Category Archives: dark fiction

That Shrinking Feeling

Fly-ride

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“Mum!”

She told me it would be dangerous to use my power lightly, but when I saw the insect just standing there in the park, I couldn’t resist shrinking so I could take a ride on the back of the fly. It was exciting, like the best fairground ride, but without the predictability. It was fun watching mum wondering where I was, and getting scared.

“Mum!”

She can’t hear me. My vocal chords are too small, and although she’s frantically looking for me, I’m too tiny to see.

I wish I’d listened when she said I was not experienced enough to reverse the effect without her help.

“Mum! MUM!”

Mum, please come and set me free, before the spider reaches me.

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Written for Michelle’s Photo Challenge #101. Click the link to join in.

©Jane Paterson Basil

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The Fog

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“Hereabouts, fog can come suddenly, with little warning to those who don’t know the signs. It rises from the boggy moorland, wrapping the unwary traveller in a damp mist far deeper than that which exists between waking and sleeping, and a silence drops. This silence is eerie, but you should be glad of it, for it is far safer than the sweet songs of those devils who live within the fog, stealing their sense of direction and leading them astray. You may think yourself too familiar with the landscape to be fooled, but you are wrong. Many have made that mistake, to their cost. Dan, over at Bolden farm – his folks had lived hereabouts all their lives, worked the land, knew it like the back of his sinewous hand, never strayed further than Bodmin, and yet last October he drowned in the bog just ten minutes from his home. It was a horrible sight; some animal had found him and ripped out his heart, right through his rib-cage. I tell you, he knew his way blindfold.”

While vague pictures form in my mind of the last time I saw Dan alive – on a night rather like this, in this same bar room – old Albert pauses for another sup from the tankard which has been refilled and laid quietly on the table. A creeping unease causes the landlord of The Shrinking Fox to keep Albert’s tankard filled to the brim. There’s no charge, no comment from the landlord, and no thanks from Albert.

Although Albert is undoubtedly old, it’s hard to fix my mind on his likely age, since his features seem to change, his wrinkles blurring and travelling across his face, his nose growing bulbous and then shrinking in the dimming light. Whenever I try to focus, it feels as if the fog of which he speaks has entered my brain.

Seems like I’ve been hearing his stories ever since I was old enough to drink in the Shrinking Fox, and yet when I try to remember the last time I saw Albert, my thoughts slip away from me. He draws me back into this story and I’m unsure of whether I’ve heard it a hundred times before, or if this is the first telling.

Albert slowly puts down his drink, and glances at the eight men in the room. All eyes are on him, as his listeners wait. Satisfied that he has our attention, he continues:

“Even dogs get lost in the fog. Next day they’ll be found with their hearts ripped out – always the hearts, never any other part. It’s the work of the Devil, I tell you.”

I feel a chill, and glancing toward the window, I see the grey fog swallow the world outside. Even the stunted apple tree whose closest branch scratches at the flyblown glass is concealed, save for one immobile twig which touches the glass, pointing, like a warning finger, towards the listeners inside. I briefly focus on that word, ‘warning’, before turning back towards Albert, who’s gone silent. He’s looking at the fog, and the other watchers have followed his gaze. A dismayed “Oh,” comes from the youngest man in the room – he’s only a boy, really, and I fancy I see Albert eyes flash, hungrily, and the hint of a cruel smile… but no, it’s my imagination.

Again, I wonder why I know so little about this man who is so familiar to me. Where does he live? Does he have family, and have I really seen him before, or only dreamed of him? His voice brings my attention back to the present.

“They’ll be out tonight,” he says, gruffly. “It’s a good thing you all live in the village, where you’ll be safe. They never venture this close to human habitation.”

We must all have been holding our breath. The quiet room fills up with relieved sighs, then we look at young Cyril, catching his pale face, hearing a strangled sound issue from his throat. We look away quickly. None of us wants to offer to walk with him to his home. It’s almost two miles away, and Albert’s talk has us all on edge.

Albert is the one brave man among us. Putting us to shame, he turns a gnarled, but kindly face in Cyril’s direction, and says:

“Come on, lad, I’ll get you safely home. I’m the oldest person hereabouts. I’ve heard the devils that live in the fog. They’ve not harmed me, and I have no fear of them. They’ve given up on these old bones.”

Albert is right; we’ll come to no harm as long as we’re in the village, but all the same, to a man, we stand up and follow Albert and Cyril out through the door, and walk close behind him until we reach our homes. By the time I get to my place, there are only the three of us left. I say goodnight and go quickly indoors, before Albert and Cyril have had time to walk away.

