unnecessary. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Jamie shrugged. He decided he wouldn’t even bother trying to explain what his life was like in London, that there were no safe secret places to play in, that his Mum would never let him play outside all day like this.
“But what about the panther? My Grancher says there’s a panther here. If there is, aren’t you worried it might get in here? You wouldn’t be safe then, and nobody could save you.”
The children were surprisingly serious now.
“All the forest animals have their own space. They understand each other, don’t they, Caro? If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” said Finn quietly, sounding wise beyond his years.
“What – you mean there actually is a panther living here?”
Jamie was looking at Caro, who shrugged her
“I’ve never seen it myself,” she replied, speaking as quietly as Finn, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Suddenly Jamie felt that the atmosphere in the cave had changed, and that somehow he was delving into something private, something he wasn’t part of because he didn’t live here; the forest wasn’t part of his everyday world. Just then his daydreaming thoughts were interrupted when Molly piped up.
“Anyway, Caro can talk to animals, so if the panther came in here, she’d tell it to leave us alone and go away.”
Everybody laughed and the ice was broken. The sense of fun was back.
“What d’you mean, talk to animals?” Jamie laughed. “You mean like Dr Dolittle in the film?”
“Caro learns special things from our Gran,” Finn explained. “She can talk to animals, and she can use the secret signs in the forest. Gran shows you, doesn’t she, Caro? And one day she’s going to show me as well.”
Caro was quiet. She smiled at Finn for a moment, as if she were about to say something, but instead she jumped up from her rocky seat.
“Come on. Let’s play on the rope swing, see if Jamie can stay on longer than any of us.”
The children had to walk further into the trees to locate the swing. Caro climbed up a tall oak tree and unfastened it from where it was looped around a branch, out of sight. The long rope was threaded through a plank of wood to make a seat and then tied
underneath in a large knot.
“Dad made it. No-one knows it’s here ‘cept us,” Molly whispered as she tugged at Jamie’s sleeve. “Another secret, like our cave.”
Each of the children took a turn on the swing. They climbed up and sat on the plank while everyone else pushed, or they stood up on the plank if they were feeling more daring. Jamie and Caro helped the two younger children to hold on together, sitting side by side. Jamie couldn’t believe the fun he was having, and he felt a little jealous of his new forest friends and their huge playground. Back at home, his own terraced house was surrounded by rows and rows of other houses. The only places he had to play in were their small back garden and the local park.
When Finn and Molly started to look tired, Caro suggested they head back. Jamie had no idea what time it was, but the sun wasn’t far off the tops of the trees and he guessed it was late afternoon. He followed Caro again, back through the maze of trees, until they climbed out onto yet another cycle track. Caro lifted Finn up to give him a piggy back. Jamie did likewise and picked Molly up. In seconds she was fast asleep, snoring into his ear.
Jamie and Caro chatted quietly as they walked along. Jamie told Caro all about where he lived in London. He described his house, his school, the busy, built-up areas, the parks, the constant sirens, the noisy traffic and the planes passing overhead.
“I think I would hate to live somewhere like that,” Caro commented. “I’m just so used to all the open space out here.”
“Have you always lived out here, in your caravan in the forest?”
“No, not always, but we’ve always lived in the countryside. We live here most of the year and then in the summer holidays we go off to other traveller sites, or maybe to some festivals. Last year we went to Spain, high up in the mountains. It was beautiful.”
Jamie was about to ask something else when Caro suddenly whispered “Ssssh.” She stopped walking and looked into the trees. Jamie couldn’t see anything but trees, and he thought of the panther and felt afraid, but then Caro smiled and nodded across to her right.
“Look,” she whispered.
Jamie followed Caro’s gaze. At first he still couldn’t see anything, then suddenly a piece of the forest seemed to move and sway. A large stag, tall and majestic, wandered out of the trees and stopped in front of them on the track. At first it nosed around on the edge, unaware of the children, but then it turned and saw them in the half-light. Jamie nervously whispered “Caro?” but before he could say anything else, she raised her hand to quiet him. She put Finn carefully down on the ground and stepped slowly towards the stag. Finn also seemed nervous, and he reached up and slid his hand through the crook of Jamie’s elbow.
Together they watched as Caro reached out gently with her left hand. Jamie heard her make soft clicking noises with her tongue, and now and then she made a gentle “Sssssh” sound. Jamie thought that this was how you would approach an animal you weren’t sure of, like the big dog at the end of his street. Caro suddenly stopped the clicking and shushing noises and began to speak in an almost-whisper – strange words he’d never heard before, words that certainly weren’t English. Jamie looked down at Finn, who was grinning at him.
“Told you,” he whispered. “Watch. Caro will send the stag away so we can get past and go home.”
When Jamie looked back at Caro, he saw that the stag was walking slowly towards her. She was still holding out her left hand and the stag nuzzled gently into it, as if it were saying hello. Caro reached up with her other hand and stroked the stag’s broad nose, all the while speaking in her strange language. Finally the stag turned back towards the trees. It paused and then darted off into the undergrowth, where in seconds it was lost from view. Caro looked back over her shoulder and grinned.
“That was so cool!” Jamie said, quite amazed. “You really can do that stuff, just like Finn said!”
Caro looked pleased as she walked towards them and lifted Finn onto her back again. All the way home, Jamie threw questions at her - How did she remember that strange language? Where was it from? What was she saying? - but Caro simply smiled and refused to share her secrets. When they arrived back at Grancher Pete’s garden, he was waiting for them by the back gate.
“Caro spoke to a stag!” Jamie said excitedly.
“Did she now?”
Grancher Pete smiled and threw Caro a knowing glance.
“Thanks for bringing Jamie back, kids. Best jump in the car, though, Caro. I’ll take you round the road way. It’s too dark to be walking back with two tired little’uns.”
Caro climbed in the front of the car with Pete, while Jamie sat in the back with Molly on his lap and Finn curled up next to him. In minutes they were asleep, and as Jamie thought about the wonderful day he’d had, he gradually gave in to his own deep slumber, and dreamt he was swinging through the trees on the antlers of a giant stag.
(Extract from Chapter 5: Footprints in the Snow)
'The Knocking' is a supernatural novella based around the Great Flood of 1607, which devastated the South West of England and in which over 2000 people drowned. In this contemporary story, university student Megan spends her summer break researching the flood. She gradually realises that the lives of people living in the present and the ghosts of the past are interacting in a way she could never have imagined.
Back at the cottage, I decided on a run. I got changed and set off along the sunlit path. I concentrated on my breathing and my pace, as I ran on and on in an effort to escape my thoughts. Jack's boat had unsettled me, although I couldn't say why. I ran on a bit further than on my previous runs. The path lay closer to the edge of the river, twisting and winding alongside it like a faithful friend. Ginny was right; it was a nice route. I rounded a new bend and unexpectedly came across a wooden bench. Behind the bench, on the inland side, a wide marshy area was overgrown with reeds and bulrushes. It stretched all the way back towards the hillside. The bench was placed so that it looked towards the river, an ideal spot for passers-by to stop and take in the view. It seemed to beckon to me to sit and rest, so I did. I leaned back, stretched my arms along the warmth of the wood and surveyed the scene in front of me. The river was calm and flowed smoothly by. A few twigs and leaves and the occasional duck floated along in the swirling current. On the opposite bank, the flat fields stretched away into the distance. The trees and fences grew smaller and smaller, stretching away in pop-up layers until they disappeared over the horizon.
