Friday, October 29, 2010

Chilled run


Happy Hallowe'en. The scary story/poem challenge is here. Andrea and Lori are taking part in the festivities and have posted some Hallowe'en themed poetry - please follow the links - and I'd like to thank them both for injecting a little spookiness into an otherwise warm and unspooky weekend!

Before we launch into the story proper I thought I'd tell you a couple of real life scary incidents to get you in the mood and set the scene for where my story takes place.


I grew up in the last remaining row of what had once been several railway terraces. Our garden was the grave of the demolished houses which were levelled around the time Queen Victoria heaved her last. I have the ceramic body, still, of a doll I unearthed from one of the many invisible rooms in our garden, her cheeks as rosy as if she'd just sniffed an overdose of carbon monoxide from our car and not been decomposing underneath the groundsel for decades at all. And there were clay pipes, bits of them anyway, and along the other side of the rail lines, if you weren't afraid of the ditch they dug (to stop us wandering into the newly planted woods and out of the other side onto the newly laid bypass), or of skinning your knees scrabbling back out, you could find tiny blue bottles. The remains of a Victorian bottle factory. I have a bottle with a marble stopper, too. So it was an evocative play yard for one with an imagination such as mine, though it is possible that the landscape gave birth to the imagination and not vice versa. When I asked my mother how she'd met my father and she said he'd crawled out from under a stone it seemed perfectly logical.

The railway carried coal, pre nineteen eighty four, from the pit which was the only landmark to compete with the church spire. Picture it: sunrise on the front in my parent's room, all day shining on the absent houses and lanced on the spire each evening. And the pit out of sight from my window but always the great wheel turning. I wasn't allowed down there, the path which led to the pit also led to the pit pond. People drowned. You could look at the taddies on a summer afternoon and not believe it could get so deep so quickly, it wasn't a big pond as far as ponds go, but it was big enough for pike and who knows how many rusting supermarket trolleys and bike frames from some daft buggers who thought it would be a jape to cycle down the embankment at top speed, and there was nearly always a stray shoe stuck in the mud by the reeds. Of course I never went there alone, except just once or twice, and I always ran all the way home, keeping to the trees in those newly planted woods all the way so that my parents wouldn't spot me from the kitchen window, legging it over the field. The trees gave me the creeps.

Anyway, that's the place, and there were nine houses in our row, then two pairs of big Victorian semis before the dyke. There were dykes and ditches all around us. Unlit (the local authority forgot all about us once the by-pass was built, though if twelve of us kids had gotten run over we'd have qualified for a crossing, never mind the fact that there weren't twelve kids alive to begin with); walking at night was done at your own peril. Our house was the second from the top, nearest the rail crossing. The first house, once a store, was bigger than the other houses on our row but had been empty for as long as anyone could remember. Between it and our house there was an narrow entry; a walkway, and above it was the extra bedroom that made the empty house bigger than ours. I often heard a child crying in there but my mum reasoned, quite sensibly, that it was just the wind, and the wind was fairly powerful through that entryway. I loved pulling my coat over my head, my arms still in the sleeves, holding the corners by the zip and letting the wind catch my up like a sail and spit me back out by the front wall. I digress. Midway down the terrace lived Sam. She was about the same age as my brother and they were friends and partners in crime when it came to nicking fags and puffing away in the Old Dear's fruit and veg patch at the far end of the row. I went with them once, I took a bowl of sugar, and we got caught, them with a woodbine and a regal king and me with a stick of rhubarb. Only the rhubarb was mentioned when we got rollocked for it. One up from the Old Dear lived the girl my story is about but we'll get to her in a moment. The first of the big semis was also derelict. Sam and my brother used to dare one another to go inside and navigate the rotting staircase and wave out of the attic window as proof of their bravery to the one left standing in the yard below. I don't know who was more scared, the one grinning saucer eyed through the filthy glass or the one seeing the face appear at the window, grey and mottled through the muck. They'd got some spunk, that's for sure.