The next day, Cyril’s mother finds his body in a boggy area near where she lives; a bloody hole where his heart should be. I keep running through the events of the previous evening, and every time, self-disgust washes over me. I don’t remember much, but I know that we all left the Shrinking Fox together, and I clearly recall everyone else going into their homes, until only he and I were left, then young Cyril walked all alone into the murderous fog. I should have gone with him. I could have steered him safely home – although, with his knowledge of the moors, I can’t understand how he got lost.

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Cyril’s been gone for over a year now. For a while people stayed indoors in the evenings, huddled safely away from their superstitions, but the landlord has whitewashed the bar-room in the Shrinking Fox and it looks more cheerful these days. Maybe that’s why he has more customers. It’s back to the way it used to be, with Albert sitting at the table, reeling out yarns, making us all uneasy. Seems like I’ve seen him here a hundred times before, but I can’t remember when. He takes a drink, surveys the room to make sure he still has everyone’s attention, and he continues:

“Even dogs get lost in the fog. Next day they’ll be found with their hearts ripped out – always the hearts, never any other part. It’s the work of the Devil, I tell you.”

The room dims. Looking through the window, all I can see is grey fog. All eyes follow mine.  One of the men, James – who lives way outside the village – gulps nervously. I fancy I see a hungry look in Albert eyes, and the hint of a cruel smile… but no, it’s my imagination.

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Written for The Daily Post #Foggy

©Jane Paterson Basil

The She-Devil

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Well, the doors had been padlocked for sixty years or so. Rumours had been adjusted and embellished, and now there were several – tales of goblins, witches’ curses and even one about a stairway to the underworld. Anyway, us oldies knew the truth.Many of us had been unfortunate enough to have seen the she-devil that lurked inside the shed. She possessed a strange, alluring beauty that not all who gazed on her sweet curves and glowing skin could see, but many who were prone to her charms had fallen under her spell. It wasn’t just men; women could be equally powerless against her, though, in those days, it was less common, as women weren’t so open about that kind of fascination, or if they were they often kept it under wraps. Obviously, she had no power to harm you if you didn’t fancy her. That’s how it works with them.

So they kept her locked away. Quite right, too.

This pub was famed for miles around for its old-world ambience and fine home-cooking; deservedly so. I can personally recommend the steak-and-kidney pudding; it’s very tender and full of flavour, although my husband, George – may he rest in peace -preferred their toad-in-the-hole (with onion gravy). He liked his food did George. He was such a wonderful man. In twelve years he never once forgot to put out the bin, though I did feel he let me down a bit in the end… I mean, wasn’t I enough for him? I used to say to him, “Curiosity killed the cat.” But did he listen? Oh, no, he just upped an’… sorry, what was that you said? Oh yes, the pub.

As I was saying, the Ring-o’-Bells enjoyed an excellent trade – as you can see, it’s gone downhill since its present encumbents took it over. Back then it was crowded with both locals and tourists who holidayed in the nearby caravan park, so little old Maisie Goodenough from the thatched cottage… yes that’s the one, at the edge of the cliff… Maisie enjoyed a tipple, but didn’t like to pay for it, if you know what I mean, so she used to sit around in here waiting to pounce on the nearest visitor and tell them the gory story about her brother who’d been carried away by that she-devil in the old shed. It got her a few free drinks, you see. She was a scrounging old-so and so… the drink got her in the end. I say she was old; she couldn’t have been more than fifty, but she looked ancient. Mutton dressed as lamb… and she was no better than her brother, though I don’t like to speak ill of the dead. I could tell you a few tales about… what’s that? Oh yes, the story.

It was back in the early 60s. I remember it well, but I never went running around trying to scrounge drinks on the strength of it… oh – how kind; seeing as you’re buying, another rum and coke wouldn’t go amiss.

…………

Is that a double? Oh, no, never mind. Single’s fine. Oh, well, if it’s not too much trouble… I’m not much of a drinker, but the flavour of coke is a bit too strong for me…

…………

Cheers…

Her brother was a bit of a tear-away, and one night after they’d had a skinful, he and a couple of friends decided to break in and see what the fuss was all about. You know what young lads are like, egging each other on – all that silly bravado and that. So they forced the lock, and went in, and there she was, large as life, staring them in the face. The other two boys didn’t think much of her – one of them referred to her as a dusty old heap, would you believe, but Maisie’s brother – Sam, I think it was… or Michael… no, I think it was Stan… a good looking chap, but a bit forward, if you know what I mean. Between you and me, he tried it on with me a couple of times, and me only fifteen or so at the time… but I’m not here to tell you about that.