No-one had passed me on the path. No canoes or boats putt-putted by. I couldn’t even hear any birds singing. I was just getting my breath back and thinking about how quiet it was, when the peaceful moment was broken by the sound of giggling behind me. I turned quickly, but all I could see were the reeds, blowing from side to side in the gentle breeze. The giggling had sounded young, girlish. I was sure I heard two different voices. I bent down and tried to peer through the tangle of leaves and reed stems, fully expecting to find a couple of mischievous teenagers hiding from me, but no-one was there.
I watched the reeds a little while longer, then I turned back around. Immediately there came the sound of more laughter. This time it seemed to come from the left of me, but when I looked in that direction, more laughter came from in front of me. How could that be? The laughter continued, behind me again, then to the right, left, right. I stood up and turned in all directions, this way and that, until I felt dizzy from trying to keep up. Wherever I looked, no-one was there. I tried to step down into the reeds to explore further, but my trainers threatened to sink into the soft, waterlogged ground.
“Hello?” I called out to the invisible voices. “Who's there? Are you teasing me?”
The laughter stopped immediately. I waited, a little unnerved, but everything stayed silent. I turned around and ran quickly back to the cottage, where I found the puddle waiting for me.
The Wishing Sisters
This is the first story in the short story collection of the same name. You can read the whole story below. 'The Wishing Sisters' collection is available at amzn.to/2oHvNvK. There is also a reading comprehension resource for this story at bit.ly/2GkE5zu & bit.ly/2xXJ6tc.
The Wishing Sisters
November 26th 1888
At eight o’clock this morning, my husband Jacob left me. He didn’t mean to, but he went anyway. No-one could have seen it coming – a collapse in the main pit, everyone buried. It was a little boy who told us. He ran all the way across the fields until he reached our row of houses. Poor thing! We bathed his bleeding feet where they were cut and blistered, and he lay back against my neighbour Amelia’s garden wall and told us all, in short breathless sentences, the terrible news. The rescue was quick. One thing about mining accidents is there are always other miners there to help straight away. By nightfall they had everyone out – forty-two in all – and all of them dead. The worst disaster for years, it said in the local paper.
They brought Jacob home and laid him out on our kitchen table. He was a shadow of his living self. His pale face seemed wrapped in sleep, and while I sat with him that night – for I wasn’t afraid – I felt that at any moment I could reach out and shake him, and he’d wake up. But I knew there was no waking up for Jacob, never again. And all I could think about was the times I’d woken in the night and whispered ‘I love you’ into his ear as he slept, and had I done this enough times? Had he gone on his final journey, with forty-one souls in tow, knowing how much I adored him?
December 1st 1888
The mining company wasted no time. I couldn’t stay in our home now that I was alone. These cottages are for miners and their families. The letter reminded me when it arrived, the day after Jacob’s funeral, so I have done the only thing I can, with reluctance, and written to my brother Michael to ask for a room in his home.
December 3rd 1888
What a speedy reply came from Michael! Instead of writing back to me, he arrived today with his horse and cart, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Martha. Together we packed up my belongings and set off for the farm. I have not seen Michael for some years, even though we had always been close. He and his wife Sarah live a good distance away, on a farm Michael saved hard to buy before he proposed to her. The year they married, the snow fell so badly the night before that Jacob and I were trapped in our home, unable to attend. Michael understood our lack of control over such things as weather and travel, but my new sister-in-law was not so forgiving, and she never spoke to us again after we missed her special day. This was the reason for my
reluctance to write now. I lived in a happy home with Jacob, and I now travelled with trepidation
to take a place under Sarah’s roof, where in spite of Michael’s cheerfulness, I expected to find tension.
Sarah was waiting at the door as we pulled up in the farmyard. She greeted me civilly but frostily, and showed me around the house while Michael and two of his farm workers took my things to the spare room. We all sat down to dinner at the huge kitchen table that evening – Michael, Sarah, my two young nieces Martha and Elizabeth, and myself – and everyone ate in stony silence. Afterwards I went to my room, looked at my wedding photograph in a frame on the bedside table and wept into my pillow.
December 6th 1888
I have been here at the farm for three days. My two nieces are delightful. Their company cheers me up and distracts me from my thoughts. Michael is usually absent until the evening, out on the land, and I am trying my best to endear myself to Sarah with offers of help around the house and with the girls. I get the impression that I cannot win, as Sarah seems happiest when she refuses my offers, as if I am intruding into her control of the domestic domain. I think this may be used against me at some later date.
December 7th 1888
Last night I had the strangest experience. I woke with a start. The clock on the wall said three o’clock, and I listened to the darkness, wondering what had awoken me. After a few minutes I heard a sound. It was the distinct, unmistakable sound of a woman crying. Carefully I got up, put on my dressing gown and lit the oil lamp that stood next to my bed. I opened my bedroom door, hoping not to disturb anyone with its creak, and looked up and down the landing. The farmhouse is big but not sprawling, and in a few minutes I was able to explore the whole of the upstairs area. No-one else was about, investigating the sound, and I set off downstairs to search there. Again, I found nothing. The crying gradually subsided and I set off back to my room.
As I turned at the top of the stairwell, I jumped in fright, and then relaxed, when I realised it was Sarah standing in the moonlight.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I heard someone crying – a woman – and I went to investigate.”
“Impossible. There’s no other woman here. Only you and me.”
“Well, it was probably a dream,” I said as I stepped past her.
Just then, Martha opened her door, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
“There – now you’ve disturbed the children. I’ll thank you not to start making a habit of wandering about in the night.”
Sarah hushed Martha back into her room. She closed the door behind her and left me
standing in the passageway, trying to make sense of what I’d heard.
December 8th 1888
This afternoon I was sitting in my room, reading. I looked up to see Elizabeth standing in the doorway. I smiled at her.
“What is it?”
She hesitated and then walked across the room. She stood by my chair and looked around. Something seemed to be bothering her.
“Elizabeth – is something wrong?”
Finally she spoke.
“I heard the crying last night,” she said quietly.
“You did? Then I didn’t imagine it.”
“And I’ve heard it every night since you came.”
I stared at her, confused.
“Did you ever hear the crying before I came to stay?”
She nodded a ‘no’.
“It was you, Aunt Hannah,” she blurted out.
“What do you mean?”
“You were crying last night. You’ve been crying every night since you came. I can hear you in my room.”
I froze, unsure what to say.
“But it sounded like it was coming from somewhere else,” I protested. “I couldn’t find out where.”