Sam's parents had a ouija board. Sam, my brother and me were the only kids on the row, oh, and Pinny Anne. I wasn't there when they got the board out but I knew something wasn't right when my brother came home without my mother having to explode her lungs shouting him in. Not long after, Sam's mum confided in mine that Sam's dad had been demonstrating some peculiar behaviours. Sam and her mum moved out and Sam's dad put the house up for sale and holed up down the pub along the tracks (ironically, The Railway pub is the only existing railway there now). My brother was sad; he'd lost his pal, and I had lost the chance to be an accessory. We spent more time in our garden, digging up the chipped carcasses of dead kids' playthings and corralling the sock bodied caterpillars of the cinnabar moth into jam jars and trying to count which had the most stripes. Evenings were spent watching the A-Team, Wind-in-the-Willows or some show hosted by a bloke who looked like one of the undead; waxen grey suit (and matching face) de rigueur. A couple of times per week we'd walk the mile and a half to my grandma's, along the old rail lines and into the mouth of the sunset. It was when we were returning from my grandma's that the strange thing happened.

We all clattered down the entry and stared in bewilderment at the back doorstep. Specifically, at my mother's chopping board. Mum picked it up, put it back on the table, under the fruit bowl where she'd left it earlier and me and my brother got ready for bed while my dad chained the dog up for the night. Mum screamed. I was first down. My dad came running in, he thought we had an intruder. I remember clinging to my mum's leg while my dad checked all the rooms. It was only when he came back in the kitchen that my mum was able to say what had scared her. The chopping board had flown across the room at her.

Things got worse. My brother had gone to unchain the dog first thing and took his breakfast out only to come running in crying: our beloved collie had gone for him. My dad went to investigate and found Turpin whimpering, head on paws, but when he tried to unclip his chain he went to bite him too. I peered over the fence and couldn't believe he was the same dog: snarling, a mouth of red, black and foam. Dad shouted for me to get something to wrap him in, to take him to the vet. When I brought him the blanket he was dead.


My story begins a little before Sam left.


Pinny Anne


Pinny Anne lived in the last house but one of our row. Whenever me and my brother went down the yard to play, or when I went to watch my brother play dare with Sam in the derelict house, Pinny Anne would be there, at the back bedroom window, staring down at me with her hands flat against the glass. I never saw her parents and I never saw anyone, Pinny Anne included, enter or leave that house. The lights were never on and no one answered the door on Hallowe'en. Opposite Pinny Anne's house there was an old horse chestnut tree and sometimes I'd climb it and stare at Pinny Anne's window but she never appeared then. If you were wanting to see her you never could, only when you walked by and remembered suddenly could you look up and see her there, staring at you between the pressure pale wings of her hands. It was hard to tell what she was wearing as the windows were as dingy as those of the derelict place but it looked like it was a pale nightie or dress. She never changed it, else she had heaps all the same. It was the Old Dear who first told me her name was Anne. I was staring up at the window one day and the Old Dear came out and asked what I was up to (always we were up to something), and when I asked her who was the girl that looked out of the window she took me by the arm and put her tree skin close to my ear and said

    -her parents never fed her and her father beat her terribly, kept her locked in that room all day and night every day and night. Poor Anne

I wanted to ask if she did anything about it but I knew better than to ask the Old Dear more questions than I was invited to, so I just nodded and I thought she was going to hold me until my arm fell off like a lamb's tail, she seemed to be in some sort of trance of remembering for a while, and then she shook me and let go and went into the house. She walked funny, Sam called her the cripple duck, but I didn't feel like laughing that day as I watched her waddle away. And no sooner had the Old Dear gone back inside than Anne appeared at the window. She was thin, even through that dress I could tell there wasn't much more than a lamb bone to her, as my mother used to say. I went to the back door and knocked. I looked in through the mail flap, there was no carpet, just dirty bare floorboards and a few yellowed sheets of newspaper. I wanted to shout hello but I wasn't that brave so I ran home and drew a picture of her and wrote “Pinny Anne” and an arrow pointing to her and that's how she became known as Pinny Anne.