So Stan’s two mates couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They even made fun of her. Said she was a bit front-heavy, and he’d be in for a bumpy ride, and stuff like that. But Stan just stared at her with this look on his face. It was love at first sight. He was a gonner. The other two must have been pretty drunk, ‘cos when she swallowed him up – and he went willingly, like they do; he was totally enchanted – they started laughing like idiots, and even when she ran off down the road with poor Stan, they were still laughing.

But I tell you what – they weren’t laughing when she turned round and spat him out over the cliff. When what was left of him was picked up, it wasn’t a pretty site. His face was all smashed in.

They drove the she-devil back to the shed, and put a new padlock on the door. About four years later I started courting George. I met him when I was on holiday at Bognar Regis. It’s lovely there? You ever been to Bognar? You should. I met him at an amusement arcade where he was working. He got the job because he was good with mechanics, and those one-arm–bandits were always going wrong. We got married a couple of years later. He moved in with me, as I’d been left the house by my parents… no, they’re not dead. Why would you think that?. Dad had a big win on the pools so they moved away. My George got a job in the garage – he loved ‘is cars, ‘e did – and we settled down all nice and quiet. I thought I had it made.

To start with, he didn’t seem all that interested in the monstrous beauty in the shed – and why would he be? He had me, and his cars in the garage, what more could he want? He even got us a nice little yellow mini. We used to go all over in that.

Then he started going on about the she-devil, asking for details about her. I had a nasty suspicion about what was on his mind, and I tried to distract him with my womanly wiles if you know what I mean, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Then one evening he said he was going to the Ring-o’-Bells to play darts – like he did every Thursday, an he upped and broke into the shed instead.

Well, I know what you’re expecting, but it wasn’t like that. You have to remember, my George was a man of experience. I’m not saying he wasn’t charmed – charmed is an understatement; He was besotted. He came home late that night with stars in his eyes. Told me straight out what he’d done. Admitted he’d been messing with her all that time, and said he was going back the next night. I warned him that she was dangerous, but he got offended and said he knew a lot more about these things than me. He said she wasn’t a monster, she was beautiful and she just needed the right handling. After that he went over to her every evening, messing about with her; said he was “toning her up”.

Yes, of course I was a bit jealous, but a man’s got to have a hobby, hasn’t he? And it’s not like she was the first. It was one after the other with him, all through our marriage. Once he got a taste for those little run-arounds, there was no stopping him, But this time it was different. He was in love, and she was dangerous.

Still, at the end of the day, he always came home to me, didn’t he? I could have done with him not going on about her all the time, but you can’t have everything in life. He thought he’d tamed ‘er. I thought it was going to be OK, but about six weeks after the affair started, he was on his way over there when he bumped into a neighbour whose wife had just given birth. A little boy, it was – so cute – at first. They spoilt him rotten, that was the trouble. He turned into a horrid child. Always up to no good, from the time he learnt to talk. There was one time… oh, my glass is empty… it’s my round…

I seem to have forgotten my purse… oh, I couldn’t possibly… well, if you’re sure?

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A double? Oh, you really shouldn’t have… bottoms up… oops… could you… just…slap me on… the… back…

Ahem… Where was I? Oh, yes. So George went to the pub for a coupla jars, and then maybe a couple more. By the time ‘e left there he was pretty wobbly, so they said afterwards. ‘e should’a come home, but instead ‘e went off with ‘er, an’ what with bein’ three sheets to the wind an’ all, ‘e didn’t exercise ‘is usual control. ‘E went too fast. I told ‘im she was unstable, that sort always are, and she’d killed before. Next thing, ‘e’s at the bottom of the cliff,  exact place they found young Stan, or Sam, or whatever ‘is name was.

After that they smashed ‘er up; Crushed ‘er ’til she was no more’n a… squashed thing..

Sorry. It still makes me cry. I miss ‘im so, you see. ‘E was so good when it come to putting up shelves… and the bedroom… you know… well, you can ‘magine, a man like ‘im…

Yes, p’r’aps another drink would ‘elp, feelin’ a bit sempi… ssental… sssentilental… oh, you know… thing…

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Ssheers… Anyway, before it… ‘appened, ‘e took a photo of ‘er. Would you like to see? I think it tells its own story… it’s in me bag somewhere… I’ll show you – it’s ‘coz there’s two at the front and only one at the back. It makes it unstable. Not safe to go too fast with one of them… ‘swhy they kept ‘er ‘idden ‘way and locked up. Bloody murderer… killed my Graham… whasat? Who wa’n’t wha’? Well, my George, then. Whatever… bloody stupid idiot, s’what ‘e was… thought ‘e knew it all…

‘Ere’s the photo of ‘er…

Messerscmitt KR200 1959.jpg
(Image Credit: Gjermundsen)

‘Sright… Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. German thing. What? Well, wha’ di’you thing I’s talkin’ ’bout?