“No,” Elizabeth said firmly. “The crying is inside you.”
She turned and walked out of the room, and I was left wondering why a small child would say such a strange thing.
December 9th 1888
In the last few days, I have taken to walking in the woods on the edge of the farmyard. The trees remind me of the area around my own home, and I believe there is nowhere on earth that gives a person the sense of peace and solitude that I get when I walk in these woods alone. At this time of year the bare, leafless trees, the still, dark surfaces of secluded ponds and the eerie mist that hangs over everything, all combine to create a picture that mirrors my sadness. I think it is helping me when I walk deep into the trees, sit by the still water and remember those memories that only belong to me and no-one else. I need to do this, because I don’t know what else to do. I feel so alone.
Imagine my surprise then, today, when I turned a corner in the path and saw someone – a
woman walking alone, like me - in the distance. I laughed to myself afterwards, because I didn’t expect to see anyone in so remote a place, and the sight had made me jump. I watched carefully, out of view, as she strolled away. I don’t think she saw me, because she didn’t react as if she saw me, and she carried on, disappearing eventually into the trees.
December 12th 1888
I feel more and more miserable here at the farm. This morning I was lying awake in bed, having awoken early, and I could hear Michael and Sarah arguing. They were arguing about me.
“Leave her alone, Sarah. You can be so cruel at times,” I heard Michael say.
“I wasn’t sure she should come here, and I was right,” Sarah was shouting back.
“Hannah needs time. She’s hurting.”
“How do you know? She doesn’t really talk to us, and she hardly helps around the place, when she knows how busy I am with the house and the children.”
I knew that would happen. I knew Sarah wanted to paint a poor picture of me.
“Have you ever considered, Sarah, putting yourself in her position for a moment? What if I went out today and had an accident somewhere and didn’t come back? How would you feel?”
I listened for Sarah’s reply, and it didn’t come. I knew Michael would be hurt by the silence.
“I’m not listening to your moaning again, Sarah. My sister is welcome here, in my home!”
With that he left, slamming the door behind him. Later that morning, Sarah ignored me as I crossed the kitchen to go for my walk. This time I walked a different route, deeper into the woods than usual. Eventually I came across a quiet pond, one I’d not seen before. Its surface was peaceful and still, and I found a makeshift seat on an uprooted tree that lay next to the path. As I stared at the water, I knew I was going to cry. I miss Jacob so much. He used to make me laugh, and now there was no laughter in my life, except from my young nieces as they played. Should I cry? Will I feel better?
Just then, something distracted me. I noticed a movement off in the trees on the other side of the pond. Gradually the movement took form and I realised it was the same woman I’d seen a couple of days ago. Quickly I jumped up and hid behind a large tree. I didn’t want her to see me, although I didn’t know why. When I peeped around the edge of the tree, I saw that she had stopped at the water’s edge and was looking across, straight at me. Did she know I was hiding from her? I moved back behind the tree again and waited. I wanted her to go away. These are my woods. My walks. My space. My grief.
Slowly I edged round the tree again. She was still there, still watching. Then, out of the blue, she waved. At me! I didn’t wave back. I hid back behind the tree and looked around, in a panic. What did she want? What did she want with me? I waited and waited for what seemed like an age, and when I looked again, she was gone.
December 14th 1888
Tonight Michael, Sarah and myself were sitting in the kitchen. It was late, about eight-thirty. We had eaten our evening meal and washed up. The children were in bed. Michael sat by the fire, reading, while Sarah and I were sitting together at the table, mending the rips and tears that constantly appear in Michael’s work clothes.
There was a knock at the front door. It was a quiet, gentle knock, and we all three just heard it. Sarah looked across quizzically at Michael, who glanced up at the clock on the mantelpiece.
He got up and went out into the hallway, while Sarah and I remained seated. I listened as Michael opened the front door, spoke in a muffled voice saying something I couldn’t catch and then closed the door again. Michael returned to the kitchen, and following behind him was the woman I had seen on my walks.
“This is my wife Sarah, and my sister Hannah.”
The woman smiled at us both. I looked at her properly. She was a little bit older than me, I’d say, and she had a calm, relaxed air about her that was missing here at the farm.
“I’m very pleased to meet you both,” she said.
It was the first time I had heard her voice, and it sounded friendly and kind.
“Sarah – this is Ellen. She’s called to see Hannah. Can you light the lamps in the drawing room, please, so that they can sit in there and have some privacy?”
I was surprised to hear Michael’s words, but also pleased. However, I saw my sister-in-law stiffen next to me, and her face fell into her frostiest expression yet. The drawing room was reserved for special occasions such as Christmas, and as such was left largely unused. I knew that she resented Michael’s request and that she would be offended by the idea that she was being left out of something happening in her own home. She stood up quickly, looked at Michael and then left the room. Ever cheerful, Michael broke the silence.
“So, how do you know my sister?” he asked Ellen.
“We’ve seen each other when we’ve been out walking in the woods. I thought I’d call and say hello.”
“Good,” said Michael, enthusiastically. He looked across at me. “Some different company will do you good, Hannah.”
Just then, as if on cue, Sarah returned.
“I’ve lit the lamps, Hannah, and I’ve also laid a fire. It may be a little cold in there to begin with.”
“Thank you very much,” Ellen replied.
She turned expectantly towards me, and I stood up and led the way.
The drawing room was warm and cheerful. It did not have the same austere air that existed around the rest of the farmhouse.
“Please, have a seat,” I motioned to the pair of armchairs that were placed on either side of the now roaring fire. Ellen sat down in one, while I sat down in the other. At first there was an
uncomfortable silence, and then we both spoke at once.
“I hope you don’t mind me…” Ellen began.
“It’s nice of you to…” I began at the same time.
We both stopped and laughed.
“I’d seen you a few times out in the woods, always on your own,” Ellen continued. “I don’t have anyone to walk with either, so I thought I’d call and see if you wanted to meet, and we could keep each other company.”
“That would be lovely,” I replied.
I don’t know why I was suddenly so sure of making arrangements with someone I’d only just met, but it seemed the natural thing to do.
“It’s a lonely place, out here, for people who are feeling lonely,” Ellen commented.
“Yes, it is. Do you live far from here?” I asked.
“Not far. I have a house on the edge of the woods, down the track behind here.”
“Oh, yes. I think I know the track you mean.”
“Would you like to go for a walk tomorrow morning?”
I paused and looked at Ellen before answering her.
“Yes, I’d like that, very much.”
Ellen stood up and fastened her bonnet.
“That’s settled, then. No more solitary walks for either of us. I’ll meet you by the farmyard gate. About ten?”
“Yes, alright. Thank you.”
“No, thank you. You’re helping me.”
I walked Ellen to the front door and watched her disappear into the dark. What a strange thing to say – I was helping her. What did she mean? And what was stranger, why didn’t she ask me anything? She didn’t ask why I was at the farm, or how long I’d been there, or anything about me.