I drew lots of pictures of her over the years but I saw her less and less. One of the last times I saw her was when my brother and Sam invited me to play dare. I thought my heart was going to bleed out of my ears, I was twelve (a few days before Sam and her mum left), and I remember thinking I'd rather nick my mum's fags any day than this. But I wasn't going to chicken out, not with Sam there.

I crawled in through the missing panel in the door, there were sticky spider webs which caught in my hair and I cut my knee hurrying through the gap to brush them off me. I rubbed the blood and had a little taste. I could hear Sam and my brother laughing, so I went to the foot of the stairs and looked up. You couldn't see all the stairs at once, there was a landing halfway up and then a hairpin turn, the first half being almost in darkness but for the chink of light on the landing. I imagine the house would have been all dark the first time they did this but a few years of waving like idiots through that window had allowed a little light to penetrate and I was grateful for it. I took the stairs to the first landing two at a time. If they creaked I didn't notice; my heart was where my brain ought to have been. Two rooms extended directly from the landing and a narrow runway led to another two, smaller rooms beyond and beneath the next run of staircase. This was harder to negotiate, some of the stair panels were missing altogether and I had to lean against the wall to stop me losing my balance and falling down, there was no bannister. There were more webs there and my fear of spiders became inflamed when I saw the curled up bodies of some pretty huge arachnids. I was navigating these corpses, not wanting to get their legs caught in the toe of my sandals, when I heard the stair creaking behind me. I turned but the noise was coming from beyond the hairpin. I don't think I could have gotten to the attic window any faster if I'd flown but the worst thing was, when I looked down at the yard my brother and Sam weren't even there; I had no proof I'd done it. I was sweating, breathing hard, my heart was pumping fast and my thoughts were turning over and over like the pit wheel, so when I saw the face in the window staring at me, mouth open and grinning, and felt the hand on my shoulder and then another, I screamed, felt my eyes bulge, closed them and ran and fell and ran some more, all the way down those stairs. I scrambled on all fours through the gap in the door but the strap of my sandal got caught on something. I tugged and could feel something sharp biting into my foot and I started to cry. There was a scuffle of something on the bottom of the stairs, coming towards me, and I gave my foot one almighty yank and ran home.

My mother was angry about my sandal and banned us from going into that house again. She made my brother apologise for scaring me like that and made him look at the gash on my foot but he denied following me up the stairs and said it was my own fault if I didn't come down the stairs the way they'd told me to. My mother said it was a wonder I hadn't slipped clean between the broken floorboards and disappeared into the cellar and then where would I have been? In the cellar's what I answered but my mum corrected me and said “in the dark”. My brother said I was always in the dark so why would that be any different but he was just sour at me for getting him done. I was fine with it, I never wanted to go near that house ever again. And I almost didn't.

After Sam left my brother and I didn't play together so much. He went off to play at other lads' houses and I had my own friends; books mostly, and pencils and paint. The pit closed and the surroundings didn't look so sinister after the wheel was demolished and by the time I turned thirteen I was allowed to go out by myself. Just in the nick of time because that's when I had my first boyfriend. Rice was from my school but I only met him on a school trip. He had hair like a bobble hat without the bobble (we didn't call them beanies) and we used to walk along the old railway, trackless, holding hands, and we'd sit on an old sleeper while he sucked at my neck and I fussed his hair. He hated that, according to Persephone (the school's ballerina; she's a whole 'nother story) who knew everything about boys and stuff.