My glash ish empty…

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Written for The Daily Post #Hidden

©Jane Paterson Basil

Dinnertime

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Showered and fragranced, she slips into well-chosen clothes; clothes with the perfect mix of sexy and casual, as if it’s only by chance that she looks that way. She smoothes down her hair and applies the right amount of make-up – not too much; she doesn’t want her look to appear contrived. She checks in the mirror, and sees the reflection of a naturally alluring woman with a lovely figure. Her disguise is perfect. She leaves the house, and walks slowly down the road, with the merest suggestion of a wiggle, a carefully designed expression of uncretainty on her face.

She catches the eye of every man she passes. They look interested, but always, something startles them, and they recoil in horror, before making a wide berth – sometimes even crossing the road to avoid walking past her. She’s getting hungry; it’s been days since she’s managed to lure anybody back to her lair.

Presently, clouds cover the sun. Shadows fade. She spots a meaty giant of a man walking her way. He sees her lost-little-girl look, and pauses to ask her if she is OK. She gives him her well-worn story about only having moved into the area the previous day, and not being able to remember her way home; it always works. He asks for her address, and offers to walk her there.

Her sensitive nose picks out aftershave, lemon soap, coffee, fresh bread, ham, the ingredients of coleslaw, an encouraging tang of lust, and knows she’ll have no trouble. Beneath those ugly scents is the delicious perfume of blood type A, rhesus positive; her favorite flavour.

She sighs in anticipation of her feast.

Written for Michelle’s Photo-Fiction Challenge

©Jane Paterson Basil

Those whose hair isn’t yellow…

“Good morning students. This morning we are going to discuss Metaphor. I’ll illustrate metaphor with my story of the little people of Halfworthy. I’ve drawn a sketch of them, showing their yellow hair, vivid blue eyes, and purple skin…

“- Yes, Calum?…

“You’re quite right. A few of them had different coloured hair, eyes and skin. These were people whose parents had moved there from other villages many years ago, or whose grandparents had been taken there by force, and purchased for slavery, before such abominations were outlawed. Although they were different colours, they were just the same as all the other villagers.

“…Halfworthians lived beneath rocks. The rich enjoyed spacious accommodation under big rocks and the poor made do with tiny, cramped rocks. The edge of the Road More Travelled was to the East, while directly to the West, beyond a sheer drop of over three feet (a considerable height for someone only four inches tall)…

“- Yes Calum, four inches is very little, now please take your feet off the desk.

“… As I was saying, there was a fast-flowing river to the West of the village. Other villages were dotted along the riverbank, and each village had its own language and customs, but these neighbours were a friendly bunch, and many years before, they had decided to start a club. All of the villages were invited to be members of this club – which was called the New Inclusive Club of Everyland, or NICE – but about half of the Halfworthy folk were of a standoffish nature, thinking themselves better than others, so they didn’t join at first.

“- Ashleigh, would you like to tell me what you’re whispering about?… Oh, for goodness sake, take this pamphlet and waft it around a little. The, um, odour will soon disperse. Perhaps Caitlin would like to go to the toilet? Go ahead Caitlin. Don’t run in the corridor, but don’t dawdle.

“…Whenever the NICE met, Halfworthy sent someone to spy through the clubhouse window, and every time, the spy returned to his village, discribing the multicultural splendour of the scene; the richness of accent; the wide variety of hair, skin and eye colours, and declaring that were they having loads of fun in there, particularly as each village placed wonderful local delicacies on the table for everyone present to enjoy.

“- Yes, Calum? … I don’t know if they had burgers… Yes, Kendal, I expect some of them brought vegetarian food… No Dan, I very much doubt that any of them were cannabals, and even if they were, it’s extremely bad form to take sweet-and-sour human to a multi-cultural function. Now could everybody stop being childish and I’ll continue.