I returned to the kitchen, where Michael and Sarah sat together. They both turned their heads to look as I came in.
“Ellen lives round the back, on the edge of the woods,” I told them.
“Funny. Can’t say I’ve ever seen her around the place,” said Michael. “Still, she seems pleasant. Bit of company for you, Hannah, on your walks.”
Sarah said nothing.
December 15th 1888
This morning I woke early. When I looked out of my window, the farmyard was bathed in an eerie mist. The sky was pale and gloomy. It was too early to be up yet, so I curled back up under
my blankets and went back to sleep. It was then that I had a strange dream. I dreamt that I was in a boat on a large lake. I was with Ellen, and someone else was rowing us along. Everything was so vivid. I remember looking down into the water and seeing the fish and the weed in the depths below. The boat was gliding slowly, travelling away from the bank, and then I woke up.
I met Ellen as we’d arranged. At precisely ten o’clock, she was waiting for me by the gate. We walked into the woods, chatting as we went. I’ve decided not to mention Jacob to Ellen. That memory is too private.
December 21st 1888
For the last few days, I have met Ellen every day and gone for a walk with her. She is pleasant company, and I find her easy to spend time with. At the same time, every night, I have had the same dream about the boat. Sometimes we are getting into the boat, at the water’s edge.
Sometimes it is gliding slowly through the water. This morning, I brought the dreams up in our conversation as we walked.
“Dreams have a purpose. You know that, don’t you, Hannah?”
“I always thought they helped you sort things out, things from the real, awake world that need to be organised in our heads.”
“Possibly,” Ellen continued. “But I think dreams do much more than that. They tell us things, help us with things, prepare us for things.”
I looked at her as we walked.
“For instance, what do you think your dream is about, when we are in the boat together? And why do you keep having the same dream?”
“I have no idea. I was hoping you might be able to tell me.”
Ellen stopped and suddenly looked serious.
“It could be that we are going on a journey, you and I, that will take us to a new place, where things will be different.”
“What, a journey across a lake in a boat? Where to?”
“Don’t take it all too literally, Hannah. Journeys take all sorts of forms.”
“You’re confusing me,” I laughed.
“Then stop thinking about it. We don’t want you to get confused. You’ll get us both lost!”
We both laughed and walked on until we reached the gates at the farm.
“I woke up and heard a woman crying, just once, when I first arrived here,” I suddenly blurted out. “My niece says she hears the crying every night. She says it’s me. Is that a dream?”
Ellen looked carefully at me.
“I don’t know. I’m not there.”
I felt foolish and looked away.
“You know, Hannah, things happen that we don’t expect or understand. They happen to us
all the time. We can’t always understand or explain them, but they still happen. Do you know what I mean?”
I felt tears coming to my eyes.
“I have to go inside,” I said, and hurried away.
December 23rd 1888
The last two days have been quite strange. Every day I’ve met Ellen and enjoyed my walk and my conversation with her, and then every time I’ve fallen asleep, I’ve dreamed about the boat; Ellen and I, in the boat, drifting slowly across a lake.
At the end of our walk this morning, I mentioned these dreams again. Ellen smiled.
“You really shouldn’t worry,” she said. “Listen – tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Would you like to come over to my house and stay for Christmas Day?”
I looked at Ellen. Of course part of me knew that Christmas was looming. Martha and Elizabeth were excited and had written their letters to Father Christmas, each of them squealing
in delight when the envelopes shot up the chimney, but part of me hadn’t realised that it was nearly here. Part of me didn’t want Christmas to come at all when Jacob wasn’t here to share it.
“Thank you for inviting me, but I don’t know if I could do that. Christmas – this Christmas - will be…difficult.”
In all our conversations, I had still never mentioned Jacob, and Ellen had never asked me about my life before I came to the farm.
“I know it will be difficult,” Ellen suddenly said.
I looked at her, puzzled.
“I mean, you’ll probably offend your sister-in-law further by coming to stay with me, but I think it would be a good idea. Please say you’ll come.”
December 24th 1888
This morning I broke the news, as we all sat in the kitchen before chores started, that I had been invited to spend Christmas with Ellen and that I was going to go. Ellen was coming to collect me after our evening meal. There was a pause, then Michael came across and hugged me.
“You must do what you feel is best for you,” he said. “This first Christmas will be the hardest.”
He smiled. I looked across at Sarah and knew she wasn’t pleased. I wished at that moment that she could see herself and the way she did things from outside, so that she might relax a little, warm a little, and really be like the sister I need right now.
“I have some small presents for you all,” I offered.
“Then we’ll exchange our presents this evening before you go,” Michael said positively.
“Won’t we, Sarah?
“Yes. I’d like that,” Sarah suddenly said.
Our evening meal was less austere and silent than in previous weeks. We laughed and joked as we ate, mostly due to my brother’s efforts, and then we exchanged our gifts and played games with the girls. This time, when there was a quiet knock at the front door, we all knew it was Ellen. She joined us in the kitchen while I said goodbye to the family, and everyone greeted her warmly.
“Well – Merry Christmas, Hannah,” Sarah said.
I appreciated that she seemed sincere and reached out to give her a hug. Afterwards, Ellen and I left together and walked along the lane at the back of the farm towards her cottage. As I followed Ellen up the garden path to her front door, I didn’t know what to expect, but here was a bright cheerful front room! A cosy bed for me to spend Christmas in! Lots of decorations! I know that as I fall asleep on this Christmas Eve, here in Ellen’s home, I will have a lovely time here tomorrow.
December 25th 1888
It is the early hours, still dark and black. I’m sitting up in bed and I am afraid. I’ve had the strangest dream. At least I think it was a dream. In my dream, I was asleep in this bed in Ellen’s house, when suddenly the bedroom door opened, and Ellen came quietly in. She was carrying an oil lamp which was turned down low, but which still managed to throw weird shadows across the room. I watched lazily as Ellen put the lamp down on the small table next to my bed and then sat down on the bed itself, next to me. She knew I was awake and she looked straight at me.
“I want to tell you something, Hannah. It’s very important.”
She seemed to pause, watching my reaction, before she continued.
“I want to tell you that I know where Jacob is. And more important still, I want to show you where he is.”
I remember feeling, in my dreamlike state, that this seemed perfectly reasonable and I didn’t feel the need to question Ellen’s words.
“Just watch, and then remember,” she whispered.
Ellen raised her hand and held it out, the fingers stretched out flat and the palm turned upwards. She sat like this for some time without moving, while the shadows continued to flicker in the lamplight, then – suddenly – a tiny light appeared. It seemed to rise from Ellen’s upturned palm, and then it floated up and away into the air. A second light appeared, then another, and then more and more, until the air was filled with tiny lights that floated slowly around us.
They all seemed to come deliberately from Ellen’s hand, as if she were responsible for their release, and they gave off such feelings of light and peace and comfort that I wanted to cry.