This one time he came to call on me and it was near the end of things for us really, looking back, and he was clearly bored with my neck (it does go on a bit), so I told him about the house. I was naïve. I realise now that he must have thought I wanted to take him there for something darker. Private. He was older than me and had already conquered Persephone. I was shocked at his suggestion, it didn't sound like anything you could do with Sindy and Action Man. I said I'd just got my first nest shedding, that was my mother's stupid term for it, and he thought I was stupid when I said it, too. It put the dampeners on things alright. He was cross and asked why I'd bothered taking him there if I wasn't going to do anything. My neck was purple by this time and he'd gelled his hair with some stuff that had dried real crusty and made my insides feel funny when I touched it. I asked if he'd ever been in a haunted house before and didn't he think it was scary. He said it was boring and the only thing more boring was me. Neither of us said anything for a minute until this gust of wind blew in. I got dust in my eyes and I heard Rice cough and then the wind stopped as though it was on a switch. I swear I heard a sound like a pin dropping. I asked if he'd heard it, too, but he just stared over my shoulder, his eyes big and wide and then he legged it. He didn't speak to me at school after that and he must have said something about me to Persephone and some of his mates because they laughed at me and made flapping actions every time I saw them.

The bullying made me miserable. It got so bad I wanted to run away but I had nowhere to go. I stopped going out after school and at weekends and spent all my free time drawing or watching tv. I liked the fashion programmes, the girls all looked sad, just the way I felt. started to wish I could just disappear.

I stopped eating, just skipping breakfast to begin with and cutting out sweets. Then I cut out sugar altogether, and then anything which wasn't plain fruit or vegetables. It worked. It was months before anyone noticed, the winter had allowed me to hide under baggy jumpers and my big coat, it was only in the summer that anyone noticed. You want to eat something, my mother said, else you'll drop through the gaps in the floorboards. She laughed then but when another few months passed and I still didn't eat she didn't think it was so funny.

She told people, doctors, but they never admitted they were doctors, they had cool names and encouraged me to call them by their first names and they had this way of talking to me like we were best friends, only they thought they were teenagers instead of the other way round. I don't think they thought of things from the other way round, from my perspective, else they would have seen exactly why I wasn't eating; what I was scared of. It was all around for anyone to see and they were in no position to tell me to face it when they were obviously running from it themselves. They got frustrated and took my drawings away, to look at more closely, show their friends who knew about my kind of art, even the pictures I'd done of Pinny Anne. Everyone was being so mean to me. I thought I knew how Pinny Anne must feel, locked up all day and night in that room. I decided to call on her, try, one last time, to talk to her.

No one answered. I knocked as hard as I could and this time I shouted,

    -Anne, Anne, it's me, I understand

I listened and looked through the mail flap as I had done the time before. Some of the papers moved on the floorboards and I called again.

   Anne, if you're there, I want you to know I care and I'm here, can you hear me, I said I care about you

    -what are you doing?

It was the Old Dear. I said

    -I'm talking to Anne and it's none of your concern

Starving had made me brave. The Old Dear got this funny look on her face, like she was going to shout or laugh at me but hadn't made her mind up which, and then she moved to put her hand on my arm but all she got was a handful of jumper and she drew her hand back and I think she was crying, though it's hard to see when you're disappearing and I must have been vanishing quickly because I couldn't speak. I went home.

I stared at myself in the mirror, if I was going to disappear I wanted to see it happening, and that's when I saw her for the last time; Pinny Anne, staring right at me. I put my hand forward and she put hers out to touch mine and for a moment I could feel her cold, flat little hand. I withdrew mine but she kept on reaching until she was out of the mirror and sliding down the glass, thinner than a cellophane off the sweets I still had over from my birthday. I asked her where she was going but she didn't answer me, and I already knew. There was a draught coming under my door, pulled through by my open window and it caught her up and she fluttered around my bedroom like a feather or a piece of paper, side to side, until she touched the floor and then she slipped right through the boards.

No one called me to dinner that night. I went and sat where my plate should have been and listened to my mother talking about the weather, the orchard and the first of the apples she was putting in a bowl at the centre of the table. I picked one up and took a bite. No one saw me.

21 comments:

Andrea said...

This is such a powerful story. I'm speechless. It really is excellent!

Rachel Fenton said...

Aw, Andrea, thanks. Relieved you like it.

Titus said...

Oh, thanks Rachel, it's 3am and my husband's on night shift. So much to unsettle here! The scene-setting is really excellent, and the name 'Pinny Anne' has that supreme touch of nightmare.