“… In addition, between meetings, the members all helped each other out. For example, the micro-climate in Berryham was perfect for soft fruit, while the natives of Whizzbury built safe, sturdy clockwork vehicles. While club members were scratching each others backs, swapping products and services and having cosy coffee mornings, the Halfworthians were hanging around on street corners, disconsolately complaining about the price of blackcurrants and strawberries, which didn’t grow in their locality. Most of them walked everywhere, unable to afford cars, and were unwilling to to use the odiferous public transport system, which involved sitting on the back of a rat…

“- No, neither would I. Now would you all please stop interrupting… Ugh; Zavier, don’t wipe that on Dan’s sleeve.

“… Eventually, the village wrote to the club secretary and asked if Halfworthy could join. The Everyleans were delighted, and welcomed their new member-village with enthusiasm.

“At first the villagers were very happy, but, owing to the combination of greed, selfishness and stupidity of about half of the Halfworthians, some quickly became dissatisfied. They thought that Halfworthy was giving more than it was receiving. They didn’t like the rules, although those rules were agreed by democratic votes. What’s more, they were offended by the influx of people whose hair wasn’t yellow, whose eyes weren’ blue, and whose skin wasn’t purple. Anyone lacking just one of these attributes was considerd to be an enemy.

“Years passed. The rich got richer. They bulldozed the rocks of the poor to make space for extensions to their rocks. At night, those who whad been evicted sought shelter wherever they could. They were bitter and angry, but they didn’t know what to do about it. Even those whose rocks had not been taken were dissatisfied with life. They looked at the palacial rocks of the rich, and resented the meagreness of their own lives.

“- Welcome back, Caitlin… You used the boys toilet? Why?… Well, the next time you find the girl’s toilet blocked, could you please use the one beside the headmaster’s office… I’m sure you know you should have done that. Yes, you’re quite right, I did tell you not to dawdle, but… Just sit down, please, and I’ll continue.

“… People began grumbling, and the grumbles grew louder. Posters began appearing in windows. These posters declared that the people with different coloured hair, eyes and skin were to blame for everything that was wrong in the village. An unpleasant, sly faced man became their ringleader. Wherever he went, a self-appointed army of shaven haired thugs followed, aggressively displaying Nazi Swasticas, proudly brandishing Halfworthy flags, and declaring that they should throw all of the immigrants into the river.

“Now, students, you’d think that this would alarm the populance, wouldn’t you? But instead, about half the villagers agreed.

“- Yes, Billy?… no, I’m sure you wouldn’t have. I can see you don’t need this lesson as much as some, but please try to keep your thoughts to yourself, and would the rest of you all please stop acting as if you’re eight years old, rather than twelve. I’ve been patient, but it’s not funny any more. Dan and Xavier! Stop smirking, and put whatever it is you’re playing with under the desk. I don’t like your attitude.

“… The village was divided – about half the people thought the immigrants should go, while the other half considered the majority to be useful citizens, and useful to the local economy.

“Time passed. The nasty, sly man and his cohorts thought that Halfworthy should leave the NICE club, so it was agreed that all the villagers should put it to a vote. For weeks representatives of the two opposing viewpoints campaigned to win as many votes as possible. The campaign, which was unfriendly from the start, became positively nasty, and then viscious. I will not assail your delicate senses with the details, children, but instead go stright to the point.

“Polling day came and went. The next morning the 51.9% of people who wanted to leave the club were celebrating a victory, while the 49.1% wept for the future – of their village, and of their immigrants.

“Soon, as agreed, Halfworthy – which, in my opinion, should have changed it’s name to Underhalfworthy-  left the NICE club. In no time at all, villagers were complaining about the price of blackcurrants and strawberries. Almost everybody was unhappy because they couldn’t afford the things they needed, and nobody would do them any favours. Just over half of the villagers agreed that the people with different coloured hair, skin and eyes were to blame for all their misfortunes, and even if they weren’t, they had no right to live in the village because they hadn’t been born there, except for those whose parents and grandparents had moved there many years before, but they didn’t like to show favouritism, so early one morning they captured everyone who had different coloured hair, skin and eyes, tied them up, filled their pockets with stones, and threw them into the river, where they drowned. Unfortunately their bodies piled up, leaving a slipstream which affected the flow of water, wearing away the bank, making a hollow beneath the village, and one night during a particularly heavy storm, the ground collapsed under the weight of the rich people’s rocks, and everyone was drowned, not only the 51.9% of villagers who caused it to happen, but also the 48.1% of innocent people who wanted to continue to embrace the wider world…

“This story is a metaphor. Who wants to tell me wh…

“Dan! Xavier! Put down the knife! Leave Deepak al…

“All this blood… Billy… get my phone… my bag… Phone 999… Deepak… I can’t… somebody… help Deepak…”

©Jane Paterson Basil

The Mandrake of Harfinsain

Once it had been called the Old Man of Drake Lane, then the name was shortened to Drake Man, but these days the shrugging youth of the village of Harfinsain call it the Mandrake.