After a few minutes in this static place, the lights began to fade. They grew dimmer and dimmer, floating closer and closer to Ellen again, until eventually they were extinguished altogether, leaving us sitting in the shadows. Ellen turned to me and smiled.
“Goodnight,” was all she said, and she got up from the bed, picked up the lamp again and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Like I said, I think it was a dream.
This morning, when I awoke, last night’s disturbing dream stayed with me. It made me afraid and confused when I thought of that strange memory of Ellen sitting on my bed, surrounded by the weird lights that emerged from her upturned hand.
I dressed and went downstairs to discover Ellen was already up, dressed and peeling vegetables. She turned and smiled at me, and I handed her my small Christmas gift – a scarf with a pattern that I had embroidered myself.
“Merry Christmas, Hannah, and thank you, this is lovely.”
I watched Ellen as she placed the scarf on the chair and continued to peel the vegetables. I tried to believe that everything was normal, but I sensed that Ellen could tell that something was wrong. However, I was completely unprepared for what she said next.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t wrap my gift to give you, Hannah.”
“I don’t worry. I wasn’t expecting anything.”
Ellen laughed a little.
“No, Hannah. You misunderstand me. As if I wasn’t going to give you a gift! It just doesn’t need to be wrapped; it isn’t a solid thing. In fact, I gave you part of it already.”
I stared at Ellen, even more confused.
“My Christmas gift, Hannah, is the things I want to say to you, when you need them most. I started to tell you these things last night, in your dream.”
Dumbfounded, I sank into one of the chairs, full of mixed emotions; fear, confusion, and in a strange way, relief. I responded quietly.
“I dreamt that you came into my room, that you were surrounded by lights, that you told me you knew where Jacob was.”
“That’s right,” Ellen replied, almost matter-of-factly.
“But I’ve never spoken to you about Jacob. How could you know about him? Did someone else tell you? Sarah? Or my brother Michael?”
Ellen suddenly became very serious.
“Jacob told me everything.”
I jumped to my feet.
“Enough,” I shouted. “Enough of this talk. Jacob died in a mining accident. You never knew him, Ellen. Stop talking like this at once!”
Ellen seemed frustrated. She pulled up a chair and sat in front of me. For a moment she didn’t speak, and hot tears sprang into my eyes.
“I miss Jacob terribly,” I sobbed. “And I have no-one to talk to.”
“But can’t you see, that’s why I came?” Ellen said quietly. “To support you.”
“This will seem very strange, Hannah, but please listen to me.”
I continued to cry as Ellen leaned forward towards me.
“Be still now. Just listen. I didn’t meet Jacob until after he died. He came to me because he was worried about you, being so suddenly on your own.”
I wept openly now.
“He knows that you sat with him all night, when they brought him home, and he’s around you all the time, only you can’t see him.”
My crying slowed a little as I felt Ellen lean further still towards me.
“And now, Hannah, I want you to relax, breathe slowly, and open your mind. I’m going to take your hands in mine and give you the last part of my gift.”
I closed my eyes and felt Ellen take my hands gently in hers. Suddenly, my head seemed to fill with a whirlwind of images coming at me from all directions, coming and going, mingling and merging, dissolving again. Ellen was filling my head with a collage of memories, and Jacob was in every image. There we were, walking by the river, sitting by the fire, dancing, talking, kissing. I couldn’t stop myself smiling through my tears, and then something even stranger happened. I felt Ellen’s small delicate hands change to larger, stronger hands; hands I already knew. I opened my eyes, and there was Jacob in front of me, smiling, holding me steady. In a total fright, I snatched my hands away and opened my eyes properly, blinking at the winter sun
in Ellen’s kitchen. I stood up, stepping back into a corner, and looked around. Ellen and I were the only people in the room.
“This is evil, Ellen. What are you doing?”
“Trying to help.”
“No, you’re not. You’re trying to frighten me.”
“Not at all. Please try to understand. You need to come to terms with what’s happened and move on, not feel trapped in a place where every day is the same and things don’t move forwards.”
I felt myself becoming angry. Instinctively, I saw the sharp knife Ellen had been using earlier to peel the vegetables. It was lying on the table. I sprang across the kitchen in one movement, grabbed the knife and turned to Ellen, pointing the knife at her.
“Calm down, Hannah. I’ve opened an emotional wound for you, but we have to continue on to the end – see it through.”
“No!” I shouted. “Keep away from me! I’m going back to the farm, and you will not stop me, or try to see me there!”
“Yes. Yes! That’s the end of this matter. Jacob was my husband, not yours, and you will not draw yourself into my grief, just to satisfy some need of your own.”
Ellen looked resigned.
“Please stay, Hannah,” was all she said, but I dropped the knife, ran out of the door without
collecting my things. I didn’t stop running until I reached the safety of the farmyard gate.
December 26th 1888
When I returned yesterday, neither Michael nor Sarah asked me why I’d come back so abruptly and in such a state. I was relieved not to be questioned, for I now had too much on my mind, and I spent the rest of Christmas Day alone in my room. Later, on Boxing Night, we all sat together in the sitting room. Sarah could play the piano a little, and she sat with the girls, singing together as she played Christmas carols and songs. Michael sat by the fire, reading, and I looked across the scene, happy that they all seemed content together.
A knock at the front door interrupted the peaceful domestic scene. The music round the piano stopped, and everyone listened while Michael went to answer the door. When he came back, he looked at me.
“Ellen is at the door. She wants to speak to you.”
I looked at Michael, and with a certainty that surprised me, I simply said “Tell Ellen that I do not wish to speak to her.”
Michael nodded and went out again. I heard muffled voices in a brief exchange, and then the sound of the front door closing. When Michael returned, he sat down and continued to read, while Sarah struck up the introduction to another song.
December 29th 1888
Ellen has called at the farm every day since she first called on Boxing Day. Each time my message to her was the same; this friendship should not continue. I feel so confused about everything and the dreams are still there. Always the same; Ellen and I, in a boat, gliding through the reeds.
December 30th 1888
This morning Michael and Sarah took the girls to visit their friends who own the farm on the next hill. Michael invited me to go as well, but I declined. At twelve o’clock I heated some stew on the range, and as I glanced out of the kitchen window, I stiffened. Ellen was walking across the farmyard towards the front door. When she disappeared from view, I left the kitchen and stood waiting in the hallway, behind the front door.
First Ellen knocked quietly. I didn’t answer, and I wondered if she knew I was standing so close by. There was a pause, then a second, sharper knock. I crept across the hallway to the stairs and sat on the bottom stair, facing the door. Waiting expectantly, I still jumped when Ellen called out.
“Hannah? If you can hear me, please open the door.”
She sounded concerned, almost pleading, and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I did nothing. After another pause, Ellen knocked again, and then I watched as an envelope appeared under the door. Next I heard Ellen’s footsteps as she walked away.
Tonight, when I went to bed, I sat up and turned the envelope over and over. My name was written on the front, and there was no indication of its contents. I decided I had to read it before I went to sleep and tore the envelope open. It was a short, simple message:
I’m sorry we’ve become distant. Please remember the friendship we found.