And I got the card, only it wasn't a card it was a WORK OF ART! Which we're still arguing about - giant person/small place/giant person/small place/but what about the cockroaches? etc. Many, many thanks, we all love it.

Rachel Fenton said...

It's all explained in the story I sent you, only I have this niggling suspicion that I forgot to post the story!? Will email it if I have - I think the story is suitable for the kids, too. I tried to be family friendly! And anyway, it was the least - your poetry has been a joy to read! And so lovely to send me extra!

Glad you liked this story.

Lori said...

Oh, Rachel, this is great. I had to read it twice, as usual, being that I know your style by now and I never believe what seems too evident. I like it when there is a lot to decipher, like where does the story really start, who is really haunting who, who's leaving and who disappeared. It's beautiful, Rachel. And really, really spooky.

Donna Hosie said...

I got to ouji board and couldn't go any further. This sort of thing seriously freaks me out!

Happy Halloween, Rachel.

Rachel Fenton said...

Oh Lori, thank you.

I was going for the fake true start, Victorian style, but really I was writing about the death of childhood, it's self haunting at the core, though I also wanted the haunting to be ambiguous and to have a character of its own.

I'm just so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks.

Rachel Fenton said...

Donna, Happy Halloween! Don't get too scared. Thanks for stopping by.

patteran said...

This works so well, Rachel. Contrary to what one might assume, considering the number of writers who try to manage it, utilising the voice of the child protagonist is very difficult. Maintaining the tension between the needs of narrative and the necessarily gauche and discursive style of the narrator is enormously demanding, but you handle the shift from independent storyteller to participant observer with great skill. The tightrope is walked throughout and the resultant read is compelling and unsettling in equal measure.

Rachel Fenton said...

Wow, Dick, Thank you, and I didn't even pay you to write that!

But seriously, I take it as high praise indeed coming from you, Dick.

I almost didn't post this story at all. I wrote several but the deciding factor came down to which story would work less well off the blog. Don't know what I'm going to do with the others yet. Have almost a collection of spooky stories just from this one exercise. I highly recommend reading every ghost story you can lob your eyeballs at and deprive yourself of sleep and let the grey cells go nuts for a week! Works for me anyhow, though I wouldn't choose the sleep deprivation!

Thanks again and Happy Hallowe'en.

Rachel Fenton said...

A timely article..

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sideswipe/news/article.cfm?c_id=702&objectid=10683714

Dave King said...

Shaky limbs now! Thanks a bunch.

Rachel Fenton said...

Happy Hallowe'en, Dave, thanks for reading!

Rachel Fox said...

I think this story could probably be a novel if you wanted to stretch it out (certainly a novella). I feel like the second half is a bit rushed and I want it to be taken more slowly.

Saying that it feels totally real... like this is exactly something that happened to you...and that means it's pretty powerful.

The sense of place is strong. And that teenage boyfriend - I think I knew him too.

x

Rachel Fenton said...

You're right about the rushing, Rachel, it was 5,000 words long and I had to cull it else no one would have read it (not on the blog I doubt). Thanks so much, I'm really pleased you enjoyed it. As for that boy, you may well have; haven't we all?

Golden West said...

WOW! What an excellent read, Rachel. That drew me in tight and wouldn't let go - loved it! Bravo!

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you, GW. Really pleased you enjoyed it.

Penny said...

Wow, It's a bright sunshiny non-Halloween morning here and I still got goose pimples from your story. I don't usually read long pieces on the screen, I find it bothersome to the eyes but this just pulled me along. Penny x

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks so much for reading, Penny. I know what you mean. I've had to give the blogging a wide berth for the last week for the same reason. I'm getting dizzy eyes just reading the comments. I probably should get my eyes tested. And white type on a black background is really difficult to read. So thank you again.

Annotated Margins said...

A fun, scary run. The scariest part for me was:

... doctors, but they never admitted they were doctors...

Rachel Fenton said...

Interesting take, Mike - thanks for reading.