Some locals have different ideas, but many of us believe it was damaged in the wake of some long gone storm, which left it looking for all the world like a man turned to wood. The top eighteen inches of what is left of the trunk are torn into the macabre facsimile of a tortured man, his head thrown back, his nose pointing towards the horizon, his mouth agape as if screaming out to an unlistening God, his eyes screwed up in misery. Beneath that, two branches stretch upwards like arms, as if in supplication. The human look is finished off by the lower part of the trunk, which has a vertical groove in the centre, giving the impression of two narrower trunks fused together by time and growth – or of two legs pressed together. There are two knots in the area where knees would be, and at the base the roots give have the eerie appearance of feet.

Nobody can identify what kind of tree it is. It is claimed that experts have examined it, taking away small samples, but been mystified. It appears not to be related to any known tree in the world, and the age it had reached when it died cannot be calculated, as the rings are blurred, or perhaps non-existent. Rumour and mystery surround it, giving it an air of dark  glamour which attracts the children and young adults who live hereabouts.

From where it stands it offers an excellent view of the sunset, and sometimes a boy will entice a girl to sit with him, next to the tree, in the twilight. As the light fades and the sky turns to navy, he may tell an elaborate story of an evil man whose pleasure was to devour young, female flesh, and who was turned into a tree by an angry fairy. At this point in the tale, his voice may lower to a whisper, as he explains that the fairy added an extra cruelty to his punishment – that for one hour every year he would become human again, and have the ability to roam the villlage, but when that hour was up, he would be pulled by magnetic force back to his roots, and become a tree again. He would never be able to relax into his tree state – the longing to be human would torture him for evermore. After an eerie pause the boy will ask the girl what the date is. This he will whisper , as if suddenly unnerved – frightened, even. On hearing her response he will stammer while he tell her that he’s not sure, but he thinks it this is the day of the year when the tree becomes a monstrous flesh eating human…

The girl nearly always falls for it, which gives the boy’s friends – who are hiding behind the hedge – no end of entertainment. From time to time someone comes up with a more imaginative version of the story, and the friends behind the hedge are employed to add sound effects. Young men were ever this way, and a certain kind of young woman can always be relied on to be gullible and easily frightened.

Edie Penrhyn is the oldest woman in the village. A nimble lady of a hundred and two, she is often to be seen, walking-stick grasped firmly in both hands, angrily thrashing nettles in the garden beside the village hall. She has no more objection to the nettles than anything else which has the temerity to push through the ground in that area – many years ago the garden was a mass of colour, spilling over with roses, lavender and a profusion of lovely flowers, but she thrashed them into extinction. While this has nothing to do with my story, I mention it because it is just one example of her many eccentricities. It is those eccentricities which cause neighbours to doubt her tales of folk-lore.

Her favourite tale involves the Mandrake. Being so far from even the smallest town or place of interest, we get few visitors around these parts, but occasionally someone takes a wrong turn and and finds themself in the village. Often this someone will go to the Post Office in the hope of buying a postcard (postcards of the village are available, and they looked very pretty twenty years ago, but they rarely sell, so now they lie faded and forgotten in a corner, stuffed into an old toast rack, scuffed and curling at the edges), or wander into the village shop looking for a Mars Bar (79p) or a quaint souvenier (no chance). At such times, Edie almost always happens to be in the vicinity, as she is today, when a tinkling bell in the back room announces the presence of a new customer in the shop.

Edie has been installed in the shop for the past two hours, trying to choose a birthday card for herself, as her birthday is only eleven months away. This is not a vanity on her part, but a reminder for the proprietor, who generously allows customers a free sniff of her smelling salts on their birthdays.  Edie’s eyes light up at the sight of new blood. She abandons her search for greetings cards and prances over to the new customer, her grey side-ponytail bobbing and prancing like the item after which it is named, her thin lips grinning. Her old brown cardigan fails to conceal – and is loudly upsage by – a nineteen twenties chiffon flapper dress of faded emerald – replete with ragged swathes of sequins which have seen many, many better days, and striped over-the knee-socks in bright shades of pink, purple and orange cover her legs. Her choice of footwear is strictly ruled by the day of the week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays she wears no shoes unless it is also the first day of the month. The first day of the month is riding boots day. Today is a Monday, so she is wearing one green wellington, and one black one.