I so enjoyed our conversations and our walks in the woods. I’m going to
Cannop Pond with everyone else tomorrow, for the New Year’s Eve picnic.
I suppose Michael and Sarah will be taking the children. It’s a nice day out.
I do hope you’ll come. It’s so nice on the water at this time of year.
From your dear friend, Ellen’
There was no mention of Jacob, or our stressful conversation in Ellen’s kitchen, or all the conversations we’d had about my dreams. Did I imagine it all? Why was I so unsure?
Ellen’s letter must have been praying on my mind when I went to sleep last night, because I dreamt again about being in the boat with her, gliding through the water, but this time there was more. As the boat approached the bank side on its return, it suddenly tipped up, and Ellen and I both fell into the water. I woke up with a terrifying image of Ellen floating away and disappearing under the surface, while I struggled to reach her in my wet, heavy dress. Tomorrow I will go to Cannop, because I have a bad feeling. I must tell Ellen not to get into the boat.
January 1st 1889
Today I’m confined to bed, with plenty of time to contemplate the terrible thing I did yesterday. I can’t quite believe it, but I made the events of my dream come true. I went to Cannop yesterday morning, as I’d planned, with the intention of persuading Ellen not to go out on the water. When I found her in the crowd, she was so pleased to see me, and so excited that I’d come to join her, that she wouldn’t hear anything of the concerns I had.
“Come on, Hannah. It’s a lovely trip up and down the pond. You’ll enjoy it.”
Reluctantly I climbed into the boat. Ellen and I were the only passengers, and there was a queue of people waiting their turn. The boat was owned by Old Peter, who would spend the day ferrying people up and down, to make a little money with which to start his New Year. The
scenery was beautiful. The mist gradually rose up off the trees and the sun reflected off the
water. I relaxed a little and tried to enjoy the ride, although I avoided looking down into the deep water below; I’d seen that enough times already.
When we reached the bulrushes at the end, and we turned to head back, that’s when it happened. I looked across at Ellen and her expression was clear. I caught her watching me, and I knew then that everything was real – the crying in the night, all the dreams, seeing Jacob on Christmas morning. I realised in that instant that Ellen had been trying to look after me, and I’d been stupid and foolish. What was worse, I was letting Ellen down when it was my turn to look after her. I should never have let her come out in the boat. In a moment of panic, I stood up.
“We have to get back to the bank,” I shouted. “It’s not safe!”
“Sit down!” shouted Peter. “Sit still! You’ll tip us up!”
And that’s exactly what happened. As if in slow motion, but really in seconds, I felt the boat tip over, and the three of us were thrown in. I braced myself as I fell but was still completely unprepared for the icy water. I went under once, and could feel the weeds and the fish around me, before I fought my way back up and burst through the surface, gasping for breath. I struggled in my heavy clothes, which were getting heavier every second, as I saw someone reach to pull Peter out.
As I tried to tread water, I searched for Ellen. She came up to the surface a few feet away from me, but what was she doing? She was floating away from me, away and under, just like she did in my dream. She wasn’t making any effort to swim. Why wasn’t she trying to save herself?
“Ellen!” I screamed. “Hold on!”
I managed to kick off my boots, and then laboured against my heavy dress, trying to lift my arms and swim across to where Ellen was sinking fast. Her eyes were closed, and she lay back in the water, but when I reached her and grabbed hold of her, she seemed to stir. She opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Leave me be, Hannah,” she said quietly. “This was meant to happen.”
“What are you talking about?” I shouted as I held onto her and kicked hard, trying to move us both closer to shore.
“It has to be like this, Hannah. Let me go. You’re not supposed to interfere.”
With that Ellen pushed hard against me, writhing free of my grip. I didn’t expect her to do this, and so she managed to kick away from me again before I could stop her. I resolved to try to reach her again, but suddenly I found myself struggling. My dress seemed to be snagged on something hidden underwater, and I couldn’t move. I could only watch, helpless, as Ellen slipped away, calm and serene, eyes closed, into the dark water. I screamed and screamed for help, and then hands grabbed me from behind. Someone pulled and I felt my dress rip free of its underwater trap. I turned to see that it was Michael pulling me from behind, up onto the bank, as I sobbed and screamed for them to find Ellen.
I first woke late this afternoon. To my surprise, Sarah was sitting by my bed, reading. Michael came to see me when Sarah told him I was awake. He brought me some hot soup, for
which I was very grateful. I think I’m getting a chill, as I can’t seem to keep warm, yet I feel very hot and I shiver. I can’t get Michael’s news out of my mind – that after searching the pond
and the banks, they can’t find Ellen’s body anywhere. I wanted to get up and go to Ellen’s cottage, but Michael has advised me not to. He wouldn’t tell me why.
January 3rd 1889
This morning I woke early. The sun was just rising, and the house was silent. I lay in bed for a long while, watching the sky grow steadily lighter through my open curtains. I got up and stood at the window. In the distance, the trees were covered in their eerie early morning mist. I had been in bed for two days since the accident on the pond, and I decided to go for an early morning walk. I had a feeling that people would disapprove, so I dressed very quietly and crept out of the house. Something was bothering me – something I wanted an answer to.
Outside, the grass felt crisp under my feet as I left the farmyard and turned left. I wanted to see Ellen for myself. I didn’t believe Michael, when he said they couldn’t find her. Ellen was strong and sensible. She was my friend and she had helped me and I hadn’t been kind. I determined to call on her and put this right. I walked along the track behind the farmhouse. I smiled to myself as I thought of the sight waiting for me round the bend. Perhaps Ellen was also up early, and the oil lamp would be lit in the window of the cottage, just like when I stayed there. The mist will probably be hanging over the garden and make it look fairy-like.
I turned the corner in the track, looked ahead of me and stopped dead. After a moment’s pause to get over my shock, I walked slowly towards Ellen’s cottage, only it wasn’t Ellen’s cottage. It wasn’t anyone’s cottage. The cottage I was approaching was old, derelict and empty. The roof was gone, the door hung limply on rusted hinges, the garden was overgrown. I forced my way through the rusted gate, and the black empty windows stared at me as I struggled up the path. No-one had lived here for years and years and years.
Inside the door, the stairs and the first floor were still there, lying open to the stars. I climbed cautiously upwards, mindful of the old and rotten wood under my feet, and stared out across the garden and into the trees. This was what Michael wanted to keep from me, when he told me not to come. But where was Ellen? Who was Ellen?
Now I could only stand and wonder about what had happened to me since I’d come to stay at the farm, about the friendship Ellen had given me, which had made me feel less alone. Now I was alone after all; no Jacob, no Ellen, just me. But at the same time, no. I allowed myself the split-second memory of Jacob holding my hands in his in Ellen’s kitchen, and I knew I definitely wasn’t alone. I breathed a deep sigh, leaned up against the empty window frame and looked across the trees for one last time. Just then, I thought I caught sight of a woman in a long black dress, disappearing through the misty trees…
A High Windy Place
'A High Windy Place' is the fifth story in the short story collection 'The Wishing Sisters'. You can read the whole story below. 'The Wishing Sisters' is available at amzn.to/2oHvNvK. There is also a reading comprehension resource for this story at bit.ly/2mlWzsE & bit.ly/2zLHWTo.