Edie says that if you lead with the feet, the bowels will follow. Don’t ask her what she means, it infuriates her not to be understood. She will scream at you “If you maintain regular habits with your footwear, your bottom won’t take you by surprise at incommodious times,” and she will smack you across the behind with her stick.

But I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes, Edie has just sighted a victim and is dashing full-pelt towards him, tail flying and tiny sequins tinkling across the floor. She accosts him with a torrent of nonsense.

“Yer, you over there, you wi’ the noo plastic an wet tarmac ‘smell o’ the city on yer kaks.’Tis a bit o’ luck you run inta me. Come on, I’ll show ‘ee summin inter’sting.”

(just a quick note at this point: unless addressing a stranger she speaks in a rather refined accent – her fake rural accent is for the benefit of unlucky tourists – but after a few minutes of her barrage, she generally slips back to her natural way of speaking, as she feels that if they have stayed to listen to her for that long, they deserve to be considered naturalised)

Having made a suitable introduction to her quest to educate him in a small portion of the history of the village, she grabs his arm and pulls the protesting man out of the shop – showing herself to have a remarkably firm grip – to the general laughter of all around, except the shopkeeper, who was hoping to aquire 79p from the sale of a (three years out of date) Mars Bar.

For a woman of a hundred and two, Edie sets a fast pace. She’s a diminutive four-foot ten inches in height and she’s inadvertantly pulling his arm in a downward direction, so he’s stooping, staggering  and almost falling over at times. As they dash along the road, people are coming out of their houses and following behind, making a procession. They know when there is entertainment to be had.

Down past the church she drags him, past the old house that is said to be haunted by a ghostly giraffe (though some think it is more likely to be a pair of Armadillos), beyond the pond which only fills up when there is a drought, and down Drakes Lane, situated opposite the invisible football pitch (which some claim doesn’t actually exist. I haven’t managed to work out their reasoning). The Mandrake is towards the end of the lane, on the left hand side, or the right hand side if you are walking backwards.

By this time Edie’s unwilling companion is shaking with terror. The Lane is regularly used by the villagers, as its purpose is to provide access to a wall. This wall is the width of the lane, twelve feet high. The locals do not like to be in the shadow of a twelve-foot wall, but unless they stand beneath it they cannot escape it, as it is impossible to escape something which isn’t there in the first place. It gives us peace of mind to know we have escaped the shadow of the twelve foot wall, so most of us go and stand beneath it every day, and then walk (or run) away. But the poor stranger knows nothing of our customs. Between the people who are in the process of escaping the shadow of the twelve foot wall, and the procession behind him, all he sees is a huge gang of locals who appear to be planning a lynching, and at this point he wishes he’d had a chance to pay for the Mars Bar. To be hanged for a debt of 79p is humiliating, to say the least.

Edie stands in front of the tree, and points up at it’s twin branches.

“See ‘e there,” she says, and then realises her new companion has spent almost eight minutes in her presence,so she drops the accent and starts again:

“Now, my good man, what do you think this is?” she asks him.

His eyes stare. He tries to think of an escape plan, but nothing comes to mind. He is frozen to the spot.

“Well?” she asks, a crease on her forehead forming something that for all the world looks like a question mark.

“A… a… g-gallows tree…” This is a statement, not a question. The stranger is too frightened to notice that no rope hangs from it.

“Why do they all say that?” Edie mutters, shaking her head, (thinking, these foreigners are so peculiar – what horrors they must have witnessed.)

Edie turns to her audience “Tell the gentleman what this is,” she says.

A young man tells the story of the flesh eating man who was turned into a tree.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffs Edie.

A woman in her fifties says that it is true that the tree was once a man, but he had committed no crime. It was he who had built the wall, but as stood at the top of the ladder, finishing the top course, his wife came along to give him some lunch. She was carrying their new baby, and he didn’t hear them approach. They were under the ladder when the baby let out a sudden wail, alarming him. He fell off the ladder, killing both wife and child, andwas so grief stricken that he was unable to move. His feet took root, and he turned into a tree.

“That’s just plain silly,” says Edie. “This tree is over twenty feet from the wall. If he took root where he landed, he would be closer to the wall.”

Nobody notices the stranger as he walks away, feeling rather embarassed but no longer afraid. It had become obvious that these people, though a little peculiar, were harmless. Life in a village such as this would probably be a riot of fun. He would have stayed longer, but he had urgent matters to attend to.

The young man speaks up again.