Sally’s daughter Megan lived in Australia with her husband and three children. A retired teacher and recently widowed, Sally had spent the last three months resisting all her daughter’s attempts to get her to join them there.
“I’m fine. Stop worrying,” she moaned in yet another phone call.
“I know, Mum, but maybe it hasn’t hit you yet, that Dad’s really gone. I would feel much more settled if you were here with us.”
“I know, dear, and I appreciate your concern, but I know what I’m doing. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
Sally couldn’t help feeling cross with her daughter at times. She knew that Megan only meant well, but honestly, did she think she was stupid? Frank had been ill for months. She had nursed him. She didn’t need it to ‘hit her’, the realization that he was gone. She’d been there.
She and Frank had talked for hours about how she’d cope, and that’s what she was doing. First, Sally sold the large family house and bought a small cottage in the same village, Rose Cottage. It was a quirky little place, very old, steeped in history, the estate agent had said, although exactly what that history was, Sally hadn’t been able to find out. The cottage was just right; old stone walls, roses in the garden, a living room and kitchen downstairs, a bedroom and bathroom upstairs, a cellar below and an attic above. Sally had loved it and put an offer in straight away. Now here she was, in her tiny new home. She was content, or so she thought.
Sitting alone in the evenings, or waking up in the mornings, she found that she missed Frank more than she expected, and she mulled over Megan’s words more than she expected to as well.
“Pull yourself together, girl. You have a plan here,” she repeated to herself.
There were plenty of jobs to do, which mostly involved undoing the previous owner’s ‘modernising’ of the interior. Sally wanted to restore it to its old-fashioned style. She raked around in the many boxes she’d shoved in the cellar and found a crowbar; this morning’s job was to pull up the false laminate flooring in the kitchen and see what was underneath.
Sally wasn’t disappointed. The previous owners had used their flooring to hide the original floorboards, which were old, with gnarled patterns in the wood, much more attractive than that modern stuff. Sally smiled as she continued to prise up each row of the new wood, revealing a beautiful floor below.
As her progress across the floor reached the middle of the kitchen, she pulled up the latest piece of laminate and discovered a strange metal plate set into the floorboard. She looked at it curiously. It was about eight inches square, a tiny metal hatch with a hinge on one side, which was screwed into the floorboard. There was a small gap in the hatch on the side opposite the hinge, so you could put your finger in and lift it up. Sally was intrigued; someone had obviously gone to the effort of putting it there, but why? It wasn’t big enough to let anyone in or out. How unusual!
Sally lifted the plate up and peeped in. Below, everything was in darkness. No matter how much she craned her neck or leaned over to one side, it was impossible to see any further than just below the gap in the floor. She got back up, found a torch in the kitchen drawer, kneeled back down and held the torch right up against the hole. She clicked it on and shone the torch beam straight downwards.
A child’s face looked back up at her from the gloom. Sally dropped the torch in fright, it disappeared down the hole and she leapt backwards, sliding along the floor until she felt the security of the kitchen wall behind her. Her knees gave in. She felt the sickness of shock as adrenaline rushed around her system, confusing her. She stared at the hole in the floor for what seemed an eternity until she felt her breath gradually slow and she calmed down. It was a trick of the light, a trick of the dark; it was anything she could think of, by way of an explanation, except a child looking up at her from her cellar.
When Sally felt composed again, she searched for another torch, cautiously knelt back down beside the hole and looked in for a second time. The child’s face still stared back. This time Sally tried to stay in control. She studied the child. It was a little boy. He looked to be about eight years old. He had those huge round eyes that all children have and a shock of bedraggled black hair. For a moment, he and Sally gazed at each other in silence and then Sally lost her nerve. Bang! She took hold of the metal plate and slammed it firmly back in place, shutting the child back in the darkness.
All that night, Sally tossed and turned in bed. She couldn’t escape the child’s face looking up at her, calm, patient, expectant. When sleep finally came, she only dreamed about him instead. In the morning, she sat up in bed with a cup of tea and wondered what to do next. Should she leave the metal plate firmly shut, and never open it again? What else could she do? Should she speak to the child and see what she could find out? Sally realized that if she accepted the one thing which frightened her, she could then decide what to do. She made herself face the fact that the child’s face had been tinged with blue. His lips had looked cold. Yes, he was certainly dead and in her cellar.
Later that morning, after much deliberation, Sally walked down the wooden staircase that led to the cellar. She browsed around, looking for clues, and it was only then that she noticed something that she’d missed before; the cellar was not as long as the house. She walked from one end of the cellar to the other. Fifteen paces. She walked and counted again, to be sure, and then went upstairs. Next, she walked from the front door, where the entrance to the cellar lay, right to the other end of the house. Twenty-five paces. She did this walk again as well, to be sure. Twenty-five paces. The horror of the situation crept in. The child had been walled up in her cellar.
Sally sat at the kitchen table and worked through her feelings. She was frightened, that was true enough, but more than feeling frightened, she was angry. Had someone really walled up a defenceless child in the cellar? It was outrageous, cruel. Her anger gave her courage and she returned to the metal plate in the floor. She lifted it firmly this time, and shone the torch in. The child looked back at her.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Joseph,” he replied. “What’s yours?”
“Sally. Why are you in my cellar, Joseph?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long have you been there?”
“I don’t know. A long time, I think.”
Sally paused, unsure what to do or say next. It was Joseph who took the lead.
“Can you let me out?”
Sally was confused. Why did she have to let him out? Couldn’t he just get out? Isn’t that what ghosts did, walk through walls and floors without their physical body to stop them?
“I’ll have to think about that,” she replied, and immediately regretted her words. They sounded uncaring and unkind. She looked down at Joseph.
“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I have to go.”
This time she didn’t close the metal plate over the hole. For the rest of that day, Sally considered her dilemma. How was she supposed to let Joseph out? What would it mean if she did? Would letting him out be the right thing to do, or would she regret it? How would she regret it? Is he an evil spirit, trapped for good reason, who might do her harm? Or is he the innocent victim of someone else’s evil plan? Sally would have laughed at the questions she was asking herself if they weren’t so serious. Eventually she made her decision. She would knock down the wall in the cellar.
Two days later, Jim arrived. Jim was an old man who’d lived in the village all his life. Everyone asked him to do their odd jobs. He took one look at the wall in the cellar and grinned.
“Easy,” he muttered, and took a sledgehammer to it. Sally watched Jim’s quick progress. In no time at all, the wall was down. In readiness, Sally had found her old camping lamp, which gave off a much wider beam than a torch. She carried it with her as she and Jim stepped into the new space. It was completely empty, except for the original torch that she’d dropped down the hole, which was sending a long beam along the cellar floor. Jim picked the torch up and passed it to Sally.
“You’ll have a bit more space now,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Yes. You got the job done really quickly. Thanks. I thought it might have taken ages.”
“Why? It was only a plasterboard stud wall.”
“Well,” replied Sally, “I expected it to be very old. You know, made of solid stone.”
“Oh, no,” said Jim, glancing around. “I remember when this wall was put up.”
Sally wanted to know more.
“Why was it put up?”
“The owners at the time, they were doing some building work. I think they were going to convert the cellar into two rooms, like an office and a play room or something.”
“Go on,” said Sally, suddenly full of dread.
“They found some bones when they were digging. Human bones. A child’s bones.”
Sally took a deep breath.
“What happened then?”
“Well, the bones were taken away by the police for tests, to see how old they were and stuff like that. They never found out whose bones they were. Afterwards they were buried in the churchyard up the road there, but there was no name to put on the headstone, so it just says, ‘A child found in the cellar at Rose Cottage’, or something like that.”
Jim looked at Sally.
“I didn’t like to scare you, so I didn’t mention it.”
Sally laughed nervously.
“So, Jim, do you also happen to know why there’s a hole in the kitchen floor?”
“No idea. Show me.”
Back upstairs in the kitchen, Jim peered down through the hole in the floor. He seemed intrigued, but that was all.
“He can’t see him,” Sally thought to herself. “He can’t see Joseph.”
Twenty minutes later, after tea and biscuits, Jim was off down the path with cash in his pocket. As Sally watched him go, she felt a weight lift off her shoulders. Jim didn’t see anything; the boy was gone. Smiling to herself at a job well done, no matter how weird, she closed and locked the door and turned to go back to the kitchen. She jumped in fright as she turned. There was Joseph, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, staring at her. Same huge eyes, same shock of black hair. He stood barefoot and was dressed only in a pair of knee-length ragged trousers. The strange paleness of his tiny body was even more pronounced in the light. She stared back, unsure about what to do.
“I’m hungry,” Joseph suddenly said.
“Come on, then,” Sally replied.
She watched as Joseph ate everything she put in front of him. She was mildly amused at his appetite, remembering how her grandchildren ate healthily and heartily all the time. She also pondered over the bizarre situation she was in, feeding a ghost child she’d just rescued from the cellar.
When he’d eaten enough, Joseph wanted to explore the cottage. Sally followed him as he searched every room.
“Do you remember this cottage, Joseph? Did you live here?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. It looks different.”
In the bedroom, Joseph stared at the photos next to Sally’s bed.
“Who’s this?” he asked, pointing at a smiling family group.
“That’s my daughter Megan, her husband Mike, and my grandchildren. Sophie is the eldest. She’s nine. Then Eliza is six, and Jake is three.”
Suddenly Joseph burst into tears. Sally stared at the weeping child. She reached out and touched his arm. It was cold.
“Whatever’s the matter, Joseph?”
“I want to play with them. They look so happy.”
“Well, I’m afraid neither you nor I can play with them. They live on the other side of the world, in Australia. I’ll show you. Come on.”
Sally had a globe on top of the dresser in the kitchen. She climbed up to get it, while Joseph watched, and she placed it on the table. The little boy listened, fascinated, while she showed him where they themselves were, and where Australia was, and exactly where Megan and her family lived.
“Why don’t you live there with them?” he asked.
He looked directly at Sally and his expression unnerved her. His searching eyes, set in his pale face, made her feel uncomfortable.
“Well,” she replied, “my home is here. They used to live here as well, but they moved. Actually, they want me to go there too.”
Joseph seemed satisfied with her explanation. He turned away from Sally and gazed around the kitchen.
“I’m think I’m tired,” he said next.
“I can make up a bed in the living room, if you like.”
Sally sat in the armchair and watched Joseph, tucked up under a quilt on the sofa. She explained what the television was, since he’d asked, and then together they watched the children play in one of Megan’s home videos. Eventually Joseph fell asleep, and Sally went up to bed too. She contemplated her weird day. Was all this really happening?
When Sally came downstairs next morning, Joseph was sitting up on the sofa. He looked at her with that same unnerving stare.
“Do you know a high windy place?” he asked, his expression serious.
Sally thought for a moment.
“Yes, I do. There’s a place called the Kymin, not far from here.”
“Will you show me?”
Joseph sat in the front seat of the car, next to Sally, and stared out of the window. They drove in silence. After a while, they turned off the main road and travelled along a lane, which wound round and round and up and up to the top of a high hill. As they drove higher, the view across the countryside spread out before them.
Sally parked the car. There was no-one else about and she led Joseph towards the edge of the viewpoint. The wind blew fiercely and whipped her coat around her. Together, they looked out in silence at the view. The clouds were blowing rapidly across the sky and below them, the world was just waking up.
Joseph slipped his hand into hers. Sally looked down at him. This was the first time she’d held his hand. It felt very cold and the feel of it suddenly sent a shiver down her spine.
“You should go to Australia,” Joseph said quietly.
“But what about you?”
“You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Yes, but…” Sally started.
“Sally, I’m dead.”
As Joseph looked up at her, the wind suddenly lifted him up off the ground. He relaxed his hold on Sally’s hand, but she held on as tight as she could. She struggled against the force of a wind that seemed to get stronger and stronger, a wind that began to pull Joseph up into the air.
“Goodbye,” he called out.
She tried to hold onto him, but seconds later Joseph’s hand was wrenched from her own and he was gone. She watched, helpless, as he was whipped away from her, tossed around in the air and carried off into the distance, and all the while he looked back at Sally, at the person who’d set him free.
“No!” Sally called out after him. She burst into tears.
Six months later, Sally closed the door of Rose Cottage for the last time. Outside, the estate agent was waiting beside his car. As she handed him the keys, he smiled.
“No,” Sally replied. “Not now.”
“Well, have a good flight and good luck in Australia.”
Sally waved to the estate agent as he drove away. She had a bit of time before the taxi came to take her to the airport, and she had one last job to do.
The cemetery was at the other end of the village. Sally strolled through the gate with a huge bunch of flowers in her hand. She soon found the grave she was looking for, set in a quiet corner of the children’s section, and she read, for the last time, the headstone that simply said:
‘A tiny child
found in the cellar
at Rose Cottage,
known only to God’
She laid the flowers down on top of the grave.
“I’ve arranged for Jim to keep fresh flowers here for you, Joseph. I couldn’t tell anyone about you. No-one would believe me, would they? But I want to thank you for helping me to make my decision.”
Sally waited in silence. For a moment she hoped Joseph might be watching, hoped he would appear, reach out his hand and speak to her. Instead, there was nothing except the wind whistling through the tall yew trees.
Three days later, Sally arrived in Australia. Megan had found her a house, set on top of a hill on the edge of Sydney. The name plaque next to the front door said, ‘A High Windy Place’.