“My grandma told it to me, and her grandma told it to her. My story is true, and what’s more, she said he buried the bones of all those girls he killed, right there, beneath where the tree stands. We know why are there no female children in the village. It’s because as soon as one is born, the family move away. They don’t want to lose their daughter to the monster.”

Some people laugh, others feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rise. A few come up with increasing outlandish theories, but all of them have been heard before, like a favourite play attended once too often. People get bored and begin to wander off. The insistant young man remembers another detail told to him by his grandma, and somebody else recalls being told about a seven-year old girl who disappeared in the night over thirty years ago, and a toddler who was lost just a few years before that.

Edie becomes increasingly impatient, declaring it to be no more than a dead tree, leading me to wonder, as oft times before, why she dragged another stranger down Drakes Lane to look at what she averred was no more than a dead tree  – but as I said before, she is eccentric – and that is the signal for the party to break up.

As the last of the villagers turn away from the tree, and walk down the lane to go home, if anyone cared to listen, they would hear strange creaking sounds coming from the tree. If they turned back to look, they would see its eyes open, showing otherworldly twin stars that twinkle red in the waning light, and the gaping mouth widen into a cruelly mocking smile, as the jagged shard that resembles a nose twitches, sniffing the air, and smelling something. Something young and sweet. Something delicious. The earth around him shudders as he shuffles his roots,stroking and carresssing, wrapping them possessively around small, perfectly preserved bones, counting each one.

Beyond the invisible football pitch; beyond the pond that only fills up when there is a drought; beyond the house that is said to be haunted – either by a giraffe or a pair of armadillos; beyond the church and the Harfisain village shop, there is a thatched cottage with clematis growing up the wall. In front of this cottage is a removal van. The stranger helps the removal men to carry furniture into his new home. In the kitchen his wife pulls a kettle, some teabags, sugar and mugs out of a box. She fills the kettle with water. She stops and listens. Her face lights up with love, and she smiles softly. Her eighteen month old daughter is stirring. She has woken from her nap.

©Jane Paterson Basil

Love will make you free

It’s a lovely room. Along one end wall there are fancy double doors which look as if they would lead into the garden, but when you open them, you find the prettiest bathroom behind the one on the left, and a toilet behind the other one, with a wall separating them. The carpet was already down when I came, but it’s exactly the shade of pink I’d have chosen for myself. Everything else was selected by me from catalogues, and paid for by Charles.

We painted the room together. He said it would be fun, and it was. It gave me a sense of achievement – I’d never done anything like that before. It was so exciting when the furniture and ornaments started arriving, like being someone with a family, and having a birthday every day (people with families get loads of presents). He helped me put everything in the right places, because it was heavy, and anyway, he knew more about that kind of thing.

I think that was about six months ago, although I can’t be sure, as I’ve lost track of the time. Because, for obvious reasons, I’m not allowed to use the rest of the house – although all of that came as a nasty surprise, – he sends my meals down via the lazy butler. When I’ve eaten I return the empty plate, it goes back to the kitchen, and he does the washing up.

I’d never dreamed that I would live in a place like this, but I honestly didn’t know what I was letting myself in for when he offered me a cellar room fee of charge, and promised he’d pay for whatever furniture I chose. He said he wanted to make up for all of the things I had missed out on, all the suffering I had gone through in those children’s homes and with that foster family.

Charles seems surprised and disappointed when I say I miss the life I had before. My bedsit wasn’t much, but I enjoyed the freedom. I had a couple of friends, too, and I miss them, too. Before I came here, I wanted to tell them about what I believed to be my lucky break, but Charles said it would be better to move in first, and then surprise them by inviting them round.

If you were a person, and not just a painting of a kitten, hanging on a beautiful, pale pink wall, I can guess the way you’d be looking at me right now, but how was I to know?

I’d like you to understand that I never led him on in any way. For one thing he’s far too old for me, being well into his thirties, and he has a really irritating, high pitched laugh – not that I’ve heard it much lately. Also, he’s, well, funny looking – kind of chinless, with tiny eyes and a mis-shapen mouth.

He comes down at roughly the same time after dinner every evening, always with the same begging request. He says he will give me the world if I will only learn to love him. We can be like a proper family, cook and eat together, and sleep in the same bed, maybe even have children. When I tell him I could never love him, and I want to leave, sometimes he gets sad, but other times he is angry, and when he leaves he slams the door behind him.

It’s a funny thing though, even when he’s in a temper, he always tries to lock the door, and pull the bolts across, quietly, not wanting me to hear – as if he feels ashamed.

©Jane Paterson Basil